I survived a childhood surrounded by abuse, neglect, and molestation. I learned to be invisible in order to placate my malignant narcissistic mother; the consequences for drawing attention to myself were often physically painful as well as emotionally and psychologically damaging. I will no longer hide what I endured, nor will I accept blame of any kind for something that was not my fault.
Too many survivors are ashamed of what they went through. We don’t share our stories because we fear judgment, condemnation, pity, or avoidance. We isolate ourselves because we feel like there’s something inherently wrong with us — this is the result of being manipulated, degraded, criticized, abused, molested, violated in any number of ways, and stripped of our innocence. We learn to be two people….ourselves, and the person we show to others.
I wasn’t wanted. I was in the way; I was a disappointment and a burden. I was a last-ditch attempt by my parents to save a doomed marriage, and it failed. I was seen as at least part of the cause of that failure.
Kids can’t process it when their parents despise them. We are born with the need and instinct to trust our caretakers and feel secure in their presence. When abuse occurs, it is beyond our capability to reason out the mental illness that makes an adult strike, berate, or molest an innocent child. Our minds simply can’t wrap around that idea. We learn, instead, to dissociate — to go somewhere else when things happen we can’t explain. It helps us endure the horrors we live with as we’re beaten, raped, told we’re worthless or unwanted….we are compelled to love and rely on even violent parents because it’s how we’re created. Dissociation enables us to separate the abuse from the abuser. It’s why even kids who were tied up, bound, tortured, and starved still love their parental authority figures.
One of the consequences of this dissociation is the loss of feelings. Deep, searing hurt, the kind caused by abuse, can’t coexist with trust. In order to survive, children who are abused compartmentalize their emotions. Fear, hurt, anger, disappointment, disgust, joy, happiness, love, excitement…..they come as a package deal. It’s all or nothing. When an abused child reaches the point of needing to isolate the idea of a loving parent or caretaker from the reality of their situation, their mind shuts down the part of the brain that experiences emotion in order to protect the fragile and still-developing psyche from destruction and despair. Loss of feelings is a defense mechanism involuntarily activated by an immature system that is threatened by the violence the child is experiencing. Were the victim able to process and understand what was happening, it would destroy who they were as a person. They would lose all faith in humanity. Families are intended to provide a nurturing and loving environment for children and youth. Parents and caretakers who pervert that ideal are doing far more than just exploiting their charges; they are acting in ways that will affect these youth for the rest of their lives.
Many of us who endured the destruction of our innocence at the hands of those entrusted with our safety and well-being develop habits involving self-injury. One of the reasons we cut, pick, pluck hair, engage in sexual promiscuity, or otherwise put ourselves in harm’s way is directly related to the emotional emptiness we feel. Pain and blood remind us we’re not just an object. While we may not be able to experience feelings because of dissociation, discomfort is a physical sensation that reminds us we’re human.
After years of systematic neglect, physical and verbal abuse, sexual assault, and emotional abandonment, I felt more like a robot just going through the motions than a human being. My goals in life were to stay quiet, keep out of my mom’s way, avoid my stepfather and his perverted sexual desires, and basically try my hardest to be invisible. One thing I had control over was how I allowed my body to heal when it was injured by a splinter, a minor cut, or a scrape. Inflicting pain on myself was, in some twisted way, a relief. However, it also reinforced the message I was getting from my parents — I was damaged, inadequate, and didn’t deserve good things. Pain was my lot in life, and I had embraced that even to the point of injuring myself. I pick at my scabs — I have done this as long as I can remember. It’s a coping mechanism, a way of dealing with what I was enduring. I bear hundreds of scars from picking at sores instead of allowing things to heal naturally. In a twisted kind of way, it was also a form of rebellion. My mom was disgusted with how I picked and frequently demanded I stop. She made snide comments about it on a regular basis. For me, it provided an outlet for my frustration and inability to be who I really was — something she couldn’t control. It became as natural to me as breathing. In fact, I still do it today. It has become a part of me. Sometimes minor scratches take months to heal; it reflects the level of stress in my life and how well I’m coping. The more I’m dealing with emotionally, the worse it gets.
I’m also obese. I was always a pudgy child. Even in kindergarten I remember other kids calling me names, not wanting to play with me, and avoiding me. When the molestation started, though, I began packing on the pounds. Fat is my insulator, my protector. I use it to keep people away. I remember my stepdad telling me I was really pretty and that lots of men would want to do to me what he was doing….the extra weight became my desperate attempt to be ugly, undesirable, and to keep grown men with a penchant for adolescent girls from further violating my innocence. Eating disorders are another defense mechanism exhibited by abuse survivors. It’s about control in the face of chaos and unpredictability. Food doesn’t abuse you, call you ugly or stupid, or tell you it wishes you hadn’t been born. It causes the release of endorphins as sugar enters the bloodstream, and provides a modicum of comfort in uncertain circumstances. It isn’t judgmental or critical.
Of course, overeating also has negative consequences. I might have reasoned in my pre-teen mind that I was making myself safe from further molestation, but I was also giving my mother more ammunition to torment me with. I had, in effect, handed her another rock to hurl at my self-esteem. My more athletic and slender sisters provided the perfect opportunity for comparison, with my increasing girth proving once again I wasn’t good enough for her acceptance or love. I was a straight A student, reading college level books by the time I was 12, and had been singing almost since I was able to talk, even being on TV when I was 5, but what she saw (and made sure to share with others every time she got the chance) was a fat, lazy disappointment of a child. I can still remember hearing how I had such a pretty face, and how it would be so much better if I would just lose some weight…..I grew to dread hearing her proclaim that to her friends under the guise of, “I only want what’s best for her.”
This is the beginning of my story. There’s much more to come. I’m not going to hide it any longer. In fact, I’m sharing it because I need to give it validity and I’m hoping it may encourage others who have been through some of the same things and are feeling alone, misunderstood, or just wondering if they’re beyond hope.
None of us deserved to be abused, molested, emotionally or physically abandoned or neglected, or belittled in any way by our parents or caretakers. We were created by God to be nurtured, loved, and encouraged to reach our full potential as adults. While we cannot change the past, we can stop running from and/or hiding it. We can face it, acknowledge the truth of our traumatic upbringing, learn from it, and move forward. Maybe, just maybe, we can help others to heal by sharing our own triumphs and successes. We can encourage others to speak out and stop covering for our abusers. We have nothing to be ashamed of. We are valuable, precious, and unique.
We are survivors.