Invincible: The 10 Lies You Learn Growing Up With Domestic Violence, And The Truths To Set You Free

Paperback | October 6, 2015

byBrian F. Martin

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“When you grow up living with domestic violence, witnessing those you love tear each other down with physical and verbal blows, your brain doesn’t know how to deal with that.” --from the foreword by Tony Robbins

According to UNICEF, growing up with domestic violence is one of the most pervasive human rights violations in the world, affecting more than a billion people. Yet too few people are aware of the profound impact it can have.

Invincible seeks to change this lack of awareness and understanding with a compelling look at this important issue, informing and inspiring anyone who grew up living with domestic violence—and those who love them, work with them, teach them, and mentor them.

Through powerful first-person stories, including the author’s own experiences, as well as insightful commentary based on the most recent social science and psychology research, Invincible not only offers a deeper understanding of the concerns and challenges of those who grew up with domestic violence, but also provides proven strategies everyone can use to reclaim their lives and futures.

The author is donating all net royalties to the Childhood Domestic Violence Association.

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From the Publisher

“When you grow up living with domestic violence, witnessing those you love tear each other down with physical and verbal blows, your brain doesn’t know how to deal with that.” --from the foreword by Tony RobbinsAccording to UNICEF, growing up with domestic violence is one of the most pervasive human rights violations in the world, affe...

Brian F. Martin grew up living with domestic violence. The impact of this experience lasted into adulthood, but his quest for answers to long-unasked questions eventually led him to a revelation: the unlikely gifts that the experience gave him—and has given the hundreds of millions of who have lived through the same circumstances. By r...

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Format:PaperbackDimensions:288 pages, 8.22 × 5.44 × 0.75 inPublished:October 6, 2015Publisher:Penguin Publishing GroupLanguage:English

