Wednesday, March 19, 2008
You put the fun in dysfunctional
And all the stars are just like little fish
You should learn when to go
You should learn how to say no
Might last a day yeah
Well mine is forever
When they get what they want they never want it again
Go on, take everything, take everything I want you to
And the sky was all violet I want it again, but more violet, more violet
Hey, I'm the one with no soul
One above and one below
-Violet by Hole
In case you are wondering, the title of this blog is not directed at my beautiful friend in the picture, who is a fellow rat and Halloween enthusiast. She is a very, very good friend who cheers me up when I am feeling pissy (and when I'm not, too). This week I have tried to reduce the astronomical level of stress I tend to operate under. I experience a lot of anxiety that I used to suppress, but now I am trying to work it through. It is one of the many joys of having post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I am afraid and nervous that bad things will happen, and that fear and unease causes me stress. Writing is a big part of my efforts to address my emotional distress, and talking to my friends who provide a lot of understanding and support.
The anxiety wears on me physically, with my digestive problems, migraines, and insomnia. Plus, I feel disconnected from my body a lot because of the sexual abuse. I've been disassociating from my body and my feelings for so long I have to learn how to be present in myself. So much of me was banished to my subconscious that I have to work at remembering to pay attention to my feelings, like trying to remember to include a co-worker who sits on the other side of the building in the lunch plans. Last week, my goal was to do yoga every morning, both to try to calm myself down and ground myself in my body, so I don't go through the day feeling edgy and numb. Those two adjectives sound odd together, but they describe my normal emotional state, and the opposite of grounded, pretty well.
Oddly enough, I noticed that when I did yoga in the morning I felt kind of angry. I don't know if that's because I was more awake while driving to work and therefore more aware of people who drove like jerks, or that I have a lot of pent up rage that is slowly being released. I suspect the later. I like the way people drive in L.A. better than Seattle anyway. I also have odd, unexpected flashbacks when I do yoga, but I think it’s probably healthy to have them come up and deal with them while I'm calmly doing yoga, as opposed to, say, when a large man walks up behind me or a crappy boyfriend is yelling at me. Jerk. Guess what, I'm still mad. Jerk jerk jerk jerk jerk. I'm mad at the PTSD too. Stupid, stupid, pain in the neck disorder that is screwing up my life and making me feel bad. Bad disorder, bad mental illness, bad adults who did this to me. Jerks jerks jerks jerks jerks. (How's that for letting out my feelings. I'm experiencing feelings! This is GREAT.) Next week my goal is to keep up on the yoga, and to get enough sleep every night. I was sleep deprived all last week. I think adding yoga at night too, or at least meditation, will help. It's amazing how high my stress level goes when I'm not getting enough sleep, and then I'm too stressed out to sleep, then I get even less sleep...
You may wonder how I am doing with the "I am not going to suppress my feelings about the sexual abuse any longer" campaign (or maybe you weren’t but you are now). Well, my concerns about ever having a decent sex life have only gotten worse. (I said "decent" rather than "normal" because I no longer think normal is a possibility.) Even if I try to masturbate, which is supposed to be a safe and non-traumatic way to explore one’s sexuality according to my sexual abuse books, I get such vivid flashbacks I have to stop. Let me just reiterate that- I can't even touch myself while totally alone without reliving the abuse. It kind of makes me wonder how I lived through years of trying to have a "normal" sex life. It really took a monumental effort to shut out the flashbacks, and I couldn't do that and see the guy as a source of emotional support and friendship. He was the abuser surrogate.
Harsh, I know. That's why I usually went out with guys I really didn't like all that much (with two exceptions. You know who you are, hopefully.) That way, I wasn't disappointed by the lack of emotional connection. And judging from the way they treated me, they didn't like or respect me much either. It seems sad now that I wasted so much time, and only made my issues with men worse. I actually don't dislike men- I have a lot of male friends, but in my mind, there's a big difference between a guy I'm friends with and a guy I'm having a sexual relationship with. The sex is a trigger for anxiety, fear, helplessness, anger, and dissociation. Those feelings are so overwhelming that I can hardly see the guy for who he is. I stick it out as long as I can stand it, and ultimately, with a sense of failure, have to give up on my dream of having a functional relationship with the guy.
