My mom bought me a little fridge magnet once and it had two squirrels on it with the phrase “my family tree is full of nuts” … nothing could sum it up better!

My parents got divorced when I was extremely young, about 2.5 years old, so I have never known what it is like to have a ‘full house’ of mother, father and siblings all under one roof. I have also never known otherwise so have made the best of having to share holidays, weekends, Christmases and New Years. Divorced homes come with their serious problems but I would much rather focus on the positive experiences I’ve gained over the past 22.5 years.

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From the start my parents were a ‘mixed bag’ relationship, my mom a total hippy, free-spirited, creative soul and my dad an ambitious, popular go-getter completing his articles to start up his own practice as an attorney. After they had me, and my mom was pregnant with my sister, my dad did a very silly thing and had an affair with my mom’s very good friend. Fortunately, my parents got divorced were most parents with one young child and another on the way, would try and stick it out for the ‘kids’. I’m not convinced this is always the best way. I think most people stay together because of the comfort zone and the fact that it is a scary thing to branch out and face the world alone again.

My mom moved back to her mom and so our little trio, me, my mom and soon-to-be born sister, began. We travelled around like there was no tomorrow. We moved schools a hundred times, we had to start over pretty much every year; making new friends and getting accustomed to new surroundings but we had each other and that’s all that counted at the time.

My dad stayed where he was living, got married again to my mom’s “friend” and carried on with his life trying to balance “holiday children” and his new marriage. We grew up knowing this life of living out of a bag, moving around, and making new friends wherever we went and we were absolutely fine with. We made the most of enjoying our parents for the individuals they were; we lived with my mom and would fly down to our dad for the school holidays.

No matter how buggered up our situation was my sister and I could not fault our parents on one major thing – they loved the hell out of us and no matter how immature, petty and destructive their arguments, they would ultimately end up making decisions together, based on what was best for us.

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My mom, as a single parent, battled because she had to go back and study to become a teacher so she could look after us, while we were disciplined and cared for by my Gran. She being the disciplinarian, and on other one hand a complete nutter herself, used to run after us for hidings and smacks when we were being naughty. When she would catch up to us she could not bring herself to hit us so she would tickle us until we cried. Effective – until we learnt that Gran’s running wasn’t what it used to be and our bicycles were the only escape from torture of laughter.

My mom was an incredible mother to us and from a very young age we developed a brilliant sense of humour with one another. We made a great team and nothing seemed to permeate our trio. It was only a matter of time when she found what she thought at the time, another ‘better half’, and after being totally humiliated and heart broken by my dad and her good friend, we felt she deserved to be happy. It was only a few months after they had been seeing each other that they snuck off to court and got married. We really liked him and so once again packed up our bags, said goodbye to our father figure our Gran, and, from Gauteng, headed to Durban.

Into the first year of their marriage, I was 11 years old and our new stepdad started abusing our mom; mentally, physically and emotionally. Our little childhood lives soon took on very serious and adult paths and I promptly stepped into the role of parenting my sister, and very often my mother. My mom and stepdad’s relationship, for the most part, was destructive, abusive and completely unstable and more than often this was brought about by booze.

For small children I cannot even begin to delve into the mental damage that spreads through these little people when having to constantly witness the violence and verbal abuse and then to have to pick up the pieces after adults; it is frightening.

This carried on for about 6 years after we made one more ‘house’ move within KZN. The small community we moved into was very aware of what was going on but nobody chose to intervene as they did not want to get ‘mixed up’ in it all. Harsh, but that is reality of human nature.

By the time my matric year had come around we decided we had had enough and couldn’t take any more of the drinking problems, the trauma and the fighting, although it was far less now then when it first started, it was the emotional abuse that caused my mom to believe that she was nothing without my stepdad, that she would never make it alone in the world and worst of all that she deserved it. My sister and I couldn’t take anymore so we packed up everything my mom owned into the back of her van and, me with my learner’s licence, drove her right out of a life which the exit was way overdue!

In the interim, my stepmom and dad had separated because their relationship, as you can problem imagine, was not built on trust or communication, but rather that constant worry and paranoia that one was cheating on the other. It is so true that saying “how you get them is how you lose them!”. After their separation my stepmom took the gap to move to Australia for a year but they found they could not live without one another, nor could they live with each other so they made a very big decision to get back together and she returned home for round 2.

