“Child abuse is war.
It was in November of 2013 that I decided to change everything that was happening in my life. I was 150 pounds overweight, cheating on my girlfriend, sick with a bacterial infection from drinking too much, smoking almost two packs of cigarettes a day, and getting high from the moment I woke up to the moment I went to sleep. I was thriving as a wedding photographer, building an e-commerce clothing brand, and working a third job to cover the expenses of the second business. To say the least, I was a workaholic consumed with a million projects, which meant I didn’t have to be alone with myself or my girlfriend. Photography led me down an incredible path but required all my energy. I was working with huge companies and getting recognized for my talent in multiple publications. The business part of my life was great, but my personal life was a disaster. In a word, my life was CHAOS.
I woke up and my lungs were on fire, my head was pounding, my body was shaking and I felt the most lost I had ever felt. Feelings of guilt and shame spun around in my head like a police siren after getting extremely intoxicated and cheating on my partner again. The pain of knowing I was sabotaging my life again left me feeling like a total loser, which in turn was sabotaging my life. I was in The Vortex. The voice inside screamed, ‘You are a f*cking loser. Look at your life. You are a piece of sh*t.’ It was hard to argue with the voice in my head because it was telling the truth. It’s impossible to lie to ourselves and sometimes self-talk is right.
I was a master of deception and crafting tales, hiding the truth from myself, and orchestrating bullsh*t, but I couldn’t hide that the darkness inside was manifesting on the outside. There was nowhere to hide from the shame and embarrassment of being 150 pounds overweight as I struggled to button the size 4XL shirt and wrap size 47 pants around my waist. There was nowhere to hide from the truth that I was drinking and smoking myself to death, that I was running from intimacy, vulnerability, compassion, and that I was terrified of my own potential.
TRAUMA by definition is a deeply disturbing or distressing event, and I was forged in its fire. I was a living and breathing real-life caricature of trauma. The person in that mirror was not the real me, and I knew it.
My journey is not dissimilar to that of millions of people around the world. I grew up in chaos. My mother, Donna, was a drug addict and alcoholic. She cut my finger off when I was almost four; she claimed it was a bicycle accident, but my grandmother told me otherwise. I will never know the truth. She was a narcissist, a liar, a thief, and ultimately a victim of the same abuse that my brothers, sister, and I suffered. She was cold, manipulative, callous, cruel, narcissistic, bipolar, manic depressive, suicidal, and only out for herself. She always put herself before her children. She often walked about the house naked and high. It wasn’t until I read The Truth by Neil Strauss that I came to understand that our relationship was covertly incestuous due to her often sleeping nude next to me when my stepfather or other men were not around, crowning me the ‘man of the house’- rewarding me for being her ‘big man’ and often using me as an in-between for her relationships. I learned to become a master manipulator, liar, and thief from watching her coerce her way through life while weaving countless webs of deceit to get what she wanted from other people. I believe it was her own abuse which led her down a path of self-destruction and it rubbed off on my siblings and me. Our home was just another example of inner-generational child abuse manifesting itself.
When I was 18, I made a decision that I felt was the only choice I could make for self-preservation; I told my mother, ‘You and I will never speak again.’ Earlier that night I had to physically defend myself from her after she attacked me in my sleep. Until that night I had never hit her, even in self-defense, but her drug-fueled attack was the last straw. I only saw her a couple of times after that night. From 18 until the day she died, I had almost no contact with her. Ultimately those little, round, oval and triangle-shaped pills would take her life.
My father Michael, who I am named after, abandoned me when I was barely 2 years old. When people ask me about him, I tell them I have never met him, but that is not entirely true. The truth is that I did meet him around my fifth birthday. He picked up my brothers and me from the run-down apartment we lived in on the westside of Indianapolis with my mother and our mutt mixed-breed dog, Wolfie. He took us to the shopping mall on the northside of Indy to buy us presents, or at least that is what we were told was going to happen. There were no presents, but we did have a slice of pizza in the food court. After asking to ride the penny horses, he beat us in front of onlookers who did nothing to stop him. I don’t know what we did that was so wrong but I will never forget that day. That is my only memory of him, and to carry his name is a burden I often feel. Part of me has always thought I would change my name and the other part of me wants to prove my strength despite him.
My stepfather, Sebastian, was hyper-abusive and liked to torture me by flicking me in the head, calling me fat and worthless, and hitting me for asking questions. He once slammed me into the living room closet door when I confused the word Pisces for feces as I tried to read my baby brother’s horoscope from the Indy Star Sunday paper. My youngest brother is his only biological son and the only one who didn’t suffer. My stepfather found joy in dragging my brothers and me out of our beds and beating us. He would scream, ‘Keep crying and I’ll give you something to cry about!’
Eventually, I learned to stop crying and accept pain as a way of life. I used to think that my childhood officially ended the night he beat my brothers and me so hard that I passed out on the kitchen floor after putting wet dishes away in the cabinet. The ‘punishment’ I endured for the simple mistakes of being a child were harsher than most people who commit rape and murder. I could handle the torment and bullying at school because I knew I got to go home. At school, I was an easy target. I smelled like piss, wore hand-me-downs, and had the temperament of a toddler. The abuse and torment I experienced at home would shape the next two decades of my life.
