Free pass

Many years ago I was in a group of friends who lived in Atlanta. One girl kept making snarky comments to me one day. She would say something rude or condescending about everything I said or did. Either she didn’t usually speak to me or I didn’t notice her comments, but that day I did.

I finally worked up the courage to speak up. I said this to her with our friends present. Bullies have a hard time when there are witnesses. “Are you a bitch all the time, or is today just a special day?” She was silent. I continued. “Because all you have done all day is cut me down and I can’t think of any reason for it. If I’ve done something wrong, let me know.” She never answered, and she has never spoken to me again.

It was very hard for me to do this, but I had to. I was shaking inside, but I knew I had to say something. Verbal abuse is exactly the same as physical abuse, and must be stopped as soon as it is noticed or it will get worse. If you ignore it, you are allowing it to happen.

I once had a coworker who thought it was acceptable to walk up behind me and hit the back of my head several times a day.

I have relatives – blood and in-laws – who think it is acceptable to slander me, steal from me, and lie to me.

I am here to tell you that nobody is ever allowed a free pass to abuse you. Nobody. This includes but is not limited to managers, bosses, spouses, parents, siblings, friends, ministers, and strangers on the street.

Nobody has permission to harm you in any way.

First, let them know how their actions make you feel. They may not realize that they are being a bully. If they sincerely apologize and never do it again, then let it go. If they do it one more time, walk away. You do not need people like this in your life. It does not matter who they are. Nobody gets a free pass at harming you.

You are valuable. You are a child of God. You are unique and precious. If they cannot recognize that, then that is their loss. You cannot make blind people see.

Rumi says in “The Way That Moves as You Move” (rendered by Coleman Barks)
“You have read about the inspired spring. Drink from there. Be companions with those whose lips are wet without water. Others, even though they may be your father or your mother, they are your enemies. Leave, before they kill you.”

Jesus says:
“You assume that I have come to bring peace on earth, and you are mistaken. I have come to set fire to the world, and how I wish it was already burning! I have a mission that I am called to, and it will overwhelm me until I have completed it. I’m not here to join people together but to divide them. Families will turn against each other in their households. I’ve come to bring a sword, cutting old family ties. I’ve come to turn sons against fathers, daughters against mothers, daughters-in-law against their mothers-in-law. Your worst enemies will be members of your household. Anyone who loves their family more than me cannot be my disciple.” (MT 10:34-37, LK 14:25-26, LK 12:49-53 – Condensed Gospel version)

We must follow the Truth,
regardless of others around us,
regardless of their authority
or connection to us.
If they are harmful to us,
we must walk away and cut all ties.

Only God is above us, not them.

It is better to be lonely than with someone who abuses you.

Death, or not.

My mother-in-law is dying. Or isn’t.

She has pancreatic cancer. She was diagnosed in December of last year. It was stage three, possibly stage four. There is no stage five. She was given until about May. It is now late December. We are planning to have Thanksgiving at her house. We are talking about having Christmas this year too.

A year ago, just thinking about how that particular Christmas was going to be her last Christmas just tore her up. She was very teary. She didn’t think she’d even make it to another birthday, which was in November. She’s made it, and made it better than anybody expected. She’s still driving herself to her doctor’s appointments. She’s still at home, sleeping in her own bed. Hospice has not been called.

The trouble is, she has changed personality, and it really isn’t for the better. She was married young, and married to a very domineering man. She was very submissive. Her own personality was overshadowed by his. She grew up stunted, with all her energy being focused on one thing – the house.

She has spent her entire adult life playing house. She paints the rooms, again and again. She redecorates. She buys knickknacks. Decorating the house is all she talks about. All of her energy has gone into decorating her house. The results aren’t anything exciting. It is hard to believe her life energy has been spent in this way and there isn’t anything real to show for it. It is hard to believe that God put her on this earth to do this.

