The Toxicity of Unsolicited Advice

toxic advice photo

I’ve found myself in relationships throughout my life that are openly hostile to my emotional needs.  Where it becomes the imperative truth that if I talk about myself, my feelings or problems, it is seen as an invitation for attack, not an invitation to connection or intimacy.  Where I definitely don’t get back what I give to the other person.

Last year I tried to set a reasonable boundary with a friend.  I told them that I had heard their opinion on what the treatment should be for my health issues, I had laid out the reasons why that doesn’t work/isn’t for me, and I didn’t want to hear about it from them again.  Their repetitive, unsolicited medical advice often beginning with the phrase “you have to…” was beginning to really bother me.

They weren’t just sharing what worked for them, as they had never been in my position in the first place.  This came right after a very traumatic episode, and I told my friend how overwhelmed I was and that they weren’t helping.  In response they refused, saying “Well, I’m going to say what I think.”  That was, really, the end of our relationship.  At that point there was nothing to do but walk away.

Except I was dependent on this person, and would remain so for almost nine months.  After my deceased partner’s family threw me out onto the streets, I was left homeless and  with no option but to camp out on some land that they owned, and because that land was in the middle of nowhere I also was dependent on them for transportation.  During that time my friend did continue to harass me by repeating that same critical advice which they knew was unwelcome.  They took the fact that I was vulnerable due to needing their help as an excuse to ignore my boundaries which I was completely entitled to set.

They didn’t use the time, for instance, to read up on the science behind my illness and become more educated about it.  They didn’t express curiosity and ask me questions, but instead made insulting statements that gradually escalated despite my attempts to avoid the subject.  Soon not only was I accused of being a “bad patient” who supposedly wasn’t listening to his doctors, but actually a delusional person who’s illness was all in his head; who was “taking too long” to grieve his dead partner and everything that was lost.  This person projected his ignorant judgments onto me and accused me of a long list of things that I am not rather then understanding and respecting me and my innate intelligence.  That is not acceptable.

Being dependent on someone who I didn’t feel safe around made my life into a complete nightmare.  I experienced severe stress and panic virtually every time I had to see or contact him.  I felt silenced and intimidated, while he felt free to say whatever he wanted to me and vent all of his anger and judgment with no filter.  It was a very familiar pattern, from my abusive childhood and onward.  Hearing my former friend writing me off as someone who was “weak,” “wimpy” and constantly making homophobic comments about the way I dressed was extremely triggering.  It took a long time to get out of that place, both physically and emotionally, and be able to reflect on what was actually happening.

The fact is, I don’t “have to” do anything; I have agency to review my options and make the medical decisions I see as best.  I do self-work based around healing and recovery because I want to, not because of any alleged moral obligations. This is a very important distinction for me, as I see healing as a journey of liberation, not of stricture.  I avoid any healing philosophy that is made up of commandments or one size fits all platitudes.  Healing is finding my voice, healing is having my own personal boundaries, not following someone else and their rules.

My family of origin was extremely unhealthy and emotionally abusive.  In my childhood, if I came to any of my family with a problem, if I expressed hurt or sadness, I wasn’t given support, but just brushed aside, criticized, belittled, told what to do and why what happened was actually my fault.  With my late partner of seven years, I experienced a similar pattern, where if I was ill, he insisted that offering emotional support ‘wouldn’t help.’  But his unsolicited ‘practical advice’ was very condescending, and usually ended in his mocking and insulting me, which definitely didn’t help me or our relationship.

My ex-friend didn’t know what he was talking about.  However personally, I don’t have to understand the intricacies of someone else’s medical condition or life situation in order to empathize.  If I want to know more about something, I will look it up, but I’m sure that the person living it will always know more about it then I do, so I give them the benefit of the doubt and don’t assume that it’s up to me to solve their problems when they certainly haven’t asked me to do so.  I also don’t see it as my place to become frustrated with someone about how sick or in crisis they are, and whatever I do feel I definitely don’t unload it onto the person who is actually suffering.

Instead of telling someone “you should,” “you have to…” or giving unsolicited advice, providing emotional support does go a long way.  A good alternative to such statements would be “I know you’re doing everything you possibly can right now, how can I support that?”  Offering to support someone in what they are already doing for themselves, as opposed to making them feel obligated to explain themselves at length or defend themselves against unsolicited and inappropriate advice.  Respecting their intelligence and ability to research, plan and think critically about their own life.  Respecting the fact that if they wanted advice, they would ask for it directly.

I’ve long since learned that defending and explaining myself just doesn’t work with some people.  They don’t get the point, they don’t step back, they just respond with more inappropriate advice and intrusive questions. The effective response there is to just be firm the first time, to not engage the pattern.   What they communicate by their behavior is “you’re so lazy, you do nothing, you aren’t even thinking about how to improve your circumstances and you obviously have a ton of free time, so you better do X!”  There’s nothing helpful or constructive about this form of advice.

Do we have to first prove that we’re worthy of emotional support before receiving it?  Do we have to show that we filed our paperwork on time, followed the advice of a ‘professional’ and put ourselves through a series of self-flagellation to be deemed worthy of it?  If we come from a cycle of abuse and dysfunction, then maybe we are used to being given the cold shoulder unless we’ve jumped through all of the right hoops and can present a convincing case to prove that we are worthy of empathy as opposed to punishment for what the judge declares was actually our fault.  But that is not emotionally healthy.

