Meet ED. He’s a complicated guy. A friend. But kind of not. He’s brought some things into my life that I really love. And some fairly dark, hard things too. In some ways, he’s been extremely helpful. I have welcomed his arrival. But he has also (possibly) attempted to destroy me. Maybe. That’s ED. That’s the kind of guy he is. It’s a complex association. Fairly dysfunctional. We’ve had two very intense relationships during my lifetime. The first time I met him, I was in my mid-twenties. Young, but still older than most who meet him for the first time. Guess you can call me a late bloomer. I had just learned that my new husband didn’t love me and I was totally crushed. That’s when ED stepped in to fill the gap. He introduced me to his friend, Restricting. And to their mutual friend, Excessive Exercise. Next thing I knew, I was running 13 to 15 miles every morning, walking for an hour every night, doing another hour of general exercises and counting the number of croutons I allowed myself to have on my salad. I had a 30 minute window in which to eat each meal. If I couldn’t eat within the window I had set for each meal, I didn’t eat. The last time I weighed myself during that first relationship, I was down to 84 lbs., but I lost more after I stopped weighing. And I felt so powerful! If I hadn’t broken my hip running when I was in my mid-30’s, who knows what would have happened. But that injury effectively ended my ability to fraternize with Excessive Exercise and when we parted company, it became extremely difficult to keep the weight off, even though Restricting was still in my life. I was eating 500 calories every other day and still gaining weight. Sadly, Restricting’s friendship alone wasn’t enough for me any more. The pounds accumulated, I hated myself again, lost all my power. Then Restricting pushed me away, though I longed for renewed closeness with every passing day. I gained more. Spiraled out of control. And longed for my old friends. I finally leveled off, stayed at a “normal” weight and managed to maintain for quite some time. I averaged about a size 8. Hated it. Hated myself. Hated being “normal,” though it was better than being fat. And when the weight started creeping up again with age, I became more and more unhappy with myself. I always watched what I ate. My calorie intake, thanks to Restricting’s distant association, was still low. But the pounds continued to grow and I was no longer able to run or do much more than walk briskly due to the nerve damage I sustained from the hip injury that occurred while I was best friends with Excessive Exercise. I was in complete despair by the time I had to start buying size 16 clothing. And then size 18. And then size 20. I thoroughly loathed myself, but nothing I did seemed to make a difference. My relationship with ED was in shambles. I wanted him back, but didn’t know how to reach him. Then, after 22 years of marriage, my (now ex) husband told me he had fallen in love with another woman. He waffled back and forth for several months, trying to decide if he wanted to leave me or attempt to save our marriage through marriage counseling. I wanted us to try. I thought perhaps this crisis would do what I hadn’t been able to do before, which was to bring us closer together. But eventually he decided I wasn’t worth the effort. He just wanted out. And so, on 9/11/2003, we were divorced. Two weeks after he made the decision to abandon ship, my church, where I had attended for 14 years and sang on the worship team for 13 years, was yanked out from under me when the pastor announced the team was no longer relevant and we were too old. Oh, and we were insincere, or so he said. He determined the youth could not relate to us, even though we sang all the popular worship songs you heard on the radio. He decided we would have to find another outlet, another place to serve. I was crushed, especially considering what was going on in my life, and left the church, feeling unwanted and abandoned, my heart in shambles. Then about a year later I lost my job because I refused to do something that was illegal. The division president of the company I worked for let me know I would be terminated for insubordination if I didn’t comply with his demand to withhold pay from a person he was angry with. I was in anguish, trying to decide what to do, but integrity is something you either have or you don’t. I kept mine. Still, it took me over 1-1/2 years to find another job and I almost lost everything in the process. Then my dog died. At that point, I had nothing to live for. No job, no money and no little furry friend to love, who loved me. So I tried to kill myself. Failed. Couldn’t even succeed at getting myself off the planet. That’s