My Humble Childhood
I want to preface everything I’m about to tell you by saying, “I don’t blame them.” My parents did the best they could. Believe me, it’s taken me a long, long time to get to this point. At the risk of offending my family, I feel it’s necessary for me, for my journey, to tell my story. However, it’s important to understand that the story of my youth is not the story of my life.
Life is an accumulation of experiences shaped by people and moments that impact our development as human beings. Adolescence is probably the most significant time in a person’s life because that’s when we begin to adjust to the physiological changes in our bodies and establish our sexual identity. How your life plays out from here, has a lot to do with your experience during these formative years.
Would I have preferred to be a part of a loving, caring, and supportive family? Of course. But that was not my reality, and I would be a different person today if it were. I’m sure there was love and support, but not in a way that I could see and feel. I didn’t feel that we were connected by love. We were only connected by blood and the collective fight to survive all the chaos that was my childhood. But it wasn’t all bad. I do have some fond memories of my childhood as well. I don’t mention many of my fond memories because this is a story about why I needed copious amounts of therapy as an adult to make sense of my life, evolve from my past depression, and finally understand what it looks like to be happy. The story I’m about to narrate is a recollection of my experience.
My formative years were highly dysfunctional. My father was a volatile, tyrannical man who parented with an iron fist. You can imagine the impact this would have on a young girl. I lived in fear every day waiting for the next “shoe” (or chair, or belt) to drop—on my head. If the physical abuse wasn’t bad enough, my father further impeded my growth and development by molesting me during these vital years.
My parents were young and grew up in devout Catholic homes. Lord have mercy, they were having pre-marital sex…shh, and it’s a big “no-no” sin! Also a big “no-no” sin in a Catholic church is contraception, - oopsies - they got pregnant at 18! They immediately got married and had one child after the other…again, no contraception. They had four children by the time they were 24 years old. They were fairly clueless, which is understandable, considering they were thrust into parenthood at a very young age based on religious rules that dictated their every decision…that is, their “every decision” when they actually adhered to the rules. If you’re a Catholic, you can appreciate what I’m talking about. If you’re not, let’s just say, they tried to live by the rules set forth by the Catholic Church but—forgive them, for they are only human. At one point, one of my parents (most likely my mom) got smart, decided to buck the system, and started using contraceptives.
With no formal education or training of any kind, I can only assume the amount of pressure my father was under to provide for his large family. I can’t verify how or when it developed but my father’s parenting style consisted of intimidation, humiliation, and violence. I’m not making excuses for him but maybe the pressure got to him and he became incredibly angry when he realized that he did have hopes and dreams but none of those would see the light of day because he had to feed all these mouths. All I know, for sure, is that his bouts of rage were so random and unpredictable that I never knew when he would explode, and what would be left of my psyche in the wake of it. My mother’s parenting style consisted of surrendering to my father’s instability. She was probably just as afraid of him as we were and she did nothing to help us—at least, nothing that I could see. She was obviously not someone I could count on for support. So, when my father began molesting me during my early teens, I knew I was on my own.
I do recall some good moments and I’ve brought forth some helpful fatherly “nuggets” into adulthood as well, but in every imaginable way, my father was abusive. The abuse was both psychological and physical. One minute he’d be playful and say, “Hey Jackie, come sit on my lap.” He’d tell me a funny story about his day and the next minute he’d be telling me how stupid I was for hanging around with an African American girl in our neighborhood. He said, “Out of all the people in our neighborhood, you pick the only black person to be friends with…are you a N----- lover?” Yes, my father was racist too. One minute he’d be slapping my butt or grabbing my boob (which he thought was an appropriate way to show affection) and in the next he’d be screaming at me because I’d done something that made him frustrated or angry.
I never knew what would set him off. I could just be sitting there, minding my own business and suddenly “bam!” A hit to the head. Oops, I must have forgotten to put my plate away, or I was watching TV and didn’t hear him talking to me, or maybe I was “minding my own business” too intently for his liking. When I was about 11 years old (1978), one day, my father started beating me with a shoe. My older brother went to the kitchen, grabbed a knife, and walked toward my father. But my mother stopped him. Her reason for stopping him isn’t quite clear but it appears that she feared for his well-being over mine. I hadn’t realized my brother had done this until it came up in a conversation a few days later. Finally, one family member had felt compelled to protect another family member…truly refreshing. However, I can’t recall that act of kindness ever happening again. Maybe it did, but it’s not part of my memory bank.