The solution to this may seem to be that I should be friends with the guy before getting involved with him sexually, but sorry smarty-pants, I've tried it and it doesn't work. My feelings about sex wipe out the friendship; I feel like a sex object, and I feel like he wants me that way and I don't see him as a friend or trustworthy or someone I can be close to anymore. I go into disassociation mode to protect myself. If he's a jerk to me, I'm too numb to react, and even if he's not I'm not able to emotionally engage with him because I'm dealing with a full on anxiety/terror/PTSD/inner child emotional meltdown in my own head. Even nice guys are jerks or insensitive sometimes, and some people are emotionally unavailable without being jerks. I get that. I just don't feel like I can react appropriately and get the things I would want out of a relationship, like understanding and support. I get that from my friends. What I get from sexual relationships is the temporary illusion and reassurance that I am not so damaged and used that I couldn't at least put up the facade that I could be in a relationship.
I realize, unconsciously, I was trying to work out my daddy issues the only way I knew how at the time. It was re-enactment (another lovely symptom of PTSD). I was reliving the abuse, trying to come to some resolution, some understanding of why it happened and why I wasn't able to stop it. It was a compulsive attempt to make an abuser surrogate love and accept me in a way my dad never did. My behavior was based on the idea I had from childhood that there was something fundamentally bad about me that caused adults to mistreat me, and that I had to fix it, fix the flaw in myself. It was self-destructive. I wanted to be someone I wasn't, pretend I wasn’t hurting.
I have been reading a book called The Narcissistic Family by Stephanie Donaldson-Pressman and Robert M. Pressman. One of the really interesting things about this book is that it offers a definition and explanation for what a dysfunctional family is, and why these kinds of families are damaging to the children who grow up in them. The term "dysfunctional family" has gotten thrown around so much that it seems to have lost all meaning, but I think the term still has value. I know and have known many people whose families, while not abusive, have scarred them emotionally. And for those of us who did grow up in clearly abusive homes, it can be hard to understand why, when the abuse is over, the emotional distress continues. In this book, dysfunctional families are called "narcissistic", but I think the terms are interchangeable:
"Our model is indeed about a parent system that, for whatever reason, can mirror only itself and its own needs (Narcissus), and about a child who only exists for the parent to the extent that she meets or refuses to meet those needs (Echo). Although in a strict sense this model is not about pathological narcissism, it is about a system of relationships or interactions that bear qualities we commonly associate with narcissism: self-absorption, detachment, lack of empathy, the putting of the self (parent system) first, an exaggerated need for reassurance, and concern with external appearance over internal substance." (p. 44)
"In narcissistic families, be they covert or overt, the children are not entitled to have, express, or experience feelings that are unacceptable to the parents. Children learn to do all manner of things with their feelings so as not to create problems for themselves vis-à-vis their parents: they stuff them, sublimate them, deny them, lie about them, fake them, and ultimately forget how to experience them. What has been extinguished in childhood—the right to feel—is difficult to call back in adulthood. But until adults understand that they have a right to feel whatever it is that they feel, and that they always had that right, they will be unable to move forward in boundary setting. And without appropriate boundaries, all relationships are skewed and unhealthy." (p. 38)
"It is helpful for individuals raised in narcissistic families to have a realistic idea of who they were as children. One of their childhood coping mechanisms often was to think of themselves as somehow responsible for the problems in the family (as bad, defective, stupid, and so forth) in an attempt to gain control, believing "if I broke it, I can fix it." As adults, they still have a skewed idea of how responsible (or powerful) they were--how much control they had, and who they were as children." (p. 52)
Under this definition, dysfunctional families are not wacky, unusual, or silly (as they often are portrayed in the movies and television shows that celebrate non-normal families), they are families in which the dramas, problems, and desires of the parent(s) eclipse the emotional needs of the child/children, where the child/children take care of the parent(s) instead of the other way around. Adult children of these families can often be identified by the intensity of their conflicted feelings about their parents and loyalty to their family that may seem unwarranted and not in keeping with the person's outbursts of anger and resentment towards their parents.
By loyalty, I mean deferring to their parents on decisions about their own life, believing that living their own life and focusing on their own needs is a betrayal of their parents, discomfort with saying anything bad about their parents or the family, denial and minimizing of the negative effects of their parents' behavior, the inability to confront their parents or express anger and disappointment, or talk about and acknowledge the past, being overly concerned about their parents and feeling that their parents are dependent on them, talking about their parents as if their parents were the children, feeling obligated to take care of a parent who is insensitive to their needs, suppressing their feelings for the good of the family, etc. There is an awareness that the parent(s) have acted inappropriately, but a desire to protect them from the consequences of those choices and cover up the true nature of the family dynamic.
I've known a lot of people who do this, and I struggle with it myself. For example, I am currently writing a book (based on this blog) and I feel guilty about it. I feel like, if it was published, it would hurt my mom and the rest of my family. It's not stopping me from writing the book, but that's because I've worked through a lot of my feelings about my family. There was a time when I could not talk to my mom about the past at all because I didn't want to "upset" her, and I certainly would not have written about it.
