Thursday, April 10, 2008

Survival, Awareness & Breaking Free - Part 2

This post is the second part in a series. If you haven't read the first one, you can find it here.

In my last post on this series, I talked about how, when I was growing up, the abusive environment taught me to stuff - to hide - to shut down - my emotions out of self-defense. I learned to survive. I talked about a couple of examples of things that contributed to this. There are so many other examples.

Another way that my Nmom taught me, in a subtle way, that I was not good enough was in using 'constructive' criticism to help me be better. It meant that when I was practicing the piano, she would yell down the stairs to 'flat that b' if I made the same mistake twice. Why? Because she 'couldn't STAND to hear mistakes repeated.' (My mom was a music teacher, by the way.) 

When I would try to do anything creative, e.g., write, paint, draw, compose, arrange music, she would not tell me how good it was. She would tell me that to be any good at whatever it was, would take YEARS of dedicated practice and WORK. The implication, to me, was that I was not up to it. The work I actually did, she would critique to the point that I gave up in despair of ever being good enough.

When I got into the grade where I could enter band, they let me - encouraged me. Then mom had to prove she could play any instrument I could. She would get my horn out, without asking, and play - getting lipstick all over the mouthpiece - never cleaning it off. I would ask her not to and she would blow my protest off as inconsequential - essentially, she did not think it should bother me, therefore it did not bother me and my saying it bothered me was just silliness. I still encounter this attitude when I ask her to respect my boundaries.

Throughout my childhood, I had an underlying feeling - like a constant low-grade fever - that things were not right; that this was not how it should be. But I was well trained - ingrained deeper as time went on - that whatever it was, it was within ME. Why? Because whatever was out of whack was always because of something I did. It was my fault.

I can remember, in first grade - second grade - that mom would set the alarm in my bedroom. When it went off, she would get up and reset it and make sure I was awake. Then she would go back to bed. I would make myself breakfast and get ready for school. When the alarm went off for the second time, it was time to go. After school, she would be at work and I would be home alone for a couple of hours. I was 6 years old. When I asked her about that, she got an uneasy look on her face and said that she didn't like doing that, but I was so grown up and the neighbors kept an eye out. Okay...

My seventh year was an eventful one. To begin, that was when my little sister was born. I remember after a trip to the doctor's office, mom and dad were sitting in the front seat of the car and I was in the back. We were at a drive-in getting a treat. Mom turned around a told me that I was going to have a little brother or sister. She then, of all things, asked me if that was okay with me. It was rhetorical. There was no discussing it. It was never brought up again. To be perfectly honest, at that moment in time, I really didn't care one way or the other. So, I think I shrugged and said something to the effect of, 'Okay.' She was born when I was seven, but I was actually only 6 when this little exchange took place. 

The next nine months were something else. My mom does not do pregnancy well. And she will tell you all about it if you ask. She has often (still does) talked about how hard on her it was to be pregnant and that she never really wanted children. She was, of course, glad to have us once we were here, but oh, the misery . . . 

Yeah. The misery. She was not fun to be around during the next 9 months. At the end, her water broke and she was so annoyed. She started fixing her make-up in the bathroom mirror and told me to clean up that mess. I had no idea what was going on - how would I? I remember thinking, 'Eeww! If I did that on the floor I'd get a spanking.' But I cleaned it up without a word.

All of this went on in the backdrop of going to church every Sunday and Wednesday - being very involved in the church. Being a Christian home - family. During this time, I withdrew more and more into myself. I was always a fairly quiet kid. I could play by myself for hours and be fine.

I'm going to get into something, now, that is a littler harder to write about. When I was 7 years old, an older relative (not in the immediate family or house) began sexually molesting me. This went on for 5 years. Now I had already learned that I could not talk to my parents about anything very personal. Not if I wanted to maintain any emotional sanity. I had also learned that anything that happened was my own fault. So when this started, I was confused and often didn't know what end was up. I knew it was wrong and took the whole blame on myself. I was bad. I was going to hell. I was terrified. I would spend 30 minutes crying at the altar after Sunday night services. No one ever asked me what was wrong.

It was during this period that I really began to refine my ability to separate from my emotions - to hide in the middle of the family and not be seen at all. Why did he target me? I don't know. Maybe someday, I will have the courage to ask him. Remember, I was also already preconditioned to not view myself as a victim of abuse. So, from the outset, I didn't not see this as abuse and saw it as some sort of defect in me. I don't think there are words sufficient to describe the shame, the fear, (sometimes terror), the guilt, the confusion, the anger at myself; the often desolate, bereft feeling. The just wishing I could be left alone - or die - all stuffed, hidden. Don't let anything show. I learned to pretend to be okay; to wear a mask - nothing wrong with me, I'm fine. All during this time, I continued to go to church - live 'normal' and no one ever suspected a thing.