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ISBN - 10:0399166580

ISBN - 13:9780399166587

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1UNDISCOVERED GIFTSI came to accept the secrets of our house as normal. . . . I never talked to anyone about them.—Bill Clinton, My LifeWhen I was six years old, my mother slept with a knife under her pillow, and I kept a baseball bat under my bed. It was one of those souvenir bats you might win at an amusement park, but it was the best weapon I could get my hands on. Although we kept these items hidden from one another and had no idea until thirty years later, they represented an unspoken bond we shared as mother and son—each of us determined to survive my mother’s boyfriend.Keith was a big guy who played football in college but was now a bartender. He came over to our apartment in the suburbs outside of Newark, New Jersey, four or five nights a week. I never knew when he would be there. I could never sleep on those nights, so I would sneak out of my room and listen to my mom and Keith from the top of the stairs as they argued in the kitchen. I felt so small and helpless to stop them. As they started yelling at each other, my heart would beat faster and faster. The fear and the rising tension almost felt worse than an actual blow—until my mother would scream. Most nights I would come down the stairs to try to stop it; sometimes I would stand at the stop of the stairs frozen in fear. I wasn’t often the target of the violence, although at times I would get wrapped up in the confrontation. Occasionally, one of them would snap and take it out on me physically. This went on from the age of five until my late teens, when I finally moved out.Those nights were a real-life nightmare. They changed my childhood forever and altered the person I grew up to become. They also changed who my mother was to become, and who Keith was to become. But not in the way you may think.You see, my mother and Keith both grew up living with domestic violence. And so did their parents. They all grew up the same way I did. This was something I did not understand at the time; something I learned only a short time ago after finally speaking with my mother in preparation for this book.YOU ARE MORE THAN YOU KNOWMy story is not unique. In the United States alone, more than 10 million children are living with domestic violence—just as I did, just as my mother did, just as Keith did. More than 1 in 7 adults in the United States, or 40 million people, lived with domestic violence as children. Worldwide, the number of people who lived with domestic violence when they were young is approximately 725 million. Another 275 million children are currently living with it. UNICEF calls it “one of the most pervasive human rights violations in the world.”1Perhaps you were one of them. Or perhaps you love someone who grew up in a home like mine, or you know of a child in need of help. Or perhaps you are just a caring soul. Whatever prompted you to pick up this book, I am grateful that we are here together.The simple but powerful message that I hope to share in these pages is this: If you lived with domestic violence when you were young, you no longer have to live with the effects today. As Alison Gopnik, professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, says, “We are capable of change, but our childhood is part of who we are as an adult.”2 We will address what happened when you were young, but know this: Having grown up in that house, there are certain lies you learned in childhood about who you believe you are, and they may be holding you back from reaching your full potential and experiencing the happiness that was meant for you.A friend of mine made me aware of the work of Dr. John Schindler, who defines happiness as “having pleasant thoughts most of the time.” I love that definition because I can understand it. According to this description, I was not happy. I am now.How about you? Are your thoughts pleasant most of the time? Or are you like I was, feeling more bad than good each day, but not knowing why? The awareness you’ll gain from this book can take you from that place of feeling guilty to free, resentful to compassionate, sad to grateful, alone to trusting, angry to passionate, hopeless to guided, worthless to accomplished, fearful to confident, self-conscious to attractive, and unloved to loved.For every lie I once believed, there is a transformative truth. And buried beneath all our childhood pain is a whole arsenal of hidden strengths—special gifts. That is our true unexpected inheritance. Because we survived difficulties that others never had to face, we have far more potential than we realize. We were forced to develop qualities of resilience, courage, and perseverance that are now readily available to us as adults. They are just below the surface, ready to be used to achieve whatever outcome we wish. These are the hidden gifts from our past that make us something more than strong. After what we’ve been through as children, there isn’t much that can happen to us now that we’re adults that can defeat us. We haven’t killed ourselves; we’re not in jail. We are still standing. Our lives have been so fire tested that, in many ways, we’ve become invincible.I’ve taken this journey, and this is why I am excited for you. I believe that what lies ahead will help you discover your true self. As I have found, most people who grew up living with domestic violence are not who they think they are—they are much more. Think of this book as a simple guide that will lead you along the path to help you understand what you experienced, how it changed you, and how you can reach the potential that was meant for you.But first things first—as Professor Kelly McGonigal says, “To build self-control you must first have self-awareness.”3WERE YOU A CHILD OF DOMESTIC VIOLENCE?Who qualifies as a member of this silent group whose numbers are enough to populate an entire continent? Did your parents or those who cared for you hurt one another, verbally or physically? You were there, you saw it, heard it, you felt it. Even if they weren’t physically hurting you, it felt just the same. Research is clear on this point. For a child, witnessing domestic violence is as psychologically damaging as being physically abused.Did your parents scream at each other? To a child, that screaming can feel as painful and fearful as any physical blow. I recently met Crystal, a bright, beautiful young woman one year away from graduating from a well-known university. She’d grown up in a household where they used words and tone as weapons. Still today, she is fearful. She lacks confidence and feels that she is ultimately not good enough to become anything after she graduates. In an interview, I asked her: “When you were a child, how did you feel when your parents were screaming? How did you feel when you were anticipating that something bad may happen?” She replied, “I was fearful; I wasn’t courageous enough to stop it. If I was good enough, I would have been able to.”Today, Crystal feels the same way she felt when she was a child in that house. She bases her experience as an adult on what she believes was true from the past. This is what we do. But of course, her self-image is based on these lies, so she needed to hear the truth. As children of domestic violence, why is it that we would allow the opinion of our parents to control our thoughts, feelings, and actions? When you look at it that way, isn’t it silly to be so affected by the words and actions of people whose judgment you know to be questionable? Awareness of these simple facts is the first step to creating change. Crystal began to feel differently when she took control of her thoughts.Did those who were