Tearing down the house – When your life story hurts

Now that I’ve started the second leg of my process, I am uncovering more. Childhood has its effects long after it is over. This holds true for every single human on the planet, not just the ones with a high ACE score. This morning, I woke up with so many fragmented memories.

I remember in secondary school, sitting on the stairs with a group of friends, and being terrified of having to move on to university. I didn’t think I would cope. Back then, I subconsciously started to realize something was wrong. I have not been raised in childhood, I had to survive a childhood. My brother once said it very eloquently: “We were not allowed to be a child.”

I called my primary school a while back and had a good talk about it. The head of the school listened to my story. I told her how the whole family acts like nothing is wrong in the outside world, but that it stunts your development enormously. I told her many, many other things. She assured me that nowadays, schools report to child protective services even when there is no hard proof. “An underbelly feeling is enough.”

I remember in primary school, going to play with a girl in my class, Lindy. But I also remember not feeling any connection. Everyone knew Lindy was best friends with Pam. So I didn’t think I could be friends with Lindy, too. One of the rules in our family is that you have to pledge exclusive allegiance to the dysfunctional parent. He must be the center at all times. If not, chaos and violence will ensure. If the other parent ever asks for your support, it will feel like being torn into two separate persons, one who is owned by the dysfunctional parent, and another bit, that has to be there for the other parent. It really doesn’t feel like anyone is there for you. I never learned about friendship. Nobody ever guided me in making friends. I had to be my parents’ best friend. My mother kept going on and on and on about “When you grow up we will be best friends.” She probably read this in some women’s magazine somewhere, where some women say their mother is their best friend. My mom can really take this stuff literally. She didn’t realize how saying this over and over and over and over made me feel really icky.

In secondary school, I somehow acquired friends. Not by my own doing, though. One girl, Elisa, approached me during a sports event and asked if I would be willing to watch over her lunch box. Some time later, another girl, Gisele, approached me and Elisa and asked if she could join us for lunch. And some more people gradually joined. Leon, Anne, Ruby, John. But I never asked any of them. If Elisa hadn’t taken an interest in me, I don’t think I would have made any friends. At the end of secondary school, I fervently wished that this time would never end. That we could be frozen in time and be here forever. School offered structure and an escape. Of course, I made a lot of mistakes there. I carried so much trauma with me and I’m afraid it did affect other people in negative ways. My therapist later explained: “With this much trauma and damage, you can’t help but damage others. It’s very sad and unfortunate, but you are not to blame. You didn’t choose this.”

(The above names are fakes. The people whom it concerns will know who they are and will recognize each other. I know that some don’t like having an online presence. Others I have hardly been in touch with in years, so it doesn’t feel right to just use their names without their informed consent..)

After graduating secondary school, I didn’t go to university immediately. I wanted to go to art school but didn’t have a portfolio yet, so I decided to work for a year and do a course on the side to build up a portfolio. I had a car and drove to Breda every week to do a course. On the side, I worked at the post office and in the hospital. At the hospital, two female colleagues noticed that I didn’t have any nice clothes and took me out shopping. I remember standing in a store and they were getting me to try on nicer clothes than the cheap, shapeless, too wide ones I was wearing. I felt very uncomfortable, but it also felt nice. They took an interest in me. I kept those clothes and thanks to them I looked decent when I went to university.

A year later, when my father got drunk and spouted some nonsense like “My daughter will become Picasso” I got terrified. This choice was not being approved by my parents. They didn’t encourage me. One art school didn’t accept me, and I took that as a reason I would never be good enough. Another art school accepted me. I remember the day of the portfolio display, they were very positive, encouraging and indicated I would be accepted, definitely. I don’t remember my parents’ presence. At all. I don’t remember their joy or encouragement. I don’t remember any warmth. I only remember the coordinator from art school. He was encouraging, pleasant and warm.

All the things that were going on at home, the screaming, the drinking, the lack of comfort and warmth, the lack of guidance, the fear of having to make it on my own in the world, the fear that I wouldn’t be able to make a living as an artist (confirmed by a teacher in the art course who had gone to art school and said he sometimes cleaned trains for a living), it was all too much. I fled. I abandoned the direction I wanted to take. The coordinator from art school remembered me, years and years later, when I went back to do a course at their school. I didn’t finish that course either, it was too painful and I was swamped with university work and side jobs. I couldn’t do it.

So, by the end of secondary school, I lost all sense of direction. I was stuck. I went through brochure after brochure of studies and having no clue who I was. Nobody had built me up, I didn’t know what talents I had and my inner compass was smashed to pieces. My mother came up to me and said “You always spend time at the computer, why not something with computers?”. That was the only interest any of my parents ever took in guiding me to choose a university education. There was no table-talk about it. No questions were being asked. No discussion. Emptiness.

