I remember the TV commercial jingle that said “You will learn about life when you play the Game of LIFE.” Is irony the word I’m looking for here? I’m 52 and still trying to figure out life. Playing the board game, filling up my little car with tiny pink plastic pegs, did nothing to help me navigate the real thing. NOBODY would ever want to play that game.
The song playing in my head as I’m writing is, Is That All There Is? by Peggy Lee. Talk about a song that hit me like a ton of bricks. I don’t think, when I first heard it, that I was ready to move beyond the infallible folly of my youth and therefore I immediately felt the sting of beckoning adulthood and the looming existential crisis that I was not yet ready take on.
Not so coincidentally, it was around this time, when I was nineteen, that I experienced my first Major Depressive episode. I believe it was also when I discovered the word “lugubria”. My human mind subconsciously built a little nest around it, never before having experienced a “living word”, that is to say, a word that felt like the very embodiment of my existence. This, of course, was before I found Jesus and the Living Word as it is known to Christians. PTL! (I come from the time when LOL meant “lots of love” and I have the yearbooks to prove it. And for anyone reading this under the age of 40, PTL means Praise The Lord.)
Here is the origin and history of the word LUGUBRIA as described by WordSense.eu:
“From lūgeō (“mourn, lament”), ultimately from Proto-Indo-European *leug- (“to break, to injure”). Cognates include Ancient Greek λυγρός (lugros, “mournful, sad”), Sanskrit रुजति (rujati, “torments, breaks”) and Latvian lauzit (“to break the heart”).”
Prior to my discovering this word, all the other words that I could attach to my pervasive feelings up to that point in my life never fully encompassed how I experienced them. All I knew was the sum of life’s cruel injustices, in fragments, like spokes on a bicycle wheel, and the manner in which I had learned to hold on as it spun continuously, out of my control. It was just my life.
I was born with a heart that seeks harmony and loves deeply. I am so grateful that, despite the dizzying lamentations that underscored everything in my childhood, I could experience joy and be transfixed by the beauty of things. I had a constant longing for the father who died, mourning that void forever, through the eyes of a two-year old. That same two-year old does not know how to make sense of my fifty two-year old self. I was never properly parented, and here I am trying my best to parent a teenage daughter, while figuring out how to comfort and care for this inconsolable toddler who is still very much alive in me. And, she’s not alone. There are many others.
I am telling my story now because it was a secret I was forced to keep for half my life. I somehow knew from a young age that one day, my voice would come out, loud and strong, unlike the nightmares I still have where I am being attacked by demons and trying desperately to scream for help, but my tongue doesn’t work and I cannot form words or make a sound. There is much to understand about the dynamics and rippling effects of a dysfunctional family. This is not me “dwelling on the past” as some like to say. Instead, it’s a map to be studied, to chart my path to healing, to mark the dead ends and fallen bridges in bold Sharpie in hopes of saving others from getting lost, or plunging to their deaths.
My story is but one out of millions, many far more devastating than mine. Victim’s stories are very uncomfortable to hear and often hard to comprehend. I think that is why we have been afraid to tell them. The very thought of exposing the unsavory truth (they call them “dirty” secrets for a reason) only to face ridicule and judgement, is practically unbearable. It is like the story of how the lobster sheds it’s shell. The stimulus for the Lobster to be able to grow is that it feels uncomfortable. Some of us have found ways to numb ourselves, while others are driven to continue molting until they no longer feel uncomfortable.
I have tried it both ways. Believing that my suffering was due to a mental illness made it much easier to attempt fixing it through any type of recreational drug use that had the power to eliminate the unbearable flashbacks that kept me shackled to my family’s dysfunction. Then I learned that Complex PTSD is actually a Traumatic brain injury because the damage of the abuse occurred wfore the age of three when the toddler brain waaUltimately I want to make a positive impact on this world. I WANT TO TURN MY MOTHER*-#*!!$ LEMONS INTO LEMONADE, because that is my true nature.
This is your chance to stop reading if you don’t want to know the reality of so many innocent children who were forced to mature into bodies that store every memory of every physical violation perpetrated upon them. It is hard to read, and even harder to write. I’ve been trying to do this for months. I began writing in in July. The amount of courage and strength required to overcome my fears renders me completely spent. It is something that I have to do, with the most earnest hope that my voice will finally matter. I’m holding space and speaking out for those who continue living in fear and keeping secrets.
In the beginning
My stepfather, Ed, who latched onto my mother’s vulnerability and naivete’ at a Parent’s Without Partners meeting, won the child molestor lottery when he hitched his Deadbeat Dad-wagon to my mother’s bright and shining star, just before my third birthday. I wasn’t broken until he set out to define fatherhood for me, my two sisters and brother.
