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“Real Abuse”?

June 15, 2010

With any luck, I’ll be posting (and reading/commenting elsewhere) more. Part of the stress I’ve been under lately has lifted somewhat.

I’d suspected that messed-up hormones had something to do with my stress levels, and this was apparently the case. (So today I’ve got the shakes, and generally feel like an overloaded power line; this is an improvement.) My cycle has stretched to a semi-regular 6-7 weeks, and I spend the last 3 or 4 of them with premenstrual weirdness. The best explanation I can think of (other than “it just wants to do that”) is low body fat, since the “stop entirely and then start up again at a funky interval” thing did correspond to diabetes-related weight loss. At any rate, I’m glad the weird energy and emotional stuff is over for a few more weeks. This is another case in which mindfulness of what’s happening helps a lot, but it’s still kind of disruptive.

It also seems that another personal revelation was trying to bring itself to my attention. I started writing something about this yesterday, but it mushroomed into something novella-length and not really suitable for a public post. The condensed version: it hit me that my mother’s mental health was a lot worse in many ways than my own ever was–not just these days, but when she was forcing me into treatment!–and I have been continuing to blame myself for a lot of things that had a lot more to do with her own roaring PTSD and projection/scapegoating than they ever had to do with anything I did or was. (It’s complicated, but makes entirely too much sense, looking at the patterns as they kept repeating.) At the moment, I’m mostly sad and frustrated that she never learned to deal with things any better than that, and had such a poor quality of life in a lot of ways. Yeah, I’m dealing with some anger, resentment, and frustration over having been collateral damage–but, it really wasn’t about me. Which is a major relief, in itself. No wonder I kept having trouble figuring out what I’d done to “make” her that upset.

I got Nigel to read the derailed post draft, to keep from repeating everything, and we talked about it some. One of his observations really clicked into place today, in an aha moment: maybe she really didn’t remember doing and saying some really hurtful things. That sounded right last night, but I’ve been readier to think about it today. I had assumed it was just coming out of some at least semi-conscious lying and/or pretty extreme self-delusion, similar to my grandmother’s narcissistic version* (“This is unthinkable. Therefore, it never happened, and anyone who says it did is batshit crazy.”).

Now I am actually amazed that I hadn’t considered before that she might have had some persistent problems with dissociation, possibly to the point of DID. It just explains so many things that confused me, dealing with her. I really did keep feeling like I was suddenly and unexpectedly dealing with someone who was not my mother, in a very literal way. She would abruptly turn truly nasty or hilariously funny (in an uncharacteristically laid-back way)–in a way that went beyond any of the usual mood swings–and she claimed not to have said/done/witnessed a lot of things later. And I never mentioned this to anybody because I was getting cast as crazy enough already.

I’m also wondering if resistance to being urged to get out of an abusive marriage was the only reason she came up with lots of excuses to stop seeing what seemed like a very good therapist. (That would be the same one who pointed out that her mother sounded like an abusive narcissist, and she obviously had raging PTSD.) Another comment my mother treated as a joke? “Who are you today?” While Mom preferred to think of this variability as a collection of façades for dealing with other people, I am not so sure about that, and maybe the therapist wasn’t either–and getting too close to some really uncomfortable things.

It doesn’t make much practical difference now, other than to have some decent working hypothesis as to why she behaved in some of the ways she did. Especially ones which affected me in ways that I’m still trying to deal with. Still, I’ve been doing a bit of quick research. There’s an amazing amount of disrespectful stuff out there, which I was kind of expecting. :-|

Another thing which has struck me yet again? The way in which childhood sexual abuse is treated as the worst possible thing ever, and too frequently as the only form of abuse which could warrant perceived-as-extreme reactions from the abused.

Before I unintentionally offend anyone, I should point out that childhood sexual abuse is unconscionable, and can make things very hard indeed on people who have experienced it. I am not trying to say that it’s somehow OK, with an aftermath that’s easy to deal with. But it’s not the only kind of abuse that can screw people up. And it will not, because of something inherent to sexual abuse, inevitably screw people up for life in ways that there is no hope of recovering from–in ways that other forms of abuse will not.