when ED came back into my life. And I got back in close contact with Restricting. I also met a new friend of theirs…Purging. With Restricting and Purging on my team, the pounds fell off. I was ecstatic! Something good was finally happening in my life! I went down, down, down…said goodbye to 20, then 18, then 16, then 14, then 12, 10, 8, 6, 4, 2…finally reaching size 0. Relief. Overwhelming relief flooded my heart. The tiny person I had always felt hiding inside of me was back! ED likes me thin; skinnier the better. And I like myself that way too, so we get along famously. But by the time I hit 90 lbs., I was encountering some physical difficulties I didn’t experience when I was younger. This time, probably because of Purging, I would suddenly be unable to stand up or remain standing. My muscles simply didn’t respond. I had a new Miniature Schnauzer, Zoe, purchased for me by a very special friend. A couple of times, when I let her outside to do her business, I drunkenly stumbled to the yard and fell unceremoniously to the ground because I was too weak to stay upright and my muscles weren’t working. And I wasn’t drunk! Each time, I eventually managed to crawl back inside the house. But I didn’t yet understand all the dynamics of what was happening to me (I later learned about low potassium and sodium). I thought I was dehydrated, so drank water, which pretty much made things worse. But I did let myself have some food. Made it through. It was scary stuff. And that’s when I met Binging. With Binging, Purging and alternatively, Restricting working with me, by taking supplements, I was able to get stronger, yet still stay fairly thin (105 lbs.). I’m not totally happy with the weight; in fact, it scares the crap out of me to weigh this much. But ED and I are working on a plan to get me back to 90 lbs. This time, I need to do it in such a way that I won’t find myself flat on my back in my back yard unable to stand up. Or find myself having to go to the emergency room by ambulance. I just need to distance myself from Binging and embrace Restricting a bit more and I think I can do it! Yeah, I’m in counseling. I’m told I need to leave ED behind, but he has been one of my only close friends, he has helped me greatly, and I really don’t know if I can part with him. I do want to find Balance. Balance is good. But I want to be balanced and weigh less than 100 lbs. So ED and I are trying to find a way to get what I want, what he wants and still have enough strength to get through the day. Keeping my job is important. The one thing I know with great certainty is this: I must not gain any more weight! I must lose! I can tolerate myself if I’m 104 lbs. But not 108. Not 110. And certainly not anything greater than that! I need to be as far away from overweight as I can get. ED’s going to help me with that. I pray he doesn’t let me down…I need his help to get there. And to stay there. To stay there, where it’s safe. Where I’m almost invisible. ED doesn’t make my problems go away, but he does make me able to face the next day. So even though ED likes me really teeny, close to the edge of death, he is actually the only reason I’m able to tolerate being alive. And honestly, what more can you ask for from a guy?
I have a lot of “why” questions that have not yet been answered. Makes me feel like a nagging 2-year-old child. Not that I expect them to ALL be answered before I die, but I would like to have a few of them resolved. You know, wisdom that comes with age and all that. I’d like to accumulate some wisdom to prove there’s at least a modicum of truth to that old adage. Instead of simply growing old and staying stupid. But my questions are not easily answered, so I’m more than a little concerned about how this will play out. Just to give you a few flavorful examples of some of my more puzzling (and niggling) questions:
- Why wasn’t there anyone in my life when I was a child, someone who noticed something was sadly amiss, someone to reach out to me?
- Why did my husband marry me if he didn’t love me?
- Why did he fall in love with someone else and leave me after all that time of us being together? All those miserable years wasted.
- Why am I so different than everyone else? Why am I so messed up?
- Why can’t I connect with other people?
- Why is everything so hard for me; even things that are easy for others are hard for me?
- Why am I so alone?
- Why can’t I figure things out?
- Why is life such a struggle?
- Why do I have so much difficulty getting in touch with my emotions?
- Why am I so afraid?
- Why can’t I just stop doing things that are a problem in my life (such as my eating disorder) when I really make an effort and want to change?
- Why do I hate myself so completely?
