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.
Tuesday, April 8, 2008
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.