The Beat of a Broken Drum

By Aaron Michael

As a young child I was blind to the fact that my upbringing wasn’t traditional, or that the circumstances in regards to my family dynamic was always a little off. It wasn’t until I was forcefully separated from my family at the age of twelve that I had any other sort of living situation to compare it to. I grew up fairly isolated and sheltered from the outside world, and deep inside I knew I yearned for something but wasn’t sure what it was or what was missing. I was not allowed to have friends which made social interaction fairly intimidating for me. My parents removed me from conventional schooling while I was in the second grade in order to continue pursuing a career in entertainment. Due to the child labor laws in The United State, my parents elected I travel to other countries for gigs, which deeply affected my educational and social needs. I grew up believing that everyone lived this way and was experiencing the same things as I was. So much of my growth, healing and awareness didn’t come until I was placed in foster care and had an honest chance to reflect and learn where I had come from, and how I could use my experiences to help other people.  

During my reflection of my childhood, the dysfunction within my family formulated almost immediately as a toddler. My mother chose to remove herself from our family and pursue a new life when I was two years old. My father, older brother (whom is sixteen years older than I am) and twin sister had no choice but to move on, and my father remarried the following year. I was raised to believe this woman was my biological mother until I was seven years old, which was confusing to say the least. I was introduced into an extremely physically violent reality at the age of four, mainly at the hands of my father. While the physical abuse was torturous at times, the emotional abuse was almost worse. I was forbidden to cry or express any affection, especially in regards to my father. I would be punished for such actions severely.  It was confusing to me because my twin sister was permitted to do those things, such as hugs, exchanges of “I Love you” and just general nurture. It was challenging for me to be raised in such an opposite parallel in comparison to my twin sister. It was very much as though we were being raised by completely different people and unfortunately it affected our relationship negatively, even in many ways up until this day.  

The abusive nature in my home was not something that was slowly introduced into my life. My earliest memories are extremely vivid and clear, as they have been etched into my brain…often replaying over and over in various circumstances. I remember being four years old and forced to endure the torture of sitting on the floor of a shower as freezing cold water was forced upon me and beat to the point of bruising all because my sister and I got dirty while playing outside.  As a small child I was often thrown into things, hurled onto the ground or whipped with anything from belts (sometimes even beat with the belt buckles) to cables or tools. I had a personalized wooden paddle that my father used to beat me with that I used to draw smiley faces, hearts or loving words on it to try and humanize me in the eyes of my dad. On several occasions while growing up such beatings resulted in broken skin, which unfortunately to this day my body bears the permanent scarring. There would be times where my father would wake me up in the middle of the night and force me to stay awake as he would just pace in front of me. Sometimes he’d be screaming, and sometimes he’d be silent. If I happened to fall asleep, I would be punished severely which always left me on alert. I developed a fear of sleeping by the age of six. I was scared I wouldn’t be awake enough to react.  

As I grew older my punishments went from just basic painful, to overwhelmingly intense and bizarre. Starting at seven years old I was punished by being handcuffed around the bottom of a toilet bowl, or sometimes to other areas around the house, for sometimes more than twelve hours at a time. Within a year he had graduated to constricting me with chains in a basement and eventually wound up locking me in a large dog cage for absurd amounts of time. I developed an intense anxiety due to being constricted and unable to free myself, and it affected the worth I felt in myself. The nightmares have never left me, even though I know these things can’t happen to me anymore as an adult. At the age of eight was when my first of many broken bones occurred. The first incident resulted in not only the fracture of two ribs, but also a broken ankle. At the time we lived in a foreign country and I remember waiting in the hospital for what seemed like hours for somebody to even help us who spoke English. Throughout the years I’d eventually go on to suffer a broken collar bone, wrist and fingers. I’ve had stitches in my forehead, my side, my chin, my shoulder, my thigh, and my foot. 

As much as I was living in a very dark world at home, I was also subjected to abuse at the hands on an employee of our family. Between the ages of nine and eleven I was sexually abused by somebody who traveled with my stepmother and I for work. Each of our trips would be anywhere from four to seven months out of the year. He first started working for us when I was seven years old, and groomed me up until our first experience two years later. Honestly, I trusted him and really thought that he was my friend. As an adult I now realize that he was not at all what a friend should have been like. He convinced me that all friends did these things together; he said he looked at me as though I was an adult and to me at the time, it was flattering to think somebody didn’t look at me as a child. I lived in a very adult world, but never was allowed the benefits of such a world. I thought that was what I wanted. 

As the situation with this person progressed, he became more aggressive and grew a little braver, sometimes molesting me with my parents nearby. I’m not sure if he had been startled, or if at some point became worried but he very suddenly began to convince me that it was all my idea. He’d convinced me that if we were to get caught or if I told anybody, everybody would believe it was my fault and that he wouldn’t be my friend anymore. It was confusing because his whole premise was that all friends did this, so I didn’t understand why he’d stop being my friend. He made me believe that because my body reacted and I’d get an erection that meant that I was insinuating the action, and that I would get in trouble. I really struggled with that ideology for a long time. He became really good at making me feel bad for him, as if I was doing something wrong to him. I hated that my body reacted to the physical feeling, as though I was making him do those things or making him believe it was okay. I sometimes would pretend I was asleep, and while he continued I kept running through my head if I was hurting his feelings, or if I was being a bad friend. I didn’t want to let him down. 