I read it again just this morning. One of those quotes you hear all the time. “There is always a light at the end of the tunnel.” I have pretty much believed this in a general kind of way most of my life. Sometimes maybe more than others. But I’ve always thought everything would work out right. That I would have a reasonably good ending to the story of my life, in spite of the horrible start, not so great middle and my now later-life difficulty dealing with all that has come before. Yeah, we’re getting pretty far down the road. The good ending needs to step it up. But it’s still coming, right? Truthfully, I didn’t even think I would just have a good ending. I thought the middle part would be darned good too. I figured if I worked at it, at overcoming all the “stuff” that happened to me when I was a kid, the abuse that nearly destroyed me, by the time I hit 35 or so, I would be doing quite well. And by 40, I thought I would have surely found healing and be well on my way to changing the world! I was married to a man who wanted me to keep all the pain and ugliness inside, far away from him. That made it more challenging. Going it alone. But I still thought I would win well before the end of my life and that my marriage would then miraculously become what God intended it to be. I just had to keep doing the right things, right? It would all stack up and come out the way it was supposed to, wouldn’t it? I could see the light at the end of the tunnel. I believed I would emerge from the darkness. But maybe not. Today, for the first time, I have to confess, I got a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach when I thought about this supposed light at the end of the tunnel I’ve been traveling through. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen anything resembling light. I vaguely remember what light looks like, but the memory is faded and worn. The last time I thought I saw some light, it turned out to be the proverbial train and it hit me hard. Took me some time to get up again, to start walking again after I took that hit. In fact, I’m still barely staggering along. For all I know, I’ve been going around in circles for the last 10 years. Kind of seems that way. If there actually is an end to this dark, foreboding, claustrophobic tunnel, you couldn’t prove it by me! Lately, my heart has been seized by fear. Maybe even terror. It happens every time I start thinking about the darkness I’m trapped in, and the end of my life, which is coming up rather more quickly than I want to think about. By any stretch of my imagination, I was completely convinced I would be doing well by this time of life. And I’m not. Not even close. Which is terrifying. Because I’ve put a lot of time, money and effort into healing. And it still hasn’t happened. My counselor assures me I’m making progress. But at this rate, I’ll be dead and in heaven for half of eternity before I actually get to that magical point. I don’t know if I can live with that. The big question in my heart is simply, is there really light at the end of the tunnel? Is there an end to the tunnel…one that I’ll reach before I die? Will life ever actually be worth living? Will I get to live…truly live…before I die? I’m afraid, terribly, horribly, penetratingly afraid, that the answer to these questions may just be no.
I’m told I have an inner child. It’s a popular term; just pick up any book about inner healing, abuse survivors, or such and you’ll quickly see just how accepted this thinking is. And I suppose there’s some truth to it. I’m vaguely aware of her. She flits around the cobwebbed corners of my brain, always staying just out of sight, out of reach. Crouching behind various objects to camouflage her presence. Blending in with the general traffic in my mind to hide her identity. She’s annoying. I try to avoid her. But I think she’s venturing closer, letting me catch sight of her for a few seconds longer, before she ducks and hides herself away again. I feel her standing behind me and off to the side. I hear her breathing. She is there, just out of reach, watching. Waiting. There seems to be an invisible, fragile connection between us. Not that I really want to admit it. Not that I want to have anything to do with her. I am antsy when I become aware of her. SHE is the one “everything” happened to. SHE is the one who broke, who was fragmented, so wounded, she could no longer venture from my bedroom. She made me go on without her. I had to do what had to be done and I’m pretty angry with her for abandoning me just so she could lay in a gooey mess in my room. I hurt too! I could have used a friend! I needed her support…but she caved. Left me to carry the weight, to plaster a smile on my face, to act like nothing was wrong. To keep walking. Alone. Yeah, she was mortally injured. But so what! So was I! I had to pick up the pieces every time my father used me and keep going. After he finished with me and told me to get cleaned up and come out to the kitchen for some nice homemade hot chocolate, I’m the one who had to go out there and act like nothing had happened. She got to feel her pain. I had to push mine down over and over and over again. I had to lock it all away. I had to survive. She was a weak puke. She still is, as far as I’m concerned. She abandoned me when I needed her the most. But then, I did leave her behind… She’s a little thing. Shy. Quiet. Never smiles. Sometimes I watch parts of the movie of what happened to her, playing the broken pieces across the screen in my brain. But I have to look away. I can’t watch too much or for very long. I might start to feel her pain. I might start to feel some compassion. No. I must be strong. I must not let her in…or out. I have to be tough with her. It’s the only way I can keep going. For surely, if I empathized, if I softened my heart even a degree, she would melt me and I would be destroyed. Her pain is too much to bear. Her wounds are far too ugly and horrid. Her gore is everywhere as it is. To touch her? To let her touch me? No! I would be undone. I clearly remember the day I left her in my room. Yet again, I knew I had to go out and act normal. Join the rest of the family. I gave her a sideways glance and was amazed at the blood, the carnage, the broken bones and tiny fragmented pieces of her scattered all over the room. There was a larger pile, a bloody mass, that marked the spot where the bulk of her rested, still oozing odd colored fluids. But I couldn’t stay to comfort her. And there was obviously no patching her up. She was damaged beyond recognition, so the band-aids I could have offered her wouldn’t have come close to saving her. She needed intensive care. Massive resuscitation. IV’s, emergency surgery, intervention and every kind of life-saving technique available couldn’t have put all the pieces back together again. She was a gonner. So I glanced at her, then turned my head forward, walked out of my bedroom and closed the door. Left her to bleed her rivers of pain. Left her. I did what I had to do. She died. But she lives, if only barely. Why she keeps hanging around, I don’t know. I think she wants to be friends, crazy child. I think she is afraid of me. And I guess I’m afraid of her too. We do this crazy dance. We advance, we retreat, we twirl and duck and leap and slide by each other. All without acknowledging the other. Pretending we don’t notice. Mostly keeping to our own sides, rarely trespassing on the others territory. We co-exist without intruding. Conversation is out of the question. Doesn’t she realize that? We’ve made it work for years. Why she is trying to catch my eye now, I’m not certain. But I feel her. I hear her tapping on the walls of the shell I’ve erected, though she flits away if I turn in her direction. Her pain is bleeding into mine. I can hear her broken heartbeat, weak though it is. What am I to do with her? What is she trying to do to me? Why is she whispering my name after all these years?
