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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I Am Not My Brother’s Keeper

I sat in the chair right  next to the doctor’s desk. Head down, fidgeting with my nails as I waited for the doctor to start her evaluation.

She pulled up my file on her computer. She talked out loud, as if I wasn’t sitting right next to her desk, able to hear her.

Patient’s mother is a sociopath.

That was the first time I heard it out loud. I always knew it, and I knew other people knew it, too. But to hear it spoken like that shook me in a kind of way I can’t explain.

My mother, a sociopath. The leading sentence in my file, the history of me. It was in my record now. There was something about the permanence of that statement that was relieving to me. Someone finally got it. Someone finally saw my mother for who she was. Someone finally acknowledged how she has affected me.

The doctor continued to read out loud, reading each sentence and feeling the need to confirm everything it said before moving on. I didn’t really understand why I had to talk about things that were already included in my record. You were physically and sexually abused by your mother? She would burn you? Why did she do that? Were you sexually abused by your father?

Why does it matter? This information is already available. Just stop. Don’t ask me to go there. Don’t make me relive it all again. How am I supposed to know why my mother was the way she was? How am I supposed to know why she hurt me? It was like she was looking for some kind of reason, for something I must have done to cause it all.

But that wasn’t what pushed me over the edge.

The mother is currently in a relationship with her son.

I didn’t realize that was in my history. A bit shocking, but I dealt with it. Until the doctor started asking questions.

Are you in contact with your brother?

No. I haven’t spoken to him or my family since I ran away.

Why aren’t you speaking to him?

Because he lives with my mother. You know, the woman I ran away from.

I still don’t understand why you haven’t contacted him.

Because I’m not sacrificing my safety for him.

Her persistence in questioning aggravated me. She was making me feel bad for not reaching out to my brother, as if she thought I had some obligation to save him from my mother, to protect him from her. What a horrible person I must be to know that she’s still hurting him and to do nothing to help him.

My choices in life are mine. I chose to run away. By myself.  I live with that decision every day. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think about helping him before I ran. I wanted to save them all. My father, my brother, and I. But I couldn’t do it. I knew if either of them found out what I was planning, they would tell her and I would be punished in the worst way.

My brother lived in denial for too long. He was too complacent with the life she made him live. I’m not sure he saw her for who she really was. I’m not sure he fully understood what she had been doing was wrong.

He had his brief moments of clarity. I remember sitting next to him one day, myself an outwardly angry teenager, himself an inwardly angry 20-something. He saw the cuts on my arms. He turned to me, lifted his sleeve, and said to me I’m hurting, too.

In that brief moment, there was a connection between us. A mutual understanding of the pain we both endured. Yet neither of us were able to put words to it. It was never spoken about again. He went on like nothing was wrong. I went on believing that both of us were hopeless. That was the one and only time I felt connected to him.

After I ran away, I heard bits and pieces of what happened to my family after I left. I know my brother struggled. He barely left the house. People tried to get through to him. At times, he wanted to leave her, but he felt trapped, both physically and financially.

I knew that feeling. The feeling of being trapped. It’s what I felt up until the day I finally ran away. I wanted him to know the feeling of freedom. I wanted him to experience life without our mother. But I couldn’t help him. I could barely help myself.

It took me a long time to forgive myself for not saving him, yet those guilty feelings still come back every October, around the time of his birthday. I think about what he must be going through. I worry about him giving up on his life. I wonder what his life would be like if I had just saved both of us instead of just me.

But I am not my brother’s keeper. It wasn’t and still isn’t my responsibility to save him. He’s an adult. He has choices. While it’s not his choice to get hurt, it is his choice to stay. I can’t make him see reality. I can’t pull him by the leg and drag him away. I can’t protect him from my mother.

I hope my brother finds peace one day. But I cannot be his savior.

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.

Shame sickness

I have been sick the last few days. Constant nausea. Throwing up. Pain in the pit of my stomach.

But it’s not the flu. It’s not a stomach virus. It’s fucking shame.

I knew it was coming. This wasn’t the first time this has happened, and I’m sure it won’t be the last.

I had to make an appointment with a gynecologist earlier this week. I was actually supposed to make an appointment months ago. I had an issue back in July in which I was bleeding for longer than normal, and became so weak that I struggled just to hold my head up at times. I had to promise my therapist that I would make an appointment in the next couple months, but I (knowingly) kept putting it off. That is, until my therapist brought it up again. Then I had no choice.

There is a fear in going. I have never been to that kind of doctor before. I have never had anyone check that part of my body before. The thought  is terrifying in many ways.

But even more pronounced is the shame I feel in going. There is so much shit tied up in that part of my body, that I don’t even know where to begin to work through it all. I don’t even know how. I don’t even know if it’s possible.

