In my early 20s, my stepmother told my little brother and me, “If I’d had a gun then, I would have used it.”
She is referring to the years when we were young, and this is her way of apologizing for how she spoke to us — how she railed against us, raged, threatened, put us down, mocked us. This is her apology for those nights that she stormed out — gone for days sometimes — our guilt and shame over what we’d done to provoke her gnawing at us from inside.
I want to accept her apology, I truly do. Now that we are grown, she’s become gentler around the edges, supportive of us even. We have started to understand that she is a damaged soul, one who was almost definitely verbally abused herself as a child.
But it is hard to shake it off. Hard to let go and forgive.
Her comment about the gun was only the beginning of my understanding of what had happened to me, the thundering, momentous impact of it all. In fact, I am only starting to understand it now — that yes, I was verbally abused by her, and that my brother was too. I am starting to piece it together like the world’s most complicated jigsaw puzzle, one I would rather just not complete.
I always just told myself, “It was only words. She never laid a finger on us.” I told myself that I should have been stronger, shouldn’t have let her words get to me. I have told myself that I didn’t have it as bad as other kids did. There were no marks, no physical pain. Nothing to hide.
But then a friend will share an article like this from Psychology Today, titled “The Long Legacy of Childhood Verbal Abuse.” I’ll open it and find the description of a victim of verbal abuse, and feel as though someone is writing about me with crystal clarity: “In the wake of continued verbal aggression, it’s hard for a child to sort out whether he or she is feeling afraid, shamed, hurt, or angry.”
I’ll read, this, nodding along, remembering how afraid I was — phobic even — as a teen, and how I would suppress my anger until it came boiling up to the surface, only to shame and embarrass me.
Then I’ll read on: “[T]he internalization of the messages conveyed—those diminishing, hypercritical, and shaming words and phrases—changes one’s personality, self-esteem, and behavior. ‘Self-criticism,’ the common term for this, sounds far more benign than it actually is because it can verge dangerously on self-hatred and be hobbling in the extreme. This is the habit of mind that ascribes every glitch, setback, or failure to ingrained flaws in character, leading someone to think, ‘I failed because I’m too stupid and worthless to do anything else,’ or, ‘No wonder she left. Who could ever truly love me?’”
It is at this point that I’ll start to tear up, want to throw my computer out the window because words, however accurate and true they are, still bore into me more than anything else in the world.
Instead, I go look up the studies referenced in the article, the ones that say that social rejection — which is basically what verbal abuse amounts to — activates the same neural pathways in the brain as physical pain, and is felt as such.
I read the research that shows that parental verbal abuse permanently changes the brain structure of children — and not in a good way.
“We know that abuse leaves behind a specific legacy,” concludes Psychology Today.
What legacy has it left for me? I think, and I immediately do that thing again where I wonder if perhaps I really just blew the whole thing out of proportion, that what she said to us was only words.
I think, “I yell at my kids sometimes. That’s normal, isn’t it?”
And then I see it. This is what it’s done to me: It’s created a woman who is afraid to admit the damage that was caused to her, who justifies it left and right, making excuses, trying to stuff her pain back into her body, against her wildly beating heart.
I remember my stepmother’s comment about the gun — the clarity it offered me. Yes, her words did hold that level of violent rage. Yes, I had every right to feel terrorized and afraid. I almost want to thank her for reminding me how bad it really was, for owning it for me.
But I think I need something different — not an apology, not a denial, not a justification. I definitely don’t need her to own it for me.
I need a voice for myself, to stand up to the face of abuse, to make sure it doesn’t happen in any way, shape, or form to my own kids — to break the cycle and make a new life for myself, one in which I am every bit as beautiful and powerful as I should have been told I was all those years ago.