So she now has become assertive. She still works on the house, but she has gone from being passive to being pushy. She uses the fact that she has pancreatic cancer to push people around. She has cancer, so nobody else’s plans matter. Everyone else has to drop whatever they are doing and drive over and visit with her or do her bidding. She doesn’t ask, she commands. The fact that she has a limited lifespan is always part of it. You’d better do this, or else.

Or else what? She’ll die? You’ll feel guilty that you didn’t spend more time with her?

While I’m glad that she is starting to wake up to who she is, I wish she’d have gotten past the toddler stage a little sooner in life. Toddlers are always about me me me, and they never care about anybody else’s feelings or plans.

The problem is, she is in her 70s. She has had plenty of time to grow up, and she hasn’t. She has had plenty of time to be a productive person, and she hasn’t.

We all are dying. Being born is the beginning of death. None of us have any guarantees on how long we will live.

So there is nothing especially sad about a 70-plus year old woman getting cancer, even cancer that has a high rate of death. Death comes to us all. Many people don’t make it to her age.

What is tragic is that she didn’t wake up to the fact of her mortality sooner and do something useful with her life. What is tragic is that she didn’t stand up to her abusive, bullying husband earlier and leave him, taking their two sons with her. That would have saved them from years of being harmed in every way possible. What is tragic is that she is treating this time as a time to push other people around, when life isn’t ever about that. What is tragic is that when told she had cancer, she kept on decorating her house.

Maybe I’m reading this wrong. Or maybe I’m not. I’m angry at her acting hurt and put upon that she has a death sentence, when my own Mom died at 53. My mother in law has lived nearly 20 years longer than my Mom, and has nothing to show for it. My Mom volunteered all the time. She made the world better for other people. She wasn’t well educated, but she had an open heart and gave constantly. This woman, however, is a little child in an adult’s body.

I’m tired of her. I’m tired of her neediness. I’m tired of how shallow she is.

And I’m sick of myself for feeling this way. It isn’t very Christ-like. It isn’t very nice.

I wish she would have protected her son, my husband, when he was a child. To stand by while your child is being abused is to condone it. I don’t think she understands the depth of damage that caused. I don’t think she understood that her inaction was just as abusive because it translates to abandonment.

I wish she would have grown up sooner. I wish that she would have woken up to the truth of her mortality sooner. I wish that she would have become a human being sooner.

I guess late is better than never, but it still isn’t happening. She’s not blooming very well. She’s stunted and warped from her life, the life that she chose. There is nothing passive about this. She chose to marry him. She chose to continue to live with him. She chose to raise two boys when she herself was still a child. She chose to do what everybody else did rather than think for herself.

She chose to stay asleep.

She’s mirroring what she has seen her whole adult life, living with her husband. Her role model is a self-centered man who beats up on anyone he finds weaker than him. So she is blooming into a self-centered woman who pushes everybody around and expects them to drop whatever they are doing to take care of her.

God help us all.

Tidy

I am a neatnik. My husband is a cluttermonster. God has a sense of humor.

While I feel that our small house has too much stuff in it, I also feel uncomfortable in a too tidy house. When I go over to a person’s house and there is nothing on the floor or nothing on the bathroom counter I begin to wonder. Do they really live there? Did they throw everything in the basement? Did they rent a storage unit just for this occasion?

I wonder if I have too much stuff or they are just better at hiding it.

When my mother in law first came over to our home, she actually said “Have you thought about getting a larger house?” This is one of those times where I got really angry yet somehow found the right thing to say. I answered “No, we’ve thought about getting less stuff.”

She should know better. She married a cluttermonster. My husband learned from him. She knows where this madness comes from. She’s lived with it for over 40 years.

I wanted to say “Hasn’t anyone taught you not to say everything you think?”

Bears.

My husband and I are nurturing our inner children. We both had difficult childhoods. It may seem strange but it is never too late to reinvent yourself.

There is nothing about being a parent that means you are competent at it. Often you just continue doing the same stupid thoughtless things that were done to you. You don’t stop being selfish or needy or controlling. So you raise children who are broken because you were broken.

