Traumatized by a Severely Dysfunction Family
Getting Help is Not a Moral Failure
We all know the unfortunate stereotype of someone with mental illness: the unwashed hair, the disheveled appearance, the strange awkward gait. Like most stereotypes, this one hurts both the victim of the stereotype, and the believer in this negative and mostly false view of a large group of people. However, we need to accept the fact that this stereotype, like most, has a kernel of truth to it, especially for those who have not yet gotten proper treatment. This fact allows many who don't fit the stereotype to take false comfort in the fact that they don't match it, and to stay in their denial.
I grew up in a family that looked very much like the Cleavers (from the 1950’s sitcom, “Leave it to Beaver”): a professional dad who was devoted to his family enough to be home every night for dinner, a pretty mom who cooked a healthy balanced dinner every night, a beautiful spacious home in the suburbs, all of the latest greatest toys. Add two extra girls to this picture and you have our family.
But the pretty family in the pretty house hid an ugly secret. Some of us were being severely physically abused. This abuse stems back to early childhood. I can't recall a time when I did not carefully choose my clothing to hide my bruises, burns and abrasions. I cannot remember a time when I could go happily play with other kids not worried that my already painful injuries would be reinjured. I just can't remember a time when I wasn't beaten, bullied, threatened or tormented into silence.
How did this happen with what appeared to be loving devoted parents? One word—Depression. More accurately, two words—Untreated Depression. Yes, these are the devastating consequences of untreated mental illness in both parents. My dad somehow managed to go to work every day and pay the bills. He bought us beautiful things and unfortunately did little else but escape to his workshop or music room as often as he could. My mom hid also, theoretically, behind the “Leave it to Beaver” façade she constructed in that house.
Her youngest daughter wasn't abused, I was just a "normal kid" who was a clumsy tomboy, even though I wasn't a tomboy at all. Just a "normal kid" who got punched in the face so hard at age nine that my nose bled for four hours straight until my parents finally came out of their stupor long enough to take me to the ER. Why did I bleed so much? It couldn't be because I got hit so hard by someone meaning to injure me. No, it was somehow my fault, because I was found to be anemic (blood loss will do that to you). It was my fault I was anemic because I "stubbornly" refused to eat the healthy balanced meals presented to me. It couldn't be because I was so traumatized from the abuse I lost my appetite. I was just a "normal kid" whose arm was broken in three places because I was “horsing around” with one of my siblings.
I was not just physically abused, I was emotionally abused as well. My abuser (an older brother) was able to convince me that I was adopted and that was the reason for the level of abuse inflicted on me and why my pleas for help went ignored. I was a usurper, sucking resources from a family in which I was unwanted and never belonged to. The fact that there were always plenty of resources to go around never occurred to me at age seven. Why was this older brother so abusive? Who knows why in a family in which mental illness was denied, ignored, fed by isolation and allowed to flourish.
It's ironic, the ways in which we think and try to heal the raw wounds inside of us. When I finally escaped that house of horrors to an early doomed marriage (as so many abused young women do) and got pregnant, I had a professional photograph taken of myself at seven months. I wanted my baby to have proof I was her real mom. When she was old enough, I told my daughter the reason for the photograph. My beloved child looked at me as though I had three heads and replied in sheer disbelief, "Why would anyone ever tell me I was adopted mommy? And why do you think I would believe them?" Why indeed.
We have all heard the expression “the gift that keeps on giving.” Well, I think of PTSD as the curse that keeps on cursing. Long after the initial trauma is over, our own brains continue to force us to relive it (flashbacks) and then add insult to injury in the form of nightmares. And we can’t leave out other debilitating side effects, such as hyper vigilence, (I used to sleep on the sofa with the windows open so I could “hear” someone trying to break in before they succeeded); general mistrust of people (I sized up every potential boyfriend as to how I would fare in a fight if they tried to beat me up); anxiety (I separated my shower time into sections, wash my hair in the morning, my body in the afternoon, shave at night, so that I was never naked and vulnerable for long “in case someone broke in”).
I don’t know how I was able to endure such long suffering without treatment. I was merely surviving, and not that well. I considered getting help a sign of moral failure at not being able to deal with my “memories.” I was actually proud of myself for being like my parents and dealing with everything on my own. I was smart enough to not need help, or so I thought. I am so relieved that my instinct for survival was stronger than my pride, and I finally got professional help before I became suicidal from the intense emotional suffering of untreated mental illness.
I urge anyone suffering from any sort of mental illness to seek professional help, even if you don’t believe it will work. You will never know until you try. For the first time in decades, I am actually learning to thrive, not just survive.