“Oh shut up. Your parents are just waiting for you to get out of the house.” The words cut deep into my psyche, slicing into something raw. The blow left me stunned, off-balance, and nauseous. How did he know this? Was there something my father, who worked with him, said to him?
I was a teen, probably around 16 years old. I wasn’t mature enough to know that his comment had more to do with what kind of person he was, than what kind of person I was… or the kind of people my parents were. My frontal lobe wasn’t formed enough yet to say, “Stop trying to hurt me you jerk. I don’t deserve that.”
Instead, I internalized it. That’s what kids do. After all, he just confirmed what I already knew: that my parents, after raising four of us, were exhausted. I was the only one left – I felt like dead weight at that point, and like they were counting the days until their empty nest. I was primed for a comment like that to seep into my mind and make all kinds of conclusions that may or may not be true.
He was an ugly, 40ish man with a grossly large belly protruding out from under his oversized shirt, the sides of his lips forming a chuckle when he saw the tears well up in my eyes. This grown man, standing there feeling proud of himself for inflicting pain on a child, was in a position of prominence in the catholic high school I attended where my father was a teacher. He was standing by the door to the gym, blocking it and monitoring my departure. He had just kicked us out of the gym along with the entire Varsity Pom Squad (called a Dance Team now).
Why? Because we were female.
Our Pom Squad reserved the gym that day and had already been practicing for a half-hour when suddenly, the freshman team (note Poms was a varsity team) barged in. They were all suited up in their shiny 80’s gym shorts, basketballs bouncing, ready for an unscheduled practice. Girls’ sports and boys’ sports were not equal back then. And on par, Pom Squad was not even considered a sport. Some people today still don’t consider cheer or dance legitimate sports.
I was angry. But anger wasn’t something girls weren’t allowed to express. We were being groomed to be wives, mothers, and helpmates, not leaders and trailblazers. And when Mr. A**hole saw the blood boiling in my veins, he used his power to shut me down. It rolled off his tongue so easily. He wanted it to sting. That’s why he chose something very personal. This grown adult man made a conscious choice to emotionally punch a 16-year-old cheerleader because he wanted to control my behavior. Clearly, he was well versed in manipulation, which means I’m not the only survivor of his psychological abuse.
I have carried that punch with me my entire life and went on to win the grand prize for being the emotional punching bag for just about everyone I invited into my life. Mr. A**hole wasn’t the only one that used emotional pain to control me - I went on to marry a psychological abuser, had children with him whom he psychologically abused, and was sickly attracted to abusive workplaces my entire life.
Was this man the single cause of my lifelong problem of being attracted to people and situations that hurt me? Probably not. He was just one a**hole in a long list of a**holes that saw me as a target. The strong, outspoken, opinionated girls… we are the challenges they like to take on. We are the ones they abuse for sport, for their entertainment. If I was weak and passive, it would be no fun for them.
When a person in a position of power or responsibility does this to a child, it sends a message that this is normal behavior. And the message was received. The amount of verbal abuse I have allowed in my life is astounding. The number of times I went on to forgive men for having the worst of the worst behavior, for hurting me, for embarrassing me, for ignoring or abandoning me… it’s simply embarrassing.
A few days ago, I learned Mr. A**hole died. Even now, I find it hard to give him grace because he’s never been held accountable for his choice that day, and now he never will. I hope that others who were also changed by his sharp mouth find peace. My peace comes from knowing there will be no more survivors.