Thursday, February 15, 2007

Guess the movie...

Tap Dancing, Movies, and Sky

Her blue thigh shifts to the side
under her thin dress. She steps, stops,
looks down at nothing as she dances
a slow, deliberate line across the camera.
This movie steps with her. She is
in every frame. The light Buffalo sky

is the same far away color
sliding across her body.
Blue bleeding through every angle,
so close and fleshy
but stepping deliberately
without you.

copyright Kristina Coker

No Future

This is the Life

Street Punk: Hard Core and Gutter
Leather and metal, mohawk, Mad Dog
Colored vomit, dried egg
On squat walls and no water
Sewage. Skin smooth as thick glass
Yellow like old paper. Street Punk

Tell the drunk bums to shut the fuck up
Tell the dirty men to fuck
Themselves, smack an old junkie
Nodding off in a door frame
I drift off, dream about lizards
I thrust forward my dry tongue

The sky, far shining desert
Come closer. Bus stop on Market, cold
Concrete, food stamps and beer
Panhandle University
Wake at dawn and watching
Sun rising, pyramid shadows my bones.

copyright Kristina Coker

Sunday, February 11, 2007


I think of my blog posts as essays. I plan them and write them as essays, with some kind of unifying theme, usually hinted at in the title, and somehow compatible with the picture I chose. This one is about identity. See, here's a picture of me on my way to Pullman to visit my brother's grave. I'm from Pullman and my brother committed suicide. I like to drive around by myself and stop at rest stops. I've taken pictures of myself since I was young. Then I search the pictures for some clue as to how I was feeling. Shouldn't I know how I was feeling? I usually don't. That connection between my feelings and my conscious mind was blocked off long ago.
I love music. "Scattered" is the name of a Green Day song. It starts like this: "I've got some scattered pictures lying on my bedroom floor. Reminds me of the times we shared. Makes me wish that you were here. Now it seems I've forgotten my purpose in this life."
The loss of identity I suffered, or purpose, when I lost my brother has been a huge problem for me, but identity was a struggle long before that happened. You'd think growing up having to be independent and self-sufficient would cause you to really know who you are and what your strengths are, which is true to a certain extent. Life requires interactions with other people, though, and I never developed a strong sense of who I was in relation to other people.
I was the sacrificial lamb in childhood, a role I haven't escaped. I think that love requires sacrifice. That probably sounds like the inspiration for some goth song, but I don't say it for dramatic effect. I don't know how to be in a relationship with someone without giving up my identity to them, I have no idea what I want or need from other people, and I don't perceive that I have any choice when people make demands or take advantage of me. This is why my psychologist is having me do daily affirmations. I feel stupid doing them. They're so Stuart Smally. That's exactly why I need them, though. I have an appalling lack of self-esteem, glaringly obvious when I say something like this and try to believe it:

I am a valuable and important person, and I'm worthy of the respect of others.
I have pride in my past performance and a positive expectancy of the future.
I am kind, compassionate, and gentle with myself.

Probably people with high self-esteem don't have to force themselves to say positive affirmations, but I'm sure they're not saying:

I am a big loser.
I'll never do as well as other people.
I am damaged goods.

I couldn't even type that without my eyes filling up with tears, because that's what I believe about myself. It is getting better, though. The affirmations help, working with my psychologist helps, and what has especially helped is to read about the defense mechanisms abused children develop to survive, and how they turn dysfunctional for adults. I feel a lot more understanding and compassion towards myself as a child, my adult self, and my brother when I realize how normal our responses were to the circumstances. I was beating myself up for not talking to Jeff more about the abuse, and not doing more to get him away from our dad. I was also really hard on myself for accepting my parents' sudden attention and interest in me after he died, thinking I should have immediately blamed them and told them to go to hell.

The truth is that I grew up in a family that enforced unquestioned loyalty, silence, and obedience through threats, coercion, and punishment. Leaving the family home was not enough to free me from that system, and years of savage violence have kept me afraid to this day. Shame and repression of terrible emotional pain keeps many abused children and adults silent. Depression, self-hatred, and suicide are not abnormal for adults victimized as children, and it is not abnormal to want your parents’ love and support, regardless of how they've treated you. The truth is that I had dropped 2 quarters of college because of the severity of my own depression, and was hanging on by a thread when Jeff took his life. Instead of having sympathy for my own struggles, I just took it as proof of my own ineffectualness.

