The Difference

It’s been more years than I care to remember since I found myself on the wrong end of my father’s back hand or the crisp sting of his leather belt. There are no scars anywhere on my body to mark the times he made me bleed. The physical wounds healed quickly. The other wounds, the true wounds whose marks have remained indelible for all the years since, these are the ones that haunt me still, the ones that still manifest today in the decisions and choices I make. I like to think I’ve recovered but the solution isn’t so simple.

In the past two years, I found myself in an abusive situation at work. But why not? My core belief is that work, like anything else, should be painful. If I wasn’t giving blood, if I wasn’t sacrificing who I was in exchange for my paycheck, then that would be too easy. No, to give everything when it wasn’t nearly enough, to be belittled and scolded in front of my peers, that meant I was accomplishing something. So I took it “like a man” as my father would say to my adolescent self over and over again, as they mentally whipped me and humiliated me over and over. The abuse gave me a sense of fulfillment and accomplishment. “They can’t break me” became my soul’s mantra. I scoffed at the idea that I should leave my toxic work environment. Why? Why would I allow them to win? If I left it would just mean I wasn’t up to the challenge, I wasn’t “man enough.” I saw my father laughing in what should have been my corner.

I stayed far too long at this job. I worked 60 to 65 hours per week. I ignored my family every weekend while I sat hunched over a laptop for hours at a time. Yet it WAS NOT ENOUGH. The harder I worked the greater the abuse became. And I received no positive reinforcement or coaching which would help me succeed. All I was ever told is what I was doing wrong. Words like “inadequate” and “failure” were used in conversation with me on a weekly basis. The more they threw at me the firmer my resolve became. They would not break me!!

I finally left this environment when a better offer with an entirely different work culture presented itself. It’s eerie now; I feel “more than enough” for my new employer, and am told on a daily basis what positive contributions I am providing. I AM THE SAME PERSON. How could this be? I am puzzled that an employer could heap such abuse upon its employees. I am puzzled further about what is going on inside me that would allow me to continue so long in a place I didn’t belong.

The answer is I have always been afraid to stand up for myself. Whether it was the fear of my father’s words or physical punishment, I believed that if I stood up for myself it would just worsen the level of punishment. At some point I learned to manage my actions and reactions in an effort to avoid being abused, OR accept that I was somehow deserving of the abuse. In my adult life I haven’t acted much differently in my relationships with romantic partners and employers. However, I recognize what I’ve been doing and know it is time to break the chain.

To change who I am, to really change how I see the world and my reactions to it, has been an effort that has taken years. I’m still a work in progress. I can tell you that it is never to late to advocate for yourself. I’ve long envied those who could and I understand the internal hurdles which I must navigate. I know now that fear of other’s reactions has made the difference between my path in life and those of others. I’m committed to learn from my past as I make a pact with myself to never go down the same road twice. As I cannot relive my past or undo anything that’s been done, that’s really all any of us can ever do when faced with the lessons of our past.

 

The Response

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My grandmother repeatedly told me “life’s not fair,” and I never felt the need to argue this point with her. She was right; life isn’t fair. It doesn’t owe us a fucking thing—we get out of it what we put into it. Faced with adversity, we can quit midway through, dejected, hurt and spent, or we can pick ourselves up off the floor and finish the game. We may fall down again. We might even find ourselves all the way back to start, with nothing but our own skin protecting us from the cold, harsh realities we don’t want to face. Sometimes there’s a hand held out toward us in a gesture of help, while at other times, that same hand is rudely slapping us across the face. No matter how many times we stumble, and no matter how many times we fail, all that matters is how we respond.

Thanks to the work of psychologists John Bowlby, Mary Ainsworth and others, we’re now aware that the quality of the early bond between a parent and a child is a highly significant predictor of that child’s later success in life. The relationships a child will seek and engage in, the career paths he’ll follow, and all the other major choices he’ll make, are heavily influenced by the nature of the initial attachment he experiences with his caregivers. If a child doesn’t receive all the love, comfort and protection he requires and craves in those critical months and years, he may find himself adrift, desperately searching for anything to replace what he didn’t know was missing. Those struggling to form healthy, secure relationships, may not fully comprehend what lies at the core of the difficulties and challenges they face. To understand this may require the kind of introspection they may be incapable of doing alone.

I’ve consulted with several different therapists, and while some were more successful than others at giving me the ability to reframe the conversations inside my head, none specifically told me I may have suffered from “insecure, anxious attachment” to my primary caregivers—I’ve figured that out on my own. My formal diagnosis was PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), as a result of the childhood abuse and neglect I suffered at the hands of various parental figures.

It’s difficult to reflect upon these early relationships, given how far in the subconscious these experiences may be buried, whether due to memories too painful to bear or the simple passage of time. I knew something wasn’t right with my parental figures but wasn’t initially sure who played what part in what became a long journey of self-discovery. I initially blamed my father for nearly everything. I blamed him for the poverty we experienced as children; for my sister’s experiences with rage at such an early age; for not protecting me from my stepmother and her random, unpredictable emotions; and for joining a religion that would forever plant a wedge in our relationship. He was a violent son-of-a-bitch. He beat all of his children mercilessly on multiple occasions, his hideous belt swinging at all of us whenever he could no longer control his temper. He struck my mother often when I was just a toddler, which helped me to see her as a wounded individual, more deserving of pity than love, so much so that I’d find it difficult to separate the two concepts in my own relationships. Given what I’d experienced, it was easy to see her as a victim. Perhaps because of this, my memories of the things she did for me, not the things she didn’t, formed the narrative I’d hold on to well into my early forties.

