June is PTSD Awareness Month
I have been sharing a lot of stories about PTSD this month on my blog. I shared a couple posts about my abusive relationship; one on forgiveness, and the other on what it was like to date a sociopath. This month’s Parenting with Mental Illness interviewee is a mother living with PTSD from years of complex abuse. And the current “Book of the Weeks” is a memoir written by Rebecca Lombardo, who lives with PTSD and BPAD. If you haven’t read that post yet, it includes an exclusive author interview, so check it out!
Today, I will be sharing a very special piece for PTSD Awareness Month. This is the two part story of one person’s struggle to escape, cope. and come to terms with childhood emotional abuse. In this piece, they clearly state that their diagnosis is depression; they’ve never been diagnosed with PTSD. I think it’s important to highlight the fact that all of our statistics and various numerations and labels can never fully encompass all of the people who live in the aftermath of trauma, or who deal with PTSD symptoms.
Emotional abuse doesn’t always get the attention it deserves. It can come in the form of emotional neglect, verbal abuse, gaslighting, manipulation, cloaked insults, outright insults, financial or other control, and aggressive unfounded accusations. Basically, there are a lot of ways to emotionally abuse someone without ever laying a hand on them. Because emotional abuse is often intangible, it can be hard to recognize. Many times, people relegate it as “less important” than outright physical abuse. As we will see in this account, however, emotional abuse often escalates into physical abuse. Even if it doesn’t, the damage is still enormous. Sometimes moreso than physical abuse because survivors are less likely to get the attention and support they deserve
Genelle’s essay also grapples with the phenomenon of abused abusers, and the ways that certain types of people can manipulate their own victimization into an excuse. This is how the piece fits into the “Tales From the Other Side” narrative; it’s the true story about how one father’s mental illness affects his child. It is easy to say trauma survivors deserve uniform compassion; it would be simpler to only talk about sympathetic victims. But we need to honestly address the complexity of trauma, and the various ways it factors into our world. Genelle’s essay does just that, and that is why I have chosen to present it as part of a PTSD Awareness special. This is a two part series, so hang on for the ride; it’s well worth it.
Genelle Chaconas is genderfluid, queer, feminist, over 30, underemployed, an abuse survivor, and proud of it. They earned their BA in Creative Writing from California State University Sacramento (2009), and their MFA in Writing and Poetics, graduate of Naropa University (2015). Their first chapbook is Fallout, Saints and Dirty Pictures (little m Press, 2011), and they are currently at work on a new chapbook. Their work has been accepted in over 50 publications. They are currently at work on their first full length work. They are a volunteer submission reader at Tule review, and they hosted Red Night Poetry. They plan to run their own literary publication in the future.
Down The Rabbit Holes
Part 1: Abuse, Gaslighting, Survival, and Why I Don’t Change My Phone Number
by Genelle Chaconas
Eighteen minutes after midnight, the phone rings. Being a night owl, I’m still up. I can’t remember what I’m doing. Probably working, writing, something. The phone number displayed on the phone is local.
I don’t expect one of the many applications I’ve sent to respond at this time. It might be one of my friends, as I often neglect to add them to the official contact list.
But somehow, I must know it’s not. But somehow, I answer anyways.
I answer to a rattling, asthmatic breath, exactly like in the movies, and nothing else. I repeat ‘hello?’ several times before I realize the person with the phone has forgotten to hang it up.
I hang up. I add the number to the cache labeled ‘Block’. There are over twelve numbers in ‘Block’.
Block is one person. I’ve known Block 30 years. Block is my father, and yes, Block is blocked.
As predicted, Block calls while I’m in the shower. The voice message is in my inbox and I know I shouldn’t listen, but I do. It’s one of the many things that even as a survivor, I do.
The gentle voice says hello, he wants to talk to me, he misses me, his baby girl, bye bye, sweet dreams.
