I have come a long way from Newtown, Connecticut. Everyone has heard about the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School. I am a former student of Sandy Hook. Thirty-nine years ago I began kindergarten and then attended first grade at Sandy Hook. I was in the morning kindergarten class. My teacher, whose name is no longer retrievable, was a wizened old woman who hated children. She spanked me in front of the whole class and turned my desk over because it was messy. Looking back, it’s clear to me that I was ADD. I couldn’t understand what she wanted from me. I saw nothing messy about my desk. I knew where everything was. I hated being singled out. I just wanted her to leave me alone and stop drawing attention to me. I didn’t want anyone looking at me. Being in the spot light of a single adult always meant trouble.
Let me back up two years. I was three when my mother married my step-father. We moved from my grandparents’ home in White County, New York to the shore of Lake Zoar outside of Newtown. We rented a small cottage from an elderly couple, the Edgerton’s. For years I remembered very little from that time of my life. Like snapshots in my mind I recalled the wooden speedboat of our landlord; jumping into the lake to swim in cold water; my mother’s convertible lemon chiffon VW Bug in the driveway; climbing a huge rock near the top of the street while waiting for my sister to come home from kindergarten. I had darker memories as well: hiding from my step-father in the closet of my bedroom, my chest heaving and my heart racing, praying he wouldn’t hear me; watching my mother patch the ceiling in the living room from my step-father punching through it in a rage; crying in front of the Christmas tree because I’d heard my step-father yelling at my mother the night before and learned that Santa wasn’t always jolly; being stuck on some rocks on the side of a hill in the woods with my step-father screaming at my mother because when it started snowing and she wanted to turn back, he wouldn’t and now the ice building up on the rocks made it too dangerous for us to climb down. The memories of that house always brought tears and terror, but nothing that provided a real reason for that terror or those tears.
Fade to four years old. We’d moved to an old farm house in the country, still outside of Newtown. And another place of snapshot memories for me: pushing an old manual mower around the yard; having my own room for the first time; adopting my first cat from the farm down the road. Here, though, the dark memories are more frequent: my mother cringing away from my step-father as he raised his fist to her; getting put into the crawlspace of the attic in my sister’s room because we’d been bad and my sister telling me that the sound I heard (my heartbeat) was giants coming to eat us, screaming in terror when my step-father would beat on the crawlspace door screaming that he would kill us to get some peace and quiet; being frozen in fear when my step-father came into the bathroom when I was in the tub.
Eventually, my mother divorced and we moved to Danbury, Connecticut. There was some sort of scene outside of a Dairy Queen that precipitated the divorce (I have no idea if that was really the final straw but I remember the scene coming shortly before the move). I only remember that we moved away from ‘him’ and I thought life would get much better. But, inexplicably to me, it only got worse. My older sister, who should have been my protector, started to beat on me and ostracize me. She called me ugly, stupid and weird. She told me I had a nose like a golf ball. She made fun of me in front of the neighborhood kids. She joined in when they made fun of me. She hit me when I didn’t do what she wanted fast enough. She pulled my hair, always somehow managing to get the same spot at the crown of my head. Lots of kids hit their siblings. This wasn’t a normal sibling tussle. She punched me in the ribs, the kidneys, my stomach, even my head. She was careful not to leave a bruise anywhere visible or that couldn’t be explained on an active child. I tried to get up before her and go outside, avoiding her as much as possible, but it rarely worked for long. We moved to Marietta, Georgia just outside of Atlanta. My mother had been involved with someone for several years in Danbury and when he was transferred to Atlanta, we moved too. He and my mother went on an alcoholic binge that culminated in the end of that relationship. And the abuse from my sister never stopped. The older we got, the harder she tried to torment me.
By the time I was 13 I was incredibly shy. I had one or two friends but no one that I could really tell any secrets to. My sister had taught me that telling anyone anything you wanted kept private was a sure fire way of having it announced to the world in the most humiliating way possible. When kids at school starting teasing me about needing a bra I was so uncomfortable talking to anyone about myself that I left my mother a note asking her to buy me a bra. For reasons still unknown to me, she took my sister shopping for my bras instead of me. My sister has always been smaller around in the ribs than I am, so my new training bras didn’t fit comfortably, but I wore them anyway to avoid having to talk to anyone about my body and in an attempt to stop the teasing at school.