To blame myself for Jeff's death because I thought I should have made some heroic, monumental sacrifice to save him is really just a testament to how little I valued my own existence. I rejected myself because I didn't prevent Jeff's death, was unable to win my parent's approval, and not worth protection myself. The police dropped (or whoever is responsible for that) child abuse charges against my dad, despite mountains of physical evidence, and did nothing about my great-uncle. Adults at my high school actively encouraged me to drop out. I still to this day think of myself as a bad, rebellious child, the black sheep, always struggling, always overcoming obstacles but never quite there. Disadvantaged. Different. Weird. Who gave me this identity? My family. It's not really me.

How do I figure out who I really am, and how do I overcome the roles I learned as a child? I have no idea. I'm hoping I'll just figure it out eventually. I think it has something to do with getting "in touch" with my feelings and discovering what I want from my life. One of the things I am trying to do with my poetry is develop my voice, as they say. The narrators in my poems tend to be very passive, and I use a lot of metaphors of snow, ice, and cold. I'm working on 2 poems in my poetry class right now. One is set in a bus on Snoqualmie Pass right after a huge snowstorm. The other is in a hot summer setting, but is about loneliness, isolation, and boredom. I'm trying to draw these characters out; similar to how I'm trying to draw out my own feelings. They are largely a mystery- I'm so good at repressing and turning off my feelings. I feel frozen inside.

I'm also trying to get into group therapy for sexual abuse. I found a program that meets for 2 hours once a week for 5 months (longer, actually. 21 weeks.) Sexual abuse is very destructive to one's identity. It teaches you that you don't matter, that all you're good for is sex, and you should feel ashamed of yourself. It taught me to disassociate and numb myself out. When I told my dad and he forced me to keep going to my great-uncle's house or he'd "beat me senseless", I learned that I belong to my dad, my perception that it was wrong and disgusting didn't matter, and if his uncle wanted to use and abuse me too I had no power to protect myself. When your own mom does nothing to protect you (she told me last year that she believed me at the time but thought I could handle it myself, and she watched dad beat me, did nothing, and yelled at me for breaking up the family when I called her from the foster home I was finally put it), how could you possibly feel more worthless?
I was still thinking of myself as that child, helpless and unable to protect myself or get what I needed. Until recently, I hated that child, hated that she was so powerless but was unable to stop identifying with her. Ironically, when I started understanding and feeling compassion for that child that I was, I started feeling more adult. I thought that if I didn't think about my childhood or acknowledge how painful it was, and pretended my family was "normal", it was my best chance for a "normal" adult life, or at the very least, it wouldn't be obvious to everyone that I was a pathetic loser from a screwed-up family. I think a lot of people who grew up with dysfunctional families think that way. Obviously, it doesn't work; it just traps you in the past and with a disparaging sense of yourself.

It also takes a lot to overcome feelings of embarrassment that I'm in my thirties and whining about my parents and my childhood, unsure of who I am, and talking about my inner child and poor self-esteem. I feel childish and I really don't want to post this blog, although I'm sure that I will. I have this desire to document my recovery, without censoring the unpleasant details. My parents are responsible for what they did to me, but I have the ability to recover from that. I think it will help me and maybe help other people to come out and say that doing this kind of emotional work sucks and it's hard, but it's worth doing to save yourself and get the kind of life that you want, even if you don't know what that is yet. It's worth doing no matter how old you are.
It's perfectly understandable when people avoid dealing with that kind of pain or don't know that they don't have to keep feeling that way about themselves. Even people from "normal" families struggle with their perception of themselves- is there anyone on the planet with perfect self-esteem? Does anyone have a perfect family? Obviously not. My situation may be extreme, but it's not totally out of the ordinary. Regardless of the identity that was thrust on me, I am an individual with a unique perspective, and maybe that makes me different, but not abnormal.


