High School

My high school shut down permanently the other day. I knew it was coming. It was a Catholic high school in the midst of severe financial misappropriation and scandal. Nothing could have saved it, despite the efforts of alumni donating money to keep the school open.

I didn’t donate anything. Mostly because I was poor, but also because I had such mixed emotions about that high school. As much as it was an outlet for me, a safe place for 8 or so hours a day, it was also another institution, another group of people who seriously missed the mark in getting me help.

I have nothing left from high school. No yearbooks. No memorabilia. Nothing but distant memories and bottled up emotions. I can count on my hands the number of people from that I still talk to from there, and that is only thanks to connecting with them through Facebook (oddly enough, most of them I reconnected with last year when they announced our school was in crisis).

There’s a lot of high school I don’t remember. I know that’s common with dissociation. I know it was a time of transition for me, and not just the typical adolescent transitions. High school was the start of my health problems. It was the start of a life in and out of emergency rooms and hospital beds.

It was also the time when the abuse I was experiencing became more physical and psychological. My mother could no longer overpower me enough to sexually abuse me as regularly as she had been, so she changed her ways. And it wasn’t any better or any easier. In many ways, it was worse. It was a change for me, and one I didn’t know how to cope with.

I turned to drugs and alcohol, because I knew no other way to cope beyond the ways I was already coping. And no one suspected a thing, because I was still functioning, I was still getting As. But I was drowning my feelings in alcohol, forgetting about life with every line of coke I snorted, popping any pill I could get my hands on because I didn’t care. I wanted out of the pain. I wanted out of my life.

I didn’t understand why no one helped me. There were many efforts, both mine and those of my teachers, but they all ended up in failure. I remember my health teacher pulling me aside after class one day. She knew something was wrong. It was the day after my mother had taken all of my clothes, threw them in garbage bags, and tossed them away, because I had no longer deserved them. I’m not even sure what I did or didn’t do to deem myself unworthy. I’m not sure I ever knew. But I ended up breaking down and telling my teacher what happened. She asked questions I couldn’t answer, questions I was trained not to answer honestly. I hesitated, and she knew something wasn’t right.

It didn’t matter, though. She went to the head guidance counselor, who questioned me and ending up calling my mother, who of course would never admit to anything that made her look at all bad, and it was all deemed a misunderstanding. But that was my fault. I could have spoken up. I could have told them both what else was happening, and I didn’t. I stayed silent. I stayed voiceless.

But my actions continued to speak; my actions screamed out loud something’s not right here. All the times I ended up in my guidance counselor’s office breaking down in tears, but unable to tell them why. The bursts of anger I had taken out on other classmates, both verbally and physically. The bruises, the unexplained wounds, the self-inflicted injuries, all getting worse, all getting (for the most part) ignored.

And I say for the most part because there was action. It was just the wrong kind of action. Any attempt I made to tell my counselor how I felt was met with a call to my parents, even after I begged, through tears, for them not to call. They didn’t understand why I was so desperate for them not to call. They didn’t understand that each phone call led to another beating, another punishment, another break to my heart. But I couldn’t tell them the real reason I didn’t want them to call. So whose fault was it?

I blamed myself for the longest time. If I had just spoken up. If I had just done more than cry, and push people, and bury everything down with shit I should have never been doing, maybe they would have noticed.

But they did notice something, enough to tell my parents I needed outside help immediately. But that was it. No calls to CPS. No further investigations. Why? Because private school tuition pays for silence. If they cause a commotion, they lose their money. I didn’t realize it at the time, but as I got older, I met more people with similar experiences. Obvious child abuse, but no action taken by private schools. Because money buys silence.

And that’s what angers me. I know times have changed. I know schools have started to take more action. But what we know now is not any different from what we knew then. Abuse doesn’t just happen in poor families; abuse happens in all kinds of families. It’s just easier to cover up when you have money and hide under the guise of the Lord.

I’m not sad to see my high school shut down. The corruption that was uncovered wasn’t new, it was just bad actions in a different form. It needed to be closed.

What I am sad about is the loss of those four years of my life, the let down I experienced, the screams left unheard, the questions left unanswered.

