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.