Last month I dreamt I was on my way home from a nearby town late at night. Yet despite my being unable to drive and facing a very long walk ahead of me, I decided not to call the person I live with for a ride out of a fear of “bothering him.” I also didn’t ‘bother’ the old friends I was with, who were treating me with disinterest before we parted. So I walked and walked, for over four hours yet didn’t seem to get anywhere. Soon it was midnight and I had ten miles to go. I came upon a restaurant that was about to close and sat outside with my tears in my eyes wondering what to do. Passerby’s kept advising me to call him to come and get me, but I kept making excuses, saying that he could be asleep, that he doesn’t drive well at night, that since I hadn’t called him to begin with I couldn’t do it now. No one offered me a ride, and I didn’t ask either. It seemed I was doomed to walk all night, forever.
Of course the person I live with today would not expect, want, or allow me to walk home in a dangerous rural area at night. That specific situation, as well as these complex and self-effacing rules come from my childhood. When I was fourteen, I did make such a walking trip one summer night. My abusive boyfriend who had moved away the year before came back to visit for a week, and so we spent every day together hanging out. After seeing a movie in town that night, we had missed the last bus and I insisted that we couldn’t call my parents for a ride, because they would be upset. My mother often blew up at me when I asked for a ride, and two nights before when I planned to walk two blocks to his house at eight thirty she went further. The moment I left my room wearing a jacket my mother began shouting at me with a ferocious hatred; she called me a juvenile delinquent, accused me of wanting to go out and break into houses and told me that “I’m not having you turn out like your brother!” She didn’t even let me speak, just shouted me back down the hallway into my room.
As I tried to calm myself down from this scene, my mother started yelling at my father for not “backing her up” and for “letting him go out for eleven hours yesterday! [9am-8pm]” She knew very well that I was not “like” my brother and what impact her emotional abuse had on me, but stopping my individuation was the goal. I had never committed any major theft or vandalism, and wasn’t interested, but being punished for his actions via verbal abuse was supposed to stop me. She wanted to have someone to control, to be subject to her inconsistent moods and whims; it didn’t matter that I said where I was going the day before or that I arrived home before dark, she was upset about something and I became the target while my brother spent virtually the whole summer bouncing around between friends houses who my mother didn’t even know. So, ashamed of going out and afraid of my mother’s reaction, my friend and I began the long walk home from the mall.
At first it was o.k., it was a nice night out, we chatted and felt relaxed. But by the time the turnoff from the highway finally came, we were both feeling exhausted. I tripped and fell into a patch of poison ivy on the side of the road, which I was extremely allergic to and dreaded. Soon we were passing houses, and Simon kept begging me to ask to use their phone so we could call my dad to pick us up. But I held fast, despite the aching and blisters, saying that it was too late now, since I hadn’t asked in the beginning I’d be too embarrassed and ashamed to do it now. It was nearly midnight when I got home, but of course my mother wasn’t waiting up. She didn’t really care about my safety.
A few years later, I was nearly forced to make this same walk in the middle of winter. I called home several times, leaving messages on the answering machine, using up the last of my money in the process. But despite being home, they never picked up the phone and had blocked incoming collect calls. It was seven degrees fahrenheit outside, and the ground was icy. I was only wearing a light coat and the idea of walking home was unreal. It was a miracle that when I got on the last bus for the night in the hopes of putting pennies into the slot without the driver noticing, he handed me a candy cane and said “Merry Christmas!” The slot was taped over, out of order; everyone was riding free.
Today I know this was not just negligence on the part of my mother, she had done it out of spite. As I walked into the door she shouted down the hallway at me, “No going out on a day when you stayed home sick from school!” So ignoring my phone calls and messages was a punishment, and I suppose if I had frozen to death walking home or wound up harmed by accepting a ride from the wrong person, that would “serve me right” for not obeying her childish rules that came first before my health and safety. That night I did call, I did ask, but it still didn’t get me anywhere. I spent my whole childhood trying to ‘budget’ my needs, waiting for the right time to ask for something, bring up a problem I couldn’t solve myself; often I waited forever. And many times, like in the dream, my parents would yell at and abuse me even more for “not telling us earlier,” but really, there was no predictable, reasonable, fair formula on offer. I became so well-trained to this life of abuse that only a word or a look was enough to silence me into self-sacrifice and shame.
When I had this dream, I realized that the scenario had been superimposed upon my present life because in other ways this value system was still with me. There was something I really wanted, needed to do for myself, but I had been tiptoeing around my companion for over six months, afraid most of all for how he might react. It involved only minimal cooperation on his part, but my childhood fear had kept me setting days to bring it up and then putting it off again and again. My dream gave me the imperative to speak up, and when I did I found that actually, he didn’t react in any particular way. But I was then able to proceed with my plans and improve my life. Since then I’ve been going further with my self-care, trying to not put off other things that I can easily do to make my external and internal life better, even when it does involve communicating with another person. And these experiences have often been rewarding, providing me with confidence and reminding me of where I am today.
I can’t entertain any shame for how I desperately tried to adapt to my parents manipulation as a child. But today I’m separated from my family, and I don’t have to live like that, waiting on someone to give me permission to act for myself, or be afraid of asking for cooperation when I need it to fulfill my needs. In the past I was stunned when my companion said things like “I don’t care if you wake me up!” when I mentioned not doing something in the house because I thought he might be taking a nap. The idea that not everyone in the world would go into a blind rage when woken up by some noise never occurred to me. I also avoided telling him for weeks that I had dropped one of his wine glasses, out of fear that he would be angry. But again, he said, “that’s fine, glasses break, it happens.” As a child I was told I was endlessly inappropriate, clumsy, incompetent, and I would be screamed at all the time because my mother always projected fault onto me.
I know that today I do have a right to speak up, speak out about my needs, concerns, and plans. Even if it’s something that happened a long time ago but was never addressed, I still have a right to bring it up, and for understanding (at least on my part if no one else’s) for how and why I didn’t do so immediately. I can react well to myself, and understand myself, regardless of how someone does. There is no statute of limitations on my emotions, pain, on broken things and problems I don’t know how to solve. I do deserve help with things I can’t do all on my own, and I am not responsible for anyone else’s mood or anger. I am worth having my essential needs met, and I’m not “just a bother” for everyone else to be spared of while I suffer. I’ve also seen that another message to the dream is that I should go through the process of learning how to drive now (as I’ve been considering doing), so that I won’t be so dependent on someone else when public transportation isn’t available. Learning to live with myself and with someone else in a healthy way are two journeys I’m looking forward to right now, and I’m sure that this time they won’t end in defeat.