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My mom, sister and I lived out of black bags in my mom’s friend’s house for 3 months until my gran found out what was going on and spent every penny she had buying my mom a little flat for our trio to live in. I cannot explain that degree of desperation until you have been there for yourself.

To cut a very long and dramatic story short we actually ended having the best time with just three of us living together. I had forgotten what the feeling was like to actually want to go home, and there we had it. We got our mom back and she slowly started regaining confidence in herself. Just as slowly as the confidence came back, so did my stepdad.

I think it is the case with every abused woman that the control the abuser has on the individual is incredibly strong and no amount of crying, anger, ignoring or flat-out expressing how awful he was to her, would keep my mom from eventually going back to him. It was only a year after she had left him and we were back to square one but with this time no physical abuse. You might be reading this and think ‘oh that makes it slightly better’ but it doesn’t because the physical is the abuse you bounce back from. It is the mental and the emotional damage that scars your personality, your sense of self-worth and your confidence. The damage it has on you is lifelong and while the bruises heal the destruction left in the wake is permanent and irreversible.

It attacks your children’s confidence, their sense of family life, their childhood. It distorts their views on marriage and love. It affects their relationships with their friends and other family members and most of all it forces them into adulthood long before they are ready. They spend weekends never wanting to go anywhere because they are worried about what will happen to their mother. They are the ones marching their terrified mother 20km to the police station in the middle of the night, barefoot and on dirt roads. They are the ones that pick up the pieces and just like second-hand smoke, the affects are just as fatal, if it’s not caught in time.

My sister and I were fortunate to have each other. We pulled through and relied on each other in life to reinforce the lessons that counted; good behaviour, working hard and most importantly love and respect, two things we did not witness in our mother and stepdad’s relationship.

The whole time my dad knew that something was going on but I’m not sure he knew how bad the situation actually was. He did everything in his power to try to get custody of my sister and I and what made it that much more traumatising is that when we were asked by an attorney at court who we would prefer to live with, we fought against everything in our hearts saying yes, to protect my mother because she was not strong enough to protect us or herself. We were scared that we would be taken away from her and then she would have no one. We feared she would spend nights, after being beaten, desolate and damaged, desperately sobbing herself to sleep. We could have never left her alone.

If you had to see my mother and stepdad today you would never, ever in a million years believe me that this had gone on in their very gloomy and devastating past. They are truly happy now and do so much together, and most shockingly love being together. When my mom left my stepdad it was like he had lost his soul. I was never hopeful that he would change and as he proved to us all that he was going to die trying, I forgave him for my sake, my sister’s sake and most importantly, my mom’s.

This is not a fairytale by any stretch of the imagination. They still have their problems but fortunately, and I am grateful to God, not even close to what we experienced as children. Each case of an abused woman is so uniquely different that there is never any sound advice anyone could give. The things that I can comment on, and having recognised them from an early age, has been my saving grace and stood me in good stead for my own life. I end on a few things to think about if you or someone you know is going through something similar:-

Don’t let your children suffer for a mistake you make over and over again. Don’t fall into the pattern of allowing it to happen. For your own sake stand up for your right to be an individual, to live a life feeling safe, feeling loved and know you deserve to be happy. Don’t leave your children’s lives and your own, in the hands of a man who controls is own life and masculinity by controlling yours through abuse; physically, emotionally and/or mentally.

Talk about it! You have got nothing to lose. Most of the time people know what is going on anyway so save your sanity and allow people to help you. Don’t get to the point where your children are packing up your belongings and escaping to free you from a life you don’t deserve.

Be brave, not humiliated or embarrassed. If you survive this you should stand tall, tell your story and be proud that you have the chance to rectify some of the bad decisions you have made in the past. Don’t hide from it, it never leaves you, or your children so embrace it and take what good you can from every situation, every memory. Learn the lesson. Make reference to it wherever you can, without even realising it it shapes most of your opinions in life going forward.

And if nothing else sinks in, may this be the last thing you read … you don’t deserve it!

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