Trigger warning: abuse
When someone punches you, most people think right away, “That’s abuse,” and they prepare to intervene or call 911 or whoever is supposed to save you from the next blow. People hardly acknowledge that there are many other ways a person can be abused invisibly, and it’s so much harder to recognize those abuses until they’ve become your norm.
Some people are berated with daily insults, by acts intended to demean you, break you, pray for mercy. Then there’s the rejection, harassment, the petty games, and never-ending manipulation. And mayhem; always mayhem.
There is a girl. Her dad kidnaps her for a summer as leverage in the divorce. No one reports it. She spends most of that summer watching cartoons at the grandma’s house.
After the divorce, the dad remarries. He doesn’t tell his new family the girl exists. He doesn’t visit the girl when he is supposed to. He pretends he has no money to help the mom. The girl sees herself being erased.
Meanwhile, the mom has changed. She is no longer a soft mom. The mom is angry all the time, at the dad who left them, at the men at work who harass her, at the culture who shuns her for her choices that were meant to empower her, at her own mother who tells her she is lazy.
The girl must fend for herself. She is five. She uses a green marker and writes her first story on the back of a toy piano. It is about a girl who runs away. Half the words are misspelled, but the story makes sense to her.
When the mom is mad at the girl, she strips her down to her underwear and locks her in the garage. Sometimes she makes her sit at the open front door for hours so the neighbors and kids on the block will see the half naked girl. Luckily, the girl is smart and when she hears someone walking or driving by she hides behind the door.
The dad starts visiting the girl and her sister again, but when he picks them up, he regularly leaves them in the car for hours at time while he plays golf. He leaves the windows cracked to let in fresh air. No one pays attention to an unattended six-year-old and her three-year-old sister in the back seat of a Toyota Corolla waiting and waiting and waiting.
The mom and dad like to spew vile things about the other to the girl and yell when they see each other. They have each made a habit of pulling the girl to the side and telling her, “If you love me, you will tell me what [mom/dad] [said/did].” The girl wants to prove her love, so she always tells, and then she gets punished because she did.
The girl and her sister spend a lot of time with babysitters, usually old Filipino “Lolos and Lolas.” One of them lives with a teenage grandson who tells all the kids that get babysat if they want to watch “Speed Racer” in the afternoons. The kids have to lift up their shirts or pull down their pants for “just a few seconds.” No one wants to do it, but everyone wants to watch “Speed Racer,” so one by one, every afternoon, they all do it. The girl tells her sister not to do it, but she doesn’t listen. The girl refuses to do it, so the grandson leaves her in the dark stairwell. She listens to the other kids watching “Speed Racer” on the other side of the door. She tells no one. There is no one to tell.
The girl becomes a teenager. She is trying to figure out who she is, where she belongs. She rebels. She hangs out with her friends at the park and the mall. Whenever she doesn’t get home by 5:00 p.m., her mom wraps a six-foot chain around the front gate and padlocks it. The girl starts packing extra clothes, toiletries, and a journal with her school books for just-in-case days. Sometimes she sleeps at friends’ houses, other times at her grandparents’. She learns how to break into commercial buildings so she can have a place to sleep. A few times, she sleeps on the grass in the park. Her dad’s house is not an option.
Several dozen times, the mom jams the girl’s belongings into suitcases and drops them off at one of the girl’s friend’s homes. Once there, the mom condescendingly instructs the stunned parents to keep her child. She does not want this girl, she tells them. This always leaves the parents befuddled. They tell their children to stay away from the girl; she is trouble. It is never easy getting those suitcases back to her house.
The girl looks elsewhere for love and gets pregnant at the age of 15. For the first time, she understands what love is supposed to look like. She adores her son; she has found her reason to live. But the mom is now angrier than ever. The girl has shamed her family. The mom threatens to call Child Protective Services (CPS) to take away the girl’s baby. “You don’t deserve the baby,” she says. “You don’t know how to be a mom! You don’t know anything!” So the girl moves in with her grandparents trying to get away. The mom’s threats continue. The girl can never seem to get away from the mom’s threats, or her anger.
