Seeing my father lying in a casket was as surreal for me as reuniting with him had been just the month before. Neither seemed real. Somehow, I still finished my last semester of high school.
Trying to save my mother from being beaten by my father during a drunken, post-Vietnam War, PTSD breakdown was more real than I could process. I was only three, after all.
The moment I was abducted from my father’s home by two women I didn’t recognize leaving my grandmother unconscious on her living room floor felt too real. I remember every moment, even though I was just four.
The belt beating from my mother in the middle of the night for wetting the bed a few weeks later was terrifying and stunning. I cried out for my daddy into my pillow.
My understanding that I must keep quiet about having a father that wasn’t my step-father was deeply impressed. My mother married him before I was five. The belt beatings he followed up with at six, seven, eight, nine, ten, and eleven were mind bending and the bruises on my body lasted weeks, streaked red, black, blue, fading to yellow. At the same time, my mother convinced me I was an unsalvageable liar condembed to hell, and who didn’t deserve the roof over my head, the room I slept in, or the clothes on my back–and by God, I’d better get myself up for Sunday school, get on that church bus, get saved and baptized.
She made special use of power to persuade.
Sitting on my chest with her hands around my throat, my mother’s spit sprayed my face until my step-father called her off. The word terror doesn’t lend enough meaning at fifteen. At nearly sixteen, my step-father’s ire with me ended in broken blood vessels in my wrist and my legs and back striped in the shape of that same, heavy, leather belt–because I shook my head, “no” to him.
I spent my childhood in fear for my life.
In the name of compassionate context, I’ll tell you my mother was an abused child–as were each of her siblings. My grandmother was cruel, unusual, undiagnosed, and perhaps as unusually cruel as my great-grandmother had been. Lucky for the two children my mother had with my step-father, even in the same home, they escaped that legacy.
Her advice to me is to forgive.
My step-father was a country boy who was the first to make it outside his rural experience into university and then move away to make good. And good he did make in front of his family and his company, all in spite of losing his father while in college that he paid for with his very own money. They celebrated him. I wanted to, and I tried.
He was all business, even with the belt. He administered whippings as methodically as he climbed the ivory corporate tower. Just matter of fact. Well, except that last time, when I was a teenager. He did clarify many years later that he regrets that time, ” . . . because if I didn’t have control of you by that time, I wasn’t going to get it.”
His favorite television characters were Dr. Spock and Tarzan. If you’re wondering, he didn’t beat his own daughters because, “They didn’t need it.”
He’s clear-cut like that.
As for my own kids–I can’t imagine doing to them what was ever done to me. I just can’t. There’s no theory under which I can or would want to justify perpetuating this cycle of physical, spiritual and psychological violence upon my own children. And, at the same time, when I take a look at what I’ve risen through and raised myself to, honest to God, I sometimes wonder how my sanity was preserved.
Self-compassion hasn’t been an easy thing to figure out or to wrap my heart around. There are days I tell myseIf I shouldn’t have developed Complex PTSD, I shouldn’t still be struggling, I shouldn’t be suffering. It’s all over now and it was a long time ago, and shouldn’t I be able to just live my life with no bothersome memory of any of these things?
I have no more responsibility in what shouldn’t have happened to me as a child as I do for developing Complex PTSD as a result, but I am accountable for how I treat myself and what I do with it as a part of my story and my mission. I have never stopped believing in my ability to heal and my ability to overcome. I continue to rise above the aftermath and I practice doing it every day. On the tougher days, and there are many, I remind myself that Complex PTSD, is a normal reaction to abnormal circumstances and I try to remember to offer myself the grace I would extend to anyone else who has endured.
Thank you for being here. If this helps, touches, encourages, or inspires even one person to have one more ounce of compassion for themselves, it was worth the vulnerability it took to write this one.
I just want you to know that you can heal.