Thursday, June 25, 2015

A Boy, A Cat and a Disconnected Heart

He rang the doorbell. It was winter, and with his thick gloves he could barely feel the button.

No answer.

He waited. A cat, caught like him on this cold night outside, walked along the porch rail. Toward him. He watched it.

In the street behind them a solitary car passed. Like urban sleigh bells, the chains on its tires chimed rhythmically into the pounded street snow.

No one was home. The cat. Was rubbing against his leg.

He set the candy down and picked it up. It purred. And purred more when he tucked it under his warm arm. Like a football. Against his thick coat.

He could see into its eyes. Up close. He liked it that way.

When he wrapped his thick fingers round its tiny neck...

Pinning its legs against his side, he slowly squeezed, watching the eyes widen in alarm. Feeling it push against him. Desperately struggle. For a long time struggle.


The lids droop slowly down. The light passes from the eyes.

He let go. Another car rattled metal links by in the snow.

Watching the light return. The animal terror that followed. Flooding the look in those helpless eyes. It pierced his soul.

A shock wave of remorse flamed hot. In all his cells he could feel it.


Or was it love? Yes, warm love for this tiny being.


I want to do it. Again. Now.

Yes, I want to know what it's like once more.

He squeezed the cat's thin neck. And when it has succumbed, he felt the same pity again warm flooding him.

And only horror at himself. As he did it once more.

And when it was over he...

But this time the cat mustered the last of its tiny animal ferocity and writhed free.

He felt...watching it streak away...he felt jarred awake it ran from him...yes, he was awake now...

And terrified

Had anyone seen him? Would they know?

In a panic he ran

Home to his father's house...

Back at my father’s house when I was seven years old we had two beagle dogs. Male and female my father named them Ahab and Jezebel. I did not understand this as a young boy. In fact it took me years to begin to have any understanding. Already by age seven I had watched my father beat my mother many times. And I had received many beatings from my father. And I had been humiliated and shamed by my father. And I had witnessed my father beating my brothers and sisters. And he slapped them and hit them and knocked them around . . . at will. And I had been terrified by my father to the point where I did not ever want to say another word the rest of my life.

I could not understand the fascination I had watching the way Ahab treated Jezebel when I would do what I would do, but one thing was certain . . . I was fascinated.

We had a good sized yard which we called the back yard, side yard and front yard. In the back yard we had the dog house for Ahab and Jezebel. In our back yard we also had a couple of picnic tables and several large trees.

When I was about seven years old I would stand on the picnic table so I could feel safe. Then I would throw rocks at the top of the dog house where Ahab and Jezebel would retreat for peace and rest. I did this many times over a period of a couple of years around this time of my life. I felt safe standing on the picnic table thinking that Ahab would not attack me when he got mad.

What made Ahab mad was my throwing rocks against the top and side of the dog house. I don’t know why it made him mad, but it most certainly did. After a few minutes of hitting the dog house with rocks Ahab would begin to growl. If I continued to throw rocks before very long Ahab would begin attacking Jezebel. Apparently he blamed Jezebel for the noise and he would light into her and she would yelp with hurt and pain.

The only fear I felt doing this was thinking Ahab might attack me if he got too mad. It never crossed my mind that what I was doing was wrong. And it fascinated me to the point of distraction. I had no idea why at the time. I would continue to throw rocks for as long as I had nerve until I would get too scared that Ahab might run out of the dog house after me.

My throwing rocks at the dog house and making Ahab mad, and Ahab attacking Jezebel because of it, represented the same dynamics I was living with inside my own house. Except I was not the one getting mad and attacking others. It was my father doing the attacking and the growling and barking and the hurting of others.

It was very upsetting to me to realize what I had done, and why, as I got older and left my father’s house. For years I simply felt guilty and never mentioned what I had done to anyone. There must have been a part of me that knew it was wrong or I guess I would have said something. My younger brothers and sisters playing nearby didn’t seem to notice what I was doing and were not bothered by it. I never asked them, but as far as I know they did not notice what I was doing. Or if they did the last thing they were going to do was to stop abuse. In my household we had enough energy to take care of ourselves and ourselves only. To come up with the energy to intervene in someone else’s bad behavior is just more energy than any of us had.

