So apparently it's Domestic Violence Awareness Month, which I didn't know until today. But as it turns out I have something to say anyway.
TRIGGER WARNING FOR PHYSICAL AND EMOTIONAL ABUSE
Let me tell you about how I grew up.
I was raised in an affluent suburb. It's got green lawns and lots of trees and big houses with modern art in the front yard. I rarely had to do any chores. We had three dogs for most of the years I grew up. I took horseback riding lessons and piano lessons and ballet. I was a good student, and I wanted to be a dinosaur or an astronaut or a librarian when I grew up. Teachers loved me. Friends' parents loved me. "She's so polite! She's so quiet!"
In my house, rules were enforced by my mother. One of the rules was "no crying," and another was "no talking back." If I didn't do what was asked of me immediately, my mother yelled at me not to be so lippy. I would usually start crying. She'd tell me to stop crying, and usually I couldn't, because she was so angry and I was so scared. She'd tell me if I didn't shut up I'd have something to cry about all right. She'd tell me to go to my room.
I'd wait in my room, crying, trying not to cry. Then I'd hear steps on the stairway. I learned to tell the difference between my mother and my father by the sound of their feet on the stairs.
If my father came up to talk to me, he'd give me a lecture about how I really had to listen, and he'd ask why I was crying and tell me that I was being silly and then sometimes I'd apologize and hug him.
If my mother came up to talk to me, I don't remember what happened. Well, I do, actually, but I remember it as if I read it in a history book. In 1776, the Declaration of Independence was signed. In 1863, Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address. In the 1990s, my mother used to hit me. She didn't always -- sometimes she just yelled and threw my toys at me. I never cleaned my room, so she had lots of things to pick up and throw at me. These nights I do remember. (Eventually I learned to make this work for me; if she couldn't find a path to my bed she had to resort to throwing things at me instead of hitting me.) Sometimes, after my mother had been in to talk to me, my dad would come up later and tell me if I was finished crying, I could come downstairs and have dinner.
It never occurred to me that my parents hadn't agreed upon this as a course of action until about a year and a half ago. It never occurred to me that my mother was hiding things from my father.
It never occurred to me that, when I had to go talk to the counselor at school in first grade and answer questions about whether she hit me, and guiltily told her about it later, that the reason she didn't want me to see the counselor was that I might become articulate enough to not burst into tears and throw up the next time the question was asked.
It never occurred to me that all the stories she used to tell me about children being raped and beaten with chains by their foster-parents, about how lucky I was that she didn't put cigarettes out on my back, were meant to protect her and not just to teach me about gratitude.
Sometimes she remembers what she did; she tells me I deserved it, I was a bad kid, a liar. Sometimes she says things like "Oh, Kaesa, you're so overdramatic. You act like we beat you or something!"
She has one of those t-shirts that says THE FLOGGINGS WILL CONTINUE UNTIL MORALE IMPROVES. It's funny when other people wear it.
When I got older, she stopped hitting me. I don't know if it was because I was becoming more eloquent and believable as a witness, or if it was because we got dogs, a few of whom were very protective of me. Maybe she realized my behavioral problems in school might make someone suspicious. Maybe I fought back. Maybe she felt guilty.
But she didn't stop abusing me. She used to take me aside and say "Kaesa, just so you know, I don't think Friend X is a bad person, but ...she likes to make things up, and I think she's a little, well. Sometimes she says mean things about you." I didn't have a lot of friends, because I seemed to have an amazing talent for becoming close with people who liked to make things up, or said mean things about me behind my back.
I got my period on vacation a few times when I was thirteen or fourteen, so she had me call the pediatrician's office and ask them for a prescription for birth control or a referral to a gynecologist who could prescribe it. They didn't give me a referral, and I wasn't brave enough to cold-call anyone, so we agreed that I didn't have to go on vacations with them anymore. That was kind of a relief, because on the last vacation I'd gone on with them, both of my parents had gotten fall-down drunk and I'd suddenly been the one in charge, and I didn't know how much insulin she needed.
She told me I wouldn't have friends in college if I didn't learn to cook, because I would have to resort to stealing other people's food and I'd get even fatter than I was. She called me a liar whenever we had an argument. "Don't you say that to me!" became "Don't you speak in that tone of voice!" became "Don't you look at me like that!" "Like what?" "LIKE THAT?" "I wasn't --" "DON'T ARGUE WITH ME." I tried to show her an article I'd read, about how teenagers' brains were still developing emotion recognition; she would have none of it. I learned not to speak or look at people.
Every scare story about TEENAGERS THIS and TEENAGERS THAT became about me. WHY DO TEENAGERS MAKE BAD DECISIONS?, NPR would ask one night. They weren't sure, but my mother knew I was a primary example of a teenager making bad decisions, because I got Bs sometimes in school. How was I going to get into any college with those kinds of grades?