I grew up believing that I was sick. That’s what she told me, that I was sick down there and that’s why she had to do what she did. And I believed her. Because I didn’t know any other way.

And as I grew older, that belief that I was sick only grew stronger. I was the only one of my peers who hadn’t started menstruating. I didn’t understand. I thought something was wrong with me. Years went by and I still wasn’t normal. The only way I could explain it was that my mother was right — I was sick down there. It was the only thing that made sense.

Any time I needed a physical, I would panic whenever the doctor wanted to check my private area. My mother, who was always in the room, would tell the doctor I was shy, and the doctor would leave me alone. But I wasn’t shy. I just didn’t want them to see the sickness I was hiding there.

When I was a teenager, I had to go to the hospital because I couldn’t breathe. I remember the nurse asking me when my last period was, and I hesitated. My mother was standing right there. I didn’t want her to know I was still sick. I didn’t want her to have to help me anymore. But before I could make up something, the nurse sensed my hesitation and assumed I was hiding something. I couldn’t tell them that I was just sick down there. Mommy says I’m just sick. I swallowed my shame, just as I had done so many times before.

Doctors wouldn’t understand. So I just learned to lie better. Any time a doctor or nurse would ask about my period, I’d tell them I started the week before. No further explanation needed. They didn’t have to see my sickness. They didn’t have to sense my shame. But I sensed it. Every time I had to lie, I remembered why I was lying in the first place: I am sick there. My mother was right.

In my 20s, I experienced random bleeding, but nothing that lasted more than a day — and never regular. I would have spotting one day and never again for another 6 months, sometimes even a year or two in between. Other women would talk about the pain and frustration with that time of the month, and I could never relate. When I told the women close to me my experience (or lack thereof), they acted as if I were lucky in some way. They were envious. But I was disgusted with myself. Don’t they see? The reason I am not like them is because I am sick. If I wasn’t sick, if I didn’t do bad things, if I wasn’t evil, I would be just like them, too. I wasn’t lucky at all. I was sick.

I’m not even sure I could adequately explain how I felt during all those years, never experiencing what society told me I needed to experience in order to be a woman. I had already felt inadequate. That only made it worse. I felt alone. I felt less than. Too old to be a girl, not enough to be a real woman. Who was I then? Not a child. Barely a human. Just a sick bundle of flesh, bones, and fat, held together by viscous shame.

Things have changed, but I still struggle with those thoughts. I know I’m not sick anymore. I got my first real period in August 2015, one month after I ran away. And I’ve been normal ever since. I know there could be reasons that have nothing to do with me being sick: malnourishment, eating disorder, stress (physical, emotional, and environmental). I know all of these things can and do affect your reproductive health. I know the sickness may very well have not been in me, but in my environment.

But on an emotional level, I still carry the shame as if I were still sick. Like I am somehow still less than a woman. Like they can still see the sickness somewhere in me. It’s why I struggle so much with going to this doctor. I’m scared she will see all of my sickness, all of my badness, all of the disgusting things I’ve done, still lingering there, inside my vagina.

But maybe the sickness was never inside me at all. Maybe my mother was wrong. Maybe she was the sick one. Not me.

The only sickness I have is shame, and I don’t want to suffer with it anymore.

She stole the night from me.

I wonder what it must be like to crawl into bed at night and just fall asleep.

I could never do that. Not as a child, and not now as an adult. I crawl into bed and lay there for hours, tired, exhausted, yet unable to sleep.

I check the closets. I lock the door. I wrap myself up in my layers and I crawl in bed and wait.

Some days, I wait for sleep. I try to quiet the increasingly loud noise in my head. I think about a million things I don’t even need to think about. After a few hours, I finally fall asleep.

On other, more difficult days, I wait my mother. I lay still in my bed and wait for her to come through my bedroom door, just like I waited for her when I was back home.

So many nights of my childhood were spent laying in bed and waiting. Not waiting for sleep. Not waiting for dreams. Not waiting for the tooth fairy. I was waiting for my mother. I was waiting for her to come in and tear me apart. I was waiting for the pain to be over so I could just go to sleep.

I learned to expect it. I stopped asking questions. I stopped fighting back. I stopped wondering why. I couldn’t do it any more. I knew it wasn’t going to change. So I gave up. And I gave in.

Sometimes, I would stare at the ceiling. I’d talk to Superman, hoping he would hear my thoughts, and asked him to come and save me. I waited for him to fly in through the window, but he never did find me.

Sometimes, I would think about being in a different family. I imagined being adopted. I dreamed I was sitting in a cage at the shelter, waiting for a new family to pick me up and love me, but no new family ever came.

Sometimes, I watched my spirit float away from me, and I followed her. We would sit on the big branch of the tree right outside my window, waiting for the hurt to end so I could come back to me.