No one listening to this voice would guess he is the man who once broke three bones in my right arm. No one listening to this voice would guess he is the man that inflicted almost 23 years of psychological, emotional and physical abuse on me, including gaslighting.
Gas lighting happens when an abuser takes advantage of their target’s diagnosed mental illness. Essentially it means that every time the target starts to realize the intangible abuse that emotional abuse is, the abuser can claim this is yet another delusion or symptom.
I have been diagnosed with a mental illness: depression. Experts call conditions like mine diseases, disorders and illnesses: I don’t know why none this makes me comfortable. My depression is considered moderate, but some days, it doesn’t feel moderate. I choose not to take antidepressants. While I’ve never been officially diagnosed with it, I have many symptoms of anxiety and possibly other conditions.
. My father has been diagnosed with a mental illness; in fact, over the many, he’s been diagnosed with many. I’m not sure if there is a term for what this is.
And yes, my father was abused and traumatized himself. By his physically abusive stepfather and from a traumatizing failed training period for the military. At least that is what he tells everyone. To date, I’ve never found anyone who can verify these stories. For all I and everyone I know can tell, they may also be fantasies.
The only reason to mention this is to answer the assertion I’ve heard many times before: abuse targets often go on to become abusers. This may be so, and yes, there is data to support it is an indicator. But an indicator is not a cause nor is it an excuse. I would give anything to see it stop being used as such
The truth is I’m unclear if my struggles with depression and anxiety were perpetrated, designed, and engineered, consciously or subconsciously. I wonder if my childhood, all the memories of care, fun, and love, all the memories I have of being in the care of this mentally unbalanced individual, were elaborate ruses designed to charm me emotionally, but also make me an emotional dependent.
My father chose me essentially for convenience sake. My mother was the breadwinner, the one with regular employment. I am their only child. This meant caregiving duties
My father completed a Master’s Degree in Psychology and considered himself a strict Skinner-ite.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with psychology terms, B.F. Skinner was essentially best known for his belief in Behaviorism. Behaviorism teaches that, while genetics may be a factor in determining human psychology, environment and especially operant conditioning, reinforcement, shaping, and more. Look it up if you’re really interested. Skinner was essentially under the belief that, instead of constantly using negative or positive reinforcement to shape only simple behaviors, one could also shape and condition a subject to make seemingly complex and intelligent decisions still based on punishment and reward.
Maybe this sounds kinder than the Pavlovian method of using buzzers and shocks to train a subject. It’s not.
I don’t have proof of what implications this evidence suggests. Most of the events I’m writing about today I don’t have a shred of proof about, period.
I don’t actually know what mental disorder my father has. Over the years, I have heard him diagnosed with major depression, bipolar depression, PTSD, schizophrenia, and drug induced anxiety disorders galore.
Yes, my father used and abused drugs. The first time I realized he was using and abusing drugs, he was at least 63 years old, and he’d attempted to beat up his then girlfriend and burn her apartment after five days of insomnia. He didn’t admit to using amphetamines, which were in plentiful supply at this apartment complex. However, the doctor who did his intake (and called me) after his arrest and transfer to Psychiatrics found it readily in his blood panel.
I know this because I am still his emergency contact, hence whenever he ends up in the hospital after yet another psychotic episode or run in with authorities (yes, this has happened more than once), I am informed.
I’ve had a theory for years now, and no, I do not have any analytics or labs to investigate my theory. My theory is that people who have an addiction to one substance may be addicted to more than only substances. My father has been a self-proclaimed alcoholic and drug abuser. He’s attended both AA and Rational Recovery, but didn’t pursue either long enough to experience the benefits of these systems. He’s also been addicted to ideologies, ranging from Objectivism to Atheism to New Age to Christianity, and all the social attention these groups afforded him. System after system, from ‘The Secret‘ to Eckhart Tolle, fell by the wayside.