I didn't love my parents anymore, they insisted; they told me they knew that because I didn't watch TV with them, because I was upstairs doing homework or talking to friends on the internet. They were people my parents didn't know, so my mother couldn't tell me were liars. My mother stopped throwing things at me and started threatening to break my computer. There went all my access to my friends.
In college, which I got into, I didn't learn to cook, but I did make friends. None of them were liars who talked about me behind my back. Sometimes I told my friends about my mother's wacky antics -- never the violence or the darker things, just the amusingly overcritical stuff she said. Sometimes they found my mother's behavior problematic, but I insisted they didn't know her, she was really nice in real life, and maybe you had to be there.
After college, I spent six months getting a paralegal certification, and then looked for work. Work was damned hard to find. (Still is, I know.) Things got worse at home; my mother would come home, yell at my father and I for being lazy slobs, and go to sleep on the couch while we made dinner. She'd complain that we weren't making dinner right, that it wasn't enough, that she worked all day and the least we could do was be supportive, etc.
One day, I was crying in frustration because she kept giving me contradictory instructions as to what to do with the dogs, and then yelling at me for not following them (largely because I couldn't even hear what she was saying, as she wouldn't come outside to talk). It was like being a small child all over again. She told me to stop crying, then she told me to SHUT UP, SHUT UP, GET A HOLD OF YOURSELF, then she panicked and raised her hand to slap me.
Well, ten years and two karate belts after she stopped hitting me, she wasn't going to start again. I reacted. This little part of me said "You aren't going to let this bitchy old lady hurt you, are you?" I wrenched her arm down. I pushed her against the wall. I wrapped my other hand around her neck. I just wanted her to stop hurting me forever. Then I saw that she was terrified, so I stopped. I don't remember what happened then, but I apologized, she said HOW COULD YOU HURT YOUR OWN MOTHER LIKE THAT? WHAT KIND OF MONSTER HAVE I RAISED? YOUR OWN MOTHER!, I apologized some more, she shouted some more, and somehow I got her to go outside, then locked the door. I laughed, and made faces, and gloated.
Guys, never gloat. It's on the Evil Overlord List for a reason.
Well, she threatened to call the police and I let her in mostly because I figured if I let her stew out there she'd probably break the door down and stab me. I spent about a month afraid of being alone with her because of what I might do. I accept now that I was mostly acting in self-defense, but I have to admit that I think the psychological safeties that keep me from hurting people are a lot easier for me to undo than they should be -- they're less of an unscaleable brick wall and more of an error message.
Some days she'd come home and be so angry at us she'd just sit down and say "I should just kill myself right now. Just shoot myself in the head." I rushed to her aid once or twice until she told me it was all my fault she hated herself. Sometimes my father joined in, I guess because it looked fun. He never blamed me, though. I started ignoring them when they said this kind of stuff, because I figured they only wanted attention and if they didn't get it they would either stop or kill themselves.
Groceries were an all-day hassle -- we'd play a guessing game with my mother as to which dishes she wanted us to suggest for that week. It was like Milgram Charades. Then we'd go out to two or three stores and wait while she went through all the aisles, just in case she missed something. I managed to get out of going on the trips, usually; I stayed home and watched the dogs. In fact, I had to watch the dogs when she was home, too, because she generally had too much work to do at work and brought it all home, and apparently my presence made it easier for her to shout "SHUT UP!" at them every few minutes.
Then, that February, my father took me out for coffee one day. I was glad for the break in the job search. I'd been sending out resumes to five jobs a day and trying to tailor both resume and cover letter to each posting. I almost never got responses.
Instead of it being a break, he asked me what I was going to do on May 1st.
"What, you mean, like, for May Day?"
"I guess, I don't know. What I mean is where are you going to move?"
"Where are you going to move? Your mother asked me for help moving your stuff out to the front lawn if you weren't out in time."
"She didn't tell you?"
"......" At this point I probably looked like a goldfish for a few seconds.
"She's kicking you out. May first, she said."
"...Well, are you going to help her?"
"Nah, I'm not moving all that crap. I don't want to hurt my back. She's ranted at me about it a few of times now. It's like once or twice a month. She didn't tell you?"
There was a lot of silence. My father told me I should buy a condo somewhere, invest in real estate. He said maybe my grandmother would let me live with her. I asked him if he could help me find an apartment. He said he didn't think I should move out without a job, and that I could only live for a year on my savings without one.
I decided to take the chance. The day after I signed the lease, I got a job interview, then the job, in quick succession. The job doesn't pay enough to cover rent, but fortunately my grandmother is generous, kind, and very well-off. I got out.
A few months later, my mother disowned me. The day after she did that was one of the happiest days of my life. She's now pretending it never happened. She doesn't criticize me openly, and I try to avoid being around her unless someone else who is not my father is present.