There are certain things I have come to accept with my head, with my intellect, in my mind. I can acknowledge that these things are true, more than likely, even though I don’t believe them, or struggle to believe them, with my heart. For example, I can now grasp intellectually the unlikelihood of it being my fault I was sexually abused by my father. I can sort of understand he probably has some fairly high level of responsibility for what he did and that I probably didn’t cause it or somehow deserve it. I can comprehend that maybe he had a degree of culpability, if he’s not deserving of full blame. But my heart continues to disagree. Logically, I was a small child when the sexual abuse started and I had no magic powers with which to shield myself or by which to analyze what was happening to me. I had no power over him at all, in fact, nor was I such an awful little girl that what he did was a foregone conclusion and reasonably justified. Even as I grew a little older, I was still a dependent child. I now realize I didn’t have any way to protect myself. By that time, I was so broken, terrified, confused and isolated, I lacked the necessary resources to extract myself from the destructive home environment in which I lived. I couldn’t even muster to cry out for help. I had been stripped of all remnants of personhood and I no longer believed I had value or worth. I had been taught that my only redemption would come through compliance and performance. It was my job to fulfill my parents, to make the happy, to make them look good. I had learned to keep the secrets at all costs. I was a dutiful daughter. There was no one looking out for me; no one on my side, no one to reach out to. I was trapped in a vast chaotic universe of pain, darkness and destruction. All I could see was the debris. Was this my fault? A critical analysis would more than likely conclude it was not. But my heart convicts me, in spite of the contradictory logical “evidence.” I am torn between my head and my heart. With my mind, I can see with a certain degree of clarity; certainly with more clarity than I see with my heart. My heart is shattered and though I’ve tried to repair it, I’ve cobbled together pieces here and there, but have generally made a mess of the mess. So there’s a high degree of distortion. Kind of like trying to look through a shattered windshield. It’s darned hard to see out! My brain is less affected. I’ve always enjoyed a level of intellect that has helped me to survive in an unsurvivable situation. My mind does, however, seek patterns. Maybe most people are this way, but I’m probably nearing an extreme. And because the heart and brain often work in tandem, it is probably a given that the “logical” conclusions my brain arrives at are tainted by my fractured heart. To give you an example of what I am trying so clumsily to convey, if the traffic lights almost all turn red just before I roll up to the intersection, I recently realized my explanation of this was God must be angry with me and that He hated me. Seriously. This is what I thought and how I interpreted events! What does one thing have to do with the other, you might ask? Well, nothing! But I recognized and processed the pattern (multiple traffic lights turning red just before my arrival) in my head without it even reaching my conscious mind. And because I have trouble trusting God or believing He loves me, I interpreted the pattern to mean I was out of favor, thus determining this was yet more evidence that He hated me. That He was against me. Because most of the lights were turning red just before I reached them. Now that I’m aware of the erroneous processing of data, I’m consciously working to change my thinking (and feeling a little stupid). It’s hard to do and it’s a slow process. I have uncovered these kinds of probable distortions in other areas, such as blaming myself for my father sexually abusing me, and I have had to concede that my formula is perhaps sometimes faulty. 1 + 1 most likely doesn’t = 256. My brain can process data all day long and do a rather fine job of it. But when you throw in what the heart has to say, because there is so much damage there, the data is occasionally distorted and the conclusion I come to is therefore at least suspect. To say this drives me insane is a huge understatement. I feel as though I can’t rely on or trust anything. Every thought is questionable. Nothing is solid. Every conclusion must be examined again and again for processing errors due to bad data. I can’t trust myself, my thoughts, my feelings, or even my logic. I don’t know what is real, what is distorted, what is truth and what is a lie. Chaos reigns. And sadly, even when I recognize there is a processing error, even when my brain is able to see what the truth must surely be, my heart is unable to grasp that truth. My heart continues to believe the old programming, the old way of thinking and believing. I can’t seem to escape the whirlpool. My heart is broken. It sees things in a certain way because of this brokenness. My soul is decimated. My heart and my soul speak the same language. My spirit has been crushed. When you pit my logic, my brain, against my heart, soul and spirit, the brain doesn’t stand a chance. And neither do I. From the deepest part of my being, I believe I am defective. I believe the only worth I have is in what I do. And since I can’t do very many things as well as most people are able to do them (or maybe can’t do them at all), I don’t feel that I have much, if any, worth. From the center of my soul springs the steadfast belief that I am not good enough to warrant being loved or accepted. That I am nothing. That I don’t matter. That God is disappointed in me. That no one wants me. Can I see that much of this damage is tied to being sexually abused by my father and abused by both parents physically and emotionally? Yeah, kind of. But it hasn’t yet changed my beliefs about myself. And until I can love and accept myself, it’s highly doubtful anyone WILL ever be able to love or accept me. And so I remain alone, isolated, wounded and bound. Right or wrong, thoughts are just thoughts. Feelings are my reality. At the end of the day, I still feel it was all my fault. That’s what my heart tells me and though I struggle mightily to see things differently, I still believe my heart.