We are worthy of emotional support, even if we have made mistakes, even if our capacity right now is just to struggle through the day and try to cope with that, even if the people around us have no interest in giving it.  Even if we provide non-judgmental emotional support to others but they refuse to reciprocate.

Speaking of support, I’m badly in need of it myself right now.  Since my partner died I lost everything and have been struggling to keep myself housed and afford the basic necessities.  I recently ran out of money and badly need help to make it through this year.  Please consider donating via my fundraiser .

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Postmortem Of My Relationship: Beginning The Healing

gatesI’ve been through a really bad period, some of which I’ve written about here. What I haven’t written very much about is my relationship with my partner. I shied away from sharing any of it when he was alive, because I didn’t feel confident in my perceptions. But his death and what’s happened since has thrown it into sharp relief. I’ve wondered what it was that we had if it all led to this? The answer is of course mixed.

Dew, my partner was significantly older then myself; I was in the same age group as his grandchildren, in fact. I’ve been afraid of being judged about that, even though I don’t see age differences as a problem in itself. But because he was closeted, wealthy, and married with children for much of his life, he conducted his gay relationships in a certain way. By taking in a series of attractive young men, and passing them off as being his servants. Except it wasn’t just a lie, it seeped into every aspect of his love affairs. He would blur the lines between the romantic and the professional, and then blow up when his unequal partners crossed his line.

He shared with me countless stories of his volatile breakups, all of which were blamed on his boyfriends and centered around their ‘undesirable’ qualities. It was only after his death, when I actually met and talked with some of these people, that I realized they weren’t monsters, but rather the recipients, like myself, of toxic relationship patterns that Dew engaged in throughout his whole life. He sought out deeply unequal relationships, with people that would either share his life on his terms, or leave. Some of them wanted a life outside of his estate, others wanted only a job or a relationship, and he would explode in rage and kick them out, as he almost did to me many times.

There is actually a lot of irony in the fact that my partner’s adult son threw me out in a torrent of abuse on my birthday three months ago. Because the first birthday that I spent with my partner, I was also the recipient of rampant verbal abuse and humiliation from him. In both cases it’s true that I hadn’t told these people it was my birthday, but I didn’t because I had no reason to, and being treated like that on any other day wouldn’t have made it any better. I almost left a week after that day in early 2008, but then we had a long talk, and he offered to let me stay, so I did. Eventually I did come to love him, and we became close, to a certain extent. But I had also showed him how much I would put up with.

But his raging didn’t stop. Often times, his anger would suddenly be triggered by little things, and then he would shout at me and start ‘listing’ everything that he had done for me, all the money he had spent… He had once told me he loved me, he asked me to let him take care of everything. But there was also resentment, of me, and my needs, there were tallies being kept and brought out for shaming in response to completely unrelated issues. This was the same way his son would later treat me, as while he was breaking our agreement to violently throw me out onto the streets, he began insisting that he had been ‘very generous’ to me and reciting a list that showed he placed no value on me or the work I had done for him.

We lived an isolated life, in a remote rural community filled with mostly retirees, where everyone had to have a car to get around. This isn’t how I was used to living; I had centered my independent adult life on the ability to walk or use public transportation to get around. Yet going anywhere with Dew I was inevitably just ‘tagging along’ in his view, he had no interest in changing his routines. He had a real ego about his car, and would insist that because it was his car and he was the driver, he got to make all of the decisions, and it didn’t matter if I was cold or air conditioning or loud music was giving me a headache, it didn’t matter if I was starving when he wanted to drive for six hours straight without ever stopping, because he was the driver, and it was his decision.

I never learned to drive, as my parents didn’t bother teaching me, yet whenever I brought up wanting to learn to drive, he would discourage me, telling me that I couldn’t take care of a car because I’m allergic to gasoline and therefore couldn’t pump my own gas–which is a valid point, but not an insurmountable one. Or he would snap at me, condescendingly, that I didn’t really want to learn to drive, because if I did then I would be watching his every move while he was driving the car… He brought up driving school once, but the only such places were hours away, and so it would have involved extensive driving to get there. In the end, there was really no way for me to do this independent of him, and he didn’t want me to do it, so I didn’t. Unfortunately that was a really big pattern in our life together.

I know that the reason he threw out a young man about a year and a half before I showed up was because he had wanted the use of one of Dew’s cars, to teach soccer or be a substitute teacher at a school on the island. In which case, he wouldn’t be there with Dew on the estate all day. That’s what Dew wanted, someone to share his life, not an independent adult with their own life. Unlike me, Dew didn’t want to go places and see things, meet people… he said he had seen the island already, and if I really wanted to go somewhere he would try to talk me out of it, tell me it was nothing special. Eventually I adapted, I learned to cultivate a life that while not stimulating, was comfortable.

I was unhappy, and I had very little choice in my life. But the atmosphere that I lived in contained no one who would have validated me or my situation. I was filled with shame, by the idea that I was just a disgruntled employee or an ungrateful person. That our relationship was inappropriate, and it should be hidden from view. That I was just ‘the help’ or some sort of rent boy preying upon Dew. So there was no one I could talk to about what was happening. And I was caught up in a connection that wasn’t emotionally healthy. Not in the slightest. To admit that would be to imagine leaving, when I had promised (to myself primarily) that I would stay with him until the end, because he asked me to. Because he needed me, and that was all I felt I had. I was used to being a caretaker, and I took good care of him.

