(Author’s note: I will use quotes here. They are almost certainly not exact, but I will only use them when I am certain that they are very close to the words said at the time, and are certainly the same in spirit and tone.)
My name is Tom and I am the child of an abusive father and a passive-aggressive, possibly narcissistic mother. Like many alcoholics, it has taken me a long time to write those words. Like with alcoholism, there is no shame in being abused. But also like alcoholics, abused people often feel shame: Ashamed that they were abused, ashamed they can’t put it behind them, ashamed for talking about it, ashamed for sounding whiney when there are people who have it much worse. I was not physically abused. I was intimidated and bullied-- verbally abused into a non-bloody pulp. Before I could write this I had to admit to myself, and now to you, that that was plenty bad. No, I was not physically abused, but I may as well have been and I always feared that I would be the next time my dad exploded. And anyway the scars that really last, even from physical abuse, are the emotional ones.
My dad “taught” me how to swim when I was four. We were on a family vacation in sunny Florida. Dad took me to the swimming pool, walked me to the deep end and threw me in. When I made it to the surface I saw that he had moved to the shallow end and was waiting for me there. He didn’t say anything. But if I close my eyes I can still see his face. It said, “swim or die.” I swam. But I also cried. “Quit being a pussy. You’re fine,” my dad said as I climbed out.
This is hard as hell to write. And not because I think anyone will look at me differently. The people I care about won’t. They’ll know I’m not looking for pity. It is hard because I know my parents might read this; I know for sure that people who know and love them will. Yes, some of those people might think less of me for bringing this up. But that is blame-the-victim 101 and I’m not going to concern myself with clowns who do that. It’s hard because there is a part of me that doesn’t want to hurt my parents; that doesn’t want to be the one to say this about them. Odd, isn’t it? But I’d wager a lot of money that many people who’ve been abused feel that way. That’s one of the symptoms of abuse; one of the fucking ridiculous powers the abusers and abettors have over their victims. Not only do they abuse, they seem to think they should be able to get away with it, too, without so much as a peep from the abused. It’s impolite to talk about. Well guess what? I’ve decided that I didn’t ask for the childhood I got and it is not my job to keep quiet about it. Word to the wise: If you don’t want your kid to say you abused him…don’t abuse him.
My dad was an untreated bi-polar sufferer throughout my childhood. We moved a lot. By the time I was in fifth grade I had gone to three different schools and had been home-schooled for part of a year. I had lived in a group home for mentally retarded adults, on an island in Lake Vermillion, on a farm, and in another lake cabin. When I was 10 we moved from northern Minnesota to The Cities (Minneapolis/St. Paul area). We moved in with my maternal grandparents while my parents got their shit together and I started at my new school a couple months into the school year. As it happens, the suburb where my grandparents lived had an excellent competitive youth’s swim club. I don’t know why but my parents signed me up for the club. There were no tryouts; I was just on the team. It’s as if the club trusted that no parents would sign their son up for such a competitive club if he could barely swim. The swim team was a huge time commitment: we practiced a couple nights a week and had meets every Saturday. And, as you may have guessed, all the other kids were really good. They all wore Speedo-type swimsuits and goggles. I was not so prepared of course; I wore bulky trunks and had no goggles. All I remember of the practices was the warm-up, which was simple: one hour of swimming laps, with no breaks. Anyway, by the time practice was over, I was completely worn out, my eyes bloodshot and swollen shut because I had to swim with them open, without goggles. The rides home from practice were horrible. My dad was at his lowest point- living in his in-laws basement, depressed, etc. And, as his oldest son, it was my job to make him feel better. I was failing miserably. He’d let loose tirades on me in the car. I was worthless, probably the worst swimmer on the planet. He’d tell me it would be fine if I would just try. But he could tell I was just fucking around in the water like a dog or some shit like that. I don’t remember all the words exactly- that is my coping mechanism. What I do remember though, and perfectly, was the feeling in the car. My mom sat next to him, doing nothing, and that felt ugly. My brother sat next to me and didn’t dare say anything. But I could feel his support, his heart breaking that this was happening to his big brother. And I remember that I could cry--maybe not sob, but I could let tears fill my eyes because, hell, they were swollen shut anyway. That was a relief, to be able to be a “pussy” in front of my dad without him knowing.
Practice was terrible. The meets were worse. I always finished last by a huge, humiliating margin.
