You may have blocked the memories, but I have not been able. To deny the experiences which compile my nightmares, pain, dashed hopes, and fears is to deny my very being. For decades I have attempted to rebuild a faith in humanity, relationships, and myself. I alone did that work. My earliest memories are of anger and criticism. It was the co-constructed destructive dance of domestic violence. My mother never progressed past adolescence and attached herself to someone she imagined might provide a pseudo-identity and stability in an unstable world. My father soaked in the projected confidence she provided as an addition to the arrogant façade he had worked so hard to design. It was a match based on deficient personalities which would maintain the dysfunctional patterns for years. She could not progress beyond a weak and dependent half-person, and he could not expose the broken and pathetic pieces of which he was ashamed.
In order to survive in a system already established and impenetrable to change, children adapt and fall in line with the personas already wished and imagined by the parents. It was clear in this dynamic that one adult was dominant and the other was powerless. My oldest sister attempted to mirror my father’s narcissistic façade and strove only toward perfection; her behavior needed to be out of reach to criticism. She felt threatened and empty just as he did, and the addition of children provided either the opportunity to feel less responsibility or the threat of competition and control. My middle sister could not mimic her father’s strict adherence to know-it-all as she was younger and not as skilled. She figured out that an over-simplified version of the man she needed to emulate was to be abusive and overly critical of others. This is the alienating personality she developed and maintained. This is the minefield of emotional immaturity and social manipulation into which I was born. I hated my childhood. I hated my adolescence. I thought about killing my father at times. I thought about killing myself frequently. I came very close a few times but without access to a gun, I was uncertain that I would be successful. The deterrent was the knowledge that if I somehow failed to execute the plan of ending my life, I would live forever with the criticism and judgment I’d be sure to meet, upon resuscitation.
I was born with a propensity toward caring for others. It was clear, however, that others in the house did not share this propensity. It was also clear that it was not safe to seek such care or empathy. I learned as a toddler that physical injury would elicit criticism and insensitivity from my father and uncontrolled anxiety from my mother. Both of these responses were devastating, and I quickly learned to hide my pain by going to the bathroom when something hurt or I felt tears coming that I could not swallow. I perfected strategies including dissociating and removing myself psychologically from my environment, and I quickly figured out at which areas of the house like my closet with a pillow provided the most privacy and freedom from interference. When I was old enough to take showers, the running water provided the sound to drown out my sobbing. And yet all the while, I longed for someone to discover my pain and respond with empathy. At times I deluded myself into believing this was possible from my mother who verbalized a desire to comfort me. And yet each time I allowed myself to believe she might be sensitive to me, the conversation would inevitably lead her back into a defensive and self-focused stance. Incidents of physical pain were met with deflecting statements such as, “It hurts me to see you in pain,” which demonstrated to me she was not strong enough to tolerate my experience, and I would inevitably end up comforting and caretaking for her. Emotional pain was met with defensiveness and invalidation; The family as a whole conceptualized me as “overly sensitive,” and therefore relinquished any responsibility to empathize with my pain. On some level she must have known my pain was caused by the poisonous marriage she co-constructed and co-maintained. Any inkling of empathy in which my perspective was taken was quickly shut down with defensive statements such as, “I do the best I can,” and unfair (and untrue) implications of deflected power such as, “Do you think I should divorce him?”
It was clear to me that the person who was mostly responsible for my survival was very fragile. I adapted quickly to maintain her integrity by suppressing my own needs, wants, feelings. This meant I could not be angry or disappointed, despite the fact that I felt these very emotions frequently in response to her limitations and the harsh criticisms of other family members piercing my childhood shield. For decades, I struggled with assertiveness and repression of very valid emotions when I felt my physical safety or the safety of a weak woman to be in danger. I was acutely aware that the primary threat to my primary caregiver was the very person who theoretically should have been concerned with her safety, health, and happiness—her husband.
