Guilt Dreams

For the past few weeks, I’ve been having the same dream.

I’m not even sure what to call it — a bad dream or a nightmare. It’s not something I’d like to remember. It’s not something I want to keep thinking about. But the fact that it keeps seeping into my sleep consciousness is frustrating to me. It’s easy to push things out of my mind when I’m awake. But when I’m asleep, I have no control of what comes through, and no ability to push it away.

The beginning is always the same. I’m in a car. My father is driving. My mother is in the passenger seat. We’re driving through some neighborhood I can’t recognize. There are lots of bare trees. Small houses. Everything is quiet. It’s not the nighttime, but the sky is gray.

No one speaks. My father keeps driving. After a few blocks, he turns a corner and stops in front of a house. My mother gets out of the car. I watch as she steps up to the front door and walks right in. The light in the house is on. I can see a few small beds in what I would have otherwise assumed was the living room. Two children run up to my mother, and she grabs one and lifts her up.

I turn and ask my father what’s going on. He tells me this is where she works now; she takes care of the children. My father continues to drive, repeating the same line over and over again. I want to scream, but I’m frozen.

I always wake up at that point, experiencing the same panic as I imagine I would be experiencing in the dream. Sometimes I cry. Sometimes I get angry. Most times, I lay in bed physically frozen as my mind races between the dream and my reality.

It’s something I thought I would be over by now. The guilt for leaving. Not just leaving, but leaving my mother behind. Leaving her to hurt other children. Leaving without saying a word about what she had done to me and others.

I didn’t press charges. I didn’t call the cops. I didn’t have her put in jail. I let her remain free. Free to hurt others. Free to get away with all she had done.

In the dream, I could have spoken up, but I didn’t. I could have told my father to stop the car, to turn back and save those children before it was too late, but I didn’t. I froze. I said nothing. I did nothing.

The guilt hangs over me. I don’t recognize it all the time, but it’s there. I feel like I can’t move forward with the knowledge (and lack thereof) of what I’ve left behind. I can’t save anyone from her. I chose to be selfish and save myself.

Last week, my therapist asked me what it would take to make me feel accomplished. I told him my expectations were entirely unrealistic. I didn’t tell him what they were — my grandiose goal of making sure no child is ever abused by their mother. That can never happen, and surely not by anything in my power.

Today, my therapist asked a similar question, but this time he focused on what would make me feel complete or purposeful. It was in that moment that I realized it wasn’t about my impossible expectations; that’s not what was bothering me at all. I started to cry, but I couldn’t find the words to tell him what was in my head. I couldn’t tell him how badly I beat myself up over leaving my brother behind. I couldn’t tell him I was too weak to stand up against her. I couldn’t tell him about the guilt that was eating away at me for years.

I couldn’t tell him that I would never feel complete until I knew my mother could not hurt another person ever again.

All I could do was cry.

And the guilt stays with me, even in my dreams.

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What no one wants to know

One afternoon last year, I was walking up the street to catch the bus I was taking to get to my grad school classes at night.

As I was walking, a little girl came out of one of the buildings and started walking just a few feet in front of me. She was around six years-old, and was walking alone. I started to panic. I felt sick to my stomach. I was hoping she’d go inside somewhere, but she just kept walking in front of me.

I was scared for her. This girl is in danger. She’s going to get hurt. I wasn’t scared that she was going to get kidnapped or anything like that. I was scared that she was going to be hurt by me.

I am scared to be near children. It’s a crippling fear of mine. I don’t want to hold anyone’s baby. I don’t want to babysit anyone’s toddler. I avoid children at all costs. When I see them, I run away. It’s part of the reason I have not, and never will, have children of my own.

It’s not so much a fear of children (although some are quite scary). It’s the fear that I will hurt them. The fear that I am a predator, an abuser just like my mother was and is. They say the cycle of abuse continues, the abused become the abusers. I think that’s true, because I think that is me.

