So, the hardest part of abuse is defining it.
It’s not one thing, it’s a complex and systematic unraveling of a person, and most abhorrently it involves a warping of reality, a blurring of events that, so easily, are reframed and redefined to discredit you.
You’re taught not to trust yourself.
And what happens then, if everyone who sees it happening spends decades asserting and reasserting that YOU are the problem? That every bit of truth told is a selfishness, a conspiracy?
This post is about the protracted death of everything that I was born being. Trigger warning for child abuse and all the erasures that go with it.
It’s taken a lot of time to build the certainty to write about this, and months and months of research, a heavy emphasis on ‘search’. I had to find the evidence, see, had to drag out concrete examples out from web pages, blogs, pdfs of books. But the thing about abuse is this: even an itemized list would not absolve me, would not condemn the perpetrator. The biggest myth is that you can ever find the words to prove it happened- anyone listening has likely already formed their own conclusions.
And that’s the worst thing, that I could not rely on my own experiences to make my case. That I had to make a case at all.
In order to believe myself, I needed to be believed, and for years upon years I had been told that nothing that I said (or felt) was believable.
Nearly every single person in my life, denied or ignored and so enabled. There was no well-meaning protector, no friend or teacher who was willing to wonder about my Father. And still more people knew everything, had seen, yet refused to do a thing about it. A lot of them joined in.
That made a dent. The initial harms were awful: fear, humiliation, tight control, occasional violence and endless manipulation. But the lifelong gaslighting by my abuser, his family, and all their friends? That is the worst thing I have ever lived through.
And at 24, I’m just beginning to feel sure that though I am both mentally ill and somewhat damaged, I am absolutely not crazy.
I am sure also, that I was not the only one harmed by him. I can only tell my own story. But I know there must be many, many more.
The story is vaguely this: I was born, something happened, and then I was unwelcome. Any thoughts and words and expressions that came from me were nothing, to be ignorned or ridiculed or worse, punished.
I was called selfish for claiming that I had a right to exist without feeling hated, degraded and afraid.
I was called overemotional for crying, called paranoid for asking not to be treated in ways that upset me, labeled dramatic for saying the things that were happening to me were wrong. (Not shockingly, years of trauma tend to make accusations of paranoia and emotional lability truer and truer, making it much easier for abusers to shift blame onto their victims).
And there were many things: the consistent degradation, invalidation, the ridiculing of my experience stayed the worst. But there were threats, intimidation, and and a disregard for my personal boundaries that was absolutely scarring. I remember being forced to ride Splash Mountain, despite my panicked sobs and then being so terrified that I tried to exit the boat midway (And later, being roughly grabbed and shouted at in the middle of the park for still being afraid of rides afterward – he had spent all that money after all.). I was forced to be around fireworks despite my fear of them, and I would end up in anxious tears every single time. There was constant exposure to sexual content and lewd, misogynistic comments (under the guise of ‘not lying to your kids about sex’) that made me very uncomfortable and wrecked for years my ability to feel that I was allowed to use words like “no.”
I had nightmares, I had horrific intrusive thoughts. I was afraid all of the time, of everything. No one whe knew seemed to care, and I had by then lost the trust necessary to tell any of the adults who actually were concerned. I remember being punished for crying, for having emotional responses to his cruelty and dismissiveness, and I remember a time out chair in a garage’s semidarkness where I sobbed until I “calmed down” enough to come upstairs.
I remember more than once being told that if we didn’t eat our food and drink our milk, he would ‘sit on your chest and force it down your throat’. I am fairly certain I also remember at least one time when he made good on that threat, though I don’t know which one of us it happened to.
I remember that when I began to develop OCD and severe emotional disregulation around kindergarten, I was labeled a frustration and mocked, not supported. It took me a long time to tie my shoes, I was afraid of certain objects, and I often became paralyzed with worry that I would inadvertently cause my mother to commit suicide. The solution was to complain that I was “on Lydia time”, and that I needed to “lighten up”. I spent a brief stint in therapy then, but what good is therapy when you are already so afraid of being made fun of that you cannot admit to your fears or talk about your symptoms?
