David Pisarra

We are at the end of Domestic Violence Awareness month and I’m excited to announce that I was published in the book Gender and Domestic Violence published by Oxford University Press and edited by my Brenda Russell and John Hamel. 

My contribution to this very necessary book is ‘Guidelines for Domestic Violence and Child Custody Litigation’. Domestic violence effects at least 10 million Americans annually, there are over 19,000 calls daily to domestic violence hotlines. 

If you think this is just a men against women problem, you’re wrong. In California alone 31.1% of men and 34.9 of women experience intimate partner physical violence, sexual abuse or stalking at some point in their life. That’s only a 3.8% differential, and I know I’ll be accused of bias, but the numbers for men are suppressed due to acculturation that it’s okay for a woman to hit a man, and he should just take it. The ways in which men and women are abusive are different, and a lot of abusive behavior is dismissed that shouldn’t be. 

I was honored when Drs Russell and Hamel asked me to contribute. Domestic is a concern of mine because of the damage that was done to me by the violence that occurred in my own household as a child. The scars are deep and wide. And many of them were put there by my parents fighting, verbally and physically.

Violence and trauma affect people differently, but the one thing we do know is that there is almost always long term damage. I’ve often said that the physical wounds heal much quicker and more completely than the emotional or psychological wounds we suffer. Partly that is due to the psyche’s own self-preservation defense system. When a trauma happens to a child who is not equipped to handle it, the brain will often wall it off. Much like the walls that are used to dam up a river though, there is a constant pressure, a psychic drain on the individual to maintain their equilibrium

Eventually, that psychic drain becomes too much, and the pain and the memories can either start to leak out, as they did in my case. I self-medicated for years, I probably still do with food, as the memories and hurts break through my mental defenses. In other cases, they come flooding back and are overwhelming to the individual. 

Trauma always leaves a mark. There is always a reminder that it happened even if the immediate pain is gone. There is an echo, or an endless rippling throughout one’s life. The effects on those around the survivor can be catastrophic as well. For the spouses and family of abuse survivors there are endless unanswered questions, but once the abuse is uncovered, an explanation becomes available for all the behavior of the survivor that never made sense before. 

 Modern mental health providers have remarkable tools to address the long term hurt done by trauma. One of the most effective tools in the modern therapist’s armory is EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing). Originally designed to help returning veterans from war, to help them back from the darkness they were suffering in with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, EMDR has been found to be extremely helpful with domestic violence survivors move past the Chronic PTSD (CPTSD) they experience. 

I first learned of EMDR decades ago when it was first being used, and I thought it was a bunch of woo-woo fairy magic, that was going to do nothing but lighten my wallet. Fast forward 20 years, and EMDR has been proven in many, many studies to be effective, and I’m working with a coaching client who is a great candidate for it. However, I know that I can’t just recommend it to him, because he (typical male) will have the same reaction I did 20 years. So I know I’ve got old traumas to deal with, and I find a therapist to experience this fairy magic. 

Being the good lawyer and coach I am, I did my research, read the book by Francine Shapiro, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy, Third Edition: Basic Principles, Protocols, and Procedures. After reading the book, I was convinced and excited to see what was coming in treatment. 

My first day in the chair with my therapist, and he’s telling me to follow the tip of his pen, which is rapidly moving right and left. He’s asked me to bring up a traumatic memory, and I have. However, literally the voice in my head is screaming at me, “This is woo-woo fairy magic, and not going to do anything.” We did about three to five “sets” of eye movements that day. I was exhausted. 

I was so emotionally drained that I went to my car and sat for 30 minutes listening to Tears for Fears, The Hurting before I felt able to drive. That was my experience for the next few months of therapy. 

And each week, a day or two after those draining sessions, I felt lighter emotionally. More relaxed, calmer, more at peace with history. 

Today, I thoroughly believe if the effectiveness of EMDR and am glad that it’s there for veterans who need it, and DV survivors who can find their way past the hurts of their history. 

As this month closes on Domestic Violence Awareness, I want to share that there is hope, that we are making progress,  with tools like EMDR and the book I’m in to raise people’s awareness and guide them to help.

David Pisarra is a Los Angeles Divorce and Child Custody Lawyer specializing in Father’s and Men’s Rights with the Santa Monica firm of Pisarra & Grist.  He welcomes your questions and comments.  He can be reached at dpisarra@pisarra.com or 310/664-9969. You can follow him on Twitter @davidpisarra