It wasn’t all bad. There were trips to cultural events. Education was encouraged. But how to be human? How to deal with emotions? That was too hard. They didn’t know how to do that.

They did the best they could with what they had. They didn’t know there was more to being an adult than paying the mortgage and cooking dinner. They weren’t intentionally neglectful or abusive. But the damage was still done. And it still has to be undone.

I’m grateful that we both were aware enough of our weaknesses to decide to never have children. We didn’t want to continue the cycle. Slowly we are learning ways to heal ourselves.

We have teddy bears. They have names and stories. We drink tea every Sunday evening with the bears, and afterwards we read a children’s story. This may not be what adults usually do, but it is healing. I’m starting to think that everybody should keep their teddy bears. More bears, less drug abuse. We all need something to hold on to when times get difficult.

There is a lot that is hard about being an adult who never had a healthy childhood. There aren’t a lot of instructions on how to heal your inner child. There is a lot of shame involved. It is hard to admit that you need help. You have to learn how to grow up backwards. I think there are a lot of people who have to do this. Maybe we should start a club so we don’t feel alone.

Maybe we should also start a 12 step program for people who have escaped from church, for the same reasons.

Shame

Why is it that the person who has been attacked feels shame? The person who was abused by a parent wasn’t the person to blame. The person who was raped was the recipient, not the aggressor. The person who is the recipient of violence is most often female, but is sometimes male. Abuse isn’t exclusive. And the abuser or rapist isn’t always male. Physically, emotionally, sexually, abuse is abuse.

For the sake of simplicity I will say “she” for the person who is abused or raped and “he” for the abuser or rapist. I’m concerned I’m perpetuating a stereotype, so I want to be sure that it is understood that anybody can be attacked, and anybody can be the attacker. But our language has no appropriate third person singular, and saying “his or her” all the time is tedious, so I’m doing it this way.

I’m also making a point of not using the term “victim”. That is part of this. I believe that if she identifies herself as “victim” then she is perpetuating the violence that was done against her. More often though, the person who was attacked feels shame. They act as if they did something to deserve this. They feel shame so they don’t go to the police. They feel shame so they don’t go to the hospital or to a counselor.

Shame is another word for guilt. When a person feels shame, she feels as if she caused the problem. She feels that she brought it on herself. She feels responsible.

This is so totally backwards. The abuser, the rapist is the guilty party. The one he attacked is passive.

You do not cause someone to attack you. It has nothing to do with what you wear or what you said. Now, yes, I’ve recently written a post saying that women should dress modestly to protect themselves. I also think it is a good idea to get a handgun carry permit and take self-defense classes. Prevention, you know. But sometimes you can’t get out of the way of a problem, and there are a lot of damaged people out there who are ready to cause a problem with you.

One thing to notice is that the attacker is giving control of his emotions and actions to everyone else. The attacker blames other people for his losing control.

When Dad gets home from one of his many business trips, he has no right to beat his child for breaking something. His child is a child, and it was an accident. He has no right to yell at his child. His short temper is his fault, his failing.

Eleanor Roosevelt said that no one can make you feel inferior without your consent.

The same is true of anger.

But how is it that the person who is attacked feels shame, feels guilt? Do we teach that in our society? Is that normal? Is it something that is part of being attacked?

It certainly isn’t helpful. It renders the person who was attacked open to more attacks. It opens her up to abuse from not just the original abuser, but new ones. Bullies can spot weakness.

Again – that is not the fault of the person who is bullied. The bullies need to be responsible for their actions. It is not the “weak” kid’s fault that she gets her lunch money stolen from her – that is the fault of the bully. It is important to remember where the blame goes.

The odd part is that bullies themselves were often abused. Instead of feeling shame however, the bully learns that abusing others is normal. The bully patterns his actions on this warped lesson. The way to feel bigger is go make another feel smaller.

Stop bullying. Easy to say. Tell us how to do it.

Stop feeling shame for being abused. Stop thinking you are a victim. Again, easy to say. Hard to do.

