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Breaking a cycle of violence: from an external aggressor to an internal one to none at all




Intrinsically I know that the abuse I experienced wasn’t my fault.


I can even say that to people: “It wasn’t my fault”. I can say it to myself too.


In the days before I knew that what I had experienced was abuse and neglect, and that what I was experiencing was trauma, in the days before I could speak the words of survivorship, the voice in my head got very loud. The voice that told me I’m not good enough and I get what I deserve. The voice that told me that I am both unsafe as a person and unsafe in the world.


There were periods of time during which the voice was louder than anything else. I told myself that indeed it was all my fault. That the situation at work in which I had subjugated my agency was warranted. That my family’s needs were more important than my own. That I didn’t deserve to live in a comfortable way and I should be grateful for what I had. That love, sex or relationships were unattainable for me because I was just innately damaged. That I just wasn’t strong enough to deal with life.


It was in those periods of time that I expected violence, and unconsciously upheld that status quo. In lieu of an available attacker, I became them. Not just that, I also validated and allied myself with any of the other aggressions that I experienced day in and day out, receiving them as deserved. And if that wasn’t enough, I found ways to numb myself, drinking until I couldn’t feel anything at all.

If I’m the only one holding the memories of the violence, I’m the only one who has to live with the consequences. Even my aggressor is a creation of my own at this point; they’ve probably moved on and don’t even think about this anymore.


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We live in essentially violent societies, one in which victimhood feels like an inevitability, and a rite of passage. Within our stories, told and overheard, there is almost an expectation that we have to experience violence as a form of understanding of the human condition. Violence creates the conditions for human behaviours we find endearing – bravery, strength, success, and heroism. In our fight against violence, we can succeed and win – we can beat the aggressors and become victors. We can then move on, forget about it, and get back to our life.


But, even if you do win, trauma doesn’t work like that. You can’t just move on or go back to what was before. In going back and pretending trauma doesn’t exist, you risk re-living the situations in perpetuity as a victim, as a witness, or perhaps, and most sadly, as a perpetrator yourself. The violence that inflicts trauma is learnt, it is passed down, it very rarely appears out of nowhere. Those who were witness to our own traumatic experiences and were unable to speak were probably victims themselves at some point too. The vast majority of our aggressors were probably victims too once. This isn’t an impassioned plea for forgiveness, simply awareness that with statistics suggesting more than 50% of children alone experience neglect and abuse it’s not hard to imagine why violence can be seen as a pandemic.


Does calling out violence speak to our inability to cope with it? Perhaps recognising violence points to a greater fear that because violence is all-pervading and the subtleties of it are everywhere, it implicates most of us; we are either witness to it, unknowingly a participant in it, or know someone who is struggling from the effects of it and fail to see it. Speaking of violence aloud and bringing it into the room is scary, whether that violence is something that occurred to you or someone you know, but imagine how scary it is to admit that you have been violent yourself. Now imagine how easy it is to say you have been violent to yourself as a coping mechanism for dealing with trauma.


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In 2018, I was a witness on one of the 8000 odd cases to go to Crown Court for child sexual abuse charges. Mine were historic and happened to me two decades prior. The case and my giving a testimony as a witness was fully re-traumatising, and with a not-guilty verdict felt deeply futile and debilitating. The aggressor being a teacher meant there would have to be a professional tribunal which was repeatedly delayed until after the pandemic almost four years later. At the Department of Education in Coventry, I went through the same procedure on a smaller scale, but this time I was prepared. I threw back accusations that my memory was faulty, that my experience was debatable, and I spoke up for myself – all of myself. Hearing myself speak up as a survivor was deeply healing and doing so in front of one of my abusers, even more so. They were again found not guilty but somehow I had won this fight by naming it for what it was. I was no longer a victim to it, to them, and I could see them for what they were too – an adult desperately fighting against a child who had been hurt. It wasn’t an equal or a fair fight, but it didn’t matter anymore.


The external validation that I gave myself that day – naming my experiences for what they were and hearing that being said, took away a lot of my victimhood. Admittedly, there was still anger and rage against an unjust system, deep disappointment in humanity too, but over time I felt the strength of my resolve. The voice got less loud too as it saw how fearless I had become in the face of violence and that indeed, it wasn’t my fault – I didn’t need to put myself through more violence.


Julian Triandafyllou



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