Childhood emotional neglect is not characterized by things that were done to you. It is all the things that failed to happen for you.

Mom didn’t know that the computer was my escape from the soul-crushing tension and fear that I felt at home. She often missed or misidentified my feelings, she didn’t know I felt that way. Because she missed a lot of signals (and because she hadn’t had a rolemodel herself either), she couldn’t provide adequate mirroring in childhood and never named emotions for us like other parents do. This caused acquired or secondary alexithymia for me.

Having no direction of my own, I followed her suggestion. In hindsight, I craved an adult’s guidance. But I didn’t know that this was what I was missing.. You don’t know what you’re missing if it’s something you’ve never had before.. I looked at the job opportunities for Computer Science and Engineering, saw that the job opportunities and salary were high.

I had the right ‘profile’ for it. In secondary school, you had to choose a profile. I chose the technical profile plus an art subject. Why the technical profile? Because I felt I had to prove that I could. I had to prove that I was smart enough. That I was worthy. That I wasn’t just this bullied girl who was the child of two mentally ill parents. I can give the words to it now, I didn’t have the words to it back then. But also.. I chose the technical profile because nearly all university educations accepted students who had that profile. If you wanted to get into a technical university, you had to have a technical profile. If you wanted to study a strange foreign language, any profile would do. I even think I did an extra language with it. Oh, no, wait I remember, I did Latin. Anyway, I remembered thinking that this would give me many options. It was already symptom of someone without a sense of direction, even before I started looking at art school.

In primary school, I had once been asked by a church to make a painting. It was a huge painting of a cathedral, all colorful bulbs and such. And I once won a drawing contest. When after secondary school I expressed interest in art school, the head of the primary school said “I knew it!”. I think this was when I ran into her in town or something. (This is not the same person that I called recently by the way, this old head of the school has long since retired.) I had an interest and a talent, and I didn’t follow it. It hurts a lot.

At university, there’s an introduction week. The first week, you’re lumped in with all the students of your education. You’re placed in groups and you’ll be guided by two older students. The introduction week was exhausting. I wouldn’t do it again now. For an introvert like me with CPTSD, being around people non-stop for a week and sleeping on a too-small couch to boot (ouch, my back), it was just too much. Then again, I was still living with my parents so basically still living in a war zone. There was no rest for me anywhere.

Overwhelmed, anxious and convinced that I was broken and had to prove I wasn’t defective, I drank alcohol for the first time. A fellow first-year in my introduction group was very concerned. I had told him I had never drank. Somehow, he decided to look after me that evening. I remember another student from the society we were at also joining our table and them talking about me concerned. “She’s never drank before.” I didn’t know what I was doing. I was lost, scared and felt like an outcast everywhere I went. Even when I was among people who liked me, I felt broken. I didn’t know what normal behavior was. I had no healthy, normal reference material.

For about two years, in university. I drank alcohol. I would go to the student society on Wednesday, the study association on Thursday and when any of the two organized something on Saturday, I’d also sometimes go. Looking at the life of a student in Eindhoven, I didn’t stand out in terms of going out or alcohol consumption. But I couldn’t help but notice that when I got drunk, I sometimes wouldn’t stop drinking because I felt so fucking miserable. At my worst, I sometimes walked to the supermarket to buy a can of mix drink so that I could calm down before going to sleep.. Two years into my studies, I quit drinking cold turkey. This was before I went into therapy and by the time I went to therapy I reported that I had drank before but was a teetotaller now. No questions were asked about this, even though they wrote down that my father drank a lot. I do hope therapists nowadays know more about ACoA. (Later in life, I sometimes drank a single Baileys, but it gives me no enjoyment and I came to realize that the smell and taste of alcohol actually take me back to really bad memories.. so nowadays I’m a teetotaller again.) During those two years of drinking alcohol, I had said and done things that I mentally added to the pile of “proof that I’m a freak”. I didn’t know yet why I felt the way I did. But I wrote it down once before: damage and pain will find a way out.

This morning, a lot of memories resurfaced. More than I can recount in a single blog post. I’m going to focus on one topic. My butt.