With limited child brain power, I attempted to understand this troubling situation as best I could. I tried to mediate fights and protect my mother. I eventually grew resentful of this role, but that would come much later. As a young child, I fantasized about waking up to a mother who valued herself and her children enough to protect herself. I fantasized about having a different father, one who was not abusive, cold, or maybe having no father at all. Regardless, there was enough hate present in the household that even if he died or disappeared, the legacy of self-loathing would live on. The messages of criticism and judgment were internalized, and they were present in the patterns of interaction between sisters. We could not connect unless there was another person to target and bully. Without an outside person, the abuse modeled by my father was taken out on me. My middle sister even perfected my father’s acute ability to identify and exploit a person’s biggest weakness. She somehow knew my biggest fear that I would be unable to protect my primary caregiver and tormented me by creating stories about my mother’s demise. She told me that my mother would likely stop breathing and die when she had nose surgery, and I snuck into her bedroom at night to monitor the breathing. This was the first of thousands of nights I would spend awake attempting to monitor my mother’s safety or keep my father or another source from killing her.
One night stands out distinctly, and I have nightmares as an adult with its content. I often lay outside my parents’ bedroom door in order to regulate and protect. My insomnia began with this. Since I can remember, I experienced sleep disturbances including nightmares, teeth grinding, and difficulty falling asleep. It was not until I examined the content of these recurrent nightmares and learned more about the most common causes of child sleep disturbances that I allowed myself to realize the source was terror. I felt entirely unprotected by my parents who did not shield me from physical or emotional abuse and even perpetrated it. I had already made a habit of abandoning my own sleep needs and giving-in to the fear when one night I heard faint and muted screaming. I recognized the shameful muted sobs as I often created the noise myself. I sat outside the door silently crying and shaking with fear until my oldest sister emerged, also aware of the disturbance. She scolded me for not doing something sooner. I was 4 or 5 years old. I did not know what to do, nor did I feel powerful enough to prevent my own demise by intervening. And yet, that scolding triggered ongoing posttraumatic symptoms which frequently interfere with my sleep, my relationships, and my ability to do my job. I am constantly haunted by the feeling that I have not done enough to save and protect others. It is this very neurosis which led me to my career and the first medium through which I felt purposeful in life. That night, however, I failed. I stumbled in after my older sister who immediately cried out in horror to find my father holding down my mother and beating her repeatedly. She did nothing to escape or fight back. The two appeared tangled in a sadomasochistic pile. It was clear this was not the first and would not be the last time this scene replayed. He screamed at us both to leave the room, and my weak and shattered mother sat there quietly, incapable of protecting herself, let alone comforting her young children. The memory burns so deeply, I often cry out in the night when I cannot escape it. My partner often hears my screams or feels my body contort as I relive this traumatic moment over and over in the night, feeling like I am falling without restraint into an evil and excruciating abyss.
Nothing about this scene can be reasonably rationalized, and yet I was made to feel that I was the unreasonable one. Again and again, it was rationalized to me that I was responding to physical and emotional abuse perpetrated by my father as “overly sensitive” to the harmful effects and devastation which rippled through a broken family. I know now that the wretchedness was merely too much to acknowledge or fully face for less emotionally-hardy individuals. It is the reason nightmares plagued our household; only in the unconscious could the pain and terror be truly accessed. I recall a community park which served as the site where my mother would take us to escape the wrath and despondency of her marriage and our childhood. For years which followed, I often felt shortness of breath and other panic symptoms when driving by this park, only to realize much later the association. There was so much our brains ached to block out in order to continue living and functioning. How might I concentrate or value my performance on a measly test when I knew the end of the school day would bring a return to the hell which was my family life? Sometimes I dreamed about living at my elementary school. From 8:30-3:10 I had access to a few adults who were capable of protecting me, and I longed to feel that safety. Each holiday break signaled a sharp and painful increase in family time, and certain holiday elements still hold anxious associations for me I have yet to conquer.