“We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”— Elie Wiesel
My mother was unaffectionate; much like her own mother. I was raised during a time when parents believed that affection “spoils” a child. I’m sure she was loving in her own way but not in a way that I needed in order to feel loved. By the time I came along, I can only assume that she must have been mentally and physically exhausted. She had one toddler and three other children in diapers. I can now see that she was in over her head, and completely unprepared for a life with four kids and a man like my father. As we got older and more independent, it seemed as if she had kicked into autopilot. She spent the rest of the next 20 years fantasizing about the day we would all move out. This, of course, is only my assumption based on my interpretation of her lack of involvement or interest in my life, and from watching her doze-off on the couch almost every night. Or did she feel like a failure and was just severely depressed that her life turned out this way?
Don’t get me wrong, my mom is a wonderful person. She was a beautiful (God-fearing) woman in her youth. Very gullible and unsuspecting; like many young women. She was duped by a very handsome but devious man and immediately surrendered to his charm. She remained clueless throughout their marriage and never seemed to evolve or think independently. In the midst of all the chaos that was happening around her, she would just go about with her life quietly, devoid of any ambition to change or improve the situation... she was catatonic almost. I vowed not to turn out like my mother.
As a child, I was a crier. Maybe I was born that way or maybe it was because being the youngest of four kids, I was not given a lot of attention. Regardless, my father hated my sensitive nature and believed it was his duty, as a parent, to toughen me up. Some even say that he was hardest on me because I reminded him of his mother who, he felt, was emotionally weak. He felt intimidation, insults, expletives, cruelty, and violence were the best ways to accomplish his goal. I’m not sure if his methods were successful because all I remember was being petrified with fear when he barreled toward me, yelling in that loud, deep, bellowing voice with his clenched jaw and crazy eyes.
One summer day (I think I was about 12), I saw my oldest brother being thrown in midair from the hands of my father. And then, the same happened to my other brother. This was my father's natural reaction when someone lied. My brothers were supposed to be grounded but decided to ride their bikes to meet up with their girlfriends. When my father came home from work and asked them “What’d you guys do today?” They lied and said they stayed at home all day. Somehow my father knew the truth. Eventually the truth came out and the beatings ensued. I was terrified for my brothers but, if I’m being honest, I was glad it wasn’t me. Even though I had seen my father’s violence in varying degrees many times before, I never became desensitized to it. As a 12-year-old, I was submissive, easily intimidated, in a constant state of confusion, and afraid of my own shadow. I was pathetic.
This was probably how I developed the characteristic of being a people-pleaser. As a survival mechanism, I thought if I did everything I was told to do, when I was told to do it, I would gain my father’s respect and, thereby, his compassion. Trying to stay two steps ahead of him, I contemplated how he would react to something I did, before I did it. One wrong move, or look, or sigh, and I could be next. By “next”, I mean receive anything from a degrading comment with a look of disgust, a head-shake with grinding teeth, to a full-blown pummeling…and anything in between. It all depended on his mood. Unfortunately, nothing could prepare me because there was no mathematical equation to calculate the cause that would lead to his outbursts. He was a C4 explosive, and there was simply no way of predicting when he would blow up. Unfortunately, I was the “slow” child because instead of running at the first sign of his lit fuse, I stood there, in awe, trying to process what I did to spark the explosion.
The sexual abuse started when I was about 13 years old (I think). I remember my mother tell my father that it “didn’t look right” for him to go into my bedroom at night. I knew it wasn’t right. Neither were the beatings, but I felt helpless to stop both. The details of the abuse are foggy now because I’ve done a lot of work to put it all behind me, and I don’t really care to go back there at this point in my life. With that being said, I’ll spare you the gruesome details, plus I’m sure no one wants to hear it anyway. Let’s just say that it wasn’t something that should have happened to a young girl by the man who was supposed to protect her. As I grew older (I don’t remember my age), I remember that I started telling him “no” when he called me into his bedroom. It’s funny because he wouldn’t push me around like he had in the past, and over time, he just stopped. I really can’t remember exactly when it stopped but I know it was before I started dating, which was when I was out of high school (18 years old).