I am walking a tightrope. The rope is thin. It sways and moves beneath me as I try to maintain my balance. Storms assail me, bringing with them additional challenges to my being able to keep a tenuous foothold on this frail, shifting rope. Falling is not an option. There are no nets. There isn’t anyone to catch me ; nothing to break my fall. I surely would not survive. Not be able to pick up the pieces once again, make another attempt at making this treacherous crossing. I am terrified. All of my energy and concentration is focused on the next step I must take as I slowly make my way across the tightrope. I am trying to make it to safety. To solid ground. I’ve been balancing here for a very long time. I’m exhausted. I’m overwhelmed with terror and despair. And I’m running out of strength. I’m running out of hope. It’s worse at night, when the terror hits me full force, the distractions of the daytime no longer there to buffer and dilute the impact. I cling to the rope, praying, praying, praying for relief. For a respite. I am assailed by feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness that further weaken me. I am tormented by my failings: depression, eating disorder, financial problems, isolation, weakness, distortion, abuse aftermath and all that it entails. I am pulverized by my inadequacies. I feel the full impact and bear the full brunt of this wild and brutal storm with nothing to protect me. No shelter. It lashes me without mercy. I frequently doubt my ability to make it across. I regularly question whether it is possible. I don’t even truly know if there is “another side” to reach. I certainly can’t see the end. But I must try to keep walking for clearly, staying where I am is not a viable option. At best, I can exist here short term, for this is not bearable or tolerable and life is not sustainable in this precarious position; in this desolate, lonely place. It is a place of certain death, this place of desperation where I slip from the rope with frequency, frantically grabbing hold, climbing back up, barely able to cling to this fragile connection, this nearly invisible thread that is supposed to lead me to a better place. To the mystical place of healing. I am ashamed that I must make this journey. Yet others who have done so cross much more quickly. With so much more style and pizzazz. I am slow, clumsy, uncoordinated. I want to hide, so great is my shame at my inability to simply walk this tiny rope. I wonder at my complete inadequacy and deficiency. It pains me to be so slow and faulty. So inept and incompetent. If I fall, who will cradle what is left of me? Who will reach out a hand to lift me up? To give me a gentle touch that says they care and that my pain and brokenness matter? Will anyone even know I have lost the battle? And what happens if the line snaps? I made it through another tortuous night on the tightrope. I wake today and though I can barely function, I’m nursing my battered heart, trying to gain enough strength to rise, to move, to open another door of thought and examine the ugly nightmares contained therein. But for the moment, I’m simply trying to breathe. One more breath. Just give me a few minutes. A few hours. Tomorrow I will try to stand again. Today, I must just cling to the tightrope, trying to regain my balance before I attempt to stand. Before I try to take another step on this slippery, swaying, rope that is my life.