And I never talked about what I had done to the cat when I was selling candy door to door for my father’s church. I was old enough by then to feel guilt, but I could not help myself at the time. I had a compulsion to explore and try to understand what I was feeling inside, but felt too guilty to talk with others about it, so I guess I must have experimented on my own from time to time to try to figure out what I was feeling.

What I was feeling was fear and rage and hurt from living with my father. I had to do a lot of work to undo the damage caused by my father’s raging and violence. I now understand a little bit about what was going on in my behavior as a young child.

I felt different as a child from other children because I was suffering chronic abuse. It was like I was on the outside looking in while others were living. Psychologists would call this “dissociation” and it has to do with not being able to integrate all of what is going on in your life into one person or one self. This is very common for children of abuse and especially those children who suffered abuse at a very early age. Dissociative identity disorder is a DSM V diagnosis that involves a serious post-traumatic stress response to the level of trauma the child experiences. The other children in my school seemed to be involved in their lives and had freedom and opportunity to do all types of activities and have an entire world of experiences. But I was living in quiet desperation knowing that my father was beating me and my brothers and sisters and beating my mother and raging around the house throwing anything he could get his hands on and putting holes in the walls.

My life felt strange and dark and so utterly different from the lives I observed others living. But nothing could change our circumstances. Nothing ever did. Things only got worse and worse. The beatings got more violent. My loneliness got more filled with despair. And there was no reason to hope for anything else. So I accepted the way things were. I just accepted it. But in my soul the darkness got darker and the fear got more fearful. And the hopelessness multiplied.

I honestly did not know any different or understand that life could be other than what it was. I thought the other children in my classes at school were just faking it and going along with the show like I was. Just playing their part and going through the motions and that when the school day ended and we all went home that it was the same for them. How could I know differently? How do you know what you have not experienced or seen or felt or heard? How could I know other kids were going home to a “Hey, how was your day?” and a hug and being looked in the eyes when they answered. Or that other kids got to throw a football with their dad or have their homework checked by their mom or could have normal sibling interactions that including laughter and fun and connection. How was I to know that for many of them what was on the outside of their lives indeed matched what was on the inside . . . or perhaps even surpassed it because they were truly loved and valued at home by their families.

But me? I felt sick inside. Hopeless! Yet somehow I kept going and going and going through the motions. Every day! Putting one foot after the other. Like a little soldier. When the storms of my father’s rage would hit I would hold on the best I could. When my mother asked me to run down to the store I felt a little bit of life getting to see the people and be around people. Normal. Just a few minutes of normal human interchange. It helped.

Finally when we had to start selling candy the times away from home increased and yet the terror and darkness remained in my soul because I knew when I was at home the fear would always be there. So, sadly, it stayed with me when I was away. I just didn’t have to face it head on for the few hours I was away.

I had no idea why I felt the way I felt about the cat. It was spontaneous and thrilling and enthralling and all consuming, this feeling I would get when I had control of the cat and could let it have hope again after I would make it go unconscious. Then I felt such sadness and pity and remorse and I would want to love the cat and comfort the cat. But like a burning surge in my heart I would want to choke the cat again. Then the sadness and pity and remorse and compassion would flood me again. I did not know enough at the time to be concerned. I was simply experiencing it. And felt so guilty.

I believe I was experiencing what I was seeing enacted at home. And for some reason it helped me process what I was experiencing to reenact it. But I also believe the level of cruelty I was using toward the cat and towards my own dogs was something that was corrosive to my soul. It may be explained by a diagnosis such as dissociative identity disorder but I would have many years before I would understand much less begin to heal from what I was doing to my own soul in recreating cruel experiences in smaller more helpless beings.

After I had left my family I was with my girlfriend one time after we had gotten to know one another quite well. Out of nowhere, as we were sitting quietly in the car, I slapped her face. I was not mad. I was not upset. We had not been fighting. I did not slap her hard. Only hard enough to be uncomfortable and shocking to her. Then this horrible sick feeling came over me as she started to cry. She looked at me with tears in her eyes and asked me why. Why had I slapped her? She got out of the car and went into her home. I was shocked. I was scared. I was sick to my stomach. Suddenly I began to cry.

