This started me thinking about my own childhood.
You see, my mother was a fundamentally broken human being. I lived through all the years of screaming and hitting and emotional torture. But sometimes the margin by which I scraped by to make it to another day was very small. I have admitted openly that I was often suicidal as a child. My grandmother had kept a scrap book about me over the years, and she gave it to me when I was about 18. It included a suicide note I had forgotten about from much much earlier. It was written in crayon, on construction paper. It said "I am going very far away. I hate you." It was written to my mother and expressed all I really understood of death at the time. When I turned the page of the scrap book to this weathered, faded, sun-bleached paper, it was almost as if someone had slugged me in the stomach.
See, one of the things you learn to do when you live in abuse is to always try not to cling to yesterday because today and tomorrow are already overwhelming enough and if you don't block out the memories, they are so overwhelming that their force will kill you if you have no other route out of the situation.
But there is something that I have not talked much about openly. I generally let people assume that all of the suicidal bouts and pain were a result of her abuse of me. And while in some sense that is true, it is incomplete.
See, when my mother wasn't fighting with me, berating me, telling me how broken and hateful and fat and useless I was, she was asleep or gone. She hated her life. She lived in denial of its very existence, never daring to look for the tools to change things. She was in a marriage with a man she has come to hate over the years. Nothing went according to plan. She never could show up her father and triumphantly tell him that he was wrong. She never could find stable enough high ground and never could let go of it, either. So she escaped out of her own abusive cycle to the best of her ability. She would find bridge groups to join to fill her days, she would sleep to avoid feeling like she had to go back and edit reality to be okay with what happened. Even when she was there, the only time she was emotionally present was when she was using that presence to lash out as hard and as vindictively as she possibly could.
My sisters bore some of the abuse from her, but not nearly the volume and not with nearly as much ferocity of emotion, at least not as long as I was still within her grasp as a target. There were subjects about which she was equally cruel to them, but it was isolated subjects rather than every interaction. I think for many years they didn’t really understand my hatred of her, because only being abused about one subject and under the guise of loving concern meant that it was not as easy for them to hate her as it was for me. Back then I didn’t understand that distinction though. And I felt it was my job to take on as much of her wrath as humanely possible to protect them from her cruelty.
In general this pattern worked for her. Whatever happened with her growing up, she came to believe that her father blamed her for everything and her sister could do no wrong. My estimation of what really went on from knowing all people involved, is that my mother was outspoken, stubborn and fiercely independent. My grandfather was often a stubborn mule of a man who was raised to believe and never questioned that the man is the ruler of the household. They fought constantly. Debbie retreated into herself in an attempt to never incur this sort of wrath directed at her. She hid whatever she did that he disapproved of and tried desperately to play the part of obedient daughter, fearing any other alternative.
My mother has never grown up enough to see that they were both victims. She cannot acknowledge that they shared an equally painful experience, and thus they hate each other to this day.
In failing to grow up and never having a functional model to draw from, she came to repeat the pattern. The oldest child is always at fault in her mind. The oldest child must always be out-willed because that child is wrong-headed and useless, just as she felt that was what her father believed of her.
And so she was more than willing to heap however much pain I would accept onto me. She would hiss that I was the instigator. She would beat me, punish me, scream at and belittle me any time that we infringed on her reality. If we got in a normal sibling fight, I got beaten; generally they did not. If my sisters started crying (Christy could cry on demand), I got beaten. If we made enough noise that it woke her from her attempt to escape her reality, I got beaten.
In effect her message was that she would beat me until I took charge of the situation, played the parent for her and kept it from intruding in her world. This was reinforced by beatings any time I asked not to be left at home as “babysitter” to my sisters. I was an ungrateful, selfish bitch if I dared to ask. She could not or would not see that I was simply terrified of being left constantly in that position.
For those of you who have never been in such a place, let me explain. I loved my mother. I remember a time before she was overwhelmed, when she found me fascinating. I remember a time when she cried because I picked her a bouquet of dandelions and came in covered in their sticky ooze. I remember her crying with love and relief when I finally turned up after no one could find me because I’d walked home from pre-school (about a mile from my house) because I hadn’t been able to find the neighbor I was supposed to get a ride from. So I’d walked, in the rain, carrying a sand candle wrapped in tissue paper for mother’s day. I was terrified and alone, and by the time I made it home the red tissue paper had more than ruined my white turtleneck shirt. I remember the love and relief when I managed to ring the doorbell, in tears, holding up my candle to her, convinced that the beautiful gift was ruined by the rain. I remember being pulled into her arms as she cried. I remember breaking my arm and telling her over and over and over how much I loved her on the way to the hospital, my young mind only understanding panic and fear of death, having no idea what a broken arm meant. She was once the most important loving thing in my whole universe.