It seems so unfair. You get dumped on your whole childhood, and yet you still feel this sense of obligation and sympathy towards the parents that didn't have that kind of regard for you. It's especially confusing to sort out with the parent who was less "bad". My mom did all sorts of horrible things to me- blamed the abuse on me, refused to do anything about the sexual abuse even though she knew it was happening, watched my dad beat me and didn't do anything to stop it, left me on the floor bleeding and with a concussion and didn't take me to the hospital, called me lazy and ridiculed me, refused to hug me or be physically affectionate, and neglected us. She didn't protect us. She let it happen. She still holds me responsible, and talks as if I could have stopped it but my dad couldn’t help himself.
Yet, I can't hate her even though I do hate my dad. I feel sorry for her- she is clinically depressed. She was depressed for a lot of my childhood. My dad abused her too. She didn't think she could take care of us if she left him. She was worried about money. She didn't mean to hurt us. All these excuses don't excuse the fact that she did not take care of us emotionally. She was not there for us (my brother and I). She was not on our side. She supported our dad to our detriment. She told me after I was put in foster care that I was hurting the family. I resent her. I'm angry at her. I still have this sense of loyalty towards her, though. I don't want to hurt or abandon her. I feel like she needs me.
It is so hard to express anger at my parents, even as an adult. I can't help relating to them and feeling tied to them. They have this mystique about them. When I was a kid they were gods, kind of in the vein of Greek gods who were self-involved, immature, and unpredictable, but still gods who had complete power over me. If I rebelled I got a lightning bolt directed at me. I'm still ducking my head. It was that instability and capricious use of power, treating me like my feelings and needs didn't matter, that made it so difficult for me to develop into an emotionally mature person who could have healthy relationships. I felt like a peon without rights and I still do.
I read in one of my books that a man who has unresolved anger at his mom may deal with it by taking it out on other women rather than expressing it to her. In my experience, this is a warning sign for abusive or misogynistic men- men who seem unrealistically loyal to their mom, as if she was without fault, yet have unexpected outbursts of resentment and anger towards her. And women who talk about how they don't want to turn out like their mom end up dating screwed-up men like their dad, it seems. It always comes out somehow, no matter how hard you try to suppress it. The subconscious will not be denied. Some people say it is the real source of all our behavior, the home of all the secret motives driving everything we do. I don't really know how to fix it except that, according to all the books I've read about this subject, if you work through the emotional messiness you stop attracting dysfunctional relationships. It sounds like magic to me, but I'm trying. At this point, I have my doubts that I will ever have sex again, but maybe my subconscious has other ideas.
Sunday, March 16, 2008
I play for L.A.
Forget, I'm not sure I could
They say time heals everything
But I'm still waiting"
-Not Ready to Make Nice, Dixie Chicks
I just got back from Miami (for work), and I'm a little jetlagged. Last week I became a manager. I was promoted, and it was a total surprise. I felt like I was in shock for a couple days, especially since the day I found out I had my first ice hockey lesson on the ice at Staples Center. It was after a Kings game. I am a ginormous hockey fan, so this was a thrilling, if exhausting, experience. Hockey pads- great for falling down because it doesn't hurt, but even though the ice is so cold you can see your breath, I've never sweated so much in my life. Seriously, people, I had sweat literally running down my face, and all my clothes under the pads were soaking wet. I think it’s kind of funny when people think I must be attracted to hockey players because I'm so into hockey. Please. It's hard to overlook the mullets, missing teeth, broken noses, and big scary defensemen. Check out the players towards the end of the play-offs- most of them stop shaving, possibly bathing, and are starting to look like early man. And now I know that hockey makes you smell funky. Those pads sure soak up the smell. I could not have been in the punk rock scene if I couldn't handle a little male sweat, but the sweat level of hockey is a whole different thing.
One of the reasons I actually like hockey is because to me it is non-sexual. (See my last couple of posts for my feelings on sex.) This is also the case with the punk rock. I like it for the music, people. If you don't believe that a woman could be a fan of a male dominated activity without being a groupie, you don't know me, and furthermore, you must not have a high opinion of women. Sexualizing it would ruin it. The less sexual the better, as far as I’m concerned. No one thinks guys are into sports for the homoerotic aspects, unless they say that’s why they're into them. Two of my favorite people are Trevor Linden (Vancouver Canucks) and Keith Morris (Circle Jerks). No desire to sleep with either one of them. No offense, guys. You're both adorable, especially for a hockey player and punk rocker.