I have this thing about being told to “repeat after me” or to raise my hands. It makes me instantly, irrationally, intensely angry. In church, where, I confess, I don’t regularly attend, if the pastor tells the congregation to repeat something he’s reading…a scripture, prayer, words of affirmation…I find myself thinking, “Screw you. The hell if I will!” If they encourage people to raise their hands in worship, though it sometimes makes me uncomfortable not to because I am the only one who doesn’t conform, the intensity of my angry reaction pretty much guarantees my hands are not going up. No matter how much I stick out or how “awful” it makes me to stand there with my arms down, I refuse to be manipulated in this way. While I will say the Pledge of Allegiance and even say it with pride, when someone is trying to coerce me to say or do something that my heart cannot fully and completely support, something rises up inside of me and I stubbornly refuse to comply. I feel like I would choke on the words if I tried to say them. The thought of being that dishonest and disloyal to myself infuriates me. I would be a total fake if I raised my hands just to go along. So I don’t…go along. And I get really pissed that I’m being put in that position to begin with. I have always had this type of strong reaction to this kind of coercion or manipulation. I’ve not understood why, but I’ve recognized it and decided it was just another one of those quirky things about me that didn’t make sense, but that I wasn’t going to worry about. It doesn’t come up that often. And I mean, really, it’s not like I don’t have enough “issues” to work on! Then I remembered… “Wipe that frown off your face.” “Smile.” “You need to smile. You’re embarrassing me.” “Your face is going to get stuck like that.” “I’m telling you, smile! Now!” “Stop looking like that.” Like a broken record, when I was a teenager, my parents constantly told me to smile. And it used to make me very angry. And I refused. For some reason, I started thinking about this. Made the connection between “repeat after me” and “smile.” I then began to wonder at my intense, angry, defiant reaction. I decided to dig a little deeper. As I’ve shared, my parents were both very abusive to me. They hit me, slapped me, screamed at me, made me take care of the house, the laundry, the ironing and things of that nature at a very young age, they didn’t take me to the doctor when I needed care unless my need was extreme (and then they threatened me that I had “better be sick enough” to warrant the attention), they put me down, told me their problems, fought horrendous fights in front of me (my father hit my mother occasionally during these fights), they rejected me, hated me, told me I was not good enough, and, like icing on the cake, my father sexually abused me for years and years and years. I tried hard for many of those years to comply and please them, to take care of them, to fulfill them, make them proud, to be a better person so they would love me. I wanted to be who they wanted me to be. But by the time I reached my mid-teens, I was done trying. The sexual abuse ended when I was about 14, but the damage was done. I emotionally disconnected. I no longer cared what they thought of me. Oh, I still kept the secrets. I continued to protect them. I was still a dutiful daughter in that I made good grades and wore the mask when I left our house or on those rare occasions when we actually had a visitor. But I stopped smiling, at least at home. And I decided no one was going to make me smile when I didn’t want to smile. Not any more. I decided they were, at the very least, going to have to look at what they had done to me. I was depressed. I was in pain…horrible, destructive, damaging anguish of my heart and soul. I was confused, broken, decimated, wounded, profoundly unhappy. Disconnected. Numb. Barely alive. Barely able to hang on. Suicidal. Heartbroken. Annihilated. Ruined. I had been living in a world without oxygen; a hostile environment. They had hurt me so deeply, rending my soul, smashing my heart into a million pieces. I was, by God, NOT GOING TO SMILE. At the very least, the absolute minimum, they were going to have to live with my downcast expression, my blank face, my dead eyes. It was my one act of defiance. My one expression of pain. My single cry to the universe. Didn’t I deserve, at a minimum, the right to control the expression on my face? To let it say what I truly felt as long as I was out of the public eye? They wanted me to make them look good and hide what they had done to me. I did that. I felt I paid my dues and then some. So I didn’t smile. Not when I was at home. Suddenly, I have a connection with my past; a direct emotional link to the child I used to be. This is a first. I struggle to feel at all these days, so I think this link is positive, even though it’s kind of painful. I am going to explore it a bit. See if it can help me find the little girl I was, the one who was so terrified of her world, who was unwanted, abused, alone. The child who did the only thing she knew to do to tell the world about the darkness in which she existed. And now, if someone tells me to repeat after them, when the anger comes, I will think of her and her tiny act of defiance. I will think of her and pay homage to her for surviving the hellish nightmare she endured. I may even shed a tear for her. And in her honor, I will not say the words others would try to force me to say, I will not raise my hands and I most certainly will not smile.