And the fact that I will never know how my life could have been different if someone had just spoken up for me, if someone had just listened to the truth in my silence.

Lies

I’ve been struggling with a memory for the last couple of days. It came up inadvertently in therapy on Monday.

My therapist asked if I could smell anything. I have issues with smell, due largely in part to a deviated septum I got as a child when a classmate accidentally kicked me upside the face. I never went to the hospital; my mother insisted I was fine. I just sat in the office with ice packs covering my bloody nose and face.

I found the need to justify my mother’s inaction. She cares. She’s taken me to the hospital before. I recalled several visits to the ER to have Lego blocks removed from my nostrils (my mother wasn’t happy about those incidents). Then I recalled the major hospital incident of my youth: the time I walked into the wall.

My brother was playing a video game. Super Mario Bros. 3 on Nintendo. I can remember that part.

Then I remember sitting in the backseat of the car, surrounded by bloody wash cloths and towels. Don’t look. Just keep holding it there. We were driving for a long time. We lived just minutes from the hospital, but that’s not where my father went. He drove all the way to a hospital in the next county.

I remember laying in the hospital bed, staring at the lights above me. I couldn’t feel anything, but I knew what was going on. I just focused on the lights as the doctor stitched up my face. No more bleeding.

What I can’t remember is what happened in between. How did my face get like that? My parents always told the story that I walked into a wall. I was just being clumsy and careless and smacked my face right into the bedroom wall. I never really questioned it as a child. What child would?

Saying it out loud the other day made me realize how bizarre the incident was. How I could have walked into a wall and caused that type of damage? How could a little girl walk into anything with that much force to cause a deep cut across her lip like that? How was my nose spared? Wouldn’t that have hit the wall first? And why did we drive so far away to get help? I have all these questions that I don’t have the answers to.

I still have the scar (thankfully less prominent) 20+ years later. What I don’t have is the memory of how I got it. All I have to go on is a story.

The last couple of days have been full of memory flashes of what happened after, but nothing of what caused the damage. It’s frustrating for me. I want to know. Why can’t I know the truth?

Maybe I did walk into the wall. But why can’t I remember doing that?

Maybe I did walk into the wall. Because why would my parents lie?

I ask myself that last question and realize that my parents have lied most of their lives. They’ve lied to themselves. They’ve lied to their family. And they’ve lied to their children.

There’s been so many lies, that I can’t even figure out what was truth. Even the most insignificant things were lies. My mother lied about where I was born. I didn’t find out until I went to get a Social Security card after I ran away, and ended up giving what I found out to be inaccurate information. My birthplace was wrong. My mother’s name on my birth record did not match what I knew her name to be. I haven’t been able to get my birth certificate because I don’t have the right information to verify who I am. As if I didn’t struggle with figuring out who I am enough, I can’t even figure out the most basic components of my identity. I know my name is the truth. That’s about it.

I was a child who believed what my parents said because that’s what children are taught to do. Trust your parents. They don’t lie to their children to hurt them. Sure, parents lie about Santa Claus and the tooth fairy. But they don’t lie about birthplaces and bleeding faces.

Maybe I’m just overanalyzing. Maybe it wasn’t a lie. Maybe I did just walk into the wall in just the right way. But how the hell can I know truths when so much has been lies?

Dear Brother

Dear brother,

I wish you were the brother described on the front of this card. I wish I could have depended on you. I wish I could say “I love you” without it feeling so complicated.

You were my big brother. Seven years older, taller, and stronger than me. I looked up to you. You were the only friend I had. You were the only person that knew my reality, because you were living part of it, too.

I wonder how hard it was for you to stand by and watch me get hurt. You were there all those nights she came into our bedroom. You knew what she was doing to me in the shower. But you had to close yourself off from it all, you couldn’t help. I understood that. You were just a child, too.

I grew up and watched you struggle. I watched you get beaten, just like I had been beaten. I watched you slowly self-destruct. I heard you crying in your room at night. I was crying, too. I watched you make yourself bleed, and I bled, too. Those scars on your body that you still bear, I know how you got them. I have those same scars, too.