I think there is something to teaching everyone that it is important to say no, to establish boundaries. That this is what you are willing to take, and this isn’t. Perhaps there is something to learning how to dialogue, versus debate. It helps if people can express their opinions without having to be “right” or “wrong” – but just be different.

I used to feel guilty for saying no, for telling someone that I wasn’t OK with what I was being asked to do. I’ve spent too much of my life feeling resentful that my life wasn’t my own. Even reading books about how to find my own voice, how to establish boundaries, I felt awkward. How dare I stand up for myself.

It was painful to read those books. It was like having to re-break a badly-healed leg. Emotionally, it was as if my family had broken my legs and because I’d not been allowed to get treatment, they’d healed badly. I was walking with an emotional limp. I just got used to it. It became my “normal”. Reading those books made me have to look at that wound again, and realize how it was affecting my life, and every relationship I had. I had to re-break those bones and let them heal again.

Emotional wounds hurt just as much as physical ones. And they are harder to spot. A broken leg – that sticks out. A broken spirit? That is much harder to spot. The damage runs deep there, and affects every part of your life.

But somewhere in the middle of reading those books, I was standing up for myself, and realizing that I wasn’t a victim, and I wasn’t to blame. By reading those books I was taking control of what had happened.

There is no shame in being abused. There is shame in being an abuser. You aren’t to blame for what happened to you. You are, however, responsible for what you do afterwards. You are responsible for your own actions, not the actions of others.

Authority and abuse.

Abuse is abuse no matter who it comes from. It is easy to spot someone being abusive if they are a stranger or a bad guy on TV. It is much harder when it is a person in authority, or a person you should be able to trust. I’ve already written about some of this before but it is important enough to say again from a different perspective.

We are taught to give people the benefit of the doubt, and to give them second chances. We are taught to put our own needs second, or even last. We are taught to put up and shut up. But if someone is abusing you, you have not only the right but the obligation to tell them to stop, and if they don’t stop, then you have a choice. Continue to be abused, or leave the relationship.

I’ve already provided a list of helpful books in the “resources” section that I call “survival books”. They aren’t about how to start a campfire with a bit of string and wood, but they will keep you alive. Pick one or two of those to read and you’ll be on your way.

I was abused psychologically by my brother for many years. The breaking point was when I realized that if he was anyone other than my brother I would have left him years ago. I was operating under the Christian idea that I’m supposed to love my brother. While “brother” isn’t just literally “brother” but “everybody”, it is extra hard when that actual brother isn’t a nice person. He was (and probably is still) manipulative. He didn’t care about other people’s feelings. He only cared about what it meant to him.

After reading “Difficult Conversations” and “Codependent No More,” I decided to tell him how his behavior towards me made me feel. He backed off for a little bit, but then started with the same behavior all over again. He started slowly so I wouldn’t notice. It worked. Soon he was back to his same level of manipulation and guilt-trips and harassment. Soon I was feeling guilty for even saying anything. Perhaps I deserved this treatment. Perhaps I was supposed to take it. After all, this is my brother. Our Mom expected him to take care of me after she died. Older brothers are supposed to do that, right?

Then something amazing happened. I realized that he had addressed me as “Sister” for many years. I wasn’t even “Betsy.” I was a placeholder. I wasn’t a person. So I started to think. If he was anybody other than my brother, I wouldn’t even be talking to him. He isn’t a nice person. He certainly isn’t a friend. He can’t even be spoken to without expecting a confrontation. He was the kind of person where you could say “What a beautiful day it is outside!” and he would say “Are you saying it is time for me to mow the lawn?!” Every conversation went like that. He assumed that you were attacking him in some indirect way. My sister-in-law (a counselor) thinks he might be a paranoid schizophrenic. Perhaps he is. I don’t know. I just know he isn’t a nice person, and I took his abuse for way too long.

I want to encourage you to analyze your relationships. If you are not being treated as a valuable person, as a friend in all your relationships, then you need to speak up. Tell that person how you feel. Tell them how their words and actions make you feel. If they don’t take your words to heart, leave.

