Child Abuse: Why Good People Sometimes Do Bad Things
One Survivor's Story
As the title states, at least in my experience, sometimes good people do bad things.... sometimes they do very bad things. In speaking to some of those same people, if you used the term 'child abuse' and told them that that was what they had done, they would be flabbergasted that you would use such a term as applied to them. At least that's the way it has gone for this 56-year-old survivor of a very 'bruised' childhood. Part of me wants to bury this story and never speak of it again, but then another part of me feels it is important to write about because it is real and unfortunately, it still happens. The most important part of the story, however, is overcoming it and salvaging your self-esteem along with other vital parts of your psyche in the process. The ultimate goal is survival and a well rounded life.
MY FIRST LIFE
The story of my childhood abuse is not unique and to know me, most people do not even believe that this could have happened to me. I appear too 'normal' (more on that further on). That fact does flatter me on some levels I suppose but when questioned about it, trying to explain my past to other people has always been a bit hard for me to convey, why I am who I am.
Photo Credit: Flickr Jason O'Halloran
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My mother left home I imagine because of her mother (you will see why further on). She was a musician and a very good one. Her father and my grandmother had since divorced and a brother and sister who were older were long gone. My mother was tormented and an outcast as a child because of my grandmother and her 'business' as a fortune teller in Ashland, Oregon. It was, needless to say, not fashionable and my grandmother was 'eccentric' by that point in time. The violent fights were also legendary between my grandfather and grandmother. On leaving for greener pastures, my mother unfortunately fell prey to a swindler who I many years later found out did this for a living. He was also very experienced at the age of 44 to her 24. All too soon, she found that she was pregnant with me. I will leave out many of the sordid details but he was not a good man. He was a brute and a violent brute at that. By the time that she realized what she was in for, she was very much alone with no one in the world to help her. Her own father turned her away because of the 'disgrace' and my grandmother by then was close to being institutionalized. Her 'eccentricity' was now showing itself for what it truly was - mental illness of some sort.
In the 1950s, it was not fashionable to be an unwed mother. It was not fashionable to have no husband (he thankfully did leave for another love interest and/or the next mark). She had no job skills except playing piano and accordion. How was she supposed to get by and raise an unwanted child? It seemed the logical choice for her to petition her mother to come and help out, to live with her and take care of me when I was born. When I look back on it, it does all seem very logical and very sad at the same time to have so very few options.
I have always been a high energy person and I have no doubt that I came kicking and screaming into the world much as I go through it now - at warp speed. For someone who was in their 60s to start over raising a child such as me, it must have been hard and I will give you that. My mother did end up turning her talent into a well-honed craft. She became a music teacher and does that to this day at the age of 80. However, that meant that she was gone most of every day including Saturdays as she tried to make a living for us. Sundays she would be there part of the time but also dated in her spare time. Unfortunately, that meant that I was left with my grandmother who by now was truly in the throes of schizophrenia. Added bonus was that she was also an extremely violent schizophrenic so it did not take long for things to 'heat up'. To add to the mayhem, when I was about 3-1/2, my father made a brief reappearance, just long enough to get my mother pregnant again and take off yet again. Then it REALLY got interesting.
For some reason (this is going to sound Smothers Brothers-ish but it is the truth), my grandmother liked my sister far better than she liked me. Probably because I was high maintenance although ANY maintenance would have been a good idea as I had very little supervision or care since as she was lost in her mental world most of the time. My sister, however, from the day she was born must have sensed the need to withdraw and be silent because she did. She was an extremely 'good child' whereas I went up a notch from a 'bad seed' to flat out 'evil'.
By the time I was 4-1/2, my grandmother had split my head open by using the wrong end of a belt on me - and lied and said I hit it on the furnace. By the time I was 8, she had shot me with a garden hose on full blast out of a tree and I fell about 8 feet backwards with my arm twisted behind me and broke it - justifiable because I would not come in when I was called to practice the accordion. (Who in their right mind would want to come in and practice the accordion? ha) Instead of realizing that I was probably going into shock, she beat me about the head for good measure and put me to bed. (Obviously this was not the woman that would win the best nanny award). It just went on and on. I was beaten with belts, window shades, brooms. I had scalding water thrown at me, dishes, other implements. Then the fun would really get going when my mother would come home from work to a litany of everything 'the black bastard' had done (I later figured out this must have been because my mother never married although my sister had the same heritage and never received the label). My mother would become incensed after a hard day's work and usually the dinner would be cleared - into my lap - too bad it happened to be scalding hot soup or whatever. No matter what, it was completely and utterly my fault. I did learn to run, I did learn to hide, I did learn to climb trees and stay on the roof because I knew she could not get me there - but she eventually did catch up with me. One night in particular, she mistook me for her imaginary evil man 'Tony' and was standing over me with a butcher knife. I still don't know what she intended to do but I have always been a very light sleeper - before and since.
