Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Survival, Awareness & Breaking Free - Part 1

Survival. That is the first thing you do when you are in an abusive environment. You learn to survive. That lasts until you are in a place where it is emotionally safe for you to become aware of the truth. This can happen in stages. It has for me (still is, actually - new realizations fairly regularly). After awareness comes the stage of breaking free. All three stages are hard. They overlap and are not clear cut and neatly manageable. They vary as much as we vary. Everyone's journey into freedom is unique. And yet, they all share similar feelings - markers along the way.

There are many abusive types of environments: the workplace, the church, the home - parents or spouses. They all share common elements, though, and it is this which gives us strength - the hearing  - the commonality of our experience - knowing that what we are feeling/seeing/experiencing is not just us. It is normal for the extreme situation we are in. There are others who have walked - are walking - where we are walking and have walked. There is strength in knowing that. There is strength - there is hope - in hearing others' stories - in comparing notes.

So I began writing a post to that end - to share my experiences. It quickly became clear that this would be an enormous post. Every time I started to talk about where I am, it needed to have the context of where I've been. To save confusion, it seemed best to just go back to the beginning and go from there. So... I will break it into a series of posts. 

Make no mistake. Waking up and breaking free are not easy. Contrary to pop psychology that tells us that we are responsible for allowing ourselves to be abused - so all we have to is quit allowing it - it's not that simple. This attitude has made it into the church counseling offices and government welfare agencies and even the local coffee shop. Kathy Krajco, at 'What Makes Narcissists Tick,' has written an excellent article on this issue. I also touched on it in my recent post on blame-shifting. In sharing my experience, I will talk about the abuse I have experienced in the home (parents/family) and in the church - and incidental encounters along the way. 

Obviously, the first step in breaking free is realizing that you are being abused. To someone who has never been there (or who has not yet faced it in their own life) this may sound like a ridiculous statement. Logic would seem to say that if you are being abused you would know it! How could you not? Well, there are a lot of factors that play into that. It is complicated. But believe me, especially in the realm of emotional abuse, you can be abused and not realize that's what it is. In my experience, you can even be physically abused growing up and not recognize it as that because of what you were told about it while you were growing up. I'll get into that later. Plus, the mind is incredibly adept at 'filtering out' information we cannot deal with - information that would emotionally annihilate us. This brings us to survival and this brings us to where it started - in the home.

When I was growing up, we would hear of stories on TV, or mom would read about them in the paper, where someone beat their children or starved them or locked them in the basement, and mom would talk to me about how terrible that was - how she couldn't understand how a parent could treat their child that way. I was taught what abuse was in this way. I remember feeling that even though things weren't great all the time, at least my parents didn't abuse me. I did not think I was abused because my parents told me that I was not abused. Children believe their parents. 

What did my parents do that was abuse? As I think about my childhood, I think about my dad and it is mostly that he was not engaged with the family. He would come home from work and watch TV until it was time to go to bed. About 95% of the interaction I remember having with him was him yelling at me over something I either didn't mean to do, or didn't even know I shouldn't do. 

An example of this happened when I was 4 years old. I asked if I could have some ice cream. Mom said. 'Sure, if you can get it yourself. Just make sure you put the ice cream back so it doesn't melt.' I thought, 'Cool. I can do this.' I went to the freezer. (We had the kind of refrigerator that had a freezer on the top and the refrigerator on the bottom. I think they were all like that in those days.) I got the ice cream out of the 'fridge and got a bowl and spoon and got myself some ice cream. I think I even cleaned up the little bit of a mess I made. The I made sure, because of mom's emphasis, to put the ice cream back. I remember being proud of myself because I did it all by myself. The problem was, I didn't understand the difference between the freezer and the 'fridge. You guessed it. I put it back in the 'fridge, not the freezer.

