I was arguing with a housemate this morning and thought of the lessons learnt by children of abuse. In response to the housemate’s anger, I immediately started putting myself down and raising him as the superior person. His anger cooled as I made myself lower and lower, and my shame rose. Just like old times, eh?
As children of abuse, we learn the rule that secrecy is of utmost importance. In fact, secrecy is needed for survival. Without the sacred secrecy of our dysfunctional families, the world as a whole will fall apart. Keeping the secret becomes a physical ache. But keep it we do. Why? Because they told us to. And because by the time we find out how different our lives are from those in ‘normal’ families, we are too ashamed to admit what’s going on in ours.
We learn to feel what we are told to feel. Mum is sad today, so I’m sad too. Why? Because she will only tolerate sadness when she feels that way. Any other emotion is wrong and is an affront against her. We learn to hide how we truly feel. Eventually, we learn to stop feeling any way at all unless we’re told to do so.
We learn that, no matter what, it’s our fault. We may not remember what we did or when or how. It might even seem impossible that we did *anything.* But we know we did. And if we forget that, our abusers are quick to remind us. We take it to heart, and it becomes another secret. We spend our lives terrified that others will see what our abusers saw, and they will hurt us, too. We learn that everyone will desert us in the end.
*Un*learning all of that takes a lifetime. I’m not sure it’s ever entirely possible. We *can,* however, discover ourselves. It took years, but I can now state my emotions clearly. Sometimes I can even do it without fear. I have a favourite colour that was not chosen for me. I have my own likes and dislikes, and even if I worry about being ridiculed, I’ve been known to share them from time to time. I have grown as a person through the love and patience of my family-of-choice. They’ve taught me other lessons. I still doubt their truth sometimes, and the child of abuse within me argues against them. But I know deep down that they love me, even if I don’t feel worthy and can’t imagine how they could.
We learn lessons as children of abuse that are meant to break us. The hard work comes in learning lessons as survivors that help us fly.