Maggie's new site dedicated to domestic violence has me looking down rabbit holes that go deep down into the past.
I don't really consider myself to be a victim of abuse, though I guess, technically, I am. I grew up in the days when it was considered perfectly okay to spank a child, or yell at them, presumably carte blanche. We were spanked, slapped across the face, told we were liars, even when we told the truth, told we were stupid, and none of that seemed excessive, compared to other kids we knew, and their family life. The thing that seemed really out of hand, really frightening, was the fighting between my parents.
My father was a walking powder keg of rage in those days, and my mother never bothered to read the signs before she jumped all over him, only to lie down in the face of his rage and allow one of us to bear the brunt. It was a toxic combination, and we learned early to disappear when they began their dance. Their fighting caused us to draw closer together, to depend on each other, and I think that was our salvation, but all that rage still took its toll on each of us individually. They crippled us with their words of worthlessness, they convinced us we could only fail at whatever we tried, so why try at all? Even worse, they pitted us against each other with their petty favoritism, undermining what little strength and comfort we had with the lure of being that exception, the favorite.
As a child of eight or nine, I would quietly escape into the silent dark of night, and looking up to the stars, I would pray earnestly for my real people to come back and find me, to rescue me from this place that surely, I didn't belong in.
It was a different flavor of teen angst to realize that this was where I came from, where I belonged, what I was destined for. Might as well indulge in teen-aged drinking, and hey, it's the 70s, let's experiment with a few drugs. Who cares if you fail school? They sure didn't, so why should I?
For a really long time I screwed up everything I ever tried to do in my life, because that's what little self-fulfilling prophecies do. I can't say that I've turned my life around 100%, because I don't think I'll ever feel like that's the case, but I did make a conscious choice to not emulate my parents' disastrous dynamic in my own marriage. And when I became a parent, the shoe, so to speak, was on my foot, and I was damned if my children were going to grow up feeling only conditionally loved, or lacking in potential, or frightened of their parents. I know I'm not a perfect parent - is there really such a thing? I lose control of my temper, I yell at my kids, I make bad calls; but I also apologize when I'm in the wrong, and allow them to voice how they feel without censure. We have a rule in this house: no name calling, and it applies to everyone. Respect is a two-way street - I can't expect it from my children if I don't practice myself.
I can't change or rectify every mistake I've ever made in my life - there is no going back. I may never recover belief in myself, I may always be damaged internally, but I can refuse to inflict that same fate upon someone else. I can stop the cycle. I can't change my parents, but I can try to understand them, and recognize that they were once undamaged too. I can focus on their good qualities and ask them to recognize their negative ones when they surface. Sometimes they cling to their denial, but other times they surprise me with their open regret and desire to rectify. It's rare, I'll grant you, but it does happen, and there is great healing to be had from those moments.
There is a shift of power that comes, when your parents reach their geriatric years. In many ways we become the parent to their aging child. There is a temptation to pay back those childhood debts, in some sort of twisted tit for tat, but whatever karmic debt they have accrued, it is my hope that I will be a better, kinder parent than they were.
Appended to add: I thought about this post a lot; whether to write anything at all, how much to say, how others might react to this. I tossed and turned all night, fretting it. I'm not happy with how I've skimmed this topic, but I don't feel that I can be more in-depth; partly because it isn't just my traumatic childhood, partly because I have dealt with a lot of my anger, and I'm not estranged from my parents or family. Not yet. I sent this post to Bea, with the title, "Is This going To Ruin Christmas?" She agreed that there is a choppiness to this post, a series of omissions to the tale, a glossing over of the darker details, but she also agreed that there is good reason for that. It isn't just my tale, but more saliently, I don't consider myself to be a victim, primarily because what I have written here has been said aloud, to my parents, my siblings. We are not a family of well-kept secrets, rather, the dynamic might better be compared to running the gauntlet. My aim in writing this is not to dredge up a lot of past flotsam, but to point out that, just like Cary did, in the DV post, that abuse occurs everywhere, we all carry scars. It's what we do with those scars that makes the difference.
And I'm still wondering if I've explained myself fully.