My dad wanted me to sign up for football in seventh grade, my first year of junior high school. The football informational meeting was after the first day of school. I didn’t go. When I got home he was pissed that I hadn’t gone to the meeting. “What the fuck is wrong with you?” he yelled, “You’re a fat fucking pig. You should be playing football with people your age and not your (2 years younger) brother and his friends. You’re going to fall on one of them and kill him. Are you afraid you’re going to get hurt? I’m not going to raise a fucking kid who’s afraid of his shadow.” That’s close to a direct quote. I know because even at twelve years old I recognized the irony of that statement. My dad had raised a kid who was afraid of the world. But having no choice, I went to the garage and got on my bike. I cried all the way back to school and eventually walked into the meeting very late. I can only imagine how much like prey my body language made me look. Everyone stared at me. The coach said something stupid that made me feel worse (Christ a lot of those guys are assholes.) When I walked past a kid named Brent, he tripped me and said, “You’re going to get killed.”
After the meeting, I rode my bike across the parking lot and saw Brent and two other guys walking on the right side of the road I needed to take home. I steered to the left side of the road and hoped for uneventful passage. Unfortunately Brent heard my bike and turned to see me right as I passed them. He ran across the road and shoved me so hard that I flew into the ditch. I fell off the side of my bike and skidded to a halt in the grass. The crotch of my pants ripped when I flew off my bike and I had cuts on my inner thigh and calf. I landed on my shoulder and face, both of which started bleeding. I looked up to see that the bullies were laughing at me, but was relieved to see that they wouldn’t pursue me into the ditch. They were apparently satisfied that they’d done enough damage. I limped to my bike, which had rolled probably 10 yards without me, and saw that it was badly damaged and unrideable. I picked it out of the weeds, cut through the vacant lot I was now in, and walked the two miles home, carrying my bike because the front rim was so twisted it wouldn’t roll. When I got home I tried to sneak down to my room so I could clean myself up. I knew what my dad’s reaction was going to be and I wasn’t ready for it. I didn’t make it. He was right behind me as I walked into my room.
“What happened to you?”
“Kid pushed me off my bike.”
“And you fucking let him?”
“Yeah. I let him.”
“Jesus Christ. I know he wasn’t bigger than you. He was probably stronger- less of a fat ass (I was maybe 10 pounds overweight.) We’ll finish this later. I can’t even look at you right now.”
I heard him walk up the stairs and into the garage. He found my bike, stormed back into the house and into my room. “What did you do to your bike?”
“I fell off and it hit a rock I think,” I said quietly as I stared at the ground.
“You’re buying your next one.”
And so on.
Earlier I mentioned that my mother was unsupportive. That is true. And I excused it for a long, long time. She certainly was abused, too, and she could tell some awful stories herself. She and my dad divorced when I was thirteen. My mom found a good counselor and her parents helped pay for it. She’d always tell me about her counseling sessions, and what a terrible husband my dad was. Meanwhile, I missed a lot of school. I literally made myself sick on average of a day a week, worrying about the daily bullying I faced at school. No one got counseling for me. At the time, I was convinced that my mom had had a terribly hard life and I felt sorry for her. I wanted to make things easier for her. But certainly some part of my psyche that I wasn’t aware of was demanding attention; part of me was mad at her, too. My mom and I had some screaming matches that would end with her crying and telling me how worried she was that I was going to turn into my dad. She’d tell me she was worried about my “latent anger” (by which she meant that I was angry at my dad, but taking it out on her). I was worried about that, too, convinced I was a horrible person actually. Nothing my dad ever did made me feel as bad about myself as her saying that to me. I thought about suicide a lot; even told my mom during one of our fights that I thought about it. She was pissed that I put that on her, stormed out of the house and went for a walk to cool down (something her counselor had apparently told her to do).
I started working as a weekend paperboy when I was twelve and played baseball and basketball. After my parent divorced, one of my mom’s brothers helped me with my Sunday route and even took me out for breakfast when we were done. He came to nearly all of my baseball and basketball games. My mom constantly told me how lucky I was to have my uncle’s help and how grateful I should be. And I was grateful. Still am. But…
After my first marriage ended in divorce after only 11 months (see previous post for that story) I had to do some serious soul-searching to figure out how I had ended up where I was, and on whose love and support I could count. By that time I had been friends with many of the Bulls for nearly ten years- I knew they loved me. Indeed, they had supported me emotionally all the way through high school and college. And I had been supporting myself financially ever since I’d moved out of my mom’s house during my first year of community college. My dad helped me pay for part of community college, but I had otherwise paid my own way.