This “damaged goods” cluster of attitudes makes no sense outside rape culture. And treating sexual abuse/assault as somehow inherently special and different from other forms of abuse only reinforces some nasty attitudes, and may even turn this into a self-fulfilling prophecy. If other people treat you differently when they find out you’ve been sexually assaulted/abused, you are more likely to internalize some of those attitudes yourself.

When I entered the mental health system, professionals observed that “gee, this kid acts like she’s been abused”. Given the time (ca. 1989, when repressed memory was really popular) and the apparent severity of PTSD symptoms**, they assumed early childhood sexual abuse. Actually, my problem was more along the lines of having trouble not thinking about the (emotional and some physical) abuse and mistreatment. Even when I was saying “I know this person hit me and said really hurtful things”, the presumed sexual abuse was considered uniquely horrible enough for me to have forgotten that if nothing else. And, yeah, it never occurred to me to feel like “damaged goods” or “dirty” (or to blame myself) because someone else might have hurt me in a particular way until other people kept bringing up those themes. I felt under a lot of pressure to feel and react in certain ways to abuse I wasn’t even sure had happened, and kept getting told I was lying intentionally or unintentionally (“in denial”) when I did not respond in the expected ways. While the abuse that was still going on every day got totally ignored.

Longterm emotional and/or physical abuse can leave people with exactly the same problems. I can say for sure that, at least for me, the emotional aspects of the physical abuse were worse than the hitting itself; a lot of the focus while trying to “help” me with the presumed sexual abuse was on the emotional aspects. (Loss of control, helplessness, hurtful comments, slut-shaming, etc.) I have never heard of a case of physical or sexual abuse which did not involve purposely emotionally torturing the victim.

In my mom’s case, lifelong emotional abuse was more than enough to terrorize her into dissociation and possible DID. (And Complex PTSD, and…) She did not even consider it abuse. Neither did I, until I was out of an abusive situation long enough, and learning better ways to cope with my PTSD.

There is this common perception that somehow emotional abuse doesn’t count as Real Abuse. Including legally: “Unfortunately, the legal system only addresses abuse when there are bruises and broken bones, even though emotional abuse can inflict longer term injuries that are more difficult to heal.” I guess a lot of people don’t want to believe that they, too, could be terrorized without another person laying so much as a finger on them–much less that they might be doing this, themselves. While, really, this lack of regard and desire for power over other people and emotional torture is actually the core of controlling, abusive ways of thinking and behaving. See Lundy Bancroft’s Why Does He Do That?: Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men–which doesn’t just apply to men, though they’re statistically more likely to compound it with overt physical violence. Pretending it doesn’t hurt people unless the abuser also physically or sexually assaults them? Insulting, disrespectful, and supremely unhelpful. The last thing abuse survivors need is further invalidation and gaslighting–from professionals, no less.

Edit: I somehow forgot to add that I have also been raped, stalked, and otherwise sexually assaulted, in my teens and in my 20s. (So I’m not talking completely through my hat.) The worst part of that, too, was the verbal/emotional abuse (racialized to boot, in one case of “minor” assault)–including from the people around me when I told them about it. With my background, the victim blaming was more in the form of “you should have kneecapped him/knocked him out cold/etc. before it got to that point” than “you shouldn’t have gone out dressed like that”, but it’s all remarkably similar: if you had only done X and Y, this would not have happened. And it’s somehow your fault if other people do not show you some basic respect.
_____________

* I still feel more than a little uncomfortable describing things this way, seeing some of the unsavory uses personality disorder diagnoses can be put to. I may not agree with the classification system–much less the way these categories are used to dismiss, discredit, and dehumanize people–but sometimes these descriptions really do fit better than anything else I’ve run across. I may not have much use for a lot of the assumptions underpinning the personality disorder characterization, but I have learned through hard experience that this person really does fit the description of a narcissist. I wish there were better terms available, with less baggage attached. Edit: I ran across a post at Narcissistic Parents which really seemed to fit here: The Question of Judgment. Some excellent comments, including this observation:

I was confusing “judging” with “witnessing”. I have witnessed a lot of bad behavior by the personality disordered people in my life. Observing the bad behavior, seeing it for what it is, remembering it, and using that knowledge to keep myself safe in the future is not judging. It’s seeing reality.

