Chapter 1, Part 3
The Dark of My Youth
Most of my earliest memories, the one that I remember, involve fear. I lived in total fear: fear of and for myself, fear for and of the ones I loved, fear of dying, fear of living, fear of loss, and especially fear of men. The man at church wasn’t the only one to touch me; there was worse, and I was terrified to tell my parents because I thought they would blame me as I blamed myself.
The sexual abuse began when I was five years old and the mental, physical, and emotional abuse began much earlier. My parents would beat me or my brother bloody sometimes, and they treated us as golden children and scapegoats. I learned very early that I couldn’t trust my parents and their reactions.
I was too terrified to say anything to anyone, even my grandparents. The touching from men plus the mental, physical, and emotional abuse from my parents altered me fundamentally on a mental, physical, emotional, and sexual level at a very young age. There was no way to escape. So, I did what so many do when they are hurt at a young age, I repressed, suppressed, and depressed.
I have huge gaps in my memory. There is literally nothing there. We have all of these photo albums, and I see me in the pictures but I have no memories of the actual events.
My brain protected itself; plus, it developed coping mechanisms that allowed me to keep myself safe and function enough so that to the world nothing appeared to be wrong. We were the family of secret keepers, the perfect family. My father had big dreams and being perceived as the very best was his highest priority. Outwardly, I tried to be perfect. Inside, I was a mess, fractured and broken.
Feelings of being unworthy, undeserving, unlovable, unlikable, shame, and self-hatred were part of the core of my being. I thought everything that happened to me was my fault, that I must be so flawed, so evil, that I deserved what I got. Fear and rage drove my actions – I sometimes lied, manipulated, and blamed others to keep myself safe in an environment that wasn’t. As I grew into a tween, I learned that being perfect afforded acceptance. If I was always perfect in appearance, behavior, grades, speech, and caring for my family’s needs, then I was acceptable. Fear of failure, of being less than perfect, drove me mercilessly because failure meant punishment. Worse it meant the withdrawal of the conditional love and acceptance that I worked so hard to get and that I craved above all else.
At a very young age I learned to be adult – mature, ultra responsible, poised, and feelingless -as in not feeling my own feelings. My feelings weren’t allowed. It wasn’t safe to have them and definitely wasn’t safe to express them. When I did, which was most often tears, I was mocked and shamed: weak, cry baby, stop it!
I learned to parent. I parented my brother and my parents. I had to make sure that mom and dad were okay because when they were okay, then I was safe physically, emotionally, and mentally. Hypervigilance.
If they and others weren’t okay, then I had to figure out what was needed to make them feel okay so I could be safe. Most times it was enough, but sometimes nothing was enough. When the demons that my family battled took over, there was no one home to talk to, to reason with, or to plead with. I never knew what reaction to expect – rage, laughter, indifference, punishment, or acceptance. Reactions couldn’t be predicted, and the world became a dangerous place in which I could trust no one, not even myself because if I can’t make sense of things, of other people, and have understandable reactions, then how can I trust anything?
What I heard as child, I carried forward. It stayed with me. It’s how I saw, heard, talked, thought, and felt about myself. It’s also how I perceived others and their reactions to me. It’s how I believed the world saw me, and it became part of the blueprint for my adultness – how I saw myself and how I treated myself.
I still remember some of the words spoken in anger, disgust, or mockery more than thirty years later:
“Stop crying – I’ll give you something to cry about!” (age 6)
“You’re smart, but you don’t have any common sense.” (heard this one often, age 7 up)
“Don’t touch me. You’ll mess me up.” (age 8)
“You are so sensitive. It’s just a joke. Can’t you take a joke?” (age 8 and up)
“You’re such a little bitch.” (age 9)
“You’ll never be a dancer. You’re bow-legged.” (age 10)
“You didn’t get a 100. Why not?” (this one cropped up constantly, age 11)
“Ashley, I forget you’re not a grown up. You act like one.” (age 12)
“Your nose is so big. You should get a nose job” (variations on a theme, age 13 & up)
“Your butt is as wide as a barn door.” (variations on a theme, age 14 & up)
I can still feel that sinking in my stomach and that choking sensation in my throat even now. When I think back to all the awful words, they hurt as much as the physical violence. I carried these words and feelings in my body, like flaming hot, sharp, metal lances that scorched my flesh, festered, and sickened me. I allowed these words to become part of my belief system because if the people, who are supposed to love me unconditionally think these things about me, then they must be true.
