It’s been a while since my last post. Life has been busy and I’ve had writer’s block, at times unsure of what to write about next. I often second guess myself, wondering if reopening my past and sharing it with the world is really something I should be doing. I assume everyone who is going through a growth process often stumbles and falls back a bit. I guess re-living the pain of it all is what makes me hesitant at times and I do need to steady myself and take time to process all of it before diving into a new post.
That being said, today I want to write about fear. I know I’ve mentioned fear in my previous posts but not in grave detail. I wanted to focus on what it feels like to grow up living in constant fear, fear of your dad hitting your mom and sister, fear of your dad hitting you, fear of being alone, fear of disappointing your abuser, fear of not being good enough, fear of upsetting others, fear of letting your loved ones down. Ever heard of the term fight or flight? Constant state of panic and fear is how that cute little girl in the image above has been living her whole life, pretending to be fearless on the outside but dying of fear on the inside.
I can relate to this quote by Brené Brown. You tell yourself you are going to be fine and you are doing great, meanwhile shitting yourself in fear of what state your dad is going to be in today. If you didn’t know, your amygdala (part of your brain, often called the emotional brain) is your response system to external situations. For example, if you feel fear, your brain sends the signal to your neocortex and to your amygdala which releases the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. Your neocortex is supposed to keep the calm but the amygdala overrules in situations that signal danger. Imagine living your whole childhood life with your amygdala firing adrenaline and cortisol throughout your brain and body. Imagine your heart racing in fear daily, sometimes all day long. At some point, that becomes your life, your normal. You are afraid each and every time your dad comes in the house, each and every time he is walking towards you, each and every time you hear him yell one of your names. As I write this, I am filled with grief because at that time, my sister and I were so innocent. We had no clue that this is not how other kids grow up. I mean yeah, back home all parents spanked their kids when they misbehaved, but their dads never beat the fuck out of their moms on a daily basis. It is true what they say that how you nurture your children is how they will grow up to understand the world around them. During my whole childhood, I just assumed it was ok to live in constant fear. When I think of myself as a little girl, I can see being stuck with no one to talk to about how scared I was for my mom and my sister and I guess for myself too. It was an all encompassing fear, all around my soul, my brain, my heart. When I look at my picture as a little girl, my heart aches and I just want to hug her and tell her she will be ok. It has taken me 38 years to start healing. What a messy way to grow up, in constant fear of your father.
If I had to describe what fear felt like to me as a child, I would say it felt like my heart was going to explode out of my chest, my brain felt alert and ready for anything, my body would shake uncontrollably and I would be breathing fast like I am running a marathon. I remember my thought processes at that time, they went something like this: “it’s ok, it’s ok, he won’t hit her today, it’s ok. It won’t hurt as much, you felt it before it does hurt a lot but it’s ok, next time you just have to be more alert and pay attention to his face and what he might be thinking so you can behave differently and then he won’t hit you. It’s ok, maybe he is happy today. Oh God, he is angry again, I hope he doesn’t hurt my mommy, why is he so mean. Why does he want to hurt us so much? Why doesn’t he love us? Maybe that is how you love others, maybe I am bad, my sister is being bad too she is so defiant, she doesn’t listen. She knows how he is, why did she have to go play at the ruins today, he told her not to go there. Why is she not running away from him? Why is she letting him hit her so hard? I just want to save her. I love my sister why is she just standing there letting him hit her? I want to help her but I am so scared. What if he kills her, what if he kills my mommy then I won’t have anyone to save me.” That was my brain, EVERY SINGLE DAY. That is what it feels like, to live in constant fear.
We never knew what mood that man was going to come home in. If he was smiling at you, you knew that at that moment he wasn’t angry and we were going to be ok. He would hug and kiss us and tell us how beautiful we are. But then he would call my mom names and say she is ugly and a whore and she looks like a cow. I remember always admiring my mom, she was so classy and still is. She dressed beautifully, she had talents and would design her own dresses and sow them herself. She was stunning. She was elegant and classy and when all of his friends saw my mom they would say to him “WOW, where did you find this woman, she is exquisite, beautiful, so hot!” and my dad would come in the house and beat the shit out of my mom because she was dressed nice. I also remember the fear my mom must have felt when he would hit us, you can see it in her eyes, this hopeless look. She would stand up to him and try to stop him which would not end well for her. Writing this now feels straight out of a movie or a book.
