Monday, June 18, 2012

Permantly crying

To children, particularly little children, their parents are everything.  They recognize on an instinctive level that they are screwed without at least one parent around to take care of them.  This extends not only on the most basic level of food and shelter, but on an emotional level.  Little children have a construct of what they instinctively know their parent(s) should be - unconditional love, protection from all the monsters of world both real and imagined, and the person(s) they can trust beyond anyone else in the world.  When this construct isn't realized, children try whatever they feel they need to in order to fulfill it, feeling it is a failure on their part that their parents don't meet this construct, because in their minds parents are supposed to act a certain way and when they don't, children immediately assume all the blame for the equation failing.  This happens on two levels and in two different ways.

The first is by simple omission on a parent's part - i.e. some form of neglect.  This can take the shape of outright physical and emotional neglect and disconnect, or the subtler version of using unrealistic expectations as a measuring stick against which approval and attention is doled out.

The second is by actual actions - i.e. verbal or physical abuse.  While neglect is bad enough, this is even worse as every part of the parent construct is shattered, not just the protection aspect.  Because how could a parent who is supposed to be the most sympathetic and understanding and loving person in a child's life, be able to put that aside and cause the physical and emotional pain of corporal punishment?  Children don't have the reasoning capacity to interpret this as anything but themselves being the most utter failures imaginable. 

I found this picture on Who Am I Without You's blog, and it is perfect in every sense.  Yes children feel the physical pain of a corporal punishment, but it is this image of the emotional pain they grow through that is the real consequence.  They don't understand.  They just don't.  They're left feeling alone, confused, and no amount of explanation or make-up "hug" (that happens in 'punishment' vs 'random' abuse) erases the starkness of them not only being in pain and crying and desperate, but that it was their parent who put them there.  Their parent who supposed to protect them from that sort of thing.  This is further not helped by the fact that in case of what is conveniently defined as "punishment" instead of "abuse" by those who hold with using corporal punishment, that the child is told it is their fault!  In their mind and in their extremely limited comprehension, they are utterly worthless.  After all, they're told to be nice to animals/pets and clearly they must be worse.  And the kicker is, they can't even articulate that, not even to themselves.  They just feel it on an intrinsic and instinctive level.  They can't explain they didn't deliberately disobey or even have any comprehension that they'd done anything wrong to begin with.  And they can't explain the devastation afterwards.  They're just left crying for far more reasons than they can possibly comprehend but that hurt worse than the actual sting of being smacked or hit. They failed their part of the equation so horribly that that most basic parent construct clearly has gotten revoked.

But they still look for it.  Still try to achieve their part in a desperate attempt to get that most basic emotional need that their parent construct contains.  Try to get that look of approval, that hug that feels genuine, the sense that they can trust.  And so eventually they "behave".  Other people tell their parents how they can't believe "how well your children are behaved".  But all that's happened is the children are broken.  Yes they're trained; but they're trained in the sense that a beaten puppy is trained.  And ultimately, no amount of approval or praise will mitigate that they know that all it takes is one mis-step, one mistake, one thing that isn't approved of to bring the facade of the parent construct crashing down again.

A child's psychology is not something to taken lightly or dismissed, and the resulting and lasting emotional damage is often profound.  Most parents who choose to use corporal punishment wouldn't dream of holding down a puppy and "spanking" it for often upwards of two minutes.  But they do that to their little boy or girl who has barely no more comprehension than that puppy.  They're a child.  A little human being only looking to be loved and understood, and when they feel like they're blindsided with the harshness of a physical punishment and can't explain why they did whatever it was and why they have no clue why it was wrong or the expectation that that should know just makes no sense, it creates a lasting impression and trauma that bites far deeper than any immediate result.  Particularly as they get older and the instinctual recognition of what a parent should be and how they're not becomes more cognitive. That relational construct gets destroyed, true trust in the parent from the child gets destroyed forever.  I think this is particularly true in the case of religious based corporal punishment as it is always presented to the child very specifically that it is their fault and an extreme over-expectation in behavior is demanded, as opposed to alcohol/drug/mental illness induced physical punishment which can be explained away as a child gets older and gains understanding of the external circumstances that it really isn't their fault in the slightest.  In the former (religious/conviction) based, it never stops not being the child's fault entirely and the parents never see that what they did was wrong.  The emotional sting and devastation never goes away.