Fast forward a couple of hours. Dad decides he wants some ice cream. He goes to get some and, of course, it isn't in the freezer. He asks and mom said that I had gotten some earlier. He asks me where the ice cream is and I get nervous. I know I put it back and I tell him that I put it back. He says that it isn't there. Then he opens the 'fridge and finds it. He gets very angry and says, 'I can't believe you put it in the 'fridge. What a stupid thing to do.' He rants for a few minutes. He's very angry and I am devastated. First, because he is mad and I didn't know I did anything wrong and second, because my daddy wanted some ice cream and couldn't have any because I was too stupid to put it in the freezer. Even now, when I think about this and other incidents, the little girl in me is still saying, 'I'm sorry, daddy. I didn't mean to.'

There were many incidents like this with dad - his disproportionate response to the situation. He still does that, but we'll get to that later. 

With mom,  it was just how and what she taught. She taught me that she was the authority and to respect her views on the Bible and theology. She was always reading her Bible. She was the voice of God in my life and that has been a particularly hard issue to break free of. Her main method of disciple was whipping with a belt. The whipping came after the angry look. Whipping with a belt was part of my potty training. By the time I was 6 or 7, the look, accompanied by the snapping of the belt was enough to make me get in line.

Then there was the psychological part of it. With dad, it was just the fact that he was never there for me - never expressed concern about how I was or even seemed to notice me except when he was mad. In recent conversation with him, he never even noticed the things mom did to my sister and me. With mom, it was a concerted campaign of control. My favorite TV shows were 'silly' or 'stupid.' I don't remember her ever calling me names, but she would mock what I liked to the point that I knew that I must be stupid to like it. It's funny. On one level, I knew this wasn't true. Yet, because my mom said it, from the time I can remember (which goes back to 1 year old), those statements would override my logic. When you are little, you parents know everything and what they say is solid fact. Besides, when you are a child, you want - need - the approval and acceptance of your parents. It's amazing what a child will believe - do - to try and earn this when it isn't freely given.

Because she said that what they did was not abuse by defining what was abuse, I didn't know that I was being abused. My parents didn't abuse me because they said they didn't abuse me. Wonderful.

So, what did I do with all the emotional pain? I stuffed it as best I could. As I grew, I learned that any show of emotion would be ridiculed mercilessly - punished. When I was 8 years old, my grandmother died suddenly. She and I were fairly close. (Although, by the time I was 8, I was not really close to anyone.) A couple of months after she died, I was lying in bed and started thinking about her. I began to miss her and started crying. My mom came in and asked me why I was crying. I told her that I missed grandma. She frowned and said, 'Well, get over it,' and left the room. I was stunned. I learned not to show my emotions. I did my best not to let them see me cry; not to let them see me angry; not to let them see my pain; not to let them see me - the real me. 

I learned to survive.


krl said...

"Emotional abuse is the systematic diminishment of another. It may be intentional or subconscious (or both), but it is always a course of conduct, not a single event. It is designed to reduce a child's self-concept to the point where the victim considers himself unworthy—unworthy of respect, unworthy of friendship, unworthy of the natural birthright of all children: love and protection."

This post brought this quote to mind...from Vacchs' 'You Carry the Cure in Your Heart'. What you said, Katherine, is so REAL to me...so like what I experienced myself in those early years. (And THAT was just the beginning!) I applaud your courage in sharing these things...making what happened to me real and relateable. I plan to share a few things too.....just struggling for time to do so. Thank you.

h said...

WOW Katherine I can so relate!

During my journey to learn what abuse was I had to take a good look at myself. I'm NOT talking in order to crush some more life out of me, but to truly look at me and how my life had effected things. How my upbringing may have influenced how I turned out, and how I ended up in the hole of a relationship with an abuser.

I never felt my folks were abusive in the traditional way - as you mentioned either. I think it hit me like a Mac Truck when my counselor asked me one day, "When did you have time to be a child?"

I was mad at her for a while, but then I realized she was right. They mentioned something called Parentified Child. I guess its mostly about children of alcholics, but that didn't apply in my case. No Booze at all. It took a while before I decided that I had to own that label as well, and all the effects of it along with it.