It’s a topic you won’t find in any support groups. It’s something hush-hush, something to be ashamed of. And I agree. I never told a soul what I had done until I hesitantly brought it up to my therapist last year, after suffering from painful flashbacks of incidents from my childhood, incidents in which I hurt other children.

I didn’t know any better. I was a child, too, a child who believed that all little girls were supposed to be “helped” in the bathroom, a child who thought it was normal to touch parts that shouldn’t be touched. I didn’t know it was wrong. I didn’t know I was hurting other children. I was just doing what I was taught was okay.

I realized the reality of the situation when I started getting flashbacks in my early 20s. At that point, I knew what I had done. I knew I hurt children, in the same ways I was hurt. I was no better than any other abuser.

I hid it from the world for so long, even after I told my therapist. It was the one topic I never discussed with anyone else, the one topic I could never write about on this blog until today. I was still ashamed. I still am ashamed. And I carry that shame and guilt with me every day of my life.

They say the best way to counteract shame is to tell people the wrongs you have done. I realize that this may hurt me further. I realize some will respond with disgust, and even hatred. But I am taking the chance that at least one person will understand. I can’t be the only one out here. I don’t want to be the only one.

Why talk about this now?

I did something last week, something I’ve been afraid to do. I acted against my fear. In DBT, they call it opposite to emotion action. If your fear is unjustified, you don’t run away or avoid, you approach. And that’s what I did.

I was in the mall trying to get to the bus stop. All of a sudden, a group of Daisy girl scouts ambushed me. Usually, I would dash and run away, but I couldn’t do that because I am still using crutches. I froze for a minute, physically and mentally. Then I remembered, approach don’t avoid. You are not your mother. You are not a predator. I came back to reality, and stood there and listened as they sold me two boxes of cookies. The anxiety was still there, stewing inside of me; the panic was, too. But after a few minutes, it was all over. I got my cookies. I talked to children. And I didn’t hurt them.

I faced one of my biggest fears head on, doing something I had avoided for so long. The fear was still there; I would be lying if I said it wasn’t. But here was evidence that I could be near a child without hurting her.

I shared my experience in program the next day (without sharing the details of what caused the fear in the first place). I’m not sure anyone quite understood the gravity of my fear, because they don’t know my story much at all. But they didn’t judge me.

And neither did my therapist at program. We talked about it more in individual session the following day. It was uncomfortable for me at first, because I was afraid she would ask me the question I had been avoiding every time someones asked have you ever hurt someone? 

My therapist asked if my fear of children was justified or unjustified, and I told her I wasn’t sure. I really wasn’t. In a way it is justified, I thought. I have hurt children in the past. But not in the present. Not as a conscious adult. Not as a perpetrator. So then it’s unjustified. She asked my reasons for the fear being justified. I felt the shame rising up again. I told her I hurt a child, but I didn’t know, I didn’t know, I was just a child. I was afraid of her reaction. This was a woman who knew me all of two months, and yet she knew so much about it already — and now this.

She asked if I ever had urges to hurt a child. I never have. I can’t even imagine myself knowingly hurting a child. It’s not like that at all. But there is a fear of an urge. A fear that if I am left with children, an urge will come and I will hurt them. Like it’s something that has been ingrained in me. Like it’s something I inherited from my mother.

It’s fear that is both justified and unjustified. There are no easy answers. There is no easy explanation. The only thing I know is that I’ve hurt someone, but I am not my mother.

When you approach your fears, over time, they gradually lose their strength and you are able to overcome them. But this is not one of those fears. My therapist said it might get better over time, but I also may always be afraid of being near children; that fear may never go away. That’s understandable, and that’s okay. But it hurt me when she said that. Even though I know she’s right, I realized it’s just another part of life I have lost because of my past.

While children bring most people joy, they will bring me fear. And I may never be able to change that. Just like I can’t change what I have done, who I have hurt, or those who have hurt me.

I am sorry. Every minute of every hour of every day, I am sorry.

500 Days of Freedom, Part 4 (The Stones I’ve Given Away)

I went through what I’ve lost.

I went through what I’ve gained.