When he died, I was thrown into confusion and cognitive dissonance, as all of the illusions I had held onto for so long were disintegrating before my eyes. I told myself this situation gave me an opportunity to heal. And it did, to a certain extent, so long as I could go about it alone (except for my great friends and allies online.) But some forms of growth were just not possible in that environment. I told myself it would give me time to recover from my eating disorder, but that was a long, hard road that I haven’t reached the end of yet. I told myself I could build up a writing career, but found myself uninspired, isolated, and sick instead. My real reasons for staying were much deeper and sadder.

I realize now that there is no reward, cosmic or otherwise, for staying in a flawed, unequal, or abusive relationship. For putting up with things for someone else’s sake, for making compromises that aren’t all practical or workable. It doesn’t win love, or better treatment to do so. With Dew’s death, my hope that this situation or our relationship could improve also died. There was no significant benefit to my hiding with him for all those years, not to me anyway. Those two birthdays that bookmarked my life with him have led me to mostly the same place and situation; though of course there are some differences, some are better or worse on each end, and hope shifts around, is ephemeral in each. Suffice to say now I have the chance to live my own life, and break out of these patterns.

This is only part 1 of a series of posts to come on this subject.

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Defining Family As A Survivor: Through Grief and Contrast

reaching out to the sea

It’s been three and a half months since my partner of seven years passed away. I’ve experienced many cold, dark, lonely days since then. The holidays this year were not a time to celebrate, but to grieve, and somehow survive despite the pain and fresh trauma that life threw at me. As a survivor of abuse, incest, and child sex trafficking, I lost my biological family a long time ago. And today I’ve lost the one I spent years building up; my partner, our dog, and my home have been ripped away from me in rapid succession. It’s left me whiplashed, but also contemplative, and more then ready to examine what is left.

What I’ve come to realize is that there were toxic people in the life I shared with my partner, who had emotionally abused and disregarded me over a long period of time. Including my partner’s adult son, and a close friend of ours. And they didn’t stop being abusive when he died and I became more vulnerable then before. They didn’t suddenly decide to give me respect, validate my personhood or recognize my equal value. I had to demand it, and move forward with the truth regardless of their attempts to retaliate and hurt me in response.

When my partner died, he was in the closet. He admitted the reality of our relationship to almost no one, though people who really knew him could see the obvious truth. Though we weren’t married, he was family to me, he was my family. Yet after he died I found that in many of our discussions, a friend of mine kept making unprovoked statements along the lines of “well, THEY’RE the family, we were just his friends…” and when I shared my sorrow as well as physical exhaustion with her, she would say in a critical tone “oh gosh, well imagine how THEY must feel?” These were silencing statements, that really harmed and confused me in the earlier stages of my grief, despite the fact that I definitely don’t believe in comparing feelings or pain.

It also hurt me because it was like she decided from the beginning that there were sides, that I was on one side and my partner’s relatives/legal heirs were on the other. And she had chosen her side. In truth she had said things like this before, treating me like an outsider, someone who didn’t belong in my partner’s life and was driving a wedge between him and his relatives. As if she didn’t approve of our relationship, though she wouldn’t come out and say it. When I confronted her about how these statements and her withdrawal of friendship made me feel, she responded by saying “I know you THINK you had a relationship with Dew, but I don’t believe that!” She told me that I was just Dew’s employee, while she was his friend (thus in a higher position in his life then myself, and if I was less then her, I must be so much less then his relatives too.)

This level of absurd, arrogant invalidation shocked me; as if she actually thought she knew better then I what happened in private, while I only imagined things like living with him, our physical intimacy, verbal expressions of affection, and the many seasons of our life together. But I also felt empowerment, because I had stood up for myself, and that is something she could never take away or cancel out. It also helped me to realize that it hadn’t just been my own insecurity telling me all these years that people are thinking things like this; some really were. And now that my partner was dead, I wasn’t putting up with them anymore. I’m not letting anyone, not my family of origin or her tell me that my experiences, memories and feelings are not real or valid.

When my partner’s relatives came to the house after he died, we got along well, and it seemed for a time that a new page had been turned in our relationship. But I see now that wasn’t real; the truth is that when they came I was desperate, afraid, and eager to please, because I thought I would be thrown out with nothing. So I over-exerted myself, running on pure adrenaline I sought to make myself invaluable to them. But they just saw me as a source of cheap, efficient and quick labor; which given my physical and mental state, I most certainly am not. And my partner’s son was no more eager to please or even willing to accommodate me then he was in the years past.

From the very day we met, his behavior implied that he didn’t approve of my presence in my partner’s life and his house. Though he used the fact that he owned the house after my partner died to push in on me, the truth is he didn’t bother knocking back when my partner was alive, he would violate my space on his whim. Once he threw my clothes from the washing machine onto the floor and left them there so that he could do his own laundry, another time he insisted despite my objections on washing the carpet in my office with chemical carpet cleaners that made such strong and long-lasting fumes that I wasn’t able to enter my office again for over seven months without getting sick.  There are many such examples, that I never received any apology for.

My partner explained to his son countless times that I have a very real medical condition; multiple chemical sensitivity, a neuro-immune, multi-system illness that causes me to experience acute pain and inflammation when coming into contact with volatile off-gassing chemicals. But he never acknowledged his father’s requests that he simply use the hypoallergenic, environmentally friendly products we provided him with that made our living environment tolerable for me.   On his visits I would become sick, and have to retreat to the small cabin on the property, despite it’s lack of facilities. After my partner died and I was kept on as caretaker of the estate, he began to say things like “I don’t know about your ‘sensitivities,’ but…” when actually he knew very well about them, he just didn’t care.

