It’s up to you.
Unlike most people, I have many vivid memories from my childhood.
I remember being not quite 4. I had a strategy: every day I would feign sleep so my mother would carry me to the car, over her shoulder. I would loll, listless, in the seat, til she dropped me off at the babysitter’s, because this way maybe I would make it to the evening without being struck.
I don’t remember how old I was when she broke my nose. Nobody noticed and it was never treated so I must have been very young.
I remember being beaten with a wooden spoon, or leather belt, or whatever was handy, and I remember the crazed look she’d get in her eyes, and I remember the time she dislocated a finger from striking me so hard, and all the times later over the years she used to bring up that injury and laugh about it, like it was our little family joke.
I remember the nights I spent wailing into my pillow, trying to choke my sobs so she wouldn’t hear, “I wanna go home, I wanna go home,” because wherever the hell that was, I had never been there. The thing I wanted most in the world was to wake up and find that this was not my real life, that was somebody was going to come and take me away. The despair was not a word, and not an emotion, but a relentless, merciless pounding, like a fist, inside my ribcage, til it felt like my organs were pulp and I would die.
I remember being 13, finally bigger, and stronger, and intoxicated with violent energy because suddenly I wasn’t the one who had to be afraid. I kicked, and hit, and pushed her down, and she called the cops on me, and I ran. They found me, of course, and I cried silently, uncontrollably while they told me that my mother explained to them what she did to me, so they wouldn’t take me this time, but if I did it again, I’d be jailed. By that age, I never cried. I couldn’t feel it. But the policeman and policewoman talking to me so calmly made me pour rivers of tears and snot not only because I was ashamed, but because they knew what she did, and yet I was the one in trouble. I remember the term they used: incorrigible minor. Finally somebody knew, but they didn’t care.
I wish that was more than just a drop in the bucket. This is enough, though.
I practically never talk about this because… what’s to say? How does it enrich my world, or anyone’s? It was beyond bad, but I set out to get better, and I’ve healed as much as anyone can.
I’m writing this because, by the time I was 13, I had been hurt so long and so badly, I couldn’t even feel that pounding despair any more… or anything, really. The black hole in my chest was a vacuum, the cold emptiness of space.
I filled up the void with rage.
I hit, I screamed, I manipulated. I stole, I cheated. I was nasty to strangers. I lorded myself above others, because I was smarter than them, better than them, more righteous than them; I had special insight into the shitshow that those ignorant losers called life. I dared those close to me to stop caring for me with my cruelty. I fell in with people just like me, who gave as well as they got, and together we waltzed further into hell. When I hurt someone, when I scored points, I felt satisfied, triumphant. It burnt like a sear on my heart. In retrospect, the satisfaction wasn’t really satisfaction… but a sense of completion. This was right. This was what they deserved.
I took what was done to me and then I did it myself.
AGAIN! AGAIN! AGAIN!
But to perpetuate what was done to you is to give up any hope of being an individual. It is to become a mindless automaton: stimulus, response. What is life, except a struggle to become your own person, to be more than the product of what luck, or life, did to you? To be a verb, and not a noun.
Certainly, this has been the defining struggle of my life. I believe that, if a friend of mine reads this, he or she will not recognize the person from the previous few paragraphs, and for that I am grateful. It has been hard.
That’s why it bothers me so much to watch wounded people gleefully wound others. It’s all too familiar.
The tendrils of abuse are many and barbed, insidious and subtle:
When someone would cry, in surprise, “You don’t talk to your MOTHER?” — I used to jump right into the dislocated finger story (or worse). The shock would render them speechless, the conversation dead. I got a vicious little thrill from it. The dark recesses of my mind cheered — “Take that!”
That’s how I knew it was wrong.
I didn’t use my fist, but it was still a punch. It wasn’t meant to educate, it wasn’t meant to connect, it was meant to hurt. Because they dared question me.
That very feeling of righteousness is a warning bell.
