From his darkened bedroom window in the attic, Benni poked his head out into the snowy and shadowy night of winter and wondered if he would survive falling three stories to the cold ground below.
His worst-case scenario would be to have him end up living through the sudden impact of hitting the concrete below rendering him helpless and crippled. The last thing Benni wanted was to possibly survive become further dependent upon the very person he had come to despise.
Not cognizant of the significance of yet another beating at the hands of his father, Benni felt a wave of desperation overtaking his thoughts. He could not understand why his father would beat him again; after all, he did nothing wrong – again. How could it possibly be wrong to just be a kid?
He would prefer to cry and get it out and over with; but he couldn’t – not any more. It seemed like a hundred years ago when he last shed a tear. It seemed like there wasn’t a good enough reason to cry anymore.
Too young at thirteen years old to understand, little did he know that the life path he was unknowingly thrust upon would take him on a bipolar journey of constant crises that would take forty years from which to recover. Worse still, while he continued to beat himself up, Benni didn’t know it was not he who was broken – it was the dysfunctional culture of his family; and it gave rise to a defining moment in Benni’s life that began his subconscious decision to break free and move towards a life reflecting the many he witnessed outside of his family.
Having moved to Toronto to raise a family and seek the promise of prosperity, the Smith’s were escaping a cycle of misery and disappointment that haunted generations before them. Their hope was to free themselves from the memories of a village where ‘less’ was the accepted norm and a humiliating handout was the grudging practice. Dad lived with anger, and Mom with fear. Socially under-developed, they arrived in the big city with lowered eyes and all the expected baggage: poor, uneducated, authoritarian, and waging the constant battle for power and status.
Christian leanings were strongly held and literally enforced, so it was only natural to soon begin a family with the belief that “He” will provide. With steady jobs and a promising future, their salvation and rewards of happiness was only around the corner – or so they thought. They didn’t realize their cultural patterns of thinking about life and living (behaviour, knowledge, and coping techniques) passed on from their parents were not left far behind in the past.
Before long, the Smith’s had babies popping up almost every second year. They didn’t count on the incessant struggles increasing with each newborn; so by the time the final and eighth child was born, life was a living hell of diapers, debt, and desperation.
Benni was the firstborn son and much was expected from him. Naturally bright and talented, he was seen as the great hope and source of pride for his parents early in life. He was rewarded with choices not afforded his siblings as early as possible. While somewhat lonely and isolated at times from being away from home so often, Benni was thankful for the opportunity to experience life away from the constant circus of sibling battles waged within the household. Unfortunately, he did have to return to the home every day and he could not escape the toxic environment brewing of anger, frustration, and resentment.
Because of the poverty in the family, only basic needs were met. Both parents had to work with he holding down two full-time union jobs and she working in factories not conducive to her chronic asthma. Expected by everyone except themselves, family relationships snapped without repair, and the constant need of the children for attention always going unfulfilled. Without the time or energy to cope, parental responses to the demands of the children became increasingly abusive psychologically, emotionally, and physically.
Fearful of his father’s wrath, Benni quickly accepted this way of life as the normal way of coping with life’s stressors. It wasn’t long before the parental teachings of frustration management became the family norm and it profoundly affected how Benni perceived life and his behaviour towards it.
Given his extensive exposure to life at a private Christian school, Benni knew something was not right, but he chose to avoid thinking about it because it caused him much anxiety when doing so. The only bright spot in his life was the love, inspiration, and nurturing he received at the choir school far from the asylum he called home. This allowed him to detach himself from the stress of the family and focus on his own individual training and education goals with, of course, the demanding approval of his father.
From all his outside activities, Benni received guidance to become a healthy boy who flourished. He grew into an academic scholar, as well as reaching a small level of virtuosity in music. In spite of the evening crises at home, he was able to achieve a level of psychological competence and success in all of his endeavours by pretending he was just a visitor to the family home – with the priests and church actually being his real parents and home.
In spite of the conflicting environments to which he was exposed, Benni was able to keep the daily troubles (and secrets) in the back of his mind even though he was constantly exposed to (and perceived) the ‘odd’ behaviours of love and affection he witnessed from his classmates and their families during social and school functions. Sadly, when Benni reached thirteen years old, he was withdrawn from the school, and everything changed. His private, secret world disappeared forever.