The things that were said, the things that were done - they would all be all too obvious nowadays - the bruising, the inability for me to concentrate or make friends at school, the picking fights with other people (usually to defend my insane grandmother or my sister who was bullied) - but it was just not that noticeable back then. I wanted someone to save me yet I wanted to stay with my family because I did truly love them. I was exposed to all kinds of situations with less than stable men as I grew up and the miracle to me is that somehow sexual molestation did not end up on my list of insults as well. For that, I am eternally grateful. More than once I talked my way out of something or just ran but even then, my mother felt that I was 'inticing' men and was somehow to blame. I certainly did not feel I wanted that attention!
It was a very lonely and very hard way to grow up. Thankfully we lived in southern California so my 'living outside' as much as I could worked. This continued on and by now, the rhetoric was fixed in my brain - 'if only you were a better child, we would not have all these troubles. If only you were normal, none of this would happen to you. If only you were GOOD - why can't you be better?.' By 12, I believed it - at 13, my mother met someone and within a week or so, decided to marry him. I was hoping for the best as we had never had much in terms of stability, but even that did not work so well where I was concerned. Although we got the stability we needed, we also got more trouble - at least I did. I was beaten by the time that I was 14 so severely that I passed out and was covered from head to toe with bruises and had a dislocated jaw - but it was 'my fault'. If only I did not speak up, challenge people, not listen! Why did I push him? The very saddest part of all of this was that I WAS a good kid - I was a wonderful kid - I was a very talented kid - I just did not believe it.
After 13, my life should have been rosy. Probably on the outside most of my high school friends thought it was. They probably thought I was highly successful. I was on some levels but it started then and it began to claw at me - the thing - the depression. I began thinking I did not deserve to live - that life was just too hard to go on. I had to fight it every day and even went so far as to make a couple of pathetic suicidal gestures during my junior and senior year. People saw me as a bit 'flighty' or the 'drama queen' but no one ever figured out why. By 17, I had had enough and knew if I did not leave, I would die - either by my own hand or by drugs or something else because I just could not cope. The day after I graduated, I went into a religious group because I thought I'd be safe there. That was perhaps the best thing I ever did for myself. At least it saved my life. At least it gave me space and time to figure out what I was, who I was, and how to go on with the rest of my life.
THE REST OF MY LIFE
I have learned over the years that you can forgive but you can't forget. I ended up having a good relationship with my grandmother even after all that. I realized after being away for some time that she truly needed help and it was not her 'fault' that it all happened. It had just been too bad. It still is too bad in my mind as she had so many good qualities but the illness made life a living hell. As to the other cast of characters - well, it's been tough. I am 56 years old and my mother is 80. We still have a very precarious relationship. Not because of what happened so much but because of the denial of what happened, the blame of what happened still being directed at me. I have been through counseling, I have read books and studied the subject inside and out (because I did go on to have my own children and never wanted them to grow up this way). I have found the bottom line is this - good people sometimes do really bad things . You can't change that and you can't change their perception of why they did it! That is the hardest part for me to accept since I feel like I got chumped a bit - out of something called a childhood not to mention my teenage and young adult years.
When I saw the movie Goodwill Hunting for the first time, I could not leave the theater because I was sobbing. The one line in the movie where Robin Williams takes Matt Damon in his arms and hugs him and says 'It's Not Your Fault' over and over opened up a huge bleeding ulcer I had been carrying around with me for years. I had somehow been thinking it WAS my fault and maybe my mother was right, maybe my grandmother had been right, maybe my sister was right, maybe my stepfather was right, too. If only I had been a better child, a better person, none of it would ever have happened. Bull roar! Years later of course after raising my own children (our oldest with ADD), I learned for myself that there was NOTHING my children could do that would EVER make me treat them that way. There was simply NOTHING that bad that could possibly justify hurting a child like that. It is after all the gift that keeps on giving.