Playing hockey is a lot of fun and one of the more challenging things I've ever done. Learning hockey at Staples Center after an NHL game was one of the coolest things I've ever done. Today was my third hockey lesson. I fell down today more times than I can remember. Maybe I can't remember because one of the times I fell down I hit my head on the ice. Just kidding, I was wearing a helmet. The instructor, a former Kings player and a Canadian (I love Canada), insisted that it was good that I kept wiping out spectacularly because it meant I was allowing myself to get out of my comfort zone and take chances. All I know is that I started getting sore almost immediately, and now my whole body hurts. But yes, painful as it was, it was good that I pushed myself out of my comfort zone. I never thought I'd get the chance to play hockey. It just amazes me how effortlessly the players seem to speed across the ice, stop on a dime, change directions, know where the puck and their teammates are and where they're going, and then get that puck where they want it. Now I really have an appreciation for how difficult that game is.
I'm an ambitious, driven person, but it does take considerable effort for me to move out of my comfort zone. There's only one person who understands how hard it is for me, and that's me. I've been adjusting my life to accommodate the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder for as long as I can remember. PTSD causes me to be very anxious about what could go wrong if I’m in an unfamiliar situation, and one way to lessen anxiety is to avoid those kinds of situations. (Avoidance is another symptom of PTSD.) Even positive events can be stressful, as I experienced when I was promoted. Of course, I was thrilled; it was a dream of mine to get that kind of recognition and responsibility in my job. My career is the area that I feel the most successful in, and it's incredibly validating to be getting an office and two people reporting to me. I've been in my job for less than a year, and this was like getting a letter from the universe saying, "You're doing great. Keep up the good work."
I feel limited by the way I was raised and the emotional challenges I'm trying to work though, so to be successful despite all the (I hate to use this stupid term) baggage I'm dragging around is a huge triumph for me. But I’m also a little freaked out. I’m a manager. I’m responsible for other people. I could screw up. Things could go wrong. I could disappoint people, and there are people who might want me to fail because I’m young or they don’t like me. Work politics can be pretty stressful at times.
I think a lot about how my life has been affected by my experiences and all the tragedy and I wonder if I am a different person because of it, and if that is a good or bad thing. I think the answer is that a lot about me is different because of what I've seen and been through, and some of that is good and some of it is not so good. Case in point, I found this article online-
From Harvard University Gazette- Childhood abuse hurts the brain by William J. Cromie:
"Patients with a history of sexual abuse or intense verbal badgering showed less blood flow in a part of the brain known as the cerebellar vermis. The vermis aids healthy people to maintain an emotional balance, but in those with a history of childhood abuse, that stabilizing function may become impaired.
The connection between abuse and brain addling apparently involves stress hormones. Harsh punishment, unwanted sexual advances, belittling, and neglect are thought to release a cascade of such chemicals, which produces an enduring effect on the signals that brain cells send and receive from each other. As a result the brain becomes molded to overrespond to stress. "We know that (lab) animals exposed to stress early in life develop a brain that is wired to experience fear, anxiety, and intense fight-or-flee reactions," says Teicher. "We think the same is true of people."
Other research has revealed that electrical abnormalities in the brains of abused people are similar to those seen in patients with epilepsy...And researchers have found a vigorous correlation between epileptic-type brain abnormalities and thoughts of suicide...Depression is generally believed to be the prime instability that pushes people toward taking their own lives. But a study done at the National Institutes of Health found that thoughts of committing suicide actually precede depression in abused children."
In some ways, my brother's suicide makes me feel closer to him. Unfortunately, I wasn't the only one who contemplated suicide when faced with life's challenges. Even now, I respond to stress with panic, with the feeling that I either need to fight or run away. It can take me a while, when I get panicked, to talk myself down from the ledge. The connection between abuse and suicide doesn't surprise me at all- for one, suicide is a form of escape. When you are in an almost perpetual fight-or-flight/flee state, you keep a mental list of possible reactions to catastrophic events, and suicide is often one of them. Imagine being a kid- you don't have a lot of options so suicide can be pretty high on your list. When you grow up with this mindset, it doesn't radically change when you become an adult. Thankfully, I have other ways to react to stress. A lot of them are just mental diversions- fantasies. My favorite TV shows like Lost and Doctor Who portray the world/universe in ways that resonates with me. Hockey is an exciting diversion from my normal life. My apartment is a safe place that I can be alone and calm myself down. I need to find ways to feel safe because my perception of the world and of other people is significantly colored by my childhood experiences, i.e. I feel I'm always in danger.
