This is what the LORD says — your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel:
“I am the LORD your God, who teaches you what is best for you, who directs you in the way you should go.”
Isaiha 48, 17
The feeling I remember best is one of despair. Despair over my sister lying on the ground and despair over the helplessness I felt in the face of my lack of control. I would have loved to run away, because this man’s anger could hit me any second too, even though I was only 11 years old. But the only way to safety led past this man, so I just stood there on the street in the dark night, a little out of the way, crying bitterly.
It started when my sister told her husband to come home. He suddenly started shouting at her, for no apparent reason. When she stopped walking and asked him again, he hit her. First a slap in the face. My sister’s head shot to the side. Then a blow to the back of her head, then another and another and another, faster than I could count. My sister held her arms up, trying to protect herself. The last blow was a punch to the stomach. She doubled over, then she fell to her knees and finally she lay sprawled on the ground.
Her husband just wouldn’t stop shouting and I instinctively felt that he was not quite in his right mind. I felt sick, I had never seen anything like it before. Violence against women was completely foreign to me until that moment. Stunned, I stared at my sister and shouted at her husband that he should stop. But this only seemed to provoke him even more, he stood over my sister, cursing and kicking her. My sister had stopped moving. My screaming became louder and louder, my despair grew ever greater. I went up to him and shouted: “Stop, stop! Stop it now! “, trying to distract him from my sister. He turned around, came at me and yelled at me to stay out of it and leave. At that moment, a man approached. He grasped the situation in a matter of seconds, grabbed the thug with the firm grip of a handyman and pushed him into his car. Finally, others came along and took care of my sister. Only when the situation had calmed down, did someone see me and sent me home emphatically with the words: “This is not for you!” As if I hadn’t already come to this conclusion myself…
With my heart beating – and a feeling of numbness in me – I went home. No one was there to take care of me. Still dressed in my clothes, I went to bed and – as I know today, so typical for trauma – fell into a very deep, very long sleep full of dreams. In the days that followed, I learned in fragments from the adults’ conversations that my sister had been unconscious, and her husband had had a “blackout” due to alcohol. It dawned on me: I was the only witness to what I considered to be a very serious crime.
My battered sister seemed to forgive her husband, which I could not understand at the time. My parents kept out of it all. They never talked about it again. I was left alone with what I had seen, felt and experienced. Eventually it became a bad memory that slowly faded. But in dreams the experience often caught up with me. Fear of uncontrollable violence, pity for my sister, coupled with a vague anger that she had not defended herself, accompanied me into adulthood.
Even worse than this was my loneliness within the family. No one seemed to care about how I felt. No one asked about me. That was exactly what I had to deal with later: the neglect and indifference of my parents.
What helped me practically
Three things helped me process this trauma.
a) First, it was important for me to talk to an experienced person about it. By this time I was married myself and ready to work on the issue. There were long, healing conversations about co-dependence, family secrets and neglect. My secret came to light. I was able to share it and I didn’t feel so alone after that. For the first time I could say, “My sister’s marriage is not my problem. She must and can solve it herself.”
b) The second was to keep a physical distance from my family, without breaking off contact completely. In order to get out of this pattern of destructive behaviour that prevailed in my original family, I needed sufficient distance. I moved to another state. The distance helped me to look at my family of origin more objectively. When I was drawn into the maelstrom of unreasonable expectations, secrets, and malice during my visits home, it became easier for me to face it from year to year.
c) The third was/is: good supporting relationships that have accompanied my life for decades. People who love me, whom I trust and with whom I feel safe. I have invested a lot of time, energy, money and honesty in these people. These defined friends, whose names can be found in my diary and personal notes, have a very high priority in my life. On a par with my own family, with whom I live happily together.
What helped me spiritually
a) Spiritually, my faith in Jesus helped me. He is my companion in life. I hear Him when I read His words in the gospels. The Sermon on the Mount is a text that I read again and again. And I firmly trust that what He says will do me good and help me in my life. And I place my trust in God, the Father, who filled a painful gap in my soul. When I bring my fears, doubts and memories to Him in prayer, peace comes back into my heart, light into my soul and I see a step further in life. It may sound very simple, but when darkness creeps into my heart and the past makes me sad, it is these things that bring me out of it. The words that Jesus says and my prayer, allowing me to vent my feelings. The more often I read what Jesus says, the more familiar his words, his thoughts become. They become a part of my thinking; I feel at home in the words.
b) What touches me most is the way Jesus treats women. He meets them at eye level, shares his thoughts with them and protects those who are threatened with abuse by men. What impresses me most is the event in John 8:1-11 where he protects a woman from an imminent stoning and does not condemn her. This goes deep into my heart.
c) I lacked a safe home in my childhood, one where I could grow roots to stand securely in life. That explains why what I missed as a child now helps me in life: security in what is familiar. Although I am a person who likes to look for something exciting or new in life, I need familiarity more than others. And so I create this ongoing familiarity myself. For almost 30 years now, I have had a little ritual of how I start the day. I get up, put on the same sweater each morning, get the (good!) newspaper from the letterbox, make myself a litre of filter coffee and read the news of the day in peace and quiet – always in the same place.
If a book is good, I can bring it out again and again over the years and reread the good passages, then read them again and again and again, until the thoughts become familiar to me.
In a corner of the house that is just for me, the same pictures of people who are dear to me have been hanging for decades.
On my doorstep is a large object that means a lot to me for certain reasons that I won’t go into here. This object gives me security through familiarity, because the story connected with it is important in my life.
For 18 years I have been making the same trip once a year, with the same friends. This intimacy is good for my soul. That is where I refuel.
I like to always bake the same cake, to the delight of my family – it gives me a feeling of being at home.
I could go on with the list for ever, but what I want to say is that I make sure that I set an antipole.
And then there is my husband, who lives with me (and I with him) with all his kindness, consistency and patience. But that would be another story…
Translated by Karen Kersten