I was a very unhappy child. I was a miserable teenager. I was in a great deal of pain.
Growing up under the “care” of abusive parents sucks the life out of your soul. It breaks you down and pounds you into the ground. But no one notices, even though your insides are a bloody, broken mess. The marks are mostly on your heart. Most people don’t look hard enough to see your heart.
I was sexually abused by my father from the time I was about 5 years old until I was 14. I was physically abused by both parents until I left home at 17. They never broke a bone. Just my heart. The slaps and punches never left a lasting mark on my skin. Just on my spirit.
They neglected me as well, failing to provide adequate medical or dental care. And the emotional abuse was extremely degrading. They told me in a thousand, perhaps million, different ways how little I mattered, how disappointing I was to them, how big of a failure I was, how far short I fell of their many expectations. Those emotional wounds changed the way I thought about myself and the world. They altered my perception forever. The horrific abuse even altered my brain waves, or so science now claims to have proven. Trauma does this. Etches irreparable scars on our psyche. I will never be who I might have been had I not grown up under dictatorial, mentally ill, abusive parents.
One of the consequences of their abuse was my inability to ask for what I needed.
If I needed medical care, I had to be “sick enough” to deserve having money spent on a doctor’s visit. I had to wait until someone noticed because I was never sure I was sick enough. Calling attention to my need was very risky. I remember several trips to the clinic when I was praying, “Oh, God, please let me be sick enough. Please. Please. Let me be sick enough.”
I vividly remember one of those visits. I had been home from school for a few days and my father was angry. Very angry. At me. I remember him screaming at me in the car as we drove to the clinic. Telling me as he always did that I had better be sick enough to need a doctor. Turned out, I had pneumonia, was close to needing hospitalization, and I had to stay home for 4 weeks. I was thankful. Thankful I was sick enough.
When I broke my finger at age 17, I spent 4 days in great pain before I was finally taken to the doctor. They took me grudgingly. They were angry about having to spend the money. Even though my finger was swollen to 3 times its normal size and was a horrible color of black and blue, they thought I was faking it. The break was so bad, it required surgery to repair the damage and I suffered some permanent restriction of movement. When I learned the break was significant, my only thought was, “Oh good, I was sick enough. The attention was justified.” I was relieved.
I had horrible ear infections that lasted almost all summer long from around age 6 to age 9 or 10. Both ears would become filled full of yellow and green gunk during the night. It was thick, gooey, crusty, spilling out into my outer ear. I couldn’t open my mouth because of the pain. I was dizzy when I stood. My parents would finally, grudgingly, take me to the doctor, who would unfailingly prescribe drops to be warmed and placed in each ear several times a day. But my ears would be so full, it was impossible to get the medication to go in. And if any did trickle through, it hurt so badly as it ran in, it caused me to scream out in pain. In spite of the fact that my ear infections always, always, always progressed quickly to the point of being debilitating, my parents waited until I was in so much pain from the infection, I could only lay groaning, unable to stand. As a result, my ears were damaged, affecting my kinesthetic sense. When my feet are above my head, I cannot feel my body. At all. And my balance when I’m right side up is a little off. I have to concentrate to walk in a straight line. Or to ride a bike.
You see, I had to wait for someone to notice. I could not ask for help when I needed care. There was hell to pay if I did.
My parents continually demanded that I smile, mainly because they didn’t want others to notice that something might be wrong at my house. Over and over, they goaded me. Ordered me to smile. Reprimanded me when I didn’t.
When I was young, I did as they required. I smiled when they told me to. But as I grew older, I rebelled. Sometimes, I refused to smile on demand. In a way, by allowing my face to show my pain, I was requesting help the only way I knew how. I was hoping someone would notice how unhappy I was. I couldn’t come right out and ask for comfort. I couldn’t ask for validation. I couldn’t ask for what I needed. I had to wait. Until someone noticed me. My need. And how would they notice if I never allowed a genuine expression to rest on my face?
My parents labeled me a sullen and rebellious teenager. My refusal to smile was just another indication of how worthless and disappointing I was. They always turned away from me. Rejected me. Didn’t notice me; the real, inside me. But then, they didn’t want to see. They could never acknowledge what they were doing to me. They would never accept they had any responsibility for my pain or their damaging actions.
My teachers didn’t notice either. My grandparents didn’t notice. My friends, few that they were in number, didn’t notice. Their parents didn’t notice. No one saw me. Or my need.
Which is why I remember so clearly…
I was in the mall with my parents one Saturday afternoon. My mother was on a mission to find something; what, I no longer recall. It must have been important to warrant a visit to the mall. We rarely braved the crowds. While she and my father were shopping, I was allowed an hour to myself. To wander around. Window shopping. Enjoying being out from under their scrutiny. I was in so much pain. So broken by years of abuse and continually being torn down by them. As I wandered, I allowed my face to relax. To reflect my heart.
I looked at the shiny merchandise without really seeing. I was thinking again about running away. About how I could flee but still manage to finish high school somewhere. I didn’t know if I could stand staying at home with them much longer. My mind was going in circles as I tried to come up with a workable plan of escape.
The woman approached quietly. I thought she was looking at something on the shelf where I was standing and I was in the way. So I moved. But she moved with me, turning to me, looking into my eyes. “Are you okay?” she asked.
I stood frozen, in shocked silence. She asked again and gently touched my arm. Focused. Worried. Said she noticed me when I walked into the store. Saw my tortured expression. Thought something must be very wrong.
I was stunned. She noticed. No one had ever noticed, but she, this kind-eyed woman, a total stranger, noticed. She saw. She saw me. She saw my pain.
It may not seem like much to you. To me, it was everything. Even though I could not find words to answer her. Even though I turned and ran away.
She is one of very few people in my entire life who has noticed. She cared enough to see the pain written on my face, my need and brokenness, and asked me if I was okay. She noticed and reached out with genuine concern.
I still remember her, the lady in the mall. I’m sure she has no idea how deeply she touched me. But I will never forget her. And I will forever be grateful to her for noticing.