supposed to care for you insult and demean you? As a child, there is no opinion as important as our parents’. What they say, we believe. Many adults who experienced physical violence in childhood will say that it wasn’t the pain of the hand; it was the pain of the words that they remember most.Or maybe you were part of the physical violence as well. About half of all children of domestic violence have been physically abused themselves. For many, it was not the pain of the physical abuse, but the pain associated with the feeling that they weren’t able to stop it; that there was something wrong with them; that they weren’t good enough. Personally, I would rather have taken open-handed blows to my face than have to watch the two adults in my home hurt each other and be powerless to stop it.Whether it happened rarely or often, because it occurred in childhood, when our brains were developing, the impact can be dramatic and long lasting. In The Boy Who Was Raised As a Dog, Bruce Perry explains that even a “very brief stressful experience, at a key time in the development of the brain, resulted in alterations in stress hormone systems that lasted into adulthood. These early childhood experiences will have a far greater impact than later ones.”4WHAT IS THE IMPACT?Living with domestic violence is physically and emotionally devastating, and the pain often stays with a child long into adulthood and often with dire consequences. These silent witnesses are, according to the UNICEF report “Behind Closed Doors,” the “forgotten victims of violence in the home.”5 If providing everyone an opportunity to reach their full potential is a common goal, then we must focus on this issue. If ending domestic violence is a common goal, then focusing on one’s experience in childhood is critical. Not least because, according to UNICEF, the single best predictor of children becoming either perpetrators or victims of domestic violence later in life is whether they grow up in a home where there is domestic violence.These same children will grow into adults who display higher levels of depression, trauma-related symptoms, and lower self-esteem.6 A sizable body of research has conclusively proven that childhood domestic violence—either observing or experiencing chronic, uncontrollable violence in the home as a child—causes cognitive and emotional damage that goes much deeper and lasts much longer than we ever previously suspected.The chronic exposure to the stress of living in a violent home changes the neural architecture of a child’s developing brain.7 It significantly impairs regions that are essential for learning, memory, and the regulation of emotions. It actually lowers IQ and slows development.8 In fact, prolonged exposure to domestic violence is no different from what soldiers experience in military combat, but because it’s happening to a child whose brain is still developing, the results are often more traumatic and lasting. A 2011 Senate hearing on the subject found that childhood exposure to domestic violence actually “changes who they are.” As David Sousa, author of How the Brain Learns, told me, “It’s virtually impossible for these children to realize their full potential as adults, unless they unlearn what was learned.”In December 2012, the Department of Justice released its “Report of the Attorney General’s Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence,” a groundbreaking study that has gone further than any other government agency to acknowledge the scale and long-reaching effects of living with domestic violence. The report calls this “one of the most significant challenges to the future of America’s children we have ever known” and reaffirms what the research has been saying. “Living with domestic violence burdens children with a sense of loss and profound guilt and shame because of their mistaken assumption that they should have intervened to prevent the violence or tragically because they caused it.”9By now you may be wondering, “I am an adult now, not a child; I am in control of my thoughts, so shouldn’t I be able to get over it?” According to Sousa, a part of the brain called the cognitive belief system controls what information we notice and what we let in.“One of our weaknesses as a species is that we start establishing our beliefs as children before we can choose them as an adult,” he explained to me in an interview. “They are often imposed on us by our environment early in childhood. Once we establish that belief system it serves as a filter. Your cognitive belief system, or your self-concept, tends to accept that information, which reinforces your beliefs and filters out information that doesn’t.”So if early on in life you believed you were guilty, fearful, not good enough or unloved, then throughout life your brain tends to find examples to confirm that belief. Why isn’t he calling me back? Obviously it’s because I am not good enough and unlovable. So here’s another example to confirm what I already believe about myself. This is how the brain works. We find more reasons to believe the lie. Do so often enough and it becomes the truth. You can’t see it any differently.WHY DOES NO ONE TALK ABOUT IT?It’s encouraging that governments worldwide are recognizing the alarming scale of the problem. Yet, shockingly, it remains almost entirely off the radar of our social consciousness.So why has this epidemic been so widely overlooked from a public awareness standpoint? Domestic violence has very high awareness, but the impact of growing up living with domestic violence has very low awareness. Compare the awareness level to bullying, for example. No comparison. Why? There has been a general reluctance to talk about something that has been so stigmatized. And much of the focus of research and discussion has been on women in situations of domestic violence even though, as leading researcher Renee McDonald pointed out recently in an interview, “There are many more children in battered women’s shelters than women.”Well, first and foremost, they don’t know what to call it. People who grew up living with domestic violence struggle to define what the experience was. It wasn’t domestic violence because that refers to adults; it wasn’t child abuse in their eyes as that most often refers to physical abuse. Neither neglect nor emotional abuse adequately describe it. Many researchers will call it child witness to intimate partner violence. Have you ever heard of that? Less than 1 percent of the population has, according to a recent study. And further, this word “witness” doesn’t work because it is a passive word and doesn’t adequately describe the impact.Children don’t talk about it. They are afraid that if they say something outside the house, they may get into trouble. Or maybe they are afraid that one of their parents will get locked up, or they’ll be taken away into foster care. Or maybe they will put one of their parents in greater peril.One morning when I was in second grade, I woke up to screaming downstairs. I ran down and grabbed my mother by the hand and we sprinted out of the house in our pajamas. We kept running until we got to the police station. Later that day, Keith was escorted to a chair across from me in handcuffs. I don’t know why this happened, but I do recall vividly what happened next. He leaned close to me and whispered, “Now I am really gonna hurt her.” It is difficult for me to explain the pain those words caused in my little eight-year-old body, the degree of fear and guilt and worthlessness and hopelessness I felt. I caused it. And again, I would be unable to stop it.Adults who are engaging in the violence don’t talk about it for obvious reasons. Bystanders who are aware it is happening don’t talk about it because it is none