I remember a mother that I loved fiercely and whom I believe loved me equally fiercely in return.
But over time and with the addition of more children, two in diapers at the same time, untreated post-partum depression, fear about my father’s job security, and with a complete lack of a useful skill set to draw from in terms of parenting, she came to hate and resent me for what she could not be for me. She came to see in my face that she was losing that love, that devotion, that connection that she had never, I think, had with anyone else or would ever again have with anyone. She saw that she did not know how to make what we both needed and thus she started to fall back on what she knew and hate me for that fact. In her mind, I was the reason she became the monster her father had been.
If you ask my mother, to this day, she will tell you that I was jealous of my sister Cathy’s birth, and that was when things went south. That is the reality she has clung to for many years now. What she cannot see is that I was mourning the loss of a mother who loved me and who had been replaced by a woman who resented me. I did not care much one way or the other about my sister. I was young enough to be fairly self involved. I did not come to resent or hate her, which might indicate jealousy, until much later. My world fell apart because the woman who had loved me and cared for me became the woman who snapped at me any time I spoke to her. She started stumbling through her days in a haze of displeasure. She was no longer fascinated with me. She was annoyed at the burden of my and Cathy’s existence. She started hiding in menial tasks any time she could leave Cathy on a blanket by herself. Cathy learned to drink from bottles and soothe herself very early on. She had no other choice, really. We were both abandoned to her emotional abyss.
I began doing things out of resentment like shitting off the back of the couch onto her drapes. I began hiding from her and her growing wrath, which she rewarded because she was too emotionally overwhelmed to deal with either of us, anyway.
Over time, I became the only caretaker available to Cathy and Christy who followed Cathy’s birth 20 months later as an accident. My mother retreated more and more, and it took on the form of years of avoiding and hating us for what she felt she had become. I was probably 5-7 years old by the time she abdicated most responsibility for the two of them to me and began reinforcing that I would be severely beaten and berated for failing to protect her from them and their never ending needs.
Up until that point I had mostly been an only child with very few neighborhood friends. I was open enrolled in a different school than most of the kids in my neighborhood attended. The house had gone severely down hill, so I was never allowed to have friends over because they would find out how broken my mother was. She began systematically removing them from my life one by one, initially to protect herself. It would eventually become a need to protect her control, but in the early years I believe it was just fear of being found incompetent as a mother.
So I was isolated from other family structures, behaviors and knowledge. We had no extended family in the area. I had no one I felt I could trust and ask for help. I was a parent before I learned to overcome my dyslexia and stop writing my name as “yma”. I was diagnosed with a hyperactivity disorder. The side effects of that and the undiagnosed dyslexia meant that I felt like a failure at school. Isolation is important to abuse. That is a large part of where it draws its power.
So having only the skills of a 7 year old to draw from, and those mostly consisting of a very broken model of how to handle multiple children at the same time, I had to take over the role of caretaker. I was expected to cook for my sisters and be sure they were fed any time I was left with them. I was expected to keep them quiet enough that the never infringed on her reality or woke her from her restless slumber.
I knew nothing more of how to parent successfully than does your average toddler. I hated my mother for expecting these things of me. I loved and wanted to protect my sisters from her wrath, but at the same time hated them for the control over me she allowed them at the same time she left me nominally in charge. See, all my sisters had to do if they didn’t like something was to go wake her up and tattle on me for some real or imagined slight. She would begin screaming from her bedroom. I would panic, hide, cry. Her screamed threats would escalate until I would humiliate myself and offer myself up as sacrifice to get the pain and violence over with. I would allow myself, eventually, to be summoned to her screaming vindictive side, because I knew that however painful it might be, the humiliation and physical pain would be ten times worse if she had to get out of bed to exact her wrath on me.
So I had to be the parent, but I would also be undermined at every turn unless I exacted silence, somehow, from my sisters. I was trapped. I didn’t know what to do, only that I didn’t want to hurt anymore and I knew only one way to meet my mother’s requirements of me. I used her techniques on them. I beat them, bribed them, ridiculed them, forcibly contained them, anything necessary to get back to a state of controlling that which I was expected to control and hadn’t the tools or support to achieve any other way. I became the monster to them that my mother was to me, which only made me hate myself more because I was both their monster and supposed to, in my mind, protect them from her.