I saw an old picture of myself recently. I’m about 12 years old, sitting in front of the Christmas tree in the house I lived in from age 9 to 17. I’m sitting sideways to the camera, not frowning, but certainly not smiling and I’m looking decidedly nervous. There is no excitement on my face. I appear to be dazed. No happiness. No anticipation. Instead, I look like an anxious rabbit about ready to run. Edgy. Fearful even. In another old picture taken of my aunt, brother and me after we had been swimming, I have a half-smile playing on my face as we clown for the camera. But my eyes…my smile doesn’t even begin to touch my eyes. And when I cropped the picture to include only my eyes, just to make sure I was really seeing what I thought I was seeing, it became even more evident. They are flat, without emotion, blank. Dead. I appear to have receded within myself. The shell performed while I hid myself safely away. My vacant eyes tell the story. I don’t have many old pictures of myself. It’s difficult to gauge what I was like as a child because of this. My memories tend to fade from nightmarish experiences to big black holes where I took cover and endured the onslaught. I was living so much inside of myself, trying desperately to survive the abuse, I don’t have an “outside looking in” perspective. When I do find pictures, I tend to scrutinize them to see if I can pick up any clues as to what the casual observer might have noticed about me and how I might have been perceived. I’m searching for who I was in hopes of figuring out who I have become. In several of the pictures I do have, I appear to be nervous and wary, even as a small child. In most, if I’m smiling at all, it’s a pinched smile; perfunctory, cautious, forced. There are a few rare pictures where I seem to be smiling with genuine joy. In almost every one, I’m under the age of 5. Does this mean anything? I’m not sure. But it does make me wonder. I can remember my parents getting extremely angry with me on many, many occasions because of my facial expression. I tried not to have one…a facial expression, that is. But even a blank face was offensive. They would yell at me to smile. Scream at me. Smiling didn’t come easily. And I resisted having to plaster a smile on my face to make them happy. Even my expressions weren’t free from their manipulation and demands. That seemed wrong. I didn’t feel like it was right to smile just because it would make them feel better. Everything else I did was to make them feel better; make them look better; to make them happy. But the expression on my face? I wanted it to be my own. Even though, a great deal of the time, it wasn’t allowed. I knew I had to act adjusted and normal when facing the world or suffer the consequences. I knew I had to make my parents look good. I knew I had to keep the many, many dark family secrets. But I wanted to have one thing that was mine, that was genuine, at least when I was home, away from prying eyes. My expression. I didn’t want them to be able to force me to smile when my heart was in so much pain. I didn’t want to have to smile as if I enjoyed the abuse and the abusive environment in which I grew. Evidently, my eyes were the keeper of my pain. They told the story. Even when I was forced to place a smile on my face. It was my one rebellion. In the privacy of my bedroom, when no one was looking, I never smiled. It was the one time I could let a little of the pain I carried show through. Sometimes when I was alone at night, I even cried a little when I was younger. But always very softly. Always under the covers. Always after everyone had gone to sleep and I was totally alone. I still don’t smile easily. In fact, most of the time, I only smile when I’m playing with my little Miniature Schnauzer, Zoe. She brings some happiness to my heart. Otherwise, I only smile when I feel like I’m supposed to, when I have to so as to appear to be more “normal” and “acceptable.” My heart rarely ever smiles, so my face rarely smiles. And my eyes still look dead. Try as I might, I’m still trying to recover from the mortal wound caused by abuse suffered in my childhood. And I’m still more dead than alive. Most of the time, even if I have a smile on my face, it doesn’t reach my eyes. My eyes tell the story the way nothing else does. They are dead and etched in pain. No tears needed. They speak when I can’t. They tell the story, should anyone cares to see.
I grew up believing I wasn’t a real person. I believed I was a thing, an object, something to be used. I was taught not to have needs, wants, hopes…objects don’t rise to the status of having innate value and therefore they don’t have the right to need or hope or dream. They are not a being with a soul. Only those who have worth are allowed to hunger and yearn. I was treated as though I was nothing, squashed into a tiny box and ground into a million, zillion, katrillion pieces. And so, I learned I WAS nothing. I existed only to perform and to fulfill the wants and needs of others. If I was useful, I was allowed to continue to exist. If I pleased my parents, I was allowed to continue to be. I was an object. I still think of myself as an object. I struggle to believe I’m a person. I can’t even comprehend that I could possibly be a person like other people are people. If I’m a person, it’s some lower level of the life form. Not one with full rights or membership in the human race. The problem with being an object when you are “alive” is that you cause problems. Sometimes you don’t feel well. You fail to get your chores done. You have those feelings, the ones you are not supposed to have: hurt, frustration, despair, confusion. You fail to perform up to standard. If you were a knife and you didn’t do a good job cutting, you would likely be thrown away and replaced by a sharper knife (does anyone sharpen knives any more?). If