However, I do not feel it was all in vain. That seems a little odd to think of but I truly think that life is like a deck of cards - not a box of chocolates. You get what is dealt to you and it is up to YOU how you want to play them. Granted, I started out with about 17 years of extremely hard ground and not much to draw on that was not negative. But that time I had on my own, living first with other people who were not violent, then getting my own apartment, dating (that was a bit rocky for a while) and finally figuring out what I wanted, what I DESERVED out of life by the ripe old age of 20 - priceless. My only regret is that I had children right away and I fear that I probably 'practiced' on them as I grew up myself and figured things out. I knew what I did NOT want in a husband or in terms of parenting, but I had nothing to guide me but instinct. I had to reinvent the wheel so to speak and just go with my heart or my gut. That was hard - to believe in MYSELF - not what I had been told. I always believed in Bob and I always believed in my children. I tell them now I fell in love the moment I met them. It was the greatest gift I could have given myself to have raised them. Loving Bob truly healed me - being loved by HIM healed me, being loved by my children and creating a family - all pluses. It was not all perfect but it was part of a healing balm I will carry with me until the day I die.
Now am I normal? I doubt it. I can say that with all honesty. I have a great many quirks which people don't understand but it's all good. I accept them and I accept myself for who I am - the strengths and the weaknesses. Some of them may be inherently my personality but also then there are other things that are probably a result of the things I went through. It is inevitable not to be scarred in some fashion. I take things on a personal level very seriously and probably will always overreact if I feel threatened - physically, emotionally, any way. I have to examine things carefully to make sure I am NOT overreacting. I have learned that speaking up is the answer for me and trying to explain why I feel the way I do works best rather than going into panic mode or trying to bury it. My ego took a severe bruising and probably for most of my life, I've been an overachiever at everything. I strive to do my best - not BE the best - but DO the best and beyond. I have a hard time allowing myself to relax or play - that is something I have never done. I am an extremely low maintenance kind of person and am always happiest doing things for other people, sometimes neglecting myself in the process. I refuse to believe there is ANYTHING I cannot do. I am passionate to the extreme about everything! I love to cook (it is my way of erasing all those bad memories of mealtimes - creating happy memories). I love rescuing dogs because it is my way of giving something back to something abused. I love life and I love to laugh because that was the one thing that I learned to use to make friends or feel good about myself way back when. I don't have nightmares but I do dream a lot about the past. However, I have learned over the years to keep it where it belongs - in the past. It can no longer hurt me and I can forget it (again).
The only thing that has never been resolved for me is the daydream of someone actually taking the blame for their part in what happened to me. Don't get me wrong - my mother loves me and I have no doubt of that - I never have. My grandmother loved me as well. I know that in my heart but in my head, it gets a little twisted up sometimes simply because it hurt to be hurt! On so many levels. I spent several decades 'pretending' that all was well with my family of origin though any casual observer would have known that nothing was right about it. There inevitably was an 'incident' where something was said off color to me and all my buried feelings would come tumbling out. I would try to stick up for myself then but it was too late. I would try to make them see the pain that I still had and that I was trying to forget. We always slid back into the pattern, the revolving door - 'well of course you were beaten - who would not have beaten you - you were horrible! You were always doing something. If only you had figured out how to manipulate people (at 4 this seems rather impossible) and be GOOD like your sister'. 'Do you know that I neglected your sister because you were SO demanding?' And from my sister 'if only you had been quieter, if you had not done so many WILD things - none of it ever would have happened and we would have none of these fights'.