Its a growing process, but I'm better for it.

Katherine Gunn said...

Thank you. I think when we start just telling it straight - this is what happened, this is how I felt - being honest from the gut and not being afraid that we will 'get it wrong,' THAT is when we start finding out, 'Oh, you, too?' Courage and strength come from knowing you are not alone and you are not the one who 'did it wrong.' The article by Vacchs is a wonderful article. I have a link to it on the sidebar of my blog site. Every victim of emotional abuse and everyone wishing to help them should read it.

Katherine Gunn said...

Yeah. That is the process that I call Awareness. It does 'hit like a Mac Truck.' I remember last fall when I was talking to my therapist about my mom and she looked me in the eye and said, 'That's abuse.' I sat there stunned for a few minutes. I'll get into that in a future post . . .

It is a growing process. Many who have either never been there (or don't want to go there) don't get that. It is a process. Processes take T-I-M-E. It's not something you can just say, 'Oh. So that's why.' And them be done with it. It takes time to sort and relearn and sometimes, change your whole life perspective. Yeah, I'll do that over lunch next week. ;-)

krl said...

Shame. Being 'shamed' into submission stands out as my most painful experiences as a child. I, too, had very early memories...(which lead me to wonder if I 'saved' these memories to bear witness to the abuse later in my life.)....My earliest 'shaming' memory was when I was two. There were scattered records on the floor...(the old big ones...not the 45s...whatever the big ones were) They weren't in jackets. I was standing on them, doing something else and Nmom cam around the corner and verbally lit into me. I don't remember what she said to me...but I remember feeling my face burn...not out of anger but out of shame. I think back on this now...and what kind of mother would leave open albums scattered on the floor with a two year old running around and expect them to know not to step on them? Or shame them for doing so? Good Lord...and that was just the beginning! It seems I was ALWAYS supposed to KNOW what to and what not to do. Without teaching, training, supervision etc. Ok...back to the damn records on the floor. Just who was the adult and who was the child here? Seems the REAL CHILD left the records on the floor...without their jackets on..to be ruined by something....and then had a fit when it happened. EXPECTING the child to be ADULT and to KNOW BETTER! Makes my brain hurt to even think about this. Makes me angry. Makes me sad for the little girl. I'm ashamed to call her 'Mother' these days...so? I don't.

Katherine Gunn said...

Yeah. The shame and confusion for not knowing what to do - being in trouble for not doing or doing something that you had no idea about. A lifetime of that can lead to being afraid to taking initiative for fear of 'doing something wrong' and being in trouble. So? You feel the fear and do it anyway. ;-) And in doing that, you grow stronger each time - more confident - fear lessens...

krl said...

"Yeah. The shame and confusion for not knowing what to do - being in trouble for not doing or doing something that you had no idea about. A lifetime of that can lead to being afraid to taking initiative for fear of 'doing something wrong' and being in trouble."

Actually, Katherine, I think this can go one of two ways: The victim can either be afraid of taking the initiative OR take all kinds of initiative (expected to 'Just DO it!!!!') and be waaaayyyy in over his/her head. In my case, my Nmom was the 'helpless' (my ass!) type...and my dumbsheep Dad played the 'heavy' (because of her whining and 'helplessness') I was expected to pick up her slack. Nmom insisted on the Child Role but 'pulled rank' when it came to pushing me into doing things way beyond my physical and emotional capabilities. She had it both ways. Be 'helpless' when it suited her and ruthless and manipulative in the 'authority' position when it suited her. Oh, I took initiative alright...(out of fear)....While still in gradeschool I did cooking and cleaning and errands. I was the Cinderella. As I got older, I was definitely Dad's 'second wife'...(never sexual, however). Between the two of them, with Mom whining and Dad demanding, I lost my childhood. (each keeping the other off their back by USING me) I learned EARLY to 'be afraid but go ahead'....and over time...(and constant pushing and shaming and scolding and forcing) my sense of fear became so skewed I couldn't discern any kind of sensibility about life. I didn't have a gauge about 'good' fear (the kind where you don't marry an irresponsible or violent man) and a 'bad' fear (afraid to learn to drive...so put it off until I was 20). Did that make sense? I couldn't DISCERN my 'senses'. They were just one big jumble.