It would always end.. If there was one thing I could count on, it was that the pain was only temporary. She’d leave, and I’d come back. I could finally go to sleep, because I knew she wasn’t going to hurt me again. I found solace in that, in knowing that when it was over, it was over.

I wanted a normal night. I wanted someone to read me a story. I wanted someone to check for monsters underneath my bed, and tell me everything was safe. I wanted someone to tuck me in and tell me they loved me. I got none of that. There were no bedtime stories. There was no love or safety. And there were never any monsters under my bed, because the monster was standing right beside it.

Anxiety. Fear. Dread. It all became my nighttime normal. And even though she stopped as I got older, the fear anxiety, fear, and dread never left. They continued to be my nighttime normal. I continued to spend every night waiting for my mother to come back. And I am still spending my nights waiting for her to come back.

I try to remember that she is not here. I know the doors are locked, I know we are miles and miles away from her. She is not coming for us. She can’t hurt us anymore.

But sometimes I forget all that. Sometimes I can’t remember. I am still anticipating something that hasn’t happened for 20 years, but my mind doesn’t always know that.Sometimes it feels like something is missing; I feel like I need her to come in and get it over with just so I can sleep.

I find comfort in familiarity, and all of those nights that my mother hurt me became my familiar. Any deviation from the pattern only creates more panic, and that was true in my childhood and still true in my adulthood.

I feel frustrated, because I don’t know how else to convince myself that my mother cannot hurt me any more. I don’t know how to believe that it doesn’t have to be this way.

I feel sad, because adult me knows that no child should have had to endure the things my mother did to me. Bed is supposed to calming and relaxing, not a place of panic.

I feel ashamed, because some nights, the only way I can fall asleep is to hurt myself in the very same way she hurt me. And then I feel disgusted.

I feel angry, because I want to be able to crawl in bed and night and go to sleep, and have good dreams. I don’t want the fear. I don’t want the panic and anxiety. I just want comfort and peace, and the ability to sleep without a struggle.

My mother stole the night from me. I want it back.

She wants to say no

Little girl lies awake. She knows what’s coming.

Her mother comes in, and now she is crying.

She tries to yell out, but no one can hear her.

She shows all the hurt, but no one can see her.

She can’t take more pain, and she wants it to end.

She tries to fight back, but she just cannot fend.

She tells them please no, but they just don’t listen.

She wants it to stop, but no one will listen.

She stands there afraid. She can’t stop the shaking.

She yells out stop, no, but now she stands burning.

She can’t hold the tears; she wants them to drown her.

She tried to say no, but no one would hear her.

He tells her to sit. She knows what is coming.

She begs him to stop, but he just keeps going.

She tries to say no, but he doesn’t listen.

So she shuts down, because no one will listen.

She hides all the hurt, but can’t get very far.

So she shows them her pain in each little scar.

She hopes they will notice, hopes they will see her.

She needs their help, she needs someone to hear her.

She wants to be free, she wants to say good-bye.

But she is still trapped, and can’t figure out why.

She’s tired of the pain, but they just won’t listen.

She stops saying no, ’cause no one will listen.

She cries so much. They ask are you okay now.

She wants to speak out, but she doesn’t know how.

She can’t tell them no, ’cause her voice has left her.

So she tells them she’s fine, then they can’t help her.

She’s a big girl now, but she knows no better.

She tries to be grown, but they just won’t let her.

She follows commands, because they don’t listen.

She loses herself, ’cause no one will listen.

She swallows each pill, and hopes it will kill her.

The pills they don’t work, but that doesn’t stop her.

She lives with the pain, ’cause no one can see her.

She keeps it inside, ’cause no one can hear her.

She longs for a friend, wants someone to help her.

She wants to find trust, wants someone to love her.

He says he’ll be there. He says he will listen.

She lets him in. She needs someone to listen.

She can be who she is, won’t need to hide now.

He gives her that hope, and she feels the love now.

But then it all disappears. It all leaves her.

He takes that away. He takes it all from her.

She clenches her teeth. He pries them back open.

She closes her legs, but he pulls them unopen.

She asks him to stop, but he just won’t listen.

She can’t tell him no, ’cause no one will listen.

She can’t find her voice. So she takes all the blame.

She didn’t say no. Now she carries the shame.

She just wants to hide, wants no one to see her.

She just wants to cry, wants no one to hear her.

She’s scared to connect, so she just pulls away.

She’s lost enough now that she can’t find her way.

She can’t understand why no one would listen.

All she had wanted was someone to listen.

She finds a way out, and she finds her way back.

She’s no longer hurt, never under attack.

She wants to come out. She wants them to see her.

She wants her voice back. She wants them to hear her.

Now she struggles to trust, and she struggles to speak.

But with strength in her heart, she is no longer weak.

She longs for respect. She needs someone to listen.

She wants to say no and have somebody listen.

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.