Torment is just…inescapable torture.
Suppose a person has a generally good life, but encounters a few traumatic experiences along the way. Depending on the extent of the damage, the person could develop some emotional problems or symptoms of post-traumatic stress. Now, compare this understanding to someone who grows up in a traumatic environment every day of their lives. Try to imagine the effects of that inescapable environment on the development of a child’s emotional and psychological make-up. When pain or abuse is set as the standard of operation from the beginning, the child can have no other understanding of the world. And that child is going to grow up and enter adulthood, unless someone or something has stepped in to fix it, with deformations of mind and emotions wholly different than a child who developed in a healthier environment. Imagine how strange and, in a way painful, good experiences would feel to someone who only knows how to receive pain and feel the pain from bad ones. Imagine what their mind, outlook, and emotions might be towards other people and the world when the people meant to love and protect them only used and abused them. It’s hard to imagine, but try…
As adults, we can leave abusive friendships or relationships. But as children, we are entirely dependent upon them. I was born into a family that enjoyed inflicting psychological and emotional pain. Because the abusers were my parents and family members, I paradoxically had to rely on my tormentors for my own life and well-being. Instinctively, I knew I was supposed to love them and everything in me needed their love, but such love was never real. It was always a trick, a bargaining chip, or a carrot held ever before my eyes but never within my grasp. Love was always a game or means of control. Everything I knew to be true about life, my identity, and my place in the world was taught to me by people who took pleasure in inflicting pain and then watching me writhe in it. This was my “normal.”
In my home, the only feelings that mattered were the ones felt by my parents. (And my brother’s, since he was a guy and guys were basically worshipped). Generally though, children in my family’s mind were considered useless annoyances, except for how they could serve adults but even so, males were valued higher than females. Women in my family were considered dirty, worthless, wastes of space unless they were bending over backwards to serve the males, who were doted on hand and foot until they reeked from self-serving arrogance, repeating the abusive cycle to all further women in their life. Anyways, as you can imagine, as both a child and a female I was just double-shit-out-of-luck.
From day one of my existence, I wasn’t allowed to show feelings. (Nor was I allowed to admit to having them, which was about the same as showing them). I wasn’t allowed to show or admit to a personhood at all, but the most important part of that was feelings. To paint a picture of the expectation of my home, I was born to be a robot who did as I was told, no matter how badly it hurt or how wrong it was. And I was to always smile and be happy about it. No…matter…what.
Those were the rules. Simple, right? My parents thought so. But if, for any reason, I didn’t follow the rules with exact precision then the emotional consequences were swift and severe. If I ever showed or even hinted at having a thought, feeling, opinion, or idea of my own, it was either ignored, criticized, or outright attacked. One of those responses would be given in succession until I apologized for being so stupid, broke down crying from humiliation, or went completely numb from the sheer pain and confusion. The goal was to get me to apologize for such an offense and return to my robotic status, no…matter…what. Anything that caused me any type of suffering was either ignored or justified as being “right” and I was just being unreasonable and “too sensitive”. If I showed pain at all, I would be lectured for it being my fault. There were no other options. These tactics worked well, which is why they were used so often.
I was a highly empathic kid. I was ultra sensitive to mine and other’s feelings, a people pleaser, and a perfectionist. My parents used all those qualities in the most perverted ways until the only definition of “love” I knew included emotional torment and pain. I internalized all those messages and thought that this pain equalled love. Only once did I persist in a belief beyond their usual attacks and it was the most violent I’ve ever seen them.
My sensitivity and emotional nature was a double-edged sword for my parents. It allowed them to endlessly manipulate me, but it also sometimes frustrated them because I never understood why everyone else in the family was allowed to have thoughts, feelings, opinions, and beliefs that were all important and valid, but I was the only one who got crucified for having a single one. I had an older brother who was never wrong. He tormented me and my parents looked the other way, or they’d tell me it was my fault and that I was “just too sensitive”. Then ignoring, criticizing, shaming, or all three until I stopped have feelings all together. I would cry and then be punished further for showing pain. I got in trouble for having my own ideas, laughing too loudly, or crying too much. Except for sometimes, my parents would enjoy my crying and egg it on. My father especially. He found no end of humor to my pain. He’d laugh and laugh until I just went blank and numb. When that happened, his source of amusement was gone so he’d suddenly have no more use for me. He’d lecture me and then be done with me.
The one time in my life I felt so strongly convicted about the wrongness of a family matter that I persevered in standing up for something (and it wasn’t even myself. It was someone else who was being abused in my family) beyond these three reactions. That is when my father resorted to physical violence. First, he threatened me that I had better keep quiet. Then when I persisted, he grabbed me by the shoulders, shook me, threw me on the couch, and then blocked the doorway so I couldn’t leave while he screamed more threats and shame at me. Because I was small and he was very large, I was able to squeeze out of the doorway, but I was so panicked at his physical assault that I was crying aloud and repeating “don’t touch me, don’t touch me” over and over and over again. When my grandparents and brother woke up, my father instantly turned on his charm (like only a good narcissist can do) and pretended to have absolutely “no idea what she’s going on about, she just went crazy.” I had called my aunt and uncle and asked them to come get me and let me stay at their house that night. In response, my grandmother stole all my belongings and held them captive and locked the doors. When my aunt and uncle arrived, she told them to leave (I was being held back so I couldn’t leave the house). But as they were driving away, I was able to wriggle free. I had to leave all my belongings behind but I was able to run out of the door and jump into their van before they got out of the driveway.