Over the three months that I spent caretaking my former home, my health deteriorated rapidly, as my safe environment was gone, and I was dealing with grief as well as the stress of my precarious position and being pressured into taking on a project which I was not capable of doing. Despite my chronic fatigue and pain, I began to experience panic attacks, thinking that he would come back to the house and if I didn’t finish single-handedly building an entire business out of my partner’s artwork, I would be thrown out (even though that was not a part of our agreement.) I was right about that.   When I wrote him an email saying that though I had completed a great deal of the work I had reached my limit, he didn’t respond. But when he came back, he tried to bully me into moving forward with it; he grew aggressive, and hostile; he kept making demeaning comments about me, asking insulting questions like ‘do you have fleas?’ and otherwise not listening to anything that I said, confident that he could steamroll me and get his way regardless.

Finally, without warning he decided to light an illegal trash fire 40 feet in front of the cabin where I was struggling to live.  When I saw him light it he shouted that he would be “shooting off guns” as well, so I should stay in the cabin.  As the smoke entered through the cracks in the doors and windows, my lungs constricted, my skin started to burn and my heart-rate increased rapidly. Thankfully I was able to call one of the only true friends that has stood by me during this entire episode, and he came to pick me up.  But as I was still trying to recover at my friends house, he rang me, and started calling me names, asking me if I was ever coming back or not, saying that he had gone through my things in the cabin after I left…

At that moment I stood up for myself, I told him that just because he inherited the house does not give him the right to emotionally abuse, bully, disregard or physically attack me with smoke and chemicals. He probably wanted to provoke me at that point, to give him an excuse to throw me out, and he got what he wanted; telling me to “get the hell out of my house” before I hung up the phone. It was just a few hours before my birthday, which I would spend frantically packing my things.

People trying to invalidate my illness or my relationship, pretending that they didn’t exist, and that they hadn’t already been proven and explained to them, was enormously painful after my partners death. I was being attacked while at my lowest point. But I’ve had to ask myself today, am I someone so desperate and vulnerable that I’m willing to put up with any amount of mistreatment and abuse that people throw at me? The answer is no, that is not my state of being today, and anyone who tries to project that onto me is completely mistaken. While I’ve been experiencing a massive identity crisis, as I lost my partner, our home, and our beloved dog, that crisis is not about whether I have and deserve to be treated with equal value. I do.

During my final encounter with my partner’s son, he brought up yet again a patronizing question he had asked me many times; “why don’t you just call your family?” Asking it more then once shows how he hadn’t respected my answer, that we are estranged, and I have no biological family; that I don’t define family that way. But the real answer came to me less then a week later when the good friends I reached out to, who supported me during this whole time took me in and told me that they consider me family, and won’t throw me into the wind, like my partner’s biological family, or my own.

I don’t restrict compassion and human decency to just people that are biological relatives, or build relationships out of obligation.  My partner was my family, until he died.  But that is a type of family that thankfully can be rebuilt, with time.

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Learning To Value My Creativity After Emotional Abuse

proudly sensitiveA photo I took shortly after escaping my abusive family home

Being a visually oriented person, photography has long been a great interest of mine,  though it wasn’t always accessible to me. I remember the first significant time I used my parent’s camera, on a (unhappy) trip to Berkeley when I was 15.  A week after I arrived home, my mother threw the just-developed pictures on the floor in the hallway and banged on my door, screaming “You’re lucky I didn’t pay to have these developed; these are the worst pictures I’ve ever seen in my life!” She provided neither instruction on how to use the camera beforehand, or encouragement for how I might use it better in the future, there was just a put-down before I even got to see the pictures myself.

Instead of paying for the film herself with unconditional love, she had charged it to her workplace account and then became enraged at me because I didn’t make her subterfuge feel worthwhile. My mother communicated to me that I wasn’t worthy of kind gestures or good thoughts even if they cost her nothing at all, and that I should feel ashamed. Permanently ashamed, as once I hadn’t lived up to her expectations the first time trying something, she would never forget, I would always be a ‘bad photographer’ in her eyes after this.

Looking back I had just gone through a hellish year of constant bullying and isolation at school, I was anxious and depressed, and understandably not fully engaged in where I was going or what I was seeing. If my mother had considered not that these were ‘bad photographs’ meaning that I was incompetent, but asked questions instead along the lines of “Why didn’t you have a good time?”, “What can I do to make you feel more comfortable?” Then maybe the answer would have been different. Perhaps she would have seen, beyond the first-time camera use, that the photographs reflected what I was feeling at the time, if they seemed like a drab afterthought, that is what they were meant to be.

The truth is that I found spending three days each way on a hot, stressful, sleepless bus ride across the country living off of stale junk food numbing and dismal. Countless people along the way harassed and called me homophobic slurs because of the way I dressed, people threatened to assault me, and I was bored out of my mind. And all of that just to stay with my older sister who was no more interested in my feelings then our mother was. She was principally occupied with her one and a half year old son, and though I couldn’t have expressed it this way at the time, the fact is he triggered feelings about my own abuse when I was his size. It made me really uncomfortable to be around him.

But my sister’s habit of constantly yelling and raging at me was worse; her communication methods were toxic, she took our her bad days at work on me, and threatened to kick me out of her car and leave me stranded in the city I didn’t know. Staying with her was not a vacation, and not a summer activity that I would have chosen for myself had I been given options. But this trip was my mother’s idea; she constantly wanted to travel to California and see her grandchild, a desire I naturally didn’t share at the time, but which she projected onto me.

