Once upon a time, there was a little girl. She started out fairly cute – a mop of brown curls upon her head, creamy freckled complexion, and bright green eyes. She always had a smile upon her face, a kind word for everyone.
She grew into an awkward preteen who was not pretty by any means … but did not think herself to be as ugly as she was led to believe. She had no talents, no great intelligence, and was nervous and shy. Her smile was sweet, but no longer at the ready. Instead, fear was barely hidden by the bright green eyes in her open-book face.
This young girl dreaded coming home from school in the afternoons. She dreaded showing homework or report cards to her parents. She dreaded being given a new task, fully aware she would find some way to screw it up. Most of all, she dreaded being “punished.”
Her father – the man who raised her, not her biological father – loved to make humiliation part of her punishment. He would call her names, swing his hands and wait for her to flinch, then hit her and say “That is for acting like I was going to hit you!” He would get in her face and scream, his spittle spewing all over her face, in her eyes and mouth. If she dared to wipe it away or make a sour face, he would throw her on the ground and bash her head into the carpeted floor (less likely to leave a mark, after all), screaming at her for calling attention to the spittle and embarrassing him.
Worst of all, when he had “cause,” he would send her marching to the master bedroom closet. He would order her to pull down her pants and panties, and bend over and wait. He would then strip his belt from his pants, or grab one from the hanger in the closet, and strike her with all his might. If she fell forward, he would yank her to her feet by her hair and scream at her to stand still. The entire time he “punished” her, he would yell and holler and scream that she shouldn’t be so stupid, and then he wouldn’t have to do this to teach her a lesson.
When her legs would give out from beneath her because the blood was rushing from her head and to her swollen, bleeding buttocks, back, hips, and thighs, he would kick her and tell her to stand back up. If she could not stand of her own accord, he would once again grab her by the hair – or worse yet, her ear – and yank her to a standing position and throw her out of the closet. He would tell her to get dressed and get out of his sight, because she disgusted him with her stupidity and weakness.
Once, the young girl tried telling her father she was menstruating. He screamed at her for speaking up, then ripped her clothing away. And when she bled on his carpet (she had terribly heavy cycles, and stress only made them worse), he rubbed her face in it and beat her head into the carpet, then ripped her hair out of her head and yelled at her to clean it up. He would not let her dress first, and told her if she got any more mess on the carpet, she would regret it. She did, and she did. He kicked her so hard, she couldn’t breathe for what felt like an eternity. Then, he sent her to bed with no food and no water and no protection from making a mess on her sheets and mattress. The next morning, she was beat again for the mess she made “because of (her) stupidity!”
This young girl, who woke every morning determined to be better, smarter, prettier, so as not to upset her father, had a hard time waking to her alarm. She did not ever feel as though she had enough sleep, despite having a bedtime of 8pm throughout her life, and she always seemed to incorporate her alarm into her dreams, rather than waking up properly. Her father started getting fed up with this, and suddenly one morning, she found herself flying out of bed, and then suffocating beneath her mattress while her father laughed at her struggle to untangle herself from the sheets and blankets and find a way to get her face free from the pressing mattress so she could breathe. It was not the last time she would suffer this fearful awakening, and it did not ever get any easier to handle.
When any of the young girl’s neighbors, or her parents’ friends, or her extended family, made a comment about how good or sweet or kind or wonderful she was, her father would look at her with a secret smile and say, “Oh yeah, she’s a good kid.” Later, she knew she what was coming. He would come to her room when she was reading or doing homework, and he would tirade about how she had the world fooled, and how only he knew the truth about how stupid and ignorant she really was.
In many ways, this young girl knew she had a good life. She had a beautiful bedroom in a beautiful home. She never went hungry – unless she was being punished – and she did not lack clothing or toys or books or games. She knew she was lucky to have new clothes when so many of her friends did not. She knew she was fortunate to have a warm house in the winter and a cool house in the summer. She was thankful her parents could afford to buy nice things for the family – the beautiful home, the beautiful things that filled it, the boat that was so much fun on the weekends, and delicious food.