I finally decided that I was no spring chicken and I was the only person who could step off the merry-go-round and make it right - for me. So I began telling them I was sorry they did not see it my way but those were my feelings and accept it or not - live with it. My mother has tried every which way but loose to guilt me - she is 'too old for this nonsense' - she absolutely will NOT speak of this or that - but I barrel on. I don't just start up a conversation with 'do you remember' and launch into some scene of abuse but if something comes at me, I address it and take my stand. I refuse to be bullied anymore or made to feel the responsible party. Sometimes it works better than others. On a few such occasions, when I have stuck up for myself or my perception of what happened to ME, my mother has basically written me off - hung up the phone or walked away. I have gone as long as 2 years without hearing a word from her. As hard as that might have been for me many moons ago, I just let it be. I have drawn lines and I have decided that those lines stand. FOR ME. Same with my sister. If she persists in saying things that are detrimental to my mental health about the past or will not even allow me to speak of things that I need to, we no longer speak. I maintain a safe distance - much like with radiation. If you don't have too heavy an exposure, you are safer. That is a sad thing to say about people I truly love, but when the people you love hurt you and hurt you badly still, it's time to stand tall and walk away.
My mother eventually always comes back - usually as if nothing ever happened. I feel that it is a sad thing to be so firmly entrenched in justifying your actions that you would give up spaces of time with your child but I cannot parent for my mother. That is on her and as painful as it is realizing that I can never get that 'apology' out of them for what they did, my self-respect and my mental well being are tied up in MY happiness. Sadness is not something unheard of to me but for the most part, the sadness in these cases is a necessary thing - if it keeps me from being hurt much worse, then being sad for the loss of a relationship, whether permanent or transient, is just the price I have to pay. Trying to simply convey my feelings has not seemed to do any good - counseling with my mother even as an adult did no good. I am not allowed to express my feelings without people starting to collectively jump back at me with the 'it's your fault'. That part is frustrating.
In my fashion though, hope springs eternal. For my last birthday - ripe old 56 - I received a card from my mother that read something to the effect of 'there are a few things I wish I could have a redo on' - and my stepfather also signed it 'ditto for me'. That may be a very small sliver of hope but I think that meant something of significance. Maybe I'll never hear the whole sentence 'it's not your fault' or 'I'm sorry' but that card was definitely something I never expected. It was a welcome start, although I realize that that may be all I ever get.
My reason for writing this particularly long-winded hub is that there is always hope. No matter if life throws bad things at you, I believe it is all meant for some reason - to teach you something, help make you a better person down the road. I am not perfect - far from it and I know I can be rather irksome to many or stubborn to most. I have my own idiosyncratic ways of looking at things or doing things but at the bottom of it all, I'm a good person. I know who I am, I know where I came from, and I know where I'm going. I also know that my family of origin is made up of good people who probably just got tangled up in their own upbringing and life's hard knocks. They didn't handle any of it correctly in my opinion, but it doesn't erase the fact that they do love me. I believe most of life is built on patterns. There are some patterns still there in how they treat me though and that was what finally turned me around to the point in my life of saying no matter what, I'm making things okay for ME. No pretense anymore - no lies. Breaking the pattern, being me and standing up for me and for that little girl who didn't have a chance to do it before - that to me is the healing part, the hope part.
In marrying my Bob, I broke the pattern - that was what I decided I needed to do and it worked! I have not been a perfect mother (or a perfect wife) but I have given it my all - and I have told my children I'm sorry because I know I made mistakes along the way. The important thing is seeing the patterns though and BREAKING them. Even if things can't work out like a Donna Reed show and be perfect, what you end up, who you end up being - that is the pearl inside the oyster. You don't have to let life shape you - you CAN reinvent yourself - take it from me! I'm still a work in progress and I never plan on forgetting to change or evolve. It is part of the gift my lifetime gave me so out of the bad can come quite a lot of good! The saying 'no pain, no gain' I suppose would sum up so many things in my life but I'm living proof that you can take a positive away from a negative.
Sources of Information on Child Abuse
- WikiAnswers - Why do people abuse their children
Abusive Relationships question: Why do people abuse their children? Abuse Many people who abuse children were themselves abused. Sometimes, they just don't know any other way of handling child rearing.
- Child Abuse Prevention Network
- Child Abuse and Neglect: Warning Signs of Abuse and How to Report It
It's NOT Your Fault
- Child abuse - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
- Stop It Now Organization
- Broken Spirits: A online support group for victims of abuse and domestic violence
- Psych Central: Abuse: Support Groups
- Post Traumatic Stress Disorder - Adult Survivors Of Child Abuse
- We Are Adult Survivors of Child Abuse and Neglect -
- ASCA - Adult Survivors of Child Abuse
ASCA is an innovative recovery program for adult survivors of childhood abuse
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