Even as children grow up and to an extent or completely become able to intellectual grasp all of what I laid out, they're left, often even as young adults, permanently feeling like that little 3y/o, crying on the inside and sometimes on the outside over the loss and absence of that most intrinsic parent construct, and wondering what exactly it was they could have done to deserve being denied it.  The moment one recognizes the loss of that relationship and that it will never be achieved, is profound, and can be as painful as dealing with the physical loss of one's parents.  Because in a sense one has come to realize that they have lost their parents - the parents that their little self looked and kept hoping for and that they will never find.  And the grief of recognizing that loss never completely goes away.

Tell me that hitting toddlers hardly old enough to walk when they don't sit still during a nearly 2hr church service doesn't instill some level of fear and disconnect that is unnatural between parent and child at that age.
Tell me there's not something broken that even a child this little can pick up on, when a parent can deliberately and clinically "spank" (hit) them.

And tell me there isn't a deep devastation that this child is feeling when this is the result, not of a disappointment or overtired frustration or any of the other normal things children get sad about, but because she's just been dragged preemptively out of a store or church and swiftly and harshly "spanked" on their bare bottom for something she could mostly explain but is neither given the remotest chance nor have the emotional vocabulary to know to do so because she 'knows' at this point it would only be perceived as "talking back" and get her in bigger trouble.  Tell me this doesn't create a significant and permanent breakdown of at the very least a healthy relationship between child and parent, and nearly always the destruction of any true emotional relationship whatsoever.  Tell me any actual trust exists when a child is reduced to this on a regular basis by their parent, even in the name of love.  They end up not trusting that love and ultimately don't even know what real love means if they've learned to define it as "I love you enough to hit you."

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Early days

I can't say I had an unhappy childhood.  Tweens and teens?  Yeah, those were miserable, but as a little kid I can't say that from my perspective at the time that life was anything but relatively happily insular.  Like I said in my last post, I was born a little less than a year after my parents were married, and my sister came along a mere 17 months after me.  Apparently I stated I wanted a "sisa" before she was born and I got my wish.  We've been inseparable and best friends ever since.

Somehow, my memory stretches back to the days when it was just me and my sister, which is kind of amazing to me now considering my brother made his appearance when I was only 3 and a half.  At the time we lived only a few blocks from my grandparents on my dad's side (I didn't mention it last time but my mother is from and lived in Great Britain until she married my dad), and those really early days are a mesh of going for walks to their house, being placed in the most terribly uncomfortable "church clothes" and having to sit immaculately still and quiet on the hardest wood pew imaginable to a 3 y/o, my sister and I chasing each other around and playing with the spare amount of toys that we had.  I remember the unheated attic of the house where my dad built the toybox that lasted for years and climbing into and sitting in it before it was finished.  And I distinctly remember the absolute adventure of roasting marshmallows in the middle of the kitchen floor during the winter over my dad's little campstove with him.  I don't remember a whole lot of the music that was listened to except for one tape: Johnny Horton's Greatest Hits.  We only ever listened to one side of the cassette as all the "bad" songs (i.e. bass/drum line infused as opposed to his ballads) were on the other, but songs such as "Sink the Bismark", "Battle of New Orleans", and "Johnny Reb" quickly became my favorites and ones I very rapidly and ever since I can remember be able to sing along with.  In fact, a few months ago I did one of those '30 Days' memes revolving around songs and I re-remembered this tape.  Looking up the songs on youtube, I found I could still recall every last lyric perfectly.  On reflection too, it's really not terribly surprising that combined with my natural interests and songs about sinking battleships, the aftermath of the battle of Little Big Horn, Johnny Reb fighting all way, and using alligators as make-shift cannons, that my fascination with everything martial was only established.  I'd march around the backyard at 2 and 3 y/o singing "Johnny Web, Johnny Web" at the top of my voice.

But there was also another song on that tape which even as young as I was, seemed so tragic to me, that every time it played in its turn, I'd get genuinely sad and crawl into my dad's lap until it was over.  The song was, "All for the Love of a Girl" and is about a man who was left alone and devastated after his girl left him

"Well today I'm so weary, today I'm so blue,
 Sad and broken hearted, and it's all because of you.
 Life was so sweet dear, life was a song, 
 Now you've gone and left me. Oh where do I belong?