of their business. Besides the general silence, there’s also a scarcity of resources available for children who are living with domestic violence currently or for the adults who did.Fear and uncertainty also prevent them from doing the one thing that all research points to as the key step toward reaching their full potential—sharing what happened with another. Communicating our experiences helps us better understand what actually happened and its true significance, enabling us to gain an independent perspective from others. If there is no awareness and no sharing, how can we truly understand what we experienced?As Dr. Norman Doidge, a renowned psychoanalyst, explains, once we can understand and recognize the memory, we can file it as a past event and therefore rewire the brain to not pull it back up at any given point.10For the billion people globally who lived with domestic violence in childhood and for the millions of children experiencing it now, this lack of awareness maintains the shame and isolation, prevents many from finding the help they need, and perpetuates the cycle of violence. Studies have shown, for example, that simply knowing the traumatic effects of violence on children creates a strong motivation for abusive parents to stop.11Many parents and other caregivers in these situations simply have no idea of the far-reaching impact of their action, or inaction. Even the language used in all the research on this topic manages to lessen the public’s already limited awareness. The studies and surveys use terms like witness, to describe those who’ve spent their early life living in these homes. What a weak word! It suggests that this is something we should be able to get over, as if we were just passing through. We know what this witnessing feels like, and it’s far more than just being a spectator. It’s that kind of bad branding—choosing words that not only don’t resonate but minimize the true impact—that keeps this issue deep in the shadows.This has resulted in a challenge that we all must face—how do we help a population that has fallen through the cracks: children who, as adults, are six times more likely to commit suicide, fifty times more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, and seventy-nine times more likely to commit a violent act against another.12 These are bright, creative, intelligent souls who grow to be adults who unfortunately never got to know their true selves, who feel more bad than good each day, but don’t know why.CLOSE TO BECOMING A STATISTICI could have easily become one of those statistics. Although I am the first in four generations in my family not to go to prison, I came close to repeating that pattern on any number of occasions and only now do I believe I am, each day, making progress toward reaching my full potential.When I was seventeen I bought my mother a new car, with money I’d been making hustling jewelry. I’d just moved out of the house, and buying the car was my way of taking care of her. But I had a condition: I didn’t want to ever see Keith there again, and she agreed. A couple of days later I spotted his car in front of the house. I pulled my car into the parking lot of an office building next to the house, turned off the engine, and then reached down under my car seat and pulled down the makeshift hiding compartment I’d created for my gun.I held the gun in my hand and opened the car door with every intention of putting a few bullets in Keith. But as my foot touched the pavement I froze. I couldn’t do it. Yet again I didn’t have the courage to do what I tried to do dozens of times before. For no other reason than I didn’t want to go to jail, and I knew I would get caught.Furious with myself, I hit my head against the steering wheel again and again. What kind of man was I? I put the gun under my own chin. But then I found myself too afraid to pull the trigger. I was even a failure at trying to kill myself.SOME DEFY THE ODDSAnyone who has ever lived with domestic violence when they were young can relate in some way to my level of desperation. Two-thirds of all the young people in the United States who commit murder kill the person who is hurting their parent. That is a remarkable statistic. And even more remarkable when you think of all of those like me who never actually went through with it, but thought about it constantly. Even those who do not repeat the cycles of violence, incarceration, or substance abuse must often struggle with significant and ongoing emotional challenges, feeling more bad than good each day. This is not how it was supposed to be. Their lives are hidden tragedies of what could have been. Their relationships are not what they expected them to be. They feel that they are not good enough, knowing that they haven’t reached their true potential in life.Yet some come back stronger than ever. “More than any other creature, human beings are able to change,” says Gopnik.13 Their resilience and strength comes from having endured a childhood that others cannot even comprehend. Rather than fall into the cycle of violence, they reverse a childhood of pain and suffering to thrive, overcoming their difficulties, developing their talents, founding businesses, building communities, and creating lives for themselves that exceed their own hopes and dreams. For them, their childhood becomes the reason why they uniquely can.Post-traumatic stress has become a familiar term, but the notion of post traumatic growth is not so common. It can, in fact, according to Stephen Joseph, be the engine of transformation. His research shows that this situation really can have a silver lining. “Adversity, like the grit that creates the oyster, is often what propels people to become more true to themselves, take on new challenges, and view life from a wider perspective,” he says.14 In other words, those who suffer the most change the world.Some of the most accomplished people grew up living with domestic violence. As a child, Halle Berry watched her mother being brutally beaten by her father. Yet she was able to achieve a level of success in a field that is among the most competitive. It’s hard to imagine such a beautiful woman grappling with low self-esteem, but she admits she’s had to battle a sense of being unworthy since childhood.“Violence was an ongoing part of my life,” Anthony Robbins, the world-renowned life coach, remembers in a recent interview with Oprah Winfrey. “Something I couldn’t escape. People smashing things on the wall, slamming the doors, putting their fists through things, being called a liar or having your head beaten up against the wall were all things happening in my house.”15Bill Clinton was terrified as a four-year-old, traumatized by violence in his home. But somehow he found a way to turn that fear into confidence—enough confidence to lead a nation.The list goes on: Oprah Winfrey, Senator Scott Brown, Joe Torre, Patrick Stewart, Christina Aguilera, Drew Barrymore, Tina Turner, and countless others.How did each of them find a path to resilience? How did they overcome their conditions and go on to accomplish great things in key areas of their lives? I became obsessed with finding the answers to these questions and, as I pursued them, other questions arose. What happens to people who grow up in homes like mine? They felt a pain that is unique to those who have seen the people they love most in life hurt each other again and again. At the most vulnerable point in their lives, they’ve experienced the emotional hurt of being powerless to stop it and having to anticipate it happening again and again. So, under those conditions, what makes them do what they do? How can they reach their full potential? The answers are simpler and more accessible than you might think.

