Recovering from Childhood Abuse when Anger Turns Inward

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Reader’s Question

I feel there’s something wrong with me. I’m not sure if it’s just how life is, or if there’s something that needs attention from professionals.

I have always been a loner. When I was little, I used to have furious anger rampages. I would have to be held as if in a straitjacket by my mother. As I got older, my anger got more specific and I seemed to slowly gain control of it.

Most kids, even if they don’t fit in with most crowds, have a few people they talk to in a friendly manner, but all through elementary school I can’t say I had one friend. I never talked to anyone but the teachers. When I communicated with the other kids, it was a fight or shouting match. At the very end of elementary school, I made two friends, one of whom only agreed to be my friend if I didn’t tell anyone we were friends. My own brother made fun of me with groups of his friends on many occasions. Even though I was hurt by this, I still fought many times because someone called him gay. After years of defending and unconditionally loving him, I started to hate him, but every time my brother was nice to me, I started to love him again. I quickly learned that he was only nice when I had something to offer him.

I don’t remember much of my childhood, but the things I remember most about my mother are negative. For example, one time we were driving and my brother was sitting in the front seat. He liked to randomly get me in trouble, so he said I was kicking his seat. My mom told me to stop and I said I wasn’t. He continued with his lie and I continued to tell her I wasn’t kicking his seat. My mom stopped and dragged me out of the car, while beating me with a closed fist until my brother had seen enough, and admitted I wasn’t kicking the seat. She let me go and got back in the car. He was never punished.

Now I feel like a big part of myself is dead or numb and I don’t enjoy things. I do things I think are fun and I should enjoy, but it feels hollow and unenjoyable. I can be happy for a moment, but it seems to pass quickly. I have a lot of unintentional aggression towards my mother. And I feel stuck in my surroundings. With the sets of skills I have I can do so many things, but I don’t know what I want to do. I almost feel like there’s nothing that would be fulfilling. I lie in bed all day, fall asleep at 5 am and wake up around 2 pm, sometimes as late as 5 pm. Anything you think would be helpful, I would be thankful for.

Psychologist’s Reply

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It sounds like you are depressed, and probably have been for a long time. There is a theory that depression is anger turned inward and that seems to make sense in your situation. As a child you were outwardly angry; as you got older the anger didn’t go away, but was instead internalized. Now you’re meeting a lot of the criteria for depression, including anhedonia (the inability to feel pleasure), depressed mood, an increase in sleeping, and indecisiveness.

Although we tend to think of it as one, anger is not a primary emotion. It is a secondary one that we use to mask our vulnerable feelings of sadness or fear. From your description of the treatment you received from both your mother and brother, you had a lot to fear and be sad about because you were abused, both physically and emotionally. No transgression deserves a beating with a closed fist, and certainly not one as minor as kicking your brother’s seat (even if you had done it). Being constantly made fun of and humiliated in front of others is also maltreatment. All children deserve to be nurtured and encouraged, not made to suffer.

That you are depressed as a result of all this is hardly surprising. A lot of recent research supports the idea that childhood abuse and depression are strongly linked. Scientists have found that traumatic experiences at a young age change the chemistry and structure of the brain. Thus abuse, especially abuse at a young age, heightens a child’s sensitivity to stress so that even small upsets (like a playground taunt or a teacher’s firm tone) become threats that must be managed. After all, children who are being abused never know when the next angry outburst will come at them, so they have to be hypervigilant to protect themselves. Eventually, this constant state of alert begins to take its toll on the body, so that even small stressors will trigger a flood of stress hormones, and these hormones will cause multiple sites in the body to manufacture the behavioral symptoms of depression.

Overcoming the results of abuse is difficult but doable. If you want to feel better, the place to start is with a psychologist trained in trauma. During your work with your counselor, you probably will access the abuse, recognize it for what it is (specifically, that it was not your fault), and process the whole experience. The processing will include working through your vulnerable emotions and realizing the underlying messages you received, and working to change them into something more positive and healthy. This work will not be finished quickly, but ultimately may change your life into something much more fulfilling. You owe it to yourself to try.

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