The Abuse Behind My Happy Family Pictures (and Why We Should Talk About It)


TRIGGER WARNING: This post deals with an account of physical abuse and may be triggering to some people.

“There remains what seems to be an impenetrable wall of silence around violence, and we must all play a role in breaking this silence.” ~Reese Witherspoon

The other day my brother sent me some rare old photographs of my family. In the middle of those aged images, I found a picture of a seven-year-old girl, so cute! She was wearing two perfect long braids and a smile. Oh, the smile of this lovely girl!

There was also an image of a man sitting down on the sofa, holding a baby in his arms, showing off a big, round, happy face. The man looked loving, respectful, and good to be around. “What a beautiful family!” you would say.

But for me, the one who lived the story behind the pictures, it’s a different feeling. We all know that nothing is what it seems to be, yet we choose to believe in appearances. I guess it’s easier to believe in what we see instead of going deeper.

I wasn’t expecting to receive these pictures on my phone, so when I saw the man’s image, my heart started automatically racing, my hands sweating. He passed away long ago, but my body still remembers my automatic response whenever I heard, saw, or even imagined he was near.

He was actually not a nice person to have around, but you already saw this one coming, didn’t you? I made myself stare at his picture until the feeling faded away. I no longer fear him, but I couldn’t help but get triggered. It was a long time since I’ve seen an image of him.

The last time I saw him, it was in a dream. Not so long ago, I used to have nightmares almost every single night, where he would chase me non-stop, and I would run and run until I woke up. My heart racing, my hands sweating.

I had to go to bed with one light on so I could fall asleep. But the last time we saw each other, there was no fear. In the dream, I looked at him, he looked at me, and that was it. I never saw him again until I got the photographs on my phone.

Those pictures were the image that everyone from outside believed to be the truth or pretended to be. When I was done staring at my abuser’s photograph, I swiped to see the picture of the small girl. I was she, and she was me.

For years I refused to look at old photographs. I would purposefully hide them in drawers to avoid having to look at them and face the hypocrisy: Happy faces, happy smiles, happy appearances. The sadder I was, the happier the smile had to be. That’s what they told me, with words and actions.

The first time he beat me, it was so bad that I lost consciousness for a bit; but the thing I remember the most was the shock I felt. I was absolutely in shock when his big hand hit my tiny face and dragged me to a different room to repeatedly beat my skinny body more comfortably.

He would beat me non-stop everywhere he could, with a rage I never knew existed. I would scream and shout and try to make him stop, but nobody came for me, even though they could. They were still in the kitchen, probably as shocked as I was.

The next day when I woke up, they noticed I had a stroke in the eye. There were no apologies, no explanations.

“Everything is okay.”

“Tell everyone you hit your eye against the table” was the lie I had to tell. I’m a good girl, so that’s what I did. I went to school and I lied to my friends and my teacher, and when I visited family I repeated the same lie to everyone. People were struggling to look at me in the eyes, and my peers wouldn’t play with me. It was hard to watch.

Just like that, I was ugly, everything was my fault, and my abuser was free to go on and make my life a living hell for an entire decade. Typical: the abuser feels like they can continue because there are zero consequences, and the victim is completely isolated, feeling powerless and ashamed for something that someone has done to them.

When I look at myself in the picture, I can’t help but think: “Why would you hurt this child?”

I was kind, I was good. I was a very good girl, I know that now. I took care of my brothers, loved studying, I was funny! I was also very creative and would put on an entire show to entertain you (or bore you to death) in five minutes. I would do anything you say, but I was also an intelligent kid with a strong sense of justice, which did not help me much in my childhood, as you can imagine.

I’ve been through a lot. I’ve been through so much that I would need a book to describe it all. But the worst thing, the most painful thing besides the heartbrokenness, was the silence. The secrecy.  If you have suffered from any form of abuse, you certainly know what I’m talking about.

The abuse takes place over and over, and no one speaks up. Plus, we hide it. And we stay silent when we grow up because that’s what we know.

It’s hard to tell your truth when you’ve kept silent pretty much your entire life, especially if everyone around you is doing the exact same thing. Most of the time, until you speak up, until you tell your truth, you go around thinking that you are alone, that you are not ‘normal.’ Unfortunately, you are normal. You are not a rare exception.

What happened to you happens all the time; people simply don’t talk about it. And I would love it if we started having more conversations about this, to help victims and families of victims and to hold the abusers accountable.

The abuse I suffered was perpetuated by silence, and the perpetuation of this silence got in the way of my healing for years. It was through other people’s stories that I was able to start healing. 

If you have been through trauma, I encourage you to tell your story. Please, don’t get me wrong, I’m not telling you to go public and tell everyone about everything if you don’t feel comfortable doing that, but I’d love you to explore the idea of sharing your story of trauma with the people who are close to you.

Something magical happens when you open up.

Each word you let out is a bit of weight that drops. And the more you share, the lighter you feel.  I know it is scary, I know you fear people’s reactions, but I promise people will not see you differently. They will just see more of you, and that’s a good thing.

I was so scared of sharing my story with my partner, and all it did was strengthen our relationship. We really see each other now, and I don’t feel like I’m hiding something anymore. I feel free to be me, and he loves me even more for that.

You will see that most people will admire you for the person you have become and understand why you are the way you are or do things the way you do. You will also be surprised to know that some of your friends have been through trauma as well, and you will have wonderful bonding experiences.

It is true what they say: “The truth will set you free.” I believe that. And I believe that it will help liberate other people as well.

About Erika Sardinha

Erika Sardinha is a certified life coach and yoga teacher based in the Canary Islands. She is a healing coach for women, and her main focus is to help them let go of the past, find peace and emotional freedom. Erika hosts women healing circles and workshops and also does 1:1 online coaching. She also has an online healing coaching Program called The Emotional Freedom Program. Visit www.thepersonaldeveloper.com to know more.

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