And it's all for the love of a dear little girl,
All for the love that sets your heart in a whirl.
I'm a man who'd give his life and the joys of this world,
All for the love of a girl."

It'd get me every time.  Still does, to be honest.  It's so straight-forward and unpretentious, and I felt so incredibly sad for the guy who'd loved this girl so much he'd give up everything for her....and then she left him, alone and struggling.

Now clearly I didn't have the vocabulary or understanding to articulate that that's why it made me sad, but I felt and saw it, and was probably the first illustration of the natural emphatic insight and ability to read people and emotions that has felt like both the worst curse and best blessing I have.

But back to specifics and less existential stuff.

This brief time period was when I remember my dad being the most carefree and involved: letting me "help" with the toybox and fixing the attic into a sort of room for when my aunt from England stayed for a while, roasting marshmallows in the kitchen, chasing me around the dining table, and just playing with us.  It wasn't that he purposefully became less involved or stricter (he never did get stricter at any point in my life, the opposite eventually proving the case as you'll see) after this, but I think just became bogged down with establishing the career he was to have until he retired last year.  He had left seminary shortly after I was born because he was too theologically conservative for the very conservative seminary he was attending and the churches he student-preached at, and had been basically bouncing from job to job until he got one of the early IT positions with a sub-division department of the USDA about the time my brother was born and I was 3 1/2.

But despite this overall impression of a happy really-little-kidhood, I already knew the very real mandate and expectation of near-instant and implicit obedience.  Behavior above what is typically demanded from a sub-4 year old was expected, and the inability for a toddler to have a developed thought and reasoning process was not allowed or accounted for.

(to be continued...)

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Everything has a starting point

I'm not entirely sure where to start with this.  A whole lot of issues have resurfaced but with almost frightening clarity now that I'm about (within the next 4-6 wk) to have mine and my husband's first child.  It's going to be a girl, and also like me, the oldest in whatever size our little family will end up being.  Being able to now picture her running around, getting into trouble, climbing stuff and getting hurt, going with us to whatever things the both of us already participate in, basically being our little girl to take care of and help grow up, has really brought some things forward to my recollection regarding my own childhood that I'm left entirely baffled (well, not really) and appalled at.  I can't even begin to imagine doing to my child what me and my siblings experienced.  Not just from an objective point of view, but the love and connection I feel towards our little Katelyn now while she's still not even born let alone once she's here and in our arms leaves me facing the specific reality of my own childhood and not just the vague but profound ramifications I've dealt with up to this point.

For whatever particular reason, a certain incident jumped with absurd clarity into my head the other day at work and shook me to the point that I wrote it down in the form of a 3rd person narrative.  That's what I do.  I write.  I haven't always done so.  In fact I still wouldn't consider myself a journalist or anything of that nature, but I imagine and pretend, project my struggles and feelings and circumstances and happiness through someone else and then write that down.  When I was a kid, it took the form of actual make-believe.  These days needless to say, I don't play make-believe, and I'm not too proud to admit that I write fanfiction as my outlet.  Oh, nothing like anyone might typically imagine when fanfiction is mentioned like Harry Potter or Dr. Who or anything like that.  My character who I both identify with and wish would pop of the tv is Mac Taylor from CSI: NY.  He has a rather tortured background: multiple injuries from a military past which he's proud of but still somewhat haunts him, the love of his life dying in the Twin Towers on 9/11, and just the cumulative stress and weight of his job as the head of the NYPD crime lab.  Needless to say there's a lot of built-in angst that I don't even have to come up with in his life, but there's also a personal reason why when I write about those experiences of his I get regular feedback that it just comes off the page and people can see and feel what he's going through, and sometimes I just want to shout, "There's a reason I write it so well!"  Now, this isn't to say that's the only reason I write about Mac Taylor.  I straight-up love him as a character and I've grown to really enjoy writing and crafting a image through words for the sheer enjoyment of it and the accomplishment I get when I manage to succeed.  In point of fact, if I could make my living writing, I would.