Being the baby, I was very close to my mom. I remember being so happy to see her happy, because I was there for her devastation after my father left her widowed with four children out of the blue, and it scarred me.
Three year-old Valerie thought getting a new Daddy and having her mother so filled with joy meant no more tears. As all toddlers do, I just wanted to feel safe and secure and never have to fear the loss of a loved one or think my dear momma could die from sorrow. That’s a real thing you know, people dying from grief. I’m still here, which is a testament to my strength.
The most important time in a child’s development takes place within the first three years of life. My stepfather did not waste any time before he perverted what love meant and shaped my world into the embodiment of lugubria. Fifty years later, and I’m still trying to pick up the pieces of myself and fashion them together into something that doesn’t make me want to cut myself every time I look in a mirror. You see, I was made to believe that my silence was what protected my mother and held my world together. It’s the same script used by predators to control their victim through intimidation and fear. It goes like this; stepfather makes child think that she is special and that his molestation is an act of love. Innocent child thinks that a parent’s love is pure and her survival depends on trusting that they exist to protect and nurture her. She has only ever known pure love, so she doesn’t know that what he is doing is wrong. Child’s body responds to feelings it doesn’t understand, and since she is not experiencing physical pain, she trusts him. He tells her that the molestation is a secret she can never tell because people don’t understand how special his love for her is, and he would go to jail, and her mother would die from a broken heart leaving her alone and helpless in the world with no one to take care of her. Child is four and her parents ARE her world. Knowing that losing her mother is her biggest fear, she guards this secret with her life, and in so doing becomes her mother’s protector.
That is some very seriously fucked up shit. I was plagued by nightmares, and spent long periods of time contemplating the terror of being left alone, and thinking about what I would do to survive. I was sad, very lonely, confused, and terrified. This was a burden that no child should have to bear. A small child should never feel responsible for protecting her mother, but instead be the one protected and nurtured. I was also very angry. My mother would tell me to “go cuddle your father”. I would go downstairs to their bedroom where he would be lying in bed with no clothes on, and then the door would be shut. I don’t know why my mother did that. My shame comes from going to sit at the top of the stairs in my pajamas and desiring to be told to go do this cuddling thing, because it felt good, and my Momma was encouraging it, so it couldn’t be wrong. Children have a natural desire to please their parents. This was not natural. A five-year old does not understand that. Somewhere along the way I tried to understand how, if he could go to jail for what he was doing, and it would break my mother, how did she not know what was happening to me when she would order me to go to him? The thought that she could be willingly sacrificing me was unbearable. I was keeping this secret to protect her, so there was no way that she would not be doing the same for me, her baby. These are the things that swirled in my head, creating more feelings I was incapable of understanding, feelings that made me pull smaller wandering children into the clothing racks at the discount department store and shake them until they started to cry before pushing them out, screaming, to their frantic mothers. I became a pathological liar when questioned. I am pained by this, although now it seems to amuse those I tell, in some pathetic darkly comic way. I think they just love and understand me and think, “Of course little Val would do that.” This passive aggressive behavior became a coping skill I have perfected to an art. Again, not proud.
By the time I was six I had learned to fear my stepfather. He had an explosively raging temper that made me think he could kill me or anyone else he was angry enough with. Every trip alone with him was an opportunity for him to pull off the road in the middle of nowhere and force me to do as he told me. If I cried or protested I would get hit. This did not feel good anymore and I began to hate my body for the feelings that conflicted with my fear. My abuse always took place in broad daylight.
I was constantly told how beautiful I was, so I would make a very unbecoming face whenever he took a picture, thinking that if I were not seen as pretty then he would not want to molest me. But I desperately wanted his love, as he was the only father I really knew. I didn’t know that he only really loved my flesh and the way it satisfied the beast in him. Still, I loved him. I was terrified of him, but I loved him. I thought the only way to feel loved was attached to sex.
When he flew into a rage and came after me my mother would scream and cry, trying to hold him back, often getting pushed to the floor and called heinous curse words that would then transfer to me when he raised his arm up high, with demon eyes and brought it down on me with such great force that I would have the handprint etched into my thigh for days.