The world has been a confusing and at times overwhelming place for me to live. The uncertainties of life have often given me great anxiety, to the point where those fears have escalated into full-blown panic attacks, requiring medication or even hospitalization. Everyone deals with the unpredictable nature of existence in various ways. Some are secure enough not to be thrown off course by the termination of a relationship or a job, confident they will find another, perhaps even more suitable combination. I once envied such people, wondering what made them so different from me. I carried around the idea for a long time that something was missing, or broken, inside of me.

Human relationships have been a source of disabling pain and conflict for me. My need for security, my yearning for approval, my desire to belong, and my longing to feel loved and accepted have all influenced how and why I formed certain attachments. My intense craving for companionship and fear of being alone has lead me to form precarious and risky bonds, the nature of which I didn’t give much thought to when I initiated them. I’ve often latched onto individuals I thought I could “fix” or “help” to reach their full potential, determined to be a “superhero” that could mold them into people they weren’t capable of being or simply didn’t want to be. I’d let the pursuit of my personal happiness take a back seat to the unattainable goal of helping others find their own happiness.

I know what it’s like to feel stuck, trapped, and unable to decide what to do, when to do it or how to do it. Easily manipulated and frequently caught up in endless loops of indecisiveness, impulsive behavior and poor decision-making, I’ve assumed passive roles with partners I wasn’t suited for, and have found myself taking on their issues as my own. I’ve stayed far too long in jobs that demanded less of my intellect and ability. I even accepted a highly controlling religion instructing me how to think and how to behave.

I’ve seen people make choices, but I’ve also seen their choices make them. I’ve met individuals who appear to know how to live with intention, masterfully and fearlessly in control of creating their own story. I’ve observed others stumbling around in the dark looking for signs, but when they’re presented with those signs, don’t know how to read them. I’ve also known many who claim to be victims of circumstances, taking themselves off the hook for all outcomes, seeing the events in their lives as things happening to them, and not because of them. I was once one of these people.

For much of my life, I considered myself to be out of control and could not or would not see I had the power to change course. I’ve known indecision on many levels and the anxiety that accompanies it. My decisions in many critical moments have set me on a trajectory toward even more critical decisions I wasn’t well equipped to make, leading me to plunge deeper and deeper into holes I’d spend a long time digging out of. There were alarms going off, but either I chose to ignore them, didn’t fully recognize them for what they were, or was simply afraid to hear them. Had I heeded those alarms, I would’ve been forced to take a leap into the unknown, and that’s often frightened me more than the prospect of staying in a toxic situation.

Preoccupied with doing, I’ve given little thought to the long-term consequences or outcomes derived from my actions. In my constant hurry to go somewhere, I’ve approached life as a giant “task-list” to check off as quickly as possible, filling my hours and days with every activity imaginable. This has provided me with the instant gratification I’ve sought, and just as importantly, the sensation of forward motion. Moving quickly toward some destination, I haven’t always known where I was going—I was just going, I was certain of that. As a consequence, I’ve repeatedly ended up where I was without knowing how or why I got there.

Whatever the forces of gravity imposed upon us by our choices, our inner peace is determined, in part, by our acceptance of the outcomes of those choices. While I’m aware of this now, I haven’t always been able to rise above my circumstances or learn from my experiences. As many times as I’ve taken the best from a situation, I’ve also discovered the worst, and I do understand it’s not always possible to simply “imagine” things turning around. I’ve experienced moments of indifference, or worse, found enjoyment in sliding down the spiral, sinking further and further into an abyss of polluted emotions. I’ve embraced the darkness and its sleepless nights, letting my suffering and the contemplation over my own wounds define me.

I vividly recall turning twenty-one, my entire life spread out ahead of me like an interstate highway in the middle of the deserts of New Mexico, about a quarter of the way along my journey. I’m the star of my own show, yet the audience isn’t yet ready to applaud. They’re waiting for the next act, and everyone except me, is prepared. This isn’t a dream—I must go on, but I have no idea what to say or do. There are no cue cards, and there’s no director. It’s beyond frightening! How do the other actors know what to do, what to say, when to say it and how to say it? At other times, I stand like an artist contemplating his work, perched in front of an enormous canvas, painting with a brush that’s languished in colored water made muddy from a palette of a hundred choices. Now, my youth is behind me in my rear-view mirror, with many years come and gone, stolen from me so quickly the thief is in and out without being seen.

No matter the life we’ve led, every challenge we’ve ever had, and every individual we’ve ever encountered can teach us valuable lessons. We can choose to take something positive from our voyage, and allow our past to be a precious gift, not an excuse. Seen this way, every experience has purpose and meaning.