"Violence shall synchronize your movements like a tune..."
-W.H. Auden

Dear readers, I am exhausted. Emotionally, physically, mentally. I sleep, but I'm still tired. About 3 weeks ago, I had a dream. I was in my dad's truck with him and my brother. My mom was absent. We were in a synthesis of Clarkston, WA (where my great-uncle lives) and Wenatchee (where one of my audit clients was). My dad was driving. I was trying to get him to stop for the night, instead of driving all night to Seattle. I was giving him directions to the street with all the hotels. He was angry, refusing to respond to me, and driving fast and erratically. He took a turn so sharply that the truck skidded out and rolled over.

Since it was a dream, the truck popped back up, but I refused to get back in. I told my dad I wasn't going to let him put me in danger anymore. He motioned to my brother to get back in the truck, but Jeff walked over and said he wanted to go with me. Dad walked away. Then Jeff said he had to go back to get his stuff out of the truck. As he left, I wanted to grab him and tell him, no, no you can't go back. We need to get away from here. I knew I couldn't stop him, though, and I knew he wasn't coming back.

I woke up angry. Really, really angry. Angry with my dad, but even more angry that my brother is dead. It's not fair, and it will never seem fair to me. He shouldn't have died. I've been reading about the developmental damage, both psychological and emotional, that abusive parents inflict on their children, and I'm feeling more outraged at what happened to us. I consider this progress, and my books agree. It means I'm holding the perpetrators responsible instead of blaming myself. Not that I'm all better, though. My psychologist and I were going to start working on my flashbacks from Jeff's suicide, but I've been having these violent spasms of guilt that I've had to deal with first. I'm hoping I'm almost done- I dealt with a lot of it when I was in the Survivors of Suicide group therapy. Maybe the guilt was like a wounded animal that attacked me one last time before it died.

The strength of my guilty feelings makes sense psychologically, not logically. When you are a kid, you idolize your parents. It is a matter of survival to defer to them, as your whole world depends on your parents. If they do bad things to you, you're not psychologically able, as a child, to understand that your parents are the ones being bad. The only way you can understand it is to think that you are bad and deserve mistreatment. By the time you get old enough to rebel against them, the damage is already done. Self-hatred and guilt doesn't magically go away the second you turn 18, or 16, or 21.

When I was a kid, my value to my dad was as his punching bag, and to my great-uncle, I was a sex toy. But to my brother, I was a protector, a caregiver, and a role model. My relationship with Jeff made me feel needed, appreciated, and loved. It made the abuse easier to bear as well. As long as I took the brunt of our dad's violence, Jeff didn't. I told myself I could endure it to protect him. I didn't kill myself, and I did think about it a lot, because I couldn't abandon him. I even fantasized about killing our dad, but would never do it because if I was in prison I couldn't be there for my brother. With so much of my self-worth and identity wrapped up in protecting Jeff, it's no wonder I blamed myself for his suicide and have been punishing myself ever since.

I realize now that I didn't have the power to protect Jeff from our dad, that he abused Jeff as well. Even though I never saw my dad hit him, I did witness his verbally and emotionally attacks my brother. Until recently, I thought abuse just meant beatings, and didn't recognize the magnitude of the damage our dad did to Jeff and me in the way he belittled and threatened us. He didn't need to beat my brother- the whole family saw what he did to me and that was enough to keep them in fear and obedient. I don't remember ever throwing a temper tantrum, and don't remember Jeff doing it either. We knew the price we'd pay if we ever asserted ourselves. I got smacked around for looking at dad "funny" (as he defined it), crying when our dog died, walking past him when he was angry. That's not a healthy way to grow up, in fear for your life, and your sister's life for that matter. Long-term, we were unable to develop the independent identity and self-confidence that good parents support instead of undermining. When your sister is your main emotional caregiver because your mom is locked in her room all the time, you don't exactly feel safe and secure, I imagine.