I believed this all to be a normal condition of life as a child. Much like I foolishly believed car-sickness to be an inevitable consequence of road travel, I understood vacations, holidays, and birthdays to be forever intertwined with passive aggressiveness and humiliation. At some point I began to question these beliefs and false perceptions of “normal.” I found escape in journaling, and I fantasized there might be an adult figure to read my words and respond compassionately and competently. I pretended I might be encouraged by this imaginary therapist to continue fighting back, given that acceptance would mean hopelessness, and surely suicide. My dissent was not well-received, and I can recall being shamed on numerous occasions for questioning the tenets of our family functions. My body grew tired of the shame, panic, and abuse and began responding with hyperventilation during interactions with my father. Rightfully, he believed this involuntary response to be an attempt at escaping the punishment and only admonished me further. I was after-all, a weak and pathetic child who possessed no control over her body, her happiness, her life.
Against the odds, I mustered an alternative viewpoint and began to question not only the typicality of my abusive family system but the legality of the physical abuse my father perpetrated. When I gathered the courage to verbalize this questioning, he responded by explaining that he had done nothing wrong. When I asked, “Aren’t you contradicting the very laws and values your profession upholds by beating your wife and children?” I received an answer disorganized by feeble narcissistic structures of his personality. In a strained yet steady voice, my father explained that he has earned the right to beat his wife and children because he is the head of the household and financial provider. As sickening and sociopathic as this rationalization may have been, I experienced a distinct release within this interaction. I could now intellectually understand, even as a young child, that I did not cause the incessant abuse. I was simply unlucky enough to be born to a psychopath.
I think this may have begun my movement toward psychology. By understanding my father’s twisted viewpoint, I gained insight. I could now let go of the fantasy that I might one day construct a loving bond with him. The loss of that fantasy, though significant, paled in comparison to the relief I now felt. I no longer felt obligated to seek his approval because his approval was meaningless. Why would I seek the approval of a madman? If anything, I could now take comfort in being misunderstood and devalued by my father, because to be valued by him, my existence must be reconciled with his twisted and misogynistic stance. I could now encounter him as the fool he was. It was at this point, in my early adolescence, when I mastered passive aggressiveness. It had been so elegantly modeled for me, and I finally had the perfect target of my disdain. I discovered my father was a smoker and hiding this fact from us by taking long walks to get the mail or spending time in the house’s garage. Though I loathed each second spent in his company, I followed my father to these veiled outings to either catch him in the act or prevent him from gaining gratification from a cigarette. I knew his pride to be unblemished by the label “smoker” was great enough to provide many opportunities for my masked revenge. Once I interrupted his smoking session, and to hide his habit my father put the cigarette out in his hand. I imagined this to be painful and sickly found satisfaction that I might have caused a fraction of the pain he had caused me.
As I continued through adolescence, I kept myself alive by fantasizing about a life away from home—the only home I’d ever known. I dreamed of a future partner who might love and value me in a way I witnessed only in the movies. I drowned out the doubt which echoed in my mind that something I had never experienced first-hand might not actually exist. I persisted through my first depressive episode at age 15 and decided I might someday have control over my own safety and happiness. I learned to minimize my interactions and placate my parents in order to withstand the final years of dependence. My mother found the book Reviving Ophelia at this time, obviously sensing my depressive symptoms, but naively believed them to be a natural reaction of adolescence and made no changes to our family system which might have provided me safety and support. Instead I quietly stewed in my disdain for my family and myself. In the recesses of my mind, I began to separate my self-image from the detestable image of myself which was created by my father and my sisters. Of course, I kept this process to myself because each time I exposed a genuine part of my true self, it was quickly criticized and humiliated. I learned I must keep my true self private in order to protect it and allow it to grow. Fortuitously, I had been groomed to hide painful secrets such as the physical abuse within my home and was skilled at shutting down and suppressing my thoughts and feelings. It was not until college that I realized this self-protective stance, while adaptive in my abusive family system, prevents intimacy and trust with those who actually deserve it.
kchi29 kchi29
Dec 1, 2012