Accompanying all this pain was a deep well of rage, which I turned inward, but which would geyser out in violent, emotional and sometimes physical outbursts when pressures became too great to contain. At thirteen I once threw a glass of iced tea and hit my bed with my pillow over and over again just to get the intense anger out. These moments of rage would then be followed by a dump truck load of remorse, guilt, and shame with vows to be more perfect . . . until the next time the pressures became too great.
At my lowest points as I entered and continued into my adulthood, I adopted personas and other coping mechanisms so I could function in a world that filled me with fear, uncertainty, and anxiety. I walked a walk of confidence with a thin veneer of snobbery that masked my inherent shyness and fear. OCD held sway in my life – the more disorderly my thoughts and feelings, the more my physical environment had to be organized, structured, and clean. Objects had to be placed at right angles, the pantry and cupboards resembled the ones in the film “Sleeping with the Enemy.” When too stressed, cleaning allowed me to calm my mind and feelings, but not the normal kind of cleaning; we’re talking toothbrush cleaning of baseboards and cabinet door panels, wall and ceiling washing, and hand-scrubbing floors. When things outside of my control changed or weren’t going well, I had to make the things within my control even more perfect. My idea of perfect.
What I didn’t know at that time was that I was sabotaging myself. I lived in a state of duality, wanting to draw people close (see me, love me), but at the same time instinctually driving them away because I truly, deeply, and completely felt and believed I didn’t deserve love, acceptance, or even liking. Self-loathing and deep shame surrounded, filled up, and propelled me into downward spirals of self-destructive thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. I occasionally hurt others with unkind words, but mostly I hurt myself because my brand of dealing was to turn it all inward upon myself and to blame myself for everything that didn’t go right regardless of circumstances.
Finding friends was sometimes hard; people didn’t get me. I don’t blame them. I was about as inauthentic as you can get. Still, it wasn’t all bad. People also saw me as highly capable, nurturing, helpful, friendly, caring, determined, focused, incredibly intelligent, and able to handle high-stress environments. I was the mother figure, the nurse, the person people talked to when they needed help or were upset or just when things weren’t going well. However, I wasn’t the person with whom people wanted to go out and have fun. I think people mostly saw me as an uptight stick in the mud, which to be fair was really, pretty true. I was hard to get to know – hell, I didn’t even know myself. My personal space was four feet. There was a definite do not touch me or my stuff vibe that I put out to most people unless you made it to my innermost circles.
I am a Scorpio, and, boy do I fit the personality. Still waters run deep.
However, I also had a deep vein of empathy, which is why I could heal because I never lost the ability to feel and understand others’ pain and to realize that things weren’t right in my worldview. So, I used my very intelligent mind and love of learning to try to figure out and understand what was right and good. I had a lot of love that I gave others, especially children. They were sweet and innocent and real. They said what they thought, and they laughed and played. I loved to laugh often engaging with child-like enthusiasm in play with them. To this day the sound of children laughing fills me with joy and brings a huge smile to my face.
Motherhood was something I wanted so very badly, but I didn’t want to get married. I figured I would eventually adopt and bypass the whole husband thing. Everyone in my family had been divorced at least once. Plus, I had terrible taste in men – total jackass magnet, and marriage seemed a trap or at best a stepping stone to divorce. However, when I discovered I was pregnant, I panicked precisely because I wasn’t married.
What would my family think?
I could hear their voices in my mind, “We cannot believe you did this to us! What will everyone think?!!!”
In point of fact my parents briefly disowned me.
What would coworkers think? I imagined, “Slut!”
Then, I actually stopped to consider what I thought and felt. I realized I was thrilled. I was going to be a mom, the best mom ever. I would love, care, protect, and cherish this life growing inside me.