One of the most traumatic memories of his physical abuse took place one snowy night as he was screaming and fighting with my dear brother, who was 13 yrs older than me, who I adored. He was such a good big brother and I would get up early every morning just to eat cereal with him before he went off to school. I was in my pajamas and had gone to get a Poptart from the kitchen, when I heard my brother getting beaten with a wrench, crying out, with my mother’s blood-curdling screams and my stepfather yelling and cursing so loudly that it was like a scene out of a horror movie. I wet my pants as I began to cry and my sisters took me back in my room where we were watching TV, and locked us in, trying hard to console me. I thought my brother was dead. After a while, when things died down, they got me in my snowsuit and took me outside in the night to make a snow dinasaur. This is when I learned to pretend that things were not really as bad as they seemed, because “Look! Everything is fine! We just made a dinosaur out of snow!” It was a marvelous coping skill that enabled me to create happiness out of fear, beauty out of ugliness.
We had a neighbor who lived across the street from us who I just loved, because he was so nice to me. He worked for a candy company and always had a special treat for me. His wife and two sons, older than I, always welcomed me when I would come over to visit. (at 6, I was an avid “visitor” to our close neighbors, all adults. I loved talking to them, and I think they got a kick out of me, which gave me the attention I so desperately craved.) One day I was walking along the brick wall in front of our house and waved to Mr. Colella who was feeding his hunting dogs outside at their kennel. I told him to come talk to me. When he came over I told him that I loved him very much. As a dear, fatherly man, he returned my sentiment and told me I was such a sweet girl. I told him that he could kiss me. He looked very confused laughed it off and told me I’d better go inside because it was dinner time. I said I love you! Don’t you love me? And he gently tried to explain why it was inappropriate. I started to cry and I begged him to kiss me, telling him that if he really loved me he would. It escalated into sobs and asking him why he wouldn’t. I was just 6 years old.
I don’t remember what happened after that, but I remember feeling incredible shame. That must have been a clear indication that something was very wrong in my home. Did he ever confront my parents? Did they blow it off? Did he just keep his distance and never bring it up? I don’t know. I do remember getting a beating, after which I carved the words I HATE ED into the wooden head of my antique sleigh bed.
Having become hypersexualized at such a young age, my girlfriend who lived down the street, and I would play a game we called “boyfriend/girlfriend”. I was always the girlfriend. We would hide in her closet and kiss each other, or touch each other under my bed covers when we were just 7 yrs old. By this time I knew we were doing something wrong, but I felt compelled. When my mother would walk in on us and briskly ask what we were doing, I quickly made up a lie about playing a game to see who could reach the end of the bed first. Did she not think that was strange? I felt immediate shame. One time my friend’s brother caught us in her closet and said he was going to tell on us. I’m sure that he did. Did they ever tell my parents, or did they blow it off because her step-dad was doing the same thing to her? I don’t know.
I cried in school a lot. I cried alone in the woods a lot. I regularly made a big production out of packing my little white plastic bag with gold stars and dots that had hinges which creaked when you opened it. I would open and close it several times while tearfully announcing that I was packing to run away, then, after what felt like endless attempts to get a response and coming up empty, I would shout I”M LEAVING as the door slammed behind me. I would do this at least 3 times, desperately wanting my mother to scoop me in her arms and tell me everything was going to be okay, and beg me not to go. I have no idea what led up to this. I only remember running down the hill on the side of our house, crying, stumbling, and half rolling before making my way into the woods to my special place where I would sob and feel so alone and afraid. Hours went by before I would hear my name being called. Part of me wanted to not return and see what it was like to be raised by wolves. Real ones.
That’s just a brief synopsis of my childhood. I read somewhere that victims of child abuse seem to stay vulnerable as prey, almost as if they wear a sign inviting predators to take advantage of them. (this includes bullies too)
We moved to Virginia when I was 8. When I was 9 or 10 my sister’s boyfriend came into my room one night while I was sleeping, covered my mouth with one hand, and put his other in my underwear. I was terrified and all other kinds of disgusted, sad, confused, and ashamed. I froze until he went away after telling me it was “our little secret”. He was 18, maybe. I racked my brain trying to think what I could have done to provoke it. I was still very much a child and at a very awkward stage. It made me feel like I now had to protect my sister too.
My step-brother, Johnny, the oldest of his father’s 5 abandoned kids, joined the navy when he was 19 and moved in with us. We played chess all the time and went out for pizza. He was THE BEST big brother to me and spoiled me rotten, just like my own brother would if he weren’t living in Massachusetts. He won my complete trust and I loved him, until one night he started asking me if I knew what the words “felatio” and “cunnilingus” meant and made me watch Caligula, an x-rated, shocking video that belonged to his father. He then began molesting me. He would rationalize his sick behavior later by saying that I was compliant, a willing participant. I was anything but. His betrayal crushed me. I refused to believe that it was happening. I shut myself down as the inevitable ensued, and would continue to do so every time thereafter. There are no words to describe this kind of mind fuckery. I had perfected another very valuable coping skill in compartmentalizing. One day when nobody was home, I refused his advances and he told me that I had no idea what Ed was planning to do to me when I turned 12. He chased me all over the house taunting me, blocking my way, and bullying me into a complete state of hysteria. I managed to lock myself in my parent’s bathroom and when my Mom got home I would not come out and was threatening to kill myself. I was terrified and in so much emotional torment that I really wanted to die. I had my first anxiety attack that year, where I was convinced I was actually dying. Every bit of it was brushed under the carpet.