I still remember the night you locked yourself in the bathroom. You banged your head against the wall until you were bloodied and bruised. You couldn’t even speak. All you could do was cry. Hurt and cry. I understood, because that was the language that I spoke, too.

We didn’t know any better. We weren’t allowed to have voices. We shared the same silence. We shared the same hurt. We shared the same pain. I understood you. I thought you understood me, too.

But then you turned against me. You became her adjutant. You pretended to be my brother only to report everything back to her. You helped her terrorize me. You stood by her side as she treated me like a prisoner. Why? You are her son, but you were also my big brother. I needed you. You could have protected me, but you didn’t.

I wanted so badly to help you. I felt horrible leaving you behind. I was weighed down with guilt for over a year. Did you ever feel any of those things when you chose to work against me? You never reached out. You never once showed me that you cared. You told lies about me just like she did, when you could have just said nothing at all.

I used to envy you. I wondered why she loved you so much. Then when I got older, I realized that’s not love. It’s abuse, too. I hope one day, for your sake, you will see that she doesn’t love you. What she’s done to you, what she continues to do to you — it’s not love. It never was.

Part of me fears that it’s too late for you. You’ve become so much a part of her that you don’t even know who you are without her, and who you could be. There’s a great big world out there waiting for you to see. I hope you see it one day.

We have chosen different paths. I chose to be nothing like her. I chose to be free. But you’ve chosen to follow in her footsteps. You’ve chosen to stay.

I’m grieving your loss, because I’ve realized you will never be the brother I needed you to be. I held out hope that you would make the right choice, but you haven’t. I don’t blame you, but I hope you understand why I have to let you go.


Can nobody hear me?

I regularly make excuses for the poor behavior of others in my life, especially when their behavior directly affects me.

I excused my father’s part in my abuse because I told myself my mother made him do it (as if she held a gun to his head). I excused my coworker’s behavior a few weeks ago when he called me a bitch several times, telling myself he didn’t know any better because he was raised to treat women that way. I excuse a close person’s consistently offensive behavior, telling myself she just can’t help the way she acts.

I do this not as a way to defend these people, but to defend myself. If I didn’t excuse them, that means I would end up angry. And I don’t want to be angry.

But making excuses only works superficially, because on an intellectual level, I know that my excuses aren’t viable, that these behaviors were/are wrong, and that I really should be able to feel angry and hurt and however else I want to feel. Eventually, my feelings come to the surface, and I can only push them back down so many times before they come out full force.

Last therapy session, I couldn’t push my anger down any more. We were discussing the aftereffects of the letter, about how it made me feel sad. Then my therapist asked what else I was feeling, because it seemed like more than just sadness. Without thinking, I said “I’m angry. All of those fucking idiots, why didn’t they do anything to help?”

I immediately felt bad for what I had said, and apologized to my therapist. When she asked why I was apologizing, I told her I shouldn’t have used those bad words. I said, “it’s not their fault. They didn’t know. I wasn’t their problem. I shouldn’t be angry.”

“Why don’t you want to be angry?”

“Because if I’m angry that means I’m like her, like my mother.”

“Anger isn’t the same as abuse. What your mother did to you, she didn’t do because of anger. Anger is something that everyone feels, and that’s okay. It doesn’t mean you’re going to abuse. It’s okay to be angry.”

I sat there for a minute, still trying to push down what was trying to come out. I looked around the room, trying to think of something else to talk about.

“No, no, I can’t do it.”

“Yes you can. It’s okay to be angry. Anger makes you human.”

I repeated what my therapist told me to myself a few times. Anger doesn’t make me like her. Anger doesn’t make an abuser. Anger is okay.

And then it erupted. Through tears and clenched fists, I let it all out.

I don’t understand. I don’t understand why nobody helped me. I never wanted to go home after school, I tried to stay with the teachers but then the teachers sent a note home and said I couldn’t anymore and then I got in trouble. None of them ever asked why I didn’t want to go home. None of them asked why I wore so many layers of clothing to school, why I was always covering up. No one questioned why a six-year-old girl tried to drown herself. Children don’t just try to kill themselves out of curiosity. No one wondered why a girl would scratch off her own skin. No one questioned my injuries. How many times could a child walk into walls? I wasn’t clumsy. But nobody did anything! They just nodded their heads and moved on!