And the cruelest twist of all is traumatic bonding. You spend you childhood trying to make the abuser happy, trying to anticipate his moods and violence, trying to comply with the impossible demands and rules, trying to win his love and approval because children need love and approval from their parents, no matter how horrible they are. You don't even understand that this is abnormal. You don't know that families aren't supposed to be like this. When the abuser shows any kindness at all, even if it's just a day without violence, when he says something nice to you, when he pays attention to you and he's not angry, you feel incredibly grateful. You think you must have done something right. That little morsel, no matter how pathetic and insufficient it is, keeps you hooked, and you redouble your efforts to win his approval and love. It keeps hope alive, hope that is unjustified and cruel.

It's sad when you realize that adults that were abused as children are often more loyal, more dedicated, and much more desperate for their parents' approval, especially the abusive one, than adults from healthy families. Adults from "normal" families usually have a strong enough sense of self that they have moved on from needing their parents' approval, even if they still want it. Not getting that support in childhood leaves you with an unfulfilled need that you often don't know how to satisfy as an adult, especially in a way that will bolster your self-esteem instead of making it worse. (I.e. people often times get into alcohol or drugs, destructive relationships, or become workaholics to try to fill that void or numb the pain. Or they just kill themselves.)

Giving up that fantasy, the one hope that got you through your childhood, that your family will become loving and supportive if you just try hard enough, despite all evidence to the contrary, is REALLY HARD. Self-blame is awful, but sometimes it seems better than facing the truth- my parents don't love me. (We can quibble about whether they love me but do it badly, or don't at all, but regardless the result is that I didn't get the comfort and nurturing I needed as a child, or an adult.) My brother is dead. Even though he meant everything to me, I didn't have the power to save him. My brother and I were outmatched by adults who used us selfishly instead of caring for us. Now I have to figure out how to take those steps to finally grow up emotionally knowing that I will never, ever, get my parents' approval no matter what I do. They still hold me responsible for the abuse, and there's nothing I can do about it. This is a fight I can never win, even though it's been ripping my life apart for almost 35 years.

The only way to win is to stop playing, and even though I haven't spoken to either of my parents for almost a year, I still struggle to let go of the belief that I can make them change, make them see what they've done to me and Jeff. I let go of the self-hatred and blame and it transforms into despair- incredibly strong, almost overpowering feelings of betrayal, anger, rejection, and abandonment. I struggle through the stages of grief as I recognize the loss of my childhood and the death of my fantasy of parents who will give me what I need from them. I want so little, but it’s still too much. You can live with guilt and self-hatred indefinitely, your whole life even, while you wait for acknowledgement that never comes. If you let yourself grieve, though, it is difficult and painful, but it does pass, and you move forward.

The idea of forgiveness often makes it's way into these discussions, that is, just let go of the anger, forgive them, and be at peace. Unfortunately, it doesn't work that way. You don't get to circumvent the emotional work by just deciding to forgive and forget. Because you can't forget, and as long as you still blame yourself and avoid placing responsibility with the abuser, the expectation that you should just be able to forgive and get on with it is just another way that you beat up on yourself. You feel bad because you're still angry, and you've failed to forgive. If someone hasn't taken responsibility for what they've done, and you're still suffering for what they did to you and they don't have to live with the consequences, why should they get your forgiveness, after everything they’ve already taken from you? They don't deserve it. The only forgiveness that really helps you heal is to forgive yourself, and possibly forgiveness that is freely chosen for your benefit only, after you've done the emotional work and let yourself get angry and outraged and held the perpetrator responsible. As long as you still blame yourself, trying to force yourself to forgive is self-destructive. The books support me on this one, too. I haven’t read a single book or talked to single therapist who says forgiveness is necessary, or solves anything.

It's hard for me to write about feeling angry and sorry for myself. I've never got sympathy that way- growing up it was dangerous to express my very-justified anger to my family, and those outside the family were generally uncomfortable with it. Victims should be self-effacing, forgiving, and above it all, somehow un-phased yet more wise and insightful about those things we don't like to talk about. Not that I think you, dear reader, can't handle the reality. The reality being that I have to experience all this rage to get through it. I have to let myself feel years of repressed anger before I can move on to my post-abuse life, no longer at the mercy of others. I'm sure you would have stopped reading by now if it bothered you. It's not pretty, but this is what it's like. It's hard work, and it's worth it. I'm worth it. At least that's what my daily affirmations tell me.