When I was 11, hormones raging, I began to enjoy the attention I was getting from boys and became a natural flirt. There was this lifeguard at the pool we went to every summer whose name was Chad. (Of course it was.) Chad was 16 and was the Zac Efron of his day. My friends and I swooned over him daily. He clearly loved the attention. We would compete to see who could flirt with him the hardest and giggle while fantasizing about him being our boyfriend. Chad was dreamy. He seemed to single me out as his favorite. I was so proud of myself. Boys were a new thing and I was swimming with the big fishes, I thought. One day I had gone to the pool with a neighbor when Chad asked me if I wanted to go for a ride on his moped to go pick up a part for something at the hardware store. I assured the neighbor that I was safe to go with him because I was his little helper and she reluctantly agreed. I was beyond thrilled and my stomach was doing flips but I was disappointed that my friends were not there to see it happen and thought they would never believe me if I told them. It was a magical feeling that had me intoxicated with self-esteem. As I clung to him, not even noticing we had passed the hardware store, I imagined what it would be like to kiss him. I was 11 years old feeling like Bo Derek running down the beach in the movie, “10”. When I saw that he was taking me pretty far away and began turning into a deserted old park, I asked where we were going. He said he just had to stop there for a minute and pulled over, telling me to get off the moped. He stood behind me and began to grope my barely-there breasts beneath my swimsuit top. My stomach dropped to my toes as I froze, uncomfortably, and muttered that I’d never been kissed. I felt sick and dizzy and stupid. I was crushed. He never said a word after, just took me back to the pool. I didn’t think he was cute at all after that. I felt dirty. I thought it was my fault and never told anyone. I wonder if the neighbor had second thoughts about letting me go.
At 12, I was becoming popular after a very difficult year in the 7th grade. I was switched to another unit for being a chatterbox and stirring the ire of a group of bad girls, which had gotten me kicked out of chorus, my favorite thing. My new homeroom teacher targeted me and made my life a living hell. I was instructed to sit outside his room as he prepared the class for my arrival. I couldn’t really hear what he was talking about, but he popped his head out the door and said “You sure are ugly! ” then closed it just as quickly, making the students erupt in laughter. I could not believe it. I am telling the truth. He invited me in moments later and told me where to sit. I was miserable. It was pouring rain that day and evidently I did not have the right paper (college-ruled) which he harshly reprimanded me for, saying “How dare you come into my class unprepared!” then humiliated and embarrassed me by taking my entire pack of loose leaf paper and dumping it out the window, in the rain. I tried to hold back my tears. He was evil to me, and I could not understand what I did to deserve it.
The other big event that crushed me was when I was forbidden to go to our unit skating party. I had already paid for it and was so excited. My friends and I started picking out what we were going to wear as soon as we heard about the event. It was springtime and one very hot day that I wore a pair of shorts to school. Several other girls did too, some shorter and tighter than mine. I was in my English class when Mr. Taylor called me out into the hall. He told me my shorts were completely inappropriate and publically shamed me in front of everyone before taking me in the hall and telling me I was not allowed to attend the skating party. I don’t remember how I got through that day. The other girls all agreed it was crazy and unfair because I had been singled out like some little tramp, when they were all wearing similar shorts. Again, I tried to figure out what I had done wrong. My ass cheeks were not even close to hanging out. Yes, they were tight, but the only pair I had. I was skinny with long legs. Did that make my shorts seem shorter and me more of a distraction? I remember going to my guidance counselor in tears. One of my sisters called to complain to the principal. At the end of that year there was a show with a handful of students being directed to dance in couples. When Mr Taylor saw that I could dance, and could make him look good, I was put in the lead couple spotlight. Overnight I became his pet, his superstar. I went from fearing and loathing this giant man with his cheesy polyester, nature print button-down shirts, to eating up his attention and basking in a sense of accomplishment in the blink of an eye. It was utterly insane.
