Escaping the Abuse
I realized something about myself the other day. I am lucky. Truly. Sure, I was abused as a child, but I am still here. I can’t tell you how often I didn’t want to be here when I was a kid. So many times, I would think that the world would be better off without me.
Actually, no, I was way too selfish for that, I would be better off not being in the world. To hell with the world. Seriously. I wanted out for me, not anyone else.
I had no hope for the future, back then, I mean. I couldn’t see myself living to old age. I really didn’t want to. If life was going to continue to be shitty, then I wanted no part of it. I had no idea how remarkable life could be.
I grew up with it being awful, and I could not even fathom anything different. That, combined with being told that I was never going to amount to anything, well, I figured, I was pretty much in for being miserable forever. And that I did not want.
Quiet Struggle of Suicide
After one of my failed suicide attempts, I remember sitting on my bed, staring into my closet (the one I just tried to hang myself in). Do I really want to die? I asked myself that question over and over. Because if that was what I wanted, I was sucking at it big time. Of course, that thinking then started that voice in my head telling me that I was worthless and that I couldn’t do anything right. Sigh. That voice was so right. I couldn’t even accomplish this one thing.
Maybe a different closet would work better? My closet had a sloped floor (it was above the stairs), and I kept putting my feet down. I had another closet of sorts in my room, but I figured no one would find me there until I started smelling. For some reason, that was very unappealing to me. Other closets were few and far between. It was a one hundred plus year farmhouse. Those types of houses are not known for having lots of closets. Okay, so maybe not hanging myself. What were the other methods?
Something started to happen inside my mind while I was considering other suicide options. There was a whisper at the edges of my mind that death was not the only way out. I started to follow that whisper. Somewhere in my mind, there was an answer, and I was going to figure it out.
I don’t know where that whisper came from within myself, but I listened to it. That was the last time that I actively tried to end my own life. I did continue to do stupid things, but that became my coping mechanism. If I were numb, I wouldn’t think or feel, and to me, that was a very good thing.
There I was, a teenager, doing some of the dumbest shit ever, and dangerous at times, to remove myself from this mortal plane of existence as quickly as possible. I said I wasn’t actively trying to end my life, but if it happened another way, that was easier for me, not the same, somehow. Even though in reality it was the same thing.
I engaged in “high-risk” behaviors. I was drinking to the point of blacking out, smoking a lot of pot, and smoking cigarettes. I was underage, so to get those things, I was getting into cars with strangers, paying old homeless men to buy beer for my friends and me, which I would quickly consume so I wouldn’t feel anything.
The blackouts, the blessed numbing, would happen anywhere. I have fallen off picnic tables onto concrete slabs, while walking, passing out in parks, and yes while driving. There was a risk for me to get to the point that I couldn’t feel anything.
I knew that, and yet, I couldn’t help myself. At least not then. My struggle with alcohol did not end until recently. If you want to read a little bit about that, I go into detail in 127 Days Later.
I am lucky to be alive. I may not have thought that back then, but looking back I am lucky to have survived. It may sound hokie, but I survived all of that for a reason.
I think it was always that glimmer of something in the back of my mind. That voice or whatever it was, told me not to give up. That I had to keep fighting against the darkness that was threatening to overcome me.
The only thing that I could do to protect myself and to live was to fight. And thus, armor in place, the war began. Every day that I would leave my room, walking down the dark hallway, I would envision my armor locking into position. By the time I got down the stairs onto the battlefield, I was ready.
I don’t think anyone realized that I had waged war. To me, it was like a real war. I could lose my life, lose myself, and that meant that the other side would win. I could not let that happen. I had to push through this to get to the other side.
That whisper told me that I had a chance to become someone different. I could become, I don’t know, functional, whole. I don’t know if I even thought that far. I just knew that I had to continue living. And to do that, I had to fight for my survival.
Fight for Survival
While I was following that whisper, something else happened. A moment of clarity, perhaps. I was hurting so badly that I wanted others to hurt too, and so I was going to end my life to hurt them. The irony with that thought process is that I didn’t think anyone cared.
So, I was going to make them care by not being around anymore? It was at that moment I realized that was not the way. I know, the logic wasn’t very sound. What kid has any sense of logic? Not many. But that thought, that one clarifying spark, gave me something to ponder.
I realized that getting back at the world for not caring about me by removing myself from the equation seemed counter to getting people to care about me. I would continue to live, stay living, in spite of the overpowering desire to escape my situation any way that I could.
For me to live through an emotionally abusive environment, I had to protect myself. But how? I began to imagine myself wearing armor that nothing would penetrate. I created a hardened exterior that protected that hurt little girl who only wanted to feel safe and be loved. She would never get either of those things.
My Brain, the Warrior Within
For those who have grown up in an abusive environment, you know how dangerous it can be to fight against the status quo. If you haven’t, then I will explain. When you start to fight, rebelling against the abuser, the abuser fights harder to keep you in your place.
In my world, it was a verbal and emotional battle. I was an awful ungrateful child who should have never been born. I was selfish. I didn’t want to follow the rules. I didn’t care. I was worthless. I was stupid. I couldn’t do anything right. I was constantly causing problems. That is what my mother would tell anyone who would listen. And listen they did. And they believed her.
All of that, it was lies. Even though those were lies, they still infiltrated my mind. There was a part of me that thought she was right about me. And thus, the fight turned inward. I had to fight on two fronts, one outside of myself and the other inside my mind.
To keep fighting, I couldn’t believe those things about me. I created a mantra that I would repeat over and over again. It went like this, “It is not about me.” All of the hatred, anger, and abuse that came my way had nothing to do with me.
The Difference Resilience Makes
What makes me different? Am I really different? I recall that I wondered then, and still wonder, what made me push harder to become a functional person or at least, more functional than the world I grew up in? Why did I fight for my survival? Why did I come up with the visualization of the armor and the mantra? No one taught me that.
I think it is because I have a resilient brain. I came across the idea of resilience when researching childhood abuse survivors. And I was instantly intrigued. What is this thing called resilience? The American Psychological Association (APA) defines resilience, “as the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or significant sources of stress — such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems, or workplace and financial stressors.”2
Children whose families and homes do not provide consistent safety, comfort, and protection may develop ways of coping that allow them to survive and function day to day. For instance, they may be overly sensitive to the moods of others, always watching to figure out what the adults around them are feeling and how they will behave. They may withhold their own emotions from others, never letting them see when they are afraid, sad, or angry. These kinds of learned adaptations make sense when physical and/or emotional threats are ever-present. As a child grows up and encounters situations and relationships that are safe, these adaptations are no longer helpful, and may in fact be counterproductive and interfere with the capacity to live, love, and be loved.2
I believe that I taught myself resilience as a survival tactic all of those years ago. That defense mechanism or resilience is still my automatic response to stressful situations. I used to think that was a good thing, but now I am beginning to wonder. I no longer need to be hyper-aware or withhold my emotions. And yet, I still do. It has become who I am.
The good thing is that I can teach myself new resiliency methods—ones that work for my life now, not the one that I had then. The growth and exploration for answers continue.
- “Building your resilience,” American Psychological Association, 2012, accessed July 26, 2020, https://www.apa.org/topics/resilience#:~:text=Psychologists%20define%20resilience%20as%20the,or%20workplace%20and%20financial%20stressors.
- The National Child Traumatic Stress Network, accessed July 29, 2020, https://www.nctsn.org/what-is-child-trauma/trauma-types/complex-trauma/effects