But there were still things I needed to get out, things that weren’t really losses or false beliefs or truths uncovered. These were feelings, feelings I had for a very long time that I no longer wanted to feel. Guilt. Shame. Fault. Blame.

I took the stones I had left — all 50 of them. I wrote those four words down, over and over again, one word on every stone. Then I stared at them for a while. I didn’t want to keep them. I didn’t want to hold onto them any longer than I already had. These were heavy stones. They were weighing me down too much. I didn’t need them.

I could have thrown those feelings into the ocean, just like I threw the stones of my false beliefs. But it didn’t feel right. These feelings had a place. That place was definitely not within me, but it also wasn’t somewhere in the bottom of the Atlantic.

I knew where these feelings really belonged. They belonged to my mother.

My mother is the one who should feel guilty. She is the one that hurt me. She is the one that abused her children. She is the one that broke the rules. She is the guilty one, on so many levels she is the guilty one. Not me.

My mother is the one that should feel shame. A normal person doesn’t abuse their own children. The things she did to me do not exemplify who I am as a person; they show what she is. She is the sick one. Not me.

My mother is the one at fault. She knew what she was doing was wrong. I was just a child. I didn’t choose this. She took away my power. She took everything from me. She was the wrong one. Not me.

My mother is the one to blame. She was the adult. She was my mother. She had no right to do what she did. She was supposed to protect me. I didn’t ask for this. I didn’t cause this. She caused it. She is the one that should be taking the blame. Not me.

I gathered the stones together. I tried to think of what I could put them in. I had an extra craft jar, and started putting the stones in there. I wanted to make sure I fit all 50 of them; I didn’t want any left behind. Then I noticed the jar of peanut butter I keep in my desk drawer. I try to eat a spoonful a day, because it’s the only food I can always tolerate. It also happens to be one of the only foods I wanted as a child, but couldn’t have.

So I finished the peanut butter. I cleaned out the jar and made sure it was dry. And then I started putting all of the stones inside. And it was a perfect fit. I put the lid on the jar and sealed it. It was done.

The jar may have been small, but it was heavy. Just like the weight of the guilt, shame, fault, and blame I had been carrying with me for so many years.

Those feelings don’t belong to me anymore, and neither does that jar. I packed it all up in a box and sent it to my mother (re-routed safely through another location).

They belong to her now. It doesn’t matter if she accepts them; that’s not on me. All I know is that those stones are no longer mine. The weight of those feelings are no longer mine. She will have to carry that weight, even if it’s for just a few minutes before she realizes what they are and throws them out the window.

They are the stones I’ve given away, or really, the stones I’ve given back. My mother put those feelings on me, and I don’t want them anymore. She can have them.

 

The Cost of Silence, Part 2

I want to be angry. I want to hate the teacher that gave me that bunny. I want to hate everyone that turned their backs on me and stayed silent.

But I can’t be angry, and I can’t hate. Because I, too, stayed silent.

When I was in Catholic elementary school, students were encouraged to serve the church as altar servers (basically, assistants to the priest). I didn’t do it because I enjoyed it or wanted to be a good Catholic; by then I had already turned away from God. I actually did it for the money (altar servers were paid to serve weddings and funerals).

One day after mass, the priest told the other server I was with to stay back (we were supposed to go back to class), and they went back into the rectory. I didn’t understand what was so important that he had to go back to his room, but I shrugged it off and went back to class.

And then it happened again. The same priest, the same boy. At first I was mad, thinking that I was missing out on something. My instinct led me to follow them to the back, but the priest turned around and stopped me. I told him I wanted to go, but he said it was a special thing for boys only.

In that moment, I knew. Those words he spoke were words I had heard before. But I didn’t say anything. I left them alone and went back to class as if nothing had happened. I never told anyone what was going on. I stayed silent, just as everyone else had stayed silent. That boy was much younger than me and I failed to protect him, just like others had failed to protect me.