Earlier that day
I was textbook ADHD (but undiagnosed) and struggled in school, always hearing that I was not applying myself from teachers, and being labeled as lazy at home. Any type of praise brought me to life. I also felt a desperate need to be loved by everyone, and I was genuinely confounded when girls hated my guts for no reason. I wanted to be everyone’s friend, kinda like a puppy. You could beat me, but if you then showed me any kind of affection, I was belly up.
My Mom was a teacher and working daily. I was going through puberty while she was dealing with menopause. Things could get pretty ugly and I could be very cruel. Whenever I would make her cry she would say, “You wait! One day you are going to have a daughter who will treat you this way!” Seeing her that upset always made me cry and feel remorseful. I was also afraid because I knew what she said was true. My mother also said things to me like, “Oh deAH, if you ever need anything, just bat your eyelashes and you will get whatever you want.” (she has a most amusing northern/intercontinental accent that always has people wondering where she is from.) Just what I needed, verbal re-enforcement that sex equals power. My mother seemed what could only be described as “out to lunch” for quite a few of my formative years. I would have friends sleepover, only twice who were never allowed back by their parents. Both times I remember them crying to me that Ed had tried to touch them or expose himself. My mother HAD to know. I froze and pretended I had no idea what was going on. I had learned to dissociate. One of my friends from the neighborhood was never given permission to sleepover at all, and it made me so very sad. If those parents were not allowing their daughters at my house, surely they had been told what happened. Did they ever call to confront my parents, or did they just never speak of it again?
As I was gaining popularity and enjoying being a majorette, I was spending more and more time at school activities and weekends with my friends, which made my step-brother jealous and angry. I had been dodging his molestation attempts, so he kept buying me anything I asked for which never got him what he wanted, so evidently he was burning with rage, like a jealous boyfriend when I got asked to the 9th grade prom. My Mom took me out shopping for a dress. I was having the best time bonding with her and trying on so many pretty dresses. I finally settled on a baby blue Gunne Sax prairie dress with fluttery cap sleeves and white lace. It was as if the heavens opened, angels sang, and Jesus Himself appeared when I first saw it. A pinnacle shopping experience, I brought it home and stared at it, counting down the days to my first big school dance.
Sadly, I would never go to that dance and my dream dress had to be returned. The night before as I was talking on the phone with my date, giggling in blissful anticipation, as I played with the long spiral phone cord, I was caught off guard by a sucker punch to my mouth that knocked the phone from my hand and sent it flying across the kitchen. Johnny had busted my lip wide open and blood was dripping from my mouth as I trembled and cried out in horror. I had to get 4 stitches. I spent the next day curled up on our porch swing in utter devastation and disbelief. What did I tell my date when I sobbed that I could not go to the prom? How did I explain it to everyone who would see me in school? Was this something I brought on myself?
My mother was under Ed’s control which is, I guess, why Johnny did not suffer any consequences other than being forced to move out. I suffered in silence and felt like I was told to get over it. There was no one who came to my rescue. I’m sure my Mom comforted me as best she could, but likely was overwhelmed and wanted to keep the peace with Ed, who at that time was doing some carpentry work for a family just across the Virginia border, and having an affair with the mother as her kids and I were out riding bikes down dusty country roads. Something tells me one of her daughters was also involved, but I’ve probably blocked that out. Her son shot me at close range with a bebe gun. Dear God.
I actually had a brief reprieve through high school. I went full on punk rock, party girl rebel and practically lived at my best friend’s house, whose Mom felt sorry for me because I was skinny and always hungry, making her think that I was being raised by wolves. I never said I wasn’t. My relationship with my Mom grew closer then. When I look back, I am grateful to be alive. I remember being 16 and thinking that I knew everything, and that I had already seen and done it all. (even though I was still a virgin, which I took seriously.) Somehow my mother had instilled in me that sex was sacred and should be reserved for marriage. I was getting high off of being a teaze, which was the next step after refining my flirtation skills.
My grandfather, who was Ed’s father, came to live with us from England. I had been very close to these grandparents as they accepted me as their own. My grandmother passed when I was 10, and I adored her. He missed her terribly and would talk out loud to her every night. My heart hurt for him. I called him Grandad. To my great dismay, he too crushed my world the day he grabbed my breasts in the kitchen and said, “These are so lovely.” Yes, it was then confirmed that I must have worn the “ultimate prey’ sign on my back. There was not enough drugs or alcohol to numb the pain anymore.
And this brings us back to 19. I had kept all of my secrets until then. One day, being verbally abused and threatened by Ed, I shouted out to my mother who was standing there, trying to defend me, ED MOLESTED ME! ED MOLESTED ME! ED MOLESTED ME! to which she replied, “Be quiet. I know.”
That is all I have for now.