When I was young, my father would grab me there. And my mother would obsess that her own ass was fat. And she would project that onto me: We have fat butts. And ugly knees. I don’t have a fat butt at all and I think my knees are normal-looking. I can look at pictures now and say it’s not true. But the projection was there. Then, in secondary school, when I had a side job in a cafe/restaurant, a guest once walked up behind me and grabbed my ass during carnaval. It was horrible. I was so inhibited, so frozen that I couldn’t do anything. I felt humiliated, defiled and ashamed. Then, in one of my first years of university, a fellow student, Ben, had been dared to grab my ass. He did so, with glee. I had been doing martial arts, but they always teach you to pull your punches. I elbowed him, but hardly made contact. I turned around and told him never to do that again. People laughed. And again I felt humiliated, defiled and ashamed. This still hurts. To be handled like less than an animal like that. I did have a good comeback though. When I asked Ben what the dare was, he said it had been for a beer. And I remarked that he was very cheap and that he should have asked way more for that privilege. I remember the look on his face, it was a mix of shock and shame.

In the student society there was a rule. If you threw anything behind the bar, you had to buy a round. But if a person stepped behind the bar, the person had to buy a round. So if you threw a person over the bar, and they, the throwee, held still, they were an object and the thrower had to buy a round. But if the throwee stood up, then they were a person and they had to buy a round. You guessed it, one night I was picked up and put on the other side of the bar. I ended up on my belly on the counter behind the bar. Ass up. Being picked up involuntarily was a trigger. I didn’t know the word at the time. But it was. As I lay there on my belly, I knew the rule. Don’t move. But only one thing shot through my brain. They’re going to touch me there. They’re going to touch me there! I couldn’t bear it. I moved and sat up straight. My ass on the counter. To prevent anyone from touching me. And I started crying.

Of course, some of my unhealthy behavior had annoyed some people. I didn’t always make friends. Within the student society, there were fraternities. One of them was the female fraternity (funny contradiction). At the end of the first year, fraternities asked new members to join. Other girls were asked to join at the end of the first year. And I wasn’t. And I admit. I was jealous. I wasn’t asked to join. Having social deficiencies and feeling not good enough, feeling broken and damaged and having been excluded, bullied, called names and spit on in primary school (and secondary school, for that matter, our group of friends were bullied and harassed by students much younger than we were) all of that didn’t do me much good.. Who’d have guessed.. So basically, feeling excluded was quite a problem for me. On the one hand, I just wanted people to leave me alone. On the other hand, I couldn’t bear ‘not being good enough’. I wasn’t good enough to join this group. It’s not pretty, but I will admit: I took the victim role. I started saying how mean they were to me. They weren’t. They were just being themselves and having fun with a group of girls. It was their right to choose or not to choose members. I wasn’t feminine. I didn’t do make-up. I sometimes see images online of little girls painting the finger and toe nails of their fathers. Or fathers painting the finger nails of their children. My father never had any patience for us, no way this was going to happen. I remember that one of the obsessive interests my mother acquired was make-up. She bought a make-up box. But she didn’t do my make-up. Ever. She just left me to my own devices as she perfected that one green line under her eyes. I am not a girly-girl. I haven’t been taught how to do that. I now see a friend with his two kids, a boy and girl, and both kids pay with nailpolish with their parents and it doesn’t matter who wears it because it’s something you do together and bond over.

Some people sympathized with me. Some girls in that fraternity even approached me and said that they hadn’t intended to be mean to me. I felt very ashamed at that moment, because on some level I did realize the problem was in me, not in them. But anyway, one of the girls in that fraternity, Simone, was, I think, quite fed up with my demeanor. She was quite curt to me and seemed quite angry a lot of the time. I internalized it in part, I think there were other things going on in her own life. But I’m quite sure she and her boyfriend actively disliked me.

So, to continue the story. I had been thrown behind the bar. I couldn’t bear lying on my belly with my butt exposed for all to grab. So I sat upright. People started cheering that I had to buy them a round now. I started crying and asked the my fellow barman (I was in the bar committee at that time) “Can I please go home?”. They looked shocked and let me go. I fled. I took my coat and nearly ran to the front door. Simone followed me and said “That’s really lame of you”. This was the second year of university, when I was still drinking. I remember being drunk. And I remember replying something along the lines of “The barman decides”. And I fled.

This is once of the events that made me decide to quit drinking. Another event is the night I got roofied. Or celebrating my birthday in my first year, where my secondary school friends looked frightened at seeing me drunk and my university friends remarked on my father’s excessive alcohol intake…

This avenue, modeled by my father (get drunk and blame other people for your misery), was definitely not a solution to my problems.

I have more anecdotes.. memories that are resurfacing from my university period. I will write them down later.. I started writing down this bit, because I woke up with pain in my shoulders this morning. And when I tried to feel my way through it, I experienced all these painful memories coming up. I have so many anecdotes of painful situations where I got triggered or behaved inappropriately. And I feel so much shame about these memories. And some of it is anger. I’m quite angry at the painful things that happened to me and ashamed of the painful situations I caused or contributed to.

I’ve decided to try not to shame myself. As my therapist would say: “Try to be mild for yourself. You had no choice.”

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