I moved from my marital apartment back into my mom’s basement. I paid for my own food, and she charged me rent. She talked to me a lot about how hard her divorce had been, but never wanted me to talk about my divorce. She didn’t listen; she waited for me to be done talking so she could say something about herself. She was taking weekend classes and working towards her Bachelor’s degree when I moved back. One time, over breakfast, she said, “I’m hurt that you’ve never told me you are proud of me for going back to school.” I don’t remember what I said to her, but I remember going down to my room and thinking. I realized that she had never told me she was proud of me when I graduated with honors from college. Never. More and more I was aware of how mad at my mom I was- the anger I had always managed to keep in my subconscious as a child.
My brother was the first of us to actually say it out loud. “You know, it’s wasn’t our job to find people to feed us. We don’t have as much to be grateful for as that family wants us to believe.”
And the floodgates opened. I was mad that my mom and her family had not helped me through any of the many hardships I had already faced: parental divorce, being bullied at school, suicidal thoughts, depression, paying for and working through college, finding a job, my own divorce. I started distancing myself from them. I moved out of my mom’s basement and into the Bullpen with my dear friends. I drank a fucking shitload of alcohol. I tore away the layers of bullshit and learned who I was, who loved me, who didn’t, and what I had to offer the world. Stacy got divorced. We began dating and got married. She told me that everything I was beginning to love about myself was true. She loved me. And I literally haven’t doubted for a second since marrying her that I’m a great human being who had a forgettable childhood.
Then, last year, after ten years with Stacy, my relationship with my mom’s family ended. I had spent much of the previous decade in Stacy’s and her mother’s loving arms. We visited my grandparents and uncles, and were always nice and sweet, but I didn’t waste much time telling them about myself because I knew they didn’t care. I had long since come to terms with that. Look, you can’t make someone love you. But you can know who loves you and who doesn’t and spend your energy and love accordingly. And that’s what I did. Until last Christmas, when we were unable to bring the fruit tray we were tasked with bringing because every store I tried was closed (even the Jewish ones! I couldn’t believe it.) Stacy felt bad about showing up at my grandparents’ empty handed but I assured her it would be fine. “They don’t pay attention anyway. And besides we’ve hosted plenty of holidays and never asked anyone to bring a damn thing. My mom has never once hosted a holiday.”
Blog readers will now recall the letter my family mailed me a few days after Christmas: The one written by my grandpa, re-written by my mom (because grandpa’s penmanship is illegible) and, as I learned from my brother who was there when it was written and unable to talk anyone out of it, put in the mail by my uncle and his wife who felt I needed to be brought down a few notches; the one in which my family expressed their extreme displeasure at my not bringing the fruit, which was a sure sign that I didn’t appreciate everything they had done for me over the years; the one in which my family asked why I had been so distant and disrespectful, so ungrateful; the one in which they asked what they had ever done to me; the one in which they accused me of being too rich for them and thinking they were poor, shanty Irish. Yeah, that one. I was no longer in such a forgiving mood after reading that letter. I believe that my mom did the best job she could. Nothing would have made me happier than showing up and smiling on holidays and birthdays and never mentioning a word of my displeasure. But that goddamned letter! I called my mom. “Fuck you, fuck them, FUCK them! I’m done,” I said through tears. “No one over there ever did shit for me but go to a few games. FUCK! And I was fine just letting it go. But now you have the motherfucking balls to send me a letter and tell me I’m not grateful?! Jesus Christ! Instead of saying you’re sorry for not getting me counseling, for telling me how much help counseling was helping you, for ignoring me when I was suicidal, for charging me rent when I moved home after my divorce, for making me pay for my divorce lawyer when I know damn well grandpa paid for yours- instead of apologizing, you’re sending me a letter and telling me I’m fucking ungrateful?! I’ve worked since I was 12 years old. I put myself through college. I graduated with honors. I have a fantastic wife and kids. I’m in Mensa. Has anyone, ANYONE said they were proud of me?! NO. (In fact, when I told everyone that I had passed the test and was in Mensa, my uncle said, ‘Well we all know people who are book smart who can’t even tie their shoes’.) You know what? Fuck you. I’m done.”