I also want to mention that I learned in my adult years that statistically three out of every five girls are sexually abused in their lifetime. This was oddly comforting to know because when I sat at a table with five friends, it was possible that three of them have had a similar experience at some point in their lives. It helped me feel like less of a freak. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not right and I wish it didn’t happen to anyone, but we live in an imperfect world filled with imperfect people. If you suspect a child is in danger and needs help please visit www.childhelp.org or call 1-800-4-A-Child.
I finally told my mother about the sexual abuse shortly before my daughter was born (2000). I had been in counseling for several years up until this point and was at a stage in my recovery where I felt comfortable telling my mother about my childhood experience with my father. I had a lot of anger towards my mother that I needed to deal with as well. She was utterly shocked to hear this about her husband, because as I had told you earlier, she was on autopilot and oblivious to what was going on around her. It was all she could do to get through a day. We have had many conversations about the abuse and she has expressed her sorrow for not being able to help me during that time.
My anger towards my father began emerging when I was in my early 20’s. I hated him and could barely even look at him—never mind having a conversation with him. Instead, I would either ignore him or cop an attitude every time he so-much-as-looked my way. I was becoming more vocal about my contempt for him and it felt good to get a chance to express it after years of being afraid. Around this time (circa 1987), my father decided to be his own boss and wanted to see the country, so he became an independent/owner-operator of his own truck for a shipping company. I was still living at home while earning my associate’s degree in fashion design and grateful that this new job took him away from home for weeks at a time. But when he did come back, and every time I heard the loud truck engine rumbling down the street, my stomach would turn into knots. I was still afraid of him but I was more afraid of the confrontation that I would provoke when I saw him. As he’d pull into the driveway, I’d instantly get defensive and be ready to fight. I suppose this was my way empowering myself and retaliating against his.
On one lovely Thanksgiving day (1989), I was sitting on the floor, watching TV, and working on a school project that involved beading. I had a container full of different shapes, sizes, and colors of beads in my lap. When my father asked me if I was going to church, I quietly replied, “mhmm”. Apparently, he didn’t hear me, so he thought the best way to get my attention was to kick the back of my head. At that moment, I jumped up (beads flew everywhere), got within an inch of his face, and screamed, “IF YOU EVER TOUCH ME AGAIN, I WILL HAVE THE POLICE HERE SO FAST IT'LL MAKE YOUR HEAD SPIN!" He never touched me again. Years later, my mom was still finding beads on the floor.
My father was getting ready to go on another road trip (June 1990). He stood in the doorway, looked at me and said, “I’m leaving, see you later.” My reply, “Fuck Off.” I would never see him alive again.
6:00 am. Saturday June 22, 1990. My mom charged into my room, distraught and panicked, and said, “The priest wants to talk to you. He said something about dad having a heart attack and they are trying to revive him. He wants to talk to you.” I was in a dead sleep because I had just gotten home an hour ago after a night/morning of drinking with my friends. I took the phone. The priest said “Your mom doesn’t understand what I’m telling her. Your dad had a heart attack earlier this morning and the doctors tried to revive him. I’m so sorry but he didn’t make it. He was pronounced dead at 5:55am. I need you to take down all of the information to come and claim his body and make funeral arrangements.” I took down the information and hung up the phone. As my mom stood anxiously waiting for me to speak, I told her “Mom, he’s gone.” Still confused, she asked “What?” I said softly “Mom, dad had a heart attack and he’s dead.” I hugged her and we both began to cry. He was 48 years old.
Over the next several days, it was like I was having an out of body experience. I went to the grocery store and everything felt different. My father was dead and I was numb. I wasn’t sure how to act or what to feel. Why was I feeling sadness and joy at the same time? I had secretly wanted him dead for so many years, and now he was. The feelings of guilt and satisfaction that my last words to him were “fuck off”, were both haunting and amusing. Part of me felt that my behavior toward him during his last few months caused his heart attack. I felt powerful thinking that I had possibly killed him—and I was obviously conflicted about it too. I was pretty messed up.