The girl’s sister has a much harder time getting away from the mom. At 21, she is diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and then later with schizophrenia. The girl is devastated. She does not how to help her sister, how to make her well or how to keep her safe, from the world or from her mom. The sister and mother develop a destructive codependent relationship. Lots of fighting, broken doors, car crashes, a couple of fires. The two become “frequent fliers” with 911. The girl spends a lot of time cleaning up their messes,; she is convinced it is her duty.
The girl grows up; she is now a woman. She taught herself to survive her childhood and adolescence by creating hundreds of mental drawers where she shelves anything that triggers pain. She is working on her happy, adored by her children, friends, and community. She finds comfort in her schedules and plans, in her to do lists and journals, in her controlled environment. She is thriving despite her tumultuous past.
She is a woman now, with a family of her own, and there is no room for pain. Negative emotions take away from her productivity and threaten her carefully structured life. She spent 25 years being sad, and it got her nowhere. She vows never to let herself feel sad again. At the time, she does not understand that vow is a mistake.
What people don’t know is, when something doesn’t go as planned, even the slightest, she runs to her closet and repeats the words of her childhood. She is nothing, no one, a loser, unwanted, pathetic, invisible, rejected, and she will never be more than she is right now. She does not lash out at the world, she lashes in at herself. When she is finished with her self-loathing routine, she shelves the disappointment in a mental drawer, fixes her face, and gets back to her life.
The woman tries to stay away from her parents and sister, but these family reprieves never last long. They are family after all, and the woman has taught herself that family is everything and unconditional, a value she holds onto dearly and for which she has given up so much. They come to the woman with promises to be good, and the woman always believes them, letting them back into her life. But some things don’t change. By the end, the police are usually involved, someone is hospitalized, and everyone is crying. The woman runs to her closet, repeats the self-loathing routine, shelves the sad and its accompanying memory in a mental drawer, and makes dinner.
The woman focuses on her marriage, the love of her life, the man who will take care of her forever. She thinks. Or maybe not.
There are signs, small ones, big ones. Signs that point to the husband does not love the woman or his life with her as she so badly needs to believe. There are the drugs he does not stop using, the rage when he runs empty, and the alcohol he drinks in excess every night. There was that time he left her with an armed burglar, just completely forgot her and the kids, leaving the woman on the other end of a gun by herself.
And in the early years, there were the gazillion physical fights and yelling matches, which the woman eagerly engaged in. The woman hurled the best below-the-belt insults; she’d learned from the best. Eventually the fights stopped, as did all communication between the woman and her husband. The woman was changing, she was trying to be better. But maybe she was doing too little too late. The husband rejected her attempts at change. He rejected her, but still he stayed. The woman misread this as hope. The husband drank, and smoked, and seethed, isolating himself in the garage every day.
There was that night with the hammer and that look in his eyes, a look of unmistakable disgust and hatred for the woman. The husband rebuffed her attempts to try. His indifference to the woman’s tears and her shameless begging oddly reminded her of her father. And then one day the husband left. The woman walked into the garage and saw the graffiti on the walls. “Fuck you.” “Fuck this family.” “I hate you.” The husband had been communicating with her, she just hadn’t been listening. The woman goes into her closet, carries out her self-loathing routine, then shelves her pain. The next day she starts law school. She will make herself survive this, too.
The woman is exhausted. She believes she is good, and smart, and strong. A survivor. She is a helper and loves hard. She helps everyone, especially the vulnerable, because she knows what it’s like to have your pleas ignored. She prides herself on her reliability, her loyalty, and her fierce love for her inner circle and to the strangers who need her. But still there is something missing, and she can’t figure out what.
She has spent a lifetime downplaying the gravity of her trauma, minimizing her pain, and denying her abuse, thus enabling her abusers. She has shelved all her pains, at first so she could survive the moment, and later because she didn’t know another way. Too much time has passed since she processed her pain; she doesn’t even think she remembers how, she is terrified of trying. She has spent decades working around her abusers, making her life work around her abuse. She can’t even imagine a different life.
But everyone has a breaking point; maybe this is hers. The woman is at an impasse. She is coming to find she cannot move forward – not without looking back, not without acknowledging what has happened to her, and not without opening those mental drawers, processing what’s in them, and then letting them go.
The woman is trying something new. She is rewriting her values and priorities to include herself. Please root for her; she needs it. This will be the hardest thing she has ever done. The woman is trying to love herself first.