Those two things cannot co-exist without destroying some part of their bearer that will never be possible to get back. Those two things kill whatever innocence may have once existed in a person. They kill everything but the pain, the fear, the self-hatred and the desire for a way out. Even the last of those is eventually killed because believing or hoping that there is a way out can give your abuser power over you. There is something you want. Through that something they can destroy you further.
And so she destroyed me until I learned to destroy myself and others. I did so because I knew nothing else. I did so because I was scared, sometimes for my life. I did so because I hated them all for my loneliness, my isolation, my impossible position. I hated them all for making me the monster and so long as they were going to force me to be one, they would at least suffer at the monster’s wrath the most of all. First and foremost I hated myself. Sometimes it took a lot of lashing out to outdo what I was doing to myself. And as long as I was going to be someone I hated, I would learn to relish the pain I inflicted for it’s power in a cynical recognition of using a force that would eventually destroy me. The reasoning went something like “I’m destined for failure and destruction, why the hell not do it in style?”
At some point the suicidal bouts were about both realities, abused and abuser. That is a reality I do not often talk about. At some point I just wanted nothing more than to bail from a losing battle for control. At some point I had a nervous breakdown when I finally reached a point that I felt that my sisters could at least be expected to fend for themselves as much as I was at age 7, and I could allow myself to collapse. I divested myself of as much responsibility and connection to them as I could manage through threats and violence if they told our mother I was no longer cooking for them or doing anything but hiding in my room. This at least reduced the amount that I was trapped in feeling like I had to abuse to survive. It did some small amount to increase the time I could spend in a relative state of calm, which I desperately needed. I expected my mother’s wrath by that point, so I just accepted the beatings when they did things that pissed her off while I wasn’t watching them. What was one more slap after so many? It became an expression of her desperation that she could not control me. It became worth accepting her pain to prove she couldn’t defeat me, no matter what.
And eventually she began to realize that she was losing her control over me. Her emotional abuse expanded ten-fold. I spent more and more time hiding from all of them. I discovered, eventually, in high school, that she could not prevent me from being elsewhere in any real sense. She could distribute retribution afterward, but she could not prevent it, ultimately. So I eventually came to spend as little time as possible at home. When I was there, we screamed at each other and she threatened me constantly.
The rest of the time, I was numb. I just shut it all out and tried to do anything I could to obsess about normal teenager things or hide in books, etc. I just walled it all up inside me and tried to move forward, because there was too much pain in facing any of it then. It was too new, too painful.
Eventually, years later, I decided I needed to get a job working with children to learn what reality should be like and to prove to myself that I was not inherently a monster, so much as a monster because I was trapped in an impossible situation. I think many people who continue to abuse never reach this point of deciding they have to conquer it or that it was not entirely a monster of their creation. Deciding they have to know that they can change themselves. Deciding that they have to stop hating themselves in order to grow. They never reach a point where they can overcome the fear of yourself and what you are enough to believe you might be able to change things. Many do not have so obvious a disaster that has lead to the pattern, and at a time in their lives where they can truthfully justify the statement that there was no way I could have done any differently with the circumstances and tools available to me, other than suicide, which I could never bring myself to complete. Most people cannot let themselves off that hook to any degree and so they continue to reproduce the patterns engraved in their fears and nightmares, because there is only the stone cold fact in their mind that they are a monster, and that is unchangeable and unlovable.
I have come to believe that it is important to understand that both parties are victims in need of help. Eventually this is what allowed me to find any forgiveness for my mother and for myself. She was a victim of her own limitations as was I. At least I can see that and try to grow, where she has never managed to. I do think that those who inflict cruelty need to be contained so that they cannot continue to do so, even if that had meant that I could at some point in my life, have gone to jail. But I disagree with our culture’s tendency to see black and white and throw away the key on these people. Some, not all, but some of these people really do just need to know what normal is, what love is, how to love themselves and how to begin to learn something different, and how to stop themselves when the pattern forms again.
This is not a comfortable subject for me, nor, do I think it should ever be, but in reading that original post about abuse, I felt that I had to respond. I had to make it clear that abusers know exactly what they are doing and how worthy of hatred and condemnation the acts are. They hate themselves so much that they do those acts to fuel their self-hatred and to further their own retribution they inflict on themselves. They do them because they do not know what else to do, and they are scared to death of what they are and the possibility that they could never change if they tried. They do them because they are all they know of normalcy and love. Pity them for this as you do the young woman who says that being beaten is her own fault. They both desperately need your help and one of them is never likely to ask for it and doesn’t expect that you would understand or give it even if they did. Nothing makes the abuse right, but you can make the abuse a product of human failing and something they can change, so that they can slowly learn to respect what they’ve become if not what they’ve been.