There it was. My anger. Finally free and out in the open. The anger that was rightfully mine to have. I was a child who had no other way to communicate. A child who was threatened never to tell. And I didn’t. So I tried every other way to speak without using my words.

I could see just by looking at my therapist’s face that she understood. She got it. And she was okay with my anger, and my hurt. “There were all these red flags, all these ways you tried to ask people for help…”

“And they still didn’t hear me!”

There were so many red flags in my childhood. So many. Yet no one wanted to see them. I could have set those flags on fire and waved them an inch away from their faces, and they would have just stood there and talked about the weather.

I am angry. I am angry that these people just perpetuated my hell by not intervening. I am angry that I spent my childhood thinking that it was just normal to be hurt like this, thinking that no one is hearing my cries so this all must just be normal. No one should ever believe that abuse is normal. It should have never had to be my normal.

It’s an anger I am not sure will ever go away.

I am that little girl, and that little girl is me.

When my therapist asked me last week to write a letter to my younger self, you would have thought she had just asked me to write a dissertation on behavioral neuroscience. It was the last thing I wanted to do. Actually, at that moment, I probably would have rather written that dissertation. Or stuck my head down the toilet. Or both. I didn’t want to write about feelings. I didn’t want to acknowledge any reasons for having any feelings. Blah.

But I knew I couldn’t get away with not writing it. My therapist and I have worked out an agreement so I could stay out of the hospital, and it requires that I participate fully in therapy. I waited until the night before our next session to write it, not expecting that it would turn into the letter that it did.

While I was writing it, I did get emotional. But it was a different kind of emotional. I felt genuine empathy for the child who experienced this pain. I felt the anger she felt. I felt sad for her. But there was a huge disconnect between me and this child. In my brain, we were two different people. I wasn’t yet connecting that we were one in the same.

My therapist asked if I would be comfortable sharing the letter with her in our session on Monday. At first, I was afraid. I didn’t think I did it right. I asked her if she was going to be mad if it was wrong. She explained that there wasn’t really a wrong way to do it, so I said it was okay. She asked if there was anything I needed first. Needs. What are those? For the first time, I did ask for something. I asked if she could sit next to me instead of across from me in her usual spot. It would make me feel less alone. And she obliged.

I started to read the letter. It had been the first time I read it all at once, and the first time I spoke it out loud. As I was reading it, I started to realize that this wasn’t another person. The words on this paper, these words I wrote to this little girl, those words were written for me.

I was the confused little girl who didn’t understand why mommy and daddy kept hurting her.

I was the little girl afraid of her own parents, with nowhere to hide because mommy blocked all the closets and underneath the beds.

I was the scared girl who thought everyone was just meant to hurt her.

I was the empty little girl who believed the only thing inside of her was evil.

I was the little girl who felt so alone, even when she was surrounded by people.

I was the little girl who felt invisible, who tried so desperately to get someone to help her, but no one listened, no one cared.

I was the little girl who tried to kill herself at six years old because she had lost any sense of hope of a life without pain.

I started to read the paragraph about feeling hurt. I felt the heaviness in my heart. As I read the words “I wish there was a Band-aid I could give you that could make your hurt go away”, I broke down entirely. It was like I found out someone I loved just died. I cried so hard I was blinded by my own tears. I needed comfort. I reached out to my therapist and she allowed me to hug her. She held me as I cried (and covered her in tears, drool and nasal discharge), until I calmed down enough that I could see again.

I took a few more minutes fighting through tears, trying to catch my breath so I could finish the letter. After a few failed attempts, I picked up where I left off, and finished reading. I even managed to laugh at the part where I wrote that “something was wrong with mommy and daddy and I guess they missed that memo.” Something was surely wrong with them to say the least, but I know that they shouldn’t need a memo to remind them that they were supposed to love their children.

My therapist encouraged me to keep reading the letter. She said that younger part of me needs to hear all of those things, and that I need to hear it as well.