I have very spotty memories of my middle school and high school years. My sister was sent to a girls’ home, then to my grandparents’ house, then to another girls’ home. Her violence when she was at home escalated from just being directed at me to being directed at my mother as well. At one point, I was cleaning her room while she was living elsewhere and found a box with my hair in it. All those years of pulling my hair, and eventually pulling me down the stairs by my hair, had provided her with quite a collection of my hair. I was physically sickened by it. The memory still makes me queasy. One evening, my sister chased me down the street with a knife in her hand, threatening to kill me. This was no idle threat. She was out for blood and she got it. A neighbor boy tried to stop her and made a grab for the knife. She cut his hand badly enough to require stitches. By the time I was 15, she was gone for good. She’d applied for and received emancipation. I was overjoyed.
In my senior year of high school, I dated a boy and had my first sexual relationship. One night, during my very first act of fellatio, I started bawling. I had no idea why. It was just traumatic, but with no basis for trauma. He left confused and helpless. I had only tears and no words for him.
Eventually I married, had three children, divorced, started dating again. During the intervening years, I never really emotionally grew up. I read a huge amount of material covering abuse. I could see in myself the symptoms and the effects of abuse. Even with that insight, I allowed myself to continue to be abused emotionally. Victims of long term abuse frequently stay in an abusive relationship because that’s all they’ve ever known and its familiarity makes is comfortable. Eventually I went to a doctor who diagnosed me with depression. One month into treatment, it was like a light came on in my brain. Suddenly I could see clearly. I wasn’t cured, but I was strong and getting stronger. I decided to not allow anyone else to abuse, control or define me. It wasn’t a change that occurred overnight, but it happened.
I had one serious boyfriend after I divorced my kid’s father. We were much better as friends than we were romantically. One night, as we friends were talking, the memories just started to come. He sat patiently and listened. He held me as I cried and sobbed out the memories. The whole story, from three years old. My step-father had physically abused and sexually molested my sister and me.
The memories were as physical as they were visual. I remembered waking up with my step-father’s penis in my mouth. I gagged as I related it. I remembered him forcing me into the shower with him, his penis right at my mouth. I remembered him coming into my bedroom to ‘kiss me goodnight’. I smelled the liquor laden breath that warned me of what was in store that night. I remembered him beating me, punching and shaking me. And I remembered these things happening in both houses we lived in with him. I told the story for at least thirty minutes. And my friend listened to the whole thing. He never judged me. That was a gift that will remain in my heart until I die.
I don’t remember everything I told him about now. That purging was a deep cleansing for my soul. I let most of the memories go that night, out of self-defense. Was I angry? No. It had been too many years for anger. Did I self-pity? No. Why? I had allowed that man to be a shadowy influence on my life for far too many years already. I refused to allow him to control any more of my life. But having purged some of the memories, I began to question them. Was that really what happened? Did I somehow make any part of that up? I don’t have any answers for those questions. I vacillate between thinking that the questions are a result of the abuse (self-doubt), that all of it is true, none of it is from my traumatized imagination and thinking that it doesn’t really matter if it isn’t all true. What I still retain has the physical, emotional and smell of true memory. The results of the abuse are real.
Coming to understand my own psyche has been truly the only path I could find for self-acceptance. I understand now the ‘why’ of the holes in my memories. The brain will defend itself in whatever way it can. Mine defends its self by blocking out what I can’t deal with. But the purge has allowed me to finally grow up emotionally. I knew I had behavioral tendencies that were not only immature but self-destructive and co-dependent as well. Now I’ve come to see that understanding and emotional maturity is truly where self-sufficiency starts.
So, why am I sharing all of this with you? Because I heard an author discussing his own childhood molestation and the effects on his life. Some of the long term effects of his abuse made him incapable of becoming truly self-sufficient. And that bothered me. He talked about abuse victims in general of being incapable of complete healing. I disagree. He was asked by the interviewer if, when he found out years later that his abuser was abusing other boys as well, did he feel better knowing he wasn’t the only one, or worse because it had happened to them as well. And he said that no one had ever asked him that before and he didn’t know. I can tell you that no matter what my sister did to me, regardless of her reaction to the abuse that we suffered at the hands of our step-father, it does not make me feel better that she was molested too. Absolutely not. For emotionally whole people, misery abhors company, it never enjoys it.
That immediate internal response made me think that there are millions of others out there who have suffered similarly to me, worse than me. If I can be of any help to anyone, if any good can come of my suffering, I can have this conversation. I can open this discussion and bring it out into the light of day. I can show you my scars, my doubts, my fears, and my triumphs. I can cry with you, I can understand you, I can listen without judgment, and I can hold you and let you sob out your story. Because I truly believe that anyone who has suffered should be given the opportunity to begin healing. You can be self-sufficient!