When I was about five, my parents divorced. I have very vague memories from that time. In one of my clearer memories, I was standing in the driveway of our house, presumably lost in thought, when suddenly I noticed that dozens of red ants had climbed up my bare legs, onto my shorts, and had reached my waist. I panicked, jumped around, and brushed them off.
I don’t know how my parent’s divorce was able to creep up on all of us, unnoticed. Suddenly, I found myself standing in the hallway of our house knowing that my father’s furniture was going to be moved out later that day. In an attempt to capture and retain him, I found my brother’s camera and took photos of the old pieces of Chinese furniture. Prior to that, I have no memories of my father being in that house other than symbolically. I assume that he had mostly been either at work or in his study. I don’t know what happened to those photos that I took and I believe that the act of creating them was more important than the pictures themselves.
At the time I didn’t realize that we were all going to move out of that house. My mum, my siblings, and I moved far away, into a house so old that the roof was made from straw and the floors were so uneven that a ball would not stay still on them. It was a house that was as old as Shakespeare, and one that the adults believed was haunted. We moved there with my mum’s boyfriend, the same boyfriend who had played a role in the divorce of my parents. I remember laying in bed feeling terrified of the demons that haunted us all. I prayed internally “I love you God. I love you God,” hoping that I could compel that meta-parent to protect me.
One night my older brother and I slept in a tent in the back garden, and when I woke up, I was paralyzed from the neck down. “Get Mum!” I said to my brother, feeling terrified and helpless. What seemed like five or ten minutes later, he returned without my mum. I don’t know why, but I think it’s because her boyfriend demanded her full attention and she was not allowed to attend to us. Luckily, by that point my body had started working again.
Another time, I was riding my bicycle down the steep main road that went through our village when I decided to discover what would happen if I turned the handlebars as quickly as possible ninety-degrees to one side. When I awoke, I was lying on my back, in the middle of the road, my bike next to me, looking up at the silhouette of a friend’s mother. “Are you okay?” She asked. I thought I should probably tell my mum about it, so I walked home and waited for a long time to gain access to her. By the time she was allowed to see me, my tears had dried and color had returned to my cheeks. “You seem fine.” She told me. Nobody else ever saw that circular bruise on my solar plexus, the bruise from the end of the handlebar, nor did anyone seem to notice the pain inside of me.
Once, while having an argument with my brother, I turned around suddenly and accidentally put my foot through the glass of the front door. The babysitter sent us both to our room, where we waited until my mum’s boyfriend came home. That led to hours of anxiety that I have spent my adult life trying to erase. Finally, when he arrived, he beat me with a kid’s beach spade, the kind with a wooden shaft, until I hopped around the room like a frog, unable to stand and unable to sit. As I felt ashamed of my existence, I got to watch my brother being beaten in a similar fashion. I discovered that it was even worse to watch. Once he had been thoroughly beaten, the psychopathic babysitter, who had been watching past the cracked-open door, informed the punisher that, in fact, I had been the one who had broken the glass. That led to a second round of beating for me, an experience of which I have no conscious memory.
When my mum heard about the beating, she apparently told him never to hit us again. It amazes me now to realize that he never did hit us again, although he developed much more insidious and effective ways to hurt us, both physically and psychologically.
In school, the teacher asked me what seven times seven was, and I gave her the wrong answer. I don’t remember exactly what she said to me, but it felt like being beaten. After that I lay in bed, unable to sleep, trying to memorize the times tables. I went over them again and again, trying to commit them to memory by repeatedly calculating them in my mind. I never did learn them as a child, and I still don’t know most of them “by heart.”
As an adult in therapy I received EMDR treatment on the seaside-spade trauma. As the traumatic imprint integrated, I became aware of some of the ways that it had unconsciously affected my life. I discovered that some work I had done as an adult, for a manager who reminded me of him, had been carried out, inside my mind, on the sloping floor of that bedroom. I came to know where the irrational terror had come from.
I remember being on vacation with my father in a hotel on a cliff overlooking an estuary. We were eating fish with bones it. He was at one end of the long table and I think that I was at the other. We might have caught the fish earlier using lines pulled from the back of a motorboat. On that patio in the sun, a bone got stuck in my throat, or perhaps it just scratched my throat. I asked for help because I felt scared. I don’t remember what my dad’s response was but it wasn’t positive or supportive. On the other hand, a positive memory from that time was of being on someone’s shoulders, presumably his, as he waded through the clear water of that estuary. I can see the firm ripples formed in the sandy bottom, and feel the awe of how shallow the river was.