Except a friend's mom. When this started, I began to play a little differently. There was some anger. Apparently, my friend talked to her mom about it. Her dad was a pastor. Her mom called my mom and said that she didn't want her daughter playing with me anymore because I did not play appropriately. That was the word she used. Mom told me this in a very matter-of-fact way and said that it was probably because I was such a tomboy growing up with older boy cousins. I probably played too rough. She never asked me about it. I was scared to death - thought was going to be exposed. But no. That was the end of it. Mom never brought it up again.

Once, during this period, mom got mad at me and locked me out of the house. I ran away, but got to the highway and decided that the bad I knew was better than the bad I didn't. Mom doesn't remember doing this.

I could probably write a book about the incidents (maybe I will at some point), but this is how I grew up. It wasn't all grim. There were fun times. Some of my fondest memories of childhood involved reading books to my sister and playing with her. We got along well when I wasn't 'baby-sitting' her and mom and dad were not in the near vicinity. I have pleasant memories of being with mom while she drew or did yoga - trying to do it with her. The fact that it was not all horrid is part of what makes it hard to separate out the emotions; made it hard to recognize what was going on. 

Something else happened that I have only just begun to see. The sexual abuse gave my mind a scapegoat - something to latch onto as the source, the root, the beginning and end of all my emotional problems. It didn't do this instantly - it was a process - a layer - layers - added to mask the original abuse.

After the sexual abuse stopped, when I was 12, my mind did its damnedest to completely bury it - and all the other with it. And it very nearly succeeded. For the better part of 6 years, I don't remember consciously thinking about it. It's not so much that I forgot about it. It's more like this. I put it in a box labeled, 'DO NOT OPEN,' shoved it in the dark corner in the cellar of my mind, repented of it and tried to pretend it never happened.

Why the repent part? Well, like I said, I was trained that the bad stuff was my fault. I was born into/raised in a Pentecostal-charismatic home and church. I knew all about heaven and hell, sin and repentance, etc., etc. When I was 7, I dreamt that I went to hell. I still remember it. I am not saying that all pentecostal or charismatic churches are bad. Although I have recently discovered that this church has some serious problems, I don't believe they all do or did. But I do think there are some perspectives that could do with some tweaking. :-)

But with the stuff going on at home and the things  that were preached, I knew I was toast. I knew God probably hated me. I have only recently begun to see that God does not just tolerate me because He has to. He has been there all along. If He were not, I would not have survived. I think the most important thing I have learned regarding church is to chuck the religion and focus on the relationship.

So, by the time I was 14, I had repented, buried the memories and thrown myself into my church. I was even elected president of our youth group. I'm not sure my parents even noticed that, now that I think about it. The things that went on at home continued as far as mom and dad. In fact, things were gradually deteriorating. I tried not to see this. You see, my parents were pillars in the church. Dad was a deacon and a board member. Mom was a Sunday school teacher and a pianist. 

I have wondered why no one at the churches we went to ever noticed. Those I have talked to recently have been shocked that we were not the happy little home we appeared to be. I think that often, people are predisposed not to see any but the most blatant and obvious evil, especially if it is in their midst. There was, I think, a bigger factor. Just after my 10th birthday, we moved to our fifth town. We moved a lot within towns, too. But that didn't affect which church we went to. In each town where we lived more than a year or so, dad became a deacon and mom played the piano. We were not at any given church that long in my early years.

We were in that fifth church (where I was youth president) for 6 years - a record. When I hit 14, we had been there 4 years and things seemed to be going better for me. The cellar seemed to be well closed. Then there was a nasty church split and we were in the middle of it, dad being on the board and all. That was when I started getting angry. It seemed safe to let some anger out at this. At 16, I walked away from church, as did my family.

This caused that cellar door to crack open - just a little; the beginning of the first inklings of awareness. 


Barb said...

Katherine, I know it must be hard to write this to the world. I still do not know what to say to people as they share such hurtful pasts. I always wish I were close enough to bring a loaf of bread and just say that I care.
So here's bread to you in the form of written words.

Katherine Gunn said...

Thank you. The most important thing is to listen and care. You're doing that. :-) If you were here with bread in hand, I would give you a hug.

vestaoikos said...

I wish I could hold you, or just sit with you until trust grew.

Katherine Gunn said...

Thank you. That seems to be the hardest part - building trust.