Living again at home “full-time”, Benni was beginning to experience the full force of his father’s brutality. Having disappointed his father by wanting to pursue interests other than music and religion (Benni wanted to become a priest), the privileges of being ‘the one’ quickly vanished. He was now subject to the same methods of disciplinary ‘correction’ as his siblings. Daily beatings were expected to the point where any contact with his father automatically brought him to tears and wet pants even before he stood before that powerful force of authority. Long-lived physical and mental scars were beginning to rupture.
Why, he wondered, does his dad never tell him he was proud of his achievements, or hug him, or smile when something was done to his strict level of satisfaction?
Benni was beginning to understand now why his siblings often lied; after all, when truthfulness was punished, “what was the point?” Flurries of questions were soon to follow. Was all the piety and goodness he modeled from the priests and other leaders nonsense? “Was there really goodness, or were the priests lying to me all along?” “Why was I being punished for laughing too loud?” “Why, all of a sudden, was I beginning to wet my bed at night and chew my fingernails?”
Benni quickly re-learned the brutal social norms and values of the house (not home). Along the way, stress, higher competitiveness, lower perception of control, and fewer feelings of ability to make choices were beginning to take hold of his consciousness. It was no longer safe to invest his time or interest with his own family – and this concerned him greatly. The only option available was to find some kind of escape from the madness because everything he knew was no longer valid, and the assimilation of new information was slowly changing his beliefs in ways in which he didn’t like.
Gone was the joy of life. His vitality was being sucked out of him and feelings of depression were beginning to creep into his mind. The house was a constant war zone and Benni never won a battle. There was never enough of anything from basic needs and security to affection and trust. A culture of various abuses was accepted and internalized in this family of ten; and as a result, dysfunctional secrecy became the norm that was successfully thrust onto his generation.
One day, after spending the weekend at a friend’s house without his father’s knowledge or approval, Benni was banished to the attic – after a severe beating and a broken collarbone, of course. His father said he didn’t want to look at him any more. Benni was labeled a disgrace for asking his friend to have him over, and “that kind of behaviour (begging) was simply not tolerated”.
Benni knew this was just another reason for his father to beat him up. His father was always angry now, and everyone disappeared like roaches in the light when even a hint of his presence was felt. The mother was always sick and she was fearful herself, so any assistance from her was non-existent.
As for moving his bedroom to the attic, Benni actually felt relieved as he finally found his tiny respite from the pain. He was already emotionally detached from his family and he had nothing in common with any of them. All that interested him now was listening to hockey games on the radio under a small spotlight in the darkened room and exploring his newfound talent for painting.
Emotionally and psychologically, the attic was taking its toll. Solitary living, although a choice at the time, was sucking the life out of Benni. Loneliness was a constant companion and the isolation drove him to a world where his only joy was reading and re-reading motivational books by Dale Carnegie, Napoleon Hill, and Norman Vincent Peale he stole from the local library.
Soon, Benni’s search for meaningful friendships outside of his bedroom walls was completely gone. Endless days and nights brought lots of time to think and ponder about the meaning of life – his life; and somehow he felt this wasn’t something he should be concerned with at that stage in his life. Not knowing it, but Benni was not developing normally as a young adolescent was supposed to become.
Everything was confusing and nothing seemed real as it appeared as if there were two alternative worlds in his same existence. A part of him felt stuck and lost, yet the other felt as if he was going to become someone great and important. A part of him wanted to meet new friends (but he didn’t even know how any more), and the other part didn’t want the emotional hassle with relationships. Benni wanted to be a part of his family, but couldn’t bring himself to have anything to do with them.
He didn’t even know who he was anymore. He wanted to believe in something positive again. Breaching his teen years, he couldn’t quite articulate the feeling of a deep personal crisis forming in the base of his chest.
Benni went to the attic windows overlooking the street far below, opened them wide and invited the cold wind to choke back his first deep breath, and then fell to his knees. Unable to cry, he looked to the sky and asked for help. He then leaned over and exposed his head and shoulders to the frigid beast of fear. With a long deep breath inhaled through his nose, he closed his eyes and wondered …