I didn’t really understand why I was crying but the crying got harder and harder. I sat in the car outside her house at the curb and cried for an hour. At the time I had no idea why I was crying. I don’t believe I even yet connected the horrible sick feeling I felt when I saw her cry with my own wrongdoing in hitting her. I now think I didn’t even understand that there could be a normal cause and effect between an abusive wrong behavior and the victim’s response of crying or sadness or anger. Those normal responses were not allowed in my house and I think I didn’t understand I was in the presence of completely normal and healthy in this beautiful and strong young woman I was dating!

Her mother told her ‘the first time a boy hits you it is his fault; the second time a boy hits you it is your fault!’ My girlfriend told me it was never to happen again. And it never did. It never happened again, not to this very second. A few months later she asked me why I had hit her. I still had no answer but I told her it would never happen again. It was not even because of anger or some difficulty. It was very much like what I had done with the cat. I did it because of something that was happening inside me. Not for any other reason. The slap had nothing to do with my girlfriend and everything to do with the poison that was inside of my soul. This poison came from what I witnessed daily in my home in the form of cruel abuse perpetrated against me and my family members.

If you have read my blog you know the years I spent and the hard work I had to put into understanding and healing from all the years of abuse at my father’s hand. The best I have ever been able to understand about these aspects of my behavior is simply I was trying to figure out, at some level, why the world was the way it was and why my family was the way it was, and why there was such a difference. And I was trying to comprehend the conflict of rage and love I felt for my father and my mother, trying to reconcile these deep conflicting feelings.

At some level I had learned if you love another living being you hurt them. Of course this was not conscious but it was deep within me as a conflict and came out in bizarre ways that were hurtful. I wanted to see if another living being could hurt like I hurt and if hurting another being was the way it had to be to make sense of life. I also wonder if I did indeed have dissociative identity disorder. It is often a diagnosis that is not made for years, but it stems from early, ongoing and extreme physical or sexual abuse. It can manifest itself on a spectrum of passive disengagement and withdrawal from the active, present environment all the way to multiple personality disorder. I think it helps me to see why I always felt like others were living and I was watching. I was truly disengaging from my own life to protect myself emotionally from it…

Some of you may be confused by the emotional detachment that many of us from abuse have experienced. In my view, this is actually a gift God gave us in the way He made our minds. We have the ability if we are in the middle of war, car accidents, abuse or other horrific circumstances to shut down our normal emotions to deal with what we must deal with right in front of us. I see that as a tremendous gift. But what we have to do if our abuse was ongoing is often to get help to reconnect with those emotions we shut down. To not have a normal connect between present circumstances and emotions can do us and our families great harm. We must work to reconnect with that little boy or girl or woman or man who got hurt and give ourselves a chance to be whole again.

I have no idea if this resonates with any of you who came from chronic, early abuse. Boys are more likely to be involved in abuse of animals and certainly each child is different. If you know of a child who is abusing animals don’t take it as just “curiosity” of a child. See it for the huge cry for help it is. There is a very strong correlation between abusing animals and future domestic violence. For those of us who were around repeated and terrorizing violence it hurt us tremendously but it also set us up for behaviors down the road. If you have struggled with behaviors or actions that seem way out of proportion to what the circumstances seem to call for, know that the person exhibiting these behaviors may have unresolved trauma in their lives. And we trauma victims often wall off our emotions so that we can’t even feel what a victim is going through.

There is hope in the process of healing in this. Please take my experiences and use them as a jumping off point for yourselves. And even if what you have experienced is different from my life story, please contact me if you want to talk this through. I am available and I encourage you to take the step to talk to someone about what you think is unspeakable. Remember, shame has such power over us unless we bring it out of the dark and out of our isolation and get help in an affirming environment.

I know, I know. This seems so unfair. Your perpetrator hurt you so badly and “trained” you to think abuse is normal. And then made it far easier for you to do. And you may have been disconnected from the normal emotions you should have felt from doing wrong towards an animal or person. Well it is unfair! But let’s take that unfairness, examine it in the light of day and detoxify its power over us. And let’s begin healing so we make sure this doesn’t happen again. We can help each other in this!


Mark Phelps


  1. Totally engaging - couldn't stop reading it. Great story-telling!