you were a cell phone and you stopped working the way you were supposed to, you would be tossed aside for the latest technology. If you were a car that failed to start, you would be put in the shop and be repaired. If you failed to start too often, you would be replaced with a newer car. But when you’re a breathing object, you can’t as easily be thrown on the trash heap. You can be neglected, beaten, made to feel like crap for having needs. You can be scolded, belittled, slapped into shape. You can be yelled at, rejected, mocked, battered (emotionally and physically). But throwing you out brings unwanted attention from authorities. So you suffer, trying to survive, trying to find a way to navigate, trying to please and fulfill your duties. You learn that your value is totally dependent on your performance. You learn to perform to the best of your ability. You learn to feel horrible when you fail to perform. You apologize to your master(s) for your failure. And you try harder. When you’re young, you have more energy. You can often do a halfway decent job of living up to expectations. But as the years fly by, they tend to weigh heavily and take their toll. Time breaks you down. Energy runs out. Your ability to meet demands falters. Your value plummets. You try harder, but your attempts are not as exuberant or effective as they were in the past. You beat yourself up more and succeed less. The more you fail, the more you feel your lack of worth. The knowledge that you are a failure, and thus worthless, is your constant companion. It eats at you, further draining your energy. This is a painful spiral. It’s difficult to begin to change a perception when you have grown up and grown old thinking of yourself in this way. The older you get, the more similar rejecting experiences you have with others, the more you realize you are nothing but a thing…and not a thing that is special or worthwhile or desirable. A thing that is mostly unwanted and defective and barely tolerable. You work hard, but find yourself able to perform barely enough for others to keep you around. You’re getting close to being obsolete. And that’s terrifying. This kind of thinking runs deep in me because it was hammered into my vulnerable and innocent brain. It was demonstrated a thousand ways over years and years. It WAS what was. It was reality. The place where I lived. The truth my parents taught me. The first lesson started when I was a baby and needed my diaper changed at an inconvenient time. When I had colic. When I didn’t look cute for their friends. There was a price to be paid for failure and the price was steep. You see, when you are an object, your parents can treat you any way they please because you exist only to please them. If you don’t (please them), you deserve whatever you get. In my case, what I got was abused. Sexual abuse, physical abuse, neglect, emotional and verbal abuse, rejection, manipulation, demands that I take on adult responsibilities as a child. I tried to please, but never could. Later in life, I tried to please my husband, but again, never could. I was not what he wanted. He didn’t love me. Most of the time he didn’t even like me. Nothing I could do could change that. I was not acceptable, so I accepted his tolerance as the best I could hope for. Until he threw me away for a newer, better, much improved model. I’m still paying the price for failing. I’m alone now and I hate it. I’m afraid of connecting with people…don’t even know if I know how to do that any more. I have no idea who I really am, but I’m totally convinced who I am is unacceptable. Well, let me rephrase…I do know I’m an object. That much is certain. And I’m not an object of worth or value. I’m an object without a purpose. One that no longer pleases. One that no longer has the ability to perform as required. Junk. Ready for the trash heap. That’s me…and it hurts.
Yesterday was my birthday. I took the day off work; a treat to myself. More than anything, I think I wanted the day to be different in some way from every other day. I wanted to say, “See, I’m here…this is the day I was born…it matters…” My brother sent me flowers, a card and a gift, which was very sweet of him. A friend met me at Panera’s, bought me an iced green tea, gave me the new Josh Groban CD, some body butter and body spray, a book and a card (whew!). A ton of people posted birthday wishes on my wall on Facebook. My aunt and brother called me. An old dear friend who lives quite a distance away called me too. I mean, honestly…that’s a lot of attention! So what is wrong with me that I still felt so alone? Really…what in the heck did I want? Oh, yea. To be treasured. To be cherished. To be desired. To be wanted and protected and cared for. To be celebrated, in spite of my many shortcomings, by someone who knows me…really deeply and truly knows me and who still wants me. To be joined at the heart and soul with someone who thinks I’m special. Even though I’m just me. This birthday was better than most. I’m very thankful for my family and friends. That should be enough. I feel very wrong for wanting more. I guess I’m still waiting for the fairytale ending. But in reality, fairytale endings don’t exist. Why can’t I get my heart to understand this and let go? Why does it keep longing and yearning for someone special who will think I’m special too? I’ve enough birthdays under my belt, I ought to know better by now. I ought to be able to accept that this is one gift I’m simply not going to get. Ever. But I’m still that 17 year old girl inside, dreaming of my prince charming. Unfortunately, the prince never came; it’s not looking good for next year either, or the year after that. This is one dream I need to let go of. But my heart isn’t listening to my head. And so another birthday passes. And so I grow a year older. Alone. Happy birthday to me.