Recently I was waiting for my companion outside the local clinic when a woman walked out with her young daughter who had just been vaccinated. The mother was laughing very loudly and saying in a mocking tone “Can we do it again? Can’t we do it again?” “You know it’s funny, come on you know it’s funny…” Her daughter, looking very sad, repeatedly said no to all of these statements, as most children don’t find it funny when they’re stabbed with a needle for the first time. But her mother didn’t stop, she continued to accost the child: “Everyone has to get the shot! You said you wanted to get the shot when your older brother went last year! You asked “can’t I come?” All the big kids at school had to get the shot… Don’t you want to be one of the big kids…”
Instead of acting as emotional support for the four year old facing a potentially frightening and painful experience, this woman chose to invalidate her daughter, to laugh at her feelings and not respect the fact that she was uncomfortable and did not have a good time. At no point did the words “I’m sorry” come out, only attempts to manipulate the girls feelings and somehow prove them wrong based on things that happened in the past. Witnessing this disturbing scene took me back to my own childhood in a big way. This sort of condescension and open ridicule happened to me countless times. My family (but especially my sister) was always attacking my feelings and attempting to talk me out of them or turn them back onto me. The adults in my family were very keen to point out the supposed “hypocrisies” of children’s feelings.
Once at an amusement park when I was twelve, my twenty year old sister bullied me into riding a rollercoaster. She had spent much of the day snapping and putting me down, because I didn’t want to go on many of the rides and I had to take multiple bathroom breaks (i.e. stuff that was none of her business.) Every day of the preceding summer I had been eating compulsively to try to escape the pain and loneliness of my life at home, constantly being beaten, sexually abused, and ignored by my brother and parents. As a result, I gained a lot of weight, had digestive problems and didn’t want to go on anything that looked scary or nausea-inducing.
The rides at this park just weren’t my kind of fun, but when we arrived at the roller-coaster my sister decided to “put her foot down” when I said I would just sit on a bench while her and my brother rode it. She told me I would ride it whether I liked it or not and ignored my pleas. She harassed me to the point where I started crying, then humiliated me by saying things like “Don’t be such a baby!” and “Caden, I’m going to tell mom and dad that you cried about a roller coaster at 12 years old!” (because she knew my parents would ridicule and emotionally abuse me about this as well.) Eventually I gave in to her threats and demands, I got on the roller-coaster and rode it about a dozen times with them. “See, I told you it would be fun!” she said to me afterwards. And it occurs to me that she might as well have said “you know you liked it!” as my brother did after he raped me. This sort of manipulation, this coercion is exactly the same as was used in that situation.
My boundaries, my rights to my body were taken away from me and I was used for someone else’s enjoyment. And this was not fun, and there can never be fun or happy memories at the end of such manipulation and cruelty. It doesn’t matter if my body created some base level of good feelings, whether through endorphins on a roller coaster or through unwanted stimulation while being sexually abused. What they did to me was not and will never be made acceptable by that. Countless times as a child I was violated, forced against my will to eat things that aren’t right for my body, to do and say things that scared and hurt me, and then I was told “see, that wasn’t so bad, was it?” The canned answer I was often forced to give by the people that refused to listen or respect me was “no.” But that answer wasn’t valid, because it was in fact extremely bad to have my rights and body trampled over, and then to be emotionally abused by these phrases on top of it.
What I’ve learned in my life is that yes, I can survive a lot of things that aren’t right for me at all, but to my great detriment and to the death of my own feelings. I became so used to numbing myself and “just getting through” with what others imposed upon me in life, but that doesn’t prove that I was actually wrong in my initial objections. Assuming that someone who has lived through severe childhood trauma is going to “grow with adversity” by being put into situations against their will is ludicrous. Being beaten down is not growth, and it is not up to someone else to decide that I need to “grow” in order to be the person they want.
Years later (when I was 21) my sister expressed little regret about this incident with the rollercoaster, saying “Maybe that was like bullying, but I just wanted to connect with you!” She didn’t really apologize, or do what would be even better, which is acknowledge the abusive tendencies that caused her to do this, and apologize for it all and stop it all. Because this was just an example of what she did to me all the time, and she never stopped ridiculing my emotions and attacking my preferences. She also brought up her intrusive anger at my having to take bathroom breaks, and demanded an explanation instead of realizing that this was also extremely rude bullying and I did not have to explain it to her.
The summer of the amusement park was a terrible time in my life. So ultimately if you “wanted to connect with me,” you’d have to validate and respect my feelings, win my trust and (if we’re talking about an adult with power) actually do something to help me out of my predicament. Bullying me into doing something you thought was fun and shaming me all along the way doesn’t cut it.
In reparenting myself today, I constantly have to step in and remind myself that I can stop, I can leave, I have no obligation to make myself uncomfortable, sit starving because other’s aren’t ready to eat, or put my own needs aside. I have a right to say no, I have a right to boundaries, to my privacy, to fulfill my own physical and emotional needs as they exist in the context of my entire life and the reality of that life. I don’t care if people who have never had an eating disorder or PTSD (or more likely have denial about their own problems) look askance at me for that. My inner child needs safety and to know that he will be taken care of and not violated again.
I never should have been second-guessed, and now I practice not second guessing myself. I never should have been told to dissociate and “go along with” whatever someone else wants, and now I’m practicing at being present and making sure I come to an agreement with others that meets my needs. I never should have been forced to try something I knew wouldn’t work for me, and now I practice at keeping my self-knowledge at the forefront of experience. I never should have been given hateful labels by abusive people and now I strive to be kind, uncritical, and understanding to myself.