And I haven’t talked to anyone in that family since, except my mom. She begged forgiveness (she’s quick on her feet). I told her I could absolutely forgiver her, as I had my dad, if she would just admit she had made some mistakes; that it was ok for me to be mad at her too; that she had contributed some to my misery; and that she was sorry. We met for lunch a couple weeks after that phone call and she couldn’t do it. “I’m sorry I married your dad,” was the best she could do. So there is nothing to forgive- she had done no wrong. I disagree but I’m not going to beat a dead horse. I’ve seen her a few times since because my kids love her and she’s grandma. But my brain’s nerve endings are calcified when it comes to her and that family. I just don’t care anymore.
Stacy and her mom responded perfectly to that letter. They got mad as hell. My mother-in-law asked me, “What the hell is wrong with those people? You’re nothing but sweetness and goodness.” My god, that was nice to hear. Yes their anger allowed me to let my anger go and to simply be sad; sad that I could no longer hold any delusion that that family loved me.
My brother and I have a good relationship. We’re probably not as close as brothers who were raised together in a warm, loving home would be, but we love each other. His support and friendship in adulthood is a huge reason for my current well-being. And there is this: During those damn swim meets my brother would walk along the pool beside me, cheering me on. Yes, that is the memory of my time as a competitive swimmer that I choose to keep. And it still makes me weep.
I posted on Facebook a week or so ago that I was thinking about writing this. I wrote that I’ve always been hesitant to dwell on it because I didn’t want to appear whiny. We all know that many people have had it far worse that I did. And to be honest, I’m scared to this day, because it left such a mark on me, that someone, upon hearing some of the details of my childhood, will say, “You’re still complaining about that? That’s not bad at all. Grow up.” There were a dozen or more comments on that post, every one of them supportive. One of them, from a woman whose life story is incredibly sadder than mine, responded to my question of seeming whiny with this:
“Nope. If you sound whiny to others, then f*ck 'em! Some people need a dose of reality, that this stuff does happen, everyday, to more people than they realize. But, as you can see, even though we have dealt with this crap, its made us who we are...we're not bitter or mean, or angry people...we are productive, caring members of society. We function normally everyday, and we don’t dwell on the crap that happened, we share it when it’s appropriate, especially if it helps another person come to terms with something that happened to them.
I don’t tell others my story for any pity, I tell it to let others know that these things do happen, and they can happen to anyone. People that have had things like this happen aren’t psycho crazy, they can be anyone. It makes you care about others even more, you never know what others are going through, so you tend to be nicer and more caring to others--even complete strangers.
And the strangest thing that I have noticed, people that have dealt with a lot of tragedies in their lives, are the funniest mo-fo's out there. Abused and battered, lived in poverty...you name it, they’re hilarious sons of bitches! We have an AWESOME sense of humor!!!”
A note to my fellow abused: You cannot ignore your childhood; you are not being a baby when it still affects you. People with happy childhoods get to remember theirs; you get to remember yours. And remember, almost no one in the world even knows who you are. Those who do think you’re nice enough. A few really love you. No sane and decent person who knows you thinks you’re a rotten piece of shit. No one. You’re not. The rotten things that your abuser said about you are untrue. The nice things people have said about you are true. Your so-called rotten qualities are imperfections that everyone has. Your good qualities are things you’ve worked hard on, and you deserve to be praised for them. The best way to “beat” an abuser is to live a happy life, to be happier that your abuser has ever been. What are they going to say to you then?
“You’re a goddamned fat piece of shit.”
“And yet my adorable spouse loves me and I just got back from an awesome vacation with my kids, who think I’m great. So, yeah, I guess I disagree about the piece of shit part at the very least.”
A note to people who love my fellow abused and me: Sometimes we need to talk about our miseries. Help us into a good counselor so we can. You will not believe how good it feels to tell someone all the shit that happened to you and have him/her respond, “Wow. That was shitty. You are doing great considering all that shit. I’m very proud of you.” Also, give us a lot of hugs. There is probably a hole in us that will never be filled because of the hugs we did not get as children, but it is sure nice when you try. And you cannot tell us enough how proud of us you are, how great you think we are, and how much you love us. This is true for everyone, but it is more true for us. We need constant encouragement because there is a voice in our heads that will not shut up telling us that we will fail, that we always have and we always will. We need your voice telling us that we will succeed; that we’ve come this far and we can go further.