And as I kept reading the letter, the more I realize that everything she went through was real. The more I realize that everything that happened wasn’t fair. The more I realize that something could have been done to stop the damage.

The more I read, the more I realize I am that little girl, and that little girl is me.

I’ve been such an emotional mess these past few days because of this. I saw it as a bad thing, but my therapist did not. For the first time, I am letting myself feel. After a year in therapy, I am finally feeling sad about my abuse. Apparently, that’s progress.

Letter to My Younger Self

Dear younger self,

I’m so sorry for all the feelings you’ve been having all this time. I’m sorry no one listened to you. It must have been so hard to keep it all inside. But I want you to know now that it’s okay to feel. You deserve to have feelings. Your feelings are valid, and they are yours. No one can take them from you anymore.

It’s okay to feel confused. Mommies and daddies aren’t supposed to hurt their children. There’s nothing wrong with you. There never was. Mommy and daddy told you that so they could keep hurting you. It was all lies.  I’m so sorry they confused you. You may never understand why all those times, daddy chose to hold your hand instead of pushing hers away. He was wrong. She was wrong. But you were not wrong. You were just a child.

It’s okay to feel afraid. Instead of fearing monsters, you feared mom and dad. It must have been so scary for you. You had nowhere to hide. I’m so sorry you had to live in constant fear. But you were always so strong, even when you felt afraid. You are one brave little girl.

It’s okay to feel scared. Mommy and daddy made you believe that the world was scary and full of bad people who were going to hurt you. That wasn’t the truth. That’s what mommy and daddy told you to make you stay. The real scary place was home, and the scariest people were mommy and daddy. I’m sorry you feel so scared. It’s not fair. You don’t ever have to go back home again.

I know you feel empty. Mommy and daddy made you believe that you had no purpose, that you were worthless. That must have hurt your heart so much. I’m so sorry for your pain. But the truth is, there are so many good things inside of you that mommy and daddy never wanted you to see. Now you can let those good things free.

I know you feel lonely. Mommy and daddy kept you away from everyone. You were never allowed to talk to outsiders. Mommy and daddy told you that no one would ever understand you, that no one could be trusted. But that was all lies. I’m so sorry they lied you. It hurts to be alone. But there are people here to help you now, to help you feel less lonely. You don’t have to hide anymore.

I know you feel small. All of the bigger people around you didn’t help you. They didn’t notice you were desperate to be saved. It must have hurt so much to feel invisible, to have no one see your pain. I’m so sorry no one let you know how important you were. I see you, and you’re not small. You’re a little girl with a big heart, and you matter. You always have.

It’s okay to feel angry. You can be mad at mommy and daddy. They hurt you, and you didn’t deserve to be hurt, ever. You can be mad at the other adults who didn’t listen to you. They should have helped you. You can be mad at world. You deserved to have good parents, and you didn’t get that. I am so sorry for all of the hurt they caused you. I’m so sorry for all of the anger you’ve had to keep inside. But it’s okay to be angry. You deserve to be angry. I’m angry, too.

It’s okay to feel sad. Mommy and daddy told you it wasn’t okay to cry. They told you that you had no reason to be sad. They hurt you. But they were wrong. I’m so sorry. It must be so hard to hold that hurt in your heart for so long. But it’s okay to be sad now. No one will punish you. It’s okay to cry. You won’t get hurt. You can cry for the childhood you didn’t have. You can cry for the mommy and daddy you wished you had. You can cry for all the times they hurt you. You can cry. You can be sad.

It’s okay to feel hurt. You were wronged, in so many ways you were wronged. The grownups in your life failed you. Your mommy and daddy hurt your heart as much as they did your body. You had to learn to live with the pain. You deserved to be comforted and supported and nurtured, and instead you were hurt over and over again. It wasn’t fair. I’m so sorry that you are hurting.  I wish there was a Band-Aid I could give you that could make your hurt go away. I want you to know now that mommy and daddy can’t hurt you anymore.

I know you feel hopeless. Mommy told you that you would never be away from her. You thought that she would keep hurting you forever. I’m so sorry that you were hurting so badly that you wanted to die. You were just a little girl, in so much pain. Someone saved you from drowning, but no one saved you from what led you there to begin with.  I want you to know that you are safe now. Mommy can’t hurt you. You don’t have to die anymore.

