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In a bleak and washed out living room with no discernible features, I sat playing with my mother; the safety of the moment felt impenetrable. I think I was between three and four years old.
Suddenly, our attention was broken by a loud voice coming from behind the door and getting closer. Mother’s face became wrought with terror as she slowly stood up.
With an explosion, the door slammed open into the wall as my father stormed into the room. His face was grotesque with rage, tattooed arms, and large hands reaching to grab her.
Her hand releases from my grasp as he tore her away and threw her against the wall, clutching her throat. She was pinned helplessly in the corner; I could see her heels off the ground as she frantically tried to peel away his vice-like grip. Desperately she shrieked and squirmed like a defenseless prey, but there was no escape. I didn’t understand what he was saying close to her ear, but the grumbling of his voice was terrifying. It seemed to go on forever, the two of them thrashing about as he parried her every move to keep her trapped.
I remember my hands gripping into fists as I stared intensely at the savage incident unfolding in front of my eyes—the screaming of my mother and the uncontrollable rage from my father. I watched as he squeezed her neck and whispered more in her ear while lifting her entirely off the ground. Her feet dangled as she gasped his name, begging him to stop! Please stop!
I screamed out to threaten him, and he turned to look at me. Then, unexpectedly, he lowered her to the floor, and an odd expression came over his face with a half-smile as he looked at me. Mother slid down the wall into a huddled, sobbing lump, and he let her go and came toward me. As he knelt next to my bed, he became amused with my protective nature. His voice now shallow and quieter felt soothing but could not penetrate the confusing rage pent up inside of me.
“Look, Honey,” he said, “look at his little fists; he’s a little fighter.” He laughed as he picked me up and clenched his fist in front of me in acknowledgment of my gesture. I looked over at my mother and saw her wet teary face still reeling from panic; she had gotten up and came toward me, painfully smiling and stroking my head to appease the brutal tyrant
My daily life as a petrified child was a tragic existence, but since I knew nothing else, all of these types of occurrences left me numb and detached from life. Every day, knowing that he would be home soon would create a fear-driven panic attack. I spent most every afternoon at 4:45 huddled in the dark corner under my bed in pure terror. I could hear the purr of the engine when his car pulled into the driveway. The stomp of setting the brake, the releasing thump of the inside door handle, the solid clunk of the closing door, the heavy footsteps walking to the door. My mind would start to race. “He’s home.” Fear, adrenaline, and panic would rush through my body, paralyzing me. Then the front screen door would rattle and then slam back into his heel as he opened the thick oak front door. As the door slammed shut, I would cringe and say to myself, please don’t call me, please don’t call me. And then in a loud booming voice, I would hear, “Max!, and then a pause, Max! come out here” As I collected myself and walked from my room down the hall, I could hear him yell, “ Can’t you come out and say hi to your dad?” This was my typical greeting from him, every day of the week.
And each time, I would stand in front of him at attention so he could lecture me and bark orders and then tell me to get him a beer, which was usually the first of at least a twelve-pack every night.
Later in the evening, he would often stagger into my bedroom to wake me and sit on my bed, drunk and slobbering. He would slur and struggle as he told me he loved me. “No matter what you do, son, I don’t care if you kill someone and go to prison, I’ll always be there for you.”
Eventually, he would look away in a silent, thousand-yard stare, and finally get up and stagger back out the door.
Unexpectedly, he would often fly into a rage at my mother, sister, brother, or myself, for no apparent reason. Grabbing, shoving, poking, or punching us whenever he found something wrong. It usually coincided with finishing his first six-pack.
He would chase me down the hall, whipping me with his thick belt that had a large buckle with sharp edges. I remember the day he stopped whipping me with his belt and began to use his fists. He noticed I was sensing how he was telegraphing his belt strikes and was able to evade more direct hits. When he realized what I was doing, he threw the belt across the room and kicked me in the stomach to crouch me over. I went down instantly. Once on my back, he crouched over me, and I kicked him in the stomach with both my feet trying to get him off of me, which made him even more enraged; he needed to dominant me. I was getting a little older and a little bigger, so I think he needed to demonstrate he would always be the alpha. He started slapping, punching, and kicking around my defenses at will. He was a sweaty giant, reeking of alcohol, and I was helpless.
I remembered a movie I once saw at an earlier age about a boy raised by his grandfather, a Kung Fu Master. The boy would walk down a hallway, daydreaming, or up some stairs, lost in his thoughts, when, out of nowhere, “whack!” a stick would smack him in the head, or across his back. When he came to his senses, his grandfather would be towering over him in total silence and then simply turn and walk away. Other times, the single first strike would be followed with a pummeling of powerful and precise attacks all over him until he could get to his feet to run away. Day after day, year after year, the boy endured this abuse and eventually grew into a young man. He began to develop a sixth sense of danger and any disruption of energy around him. Slowly, he began to learn to sense his grandfather’s presence and would turn and walk in the other direction. Other times he would sense the imminent attack just in time to evade the first strike and run away before getting hit. Eventually, he learned not only to evade the sudden attacks; he would parry, block, and counter in an attempt to strike back. But each time, the master would thwart his effort with a grin while giving one last “whack!’ to punctuate his supremacy. Until one day, the young man was walking up the stairs with his arms full and momentarily dropped his guard to bend down and pick up a bag that had fallen. In an instant, everything slowed into a time warp as he sensed a rush of energy above, raining down upon him. He instinctively turned and leaned and saw the stick whiz by his face in slow motion. Again, almost without effort, he forcefully countered the flow of energy, grabbing the wrist of the attacker’s sword hand. He moved in a circular motion with the attacker while still holding the wrist to body block the attacker against the wall, with his knife hand against his grandfather’s throat, they were eye to eye.