It is apparent to me now that, in all my father’s searches for self improvement and perhaps even spiritual growth, was yet another addiction to what appeared to be a quick fix. But none of these systems offer a quick fix. Most of them offer a slow fix.
My father was also addicted to porn, something you know about someone when you’re living in a one bedroom apartment with them. It wasn’t that he liked to watch it, both on our shared DVD player and on the laptop I’d received for my birthday or buy it in magazine format by the dozens. It was that he’d neglect to put these items away on a regular basis. Perhaps it was just negligence on his part to close the pages on my laptop or that he left explicit DVDs in my DVD player.
Maybe it wasn’t.
This is the part of the essay where I mention something I don’t admit to myself.
What I do know was that my father did sometimes make inappropriate comments about my appearance. Yes, I know this is going to start a conversation about my appearance: what exactly do I look like? I’ll admit it; I’m addicted to subcultures and like to don big spiky collars, rings, black nail polish, glitter, stockings, heavy metal jewelry of all types, yes. But I do not show off my body in provocative ways, whatever that actually means. I simply wear what I like and express myself like anyone else does.
Yes, I dressed like this as an adult. I dressed like this as an adult because I had never had the chance to do it when a teenager. I had been prevented from rebelling.
Emotional abuse, at its core, weakens the structure of the ego. By the time I was eleven and twelve, and newly medicated on Prozac, I was primed for a second abuser: middle high and high school girls.
Abuse is a trickle down economy. The presence of one form of abuse weakens the structure of the ego, making the target more neurotic, easy to upset, and ultimately, easy for other abusers to exploit.
I wanted to be a cool kid, some kind of cool kid. Even at eleven and twelve, I was aware I wasn’t going to be the popular kid, but I thought somewhere inside of me coolness must exist. I knew if some cool kids, any cool kids, liked me, I’d have a chance. Surely they’d learn I was smart, creative, and fun.
Targets of abuse get rewarded, initially, for sucking up, so I tried.
It didn’t work.
It got to the point I didn’t know which was worse, home or to school. And in the suburbs, there is nowhere else.
I’ve always been emotional, easy to hurt, easy to get upset, especially if someone is trying. Children of this age, if they are bullies, are amused by this type. I was a basket case at school, swearing, threatening, having histrionic fits, getting sent to the principal’s office while the well mannered clique members, who never seemed guilty, hung quietly back and planned their next mind fuck campaign.
I’m not saying that there were not kids who tolerated me and even spent time to me, and that I have fond memories of them. These were anti cool kids, and they were having fun, too. I might have had more fun with them.
When push comes to shove, I never had a stable set of emotional or social interactions at school. And not belonging to a social group affords no social support and protection from harassment.
I blame myself because I should have tried harder to join. I did try. I didn’t hang out. I hung near.
But of course I didn’t try enough, not when I was in school, anyway. I had no idea how to have a style, a subculture. These ideas seemed to belong to better people.
I just wanted my same messy pony tail, trusty pairs of identical jeans, big tee shirts and hoodies. Yes, hoodies. Even in the harsh summer weather, hoodies were my friends.
Perhaps I did have style. I look back see a spitting image of a young feminine Ted Kaczynski. Not really. But almost.
I never forgot wanting to be an anti cool kid. It was one of the first things I did when I moved out from our shared apartment.
My father was nervous-threatened even-of anyone, male or female who tried to show sexual interest in me. This meant I had to be abundantly careful about my clothing choices around him, that they would cover my midriff, thighs, that no part of my underwear showed, not even the top band, that the straps of my bra or under shirt fit in my cutoff tees. If even a single inch of skin showed, he’d point it out. Sometimes he’d instruct me to change, even after I’d moved out and lived on my own.
But this was not always the case. Other times, he’d compliment the wardrobe malfunction as ‘sexy’ or ‘kinky’. At times, he seemed to be disappointed I hadn’t ‘fleshed out’ or grown much as a physical adult, and even asked if I wanted growth hormones or implants. He took particular interest in my punk-inspired spiked collars. He wouldn’t accept the idea that these items were simply my exploration of punk subculture. He asked several times if I was into BDSM.
