Hard Lessons

To paraphrase a Bruce Springsteen song, life has been giving me some hard lessons lately, about pain, loss, disability and hope. Years of chronic pain, my mother's death, my hearing impairment and other serious medical problems have sorely tested me. When I finally found a doctor who took my pain seriously, he asked me why I had checked "suicidal thoughts" on my new patient questionnaire. I told him, "I have 30 years ahead of me if I live as long as my mother did. I refuse to live in pain for another 30 years."

In all that I've learned and written since then, the most surprising discovery has been my ability to remain optimistic about my life and my future. If you hear despair, anger, frustration and fear in what I post here, please don't turn away. All is not dark, and eventually a glimmer of hope will light the path ahead.

Monday, April 28, 2014


Some of the hardest lessons I’ve learned (and need to learn) are sequelae of the physical, verbal, and sexual abuse I experienced in my family of origin. I’m one of an army of the walking wounded, but far more high-functioning than some survivors I’ve encountered in the past few decades. After 20 years of talk therapy and psychopharmacology, I no longer have flashbacks and seldom have nightmares. I don’t dwell on that part of my personal history, but it does come back to haunt me, often in the form of anger. The anger can be triggered by external events that would anger anyone – violence, carelessness, neglect, injustice, idiocy, etc.  – but I seem to have an inexhaustible supply of my very own anger, and it’s fuel for the fire in my head.

When I was in my 20's, a psychiatrist asked me if I was angry about something my estranged first husband had done. I answered that I was never angry about anything, not even my traumatic childhood. So I've been storing up anger for a very long time.
For much of my life, I believed that I deserved what I got as a youngster. I never quite grasped exactly what I’d done to bring it on. I strove to be perfect – a perfect daughter, sister, friend – in the attempt to prevent attacks. Most of the time, my father’s manner was distant - he was usually absorbed by his own thoughts and by his rocky relationship with my extremely difficult and unpredictable brother, K.
As I grew older, I wavered between the teenaged conviction that everything was my parents’ fault and the suspicion that there was something wrong with me that invited attacks, something inborn that I would never be able to change.
I said my father was distant. As a small girl, I would have done – and did do - anything to get his attention. Drawing him into my bedroom was the surest way to do that. I fantasized that he was my husband and that one day we would run away together and live happily ever after, no longer burdened by the rest of our family.
And really, Dad was the least of my problems. I loved him and needed him. K. was the big problem, the enormous one, the elephant in the living room. Despite my continued efforts to be the family peacemaker, I just could not find the right words or facial expression or gift or concession to defuse or stall my brother’s moods, paranoia or fury. I did try to tell my parents what he was doing to me (and sexual abuse was the least of it), but soon gave up. Dad was aghast that I would say such terrible things about K., and Mom told me to stop the histrionics.
When K. chased me with a knife, I would run for cover, sometimes outside in the neighborhood and other times in my bedroom or a bathroom – any room with a door that locked. I used babysitting money to buy two slide bolt latches for my bedroom door and installed one towards the top of the door and one towards the bottom. If I could get in there fast enough and slide at least one bolt, I might survive K.’s kicking feet, or the knife stabbing into the hollow core door. My parents were somehow able to ignore the gashes in that door, and Mom forbade me to lock my door at night in case the house caught fire. I told her I would jump out the window. I don’t remember her ever testing my door at night to see if it was locked.
Once when I was hiding in the downstairs powder room located in the front hallway, K. kicked a big hole through the drywall that separated his foot from my body. I didn’t think to photograph the hole with my Brownie box camera. If my parents shrugged off such obvious evidence of K.’s violence, what use was it to complain to them? I knew they wouldn’t protect me, and I’d get an “ignore him and he’ll go away” lecture. As far as I could tell, ignoring K. was even more dangerous than engaging with him. When I left home three months after my 17th birthday, our house was damaged and so was I - the walking wounded.