Sometimes I almost enjoy spending time with her. We have a similar sense of humor, though hers is crueller and mine a bit drier and more self-deprecating. (I should say that mine is self-deprecating, period. Hers never could be.) But I don't trust her, nor do I love her.
I'm doing a bit of a disservice to the people on my flist and in my reality who helped me. I'm leaving them out, because this is a post I hope will help people to recognize when they are being abused, and not a definitive story about my triumph over the odds. I haven't really, not yet.
Because here's the thing: I've been an abuser too. I used to wonder how children of abusive households could grow up to become the very thing they despised. I also used to wonder why the whole world was full of people who sucked and my mother was the only right-thinking person on the planet. Abusers train their victims to think abuse is natural and right. I learned that if you really love someone, you will fear them and let them control you. If someone loves you, you have power over what they do, and similarly, if you can gain control over someone they will love you more. I learned that when someone hurts you, you should make them hurt worse than they hurt you, because they deserve it. I learned that I'm nothing without the constant approval of my friends and loved ones. I learned that I'm worthless unless I'm perfect.
I have experienced that perfect shining rage, where you are nothing but hate and you want to hurt and hurt and hurt people, so that they can never hurt you. It's almost a religious experience. You feel so powerful. Then you come down from the high and your friends are wondering what they did to deserve being ripped a new one and you aren't really sure why you did it either and you can only conclude that you are an awful person and really, really don't deserve friends. Sometimes you fool yourself into thinking you won't ever do it again, if only you learn to hate yourself properly, but hating yourself isn't the road to enlightenment, and neither is hating everyone else.
Being abusive makes you feel good for as long as you can sustain that rage, and after that, it's pure misery. I guess my mom got good at it; she could rage for hours. But I know she's probably miserable a lot anyway.
The thing is, people can change if they truly want to, and if they know how they want to change. They can take responsibility for their failures without concluding that they're worthless. They can learn to remove themselves from rageful situations without storming off angrily; they can learn to articulate that they are upset without having to be hurtful. They can remind themselves when they're feeling powerful how much it hurts to be responsible for a loved one's pain. That's power, but it's not power you want to have.
If you think you're being abused, please try to get out, but if you can't get out, keep yourself whole, and try not to lose the will to live. You may learn to do things that are obviously maladaptive in the real world but keep you out of trouble in your situation. (Not looking my abuser in the eye or speaking around her cut down on the arguments dramatically.) Yes, I am talking to you, person who is thinking "well it's not that bad, I'm not really being abused..." Think about the things you're writing off as not really abuse. Describe them as bluntly as possible to yourself. Make no excuses. Do they sound awful? Would they sound awful if your best friend described them to you? Yeah.
And now I'm going to post this, without friends-locking it, because if a friend of a friend finds it and needs it, that's a good thing. Hopefully it won't get back to my mother, but if it does that's a risk I'm willing to take.
Resources that have helped me:
Facing the Facts: When a Loved One Has Borderline Personality Disorder
This place was really useful for venting, for not being the only one whose mom stole her clothes, for the "I need a diagnosis" part of my brain. There are similar messageboards for Narcissistic Personality Disorder and other personality disorders. I don't know that this is what is wrong with my mother, but they gave me a toolbox for dealing with her and it really helped.
This is a form of emotional abuse that makes the victim mistrust their own perceptions. If you're convinced you're the crazy one, you might not be. Googling the term gets a lot of resources on emotional abuse. There's also a lot of discussion at the BPD board above.
Dysfunctional Family Day at Making Light
Last year this was more hurtful than helpful -- not because of the commenters, I just wasn't in the right place yet. This year it helped. This year's thread is still being commented on.
This Crap is Not My Crap
The Wall of Shit theory of abuse and obligation.
Two Whole Cakes
The Fat Nutritionist
Why am I linking you to four fat-acceptance blogs, one of which is closed? Because a big part of getting away from abuse means learning to accept and to love yourself, which is really, really hard when your abuser is telling you that you're worthless. Not everyone who is abused is fat, but if you're female it's especially likely your abuser is going to be trying to make you hate your body. Fat Acceptance helped me a lot by rendering a lot of my mother's insults ("stupid lazy fat bitch!") less harmful.
Domestic Violence Awareness Month at Shakesville
This isn't really a resource I've used, as it was posted today, but it was the inspiration for the post; I didn't know there was a Domestic Violence Awareness Month and I thought maybe I could help people be more, I don't know, aware. I would recommend Shakesville's comment threads generally for examples of People Talking To Each Other With Respect; if you don't know how to disagree with others with civility because disagreement always ended in tears, it's a good place to lurk for examples. (I'm not an active commenter there, but I do read posts almost every day.)
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