A year before, I walked into the kitchen and heard her on the phone begging my sister to let me go live with them for the entire summer.  She said that I, at fourteen “needed something to love,” and thus would be a great babysitter for her infant son, that I could take him out in his stroller to the park every day…  As if that wasn’t blind and inappropriate enough, my mother went on to say that I could sleep outside on the balcony of their studio apartment so that my sister and her husband “could still have sex” while I was there.  Though I quickly left the room, I know that my sister declined this bizarre proposal.

The photographs to document my trip included stray shots taken from the bus windows at odd angles, of smoke-stained cities we drove through in five minutes, of the exterior of the building where my sister’s cramped apartment lie in, poorly lit photographs in her rooms, and scenes over the boiling California sidewalks where I wandered up and down aimlessly for no discernible  reason (except for the fact that my sister would yell at me if I didn’t go out and “explore.”) Apparently not what my mother would have preferred. But I wasn’t a bad photographer, I simply had nothing else to photograph, no hope, no good memories, nothing to focus on and little knowledge of what all the buttons on my parents cheap old camera were supposed to do.

I wasn’t responsible for meeting my mother’s strange and not clearly expressed expectations at the time. As my mother, she was responsible for taking care of me and meeting my needs and respecting my feelings, which she did not do, instead she abused me, she ignored me, and tried to over-rule my very personhood with the unsuitable plans she dreamed up for me. Her emotional abuse was never justifiable, it doesn’t matter even if she had paid for a roll of unsuccessful film to be developed. I didn’t keep the photographs from that trip myself, I threw them away after looking at them once, my mother’s words echoing in my mind. It was hard for me to value anything that others didn’t.

Four years later I got my first digital camera, and I was thrilled. I could experiment, and express my point of view without having it screened or put down by anyone before I even saw the results myself, and when I did like what I produced, I shared it with my friends online.  Sometimes when looking at those old photos I took while I was still living at home, they make me uncomfortable, because I can see the shadow of trauma and old memories in the background.   But I don’t feel ashamed of myself, my history or what my art is today or was in the past.

Today I do make my own decisions on what I value, independent of what others think.   Reclaiming my true history from the lies told to me by abusers has been a very empowering process.  So, you’ll be seeing allot more of my photographs on Proudly Sensitive in the future.

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The Pretense of “Both Sides” When You’re The One Being Abused

When I was 9 years old I broke down crying and confessed to my sister how much my older brother had been abusing me on a daily basis since she went away, she said to me “C’mon Caden, I’ve seen you punch Jake before, I know you can do it…” So her solution was to shame, tell me that it was my fault when all along I could just punch him and he would stop. I wonder today, would she also suggest that if I just punched my parents or the members of their pedophile ring, the rest of the abuse would have ended too? But those rare times when I would try to really retaliate against my brother (though not with fists because I couldn’t hurt him that way), there was no support from her or anyone else, and there was no one there to protect me when inevitably it only made the physical, sexual, and emotional torture even worse. But I see today that the illusion of my childhood power was very valuable to them in making me feel powerless and blaming it all on me, using whatever real or imaginary revenge actions I had carried out as ‘evidence’ for how my bigger, stronger and malicious older brother was actually not really at fault, but ‘both sides’ were.

When my mother was leaving me alone with my brother yet again she would always make throwaway comments to both of us like ‘no fighting,’ drilling into me the idea that the abuse was also my fault. Simply by being abused I could be accused of ‘fighting’ and disobeying her orders. How I could not ‘fight’ was to hide on the bathroom floor or out in the woods all day in the summer, on weekends or days after school, and if I was lucky, he wouldn’t come find me anyway. When my parents left us alone to go on their private vacations my mother would say I could call them if there was any trouble. Yet when I dialed the number to tell them about what he was doing to me, they ignored my messages. My brother invited kids who bullied me at school to his big, raucous parties, and allowed his friends to play sadistic sexual games with my body and rape me. I was never left at peace in my own home, but to the very bitter end all I heard from my parents was the same tired phrases and lies, ‘no fighting’ ‘stay out of his room and he’ll stay out of yours,’ ‘he wouldn’t do that!’ ‘you’re always making up stories,’ ‘you’re just too sensitive…’

My childhood was one long series of abandonments. some I was able to numb myself to, while others such as this one blared in my face and made it impossible not to recognize what the whole truth of our family was. It makes me sick to see that lines like “as a parent you can’t protect him forever…” are so often used as an excuse for parents of young boys to neglect their responsibility to protect during the crucial but short years of childhood, which doesn’t even come close to “forever.” Being protected and nurtured in early life does make for healthier, more resilient and well-adjusted adults in the long run, while abandonment does not. I know that my childhood home should not have been ruled over by some ‘law of the jungle’ where I had to win my right to exist via violence, and nor should my elementary school have been that way either. If as is so often the case, a boy is bullied and beaten at school but the only solution offered is not to call the police, the school principal, or start anti-bullying programs but to “teach the boy how to fight!” then the cycle of violence is being perpetuated, not broken.

It is not anyone’s place to make the extremely insulting claim that I didn’t resist the abuse to my full capacity as a child, because I most certainly did. I was never empowered by ridiculous stereotypes about what my physical strength should be, which is of course completely irrelevant when it comes to abuse and the legacy of disempowerment that it brings. I know that boys are not at a lower risk for physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, but that our vulnerability is systematically denied and we are subject to sick stereotypes about “needing” more physical punishment and most often left on our own. I know that ultimately I wasn’t interested in fighting with my brother or punching people, I just wanted and fully deserved a safe and comfortable home environment ruled by mutual respect. But my abusive parents destroyed any chance for that, and they were able to do it because as a child I was not capable of fixing the entire situation on my own.