I’m not joking. I’m not joking and I have no explanation other than the obvious.
I don’t blame myself for never changing my phone number
even after many years of this harassment. Call it my natural stubborn rebellious nature that says I won’t change my life just because someone harasses me. Or it might be my inner abuse target clinging on even after all the therapy and support.
I don’t blame myself for answering the phone the first time; like all the other times he’s used a new number to trick me, it was a mistake. I do blame myself for listening to this message. Messages that arrive on his birthday, my birthday, holidays, or whenever he deems fit. Facebook accounts he activates, I deny and report, he deactivates, Google plus accounts, Twitters. Some of them are of him. Some of them are of his latest girlfriend, the one who boosted him out of jail last. She’s not the first.
Do I blame his latest woman who continually stalks me at his behest?
No, no more than the last one.
I don’t blame my mom, who wasn’t the first either, if history is telling anything. I don’t blame her because she might be a codependent, not an uncommon situation to find with abusers. She’s never been diagnosed either.
Perhaps there were many times she could have run away with me. One night after he’d brought me back home from camp hours too late, she tried. I don’t blame her for not making me go with her.
I don’t blame her because even a 12 year old can have a sense of their will and when it’s being violated. I told her not to because he told me not to. Later, during their ugly, drawn out separation and divorce, she would weekly ask me if wanted to leave. I wouldn’t, even after she fled from the home.
I do not blame her for not getting out much sooner, during one of his many stays at the hospital when he was supposedly disturbed enough to require hospitalization.
Parent on child emotional abuse essentially begins, in many ways, masking itself as parental care and emotional need. It is an integral part of the child being raised. It asks the target to sympathize exclusively with the needs of the abuser with the consistent emotional reward of being the only emotional support to the abuser. He told me to stay with him because he had nobody else; he was estranged from his own family, who had, according to his accounts, estranged him for selfish means. His mother was dead. I was his only family. In later years, it would, of course, change to something different.
The two statements where the essential codependency of emotional abuse lies are: don’t leave me because I don’t have anyone else, and don’t leave me because nobody will ever want you.
Don’t leave me because nobody will ever want you. Go get a job to support me. No, you can’t have a career; you could never have a career. You can’t find a husband. I don’t want you to be queer because that means you won’t have a husband. Be straight because I said you should.
I’m going out on a politically incorrect limb to say I can’t really say what makes anyone, including myself, queer, any more than I know what makes anyone like anything. Nature, nurture, the integration of both, and the role of choice continue to be debated in academic circles, especially as research suggests all four elements are interconnected. I can’t say I was, as Lady Gaga claims, born that way. But it’s not an either/or situation. I cannot remember being born genderfluid or homosexual. I also cannot remember simply making a conscious decision to be that way, either.
Is it possible that I came out around the same time I began to escape abuse because I chose to? Did escaping the situation help me discover myself, or even ‘turn me gay?’
I do know about myself around this period was that I began to feel stronger, even dared to think of myself, occasionally, as stronger, more dominant, and more tough willed than my abuser.
And that was something more important than I can express. It was something small, something rebellious and something insane. I felt, even fleetingly, that I didn’t deserve it.
To Be Continued…
Thank you for reading this special PTSD Awareness Month 2017 post on Betty’s Battleground. I won’t write too much epilogue. There’s a part two, coming up soon. Subscribe to the blog to make sure you don’t miss it. I’ll make it easy on you; just enter your info here:
Please leave your thoughts in the comments, and please, please take a moment to share this incredible story on a social media channel or two.
Finally, the PTSD-themed Off-Fridays Blog Share will be opening for links on Friday. Make sure to add yours so that we can make an enormous and varied resource link library all about PTSD, trauma, and triggers.
Thank you for reading.
Til next time..