This post directly contradicts a rule with which I was raised – an implicit rule, a common rule, I think, in Irish American households (and maybe in other household, too.) “Don’t air your dirty laundry.” Well, I’m tossing that rule out the window tonight along with my “dirty laundry,” wheeling out the clothes line full of shirts and pants and underwear, stained and smelly, for all to see. I want to make a little note that if mentions of domestic violence trigger you, you may not want to read this.
I have had a lot of shitty moments in my life. The moment when I was a child and found out my father wasn’t in my life because he was struggling with heroin addiction and in and out of jail. The moment my mom divorced my first step father. The moment I decided not to go on the every-other-weekend visits with my first step father because I felt out of place knowing that my brother was his biological kid and I wasn’t. The moment right after my mom married my second stepfather and he went outside on the porch for a cigarette and I followed him out and said, “So, you’re married to my mom now. Do I call you dad? Or do we stick with Tom?” and he replied, “I think Tom is good.” The moment I first realized I needed to take care of my younger brothers. The moments (and there were many) that I saw my mother sobbing in the kitchen and tried to comfort her. The moment I had a friend spend the night and I spent time before we were picked up from school explaining that my parents fought sometimes (every weekend, really) and that sometimes it was really intense, and she replied “I get it, my parents fight too.” The moment the relief from hearing that vanished as we sat playing up in my room and they screamed downstairs and her face turned white and she couldn’t even look at me as she said, “My parents don’t fight like that.” The moments that I sneaked into the kitchen when my mom and Tom were fighting to grab the knife block to make sure he couldn’t stab her if he got too mad. The moment I watched Tom tackle my mother to a sidewalk and beat her while holding my toddler brother and trying to prevent him from seeing what was happening. The moments right after that happened when we went to our church. The moments and days following that. (That event is a whole separate post, probably, we’ll leave it there for now.) The moments I sat in my room listening to every crash of dishes and every word screamed to figure out whether or not the police needed to be called. The moments I gave my brothers headphones and videos so that they didn’t have to listen to those fights. The moments neighbors did call the police and I heard my mom and Tom both insist that everything was fine. The moment my pediatrician pulled a social worker into my physical to ask me if I ever felt afraid or threatened in my home or if I ever saw anyone else afraid or threatened, and the ensuing moment in which I made a conscious decision to lie because I didn’t want to be taken away. The moment my lie didn’t matter and DCF said Tom needed to leave the house or else we would be taken away. The moment I angrily paced my living room telling my mom “They can’t break up our family. I’m 16. They can’t take me anywhere. I won’t let them. I’ll get emancipated if I need to.” The moments in time where my mom would decide to leave Tom and it would be my job to help get things packed up and keep the secret until we moved out. The moments they would reconcile and I would finally feel like “everything is good, we have a stable family” and almost immediately, it would seem, a huge fight would erupt and a separation would ensue again. The moment I returned from a weekend long Ultimate tournament in my senior year of high school to find a broken clothes rack and a few shattered plates and I asked my little brother what had happened and he said, “Dad got mad.” The moment I told my Ultimate coach that I had to quit the team because it was too much to do weekend tournaments with all my senior year homework load, when really, it was because I knew I couldn’t leave my brothers alone to deal with Tom each weekend if he got pissed off. The moment I went to my paternal grandfather’s funeral having just recently connected with my father and his side of the family and the cruelty of only getting to meet Papa Tom when he was already in the late stages of Alzheimer’s and MS . The moment I realized I had an older brother who had known me as his baby sister for 3 years until I just disappeared when he was eight. The moment I realized I had a younger brother who didn’t even know I existed until he was much older. The moment my mom truly decided, once and for all, to end her marriage and was on the phone asking me to support my brothers through the divorce and telling me all her fears and concerns and how she thought he was stalking her while I was at college 2 hours away and completely helpless and, honestly, dealing with my own conflicting feelings on the topic. The moment my husband intentionally slammed frying pans off the kitchen counter because he knew it would trigger me and then stood over me, a sobbing blob on the floor, screaming at me for being a weak bitch. The moment my husband shoved me against a wall and then told me I was “too sensitive” because of the environment in which I grew up and I “didn’t know what abuse was” due to that “over-sensitivity.” The moment I found out my Nana and Papa died. The moment I learned it was a murder-suicide and that my Papa, the man I loved and admired more than anyone on this entire planet had put a gun to my Nana’s head while she was eating a muffin and killed her before sitting down and turning the gun on himself and leaving it to my Uncle to find the bodies the next morning. The day I told my husband to leave. The moment I admitted myself to Dartmouth. The moment I was diagnosed Bipolar. The moment I learned I couldn’t keep my job…
That’s a snap-shot. There are more events, but I think I’ve successfully established that I’ve had my fair share of “Moments of Suck.” That’s what I like to call them. I’m not sure how else to classify them. They suck. They all suck. Plain and simple. Why list them out like this? Because I have been taught implicitly, and occasionally told explicitly, my entire life, to keep them to myself, and because of that, I have felt immense shame. I’ve been ashamed of myself and of my family. I’ve felt, inherently, that I am broken and worthless. I convinced myself very early on that all of this was a part of God’s plan and that I had no right to question it or to be angry about it. I’d been taught in school and church that God either allows things to happen to teach us a lesson or as a punishment for sin, and therefore, as a child, naturally assumed that that meant I deserved each and every one of these moments and had absolutely no right to complain about any of them: fertile ground for shame to grow.
