My psychologist is fond of saying that it’s a small miracle I turned out so well considering the way I was raised and the abuse I survived in adulthood.
I’ve thought a lot about how it is that I’m not a drug addict, complete basket case, or a politician. What I’ve come up with is that in those violent, belittling lessons of my childhood there were hidden gems. Like a twisted video game, as I bent my way through horrors I also collected jewels that gave me access to a different life. I have a future that looks nothing like the past.
Yesterday, I wrote about the abuse I survived at the hands of my family. You’ll probably notice that I always use the verb survived rather than suffered when I talk about abuse. That’s because while I did suffer in those moments, everyday I survive the after effects. After posting my blog, a peer that I’ve known since I was about 12-years-old got in contact with me and told me their story. While the specifics were different, the tone was the same as mine. That we have similar stories didn’t strike me as noticeable as much as the fact that the person, like me, is a strong, educated professional and a loving spouse and parent. Like me, that person is building a different life
When people — educators, therapists, friends — have described me in the past, they frequently use the word resilient. Resilient is an adjective with two definitions. The first is a substance or object able to spring back into shape after bending, stretching, or being compressed. The second refers to a person who is able to withstand or recover quickly from difficult conditions. It’s true, I am wildly resilient.
As a child, I never knew what mood my mother would take. I knew the cues for a good mood, anger, violence, and many, many more. I knew what to do when those moods hit. Sometimes I made myself as small and as invisible as possible while using hyper aware senses and a keen mind to calculate the next insult or blow. When that strike, emotional or physical, did fall, crying was not an option. Tears would always escalate the situation and there was no mercy to be found. Here is where my resilience was born. Through this cycle, I trained myself to recover quickly from any attack. When I was young, I turned all the hurt, anger, and inability to understand why, back in on myself. By age 11, I was stealing food and binge eating. By 19, I had started cutting myself in a desperate attempt to quell the feelings I wasn’t allowed to express.
When I began my recovery, I started to learn healthy ways to deal with those feelings. For others, exercise or outdoor adventures worked wonders. For me, art was the best way to go. I started expressing the frustration I felt at being treated like I was the problem. Through everything from collage to origami to painting, I started to open up and show the world how my feelings. I stopped binge eating and even had gastric bypass surgery to help unload the obesity that a lifetime of binging had caused. The incidents of my cutting dropped dramatically. This blog is the next expressive step for me and, hopefully, eventually I will write a book designed to help the mentally ill and abuse survivors.
But what has been most amazing to me is that my resilience has stuck around. I didn’t think it would. I thought for sure that once I didn’t need it as a survival tool, I would lose it. I haven’t. My resilience serves me in my daily life. Being cut off in traffic might make me use a cuss word or two but moments later the feeling is vaporized. Recently, I angered a friend on Facebook. My friend responded by haughtily and angrily deleting me. It bothered me for a few moments while I ran through whether I did something wrong. When I decided I hadn’t and had run it by a friend for confirmation, the feelings and the friend were gone permanently. There are much bigger examples. Mini-me was born dead and died a second time before his resurrection in the NICU. He had spinal surgery at 5-months-old to repair a birth defect. His father has treated me like scum and villainy since our split. He has my child call his wife mom. All these happened before or during my early recovery. But I was able to take a deep breath and respond to the situation at hand rather than cave to my emotions and destructive coping skills.
I’ve already mentioned that my main coping skill as a child was to hide my emotions and make myself as invisible as possible. As an adult, I have the ability to be a bit of a chameleon. Whether it’s healthy or not is debatable, I suppose. But, in every situation, I’m very conscience of wearing the appropriate clothing, makeup, and shoes. I’m always aware of the preparation expectations. If it’s an job interview, I know exactly the materials to bring, the questions to ask, and how formally or casually to behave. If it’s a house warming, I know if I’m expected to bring a gift or food and the questions to ask the hosts.
I can see how these things might be construed as being a perfectionist and I have been fighting that battle my entire life. But I experience it more as a constant, quiet white noise in the back of my mind asking questions and giving direction. I’m free at any time to ignore the white noise but it has also helped me significantly. Perhaps the most trivial example is that I was never bullied in school. I wasn’t the most popular kid but I was known and fairly well liked (so far as I know). I also have had myriad compliments on having dressed and acted appropriately in the workplace.
Just today, I gave my first In Our Own Voice presentation with NAMI. It was easy for me to follow the white noise and pick out a funky dress and button a black blazer over it. I wore my professional little NAMI pin on my lapel. I knew the expectation was to have my talk on index cards and so, after giving my talk a re-write (see I am a perfectionist), I wrote it all out on cards. By the by, the talk went great. I was impressed how the audience responded and wanted to know more about my story.
It’s not to say that I can’t turn the white noise off and just be a regular, visible human bean (again, a SARK reference). When I’m at home, I do whatever I like. No rules or expectations are set here. For example, as I write this I’m wearing denim shorts, a green hoodie, and my hair is a crazy mess because I just made an unsuccessful effort to take a nap. Here, at home, I swear like a sailor on leave. I make rude jokes. (I fart but don’t tell anyone)
As a child living with abuse, the white noise served to help me not draw more attention and thus more abuse. As an adult in recovery, the white noise helps me navigate the complicated waters of the workplace and social circles. I can recede or draw attention to myself. I’m an adult with multiple mental illnesses. I do not want the first thing anybody knows about me to be that I have mental illnesses. I want the people I meet to know that I’m smart, creative, and a loving mom before they know that I’ve been through the darkness and come out the other side. Following the suggestions of the white noise helps me accomplish that goal. At the presentation today, a man commented to me that he would never have know that I have illnesses. My response was “And that’s the point”.
I have more of these traits that have allowed me to be successful. And, I have had successes. I hold a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism and a Masters of Science degree in Photography. I’m the best parent I can be to Mini-me and I know I’m doing a great job because he wants to be with me. I’m a loving, supportive partner to the bearded gentleman. And I’ve been successful in turning my childhood coping mechanisms into healthy, adaptive adult traits. I could be wrong, but I’m pretty sure that’s the goal of recovery.