The O.J. In Me: An Anniversary Of Violence
The fact that I was there would surprise a lot of people. Quiet, funny, easygoing, gentle: This is how I appear to most of those who know me now. But there is another side, a dark side that, until last year, was beginning to dominate. Which is why I came to seek help at a program called ALIVE (Alternatives to Living In a Violent Environment), a men's counseling group established by the WEAVE organization. WEAVE (Women Escaping A Violent Environment), in the minds of most people, is there to assist only women, the predominant victims in most cases of domestic violence. But WEAVE changed my life. After struggling through a year filled with depression and violence, I reached out to WEAVE the way a drowning man clutches at a life preserver. I don't know where O.J.'s trail of personal violence began, or what demons provoked him to fly into the fits of rage that have been revealed since the murders, but I do know where that path started for me. The seeds were planted early; even as a teen, I was already abusing my sister and mother with a tongue that could be relentlessly hurtful. Later, when I began my career in sales, the violent side of my nature began to exert itself again. Working in a cutthroat corporate world, I learned to become ruthless. My attitude for eight hours a day was "take no prisoners.'' It didn't take long before I became a sort of modern-day Jekyll and Hyde--a fun and playful guy one minute, angry and violent the next. It was a classic passive-aggressive pattern. But over time, it became more and more difficult to turn off the Mr. Hyde in me. And by the time I turned 40, the anger was beginning to get out of control. I was abusive to my employer. I was abusive to my friends. I was abusive to my family. No one was safe from my explosive temper. The rages sometimes lasted for days. My face blazing red with anger and the veins in my temples bulging, I would scream at people during the day at work, and then come home at night to scream at my wife and kids. The rapier edge of my tongue grew sharper than ever. I didn't need to call my wife a bitch--I could cause more suffering with biting sarcasm. And when words weren't enough, I'd grab my wife and shake her. I'd slap the kids. The house would rattle from the ferocity of doors slamming. The behavior nearly destroyed all chances of intimacy with the people closed to me--my wife, my children, family and friends. I could not be trusted. What made me seek help? No one thing really, but there is one incident that sticks out in my mind now when I look back to that time. I'd just come out of the bedroom, where my wife and I'd been fighting. Shouts, screams, shaking, banging. Standing at the top of the stairs, I looked down to see my 4-year-old daughter crying in terror at the sounds she heard coming from the room. I couldn't go on like that. I was at risk of losing all the things that were important to me. On the course that I was, I feared it could be only a matter of time before my abuse turned more physical. All I knew was that I was afraid, and that I needed to make a choice not to be violent. And that is when I turned to WEAVE. There were 14 of us at the start, plus two counselors. Right away, we began to work on learning about violence and our feelings. Our goal for the next 26 weeks was to work together to end the violence in our lives and in the lives of those around us. In the end, there would be only eight men and two counselors left. I wonder about those who dropped out early and those who didn't come at all.For the first 10 weeks, I just listened. My fellow group members offered up stories about every kind of relationship problem possible--grown men revealing horribly abusive stories about their own childhoods, about their current difficulties and hardships. One of the most important things I learned along the way is this: Contrary to what most men like to believe, you do not have to lift a hand to be a violent person. This was just one of many myths dispelled during our 26-week stay. The group stuff wasn't comfortable for any of us. But our counselors persisted. They were doing their best to turn us into the "gentle men'' that we were inside, and help us learn to communicate our feelings without anger. Many of the members of our group had been "court-ordered'' as a result of a recent domestic incident in their lives. I was there voluntarily, so I felt different and they seemed to sense this. But that feeling of difference also worked against me--I was a little slow in learning to open up to the group. But eventually, I saw that I needed help as much as everyone else there. As time passed, I learned from this disparate group of men, saw in them parts of myself that I was reluctant to admit were there. It all seemed to help. I did not realize I had changed until the next to last meeting in early August, when I read aloud what my counselors called a "letter of accountability.'' Everyone had to write one of these buggers and read it to the group before graduating. Writing and reading it aloud proved to be the final chapter in a year of renewal. I sent one of those letters to everyone I had hurt, to everyone whose trust I had broken, acknowledging personal responsibility for my past behavior as a part of accepting all consequences. I cried my eyes out. I've never felt so relieved and accepted at the same time.Which brings me back to that Bronco night midway through our 26-week ALIVE group. That night was a breakthrough meeting for me, as it was for many others in the program. I expected to hear some hoots of support and endless chatter about O.J. from this mostly macho blue-collar group that I hung with each week. But the oddest thing happened. There was merely a mention of the event in disgust and then silence as most of us imagined our worst violent nightmare.It was the first time we collectively sighed with relief that we were there.