Confronting Abuse - Trauma Bonds illustration by Jay Insult

Confronting Abuse: Trauma Bonds by Will Kenneth

I was always ready to go. I kept a bag packed with a toothbrush and a single change of clothes.

When home life got ugly, I would throw my bag in my car, drive myself to school, and tell myself I was going to run away at the end of the day.

But then my emotions got less hot and I would overthink my plans. I would minimize my trauma and say to myself, “Maybe the way I’m treated isn’t that bad.” And then my brain would go to, “Where would I get money? Where would I get food? How long could I hide with a friend before their parents rat me out? Could I escape South Florida without the police finding me first?”

One of my friends escaped a boarding school and ended up begging for food and money on the streets, and I was scared to do that, too.

But then the moment came for me to run and it wasn’t planned. I didn’t grab my bag.

I can’t remember why I decided to run. I don’t remember the words my father used to verbally and emotionally abuse me that day. I only remember the overwhelming urge to go. Everything in my body told me to get out.

Acting on my instinct to flee, I left my bedroom in a hurry and started toward the front door.

“Where are you going?” my father said while standing up from his reading chair, positioning himself between me and the exit.

“I’m leaving.”

“No, you’re not,” he said

“I’m leaving,” I said while standing my ground.

“No, you’re not,” he repeated while jamming his index finger into my ribs.

That was the first and only time my father ever threatened to physically harm me. He was on the verge of crossing a boundary he said he never would. He would often say something to the effect of, “I’m tough on you because I love you, but I would never hit you,” as if to justify the abuse he frequently hurled at me.

Jabbing me in the ribs was enough to get me to back off. He made it clear he would physically stop me if needed, and I knew I wasn’t up for fighting someone who would compete in full-contact karate tournaments for fun.

After heading back to my bedroom and taking a few minutes to re-strategize, I decided to try again and tell my parents I was just going to sit outside our front door. My mom stepped in and let me pass without another big blowout.

We didn’t have room for patio furniture, so I sat on the ground and weighed making a second run for it.

Nothing could stop me from standing up and putting one foot in front of the other. My own two feet were good enough to take me away from a home where I was screamed at and degraded. And yet, I was paralyzed by indecision.

I realized that I might not make it to my friend’s house on foot. Living in the suburbs, you needed a car to get anywhere. A fifteen-minute drive to my friend’s house was probably an hour walk. I’d probably get picked up by a bored cop and returned to my parents long before I made it.

I started to minimize and self-doubt again, but then a shouting match began across the street. I sat as a silent onlooker, watching as an older man and a teenage girl were yelling about smoking cigarettes.

Watching them was like a fucked-up mirror into my own life and I felt deeply uncomfortable.

I didn’t want that to be my life. I didn’t want to have screaming matches just to exist in my own house.

When I was ready, I walked back inside and hugged my dad. I cried and I apologized for our standoff. He didn’t apologize back. I hated myself so much at that moment. I’ve hated thinking about this moment ever since.

I didn’t understand why I would go back to him and then crumble into an emotional mess afterwards. I didn’t understand why I was so quick to sacrifice my dignity so I could have a sense of normalcy with a person who refused to respect me.

I didn’t understand why I continued to have such a close bond with someone who frequently hurt me.

Trauma Bonds

Only recently have I been able to make sense of that evening and why I reacted the way I did afterward.

Trauma bonds are attachments shaped by cyclical periods of abuse followed by affection, which reinforces the bond, and an imbalance of power, which can make escaping the relationship more difficult.

What I experienced with my father was a trauma bond. Trauma bonds are attachments shaped by cyclical periods of abuse followed by affection, which reinforces the bond, and an imbalance of power, which can make escaping the relationship more difficult.

Could an imbalance of power exist between a controlling parent and a child who does not have the legal autonomy to be an independent person? Absolutely.

Did my father sometimes treat me well, surprise me with gifts, take me to do fun activities, and encourage most of my hobbies? Absolutely.

My father didn’t mistreat me all the time, which is why it took me decades to figure out I was in an abusive relationship, even though people close to me could sense something was wrong.

Trauma bonds don’t just happen between parents and their children—they can also happen between spouses and partners and other everyday relationships. Trauma bonds are why you, your friends, and loved ones stick around while hoping and believing that they won’t be physically, emotionally, or verbally abused again.

You might find yourself in long periods of calm before abuse cycles start again, which makes leaving confusing. They’re not someone who mistreats you all the time, so you might think, “Why leave when most of the time I’m happy?” You end up focusing on the good times and you want to believe someone when they say they’ll promise to change, even if they make zero effort to keep their promise.

Leaving gets complicated when you’re facing a power imbalance and don’t have access to money, work, friends, or family, which can help you become independent and give you a fallback plan. Your emotional wellness becomes second priority to just surviving.

As far as I knew at sixteen, my options were either staying home or living on the streets. Choosing to get berated rather than beg for food seemed less degrading.

The kicker to trauma bonds is that you can get addicted to affection you get from your abuser. You’re likely on edge when you’re around them, and your body will release feel-good hormones like dopamine after getting affection from them, which makes leaving and breaking off contact even harder.

That night when I hugged my father, chemicals in my body were telling me to get my dopamine hit from him as a way to relieve stress from the abuse he gave me.

How to Escape

Getting out from a trauma bond can be tough, but not impossible.

If anything I’ve said feels familiar, consider that you might have a trauma bond. Healthlin makes a few recommendations that include keeping a journal about how you’re being treated, which will make it easier to remember the abuse.

Healthline also recommends looking at the relationship from another perspective. Try thinking of your relationship like characters in a story and thinking about how others would react to what’s happening to you.

You can get another perspective from friends and family. I know being mistreated can feel shameful and that you might want to cover for your abuser, but staying quiet could enable the problems to continue.

If you’re thinking of running away from home, consider talking to a trusted adult first or ask if you can stay with them for a little while.

Even if you don’t have a trusted adult or friend to rely on, you might be able to find youth shelters that will give you a safe place to stay.

You can also call 1–800-RUNAWAY. They’re one hundred percent confidential, but they do have a duty to report abuse. Even if you’re not running away, they can still help if you have a friend who’s running away or if you’re an adult worried about your own teenager.

Recently, I told my friend about that night I nearly ran to his house twenty years ago. He said that if I asked for help, I could have stayed with him as long as I wanted and his parents would have been fine with it.

I don’t regret not running away, but I wish I had the tools to know what to do when I no longer felt safe.

I hadn’t considered staying with my friend as an option. I spent most of my weekends there anyway, and it never dawned on me that I could have stayed longer.

An overnight stay could have extended into the weekend, like, every weekend. If my dad blew up at me during the week, I could have just picked up the phone and called my friend for help. Whether I went to him or he came to get me, I had a lifeline that I didn’t even realize I had.

And maybe if I told my friends how I was being treated at home, maybe I could’ve gotten help to break my trauma bond sooner, instead of taking twenty years to realize I definitely deserved better.

Will Kenneth lives in Jacksonville, Fla. ALL > Descendents. (Facebook | Instagram | w o l f m a n w i l l [@] g m a i l)