These “Moments of Suck” are where developmental trauma comes from, my friend. It’s not a singular event. It’s not a moment in time. It’s a compilation of moments. Some scarier than others, but all, decidedly, Moments of SUCK. What do you do with these Moments of Suck? I’ve tried to do quite a bit with them – I’ve tried to ignore them, I’ve tried to minimize them (“lots of people have endured much worse”), I’ve tried to trivialize them (“hey, shit happens, right?”), I’ve tried to numb them with alcohol (many, many nights with many, many bottles), I’ve tried to say, “Hey! I can use this shit to help other people! And if I can help enough of them, then maybe I can be ‘good’ enough to warrant an end to my own suffering.” I’ve rationalized it. I’ve written shitty poems about it thinking maybe I’d be the next Bukowski. I’ve justified it – remember the Barenaked Ladies song “The Old Apartment” and that one line “Why did you plaster over the hole I punched in the door?” That line was a lifesaver for me when I was a kid, because it normalized people getting angry and putting holes in the things and that made me feel a little less alone.
The only thing I haven’t truly done is felt it. In truth, I’ve spent my whole life pushing it all away, shoving it so deep down that any anger I feel is automatically labeled “bad” and “dangerous” because, in my experience, anger is dangerous. Hell, mild irritation is dangerous because it can lead to anger at the flip of a switch and anger and violence are synonyms in my fucked up brain. Any sadness I felt was automatically pathetic and unjustified – evidence of what a “weak bitch” I really was. I’ve overcompensated, taking a job in a difficult group home with clients prone to violent outbursts to prove to myself that I was not weak, to prove to everyone else that I could handle threats without breaking, and because it was familiar to me. I was feeding that inner child that needed to be around dangerous situations so that she could make them safe. Abuse is, and has been, my comfort zone. For as long as I can remember, managing a crisis has been my strength. Detach, be cool, do what needs to be done. That’s been my MO my entire life. But no more.
Now, I’m in a situation where I literally am incapable of detaching. I get hit with flashbacks and panic attacks almost daily. (This is improving slowly, but it’s still a fairly frequent issue.) I still have nightmares almost every night. My brain is screaming at me “We have to deal with this. You have to feel this. It’s eating you alive and we have to get ahead of it!”
And that’s a huge part of what I’m working on now. What do you do with the Moments of Suck? You’ve got to dig in deep. Because they fester. They get infected. And that infection spreads and contaminates every aspect of your life. Until you cut away the rotten flesh and flush the wound and let the air hit it, it can’t even begin to heal. But I’ll tell you what, that surgery is a painful one. There’s no anesthetic; there’s no quick fix. And sometimes, it’s just you staring at the gauze trying to build up the courage to take the bandage off, and re-flush, and re-tape this gaping hole in your body. And you have to take careful steps not to get it infected again. This can mean pulling away from some people that you really care about, it can mean setting boundaries you’ve never set in your life, it can mean doing things that make you feel like a terrible human being. But it has to be done if you ever want to heal – no, really, if you want to survive. Because one way or another, that infection will kill you if you don’t get it take care of it. But you can get it take care of it. You can heal. It’s work – it’s a lot of hard work. But it can happen. This is what I am learning, and slowly but surely, I am healing. If you’ve endured trauma, I hope that there is a little kernel of something resembling encouragement and hope in this post. I know that sometimes the Moments of Suck can seem to pile so high you can’t see past them, but there is something beyond them. I promise.