From age 7, I was fighting for survival. I had to be in fight-or-flight mode pretty much all the time. This is what underlies PTSD. You just continue to react to the original threat or series of threats even after it's over. For me it’s not over because I continue to see threat everywhere. This isn't a moral judgment, but I perceive most men as potential threats. It's emotional, not intellectual. I know not all men are dangerous, but I feel like I have to be prepared. Women are a little easier for me to trust, but I am suspicious of just about everyone. Imagine what that's like, to always wonder if/when someone is going to turn on you. I have insomnia a lot. I operate at a pretty high level of anxiety. I have a list of things I avoid- boats (someone could kill you and throw you overboard), camping (makes rape/kidnapping/murder so easy), living in apartments on the first floor (rape), living in houses (ditto), motorcycles (what if the driver decides to commit suicide with you on it), heights (anyone could just push you off), etc. Are you laughing yet? It sounds crazy, but that's really how I think, and it sucks. It sucks to be afraid, and always thinking about what someone could do to you.
I love those apocalyptic movies with the bad ass female characters like Sarah Connor in The Terminator, Ripley in Alien, Alice in Resident Evil, and Selena in 28 Days Later. For one thing, they are fighting, not running, and for another, robots, aliens, and zombies are obvious bad guys. (And army guys, I guess, in 28 Days Later.) There is no confusion about where the evil is, or what to do about it. It's refreshingly black and white, not like my life has been. I've never had the satisfaction of hacking up my rapist, or blowing up my great-uncle. This is the stuff of my fantasies- having a gun strapped to my thigh and going to battle with every asshole who tries to stop me. The only way I could think of myself as being sexy is if I was tough and fearless sexy, and fearless is not an adjective I would use to describe myself. Brave, and maybe even tough, but my fears are alive and well.
If only it was just a matter of deciding not to be afraid, and to stop focusing on the "what if’s” and the myriad of dangers swirling around in my brain, but I literally feel that this has been hardwired in. I have managed to live with these fears through avoidance (of situations that make me especially anxious) and denial. Just to recap, my fears revolve around people, people taking control of my body and my life away from me. In order to survive my dad and not be a nervous wreck waiting for him to kill me, I pretended it wasn't happening, and in order to have what I thought was a normal social and sexual life, I pretended that men didn't terrify me. Actually, let me modify that, I have always had guys in my life who I didn't perceive as a threat, and they are friends or otherwise non-sexual to me. If the relationship becomes sexual, I get scared. I emotionally shut down, because to block out the fear I also have to block out all my feelings. It's really hard to selectively shut down your feelings; you end up going numb entirely. This made it hard to pay attention to red flags, because the whole thing was a red flag for me! Remember, for me, sex equal degradation, so if I'm having sex with someone I feel disrespected regardless of how they're treating me.
Arggh! This is frustrating because I don't see the way out. I'm just going on the faith that because my perception of sex and relationships is so twisted by abuse and my approach to living in the world is so skewed by PTSD, that I can recover and my feelings will change. I was so young when it started and I've had the PTSD for so long that I worry that it's woven into the fabric of myself and I don't know if I can untangle it. Is this who I am? What if I can't change? Maybe I don't need to change, though. What I’m trying to get to is inside of me. I know I can love and trust and be open because of my brother. He broke my heart when he died, so I know my heart isn't frozen. He was a very good person and loved and accepted me, so it must be possible to love and accept me. I can’t be so screwed up for it to be hopeless. I know that it’s not.
Sunday, March 02, 2008
How to Build a Time Machine
1. To have one's helplessness and total dependency taken advantage of by the person one loves, by one's mother or father, at a very early age soon produces an interlinking of love and hate.
2. Because anger toward the loved person cannot be expressed for fear of losing that person and therefore cannot be lived out, ambivalence, the interlinking of love and hate, remains an important characteristic of later object relationships. Many people, for instance, cannot even imagine that love is possible at all without suffering and sacrifice, without fear of being abused, without being hurt and humiliated.
3. Since the fact of abuse must be repressed for the sake of survival, all knowledge that would threaten to undo this repression must be warded off by every possible means, which ultimately results in an impoverishment of the personality and a loss of vital roots, manifested, for example, in depression.
4. The consequences of a trauma are not eliminated by repressing it but are actually reinforced. The inability to remember the trauma, to articulate it (i.e., to be able to communicate these earlier feelings to a supportive person who believes you), creates the need to articulate it in the repetition compulsion."