Parenting books: I raided the libraries for every single one I could find. The What to Expect When . . . series and Love and Logic were my parenting bibles. If I couldn’t borrow parenting books, then I bought. I read, researched, and religiously followed the advice because I didn’t know what healthy parenting looked like. Sadly, parenting for me was like walking on the edge of a coin because going the total opposite of a behavior is just as bad as the behavior itself. I didn’t want to ever be like my parents, but the key to being a good mother was to be in the healthy middle. Unfortunately, for me I perceived that middle to be the thickness of a dime. I lived with a lot of fear and worry for the most part that I would make a mistake if I wasn’t on guard with my actions and words. Some might call it mindful parenting, for me it was hypervigilance.
Many people with trauma can’t just be. Being peaceful and centered simply wasn’t something that I knew how to do mentally, emotionally, physically, or energetically. My energy was always so nervous that I actually could make others nervous around me unless I was busy doing something. Full concentration or split attention on something was peaceful when I was in situations that made me uncomfortable.
So, I learned how to be the very best mom that I could be and actually did discover a lot of peace in being a mother. I loved my precious baby girl with my whole being, I protected with my whole being, and I grew with my whole being from this amazing experience.
Was I perfect? Not even close, but I found that unconditional love and acceptance that I had been craving my whole life and discovered that I had the same to give in return. On the flip side, I ended up enmeshing myself with my daughter. Her happiness was in many ways my happiness.
I knew I still needed to heal, to become whole, and to realize myself so that my beautiful daughter could grow up healthy and strong herself.
I knew my childhood wasn’t healthy, just as I knew I wasn’t. I also knew I was overprotective of my child. I found it next to impossible to let her out of my sight, even with family members and friends that I trusted. I knew that this type of parenting stifled growth and potential.
I knew that I needed to change because I was not going to let the unhealthy cycles continue down the line to my daughter.
They stopped with me.
It was both an incredibly easy and incredibly difficult decision, and it was a vow. It meant I would have to face and conquer my inner demons. It meant I had to choose to fall into my own hell in order to do so.
My own hell was something that I suppressed with every cell in my body. I didn’t want to see it, feel it, hear it, or think it – remembering it made me physically sick, sent me into uncontrollable rages, or spiraled me into an abyss of total fear in the moments that snippets of memory or full-on visuals broke through my consciousness. When those moments came, it was like wanting to rip my physical body apart so the awfulness inside of me could just end. Caught up in those feelings, people around me, conversations, what I was doing hazed over, and the past interjected itself into whatever was going on in the present. So, even though I might be with my in-laws in body, every other part of me was stuck in a bubble, and the responses that came out didn’t always fit the best with what was going on around me.
I vibrated with energy and that energy would feel like I was going to vibrate apart. So, I held myself tighter and tighter, keeping my shit together – a massively tense, uptight person, who made others uncomfortable. I struggled at times not to come unglued, to cry in front of people or to cry at work because a sight, phrase, sound, or smell would trigger me, popping me into a memory bubble.
Healing myself for my own sake wasn’t my motivation, my daughter was. As I journeyed through the vast labyrinth of my psyche and healed more and more, the focus shifted from healing myself for the sake of my child to healing myself for my own sake because I was and am worth it. I found that I love and enjoy myself. My true self is joyful, laughing, giggly, and playful. My true self loves fiercely and unconditionally. I am a smart, sassy, funny, and powerful woman. I own my gifts and my abilities. I own my choices and my actions, and I own that everything in my life comes from me.
The journey through chronic post traumatic stress disorder and general anxiety disorder took a lot of courage, resiliency, and determination. Consciously choosing to journey into and through my own abyss of emotions, memories, and choices that brought me to this point is not a journey I took lightly or easily, nor was it one I could have successfully navigated without a lot of support because when we find those inner demons and confront them, we often find that those demons are of our own making and our own choosing, which is perhaps one of the absolute hardest things of all to accept.
However, having not only conquered my abyss, but having turned it into a gorgeous, inner garden of my own design, I now have the tools to take care of any weeds that crop up. Plus, I have beautiful seeds, seedlings, and plants that I continue to nurture and grow. I will spend a lifetime in my head and body; it’s totally worth the time and effort to me to make them a wonderful place that I want to be and enjoy being.