My Recovery from Emotional Child Abuse
(I am not a medical professional and do not give advice as to how to overcome the effects of child abuse. I share my story only to inspire my readers and urge them to put forth the effort to purge their own demons; it’s worth it!)
For reasons I cannot explain my healing came about rather quickly; perhaps each subsequent effort continued building a momentum that began with the first. Or maybe I just got sick and tired of disliking myself so much for the past 45 years.
The emotional abuse I endured left me with 4 disempowering attitudes I would need to overcome before I would be free to return to my “self”. They are:
Each of these was a result of the emotional abuse I suffered at the hands of my stepmother
…and they combined to form a psychic sickness that colored every aspect of my life. As is the case with any ailment, a cure will be forthcoming when the agent that is causing the sickness is eradicated. Following is a timeline of what happened to eliminate the causes of my emotional illness.
I was having lunch with my wife and she told me about running into a mutual friend who I graduated from high school with. Terri had become a teacher and retired the year before; her husband, also a teacher, would quit working at the end of the school year.
As she spoke of the good fortune of our friends I was flooded with memories of all the bad career decisions I’d made and the effect they’d had on our financial lives.
My wife and I could no more think about retiring than we could consider paying for a flight on the Space Shuttle. I was overcome with remorse and asked her to take care of the check while I walked to the car.
When she joined me I tearfully and vehemently cursed the woman who I believed was to blame for all my shortcomings.
“That horrid bitch ruined a perfectly good human being!” I cried. Joan reminded me—again—of what a wonderful person and husband I was and we returned home.
While thinking about the incident a few days later I reminded myself—again—that by blaming my stepmother for my mistakes I was relinquishing a large degree of control of my own life to her. I’d had this thought many times before but for some reason I’d had enough. That night before dinner I announced to my wife that henceforth I would take full responsibility for my life. I would take credit for the triumphs and suffer the consequences of the tragedies. And I promised her that she would never have to suffer that worn-out diatribe again.
Guilt fed my low self esteem, specifically my deep-rooted belief that I was unworthy of success, happiness, or anything else good in life.
Doris introduced me to guilt when she started blaming me for all the violence she suffered at the hands of my father. I was a child then, and accepted the responsibility of causing her, and everyone who was a witness, such pain—she was the mom, after all.
But by the time I became a young adult, logic prevailed and it became evident to me that her pain was not, in fact, my fault. I absolved myself of the false guilt she’d gifted me and decided to hate her—which made me feel guilty. Years later I decided to forgive her but by that time I’d become painfully aware of how I’d betrayed my God-given talents in favor of careers that “looked right” and appeared “safe.” To put it another way, I was selling cars or advertising or insurance or operating a restaurant when I knew damned good and well I should be writing or taking photographs. I had betrayed God by refusing His gifts—and that made me feel terribly guilty.
May, 8 days later:
I made a note in my journal reminding myself that I’d begun writing “Conversations with Katherine” 17 years earlier.
“For 17 years I have stood at the edge of a pool filled with my dreams. One small leap and I would be immersed in the achievement, success and contribution I so longed to attain—but for some reason I have been unable to make that jump.”
In the next paragraph I suggested that I should forget the big picture, trust that it will evolve and just start writing; words, then sentences, then paragraphs, then chapters. On September 29 I wrote,
“I’ve written the end of ‘Conversations’ and I’m pleased.”
In order to finish the book I’d had to spend a great deal of time writing; I’d decided to accept and use God’s gift after all. And when I did the guilt receded and my self esteem soared.
August: Anger blind-sided me.
I knew I was angry but never took time to examine who I was mad at, why I was mad at them and what effect this anger might be having on my life. Yes, I’d forgiven my stepmother but I was still angry at the raw deal I believed I’d gotten.
A few months earlier I’d been speaking with a co-worker about how good I was feeling now that I’d accepted responsibility for my life. I told him how I hated selling cars and had reframed what the job meant to me, with surprisingly good results.
“Now you got it all!” was his response.