I had just started to work through my anger toward him, had finally found my voice, and was able to express my anger…and, now he’s up and died?! I was pissed off! I felt the stages of my recovery had come to a screeching halt. Now, I would have to work through the stages of grief before I could work on the stages of my recovery from the abuse. I knew I would eventually have to work through all of this and find peace and forgiveness. But for now, I was dealing with so many mixed emotions that my brain was in neutral as I waited to bury my father’s body.
During the wake services I was able to spend a lot of time by his casket. Seeing my father laying there, lifeless and silent, I felt a shift of power. This large man who was once so domineering, cruel, and relentlessly brutish now seemed small and insignificant. I pitied him. The fear began to subside as I lingered around his casket, frequently glancing in to make sure it was true. He wasn’t going to hurt me anymore.
The fear and anxiety that had been ingrained in my psyche from years of abuse would show itself in varying ways (nervous ticks and nightmares) throughout my life, but now, I could feel the overwhelming sense of impending doom diminishing. As I stood there accepting sympathetic embraces from the crowd of grievers, I felt comforted that my father was gone. In my mind, they were comforting me because my abuser was dead and I was finally safe.
Although I was tormented by the gamut of mixed emotions during the week leading up to the funeral, surprisingly I was able to find some clarity. When I looked into my future, I could see that one day I would have to find forgiveness if I was going to overcome my anger and be happy. I went home after the wake and wrote out my thoughts in the form of a letter to my father. When I returned to the funeral home the next day to take one final “pass” by his casket before they closed the lid for good, I placed the letter in the breast pocket of his suit. I suppose it was a symbolic gesture of my awareness that I had a significant amount of work to do on myself in the future.
My youth was filled with fear, anxiety and self-doubt. I was simply just trying to survive in a world that was unstable and unpredictable. Nothing made sense and on most days I didn’t know if I was coming or going. Yes, sometimes I felt like giving up and eating a bullet, but for some reason, I didn’t. As I got older I developed certain behaviors that I didn’t realize I had, until after my daughter was born. I became a control freak, a perfectionist, and a people-pleaser with no boundaries. These behaviors were the root cause of a lifetime of unhappiness. Like my therapist told me, “Because your childhood was out of your control on so many critical levels, you feel the need to control everything in your life now in order to cope.”
Education and counseling were paramount to my recovery. I’ve participated in boundary workshops and a variety of anger management and assertiveness classes. I’ve watched countless episodes of The Oprah Winfrey show and Dr. Phil and have read several books to help uncover the source of my unhappiness in order to attain peace in my life.
My childhood experience has impacted my life in several measurable ways. Most of my life has been about coping with depression, anxiety and associated ailments that I believe were brought on by these conditions, low self-esteem, problematic relationships, agoraphobia, and thoughts of suicide. Despite the seemingly insurmountable struggles, I am stronger, wiser, and more intuitive because of everything that happened. I now see the world in a very pragmatic way. It has all been a long arduous process of learning and recovery. The stages of my recovery have been extremely challenging but I’m proud that I never gave up and I’m thankful for all of the resources that were available to help me. With any recovery process there are ebbs and flows so I admit that I still have afflictions that I have to cope with on some days, but as I write this in 2016 at the age of 49, I can say that I am finally happy and at peace with who I am.
- “Disease to Please” by Dr. Harriet B. Braiker
- “Emotional Intelligence” by Travis Bradberry & Jean Greaves
- “Boundaries” by Dr. Henry Cloud & Dr. John Townsend
- “Emotional Resilience” by David Viscott, M.D.
See my post Disease to Please where I describe my disease and the roller-coaster recovery. It’s a fun ride!
See my post “My Relationship Bloopers” where I chronicle my lovely relationship history. I’m so glad I can look back and feel grateful that I am in a better place now.
If you suspect a child is in danger and needs help please visit www.childhelp.org or call 1-800-4-A-Child.