It was an effective coping mechanism for me, as things go.
I remember very little from ages 11 through 13. I had been through a lot up to that point. Raised by a single mother, never knowing my father, never seeing one penny of child support, and relying on welfare, I always felt the financial stress radiating off of the head of my household in large, turbulent waves. The earth never felt quite stable beneath my feet. It was as if we could all be washed away at any moment.
Then, when I was 7, she married my stepfather, mostly as a financial hail Mary, and it worked for a time. I was uprooted from my life in the projects, a known quantity at the very least, and transported to mansions and vacations and rooms full of presents. It was all very disconcerting, especially while being an outside observer of a mutually beneficial yet loveless marriage.
Then at age 10, they lost everything. And by that I mean everything. My stepfather lost his job, and everything came tumbling down like a house of cards.
We wound up camping our way down the east coast, and going to Florida, where we hoped to find a better life. This was a culture I didn’t understand. I was taken away from everything I knew, everything that made sense to me. We continued to “camp” for 7 excruciating years.
During my whole childhood, I buried myself in books. Books were my shield against the instability going on around me. A recent meme that I saw on Facebook really hit home. It said, “Reading is just staring at a dead tree and hallucinating. This happens to be my favorite hobby.”
Books were my safe place in an unpredictable world. I carried one everywhere I went. Disappearing into a book was good practice for what was to come.
At age 11, the sexual abuse started. I was unable to cope with having my stepfather, an adult who I was taught would always know best and do what’s best for me, do this. So I went away. It wasn’t a conscious decision on my part. It’s just what I did.
Oh, I was still there, physically. Unfortunately. But “I” was gone. I had crawled deep inside myself, where no one could touch me or hurt me. I hibernated deep within my mind. I checked out. For two years.
And the funny thing is, no one around me seemed to notice. In fairness, my whole family had a lot to deal with at the time, but from an adult perspective, I find it exceedingly strange that no one saw that I was just going through the motions that entire time.
During that period, apparently, I was learning how to multiply fractions in school. To this day, I can’t do it. People have taught me over the years, and what they say makes sense, and I get it, for about a half hour. Then it’s gone again. Fortunately it is a skill I’ve managed to live without.
I remember “waking up”. Suddenly, one day, I became aware of what was going on around me. It was a very abrupt transition. It was like having the lights turned on and realizing, whoa, there are things happening outside of myself.
I think it had to do with the fact that at age 13 I threatened to kill my stepfather if he ever touched me again, and he looked at me and realized I wasn’t joking. I’d have done it.
And just like that, the abuse stopped. (And yes, I told my mother. She told me I was making too much of it, and she stuck to that opinion and carried it to her grave.)
My stepfather and I maintained an uneasy, awkward, uncomfortable and distant relationship until my mother finally wised up and divorced him when I was about 23. They both died within a month of each other three years later. I kind of expected that to be liberating. It wasn’t, really.
To this day, when things get too much for me, I go away. Usually for short periods. Often it’s just a few minutes, so that I can gather myself. Mainly it manifests in the desperate need to be left alone and the desire to pull the sheets up over my head to take a nap. Sometimes it’s just escaping into a game app.
I also attribute my continuing love of books and sleep, my healthy imagination, and my need for travel and all other escapist pursuits to a minor form of dissociation. So is the fact that I thrive while working alone on my drawbridge. I don’t think that’s particularly unhealthy or destructive. No one gets hurt. The bills get paid. For the most part I’m really happy now, which is very unexpected and never ceases to feel like a miracle. I’ll never take that for granted.
As a psychologist once said to me, I was born 30 yards deep in my own end zone, so the fact that I’m playing on the field at all is pretty darned impressive. Dissociation was an effective coping mechanism for me, as such things go. I survived. I doubt I could give up this lifetime habit at this late date.
Dissociation comes in many forms. At the extreme end, you have multiple personality disorder. I’m fairly positive I never went that far. At the opposite end of the spectrum, you call in sick from work, stay in your jammies, and binge watch Game of Thrones for several hours. That’s not so bad, is it?
Now, if I could just shake the feeling that I’m much weirder and more out of touch than the average person. That would be nice. That would be heavenly.
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No matter who you vote for on November 8th (and please, please do!), I think there’s one thing that most Americans can agree on: we’re tired. We’re tired of this pervasive feeling that everything in this country is going to hell in a handbasket, even if we can’t seem to agree on the root causes. I think, as a nation, we need a vacation.
Here are a few things that, rightly or wrongly, I am sick of hearing about.
- Reality Shows
- The Economy
- The Environment
- Rights, or lack thereof
- Child Rearing
- Anything that ends in “ism”, “ist” or “phobic”
- Health Care
- Scandals, especially as they pertain to celebrities
- Natural Disasters
- Mental Illness
- The Internet
Please understand. I realize it’s important that most of these things get discussed and acted upon. They need to be part of the national conversation. (Well, except for the celebrity bs.) But in this day and age we are bombarded with these topics every waking moment. There seems to be no respite. I think I’m speaking for pretty much everybody when I say, “Can we just… not? For even 5 minutes? Pretty please?
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I used to date someone long ago whose mother was… well… weird. And by that I mean really, really odd. Her concept of reality was so skewed that you never knew where she was coming from. Her children used to make fun of her behind her back, which made me extremely uncomfortable, but I tried to view it as the coping mechanism that it probably was. I can’t even imagine what growing up with that woman must have been like. It was probably akin to waking up every day in a different abstract painting where the rules of perspective are constantly in a state of flux. And she completely controlled that clan by pretending to be utterly helpless, which got on my feminist nerves.
I would have never married into that family. Not in a million years. When there’s that level of fundamental dysfunction, there’s bound to be a legacy. They say that you can determine how a man will treat you by how he treats his mother, and I firmly believe that. But you must also take into consideration how that mother has treated her son. You can only get past a certain amount of emotional scar tissue.
Like it or not, when you marry someone, you’re marrying into a family, too, so you should be strongly advised to take a hard look at your in-laws to be. (Because of this, I think I’m a great catch. Both my parents have passed away, so there’s a certain level of complexity that can be entirely overlooked. But then, I’m pretty freakin’ complex all by myself.)
I really like how the Australian Aboriginals deal with this situation. They have certain cultural avoidance practices, and one of the main ones is that daughter-in-laws and son-in-laws are not to speak to their mother-in-laws. Period. If they show up to the same party, for example, they sit with their backs to one another. If they do need to communicate, the do so through the spouse. It’s not a hostile situation. It’s not born out of anger or dislike. It’s actually viewed as a form of respect. But I can imagine that it goes a long way toward promoting family harmony.
I have to say that I love this idea. Love it, love it, love it! Can you imagine how much nicer Thanksgiving dinner would be if this practice were put into place? Okay, a lot of people get along with their in-laws. If so, they are lucky. They also seem to be the exception, not the rule. So I maintain that some ancient traditions are really worth perpetuating.
Avoidance, by Robin Wiltse