Usually, if I'm not bothered by something from my past to the point of hopeless feeling tears (which does still happen on occasion), writing about it in some fashion allows me compartmentalize everything and deal with it on very objective basis.  Not this time however, and since my sister was very much involved with this particular memory, I called her, and after both of us beating the bush in a bit of timidity about the still-rawness of it all, we ended talking very bluntly and openly for over two hours about all sorts of things and implications surrounding this particular event (and yes, I will go into it at some point in this whole series and relation).  She mentioned the blog No Longer Quivering and I spent the whole next two days reading story after story of people who'd been through similar (some far far worse) experiences as me and siblings had.  Suddenly perspectives and lifestyles had names, and not only did everything suddenly seem less unique and more manageable, but I instantly starting "writing" my own posts in my head.  I had already created an account here to write about the goings on of my shifts as a paramedic, but after only one post, I shortly got pulled off the road due me being pregnant.  With no calls to write about, I basically forgot all about blogspot.  Until now.  So here goes.

As for where exactly to start with my story, I should probably just give an overall summary to begin with.  I was born in 1984, and with my parents never considering anything except homeschooling from before I came along, I still haven't the faintest clue what going to real school would be like in any facet.  Like I mentioned before, I'm the oldest of four siblings.  So while I did end up playing parent to all of them in slightly different ways, it wasn't for the reason that a lot of other families we were around who had a lot more children.  My mother I think would have liked to have at least two babies, but my dad is ten years older than she is and has a decided practical (sometimes too much) streak to him.  They've never said why they didn't have any more kids after my youngest brother was born when I was six, so I couldn't say with any true authority if they simply didn't happen to get pregnant (which considering there were four of us in six years I doubt was the case), or whether it was because dad didn't want to have kids around when he retired.  My personal opinion is definitely the latter and I am extremely grateful for his perspective in this regard.

As far as church went, the only time I remember having any sense of permanence anywhere was when from when I was 9-12.  Before then we simply moved too much, and after that it was a constant cycle of going somewhere, disagreeing with something too cornerstone to compromise on or personal conflicts wherever we happened to be at the time, leaving said church, trying something else within our small circle, and repeat.  Then when I was about fifteen or sixteen (I don't remember exactly), we just stopped going anywhere (because apparently their "search" had become hopeless) and stayed home, my dad either reading a sermon from his vast collection of theological books or listening to one on tape.  This all had deep ramifications which I'll go into later.

Theologically, we were ultra conservative, and when anyone asks what denomination I grew up as, I reply, "The 1700's."  This always garners a rather baffled look from whoever asked the question, but it's deathly true.  They lived the theology and religious beliefs of the Reformers and Puritans.  This was a huge contributing factor to our church issues and also where the patriarchy perspective in the family came from.  Unlike most of the personal stories I read about on the NLQ blog and a quite a few families of our acquaintance growing up, my parents never subscribed to anyone current.  They will still claim that what they believe and how they brought us up was from the Scripture alone, but in reality it was the interpretation of the Bible from the saintly reformers and puritans.  They did in a sense "subscribe", but it was to people who lived and died centuries ago instead of anyone contemporary.  This caused a peculiar 'mix' of sort of free dictatorship that was both modern and horribly archaic all at the same time.  Our family certainly didn't fit into any sort of mold, outwardly and theologically being dubbed too conservative, but in various day-to-day stuff we weren't conservative enough.  We weren't allowed to watch Disney movies but we played Wolfenstein 3D and Doom from when we were little.  We watched the Simpsons but were spanked harder if we cried "wrong" during the punishment.  It's impossible to explain thoroughly or adequately in a single paragraph, but as I go, I think it'll be pretty apparent what I'm referring to.