Later on, my brother (who was not present for any of the events with my father) scolded me and told me that none of it happened. He told me and the rest of the family that I had made it all up. Because my brother is regarded as “perfect,” everyone believed him, including my mother who was in another state at the time. My mother’s own next words to me were, “I wash my hands of this, do not ever speak of it again.” Though this was the only time I remember being physically assaulted by a family member, these were the mental games I lived with from the time I was born. I remember being raped by my first boyfriend and when I told my dad, my dad’s response was, “well? What did you do to deserve that?” and then it was never mentioned again. I told my brother and not even looking at me, he said, “huh…”, and then went on with what he was doing. This is what my normal was. My standard. This is what I was worth. I was told this is “love.” I had nobody telling me different, so I had no standard of comparison. Love hurt, and that’s all I’ve ever known.
Growing up, I never knew what to expect or how to avoid being in trouble simply for being a human being. I remember wishing I wasn’t alive and wishing I could die from a very, very young age. I was hated and unwanted by my own family and had no other concept of being. I was in so much emotional pain that I developed an eating disorder when I was 16 and nearly died of it when I was 20. At no time during those four years did anyone in my family intervene. In fact, my own father tried to convince me that I didn’t need treatment. I was 80 pounds, my hair was falling out, I was losing my eye sight and cognitive functions, and his exact words were, “why would you shoot a bazooka when all you need is a handgun? I’m sure a little bit of therapy will be just fine.” If I had listened to him, I would have died ten years ago.
I don’t remember a single time in my childhood or adult life where I was not living in excruciating…mind numbing…emotional pain. Neither do I remember a time in which I wasn’t forced to completely ignore that fact and pretend to be happy. My entire life and survival for the first 26 years depended on my ability to fake all of my emotions. I had to do it for so long, I’ve lost the ability to be in touch with painful emotions at all. They exist, they’re just disconnected. Emotional dissociation..or something like that. I can recount horror stories from my life with zero emotional affect, as though I’m a news reporter reporting someone else’s pain. To me, it’s just a story. It’s just facts. My emotions about them have been buried for so long, I don’t know how to feel them anymore.
What I do have feelings about, though, are the people who actively refuse to acknowledge abuse of any kind, especially emotional, when it is presented to them. And I’m learning a few things as I walk this road of self-discovery. I’m learning that what is too horrific and scary for most people to even allow themselves to acknowledge… has been my own “normal” reality for 31 years. As I recount experiences that are very painful (like sexual abuse, gross manipulation, lies, betrayals, physical abuse, etc) and people literally refuse to acknowledge it…you can only imagine how painful and infuriating that is. It’s like being a child brought up in a war zone for 31 years who is then suddenly flown to a far away place full of people who are so sheltered and spoiled they all just decided in their heads that war doesn’t even exist. Can you imagine how insane that kid would become? That kid would be begging to be returned to the war zone after a week. War may be scary as hell and painful, yeah, but at least people aren’t delusional. Even a war zone is preferable to living in brainless, mindless, la-la land where everyone is so doped up on their indulgences they don’t even live in or experience reality.
Truth is, I have more disdain for those people than I will ever have for my abusers. And I don’t mean the people who just didn’t realize bad things were happening but are still concerned about it. I mean the people who choose not to look at it because they couldn’t possibly be inconvenienced by it. 9 times out of 10, my abusers were abused themselves. Their own minds and hearts were twisted at a young age and corrupted by the exact same evil and sin they committed against me. Their pain was probably ignored the same way mine was and they were forced to act out in ways they didn’t even understand. Though I would never excuse or condone their actions and I hold them all personally accountable, at least there is grounds for understanding it. But the people who are so privileged, so sheltered, so blind, so insufferably arrogant that they “see” but yet refuse to even engage other’s sufferings simply because they don’t care. I can’t even be around those people. I can’t tolerate or listen to their incessant, whiny, selfish drivel when their idea of “suffering” is simply not getting their self-centered way all the time. It’s like listening to a room full of insolent 3 year-olds, except they’re adults and should know better. Those are the people I avoid even more than the abusive ones.
It’s a rare soul indeed who, whatever their experience, can both listen to and engage another’s pain in a real and compassionate way. It’s a rare soul indeed who will listen to and believe a victim’s story, or take action to help. And sometimes that’s just listening, believing, reflecting, responding, and supporting. It’s checking in and being a very real presence or helping in whatever ways are possible. It’s a rare soul indeed who will step out of their own fantasies and assist those who are suffering, struggling, and hurting. For me, those souls have been so few and far between. (And are mostly in the form of four-legged animals).
All I really know is that there aren’t many out there. And unless you are one, I cannot believe you are a Christian. Because God has called us…all of us, painful pasts or not, to be the oasis of safety, love, and acknowledgement to those who are hurting and suffering in unimaginable ways. The suffering is real. The pain is real. The evil and sickness and all it’s effects are real. The war is real and you can’t turn a blind eye – ignoring it, disregarding it, excusing yourselves out of it, blaming the victims for it, or wasting your lives in front of damn computer or tv screens. You don’t get to pretend you didn’t know, because you do. You’re just ignoring it. And chosen ignorance is just as evil. Not wanting to see so we don’t have to feel bad or step out of our precious comfort zones. But God will hold us responsible for that, too. We will not escape account for the evil we heard about, knew about, or even saw first-hand and yet said nothing – did nothing -about.
As Edmund Burke said, “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”