The facade of impartiality they adopted in response to my brother abusing me was of course very shallow in the end. They took his stories (about how yes, he assaulted me and though I was the only one bruised or with my bedroom door torn down, it was really my fault because I made him do it) as the final word without even asking me, and always viewed me as a burden for having complaints. The truth is there are two sides between the abuser and the abused, but the ‘side’ of the abuser is so petty and repulsive that it doesn’t bear sympathy. My brother’s side was that he hated me for just existing, and supposedly ‘being’ the long list of insults he regularly threw at me. But the victimization and abuse only went one way. While he may still hate the ground I walk on and everything that I say/think, that is really irrelevant. He still doesn’t have a valid side when it comes to our relationship.

Listening to the advice of my family, that the abuse was normal and I should just ‘let it go’ would have left me eternally at the whim of my abusers. Giving them permission to wake up every day and decide whether they will continue abusing me or not, while I would have to wake up every day wondering if I will be abused again, and not able to voice that concern, that question because it could be seen as provocative. That is not a life I want to live, it is not a life at all. Sadly too many family therapists act like it is their job to enter into families with histories of abuse and level everything in order to be fair to both parties. But there is nothing fair about being abused, and you can never make it fair by edict long after the fact.

When does a relationship with a history of severe abuse driven by power and age differentials from childhood become a situation where both sides are equally at fault and equally responsible? Never, I would say. Survivors do not have an obligation to put aside our need for validation and our genuine feelings in favor of maintaining a sick status quo. There is no comparison between an adult rightfully not liking or trusting another adult as a result of past events, and the agony of a child being abused and crushed by someone bigger and stronger then themselves. Both sides is B.S. when people want to sit on the sidelines and apportion equal blame to victims.

Despite what abuse implies, the victim of violence is not less then their attacker, and violence is still a crime no matter what; it is not “fair” because the victim was unable to “win a fight” or said something that the other person didn’t like. I don’t wish there was someone around to teach me how to fight as a child, I wish we had a community that really took care of and protected children from violence. I wish that when my older sister went away to college, she reported our parents to the police instead of making these insensitive comments to me. I know that, sadly, children who desperately fight back against their abusive parents or older siblings and kill them in the process are rarely spared from lengthy, if not life-long prison sentences here in the United States. Child abuse is not about what the child should have done, it’s about what other people should do to protect children, but all to often don’t.

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Confronting The Double Standards In Emotionally Abusive Family Relationships

One early evening when I was 18 years old, I was trying to take a shower.  But my mother kept knocking on the bathroom door, calling out my name and saying something in a muffled voice. There were two bathrooms in the house and I was halfway through my fifteen minute shower, I didn’t know what she could possibly want. I kept asking “what?” while continuing my shower and she kept knocking on the door, saying “Caden?, Jake? [my brother’s name,] and then coming back again. Eventually something rose up from inside of me, and I was screaming louder then I ever had in my life, asking over and over again, “What??” and eventually she went away. Many times when I was a child there was someone on the other side of that bathroom door banging and shouting at me as they gradually broke it down or picked the lock to attack me; I was sexually assaulted in that shower multiple times, making it difficult enough to be in there without one of my abusers interfering. But at the time I didn’t know where that outburst had come from, I was confused, and when I dressed and opened the door, I was going to apologize to my parents and explain that I was just stressed out and tired.

Yet the moment I emerged my mother and father started screaming at me in unison, “Who do you think you’re talking to, how dare you, if you ever speak to me in that tone again…” So I just went back to my room, and forgot about apologizing to those miserable, hateful people. It was like trying to talk to a barking machine that would just start making automatic, repetitive noises whenever it detected a speaking voice. There was nothing I could say to them, I wasn’t allowed to have feelings, or bad days, or even just casually talk to them. My parents created a deeply abusive relationship with me, where I always felt at fault, but there was no supplication available. My apologies were never accepted, acknowledged, or deemed relevant to the issue at hand–they could never stop the rejection, the silence, the turning away and the judgments they used my behavior to reaffirm until the next round of raging and shaming would begin. My mother later claimed “I just wasn’t sure if you or Jake was in the shower” which is not a very compelling reason to make a scene and blame it on me when she could have waited.

Yet in my family, my older siblings and parents always acted like they could emotionally abuse me one second and then impose themselves upon me the next; like the moment we left each others eyesight, whatever they had done or said to me vanished, and they expected me to be nice, civil, to never ask for an apology or for problems to actually be brought up and worked out. They freely took out their bad days, moods, and hangovers on me. I never received an apology from my parents, but it was made very clear that what I did and said in our family would not evaporate, I experienced many sudden silent treatments and creeping emotional punishments that taught me I was on the losing side of the double standard in our relationship. If I didn’t aggressively self-censor myself and let everything that they did slide, it seemed like the world would come to an end.

But today I don’t believe in letting significant hurtful remarks and actions ‘slide,’ because I know at the end of the slide is a dark pit of indifference and the same old thing. It’s very common for people to describe “not blaming” our families as being “the bigger person,” but I don’t agree. When someone has hurt you, or more widely destroyed your life via abuse or neglect while others were abusing you, holding them responsible for their actions is a good thing, and it doesn’t make us small or somehow less then others. Not holding family members responsible for how they’ve treated you, and thus accepting that abusive, neglectful treatment without ever demanding accountability, apologies and substantive change doesn’t make you a bigger or better person. I don’t give my sensitivity, kindness, and energy away to people who abuse me anymore, I recognize that the world is not black and white, and I don’t have to treat everyone the same exact way in order to define myself as a good person.