-Alice Miller, Thou Shalt Not Be Aware: Society's Betrayal of the Child
The seemingly small act of courage of reading a sex poem in public and then admitting on this blog something I have never acknowledged before, that I find sex disgusting, has opened the floodgates. Since then, I have been thinking and writing day and night about how I am affected by the sexual abuse, yet, when I sit down to translate these thoughts into a blog post; my mouth goes dry, literally and figuratively. These feelings run deep, and the humiliation and despair I struggled to deal with as a child is still difficult as an adult. Sexual abuse is a violation like no other; it robs you of physical self-determination, of ownership of your own body. The terror of being at the physical mercy of someone else, as powerless as an inanimate object to be thrown around and used for whatever the person wants, threatens to rob you of your individuality. Your body is not the physical boundary between you and other people. I don't want to dog on Eleanor Roosevelt, who was a formidable feminist and role model, but someone else can make you feel inferior without your consent. When you are as powerless as a child is, and facing a systematic attack on your dignity and self-worth, withholding your consent does not protect you from emotional and psychological damage.
I know because I told myself thousands, maybe millions of times when I was growing up that I would not let them drive me crazy, I would not let them destroy me, I would survive, and I would survive to adulthood as myself, they would not twist me or make me into something I wasn't. I fought for every shred of control over my life. I had a constant dialog going in my head, I am my own person, I am not how they treat me, I choose to be how I want, I do not choose this. When I say "they" or "them" I mean my great-uncle who sexually abused me and my dad as well. He did not sexually abuse me, but when I told him about the sexual abuse he said he would beat me senseless and throw me in the car if I refused to go to his uncle’s house. I consider my dad to be a co-conspirator in the sexual abuse. He also brought my step-niece to that man's house. He put the fear of physical violence in me from the age of six- he used to make me stand still, facing him, and look into his eyes as he described how he was going to punch me so hard my head would go through the wall, and that he would beat me with 2x4 boards. He even told me what 2x4's were, so I would know exactly what I had coming. If I looked away, stepped backwards, turned my body to the side, slouched (he had been in the military so not standing up straight was especially bad), cried, or even flinched he would scream in my face and hit me. He made it abundantly clear that he believed that I belonged to him, he could do whatever he wanted to me, and if his uncle wanted to put his fingers in me, I had better go along with it. I literally, on many occasions, thought he would kill me. I grew up in fear for my life, and my body was not my own.
I had to find coping mechanisms to live through what I did. One of the things I did was compartmentalize my dad, my great-uncle, and my mom. I had "bad dad" and regular dad. Regular dad was tolerable. He did things around the house, he laughed and told stories, he was affectionate to my mom, and he was smart and would tell me and my brother the scientific names for plants. (He is a botanist, and he has a photographic memory so he actually seemed to know all those long Latin names.) Regular dad was also my dad was before my brother was born, before he decided that my brother would have everything he didn't have growing up with his abusive dad, and I would get the treatment his dad gave him. (I should point out that my brother didn't have it much better than me. Besides that he was a witness to the violence against me, the sister who he loved and who took care of him, my dad treated him as an object, too. My brother was expected to make my dad look good, like he was Mr. Devoted Wonderful Dad, and he had no patience or interest in what my brother actually wanted or who he really was. Our dad treated us with contempt, like his whole family were giant pains in his ass and we were lucky to have him, and we better not complain about anything or he'd make us all sorry. Jeff and I never threw temper tantrums or said the word "no" to him. We knew better.)
This compartmentalizing of people helped me accept that my parents and other adults acted in contradictory ways, and often didn't seem to care about Jeff's and my well-being, even though it was inconceivable that they wouldn't. Your parents are supposed to care about what's best for you, and other adults are supposed to be responsive to the needs of children. It wouldn't make any sense for them not to. A child is not capable of understanding the complicated motivations and psychologies of adults, and you think your parents are infallible when you are young. Even after I realized that my dad was treating me unfairly, and taking things out on me that had nothing to do with me, I still believed he loved me and cared about me, all evidence to the contrary. I thought regular dad did, even if "bad dad" hated me. I knew "bad dad" hated me because of that look he got in his eyes when he was screaming at me or about to hit me. His face looked like there was fire behind it, but his eyes looked cold and empty, like falling off a cliff at night and you know you will disappear into black nothing. I looked into his eyes and saw absence- absence of love, absence of compassion. I knew he was capable of anything because bad dad didn't care. Even with all his professed love for my brother, I knew my brother was in danger too. When Jeff moved back in with our dad when he ran out of money for college, after my mom had moved out, my dad was happy to take him in but not willing to help him get the money to go back to college, or even take him to a therapist or psychiatrist when he started making suicide threats. My mom and I knew he was in serious danger. Who knew living with your dad could be self-destructive?
