Ian Wright is right, we need to talk about the children of domestic abuse – like me

We should never relegate children to witnesses of domestic abuse. They’re victims too. And the impact can last a lifetime, as footballer Ian Wright knows only too well.

Footballer Ian Wright tackles his past experiences of domestic abuse, exploring how his childhood has continued to affect him throughout his life

Domestic abuse is a noisy affair. My childhood was a cacophony of sounds. Smashing glass, shattering plates, slamming doors, splintering wood, shrieking mother, bellowing father. It’s perhaps ironic then, that it made me a mute.

We have a tendency to talk about children witnessing domestic abuse. But, as footballer Ian Wright lays bare in a powerful new documentary for BBC One, Home Truths, children are never witnesses – they’re victims, too. The noises of abuse are something that have stuck with Ian as well, despite the best efforts of his older brother to shield his ears when his stepdad would start beating his mum in their one-room home in 1970s South London. But while the corporeal experiences may be long since past, the damage done by immersion in both physical and psychological violence at a young age has endured – as it does for far too many of us.

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‘A living hell’

Life growing up for me was a living hell. We – my little brother, mum and I – lived at the mercy of my dad’s oscillating moods. His stress was our stress, his anger our nightmare. My dad always prided himself on the fact he’d never punched us – although he was physical. I’ll never forget the night I – a lanky, pre-teen girl – fought to keep all 18 stone of him off my little brother, after he had ripped the Spiderman pyjama top off his back and pinned him against the wardrobe in his childhood bedroom, upturned his little single bed and swept the books and school work off his desk.

I don’t think anybody knew I lived with an abuser. I’d like to think they would have tried to help me if they did. One of the most hopeful parts of Home Truths – of which there are many, peppered amidst the despair – sees Ian meeting the head of pastoral care at his old school, Mr Alexander. His job, he explains, is to make sure the children are happy. Teachers there now are trained to notice behaviours that could be signs a child is struggling – for Ian, that would have been his tendency to roll about on the classroom floor – and whisk them off for a chat. If only I’d had that. Someone to stop and wonder what had happened to a once vivacious and bubbly child, to ask how things were at home.

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For me, trauma manifested as muteness. While other children blossomed, I shrank further and further inside myself. At home my father would frequently disparage my intelligence – he enjoyed comparing my brother and I with each other – and berate me for the sound of my voice. He would lean over me while I was sleeping, breath heavy with alcohol, tell me how it was my fault his marriage to my mother had failed. I absorbed it all, developing a crippling lack of self-confidence. I couldn’t bring myself to open my mouth in lessons or social settings, unable to see how I could have anything useful or interesting to say. I think teachers – and the well-meaning parents of peers who would occasionally try to coax me out of my shell – wrote it off as shyness or teenage awkwardness. Those assumptions have robbed me of so many years of life.

I shudder when I think about what my childhood would have been like under lockdown. My brother and I were never happier than when our dad’s job took him away. Never more despairing than the moment he arrived back home after a respite. We would hear the door open. Our eyes would meet, hearts sinking. We would wait for him to come into the living room to announce his return, aftershave wafting over us as he passed by to switch the lamps on and the big light off, as was his custom. To this day I can’t stand the smell of many men’s colognes.

‘They may never bear visible injuries’

For the children who have spent the bulk of the past year cooped up indoors with abusive parents, I now fear what the same inaction I experienced could lead to. They may not go back to school with bruises. They may never bear visible injuries at all. But it can be hard to put into words how deep the psychological scars can go. Ian’s experiences resonate with my own – the anxiety, the anger, the sense of worthlessness that followed him through childhood and beyond. As a young person trying to look beyond the perimeter of childhood, to imagine a future for yourself away from home or in the world of work, the picture can look bleak. What job could I possibly do, if I couldn’t make eye contact or speak to other people? Would I ever make a new friend? At 18 I thought I could escape by leaving my insular country town for a new life at university. But there’s no outrunning trauma. The self-doubt, the social anxiety, and the loneliness they breed, never left.

I was around 13 when I stopped speaking. It was another 14 years after that – last March to be exact – that I finally found my way to therapy. I’d spent years shunning doctors’ attempts to refer me, petrified of the thought of having to fill a vacuum between myself and another person with what was inside my head – not even knowing what was in there at all, and if it would come out. But quietly, over a course of 12 weekly Zoom sessions – praying the entire time my voice wouldn’t carry through the walls of my millennial houseshare – I learned how to talk about my childhood for the first time in almost 30 years. Most importantly, I learned how to say seven important words: I am a survivor of domestic abuse.

‘The imposter syndrome is all too real’

Often the hardest part of tackling your past is accepting and owning it. “You were a victim of extreme emotional abuse,” clinical psychologist and trauma expert Dr Nuria Gené-Cos tells Ian. Watching him struggle to process the words, to accept this fact that he both already knew and didn’t know, is eerily familiar. As is his reaction upon hearing the stories of the visceral violence experienced by other survivors, whose suffering, his clear reasoning goes, outweighs his. “You’re a victim too,” they tell him, but the imposter syndrome is all too real. I remember once trying to complete a volunteer application form for a domestic abuse charity. They favoured people with lived experiences of abuse, it read. I closed the document, and never went back.

For Ian, it took 50 years for him to face his demons. For me, luckily, it only took 27. It was during therapy that I first heard about complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD), and suddenly a lot made sense. CPTSD is an increasingly well recognised condition that can develop in children and adults who have experienced repeated traumatic events such as violence or abuse. Unlike as is often the case with its better known cousin, CPTSD is not triggered by a single event. Rather, trauma is experienced over a significant period of time, often at a young age, where escape is unlikely – perhaps because it is at the hands of a caregiver. The NHS says it can take years for the symptoms of CPTSD to be recognised, meaning children’s development, including their behaviour and self-confidence, can be impacted – as mine was.

The impact of abuse, of course, may look different from child to child. But as Home Truth explores, what is important – and more important than ever after more than 12 months of Covid – is that we do not relegate children to the status of witness, that we are alive to the signs of abuse, and foster a culture of talking, listening and valuing pastoral care to ensure children like me never slip under the radar.

For legal reasons, I have chosen not to include my byline on this article.

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