This 'mix' I think ultimately came my parents' two vastly different backgrounds.  My mother came from an even worsely oppressive patriarchal background.  She was seven when my grandfather was converted and he started reading said 1500-1800's theologians and preachers (no, they weren't pastors.  I didn't learn that terminology until I started going to church on my own when I was 19-ish).  My grandmother left him shortly thereafter, and even though no one has said so out loud, I have a distinct feeling it was probably because of his drastic perspective shift.  My mother is the oldest of four girls in a family of six siblings with the brothers being the two oldest.  After being shuffled between both parents for a few years and even a couple stints in foster care, my grandfather ended up with basically unofficial full custody.  At this point he was definitely under the belief that girls were the property and under the perpetual headship of whoever was the male head of the household - father, oldest brother, husband - and that essentially women's sole purpose was to marry or live forever at home.  As the story was told to us, he pulled the four sisters out of public school because it was too worldly and a bad influence.  But I'm convinced this was just an excuse since the two older boys finished public school, and when my grandfather caught my mother reading one of their math books he forbade her from studying it again.  To this day, my mother insists on saying she and her sisters were homeschooled.  Nothing could be farther from the truth, unless you consider learning how to snare rabbits and cook them, reading theological books, sewing and knitting, "school".  No, the plain truth is that he wanted absolute control over every facet of their lives; and from the time my mother was about twelve until she married my dad when she was 26, he did.  My mother and the sister immediately younger than her actually went along with and still believe the theology that "commands" this patriarchal tyranny.  The two youngest sisters didn't, and when they were young adults they rebelliously and wickedly "ran away".  Again, this was how the story was told to us when we were growing up.  This was the environment my mother grew up in - almost completely neglected by her mother, and ruled over by her father with nothing she did ever being good enough for him.  In a lot of ways it's no wonder that she treated us the way she did and does, but it's not an excuse.

My dad is an enigma and the source of the peculiar 'mix' that we grew up with, and I still can't figure out how he came to the religious beliefs that he did.  He, as opposed to my mother, grew up as normal as one could think of - mainstream Christian Reformed, christian school in elementary-middle school and public school thereafter, involved in sports, getting up to trouble that he was very good at keeping from his parents, girlfriends, etc.  He was in the Army for three years at the beginning of Vietnam, got a forestry degree afterwards, and upon finding no jobs in the field after graduating he worked his way up the purchasing chain for Eddie Baeur.  It was at some point in his really late twenties or early thirties that he was converted, having long prior stopped attending church.  I've asked multiple times how it was he started reading the theological books that he did (reformers and puritans) and I've never gotten a real answer.  I'm not sure if he even remembers the path that got him reading them and established contacts and a church circle that held with ultra conservatism.  However it all happened, he decided to attend seminary.  It was while he was going that mutual friends of his and my mother's, noting how similar their religious beliefs were, said they should get to know each other.  Through a process that still sets my teeth on edge and almost nothing short of miracle, my grandfather agreed to them getting married.  (This saga is a whole other story and not one that should emulated or held up as an example like it was to us.  I'll probably end up touching on aspects of it later as I was struggling to figure out just how anyone was supposed to find someone and get married.)

I was born less than a year after they got married.

In comparison to my grandfather's tyranny and degradation, being married to my dad had to feel like utter freedom to my mother even though they both firmly held with a patriarchal family setup.  But my dad wasn't derisive or domineering,  or degrading, and is actually still one of the gentlest people I know.

This mix of backgrounds of my parents created an almost opposite effect than what one might expect in a decidedly patriarchal family.  My mother ended up being the main disciplinarian - discipline was that was blanket, often instant and barely explained, frequently based on our attitude, nearly always physical and always escalated if we dared to cry "wrong" and "defiantly".  It's interesting looking back that all of us trusted our dad far more for an honest and compassionate response.  He did and still does have an instantaneous reaction, but that is more of a personality trait of simply not liking to be surprised with something he doesn't expect.  He's just not a spontaneous person.

But my dad was the sole breadwinner of the family (naturally), and a guy, which meant I think he tried, but just didn't really know how to handle any emotional crisis any of us might have beyond something really obvious and easy to "fix" or just came across as too tired and we simply didn't go to him.  What ended up happening was that my siblings would come to me.  My sister particularly.  We shared a room until I was about 14, but even after that, it was me she'd come to or my mother would seemingly shirk off dealing a tough emotional moment and send me in.  (I only found out recently that she'd do this without more effort on her part towards my sister than a Sheldon Cooper (BBT), "There, there.")  This pseudo-parenthood on my part is also something I'll delve way deeper into later.

So how did it all start and transpire along the way, and how did I end up where, despite definite lingering and somewhat deep issues, I'm now both a civilian paramedic and Army Reserve combat medic and married to the man entirely of my choosing?  Well, I'll tell you.

(to be continued...)