The first person I told face-to-face about my abuse was my first spiritual director.
I wasn’t able to even say it, writing it instead in one sentence on a piece of paper for him to read. We soon burnt the paper together outside, but before I left, he made a rather unorthodox decision to give me an Anointing (of the Sick). I was very confused, and expressed as much; an Anointing is supposed to be given when someone is deathly ill or something, as part of Last Rites. He replied that what I wrote on that piece of paper (even if this was just one of my uncle’s crimes) brings about a “spiritual death.”
I can’t say whether or not that was a good enough reason for it, but it did leave an impression on me. It told me that maybe he saw something that is usually unseen or denied.
The problem with emotional abuse or enmeshment/emotional incest it often doesn’t leave a mark as outwardly visible sexual or physical abuse might leave. This is especially true for me, not even having any evidence of the latter on me. I could make the argument that my parents’ words and behavior did physically hurt me, in the way it changed the very structure and chemistry of my brain, proof of my mental/nervous afflictions, but I doubt the current system would recognize that (though to be fair, it might be hard to test, not to mention hard to distinguish what blemish was caused by emotional abuse vs. the other abuses).
It’s this very problem that drove me to cut myself for the first time; mother had just screamed at me over something that my dad had me apologize for, and somewhere in that tirade earlier, mother mentioned (as she often did) that because she never hit me, it wasn’t abuse and so shouldn’t hurt me, “So sit up straight! Stop acting like a victim!“.
I remember taking the knife, and for a long time, just lying on the floor with my left arm up at eye level, staring up at the fresh cuts there. Seeing the blood comforted me. It told me in bright red, “You’re not a liar. You’re not pathetic. It really does hurt. It really is abuse. You can feel it. You can see it. No one can deny blood.”
As this was another reason I cut (as this soon became a pattern for me), this is probably another reason why many victims/survivors of abuse “wear their pain” outwardly for the world to see. I think it’s safe to say many of us know that majority of the world is going to just look down on us as freaks or delinquents, or would just not care…but I’d say all of us have this secret hope that there might be one person out there who would notice, who would care. Some call shallow attention-seeking or making a “spectacle” of oneself…not knowing (or caring) that it’s more a (child’s) starvation of love and validation.
Many of us, whatever kind of abuse we’ve endured, have been silenced in some way, see. My uncle threatened my sister’s life, silencing me with fear. My mother outright laughed at me, or scolded me worse than before for expressing any hurt or anger over what was happening, silencing me with shame. My father would beg me to apologize to my mother for abusing me, would constantly tell me how his life and wellbeing was in my hands, silencing me with guilt. My own body seemed against me, having nothing, no STDs, no infections, no scars save the ones I inflicted myself…no physical evidence to validate me.
Meanwhile, I told the police what my mother was saying and doing to me before I even reported the sexual abuse, and they couldn’t do anything about it, because “emotional abuse is too hard to prove.” Even though she did things like throw things at me, chase me, once messed up my room as a way to take out her violent anger on my belongings as an obvious substitute for me, or even once took my car keys, screaming down at me from doorway of the basement so I couldn’t leave for 3 days…because her weapons and chains were made of fear and shame instead of physical weapons or chains, this was not something that could or would get any legal justice.*
*A/N: If you want to read more about the very real and lasting impact of verbal/emotional abuse, I’d highly recommend this article. I have the experience, and this has the science to back it up.
Looking at this, it’s so easy to believe why some would turn to abuse themselves and/or others, acting out in ways to communicate what was never safe to just say.
So…what can we do about it?
When I was in the first few years of my journey, I desperately sought out the validation of others. I would be told not to talk about it, but I still would; to suddenly have people who at least seemed to care after going a lifetime having no one was just…it changed everything.
It’s like the POWs in Unbroken who were literally starving under abusive Japanese guards; when they’re given food from the Americans at the end of the war, they ate themselves sick. It’s almost compulsive, the body still thinking it’s on the brink of death, and so desperately consumes as much as possible even after being full, not thinking about the consequences. As Louie said, shortly before going home after 4 years, “I just thought I was empty and now I’m being filled, and I just wanted to keep being filled.” (pg.324)
If this also happened to you on your healing journey, try not to beat yourself up too much over it. It wasn’t a physical starvation, but it was a very real starvation nonetheless. At the same time, we can’t just keep acting that way. Like the POWs, as reluctant as they were to do it, we have to say “No more – thanks” (pg.316), and find love and validation elsewhere.
“Where elsewhere?” Well, we’re not going to get it from the one’s who hurt us (unless a miracle happens, or they want to trick you with counterfeit love). God sends me love many times when I think to pray about it in ways I, again, struggle to word. There’s also self-care, and healthy self-confidence in the truth; as some have told me, “Only you can know what happened;” I’d say that it’s an important step to validate yourself. I tried to do this with cutting or acting out some other way, but there’s a better way to do it.
A big part of it involves realizing that it did happen, that it was very bad, and that you didn’t deserve or cause it. Like my priest friend said, to find some healthy detachment to the abuse, you have to detach from the guilt and shame your abusers put on you. “Don’t forget it or dismiss it,” he’d say, “but remember you have a life to live now. Don’t be afraid of your life.”
“That’s impossible! No way can I ever say that!” It does feel that way. I know it does. We still have to. We can (and should) get help from others, from therapy, from people we trust, from people who love us, from prayer, but we have to decide for ourselves, and keep deciding, even if we forget for a minute. It’s hard, but not impossible.
Those things help you find healthy self-confidence and validation, but what about self-care? There’s a lot of things already said about it, though I’d say it involves finding things that bring you joy, and a sense of dignity and integrity. I find this when I study about certain things I may not completely understand but admire: purity, the saints, knighthood, or any topic pertaining to healthy, genuine love. It also helps me to create: write, draw, paint, sing, or even just making my home more beautiful by cleaning or decorating. It can even be just a simple thing like admiring a flower, reading/watching something that’ll make you smile and laugh, or making your favorite thing to eat that night. It’s harder to say what helps when these things don’t help, but it’s probably best to keep looking for that something that’ll help you make it another step.
I saw this quote by a lady named Emily Joy Rosen recently: “Never forget that walking away from something unhealthy is brave, even if you stumble a little on your way out of the door.” Like letting go of feeling dirty, self-destruction, or whatever else tripping you on your healing journey, still do get up, and still do keep going.
These lies may not leave the public square, but it will in your heart.