Of course as the youngest in my family, my parents and siblings were the ‘bigger’ people in the relationship, but bigness did not mean they were right, correct, or kind. My parents and older siblings towered over a child and reacted in the most petty, cruel, and hateful way to millions of minor things. Once when I brought up to my sister during our final months of relationship how something demeaning that she had just said to me was part of a pattern for how she responded my whole life, she gave me this patronizing look and said “geez, you’re holding all this anger inside you about the past!” What that means is that she felt entitled to complete absolution and had no obligation to apologize for what she had done to me and make a complete break with that treatment. Everything that she had done was now supposed to be “the past” a vague, murky area that so many agree needs to be shunned and deleted. But every moment of a relationship is suffused by it’s entire history, and what bad times there were, and whether they were ultimately resolved, or in this case, not.

I recall how my family never forgot a story about me that they could mock, scorn, and ridicule; my mother would tell her twisted versions of the same humiliating, insulting, lie-filled stories of my life over and over again. But of course they “didn’t remember” any of the sexual or physical abuse, and if I brought up the emotional abuse, even what they just said five minutes previous, the wall of denial put up was insurmountable. My sister had a very good memory for ridiculing me too, but times and events where she had greatly hurt me always conveniently drew a blank. But we aren’t wrong for being bothered by horrible things that were said and done to us, no matter when they happened, and it isn’t unreasonable to bring these things up and ask for them to be justly worked through. It isn’t wrong to bring things forward, to confront the architects of our childhood and demand a response.

There are many people we meet in life who when we try to set a boundary–to assert ourselves, say no, or that something they said or did made us uncomfortable and we don’t want it to happen again–will immediately walk away. They often portray us as being so volatile, difficult, and unpredictable that we aren’t worth coming around anymore because we could just blow up at them at any time. My older sister acted like this, to her our relationship could only be one where she could say or do whatever she liked without worrying about my feelings or how it affected me, and if I didn’t like it then I shouldn’t talk to her. In her view, I was responsible for her emotional abuse because I spoke to her at all. She also felt that because she thought she was correct about a topic of discussion (she often wasn’t) that that gave her a right to insult me as much as she wanted or could. But that isn’t true at all, and this sick, unequal relationship where I was treated like dirt was a model that she invented, and was constantly trying to reinforce despite my resistance.

Of course, I was once one of those people that instantly walked away myself. I’ve read that brains which were not damaged by abuse in early childhood development will release serotonin in response to social rejection, while damaged ones do not. I can see why it would wind up that way for me, because not only did I experience multiple traumas and decades of emotional abuse, when I was rejected at home, it was total-person rejection. Thus I was in no place to accept constructive criticism or rejection. Whenever someone had a problem with me, I instantly took it as a ‘piling on’ to all the trauma I had faced and that it was more evidence that my family was right about me. If I made a mistake, it wasn’t because the world is made up of many different people with individual perspectives, needs and boundaries in their relationships, it was because I was ‘always wrong’ and shouldn’t be around other people at all.

But as I’ve been healing and gaining more of a sense of myself, I see that it really isn’t too much to deal with other people’s boundaries, and nor is it for them to deal with mine. Despite what I was told in childhood, I’m not impossibly difficult, I’m not unreasonable; I’m not someone who can only expect tolerance at best. I’m someone who was traumatized for a long time, but I do have a right to expect mutual and healthy relationships with others and myself too. And just as importantly, I’m capable of maintaining them as well.   My first relationships in life are long since over and they are not the model I seek to replicate today nor do they predict what my future relationships will be like. 

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I Don’t Need Time Travel To Establish My Worth

The past several months have been very intense and painful for me due to the healing work that my process has provoked all throughout the holidays, my birthday and then hitting the one year anniversary of confronting my abusive ex-family. It’s brought a lot of changes for my life that I’m still exploring today, and a lot of newly uncovered memories that if they weren’t true wouldn’t be changing my life for the better. Up until just recently, my mind still strayed back to critical points in my young life–particularly when I was 16-19 years old, and imagining scenarios in which I could drastically change things and break free from my abusive family much earlier. This imagination-fueled yearning was something I experienced not because I had never heard the statement “you can’t change the past” that is pasted over a thousand different facebook memes. Pat phrases like that rarely have the ability to touch deeply into complex trauma even when we all nod our heads in agreement.

I’m very glad I wrote those letters confronting my family of origin last year and every specific thing I wrote in them at the time was such an important part of my process, and I regret nothing about them. But there are many things I couldn’t say at the time, things I wasn’t ready to face. Particularly to my older brother, who took the skills for grooming and manipulation that he learned from our mother and added in his own monstrous sociopathic talent. He left me second guessing myself for the longest time, hurtling back and forth between different emotions–while he was still in my life it was whether I liked or hated him. But in more recent years I’ve felt some internal push to see him as more of a fellow victim when in fact no, he was one of my main abusers. I know that regardless of the fact that we were abused by the same people, he targeted me in a malicious, personal way for a very long time and all I need putting him into context is to listen to my own emotions, not imagine what the outside world might think.