I know your heart is broken. My heart breaks for you. You are just a little girl. A beautiful, intelligent, strong, kind, amazingly courageous little girl.

I know you feel unloved. Children are supposed to be loved by their parents. But something was wrong with mommy and daddy and I guess they missed that memo. It’s not your fault they didn’t know how to love. It doesn’t mean you are unlovable. You are so loved. There are good people out there who want to love and care for you. You deserve love and care. You deserve to feel good feelings, too. You deserve so much, and I want you to know that.

Thank you for being so strong. Thank you for being you. Thank you for helping me get here. I love you.

Emotionally Illiterate

There is an enormous amount of learning that occurs in the first years of life. I’m not just talking about the usual: learning how to talk, learning how to feed, and learning how to the use the potty. I’m talking about the things that people don’t realize: how children learn emotions.

Infants emulate their parents, including facial expressions. As they grow, they learn to associate emotion words with their expressions, with the help of their caretakers. Toddlers learn to identity emotions, and children learn to regulate emotions in the early years of schooling.

But what happens when a child’s caretakers are emotionally empty?

An infant can’t emulate emotions she doesn’t see. A mother who is never happy or joyful cannot show her baby how to show happiness or joy. This hinders the development of emotional literacy. Children can learn about emotions in school, but when there is no emotional learning going on at home from an early age, the child misses out considerably, and the effects are long-lasting.

My mother was (and still is) a sociopath. She cannot express genuine emotion. She never has. The only emotion she ever expresses is anger. She is void of happiness (and a lot of other things, but we won’t go there right now). It is no surprise, then, that I grew up emotionally illiterate.

Of course, as a child, I didn’t know what emotional literacy was or what it entailed. I remember people defining their emotions: happy, sad, surprised, mad. I knew they were emotions, but I didn’t really comprehend anything beyond that. I never felt them, or at least understood that I felt them. I knew what anger was, because I experienced it through my mother and father regularly. And as a result of their anger, I knew fear like it was my best friend. The rest was a mystery.

My facial expression has been consistently “muted anger” since I was a child. Many people accused me of being angry, and I didn’t understand because I wasn’t feeling angry at all. But my natural facial expression was typically angry. Because that is the only facial expression I experienced as an infant. It’s the only facial expression I was able to emulate, and I carried that with me through life.

I learned quite a bit about emotions when I was around my peers in school. I finally started to identify feelings within myself, only to have them trampled upon by both of my parents.

I remember one time, I had an About Me project in elementary school. I chose to write with the marker colored bittersweet, because I said my life made me feel bitter. My mother became enraged when she heard, and I was punished severely. She told me I had no reason to feel bitter, and that I should be grateful for the life she was giving me. A 9(ish) year-old who identifies feeling bitter about life should be a red flag for anybody. But of course, my mother believed she did no wrong, so she just burned that flag to the ground.

Then there was the incident when I was a teenager. My high school guidance counselor called my parents, concerned that I was significantly depressed. I was. But feeling depressed was not allowed in our family. Feelings in general were not allowed. And I was punished severely for it. For years after that incident, I became emotionally constipated. I made myself numb to protect myself from my parents. I showed or felt no emotion because I did not want to experience the pain I felt that night ever again. The little bit of emotional knowledge I had was buried deep inside of me, never wanting to be dug up.

My issues are complex (!). First, I had a rough start in life being raised by a sociopath, so I spent a good portion of my childhood emotionally illiterate. Second, what little emotional knowledge I did have became muddled in my adolescence, and pushed down into the crevices of my semi-conscious mind.

So now, at the age of 30, I find myself needing to learn emotions all over again. And yes, sometimes I feel like a five year-old. I read children’s books on feelings. I have charts with emotion words and flashcards with feelings on them. My therapist draws faces depicting different emotions that I try to guess.

Whenever I correctly identify a feeling in myself, my therapist praises me like you would praise a small child. Because that’s what I need. Because I am so emotionally inept. I am an emotional illiterate.

But I’m learning what it means to have feelings again.