It felt like life and death, every day. Because as a child with no support outside the family, it was. I would have done anything to avoid being shut out, out down and ostracized. I did. Nothing changed.
Maybe to most people some things seem or seemed normal, not as bad as they could have been, or just something all parents do. I know that no amount of examples, even taken together in chronology, will ever be enough to convince some people that I was ever mistreated.
But here, to me, is the difference: in every instance, I was visibly hurt and frightened. I did my best to make it known I did not feel alright with what was happening. I tried hard to tell everyone how afraid, uncomfortable and unhappy I felt. But the fundamental thing was that my comfort, my right to feeling safe, my consent, didn’t fucking matter. At all.
And that is a pattern which never ended in my family, even when the more overt incidents did.
Because abuse is not a lost temper, an accident, a handful of bad judgments or old fashioned ideas. It is 100% about control – someone who sees themseves as having the right to overrule the ideas, thoughts, opinions, boundaries, plans and even lived experiences – of someone who cannot fight back or get away. (Lundy Bancroft’s amazing book Why Does He Do That? taught me this, and I apologize for any unintentional paraphrasing)
My Father, after all, knew what was best. His children were not thinking, emotive beings. We were liabilities and we were possessions, like the house he constantly reminded us was his and not ours. Whether he meant it or not, we became things for him to rule over, receptacles for his superior knowledge, agreeing voices to staunch the wounds of his own insecurities. And we became an avenue for him to garner praise for being the father who who sacrificed everything to raise his girls when his crazy, whore wife left him out of the blue.
The more I read about abuse, manipulation, and control, the less I can believe that story. If I have become so negated, so unreliable to everyone he speaks to me about, what other lies has he told?
As I grew older, things became less overt and the trauma of those early years -blamed wholly and frequently on my Mother for leaving, rather than my Father for being literally abusive- faded into a kind of monotonous, subtle hostility.
He couldn’t tolerate those normal childhood flaws in us. Nightmares, spilled cups of water, failed recipes, all those q tips I once used to make a breadcrumb trail to some imaginary location. He let us know, often and angrily, that we could not be anything less that convenient, easy, responsible small adults.
There was an attitude that nothing, ever, could or would be adquate. He didn’t choose academics or sports as a pressure point, though. Instead he focused on the minute details of our everyday actions. Every single thing, from the way I blew my nose to what we thought about music or television, had to be challenged and in many cases, corrected.
The criticism got so bad that in high school, I stopped cooking and largely stopped eating while he was awake, so that he would not find fault in the way I boiled my noodles or fried my eggs or put cups into the dishwasher. After I graduated high school, it took me almost seven years to learn to cook and eat normally again.
One incredibly hard thing to cope with was how much he seemed to care- he is an emotional, sensitive, and sometimes repentant man. He says ‘I love you’ genuinely and often. He does kind things more than occasionally and does not lack in thoughtfulness.
But there are things he did which will forever cancel out the kind parts of him, far outweigh any good that was done or that he tried to do.
I am sure that he believes he means well and I am sure that I do not care.
He gets to wake up to a close family, a distinguished job, loyal friends, a golf membership and relative financial stability.
I am utterly destroyed, unable to work or study, and still coping with obsessive thoughts related to his abuse. I have frequent, disturbing dreams and a psychiatric record that is miles longer than the distance between where he lives and where I can afford to stay.
I will not feel sorry for him.
There are other things to write about, other people. My sister and my mother, his past lovers and friends, must each have their stories.
There are pieces still sliding into place, details I missed, chains of events that began long before I did.
But I am learning not to care about that chain.
Causality is nothing when it is used to shift responsibility.
His frustration and the stress of single parenting did not abuse me. His difficult childhood did not abuse me. His poor role models, bottles in hand, did not abuse me. His lack of knowledge about what was right, his persistent anxiety, his failed marriage – those things did not abuse me.
And that’s that.