These blessings did not stop this young girl from wishing she had something more. A kind word. A mother with whom she could have an honest conversation, without fear she would then inform her husband of everything the girl had said. The permission to have friends call or come over so they could play games or talk or ride bikes. The knowledge that if she tried her best, it would be good enough, and not a reason for more “punishment.”
Despite her many shortcomings, the young girl felt shame for only one reason: asking her younger sister to take the blame for the broken glass, or spilled drink, or torn clothing, or unfinished chores. While she knew her sister was not ever “punished,” she still wept if her sister was spoken to in a stern voice, or put on restriction from her favorite toy. Knowing her sister would not be hit was not enough to stop the shame she felt for not just allowing, but BEGGING, her sister to take the blame for even the smallest of discrepencies. Worse, feeling the shame was not enough to stop her from asking – begging – again. Which made her feel even worse.
It is very rare that a person has an exact period of time pinpointed when their personality changes. This young girl has a letter from a teacher that adored her, asking her to please come forward if she was being hurt or abused. He noticed her smile no longer came freely, that she no longer reached out to students who were hurting or scared or being made fun of by peers. She no longer volunteered to help him in the classroom, and she no longer came to school with a bounce in her step. He asked her if someone was ill, or had passed away, or if she was being hurt by anyhone at home.
She was in fourth grade. There *had* been abuse before then: a favorite of her father was to put her in the corner, make her stand on her tip toes, and put needles or thumb tacks under her heels, so if she dared to try to relax her feet – or worse, if she lost her balance or her feet cramped up and she fell down from the tip to perch – she would be pierced. Other punishments were being forced to eat food until she threw up because she ate too quickly, or being told to slam her hand in the sliding glass door because she ALMOST accidentally closed it on her sister’s fingers. Or being picked up by an ear or her hair and shaken violently. Or the time she was stabbed with a fork because she wasn’t hungry when her father told her to eat. Or hit with her doll – busting her head open and scaring her mother to death because she was found trying to hide bloody napkins so as not to get in trouble from her mother as well.
But prior to the fourth grade, the punishments were more sporadic, with many more loving and kind things being brought her way. More hugs. More kisses. More laughter.
Mostly, though, prior to the fourth grade, her mother took most of the punishment. And the girl much prefered to be punished INSTEAD of her mother, because it was terrible lying in bed and hearing her mother sobbing in pain and fear. It was much easier to be the one crying and hurting. Especially when she could make sure it happened before her mother came home, so she didn’t even know how often it was happening.
At one point, the girl was forced into lying to the guidance counseler, the police, and the social workers. Until they made her lift her shirt so they could examine her back, and they found the crisscrosses of bruises, broken skin, and scabs. Then, it was a relief to finally admit what happened to someone who might do something.
Except it happened again … and again … and when it stopped happening, finally, she also stopped receiving any love. She was told she caused her parents, and her siblings, too much pain. That she didn’t deserve to spend evenings with the family so she should go to her room and sit at her desk. No, she couldn’t read her books. Just sit there. Think about what she’d done to the family. Think about what she’d done to her father’s career. Think about how she’d embarassed her mother. Think about how she’d almost broken their family apart and ruined her siblings’ lives. Think … think … think.
What she thought about was killing herself. Nobody would miss her, would they? Not if she only caused pain and anger.
And then her grandparents called her … and she was reminded: SOMEONE loved her. A lot of someones. Just because they were not in her physical world every day to soothe her heart and shield her from feeling unwelome in her own home did not mean they would not miss her. And for that day, she could no longer imagine killing herself, because it would cause her grandparents too much pain.
When she went to school, her friends – and their friends – would surround her, protect her from prying eyes and questions. Love her, completely. Her two closest friends – they were cousins – would hold her cold hands, infuse her with warmth and love, pour their strength into her. Their boyfriends would walk her to class, keep everyone else away from her. Her other friends would wave and smile, unsure what was going on, but knowing it was worse than normal.