My feelings about my mom are a little more complicated- she is smart, interesting, and creative. I like (and love) her, as a person. And I empathize with her. She was just totally ineffective as a mom. She was "passive, depressed, not there (emotionally, and sometimes physically when she would lock herself in her room for long periods of time when she was depressed), undependable, critical, apologist for bad dad, out of it, sometimes hysterical mom". To summarize, she is “weak mom”. Jeff and I took care of each other because weak mom wasn't there for us. Weak mom was emotionally absent. Weak mom was often staring into space. Weak mom was scared to leave her husband when he was abusing her daughter, but managed to get the strength when both her kids had moved out and she was the only one left for him to take his anger out on. Weak mom stood in the doorway and watched while bad dad beat her daughter, watched him punch her in the face again and again and again, and pick her up and fling her against the wall, and punch her some more and throw her against the wall again, and left her daughter lying there with a concussion and bleeding.
Time moved so slowly for me, I could feel every bone in my dad's knuckles with every blow, and when my body slammed against the wall, first the force hit the bone in my butt, then my feet hit, bump bump, then the back of my shoulders, and finally the back of my head, which made such a loud noise, a meaty thump, it was all I could hear after that. I thought, this is it; he'll finally put my head through the wall like he always said he would. I didn't think he would stop hitting me, especially after he picked me up after the first time he threw me into the wall, and held me up by my arm because I had gone totally limp, I couldn't move, it was so painful but then I stopped being able to feel anything at all, and he just kept punching and punching. I thought, I am going to die. I thought, she is just going stand there in the doorway while he beats me to death.
After the second time he threw me against the wall, he just stopped, looked at me in disgust on the floor, and walked out. She looked at me like I had done something wrong, like, why did you make him do that? Her face looked twisted and scared, she said some things, and then she left me there. She didn't call the police or an ambulance, she didn't come over and look at my face, she didn't touch me, and she wouldn't even look me in the eye. I saw red flashes in my left eye. I looked over at the mirror and watched my face puff up. I saw that my braces had broken through my lip, and then I tasted the blood in my mouth, metal and salt. And I thought, this is because I told them about what my uncle was doing to me. I was 13 when I told them, and they treated me different after that. It was like I became a threat. I wasn't a little girl anymore. I was a little slut. I caused it all, because I had been born a girl. My dad didn't want daughter, he wanted a son. My mom just had children because my dad wanted to. To them, I was inferior.
When I was a baby, my mom made my dad and I matching shirts, he took me everywhere with him, carried me on his shoulders, and I waited for him to come home every day because he would play and laugh with me. I was a precocious little girl- I talked early and read early, I wrote stories and illustrated them, I loved big words. When we went to my great-uncle's house, and he would talk to me like I was as smart as an adult, and I felt special. I was the only little girl there, and I sat with the adults and played card games with them. And then it started to change. He stopped talking to me, besides to tell me to come sit next to him. If I said I didn't want to, he would keep telling me to until I did. I tried to sit far away, and he would pull me over so our legs would touch and he would slowly stroke my leg, absentmindedly, as if he didn't even know he was doing it. I felt like a cat whose fur was being rubbed backwards, but I couldn't get away and I had no claws. Then he would clamp his hand between my legs, and move a finger around, searching. I felt humiliated- we were sitting next to my adult relatives, and I felt sure they saw it but no one told him to stop. Why did they look away? Why didn't they do something?
I spent my time away from there trying to think of how I could make it stop. When we walked in, I hid behind my parents, I ran the opposite way, I stayed outside and played in the yard, I sat on the floor with my cousins, but we were there all day and he would corner me in a room, coming out of the bathroom, in front of my cousins. My body would freeze and I would start to float away (disassociation, it’s another coping mechanism), but I would fight it. I jerked my legs around. He would pin me with one hand, and with the other he started going in my pants, in my underwear, stroking my child flesh and pushing his fingers in me. It hurt. I told him to stop, but he wasn't listening. He was looking far away, smiling. I'll never forget that look, the pleasure on his face as my legs flailed around and I tried not to cry. My cousins looked away. They stopped looking me in the eye, even the older ones. It was all because of what was between my legs.
I felt sick all the time. I couldn't go back. I didn't expect my parents to take it well, if I told them. My dad would be angry. The therapist my mom dragged me to told her I was being abused (but didn't report it). She told my dad and he was angry. This would make him angry, and mom would blame me. I knew it. It was a formality, declaring my intention to never go back. I had to take a stand. After that, every Thanksgiving, every Christmas, every Easter, I went out the back door and ran. One year I got frostbite. I stayed away until I knew my mom would be so glad to have me back she'd keep my dad from going off on me. I stayed away more and more. No one would look me in the eye. It was like I didn't exist, which would have been fine except that sometimes I did, and then I was in trouble. I couldn't predict it, but I knew it was coming. What did I do to deserve it? It was all because of what was between my legs.