** Some of it was not from PTSD, but from an autistic/Tourette-type neurological setup. That said, I am dealing with Complex PTSD, from a variety of sources. Including bad psych treatment.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. andygrrrl permalink
    June 17, 2010 2:27 pm

    Hi, I’ve been reading your blog for a bit now, and I just wanted to say thanks for this post. I’m just beginning to deal with the effects of my own narcissistic mother and the emotional abuse she inflicts; luckily my partner is really supportive, but some of my so-called “friends” have not been. Your post really helped clarify why these people won’t listen to me.

    • urocyon permalink
      June 18, 2010 2:18 pm

      Glad somebody found it helpful! If you haven’t found the Narcisstic Parents blog already, you might want to have a look. I’ve enjoyed (well, if you can call “painfully identifying with” enjoying) a number of posts there.

      Yeah, I think there’s a lot of willful “sticks and stones” stuff going around, because it’s easier to look at things that way. :(

  2. June 17, 2010 3:59 pm

    I have nothing interesting to comment on this post, but I wanted to say I appreciate it, and I value your courage in writing about these touchy subjects.

    • urocyon permalink
      June 18, 2010 2:22 pm

      Thanks! I still fight panic every time I write about this kind of thing. Especially with the “Golden Child/Scapegoat” pattern in my family; I keep half-expecting somebody to come swooping in to call me a crazy liar, when we’ve started to get closer again. But, some things need to be said anyway. Or so I keep telling myself. :)

  3. June 17, 2010 6:24 pm

    Urocyon wrote: “Another thing which has struck me yet again? The way in which childhood sexual abuse is treated as the worst possible thing ever, and too frequently as the only form of abuse which could warrant perceived-as-extreme reactions from the abused.”

    Speaking as someone who WAS sexually abused I agree completely with this. It is not that that form of abuse isn’t awful, it’s that when people focus on it to the exclusion of everything else (including other sorts of abuse) that might be going on with someone, all the other stuff continues to go unaddressed. Moreover, stuff that has nothing to do with having been sexually abused can end up being attributed to it, which just gets incredibly confusing.

    I am glad that in my case the abuse was brought to light fairly early and the abusive relative identified as someone my siblings, cousins, and I ought to be protected and kept away from, and that we had it drilled into us that what happened was NOT our fault. But I do NOT think that the way adults (especially some of the counselors I saw growing up) harped constantly on the sexual abuse and that abuse alone was really very helpful. For one thing I had enough trouble (as a kid) with self-insight to begin with; hence it was NOT a good thing for me to be constantly having my own behavior (when not attributed to rudeness or “attention seeking”) explained as being “because of the abuse”. It got to the point where “well, I was abused by my grandfather” became my automatic-echolalic “explanation” whenever a teacher, etc., asked me why I had done something wrong or “wasn’t cooperating”.

    Because in a lot of situations there was a neurological or developmental reason for my actions, only nobody (much less me) thought to “go there”, since everyone was busy honing in on the abuse stuff. (Also I definitely think my 6th-grade teacher was an abuser — not just to me, but to a lot of kids — only since it wasn’t sexual or physical nobody figured it was worth doing something about). And it was not that I was trying to “use X as an excuse” — generally when asked why I had or hadn’t done something my initial reaction was terror at the fact that I didn’t know and therefore had no answer, followed by a frantic “blindfolded dart-toss” of possible theoretical answers that might make the adult stop asking me questions.