Editorial Reviews

“I have never shared the fact that I was a child of domestic violence. And, if I had not met Brian Martin, I don’t know if I would have. What appeals to me most about Brian’s approach is that it is based on empowerment. Our experiences as children living with domestic violence have given us the equipment—a secret weapon, if you will—to overcome all kinds of obstacles in our lives. It means we are not victims, we are victorious.”--Tony Robbins, bestselling author and Peal Performance strategist“Attention-grabbing and revealing, giving us insight into the world of CDV. It will be a valuable tool for our staff and New York City’s most vulnerable population—its children.”--Trevor M. Johns, acting associate commissioner, NYC Administration for Children’s Services“Martin’s kindness shines through this book. And though many purported self-help books often have the stench of the obvious—House too cluttered? Throw out stuff! Overweight? Eat less, move more!—Invincible has the air of honesty and hard work, and the feeling of someone who wants to help. It is not easy reading. It is not pleasant reading. But for anyone who grew up in a violent household, it could very well be the most important reading.”--NJ.com“After reading Invincible, I was struck by the sheer magnitude of children and adults whose lives are impacted by childhood domestic violence. The stories will touch your heart and make you aware of this huge crisis facing our children throughout the world.”--Marlene Lund, executive director, Center for Urban Education Ministries“Packed with inspirational stories of those who through courage and compassion have transformed their lives, this is a helpful book for anyone who grew up living with domestic violence. It shows that it is possible to overcome the obstacles of a childhood filled with violence and move forward.”--Stephen Joseph, Ph.D., author of What Doesn’t Kill Us: The New Psychology of Posttraumatic Growth“Invincible can be a catalyst for change in the lives of millions who grew up living with domestic violence, as it gives them a compelling roadmap on the journey to heal and attain the lives they were always meant to have. It is a valuable resource that can renew their hope and guide them on the path to reaching their full potential.”--Caryl Stern, CEO of the U.S. Fund for UNICEF“Invincible is poignant, challenging, illuminating, and compassionate—all at the same time. Brian does a fantastic job of illustrating points with real-life stories and a fresh perspective. The book goes way beyond describing the issue; it provides clear insight into the thinking and behavior patterns that result from these experiences. Readers are not alone.”--Chris Newlin, M.S., L.P.C., executive director, National Children’s Advocacy Center