In Plain Sight
Abusive people operate intentionally create situations of isolation for their targets. They create "double binds" in which no matter which choice the target chooses, they will fail. One woman tells us about her childhood and living in isolation and extreme emotional abuse and neglect, "in plain sight." She grew into an adult who chose abusers. She shared a snippet of the type of emotional abuse she endured. Today she is healed and flourishing. She explains the trauma of emotional abuse and how easy it is to hide, in plain sight.
She was not at all what I expected. After reading part of her manuscript, I assumed she would be meek, timid, small and quiet. She was nothing like that. She was filled with happiness, magnetic, joyous yet calm and grounded. She laughed easily and made people feel comfortable in her presence. She was likable and filled with positive energy.
When I asked her about it, how did she endure all that she did and seem so unscathed she smiled and said, "I am grateful." She shared this part of her journey because she wanted to highlight how abuse seeps into every part of a person's life and there is never just a small amount of emotional abuse. She explains that when abuse is concerned, "Where there is smoke, there is a fire... and that fire is raging. When you see something that looks or feels terrible, it is often so much worse than what you can even imagine." She explains that "normal" people do not understand or relate to emotional abuse because it is so different than the way normal people operate. However, as more survivors speak out, the similarities in their stories, situations and abusers are compelling. She hopes to shed light onto emotional abuse in order to prevent other children from enduring the pain that she did and to encourage young people to get help as soon as they are physically able.
When she was a child she was not allowed to use the phone. She was not allowed to make phone calls, ever, under any circumstances without permission. She existed in isolation in plain sight.
She was not allowed to answer the phone. No one in the house answered the phone. For her entire childhood, she has no memory of any person, in her home, ever answering a phone call. No one ever answered the phone.
An answering machine picked up all calls. That answering machine was locked in the bedroom of her parents. She says that she never saw her father make a phone call or answer a phone call.
There were complicated stories as to why this was the case. Someone might call wanting to speak to her father, a prominent lawyer in a small town. Maybe his ex-wife would call, and that would be problem. It didn't add up.
She wondered what would happen if her Father's ex-wife or someone who wanted to talk to him for work actually called. It seemed a whole lot of strange behavior went into avoiding a problem that did not seem to be a big problem. If one of these situations ever actually happened, why couldn't the person who received the call simply tell the truth. "He is not available to speak to you." What was so wrong with facing the problem and telling the truth? Why were the adults, her role models, teaching her to create layers of issues instead of facing a problem that did not seem to be a real problem, head on?
Why was the solution to hide from these potential callers? Why was it even a solution to block every call that came into the home with layers of mystery and hiding. She wondered why her parents did not see that other people found this to be extreme, strange, unfriendly and deceitful. People knew that they were being listened to while their voices were recorded. People knew that her Mother would make the decision to talk to them or not. No one else did this. She wondered why they acted differently than other people.
When the phone rang, her Mother would run up the stairs and "listen" as the person left a message. People who called frequently would say, "Are you there, are you listening?" waiting for her Mother to pick up the phone.
Sometimes she would. Other times she would not. Sometimes she would hear a person's voice and say, "I'm not going to start with that..." She girl thought this was wrong. She could not understand why her Mother could not talk to people, why she said bad things about everyone. Why could other people use phones but her Mother could not?
When her parents left the house the answering machine was locked in her parents bedroom with a key her father had in his pocket. The children did not dare to answer the phone.
She was allowed to use the phone once each night. At 9 PM, her boyfriend would call. At 9:15 PM, her Mother would pick up one of the phones in the house and say, "wind it up." That was her signal to get off.
The rest of the time she was not allowed to "listen" to who was calling.
She knew her friends would call her. But she was not allowed to answer their calls, call them back or even ask if they had called. She would not go into her parent's bedroom to "listen" as she would be punished harshly.
She was not allowed to communicate with people outside of her home. She was not allowed to know who was calling for her. She was not allowed to ask who was calling for her. She was not allowed to speak to people who called for her.
It was hard for her to explain this to her friends. It was social suicide. High School is a time when popularity and fitting in is difficult. For her, she had to manage great obstacles. She was not on even footing with her peers.
When friends called, she had to explain why the answering machine picked up the call if she was home. Why did she not pick up the phone once she knew the person calling was leaving a message. Some children took her inability to communicate as rejection. Others thought she was lying.
Ultimately, it was her unwavering kindness, her constant show of compassion for others, that saved her. For each indecent thing that was done to her, she stepped up her integrity. She knew firsthand what it was like to live with secrets and trauma. She treated others with respect, as much as a traumatized teen is capable of. Her flexibility, refusal to accept bad behavior, resistance to gas-lighting and uneven footing would serve her well later in life.