    So yeah. I am glad to see this topic being discussed (I have seen it in a few other places, but not nearly enough). Because it is definitely an example of something where it gets really difficult to talk about the realities involved without it being presumed you are saying sexual abuse is okay or “not that bad”. Sexual abuse is terrible, but it is by far not the only terrible form of abuse out there, and is also NOT necessarily going to be the one factor in a person’s life that shapes it moreso than anything else.

    • urocyon permalink
      June 18, 2010 2:48 pm

      For one thing I had enough trouble (as a kid) with self-insight to begin with; hence it was NOT a good thing for me to be constantly having my own behavior (when not attributed to rudeness or “attention seeking”) explained as being “because of the abuse”.

      *nods* Exactly. I ran into the same thing, and it’s probably not that unusual. (Especially with younger kids than I was at the time.) If you haven’t had time and experience to develop as firm a sense of self yet, that kind of thing doesn’t help. At all.

      Because in a lot of situations there was a neurological or developmental reason for my actions, only nobody (much less me) thought to “go there”, since everyone was busy honing in on the abuse stuff…And it was not that I was trying to “use X as an excuse” — generally when asked why I had or hadn’t done something my initial reaction was terror at the fact that I didn’t know and therefore had no answer, followed by a frantic “blindfolded dart-toss” of possible theoretical answers that might make the adult stop asking me questions.

      Oh yeah. That also sounds very familiar. When you have no idea why something is happening, and you’ve been told that basically everything else is because of X, well… This also reminds me of Amanda’s post on learning that it’s OK to say “I don’t know”. An awful lot of people don’t want to hear that–and/or refuse to believe it–and yeah, I think power has something to do with it in a lot of cases.

      One example of the “this explains everything” theme that pops into mind is when I had a kicking, screaming meltdown after having my head immobilized and being put head-first into a particularly narrow MRI scanner when I was 15. (Darkly funny in retrospect. They’d give me enough IV Valium to fell an elephant, slide me back into the scanner, and I’d wake up and start kicking and screaming uncontrollably. Rinse, repeat.) My mom was utterly convinced that it had something to do with the presumed sexual abuse, rather than any kind of more general “getting shoved into a small hideously noisy space while claustrophobic, and unable to move your head, may freak out a lot of people”. Much less people prone to sensory overload, and who don’t like to be pawed at anyway. But, I had no idea how to explain what was going on. *shakes head* At the time, I found it even more humiliating that my mother was telling these complete strangers that I’d been sexually abused, to explain my bizarre and embarrassing behavior which I had no control over. And it made me feel more broken, having that kind of “post-abuse” meltdown in public. The hell of it is, I suspect the radiology staff were more sympathetic toward and less annoyed by my wacky behavior than they might have been otherwise.

      (Oh yes, not to mention that I’d suspect people who have been subjected to involuntary inpatient psych treatment might have some extra freak-out factor at total loss of control in a medical setting. Even if they weren’t personally physically restrained. But it’s easier not to think about that, at least if you’re trying to convince yourself that’s beneficial. Hmm…)

      I also had more than one directly abusive teacher, who probably only stuck to verbal/emotional abuse because they could no longer get away with humiliating kids by hitting them. So I know what you’re talking about there. Several lightbulbs also went off when I noticed the similarities between the content and tactics of adult emotional abusers and bullying kids (identical, in a lot of cases; I heard the same stuff from both at the same time)–and extended that idea to “abuse by proxy”, through allowing/encouraging other kids to be horrible bullies. So, I’d classify more than the couple of directly truly nasty teachers I had as emotionally abusive. They were just even sneakier with it, and are surely still getting away with that kind of thing.

      Not only was that not taken seriously, talk about victim blaming: I ended up in a ridiculous social skills group when I admitted I was getting bullied relentlessly. I’ve seen a couple of other autistic people mention that kind of thing, too.

      Because it is definitely an example of something where it gets really difficult to talk about the realities involved without it being presumed you are saying sexual abuse is okay or “not that bad”.

      Yeah, I have hesitated to write about this kind of thing for precisely that reason. I really don’t want to add insult to injury, unintentionally. But, I hope this post was clear enough not to be interpreted that way.

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