The master relaxed and lowered his weapon as he slowly bowed his head in respect to the young man and then turned and walked away, never to strike him again. And the young man knew why he was sent to live with his grandfather, and that he was no longer the student.
As I thought about this young man, becoming the master, it was then, the seed of an oak tree was planted deep within me. “Someday, I will be a grown man and will no longer be the victim” “he will suffer for this” I would repeat like a mantra. For my mom, my sister, brother, and for all of the pain and suffering we had endured, someday he will be helpless and terrified, and I will bring justice. From that moment forward, I stopped crying and whimpering when he attacked us. The magma grew and boiled inside of me, and I would not give him the satisfaction of showing weakness ever again.
Every morning, after the violence of the night before, like clockwork, he would wake up pissed off and hungover, not remembering anything. Rinse and Repeat; he would stomp off to the Air Force base to his daily grind.
Our household was a daily emotional roller coaster, and we felt more like hostages than a family. I remember asking my mom if she would ever get a divorce from him, hoping she would say yes. But she would say they were married and this would never happen.
This existence was profoundly depressing, and I could only escape to the depths of my inner self. I would check out and numb out whenever possible. Mostly I would lose myself in movies and television, learning about heroes and villains, good and evil. One day, I stole some pot from my older sister when I was about thirteen and finally found an avenue of escape that could change my latitude in seconds. I could check out and not return for hours on end. The prevailing belief I was struggling with was, there must be something wrong with me. I thought, why else would someone beat me all the time for no apparent reason. There had to be something wrong with me.
When I found Southern Comfort for the first and last time within the same night at about the age of fifteen, the floodgates opened to using alcohol to self-medicate my way through daily life. Pot and booze kept me checked out, and I only attended school to party with my friends.
If I was going to get a beating no matter what I did, I said, “fuck it!” and did whatever the hell I wanted. One time I was walking out of the grocery store with a friend, and my dad was waiting for me outside the door. He grabbed me so violently that my friend ran away, and the store manager rushed toward the door to help me. When my father looked at the man and made it clear who he was and not to fuck with him, the manager coward and slinked back behind the closing electric door. Then it got much worse.
His signature move was to pick me up off the ground to slam me into the wall with only his one hand around my neck. He thumped me hard on the chest with his middle knuckle sticking out of his fist with his other hand.
Ditching school again, you little bastard, he yelled under his breath as he thrust his knuckle deep into the meat of my chest. With each impact, I let out a yell, and he anticipated this as he whispered in my ear, “shut your fuckin mouth!”
He then walked me to the car with his hand like a pair of vice grips around the back of my neck at the base of my skull. I remember the pain of the bruising lasting for days after that walk to the car. As we raced to the high school, he was gripping the steering wheel, and I could see the muscles in his forearm flexing in rage, and his upper arms were stretching the sleeves of his shirt like the incredible hulk. It was terrifying. And as he continued to yell and flex, he would periodically slam his closed fit into my upper leg. I would scream in agony, and my leg would be unable to move from the pain.
We arrived at the high school, and he plucked me out of the car through the driver’s side, and once again, vice gripped the back of my neck. We walked to the administrative office, and he slammed through the double doors with me in tow. The staff saw him wrangling me by the neck and were visibly shaken and backed away from the counter. “I need to see the principal,” he demanded in a stern voice. They were terrified, and one of them sprinted in the opposite direction through an office door. Within a nanosecond, the principal was fast walking toward us with the panicked women close behind. He nervously gestured to come behind the counter into his office as we bolted through the swinging counter door in his direction. Once in his office, my dad forcibly launched me down into the chair and told me to sit down and shut up
He glared at the principal and calmed down a bit to tell the man he got a call from the school about my chronic absence from class and demanded to see my attendance record. Within minutes he was being told I had missed about twenty-four of the sixty days of the semester and that I would be getting an “F” in most of my classes. My dad simply stopped talking and grabbed me once again by the neck, and we stormed through the door, with him dragging me behind him. I had never seen him this enraged, and I feared for my life.
We made it about twenty feet outside of the office before he threw me against the wall by my neck and started thumping me again with his knuckle. When he let me down for a brief second, I reeled and tried to escape and noticed the entire administrative staff pressed against the window about ten feet away. Eventually, he saw they were probably calling the police and snatched me up to walk me to the car. I don’t remember much about what happened after that.
The notion that I would not be dominated ever again was a powerful takeaway from my upbringing. Unfortunately, it took thirty years of going through walls instead of going around them or over them. “Magma” was my call sign in the military. I wasn’t the toughest one in the group but if the wrong button was pushed. I could scare the living shit out of them.
It took decades of damaged friendships and relationships and the loss of many things I desperately wanted for my life to wither and fade to finally discover how to tame and harness this indomitable center. It wasn’t a beast at all in retrospect. It was simply a wounded part of me from a very young age that had abscessed and filled with toxic rage, that needed to be heard, understood, and transcended. This was the shadow work deep within me that needed me to shine a conscious light upon it to find the meaning and purpose it served. The more I saw my rage as my wounds from my upbringing, needing to be freed from its captivity, the more ease I experienced. I could still draw upon this deep reservoir of resolve and fortitude whenever necessary but I found I harness its infinite potential instead of stuffing it away.