Her friends learned to not ask questions. She would not find out until she was an adult that her friend's parents were aware of the situation, knew the parents were "off" and did not particularly want their children in the homes of her parents, in her home.
Her Mother had a reputation for being a bully, for taking advantage of people and for abject neglect of her children. Other parents objected to her refusal to drive the children places, to participate, to pay for things, to do her part. Her Mother did not work. She did below the bare minimum with the children she was raising and the other adults knew. This would comfort the girl once she became an older teen, and the parents of her friends and extended family members told her that they did not agree with her Mother's behavior or relying on taking other people for granted and not doing her part.
Neighbors, friends, and extended family drove the girl and her siblings to and from school in bad weather. Her Mother did not work. The girl and her siblings were not allowed to shower in the morning. The house was small and the shower might wake up her Mother, who slept in until 9 AM, when her father left for work. The girl had to be at school by 8:15am. There were extreme punishments for waking up her Mother in the morning. The girl could not recall a time when she woke up her Mother. The younger siblings were not allowed to leave their bedrooms, on the weekends, until 10 AM until they were twelve years old. This insured they did not wake up the Mother. The girl, was better able to be silent and therefore was allowed to leave her room before the Mother woke up.
The girl and her siblings would silently get ready for school. They did not eat breakfast. There were frozen bread items in the freezer, nothing fresh. Teens were not enticed by this. She did not bring a lunch. Sometimes she was given lunch money, most often she had no lunch and no money. Often other students brought her a prepared lunch that their Mother's had made for her. She was grateful.
She and her siblings would leave for school without waking up the parents, and would walk the 40 minutes to school every single day. They were not allowed to blow-dry their hair, which was a teen hardship in the eighties. She would bring a standing mirror and her blow-dryer to the basement, in order to spray aqua net hairspray on the sides.
She did not tell anyone, ever, that she was not allowed to shower in the morning, had to be silent, was hungry, or that she wanted a ride to school. More than wanting a ride to school, she wanted a ride from her parents. She did not, even once, get a ride to school from her parents.
When it rained or snowed, other parents would pick her up. Despite the fact that her own parents never, not once, drove her to school, other parents refused to watch the children in this family, walk in pouring rain or cold weather.
Other parents who worked, had multiple children in different schools, less money, and long commutes to work picked up the slack. This made the girl feel uneasy but she was appreciative for their kindness. It was equally as embarrassing as it was comforting to take these rides on cold, raining or snowy days. She also loved the warmth of the love between the parent driving and the child in the car.
It was around this time that she became cognizant of the fact that she had to try harder, be friendlier, more likable, more invisible, in order to fit in, to be liked, to be taken care of, to get rides in the rain. She recognized consciously that she was undeserving. The other children woke up with parents, were free to use the phone, were provided meals, were not made to feel as though they were a burden. In order to get the benefits from other people's parents, she had to do more, be more, hide more, or risk losing the benefits of the things her friends received. She knew she was different. She tried desperately to figure out what she had done wrong so that she could correct it, she never did.
She didn't have any money. She was told that she should get a job. However, she was told that she would not receive rides to work—she would have to walk. This was a double bind.
Her house, in the tiny suburban town, was not within walking distance to many retail stores. Eventually, she got a job in a nearby super market. Her Mother told her that she could only work at certain times. She explained that scheduling was done by the managers, she did not have the choice of making her own schedule. She walked to work in pelting frozen rain and snow. Friends parents picked her up. Sometimes the parents of children she barely knew picked her up. She was embarrassed. Red faced with frozen tears, she got into their cars, thanking them. She hoped the weather hid her shame. She lost the job when her Mother refused to let her work certain shifts. She added being "fired" to her list of reasons why she was unworthy.
When she was an older teen, she was not allowed to use the car. She had to rely completely on friends to go to movies, sports, dances, the mall. She would train for sports after school. The parking lot would clear out as she walked by herself with her equipment toward home. To avoid the embarrassment of other parents picking her up, she would linger in the lot, trying to act as though her ride was coming shortly. No ride was coming. She had been instructed to walk. If she was driven home she would be punished for asking for a ride. She never asked for a ride and was too embarrassed to refuse them. How could she tell other parents that not only did she not have a ride home but would be punished for accepting one from them.
If she arrived home even five minutes late she would be grounded for two weeks. Her Mother would set random times for her to be home during the day. She explained to her parents that she was late because another parent was delayed in picking up the group of teens from the mall. She was grounded anyway.
Her parents told her to be home by 4 PM. She and a bunch of friends went to nearby mall. One child's parents brought them, another parent picked them up. At 3:30pm, the mother picking them up to bring them home called and said she would be delayed. She was delayed with another child in another location. The girl began crying. Her friends grew silent and looked down.
