I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about my early years–childhood and adolescence. As many of you know, my parents were active alcoholics, narcissists (my dad more likely covert NPD or maybe Borderline), and that I spent almost all of that time miserable and lonely due to emotional (and sometimes physical) abuse both at home and at school (because I was already trained to be a good little victim and had no self esteem or the ability to defend myself, I was bullied a lot).
The problem is, most of these early memories are fractured, hazy, or both. I remember snippets of traumatic events, but in most cases I can’t remember the entire event, or it’s spotty. Some of my memories seem more like dreams than reality and therefore I can’t remember the specifics of what happened. The same is true of my abusive marriage. I can only remember fractured pieces of that time. The two and a half decades I spent with him don’t seem like a cohesive whole, but more like a photo album with many of the photos missing. But this post isn’t about my early adult years.
I think something happened when I was 12 that was significant and a kind of turning point for me–it was when I stopped trusting anyone, I think. It was the moment when I realized how truly alone I really was and that no one cared and anyone who said they cared was probably lying. I’m not 100% sure, but I think this is when I stopped reaching out to others and began my avoidant pattern of behavior. Of course, this coincided with puberty, so maybe that had something to do with it too.
Here’s what I do remember. My parents and I had taken a two week trip to the beach. Another couple and their two children came along with us and rented the cottage next door. That couple was friends with my parents. I didn’t know my father was sleeping with the wife at the time, and my mother probably didn’t either, but I remember how jealous she was of that other woman because she was younger and blonder than she was and my father paid a lot of attention to her. Their daughter was a year older than me and was adopted. She was from India and was a close friend of mine at the time. I envied her beautiful long, glossy black hair, permanent tan, and huge soft brown eyes. Her little brother (her parent’s natural child) was an adorable little blond-headed boy of about 5 or 6. To me, they seemed like the perfect family. It may have been an illusion (for all I know, they were putting on appearances too), but to my 12 year mind, they seemed like they were in love with each other and their kids were both well loved and well-adjusted. My friend always seemed happier, more focused on a future (she eventually became a doctor) and much more emotionally stable than I was. I loved her and envied her.
My parents at the time were drinking heavily and fighting almost daily. Some of their arguments became physical, and I remember lying silently in my bed at night listening to these arguments as they escalated. I was both fascinated and terrified. What if they divorced? What if they abandoned me? What if they killed each other? What if I became an orphan? I seemed to be the cause of an awful lot of their problems (and they did fight over me a lot).
This beach vacation didn’t put a stop to their constant fighting, and one night, my father left. I don’t know where he went, but my mother and I were left alone. My mother didn’t speak to me about this and her demeanor toward me was cold, as if I was an annoyance to her. I was terrified my father was never coming back, and I remember crying myself to sleep the next night. I don’t think my mother ever came in to comfort me. She was probably getting drunk, but I don’t remember.
Desperate for someone to talk to, I pulled the father of my friend aside, and asked him if I could talk to him in private. He always seemed like a warm and sympathetic person to me, someone who loved kids. We sat down outside on a bench near the parking lot, with the sound of the waves crashing behind us on the beach, and I spilled out all my worries, all my pain, and all my fears. I talked for about an hour. He just held my hand and listened. I started to cry and he held me. He told me everything would be alright. He didn’t say he was going to talk to my parents.
He must have talked to them, because that night I was told by my mother that my father was returning to talk to me. She said he was not happy and was in fact enraged.
He came back as promised, and that’s where my memory gets all hazy and fractured. I remember snippets, like quick-flashing frames from a movie: getting beaten severely (but I was always beaten in a way that bruises didn’t show), being told I was a troublemaker and was the reason the family was falling apart. That I was nothing but a problem to them and never knew when to keep my mouth shut. I don’t remember the rest but I know there’s even more. I just can’t access it.
I also don’t know if my friend’s father had told my parents what I’d said to him because he was concerned about me and thought they might listen to him, or if he was just another participant in the abuse against me.
I realized even then my parents were drunk and probably not fully in control of what they said and did, but I think behind their alcoholism was narcissism. I think a lot of narcissists become alcoholics or addicted to drugs, and even after they become sober or clean, refuse to look any deeper into the core issues that caused them to drink or use in the first place. But that’s a subject for a later post. One thing that did occur to me, was that the only time my parents seemed to come together as a team and weren’t attacking each other, was when they joined forces to attack me. Only then were they the unified couple I dreamed of, unified in their abuse of their only child.
I don’t remember much of what happened after that beating and berating. I’m pretty sure our vacation ended at that point. I might have been sent to stay with relatives for a week or two, or left with a babysitter, so they didn’t have to deal with me. I feel like something important got blacked out, but I can’t remember what it was. But it was around this time that I stopped being able to confide in anyone at all. I remember one of the nuns who taught me in 8th grade, a woman who seemed to favor me for some reason, once called me aside and asked me if I was abused at home. I thought to myself, how can she tell? Of course I told her I wasn’t, that everything was fine. But nothing was fine in my life anymore. I think my emotional growth stopped that summer. At age 12. But it might have stopped even earlier than that. How in the name of God was I ever supposed to grow into a happy successful adult, able to form healthy attachments to others, when I never grew beyond the age of 12?
The next summer I was sent to sleep-away camp for the entire summer, and while I did enjoy it for the most part, I couldn’t help but feel that it was a rejection, a way for my parents to get rid of ‘the problem child’ so they didn’t have to deal with my “issues.”
Wow. Suddenly I feel like crying. The pain is getting real.
I’m asking the little girl who still lives somewhere inside me to tell me everything she knows.