I remember him giving my brother a bath. His hands were red from the hot water and also from his high blood pressure. He was being funny, and making us laugh. I laughed so hard that I pooped in my sweatpants. He seemed annoyed. Looking back, I wish he could have known what a compliment that poop was. He made me laugh so hard that I shit my pants!
When I was eight, we moved closer to where my dad lived. That was the house were I have most memories of being abused by my mum’s boyfriend. One time he made me eat my dinner off the bare floor, depositing it from the plate to convey to me that I was less than an animal, less than the dog or the cat. Witnessed by other members of my family, including my mum, he had to threaten to kill me before I would get down on my hands and knees. Once he had broken my will, or perhaps once he experienced a sense of control over his own internal trauma, he allowed me to stop. I was not able to develop a calm and confident sense of self-worth in an environment like that, and I have been working to recover from it for decades.
It was into that same kitchen that my mother’s boyfriend called me to inform me that my father had died. There was something shocking about being told by him. I’m not sure where my mum was. It was just him, slouched on that church-bench smoking a cigarette and drinking shitty instant coffee, like always. Like always, except telling me that my dad had died. I probably said, “Oh,” and walked out of the room.
I found my way upstairs, up to the very top of the house, where I had settled as far from the daily screaming and shouting as I could. I closed the door and sat down with my back against it. Just me, and nothing. I remember that some tears came out of my face, the face that was so ashamed of itself anyway. I don’t know what else I did. What does a kid of eight do when a parent dies? Now I know that you’re supposed to be hugged. There were no hugs. We didn’t hug in our family.
At the funeral, my godfather asked me, “Is there anything I can do?” I was probably polite, and I probably said something like, “No.” My adult self would whisper into his little ear from this future, “Bring my fucking dad back!” or “You were one of his best friends, how could you have let him kill himself with alcohol!” or perhaps just, “Can I have a hug, please?”
“Who did it?” he yelled repeatedly at us as he paced back and forth in front of the line of us. I had no idea what he was talking about, but the terror and suspense was killing me. Instead of urinating in my clothes, I started to nervously chuckle. Apparently, that’s a sign of guilt. The familiar buzzing of early dissociation was replaced by a complete movement of my awareness into the high corner of the room, where I could safely watch him drag my body around the room by my t-shirt. It’s hard to value yourself when your body is treated with such contempt. It’s hard to not take it personally, even if you can leave your body to escape for a while.
I looked at myself in the mirror. The neck of the surfing t-shirt that I had saved-up for was stretched to badly that it hung almost down to my nipples. I kept wishing it would not be like that, feeling angry with it, angry that I could not reasonably wear it, and that I had lost my savings. I looked at the lacerations on my little neck and thought, “That’s fine. Those will heal, but my t-shirt won’t heal.” I had no idea at the time how much emotional wounding I had.
A week later, at a friend’s house, he showed me a bucket full of coins. I asked him where he got them from. He told me, proudly, that he had taken them from the pinball machine in my bedroom. I don’t remember if I told him what had happened. I was just numb. Now I knew “who did it” and I also knew what had been done.
Even though I was periodically punished for the transgressions of others, for things that I often never fully understood, the most stressful aspect of my childhood was witnessing my mother’s boyfriend abusing and threatening (or attempting) to kill her on a regular basis. Like an elephant that learned to never run away by being tied to a small stake as a baby, I was never able to feel real anger towards him while he was alive. He died when I was in my early twenties, and I never defended my mum against him, or properly confronted him, even when I was probably big enough and strong enough to. This brings me a lot of pain to realize now, but I understand that for my inner-child it was not safe to feel angry. However, I didn’t invite him to my first wedding, and I told him “you didn’t have anything to do with it,” on the phone when he said he was proud of me when my employer sent me to work in another country.
In school, I was taught how to write very neatly in script. I remember feeling confused about why this was thought to be so important when I was living in the equivalent of a war zone. It seemed ridiculous to be learning to write neatly while we were being chronically terrorized by some kind of malignant narcissist or perhaps even a psychopath.
I don’t have a wealth of memories from my childhood, and the few that I do have are mostly associated with pain and suffering. When I look back at them now, after all the work I have done with them, even though I am able to discover previously uncharted pain, overall I am at peace with my childhood. I have integrated these traumas sufficiently that I no longer feel anger or resentment towards anyone for them. I am able to understand that none of it was about me, and I am able to perceive these experiences from a perspective where it was not personal. I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Ps: Having trained as a therapist, I know that my childhood was relatively tame compared with many. However, this was mine and, like everyone’s, mine was pretty shitty too.