Trigger Warning: The following content contains discussions of domestic abuse, child custody, and emotional distress that may be upsetting or triggering to some individuals. Please take care while reading.
I spent much my life absorbing dysfunction - that was my job as the family scapegoat. My siblings ceaselessly teased me and called me names. They sang a song they titled "The 12 names of Carolyn," to the tune of the 12 days of Christmas. Anytime I showed fear, it was "game-on". I don't remember ever really feeling safe.
I think that's why my most painful and vivid memory from childhood was when they destroyed one of my most treasured possessions.* Afterward, they threw it at me, laughed, and ran out of the room. I don't recall my parents stepping in, but that doesn't mean they didn't.
I never really felt protected. Most of the time, my parents weren't emotionally available which was pretty typical in the 70's. Nonetheless, they were both in agreement:
"They tease you because they love you."
Around 5 or 6 I think, I saw something on TV with a hedgehog that scared me. My siblings, finding it hilarious, played a spooky "hedgehog" tape recording under my bed as a prank. Endlessly amused, they sent me reminders over the years: hedgehog toys, trinkets, articles... I might even still have a hedgehog dryer ball lying around somewhere.
I don't know how or why that particular incident became the emblem of our relationships with each other, but it did. They derive such joy reminding me of that day. I even displayed my hedgehog gifts proudly in my dining area. They were trophies for enduring something painful. They were proof I was loved.
It wasn't until recently, in my late 50s, that I connected that incident to my lifelong struggle with insomnia. Other insights have emerged as well. One undeniable truth is that my first marriage seems merely a passing of the torch.
He was Jekyll-and-Hyde, warm and kind one moment, then callously tearing me apart without a shred of empathy the next. His use of demeaning names cut deeper than those from my upbringing, and his manipulation skills were disturbingly refined. But there was a part of me that felt comfortable being around someone who preyed on my weak spots and enjoyed making me cry.
I hadn't the first clue how to protect or defend myself against this kind of mind-control and abuse. Like many women in this position, I constantly deceived myself about how bad it really was. My upbringing combined with the majority of my high school and college romances, were good primers for accepting this treatment as normal.
We didn't have relationship advice that warned us to look for, "love bombing," "idealization/devaluation cycle," or "trauma bond" back then. In retrospect, I feel as if women like me were like laid out like fresh meat for the lions; our training as girls - a set up. It still makes me mad that as a 25-year old woman, college educated, critical-thinking 2nd generation feminist, decided that enduring this treatment was a good trade for fleeting moments of affection. (I've subsequently learned that women like me are targets because we are challenges for these types of men.)
After my youngest was born, I packed and left, thinking I was escaping the abuse for my kids' sake. In reality, the abuse escalated post-divorce. The judges, mediators, lawyers, police, represented mainly by men, have been tasked to enforce, uphold or defend laws that are not only ineffective at stopping domestic violence, they in fact put women in more danger. He has always had full legal right to do what he did to me, to us. Even in cases of physical violence, men still retain their custody in the state of Wisconsin. Victims are first abused by their family member, then by the courts. The kids in the middle? Those are the ones that lose everything - their footing, their safety, their sense of reality even.
Gaining safety and community through family wasn't really possible either, nor was my job a safe place. My siblings had already "been there done that" with small children and they were off somewhere every weekend for one teen sport or another, planning vacations, and celebrating milestones. The terrain of both our lives was starkly different and in between lay a graveyard of good intentions.
We were grateful for whatever family crumbs that came our way. It was almost always expected that we travel to them, instead of them traveling to us, usually under the guise of some important need of one of their children or later, our parents. One time, I traveled in a blizzard for 6+ hours with small children, alone, just to see my family. That kind of dedication was not something that was ever reciprocated. No one was ringing my phone asking us if they could come for a visit.
When we did manage a gathering, within minutes the "Oh, just wait until..." parenting advice would start. They would pepper my kids with questions about their grades, and ask them about sports they had zero interest in. They talked about college entrance expectations when my kids were busy trying to force feed themselves through an eating disorder, cope with a friend's suicide, or just make it through the day without smoking a blunt.
When my kids complained, I told them "They do that because they love you."
When my Mom died a couple years ago, the family dysfunction was like a bomb exploding. I wanted so much to be in lock-step with my siblings, pulling together in grief, holding each other up, hugging our kids, and being grateful for my Mom. No matter how much I wished it could be, I couldn't wish that into existence.
The funeral story is for another day but suffice to say after the funeral, one of my siblings just flat out stopped responding to me. Shut me out. Wall of silence. With another, we rehashed by email until they said they have no interest in making accommodations that would help me feel a part of the family. There it was in black and white. The words still echo in my mind sometimes as I'm trying fall asleep at night.
In the long run, it was what I needed to hear - brutal honesty. Consequently, I decided to put some distance between myself and my family members, grieving a loss bigger than my mother's death. Sometimes the grief is overwhelming, as if they all just disappeared in a terrible accident or something. I accept the grief. Because out of self-preservation I had to stop throwing myself at them; just to retreat when being with them hurt.
They celebrate holidays without me now. This year, not even an obligatory invite. There are children in the family growing up that I miss like crazy, and others being born that I'll probably never meet, soul-crushing thoughts I haven't even begun to process. It's also heartbreaking every time I realize that if my kids ever have kids, the cousins will have moved on from their children's stages and ages, and they will be the same place I was, not able to change their assigned role. The cycle continues.
Sometimes I dissolve into involuntary tears - a curse that's lingered since childhood. The difference, I think, is that in my past the tears never brought resolve, or justice, or healing, so they just kept coming until my eyes were the size of golf balls. I still fear they won't ever stop but for right now, I'm trusting their wisdom, and letting them wash me whole.
I'm still learning how to protect myself from harm. That one is a hard one, but I'm getting there. When someone shows me who they are, I believe them and make decisions accordingly. I think I may have that one down. One of the things that motivates me to write is knowing I'd rather live life alone and broke, knowing who I am, than lead a life full of "all the things", denying my truth.
My second husband is a true partner and my team mate. My friends, recently parsed, are good people with big hearts. I even managed to revive an old relationship with a person I now consider one of the truest friends of my life. No longer confined by my family's idea of success, I've fully embracing my calling as an artist, leaving corporate hell behind. My community is growing, my art is expanding, and I'm slowly re-building my relationships with my adult kids without the interference of their father or influence of my family, for the first time in our lives.
It feels right and clean. And good.
*I used the word "they" because there is no need for me to identify anyone publicly. This was something I wrote for me, not for revenge. They could be one person or many.