A few weeks ago I had a dream where I was back at college. I dreaded going home, because I knew that when I did my older brother would rape me again. I wanted badly to tell a friend of mine who worked as a waitress at a restaurant downtown. While I ate my lunch she kept hovering around my table, sometimes sitting down for a minute; I so badly wanted to tell her what was bothering me, but it was difficult to say and as I tried she just rolled her eyes, handed me my bill and walked away. I went to the counseling center on campus, and they told me I would be seen, but then just left me in the waiting room for hours until I knocked on the door and found that no one was there. I woke up in a flashback, almost hyperventilating and thinking up all these schemes as to how I could escape, all on my own of course because there was no help and I was gagged.

Of course I never went back home after going away to college, I never saw my parents again and only had one encounter with my brother that lasted a few seconds. But I still lived with that entirely unconscious fear and with the consequences of what he did to me. Because even when I was 18 or 19 and living at home, my brother still sexually abused me whenever he wanted to. I remember him coming into my bedroom, and turning the vacuum on to muffle the noise while he forced me. He had trained me over many years to go along with whatever he did to me, and of course I made myself forget immediately afterwards. He couldn’t care less just how much he was taking from me or how long the consequences would last.

I realized a few weeks ago that in my fantasies about changing the past my focus has always been on my own actions, and what I did. But as a teenager living at home in the clutches of my abusive family, was I really in control of my life and it’s circumstances? I see now that if my mind strays into that territory, why don’t I think of what they could have done differently? What if they didn’t yell at and mock me, what if they didn’t sexually abuse me, even at that age? If I’m focusing entirely on my reaction to that abuse, and wishing it to be different in ultimately impossible ways, then I’m not holding them responsible for their actions, but still seeing it all as my fault. What I see is at the time people had power over me which they freely exerted while I had none over them. Whether it is the power of my brother’s violence, my parents financial sway or my older sister’s hypercritical mind-control, the differential was absolutely still there, and while I couldn’t change the way I reacted all by myself, I see that it would have been much easier for them to stop doing abusive things to me.

I remember telling my older sister that I had been trying so hard to leave home, while she screeched back “You didn’t try hard enough!!” Her condescending attack was not cognizant of reality, or my reality. In one of our conversations that same year I mentioned how my brother was drinking beer at home all the time, just like our mother. “I’m sure his life is really hard! I think he’s doing everything he can, but I don’t think you are…” she said to me, using my comment as a jumping point to launch into a long hypercritical diatribe. Of course in our sick little family, helmed by alcoholics, there was nothing wrong with drinking and traumatizing other people while drunk, but my sister was sure that I deserved to be personally attacked for speaking scornfully about it. She tried the same thing when I correctly labeled our grandmother as an alcoholic. But it was without a doubt to her that my brother working in construction, getting drunk and raping me all the time was great, while my going to college full time, not drinking or abusing anyone was not. It reminds me of my mother exclaiming to me years later “how dare you judge your brother!” These words were toxic and they hit me hard. They told me that my abuser was worth defending, while I was not.

But I couldn’t care less about how “hard” his life was, and I deserve to feel the way I do and did about him. When he continuously moved in and out of our parents house, he resumed abusing me and harming my psychological health in a profound way. It didn’t depend on what job he was working at the time or what controlled substances he was binging on, though he liked to take out his anger for his own life circumstances on me. As the youngest in the family and the scapegoat, it was always made clear to me that I was responsible for their life outcomes and their emotions, while they were never responsible for mine; when the reality of course was the opposite. My brother’s sexual abuse didn’t end when we were children, it didn’t end when he got a girlfriend, it didn’t end when I turned 18. Like with my mother, it only really ended when I left home and he could no longer treat my body as a quick way to get off.

For a long time, I did not think of what the people who actually made the deciding moves in my life back then could have done differently. And I know certainly that my family didn’t think that way about themselves either; by putting it all on myself, I was agreeing with them that I “should have” made changes which frankly would have to have been supernatural even without my conceiving of time travel to achieve them today. If anything, my parents thought that if they had been more abusive then they would have achieved their aims, i.e. goals and end-points which were not what I wanted or who I am.  I know my mother was fond of beginning sentences with “IF ONLY you had….” But of course she didn’t apply these to herself, she didn’t think “If only I hadn’t sexually abused my sons,” my brother didn’t think “If only I hadn’t pinned Caden’s arm behind his back and fucked him…”

Understanding that I was still being abused, that I still had to dissociate and repress things that were happening in my day-to-day life has destroyed any idealizations I was harboring for my life and it’s possibilities in those times-gone.   Yet with that my feeling of loss has actually managed to lessen.  Even as I’m horrified that my brother abused me at a later age, this truth has also opened up new space for me to breathe. My self-blame has been chiseled further away.  I know that I never really understood what terms like self-love and self-validation meant until I experienced them, and that’s o.k. That fact is one of the many reasons why I don’t believe in moralizing or putting certain words on a pedestal as if they can heal all on their own. In my life I did the only thing I could have done to protect myself, which was leave, and I did it as soon as I could. So even if time travel existed, I would still have been as powerless and powerful as I was and am, then and today.

But I’m good enough even if I didn’t succeed or realize my social, romantic or professional goals as a teenager or twenty-something; I’m good enough if all I did was survive those painful years and get away with as much of myself as possible.  I’m good enough even if my ex-family doesn’t agree. Despite my mother’s admonitions, today I am proud to be a daring person, I do dare to speak out, to confront and put the blame where it truly belongs. I dare to change, to enter new territory inside myself and become even more unlike the people I’ve left behind.

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