My earliest memory precedes language. I was about 18 months old when I heard my mother crying for the first time. My therapist says we don’t usually remember things from that young unless we have post-traumatic stress disorder.
So that’s a bummer.
I am going to share something very personal with you today, in spite of the voice in my head telling me not to. As I considered deleting this post, October was designated Domestic Abuse Awareness month. What a coinkydink. The cosmic message has been delivered. I have to share my story, because it will help others. Maybe even you.
In this, my sixtieth year, I have embarked on a quest to find out the answer to a very scary question: why am I afraid to be alone? I don’t mean temporarily. I’m an introvert and love solitude. I’m referring to something other than loneliness. If you ever read Lonely by Emily White, you know what I mean. I am afraid to live by myself. The sight of a rural home out in the middle of rolling miles makes me shudder. I even started a blog, some years ago, devoted entirely to this fear of ongoing aloneness. You might say why worry, since I’m not alone now and may never be. Because it’s a dark place in my understanding of myself. Pretending it isn’t real doesn’t work for me. I would rather understand and attack it.
I tried, from time to time over the years, to explain it to friends, but never got much farther than sounding like I’m not complete without a man. Eventually, I stopped talking about it, tried to put it out of my mind, and hoped I would mature out of it somehow. Meanwhile, I made sure Bill got plenty of exercise, vitamins and sleep so he would live a long time!
But one day, I found myself back on the case. I was reading Dean Ornish’s book Love and Survival, and was surprised to learn he had been almost suicidal as a teenager. He says, “Like many people, I grew up in a loving family without many personal or emotional boundaries – what I affectionately call ‘The Ornish Blob.’ In every family there is a process of how each person individuates and separates from the rest of the family…I did not have a very well-formed sense of having a separate self…(this) can be terrifying, for it can feel like nonexistence or death.”
That was me. Finally, someone had described it correctly. I read more, and discovered the concept of enmeshment. As in, what happens when you’re raised in a dysfunctional family.
Remember the Borg on Star Trek? Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated.
I was. As a youngster growing up with a violent father, I lost myself. I became part of the dysfunction, giving up my self to preserve the whole. Kids who live with violence can become enmeshed with the rest of the family, such that none of you have a sense of yourself except as a part of the whole. You don’t learn who you are or what you need because survival depends on other things, like how quickly you sense the abuser getting cranky. And you know when he gets cranky the belt will whip through the air. Things will break, glass will fly, blood will flow. Survival may require knowing that this is coming.
“Try to be good,” my mother would implore us kids. Even at a very young age, I understood that our job was to make sure HE wasn’t stressed out.
But we grow up and become independent, right? We leave those behaviors behind, right? Wrong. 110% wrong. If, like me, you grew up in such a household – and you probably did, because 1 in 4 women are victims of domestic abuse – you will develop certain behaviors that can rob you of a fully-realized life. Behaviors like people-pleasing, hypervigilance, an excessive sense of responsibility, and addictions like workaholism. Unless you understand this, you will behave like a tool until your death, and your kids, having learned tool-behavior, will continue the legacy of abuse for generations to come.
Not me. Not anymore. I feel stronger, freer and more empowered than ever before in my life. More next Friday.