My dad had a drinking problem. He loved his hard liquor, the Beatles, and being in charge. To this day, I cannot listen to the Beatles. I despise their music because every time I hear a song from them, it sends me into a spiral of memories filled with anxiety and depression. Before I forget this thought, I just wanted to say how important it is for abuse survivors to be honest and up front with their partners and let them know what your triggers are so that they can support you at the times that these triggers pop up. If your partner has no idea why you don’t like the Beatles, he/she might think you have no taste in music. My father loved to drink ouzo or sambuca (strangely, it is my favourite shot that I sip slowly probably once a year, and it does not remind me of my father at all), jack daniels, and other hard liquors which I don’t even know anything about as I am not a drinker. He would blast the Beatles and drink by himself- as I revisit this memory, I can see he must have been unhappy and in pain, probably unsure how to process his childhood traumas as well. I feel sorry for him that at that time in the 80’s, therapy wasn’t a big thing and he really had no one to talk to either. He just played the part of this macho bastard that beat his wife and kids and controlled everything they did. That was who he was. He would get drunk and yell at everyone and then hit us. It was a regular occurrence.
I was afraid of being alone. I remember going to kindergarten and crying so hard because I thought my mom would never come back to get me. I thought what if dad hits her really bad and she doesn’t come back? What if he takes my mommy and I never see her again? Since I knew how much it hurt when he hit me, I was scared for my mom that she would feel the pain much worse because watching how he hit her, it was ten times worse than how he hit me. What a horrible feeling, even writing this right now, I feel the fear and sadness I felt when I was that small. No child should ever feel like this. Unfortunately, too many kids all over the world experience even worse abuse than we did. Some kids don’t get to see their moms ever again. My heart aches for these kids and situations like that. We were lucky that my dad eventually stopped hitting us all, it wasn’t until we were already mentally fucked, but at least it stopped.
I felt a fear of disappointing my abuser. I felt like if I just did better and wasn’t complaining or telling him I got hurt, he wouldn’t hit us so much. So, I remember playing quietly, always too afraid to be loud in case he gets upset. I remember pretend play, we would pretend we were singers and we would sing silently unless my parents were out somewhere, then we could be ourselves and sing loud. What child pretend plays being a singer and sings silently in her head? That is not normal. Again, my brain was so full of cortisol and the stress hormones that I consciously made choices that would help me survive. I would walk on my tippy toes and whisper, never daring to yell at my sister. One time, I was jumping on my parents’ bed and back then, our home was made out of brick, so the walls were brick…anyhow, I was jumping on the bed and I turned and smashed my head off the wall. The pain was unbearable, I saw stars, I am sure I got a concussion but all I did was grab my head with my hands and lay down crying into the pillow. I remember my sister laughing a little then hugging me and saying “oh my god are you ok, its ok you’re ok, don’t cry dad will get mad.” When my mom asked me if I am ok, I said yes, because in my mind if I said I am in pain, I would piss off my dad and inconvenience him which might lead to him taking it out on my mom.
I also had a fear of not being good enough. I always felt like my dad hit us because we weren’t good enough. We were bad children and we deserved it. A part of my soul, however, felt like we didn’t deserve this and it was confusing. I just didn’t understand why we have to be punished all the time if we didn’t do what he wanted us to do. Why couldn’t we just be ourselves and do what we wanted to? Why couldn’t we go outside to play, why did we have to nap?
Often times, I felt a fear of upsetting others, fear of letting my mom down, in particular. I also felt a responsibility to my father and couldn’t let him down. I had to be the best student, the best daughter, the smartest, the most witty, the slickest in my thoughts, I had to be sharp and the most valuable because if I was all of these things, he wouldn’t hit me. What a disappointment when achieving success and being my best self did not help him stop abusing us.
I want to end this post on a positive note. Often times I’ve struggled to understand how someone can be so cruel and cause such distress to his own children. Throughout my process of healing and years of therapy (which is lifelong by the way, it hasn’t ended), I have come to accept the fact that we all have a choice in how we treat others. Our circumstances and childhood experiences have shaped us into the human beings that we are, but our pain, the most painful experiences have shifted our understanding of human behaviour and how we choose to live. We can live in anger, which is something I have done for a very long time, only recently learning to slowly let it go. We can live in fear, we can live in pain, or we can choose to live free, realizing that our abuser no longer has any control of us. I feel that this – realizing that our abuser can’t hurt us anymore, is the hardest part of the healing journey. I think that by understanding and learning more about how your brain works, how abuse changes it, and how you can rewire and grow new cells and thought patterns which can help you heal, you are eventually able to look at your abuser with compassion and forgiveness. Forgiveness helps you heal, it doesn’t even have anything to do with them. Forgiveness is for you, so you can let go of all the pain you held on for so many years and not be confined by it.
Until next time, I will leave you with this quote that touched my soul.
Be fearless, in pursuit of healing your soul,