The only solace I had were the nights that my stepfather was gone and working hundreds of miles away as an over-the-road truck driver. Hearing his car door close in the driveway announcing his arrival was always the most terrifying moment as a child. I never knew when he was going to be back from a trip. Well into my twenties, the sound of a car door closing would send me sprinting to a window to look out. I knew that the time between that door closing and him getting into the house was enough to stuff a teddy bear into my underwear to take the brunt of the punishment that I surely was about to receive. At 6’4” and over 200 pounds, he packed a punch and I felt it more than I care to remember. Between being locked in closets, having my head slammed into walls, beaten for mispronouncing words, and constantly walking on eggshells for fear of his wrath, I was in a constant state of fear.
I know that like my mother, his childhood must have also been filled with torment after torment. On some of the summer days during school breaks, we would stay with his mother, Mary, who babysat my brothers and me along with her 4 foster children. The way she treated those children is on par with the worst horror movies I have seen. She treated her foster children worse than my brothers and I were treated by her son, my stepfather. They were starved, beaten, and embarrassed on a daily basis. Once after hiding a corn muffin in her panties to eat later in the day, one of the foster girls was dragged to the garage by her hair, stripped naked, beaten, and forced to eat the muffin off the oil-soaked floor in front of every child in that house. This was so common that I wasn’t even shocked. I have encountered so many terrible and misguided people, but she was evil in ways that I didn’t know a person could be.
I grew up in the Mormon Church and since we were often homeless or deeply impoverished, the church parishioners would take us into their homes or offer us tithes to cover electric and water bills. It was during this time that I was molested by one of our Ward’s mothers. When I shared this with my mother, she told me I wasn’t allowed to say a word. A few years later when I mentioned it again, she told me that it didn’t happen and that I was a liar. I carried the shame of that experience for decades. I saw the worst parts of the church and witnessed other children being hurt and abused when my brothers and I would stay with them. When my mother was gone on a binge and my stepfather was out of town, I would find myself staying with different families from the church. Over multiple years I stayed with upwards of 30 different families and much like ours, what happened behind closed doors was often hidden by Sunday smiles and pitch-ins.
I started drinking daily before I graduated and the sad truth is, a lot of us did. I was on a one-way path to being kicked out of school but there were two teachers who without question impacted the direction of my life. Mr. Hollingsworth was the only man in my life that instilled any sense of belief in me. He made me feel valued and believed in my talent on the wrestling mat and in school. He was the only person to ever recognize that something bad had happened to me and the only person to tell me I was going to do something important with my life. His support will never be lost on me and I am forever grateful.
I knew I was destined for something outside of homelessness and abuse but didn’t know how to get there except through money and power. I made a decision that I would do whatever it took to legally make a six-figure income by the time I was 21. I assumed the way out of poverty and the insanity of my youth was money, so I worked my ass off until ultimately finding success in corporate America at one of the largest insurance companies in the country. At 21 years old, I was making more money legally than anyone I knew, but the income only exacerbated the stirrings of darkness awaiting deep within me. Eventually, I would walk away from that six-figure lifestyle to chase my dream of becoming a professional photographer. Pursuing my dream of photography didn’t change the fact that the demons were encircling me and would soon engulf my soul.
On my 26th birthday, I put a gun in my mouth as my girlfriend pounded on the bathroom door begging me not to kill myself. I will never forget the taste of the cold metal against my tongue. I pulled the trigger, but the pin didn’t strike the bullet casing—a failure to fire. I had guns in my life since I was a child and I will never understand why that round malfunctioned. Two days later I went to the firing range and that same gun worked like new.
Fast forward three years.
My photography and e-commerce businesses were booming, but everything else around me was in shambles. My relationships were a total lie because I was addicted to sex, porn, and was surrounded by toxic people who encouraged me to continue down the path I was on instead of getting my sh*t together. Being young with money opens the world up to the best and the worst possibilities, and I chose to swim in a pool filled with alcohol and drugs. I was drinking and getting stoned every day. I was addicted to feeling numb, and I only cared about getting f*cked up. I sought validation from every external source I could find. I was in the worst shape of my life weighing in at over 340 pounds. In addition to being morbidly obese, I was smoking two packs of cigarettes a day. I was depressed, anxious, having panic attacks, and suicidal thoughts. I felt like complete sh*t. I couldn’t face the cold hard truth that I needed to stop making excuses and take my life back.
One of the hardest truths I had to admit to myself was that vicious and undeserved trauma happened to me again and again. I had to accept that I had survived some of the most toxic environments imaginable and I lost my way because I was so dissociated from the truth. They say the truth will set you free, and I agree with that to an extent. The part they leave out is that you have to acknowledge and feel that truth if you want to be released from its grasp.
What I didn’t know was that the road to recovery and healing would be more daunting and confusing than the actual trauma itself. Surprisingly, the process of discovering who I really am was more complicated than being the person the world wanted me to be. The day everything changed, I acknowledged I was responsible for creating the Michael I saw staring back at me. The Michael that stands in front of me today is the same, but with one huge difference: today, I love myself. I love my strength, courage, personality, body, heart, and mind. I had to walk over the fiery hot coals and smoking ashes of the flames that once engulfed me because that was the only way I could create the Michael I am today.
Society may have once labeled me as an outcast, a loser, a drunk, a stoner, a liar, a cheater, and a thief, and those labels were all true. However, the one label I have always rejected was being called BROKEN. I never felt broken, but I longed for someone to show up and guide me through the healing process. They never came. I decided to write Think Unbroken because it is what I needed when I started my journey. ”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Michael Anthony from Portland, Oregon. You can follow their journey on Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube. You can preorder his book, Think Unbroken: Understanding and Overcoming Childhood Trauma. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.
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