The situation came to a halt once my relentless working life ceased at the age of eleven. His services were no longer needed, and I never saw him again after that. I eventually confided in my step mother as to the things that had occurred, and her lack of interest messed with me for a long time. I began to think this man was right, and then realized he was the only person in my life doing those things with me. Did that mean he was my only real friend? Was I supposed to touch other people in that way if I wanted to be their friend? It was confusing. The feeling of being violated really bothered me for a long while because it made me feel like I wasn’t in control of my own body. I developed a physical need that I had sort of become dependent on, that I no longer had once he wasn’t in the picture anymore. I was extremely sexually frustrated as an eleven year old kid because I couldn’t ever recreate that physical feeling I had with him. I kind of felt lost when it abruptly stopped, and I had begun to believe it was my fault. I became angry with myself because I wasn’t able to understand my own sexual personality. I thought I was a bad friend. 

By the time I turned twelve my family had already moved back permanently to the States, I was no longer traveling or working. My emotional relationship with my father was completely dissolved, yet it was the first time I recalled just being his son and not being the “cash cow” of my family. My whole life prior the line of being a son and being an employee to my parents had become vigorously blurred. I had never been allowed to just live as a kid up until this point, as I was expected to work and propel our financial gain. It was a big responsibility for a child. The physical abuse with my father became really prevalent as I was home more, and in that time took a drastic turn for the worse. Fortunately, we had for the first time lived in the same town as relatives, and they were becoming more aware of what was happening in our home. One in particular called child protective services on several occasions, who visited our home on a couple different times, unexpectedly. After an incredibly gruesome fight with my father, I ran away from home and confided in one of my older brother’s friend’s mother. She immediately got the authorities involved and I have never stepped foot in my father’s house again. 

My removal from my family was intended to be temporary, until we could seek help as a family to rebuild and structure a safe and loving environment. Initially I was housed in a juvenile detention facility because a foster home wasn’t immediately available and there was really nowhere else for me to go. My parents and I had to appear in court, and there were several options and conditions set forth to my parents that would eventually allow my sister and I to return to their custody, but my father was adamant that I was not welcome to return, while my sister was able to move back in. After that was determined I was moved to a temporary foster situation until it was decided I’d be sent to New York to reside with my biological mother, whom I had only met once prior, when I was seven years old. I lived there with her and her new family for approximately a month before her husband decided to send me back to the west coast. In fairness, my behavior in New York was out of line. I ran away just about every other day, not letting anyone know where I was going or what I was doing. I usually would end up making my way to Ellis Island and I would hang out there until as late as I could, or blindly hop around from train to train just letting time pass by. I had an attitude problem and was angry at my mother. I was all around angry. I didn’t feel like I belonged in her family, and didn’t get along well with her husband. I was extremely disrespectful to her, her husband, their five children and their home and it is something I have grown to be very remorseful for.  

When I returned to the west coast after having to leave New York, I went on to live with four additional foster families. My extended family was either unable or unwilling to take me in, which really isolated me even more in many ways. I was fortunate enough to be able to slowly reintroduce myself into entertaining at thirteen years old so that I would be able to continue to earn my own income without being under my parents control or influence. I was able to network and develop my own contacts to sustain myself financially. I went on to write a book about my experiences which opened up opportunities to attend public speaking events at schools in which I spoke to children about the importance or seeking help in regards to domestic and/or sexual abuse if needed. I was reintroduced into a structured education system for myself, as I was only accustomed to private tutors and one on one education. At the age of seventeen I was presented the opportunity to get a place on my own, which I gladly accepted and was able to learn my new normal.   

The early stage of my life in the foster system was definitely a struggle for me. I honestly didn’t feel as though I truly belonged anywhere. For starters, my lifestyle changed extremely abruptly. I went from having everything I wanted material wise at my fingertips, but lacked love and nurture to merging with families who may not have had all the material things I was used to but somehow found it within their hearts to open their homes to someone else’s child so selflessly. At fourteen I was arrested for assault (even though it was in self-defense), I had developed a severe addiction to prescription medicine that I used recreationally, and I would often get into trouble for running away and doing my own thing. By the time I turned fifteen I found myself dangerously emerged in alcohol, cocaine, risky sexual situations and an abundance of self-harm. I was thrown into sex work for about a year by somebody extremely close to me under the guise it would solve their drug debt problems, and the same person had injected me with heroin with zero regard for my life. I lost a part of myself somewhere in the mix and felt very disconnected from almost everybody. I didn’t know who I was, what people expected of me, or what I expected in others. I didn’t want to live, I didn’t feel as though I mattered and my soul was broken. 

Currently I am twenty years old and I work hard at maintaining a healthy and active lifestyle. I am not perfect, I’m not magically cured, I still find myself dealing with struggles almost daily stemming from my childhood. I still suffer from horrendous nightmares and flashbacks that are at times physically crippling. I struggle with sleep and have anxiety problems that overwhelm me often. As I have grown older I know that my past does not define me, even when it feels as though I can’t escape it at times. Within the past three years I have really spent a lot of time reflecting in many areas of my life. I have completely eliminated alcohol, cocaine and risky sex from my life. I take pride in the fact that I have had such a strong, positive role in my nephew’s life and I am confident he will never have to wonder what unconditional love is all about. I have built lasting relationships with people whom I know I can turn to, whom I trust and will support me no matter what life throws my way. I have allowed myself to open up emotionally with those I choose to hold dear to me and to experience love in a way I was never offered. 

Life is tricky, and circumstances change, but if each day you can find a little bit of encouragement inside of yourself, you are really allowing yourself a special gift. People adapt and grow every day, experiences mold and help shape a person as they carry through time. My experiences have taught me many lessons, some hard and some just so blatantly obvious. All I can do is choose to be the best person I know how to be. What you do matters…who you are matters. There is someone who is looking up to you whether you realize it or not. Set the intention to grow daily and put your best foot forward to become the best version of you! Everyone deserves that in themselves. Whether you tell yourself you can or you can’t….remember that you’re right.