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.