These days, if someone says something like that to me out of innocence, I smile at them and shake my head. I’m glad that they can’t understand. It’s a gift. Depending on the situation, I might explain, gently.
And sometimes they say that and it’s not innocent, and they mean it cruelly, and I’ve found that that is usually because they have an abusive parent and want to hurt me, because I protect myself and they don’t believe they can. I feel sorry for them, and hope they find peace.
Maybe I make it sound easy; it isn’t. But I keep trying, because that’s the only way to restore a pummeled heart. That’s the only way to reclaim identity from the people who would steal it from you.
The fact is:
Some people are born lucky. Some don’t suffer the way we have. That’s a beautiful thing for them and for the world. Luck, love, and innocence are not “privilege” to be ashamed of — but a goal for us to all work towards, so that maybe some day, the kind of pain we have experienced will be totally unknown.
When a person doesn’t understand, and makes an honest mistake that hurts you — it’s an honest mistake. To respond violently, even with words, is no better than slapping a child.
To begrudge someone their innocence, to castigate those who have not been hurt, to put pain on a pedestal, to pretend it gives a deeper and truer understanding of the “real world”… that is feeding the abuse that lives inside you.
I understand, because I’ve lived it. The eternal ache is crying inside you — “Why did I deserve this?” You didn’t deserve it. The abuse strikes out, desperate to protect itself, to shield the holes in your heart — “Why not them?” But they don’t deserve it, either. Why would you want them to?
When I see hurting people hurt others, it reminds me of something my mother spat at me again and again:
“I hope some day you’ll have a child JUST LIKE YOU.”
It never worked. I was still exactly the child I was going to be, with a mother like her.
Whatever you want, you won’t get it by being cruel. You won’t get it by “scoring points.” You won’t get it striking out when people don’t understand (or even when they don’t agree). You don’t help yourself by joining with others who egg you on.
That vicious little voice inside you that cheers when you lash into someone — that voice is not your friend. It will never help you reach people. It will never change hearts or minds. It cannot build bridges, it can only destroy. It will never let you be happy, and it will never let you heal, because it will never, ever let your abuser die, because it lives inside you and comes out through your voice, your hands.
The only way to escape the abuse is to starve it. The only way to starve it is with love and gentleness. This is not apologia bullshit; it has nothing to do with your abusers, and everything to do with you. The only way out is to cultivate a generous heart. That means towards yourself, and to others. Share joy, divide pain.
Be glad that others are innocent of the suffering that you have endured. Teach them gently.
Approach each person as an individual — regardless of race, sex, or circumstance — and let their actions speak to the contents of their character.
Leave the blame where it belongs — with the people who abuse.
Don’t let them turn you into one of them.
Because I know this will be misinterpreted, let me say this:
I do not mean “love people who abused you.” I do not mean you should talk to them or be near them, ever again. I do not mean you should “forgive and forget.”
What I do mean is: When I hit, screamed at, manipulated, denigrated, sneered at, and threatened other people, it was wrong. Even though my mother beat me, beating her back — after the fact, not in immediate self-defense — was wrong. Even though I was doing exactly what she taught me. Even though I was a teenager.
I have forgiven myself, and I forgave her in my own heart for never being adult enough, or brave enough, or caring enough to learn the lessons I did… but I didn’t speak to her for 6 years up to her death, and if I had to go back before she died and do it again, I would have chosen the same.
That I forgave her in my heart simply means I put down a weight I felt I had to carry, for my own wellbeing; I never told her, because I didn’t owe her anything. I hope she found peace, but it was never my job to give it to her.
If you think I’m a terrible person for that, that’s okay. I’m truly glad you don’t understand.
If you read this and want help to break the cycle, let me say that I owe my life to accidentally stumbling on this audio book: When Things Fall Apart, by Pema Chodron. (Here’s another source.) I also have the written book but it doesn’t have a tenth of the impact, so please, get the audiobook. Her voice is like being cradled, while she leads you out of the dark. You have to do the work, but she is the best guide I have found.