I keep thinking not to write about personal things but this is both difficult to write and difficult not to.
Ophelia Benson wrote a blog entry about an article from Wired about how abuse changes a child’s brain, basically noting that you rather get screwed for life if you’ve been abused as a child. I have an abuse background myself, and joined in the comments there to ditto how it affects you. It’s very hard to find sympathy on this subject, and many of us feel like we’re crazy for even thinking we were abused.
It’s incredibly difficult to be writing this for that reason. I’m pretty sure no one I know who has known me growing up would agree with me I’ve been abused, not even my brother. I doubt there are many who have suffered trauma at the hands of another person who haven’t burnt a lot of fuel asking whether they can rightfully claim the mantle of abused. I still wonder this every time I think of the subject. A sticking point has always been that my mother is genuinely affectionate and caring. She has those qualities. They meant preciously little that time I was 12 and she was busy slamming me into the bathroom mirror because I had the audacity to be crying without being able to explain why, but she does have these qualities. Was I abused? The question becomes semantic at some point. No I wasn’t abused. I was just treated in a way that I found incredibly traumatic and has left me emotionally crippled for years. But I wasn’t abused, abuse is what happens to people who have suffered far worse than me.
It’s not with happiness that I note that people who have in fact had it much worse than I have burnt even more fuel than I have on the question. Not because I feel it lessens my claim to the title, but because the act of asking the question answers itself to some degree, and people who shouldn’t be beating themselves with the question are still doing so. We join everyone else in denying our realities, and when we do find the courage to admit things, we often find ourselves in a rather lonely place. From the comments:
It seems like it’s getting worse the older I get. Everything else that has happened in my life can’t seem to make up for the things that happened to me when I was 3-4 years old. Not many people are capable of understanding this, either. It really means a lot to me when I come across someone who does.
My earliest memory in life is terror and confusion. I was in the bathroom and had done something I wasn’t supposed to. I don’t remember what, I just remember thinking I need to get away before my mother comes and discovers me. As I step out into hallway, I see my mother at the other end of it. Busted. I run to her crying, seeking in her comfort from the same terror she’s inspiring in me, while being aware of this and being very confused as to why I’m running to her instead of away from her. I don’t remember what happened afterwards either.
Another reason I find it difficult to talk about this is that I think no one will believe me. My biography has been incredible in some ways. My parents divorced before I could remember, and I grew up without my father. I knew him as a young child, but he remained in Saudi Arabia when I moved to Egypt with my mother and my brother. A few phone-calls here and there were the extent of the contact I had with him, and even that disappeared entirely when we moved to the US. Then at 21 years old, I met him again and found out my mother had kidnapped us (brother and I ) and that he spent years trying to track us down.
I used to console myself by telling myself that it couldn’t have been any different. Who could have known, or cared, what my life was like growing up, much less done anything about it? A chance that I could have grown up with a loving parent was not welcome news. I was angry at my father initially for not having been some kind of superhero. For not finding us sooner, for not insisting on his right of access to us. In a conversation with him he said to me that he trusted my mother to be a good parent, and that once he had found where we were he didn’t try to get us as he figured it would have been too disruptive to our lives. It broke my heart to then tell him she abused me. We had this conversation over the internet but I think he aged about ten years when he read that.
This is the comment I left on Ophelia’s post:
I can vouch for the extreme fear of everything too. And the knee jerk response of trying to avoid every conflict. And the extreme inability to handle any kind of social disapproval. And being put into fight or flight mode at the merest hint of anger in anyone around you. The inability to ever really feel secure in your romantic relationships or partner’s affection. I could go on, but it’s the fear that’s really the worst. It stops you from accomplishing anything. It paralyzes you so that even when you know what the problem is and how to fix it, you just never get around to doing it.
Abuse teaches you a lot of things that are at least on the surface decent ways of coping with an abusive situation but ultimately not conductive to getting out of that situation. And they’re incredibly counterproductive in every other context. Being exquisitely sensitive to anger is a plus when it lets you recognize when an abusive episode is coming, and thus gives you enough warning to remove yourself from the area. It’s far less a plus when you’re working on a shed with a friend and a stubbed toe and an angry growl shuts you down cold.
Some of these maladaptations are introspectively more obvious than others. It didn’t take too long to figure out why I kept shutting down when people were angry around me. Others, like being scared shitless of everyone and everything, not so much. For years I asked myself why I was so terrified of everything. I knew a lot of the things I had to do to get to a happier life, but I was so paralyzed by an omnipresent fear that I could never do them. How I got past that is neither inspiring nor particularly sane, but one thought consistently let me be able to do the things I needed to do: “if it gets that bad, I can always kill myself.” Been putting off a phone-call for weeks? “If the phone-call goes that horribly, I can always kill myself.” The phonecall never goes that horribly. It turns out life is far less scary than I ever dreamed, but I had to stare death in the face long and hard before I figured that out.
I can end that on a happy note of sorts. I’m actually not unhappy in life, and I daresay I’m actually content. I couldn’t explain to you why I spent a decade being suicidally depressed only to find myself suddenly able to sleep undisturbed by nightmares, or why I don’t get triggered so easily anymore, or why the trees looked so beautiful covered in fresh snow as I was driving to work this morning. I could say it was the obsessive introspective work I did for years, but that doesn’t seem an answer, except to say that I was lucky to be born able to struggle against my own mind and lucky it paid off. Maybe it was because the worst of the abuse didn’t start until I was in middle school. Maybe it was because I had a loving father when I was young. Maybe it was just dumb luck everything worked out well for once. Maybe maybe maybe. I have no idea in honesty, but this blog would not have existed if some ten months ago I didn’t find that I was no longer haunted by my memories and able to turn my attention beyond what I needed to survive the next day. I can’t say it’ll always be this good, but life for once seems to be chugging along smoothly and I’m content to take this urge to be as loudmouthed a heretic I can be to wherever it takes me.