But how could I have known? I grew up in a family that taught silence. I was raised in a religion that promoted secrecy through its own action (and inaction). I attended schools where the tuition not only paid for education, but for silence as well. Speaking up would be too much of a financial risk. One allegation and the student gets pulled out of school, along with the thousands of dollars per year in tuition. It’s much better to turn the other way and ignore it. Just pray about it. Jesus will help.

Jesus didn’t help me, and Jesus didn’t help that boy. Prayers don’t stop abuse. Plush bunnies don’t keep children safe. Silence isn’t the answer. Yet people keep choosing it. I keep choosing it.

And now I am left with unresolved emotions.

I am left with anger I’m not sure I deserve to feel. How can I be angry at others for doing the same thing to me that I did to that boy? Every time any inkling of anger rises to the surface, I can’t let it out, because being angry at them means I would have to be angry at me. I can’t put someone down for the same sins I have committed. That would make me a hypocrite. So what can I do? I want to be angry, but I can’t. It’s not that simple.

I am left with tremendous guilt. I think about that boy, about the other boys that could have been hurt. All because I chose to be silent. If I had just spoken up, it would all be different. No one else could have been hurt.

I think about the children my mother could have hurt. If I had just spoken up about her, she would have been stopped. I wouldn’t have been hurt anymore. Others wouldn’t have been hurt. My mother would be sitting in a prison cell, unable to hurt anyone ever again. But I didn’t speak up. Instead I let my mother continue to destroy me. I chose silence.

And now I am the one paying the price.

They were wrong

“I want to hate him, but I can’t.”

Those words I spoke during my therapy session yesterday have continued to stick out in my mind.

I told my therapist what I had been struggling with in relating to my memory, in a very general way because I wanted to avoid a flashback. I don’t understand how someone could do that. I don’t understand how you can reject your own child.

I tried so hard to hold my feelings inside. Anger, hurt, and sadness were swirling around inside of my heart. I tried to hold in the tears, but that wasn’t working as well as I had liked. Even my therapist could tell I was trying to hold back, and told me it was okay to let it out.

My therapist asked what I would say to my father if I could talk to him right then. My mind started going into overdrive. So many questions and statements started running through my head, and without really thinking, the first thing I said was not even a question or a statement to my father. I said “I want to hate him, but I can’t.”

Despite all of the things he has done to me, and now the rejection I am very much aware of, I still have trouble hating him. I want to hate him. I think he more than deserves it. But somehow, despite being raised by two heartless people, I have a kind and compassionate heart. It’s what allowed me to bury my feelings and take care of my father when he got sick so many years ago. He didn’t deserve my care, to be honest. But he got it.

My therapist asked me again. I ran through a list of questions in my mind, quickly playing out what his responses would be. Then I realized that, it wouldn’t even matter what I asked him or what I said to him. “It doesn’t even matter, he doesn’t believe he did anything wrong.”

I thought I was right. Neither my mother nor my father would ever admit fault. I always just assumed that it was because they believed they never did anything wrong. That is how they (especially my mother) played it off.

But then my therapist asked what my father would say if I told him what he did to me. She asked, “Would he say there was nothing wrong with it, or would he say that it never happened?”

I didn’t even have to think for more than a second before I had my answer. “He’d say that it never happened.”

I grew up being told that people on the outside just wouldn’t understand, that’s why we couldn’t tell. But if that were really true, and nothing was wrong with what my parents did, then why would they deny it? If they really believed that they were right, they would say there was nothing wrong with it. They deny it because they know they were wrong.

All of a sudden, it started to make sense to me. I never thought of how contradictory their line of thinking was.

For so many years, I’ve been blaming myself for what happened. I have been carrying that guilt within my heart. Something must have been wrong with me, a child rejected by her own parents. The only reason that made sense to me was that something was inherently wrong with me. I was the wrong one.

Part of me still believes that. That is why it’s so difficult to work through shit in therapy. I hold a lot of shame because I still believe it was my fault. I need to stop carrying the guilt and the blame. I need to keep telling myself that they were wrong.

My father was wrong. My mother was wrong. They were wrong.

I was just a child, born to parents who didn’t deserve me. I was not wrong.