I have never mentioned this on this blog before, or in any public place. And I don’t intend to make a big deal of it or talk about it a bunch, but it is relevant, so I am talking about it in this post.
When I was growing up, I was consistently physically abused for more than a decade. The point of this post is not to call someone out. It doesn’t matter who it was, whether it be family friend, neighbor, family member, educator, whatever. That’s not relevant. I’m only here to talk about how it affected me.
I can’t speak on behalf of all abused people or anything, so when I use the overarching “you,” in this post, I’m just talking in generalities. I’m sure some abused people react differently. I can only share both what I lived as personal experience, and what I’ve learned about in therapy, as far as how that personal experience affects me. And my understanding from my POV is this…
When you are a child and someone who is supposed to look out for you and your well-being is abusing you, it is exceptionally confusing (or at least it was for me). I think it gave me a bit of a warped sense of what love is. (And that would track with what I’m learning through therapy.) And there often comes a point (or at least there definitely did with me), where you feel like you have absolutely zero options that involve leaving.
As a kid, at first, I just tried to deal with it. Then after it really became too much to bear, I went to a middle school guidance counselor, and begged for help. I told her I was afraid for my life. Look at my bruises on my back and my arms. Please help me, please.
And she did not.
See, I went to Christian (private) school. So, those counselors are not bound by the same rules that counselors in public schools are. So, instead of going to any authority or anybody who could’ve looked into the situation, she called the abuser. And, as I’m sure you can guess, things got worse. Much worse. So, I learned I could never go to anyone again, because I could not afford for things to get any worse than they already were.
So, when you feel you cannot leave, I just learned how to deal with it. I learned to try to walk on eggshells – to take as many steps as I was capable of to remove myself from situations when I could. And when I couldn’t, for the most part, I tried to appease, appease, appease. Be a “good girl.” Don’t do anything that will “earn” getting punched, slapped, kick, having dangerous objects thrown at you, etc…
That’s not to say I didn’t even stand my ground and react with defiance. I did sometimes. I don’t know how I practically came out of the womb ready to stand my ground, but sometimes it feels like I did. So, I wasn’t only ever this small mouse-y person. That would be a gross mischaracterization of my childhood. But nonetheless, I still often retreated. Hide. Be good. Play nice. Placate. Be good, be good, be good.
You cannot make any mistakes. You cannot even spill juice. If you do, the punishment far outweighs the crime. And you internalize it. As a child, you don’t necessarily often actively think to yourself, “This adult is beating me for spilling juice, and this is preposterous. This is unjust.” You just think, “If I can be more perfect, if I can just not spill the juice next time… If I can be perfect, I can avoid this.”
You think that somehow you are in control of the situation and that if you’re just a little bit better, a little more perfect, you can perfect yourself into safety.
And without some intentional work going into adulthood, it is easy for those feelings to be so deeply embedded in you, that you don’t respond to abuse in the way someone from a healthy childhood might. (Your neurons literally wire in your brain differently than someone who wasn’t abused… And I did not know that.)
In fact, I often had the thought “being abused was the best thing that ever happened to me.” I thought it made me “stronger.” I thought I was lucky to grow up that way.
And in some ways, I do think it made me strong. But in others, I think obviously it screwed me up a little bit.
[Also, just fyi, in case it has ever been confusing why I’ve called Michael Jackson “hope where there is no hope,” it was because at certain points I was afraid I was never going to get out of my situation and/or I would die there. That was one of the number one reasons I loved Michael Jackson much. He showed me everyday that someone who went through an abusive childhood could go out there and be beautiful, and talented, and wonderful, and give so much to the world. He could live an exceptionally full life. And he could be loved.]
Anyway. The point is…
When the question comes up of how do you stay with someone like sexual assault guy? How do you keep trying to please them after they violate you?
I think the answers are layered and complicated. But I think big gigantic swaths come down to two things:
1) He was a master manipulator. He was fantastic at gaslighting. He would’ve potentially been able to do this with anyone who has a large capacity for empathy.
2) As someone whose brain was formed in a way that understands abuse as merely just part of love, it affects the way I see the world. It makes me feel like it’s my job to please and make things better. And that can be a wonderful quality. How wonderful to be concerned with the well-being of everyone around you, and to want to know they’re happy. But it can also be a dangerous quality in that it’s the exact same one that kept me in that situation. “If I can just better – if I can just be different – if I can just not spill the orange juice… He will change. He will stop treating me this way.”
One of the very hardest lessons of my life – that I do not think I’ve fully learned, and am not sure I ever will – is that you cannot be “perfect” enough to “save yourself” from abuse. You cannot. There is no amount of perfect you can be.
There is no amount of perfect you can be.
There. is. no. amount. of. perfect. you. can. be.