"Can you call them, can you call your Mother and tell her that my Mom is going to be late?"
The girl was turning white, feeling dizzy, she started shaking.
"I could do that..." Her voice trailed off. She put a dime in the pay phone and called her Mother. She listened to the answering machine and at the sound of the tone began to leave a message.
"Hi Mom, it's me. I am going to be a few minutes late. Lilly's Mother is still picking us up. We called her and she said that she needs more time at Lilly's brother's game. She is coming to get us right afterwards and..."
"WHAT? The rules are the rules. We told you 4 PM (only she had told her 4 PM. It was a time set at random. Nothing was happening at 4pm, she was simply going home to do nothing) If you are not here by 4 PM you will be grounded for two weeks, no excuses! I am tired of your excuses. You will NOT manipulate me like this. You never listen. If I give you an inch you take a mile. When I said 4pm, I meant 4pm. I did not mean 4:05pm.
The girl felt the lump in her throat getting bigger. It was hard to talk. Hard to breathe. Her friends stood in a semi circle looking down. One came over and started rubbing her back. She could not speak. When she did she sputtered, then squeaked. She was used to her voice caving in on her. She was not crying because of the punishment. She was crying because of the smoldering of her soul. Each time she was shouted at and called names, another part of her soul caught on fire.
Her cheeks burned, her tears began flowing. Her friends looked at one another and then down. Lilly twisted her hands, shifted her body weight from one foot to the other.
She tried not to sob. Her throat felt as though it were closing. Her friends were sullen. The boys they liked were passing by. They had spent an hour looking for them. They appeared out of nowhere, looked at the group, grew silent and kept walking. How was it that her Mother was able to take joy from every situation, even ones in which she was not present. In the back of her mind she wondered if the group would discard her. Push her out. Be together without her, without these weird problems that her Mother caused over and over again.
If they pushed her out, who would she have? How would she be happy? She lived for the smiles, the laughter and the time spent with her friends. It was her only escape from the feeling she thought of as "worse than dead." If she were dead she would not feel the pain. Her throat would not close, her back would not hurt. Her feelings would not be raw and exposed. With death there was certainty. Closure. An end to constant but unexpected times of terror, like the one she was in now. She thought of death as peace, solace and quiet. She did not fear it.
Lilly's face changed. She smiled uncertainly.
"I know. Why don't I have my Mother call your Mother? Or she could come inside your house. When we drop you off, my Mother will run in and explain it to your Mother."
The girl stood frozen with the phone in her hand. She knew what was coming next.
"DO NOT DARE DO THAT! Do not bring any person with you inside this house." and her Mother hung up.
And then she began sobbing. Her body sobbed and shook and moved as though it was fighting collapse. Her friends circled in a hug around her. Two of them crying themselves. No one knew what to say. This hug circle would become familiar to the girl. She would repeat the situation by choosing men who treated her the same way. Illogical, abusive, cruel and calculated. Her friends would gather around her, circle her with hugs. Until the day she decided to stop and started the journey of healing.
When the girl became a woman, she would learn that this day marked an ending for two of the girls. They would no longer be able to go places with her or go to her house. The parents opened their home and their families to the girl but would never allow their own children to go to the girl's house again. The upset, trauma and intentional inflicting of pain on a child, was more than they wanted their children exposed to. The same parents would later drive the girl to college, and bring her home for the holidays when her own parents refused to pick her up or bring her home. The college was 2.5 hours away.
These parents would send her birthday, holiday, milestones, victories, and defeats. These families would do the loving things for her that family members do and that her own family would only do if they had an audience present in public. It was through these people that she learned what a family was supposed to be, what a family could be and they gave her strength. Through every obstacle she overcame, her goal was to someday be like them.
They would send her homemade cookies, buy her balloons when she did well on a presentation, talk her through difficult decisions with boyfriends and which classes to pick. These parents did the things they knew were important. They diffused the "missing things" that made the girl stand out, hate herself, believe that she was unworthy. They filled in the gaps of her shaky self esteem and sense of worth. They prompted her to be hopeful, compassionate and to continue with her education.
To keep these people, the girl had to try harder, be better, funnier, more flexible, more in tune, kinder, smarter, easier, more understanding than anyone else. She would perfect the skills she needed to attract and maintain people who would love her, be with her, celebrate her in spite of her low value.
This girl grew into an amazing woman. Despite her childhood trauma, abusive relationships and numerous other challenges, she became an educated professional who is an outstanding mother and community member. She is vibrant, happy and very accessible.
She is at the final stages of editing her story which she hopes will empower people to overcome emotional abuse and heal childhood traumas.