It is better to be alone than be in a relationship that is abusive. Our society doesn’t say this. Our society says that being alone means that something is wrong with you. I say that being together with an abusive person is far more wrong. Walk away. You can do better.

Now – here’s the big thing. This applies to everyone – regardless of position. We are taught to trust our family, and our friends, and our teachers, and our church. They are not to be questioned. They are supposed to be good to us. But remember the saying that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. People gain a certain level of power when they are in positions of authority. They gain even more when we give them free reign.

So if your parent, or your priest, or your politician does not treat you in a healthy, respectful way, speak up. If they don’t change, leave.

Asking for help is a sign of strength. (on verbal abuse)

If you saw a dog being beaten, you’d most likely stop the abuse right then or report it to the police. So why are we mute when we see a parent abusing her or his child verbally? Verbal abuse is more damaging than physical abuse. The wounds go deeper and last longer. The child doesn’t even know that she or he was abused, so there is no way to know that this isn’t “normal.”

There are two different forms of verbal abuse – what is said, and how it is said. What is said can be very obviously verbal abuse. Telling a child that she or he is stupid or worthless or no good is damaging in a very deep way. But a child can also be damaged by otherwise innocent words said in an abusive manner.

Sometimes it isn’t what is said, but how it is said that is the problem. If you speak otherwise loving words but do them in an aggressive manner, you aren’t saying anything loving. Tone is essential. Nothing good is conveyed when you speak to a person in a short, clipped, frustrated manner, or loudly or sharply. The child’s entire way of viewing the world is affected by how she or he is raised. If you raise a child to feel worthless, then it is very hard for that child to grow into a healthy adult. The child has no strong foundation because it has been constantly undermined.

When your child comes up to you to ask for help, do you say “What do you want?” with a tone that really means “How can I help you?”, or do you say it in a way that says “Why are you bothering me, again!?” You are the main teacher for your children. If you teach them through your actions that they don’t matter to you, then you have destroyed their spirit. You have taught them that they are an inconvenience, that they are worthless.

I remember when I first got married and my husband would tell me a story of some problem that he’d had to deal with at work. He would be very angry and would be speaking in a very forceful way while telling me the story. Fortunately I was aware of how this kind of talk affected me, so I told him that I was not the reason for his anger, and that he needed to adjust his tone. His anger at the situation was bleeding onto me, and making me feel like I was part of the problem, that he was angry with me, personally.

But a child can’t do this. A child doesn’t have this sense of perspective. For a parent to speak in a sharp manner all the time to their child is abusive. It is cruel and thoughtless. It is not the child’s fault that they were born and that your days of partying are over. It is not the child’s fault that you were raised in a similar manner.

It is a huge responsibility to be a parent, and sadly there are no classes for it. Somehow our society thinks that just because you have had a child you automatically know how to be a parent. This is simply not true. But we just don’t have a mechanism in place to teach people how to be good parents. We seem to leave it to chance and hope everything works out.

I see parents being abusive to their children all the time where I work, and some are worse than others. You can see that the light is gone from the children’s eyes. Every time certain families come in we brace ourselves for another round of screaming and tears. What can be done? I’ve asked a friend who is a therapist and one who is a schoolteacher. Both say you can’t do anything. That you can’t get involved.

Both say that perhaps somebody else will catch it and do something. But what if that somebody else is thinking the same thing – that somebody else will do something?

So what do we do, wait until the child is totally broken and ends up killing someone? And then we’ll all say, “That was sure some strange family. I thought something was wrong with them. I wonder why nobody did anything.”

I’m writing this because I hope that it speaks to a parent who may recognize herself or himself in this. I hope that this parent realizes that it is normal to feel frustrated and overwhelmed, but not OK to push that on to a child. I hope that this parent admits that she or he needs help and asks for it from someone they trust – a therapist, a minister, a friend.

Asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness. NOT asking is a sign of weakness. Trying to do it all on your own hasn’t worked.