“Is your writing real?”
I stall for a moment as I try to find the words that out me to yet another new person in my life. Whether it is conversations about childhood, holidays, or parental and sibling relationships, I know I’m about to be placed in a new category. I am confronted with my life-long feeling of Otherness.
I remind myself there is a reason I speak and write openly, I’m trying to dispel the Weirdness, the Otherness, the Shame. Because, yes, it’s all true.
Now I’m out again. I’m an abuse survivor.
When I was young, my sisters and I would watch Dr. Phil. Our mother enjoyed collecting life tips from him. Her approval of his messages made it okay for us to sprawl on the carpet floor and couch to watch the parade of emotionally traumatized, stunted, hurt people who sought his help, validation and “straight talk”. I was fascinated by the lives of these people that willingly sat in a chair with cameras and a studio audience to discuss their heartbreak, abuse, and struggles.
Dr. Phil always had the right answer. He knew what would fix them. He knew how to make them be better. The audience at home gained valuable advice to avoid the pitfalls and emotional damage that his guests experienced. Or at least they gained good quotes that could be displayed under a magnet on the refrigerator door. My sisters and I often joked that our family should go on the show. We discussed how mortified our mother would be to have to sit across from Dr. Phil, his audience and cameras glaring at her, as her daughters described why they had brought her here today.
I knew we’d have to trick her to get her on the show or else she would never come. Once, we teased her about it. She scoffed about how she would never do such a thing, then as she walked away gave her final thought over her shoulder, “…besides, you don’t air your dirty laundry in public.”
Skeletons are best left in the closet. We aren’t like those people on TV.
Don’t Air Your Dirty Laundry
This phrase has kept me silent through my life. And if not silent, then cryptic. And if not cryptic, then in allegiance, as I attempt to make sense of things that don’t make sense by making excuses. And it’s this pattern of silence that kicks in every time I am confronted with new people in my life. How do I drop this bomb that I keep carrying around?
I grew up conservative, Baptist, isolated and home schooled. Boom.
I was a born again Christian who thought her only purpose in life was to be a Good Wife and Good Mother until I gave all that up to become a Queer Atheist Feminist. Boom.
My mother belittled, hit, manipulated, isolated, taunted, and blamed me for everything even up to the late day I spoke to her. Boom.
I haven’t spoken to my mother in four year. Boom.
Two of my three sisters blame me and cut me out of their life. Boom.
My youngest sister struggles with her mental health and I feel responsible. Boom.
I struggle with my mental health to the point of hating myself and feeling worthless a lot of the time. Boom.
All this and more is not for “polite” conversation. Although I more often than not find support in the people I share this with, I still feel like I’m risking my reputation – the thing my mother finds so much more important than empathy, safety, and love. The shame still envelops my experience and tells me I’m strange and dirty and unworthy of support or love from those around me. I’m too weird to be around people. I’m a downer for being an abuse survivor.
I still blame myself for not having been stronger. Not being wiser. Not fighting back hard or earlier. I blame myself for not being able to save my sisters from their struggles. I even blame myself for not being able to save my mother from herself and the history of abuse she brought with her to me.
The current of Shame runs deep. Coming out as a survivor is slowly helping dismantle a lifetime of shame. But it still catches me when a new person learns about me.
My drive for authenticity is stronger than shame, though. So, I’ll let them keep battling, because with each one that authenticity wins, I get closer to owning my past and present for a loving, stable, whole future.
Maybe it makes me Weird. Maybe it makes me Other. Maybe it makes me Strong and Brave. Maybe it’s okay that I am an abuse survivor.