She took his side. They denied everything, no one stood up for me, and no one asked my brother anything. He was the only witness who wasn’t lined up against me. Child Protective Services and the police never even considered my brother's safety and never questioned whether he should be living there. They never thought about him because everyone assumed that I was the problem. Get rid of me, and problem solved! No one seemed to think that a man capable of savagely beating his daughter might be a danger to his son. They had pictures of my face, my mouth, the bruises on my arm and back, the lumps on my head, they took me to a doctor who confirmed my "story", locked me a room with nothing to do for 3 hours like I wasn't even a person, put me in a foster home and the only explanation I got from them for them dropping the case was that I turned 18. My dad and great-uncle committed crimes, but it didn't matter because it happened when I was under 18. I belonged to them. My dad was right; he could do whatever he wanted with me. I was a thing, a possession. My life began when I turned 18, so what did it matter what was done to me before then? It was in the past. Everything I went through, it was of no consequence, it was nothing. My dad doesn’t even have a record. In the eyes of the law, he is without blame, innocent. And I was just a kid, just a girl. A little body. My feelings had never mattered. The one person who knew what I had been though, who had never turned away from me, had always looked me in the eye and treated me like a person, like I mattered, was my brother. My brother who was taken from me. My brother knew the truth. Without him, I was truly alone. No one else understood how bad it was. We didn't even need to talk about it. We understood each other in a way that no one else could.
I wanted to die so many times. I felt so humiliated and betrayed by every adult, everyone who acted like they cared and then left me to deal with it on my own, so angry at the people who looked past me or through me instead of seeing me, who treated me like a doll instead of a person. I wouldn't cry in front of them, I wouldn't let them see how badly they hurt me. The hurt feelings made me angry at myself- I didn't want to let them affect me. I felt like my dad and great-uncle would be taking even more from me if I let myself feel sad or ashamed. I couldn't give them the satisfaction of being right about me being weak and powerless. I pushed down those feelings and worked really hard to prove them wrong. I'm not a liar, I'm not a screw up, and it wasn't my fault. I am better than all that, I am more than that little girl with her little girl parts.
I was always worth more than the way I was treated, and now I know that some adults are really screwed up in the head, and children are easy, defenseless targets. I also know that other adults, even well-intentioned ones, often have a hard time believing that parents could be capable of abuse. No one wants to believe that a parent doesn't love and care for their child, and could be so selfish and cruel to someone so helpless. It’s easier, less challenging to believe that children are imaginative, or exaggerating, or too immature to understand what they're saying. We tell children to say "no!" if an adult touches them in a bad way, expecting that children will be in a position to stand up to an adult, and then if it doesn’t work and they ask for help, we don't believe them. Even if we do it doesn’t matter. Adult institutions are there to protect adult interests. Children have no rights, no standing with courts and CPS and police, yet we expect them to control the behavior of adults and somehow navigate the adult world, take on the abusers and make them stop. And, on top of all that, you're supposed to turn 18 and get over it. It’s like children aren't even people.
As a lot of people who were abused as children do, I thought I could push my childhood away and forget about it. I believed I had a right to, that when I turned 18 all the adults who betrayed me would cease to have power over me. I suppressed my childhood feelings of hurt and mistrust in order to survive in the adult world, but they lived on, in my subconscious. Similar to how I segmented the adults in my life so I could understand their good and bad sides, I segmented myself so I wouldn't be overwhelmed with grief and pain. I didn't lie about the abuse but I did try to trick myself into forgetting about it, and I lied to myself about how bad it really was. I did the same thing when my brother died- I tried to disconnect from my entire life before his suicide. The memories were too painful for me to live with day to day, but it was like I was only a fraction of a person. There was me as a hurt and confused little girl, who was suppressed by me as an angry teenager trying to fight back. Then I tried to suppress my anger at the world because I was trying to get along in the world as an adult. You can’t really live like that and feel good about yourself because you’re not being yourself. I wasn't me because most of me was in hiding.
The way to fix myself seems so simple yet so difficult- talk about it. Talk about all of it. Talk about the sadness, the grief, the shame, the rage, feeling cheated, feeling robbed, feeling betrayed. Talk about the little girl I was, the teenager, the 25 year old who lost her dear brother. Talk about the bad times, and the good times that got suppressed along with the bad times. When I say talk, I mean write because that's what I do. I am a writer. I tell my own story. I am my own witness.