I was pushed and expected of things so far beyond any training, education, 'tools', follow-through....it is no wonder I suffer anxiety and PTSD. I was ALWAYS in way over my head....(that kind of 'trouble'). The expectations were horrendous. When I couldn't keep up THEIR expectations, I would then be shamed for laziness, recalcitrance (sp!), rebellion, and the like. Nmom was the one sitting on the couch if I recall...lecturing me as I was scurrying! I couldn't tell anymore if I was hungry or tired or happy or mad..smart of dumb...right or wrong. All my senses were skewed (and many of them STILL are) I was the DO-er...'don't think'..'don't stop'..'don't BE'. I wasn't a PERSON in the family...I was FUNCTION. You can pretty much tell by my tics and twitches now..how much this carried through in my life.

Ok...I have to stop...I get pretty upset when I write too much....


Katherine Gunn said...


You are right. After thinking about it, I realized that both extremes can be in play. I got in over my head in some areas - afraid to step out in others. With parents that constantly expressed concern about my ability to do anything I tried, though, it became difficult to even want to try. Right now, I am not telling them what I am doing - what they don't know they can't devalue and criticize. :-)

"The expectations were horrendous. When I couldn't keep up THEIR expectations, I would then be shamed for laziness, recalcitrance (sp!), rebellion, and the like."

Yeah. Laziness and rebellion are labels I still fight. Talk about a double bind. Cautioned about doing anything on my own initiative, then asked why I didn't DO anything on my own. Argh! This is a dynamic that is still in play. I have felt the 'expected to just do it' followed by the 'why did you do THAT?'

Parentifying the child is a fairly common trait in narcissists. My Nmother has made me responsible for her emotional states. If she does not get what she wants, her bad mood and rage and tantrums and depression and whatever are the fault of the person who didn't do what she wanted.

Telling our stories is part of what helps 'get the poison out.' Yeah, that can stir up a lot of emotions, which is perfectly normal. ;-)

J.E.R.B. said...

We were taught abuse was in the form of starving children in a locked closet. You are right. That is what I thought as a child. My life was not so bad. I was bad.
You explained several incidents during your childhood which at that point you did not think as abuse. I can relate. But now as an adult these influential episodes in my life have been revealed as being abuse which shaped my character further and further away from my true identity. I don't remember much from my childhood, only a handful of painful memories and even fewer happy ones. As I am being healed there is a nagging feeling that I was taught not to remember. That I was conditioned to believe that forgiveness meant forgetting and that is what I did.
Distant echoes to statements come to mind:
"You don't have it as bad as I did when I was growing up."
"My dad broke my finger when he spanked me. Now that's abuse"
"My mom would use anything near her to hit me whenever I made her mad, we don't do that to you."
"Our parents were ignorants of what abuse really is. We know better."
Even as I write these statements, I feel bad and admonished for even thinking that what my parents did was wrong. I feel sorry and hurt for them. After so many years of healing I can accept some of their actions as abuse, but I'm having a hard time accepting that it changed me, that it altered the way I view.... Well, everything. Abba has been gentle in the cleansing of my wounds and this time is no different, is just that I thought he was done cleansing the puss out of my wounds. I thought I had it all figured out and this new information about spiritual abuse has come my way like a curb ball.

Jeannette Altes said...

One of the more painful parts of the process is beginning to recognize the effect our parents actions had on us as children. Anger is a normal and natural reaction to this and a necessary (if scary) part of healing. Realizing that anger itself is not 'sin'. Letting the buried emotions out can be a frightening and disconcerting process. I'm still working on that one myself.