And again she remembered … SOMEONE loved her. A lot of someones. Just because they could not go home with her and protect her from the hatred and guilt being projected from her parents eyes and mannerisms and words did not mean they would not miss her. And for that day, she could no longer imagine killing herself, because it would cause her friends too much pain.
Her aunt, uncle, and cousins came for the holidays. They made sure to treat her as a teenager and not as though she were the same age as her siblings and cousins – all seven years and more her junior. They bought her grown-up gifts and spoke to her as though she could make her own decisions, and would pull her aside and tell her to be strong, that they loved her, and they would always be there for her.
And again she remembered … SOMEONE loved her. A lot of someones. Just because they could not stay in her home forever and protect her from the anger and abuse did not mean they would not miss her. And for that day, she could no longer imagine killing herself, because it would cause her aunt and uncle too much pain.
She still believed she was a bad influence on her siblings, because her parents told her they only did things wrong when she was there to influence them. That when she wasn’t allowed to spend time with them, they were good children who did as they were told and tried to please their parents. That all the things she did wrong were making them want to do wrong too, because they saw all the attention she got from her parents and it was taking attention away from them. So, she withdrew inside of herself. And when she was old enough to move away, she stayed away. She did not want her siblings to be like her. She wanted them to grown up strong, and smart, and beautiful. She wanted them to feel love from their parents and not use her as a role model. She wanted them to succeed in life. And she knew if she was there, and they acted like her, they too would fail.
She lost the opportunity to make her brother see how much she loved and cherished him, for he died in a car wreck with three of his friends. She still reaches out to her sister, to try to make her understand … but always feels as though she falls short.
Originally, when I began writing this, it was in response to finding out that a FRIEND of mine was being prosecuted for abusing her daughter. Her excuse was, “I didn’t know better.” Bullshit. It hurt you … so why would you do it to your own child? I have written her a letter, careful to keep my anger at bay. But I needed to vent in some way. This was how it came out.
I had much more to say, but I’d been up all night crying and frustrated, and by the time I got to that last paragraph, I was feeling overwhelmed with grief and needed to sleep. I intended to get back to this and write more, but I just cannot do it. I’ve worked so hard to put my own abuse in the past, where it belongs. Sometimes it jumps out at me, but I don’t like letting it take a front seat to my life.
Child abuse does not always affect a person’s whole life the way it has mine. I find it easier to connect with strangers over the web than with my family. I find my anger boils forth quickly and explosively, no matter how hard I try to control it. And I find that fear stops me from doing a lot of things I know I should be doing. Or could be doing.
I don’t use abuse as an excuse for any of my shortcomings. I readily accept that I am flawed. I try apologize when necessary, and I do my best to make sure the people I love know they are loved. Still, abuse DID shape me. I’ve come to terms with many things, I could probably work on others some more. The biggest, most positive thing I have done is to stop the cycle of abuse. My daughter knows she is loved, appreciated, valued, and adored. She may not always want to come to me with everything (though she does with most things), but she does know that when she or her trusted adult come to me with a problem, I am not going to abuse her … I am going to work with her to correct the situation.
I will say, the two girls who found help for me are still a core part of my life. My BFF and I have been through hell and back together. She reminds me of my strengths, she buoys me when I feel as though I could drown, and she loves me unconditionally. She is the ONE person who has seen me at my worst, my ugliest, my meanest, on more than one occasion, and STILL fights for our friendship. My friend K and I lost touch for a while, and reconnected a couple of years ago – and I am grateful we did. She reminds me in a different way of my strengths, she brings a different perspective to my life, and she shares in my joys and sorrows. In two very different yet very similar ways, I admire these two women and aspire to be as strong and beautiful as they are. And I am forever grateful to them for saving my life … had they not stepped in, I may have eventually given in to the desire to disappear.
*** Note: this was written late one night (5ish in the morning, really). There may be a ton of spelling/grammar/etc mistakes that you would not typically see from me. I’m not re-reading this to correct them, though. It was painful enough the first time.