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“I remember the first time I met you. I thought, ‘This guy’s got it all; the looks, the intelligence, the personality.’ You had everything I wished I had—except for the attitude. And I told myself that if I had to take the attitude to get the rest of the package, I think I’ll pass.”
I felt as if someone had just pointed out the wart on my nose that I saw every day but failed to acknowledge. I digested his assessment for about 15 seconds and then agreed wholeheartedly; my attitude–whatever it was– had been the bane of my existence for nearly as long as I could remember.
“Whatever that was” became painfully evident to me a few days later. It was my day off, I was cleaning the house and allowing my mind to wander. I thought back to the conversation with my friend and innocently asked myself, “What exactly is that attitude we were talking about?”
I realized that I held just about everyone in the world in contempt.
Every time I met someone, thought about their race, religion or ethnic background I condemned them. I condemned the way they spoke, thought, acted and looked. If they were non-white I condemned the color of their skin. If they were white but dressed acted or believed different than me I condemned them. If they were Asian or Indian I condemned their look, their accents and their customs.
I knew there must be people who were smarter than me but I could remember meeting them only rarely.
I knew there were people who were better looking than me but almost never saw them. Despite the inner rage that was consuming me I could be personable and engaging, far more so than almost anyone I’d ever met.
I looked down on unsuccessful people for their lack of ambition. I looked down on successful people because in my mind they got that way, with a few exceptions, through luck or deception. Success, of course, meant ‘money’ and I condemned people who had it.
This revelation swept over me like the dust and debris that engulfed the streets of New York as the World Trade Center collapsed. My knees went weak and I grabbed the edge of the kitchen table to steady myself; I was light-headed and thought I might faint. I knew I had faults but at the core I was a good man; kind, compassionate, helpful, engaging and friendly. But now I’d discovered a vile being that was sharing my body and mind, sucking my essence in order to spew its hate and disperse it anger.
I wanted to deny that the person I’d uncovered was me, but I knew that was not the case.
I asked, “Why all the anger, why all the hate for people who had done nothing to harm me?” The answer was my second mule kick of the day.
“The world is a mirror,” the Baal Shem Tov said. “The faults you see in others are your own.”
From my journal:
“I am angry, very angry, at myself. I am so angry that to consciously direct all of that anger at its source would be more than I could bear. So in order to rid myself of the rage I have no choice but to direct it at others. But it is to no avail as long as I am unaware of what I’m doing. The anger does not abate, it only grows stronger as I become more and more frustrated with the results of my life.”
“But now I am awake to the insidious stranglehold my self loathing has had on me and with awareness comes the means to release its grip. I’m done being angry at the world and I apologize with every cell in my body to the thousands of people who have been the target of my wrath over the years. And I’m done being angry at myself; no good has come of it to this point and I’m certain that none ever will.”
My anger, and the attitude it spawned, was gone; just like that. It took some conditioning, but not much. When I’d catch myself starting to flare up (at the lady who couldn’t make up her mind in the drive-thru, the guy who cut me off in traffic, the customer who wore a turban, the man with the BMW and Rolex watch…) I’d stop and remind myself that my old attitude was reprehensible and something I wanted no part of. By simply becoming aware of its effects and associating massive pain with what they were costing me I was able to eliminate this disempowering emotion.
Will these changes last?
I admit to still having my tough moments. Those remnants of the emotional child abuse I suffered were with me longer, much longer, than they weren’t. And while they’re pretty much gone I still fall into their shadows from time to time. I quit smoking over 2 years ago and still think about it every now and then. But in both cases I remind myself that what I did does not need to be something I do; there’s a reason verbs have a “past tense.”
I believe that yes, these changes in the way I feel about myself and others will last.
I have come to enjoy feeling that I am a competent writer and that I am deserving of any rewards that come my way as a result of my writing. I have found work that inspires and challenges me and earns me the occasional praise of someone who reads it. Unsolicited from a cousin who stumbled across my web site:
“I had no idea you could write like that! Whatever you’re doing to make a living stop right now and start writing more!”
Trust me; no one ever said anything like that to me in 20+ years of selling cars!
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