― Thomas Stephen Szasz
In follow up to the previous post, I've been doing a bit of thinking about all the ways my natural tendency to please others and fear of saying no has affected my life up to this point.
Though I'm able to put my foot down a bit better now, it sometimes takes me a little while to realize I've stopped listening to my Wise Self. It's like a gnawing feeling that won't go away, and upon investigation I discover not only am I going along with something, I've completely sacrificed my own happiness for it.
This disease to please or more accurately, avoidance of conflict, has been with me for as long as I can remember. The big moments that defined this condition of compliance happened when I was 6-7 years old. My mom had been dating a man who lived in Tennessee, and we ended up moving down there for a time when I was 5. When they broke up we pulled anchor and headed back to Alaska and moved in with my mom's best friend Suzi and her boyfriend Howard until we could get on our feet.
Howard was a child molester.
Of course we didn't know that at the time, but after a few events where I found myself alone with him, I found out the hard way.
I remember two very clear incidences of being sexually molested by Howard. Both times I KNEW it was wrong. I searched my soul for the words or a way to make it stop, but the only thing that surfaced was the rule: "Do what you're told". I felt fear of hearing my voice telling him to stop. Fear of conflict. Fear of getting into trouble. Fear of what he might do. Fear fear fear.
The first time it happened was on an overnight trip to a cabin in Girdwood, a little ski town about 30 minutes outside of Anchorage. It was my sister, my mom, me, Suzi and Howard. The cabin was an A frame with an open floor plan downstairs and a loft with two bedrooms upstairs. Stairs separated the two rooms. From the bedrooms you could look down onto the living room, so there was only semi-privacy. I could hear everything going on downstairs as I went up to go to bed.
There was a knock on my door, and when I opened it, Howard was standing there. He asked me to get undressed and come say goodnight to him in his room.
So I did.
My naked little body traveled from the safety of my room, passing the stairs that led to freedom, and into his room, where he stood, also naked. He picked me up in his arms and held me in a long, torturous hug. He put me down and I went into my room and cried myself to sleep with the sounds of laughter and music coming from downstairs.
The next day Suzi took a picture of my sister and I hugging my mom. When I look at this picture of the little girl with the messy bangs and yellow coat I scream inside. I don't remember the days or years before or after these events took place. But the night before this picture was taken is stuck in my memory as fresh as if it happened yesterday.
I can't pick a correct emotion from this picture. Am I smiling or crying? All I see is a tiny me clutching to my rock as my world went spiraling into a dark new universe, the morning after my innocence was taken from me.
The next event changed my life forever and I still remember it sometimes when I get really afraid and need to tap into my Wise Self.
Howard was left to babysit me, so I sequestered myself in my bedroom to watch cartoons and avoid him. But of course he came in and sat next to me. I pretended not to really notice him or his hand as it went into my pants. Soon he started touching himself. He asked me if his fingers felt good on me. I said no. So he moved his hand around a little bit. "How about that?" "No". "Where does it feel good?"
"Out of my pants".
I didn't care what happened after I said it, I just knew I needed to say it. And guess what? He took his hand out. He left me alone. And, as if he suddenly became aware of the beast he had just unleashed, he threatened me not to tell anyone.
But I did.
The next day I told my mom and we quickly moved out. Nothing ever happened to Howard though. Suzi broke up with him, but nobody charged him, nobody turned him in. The bad guy got away.
The thing that makes me that most sad about that, is how difficult it was for me to advocate for myself at such a fragile, vulnerable time in my life, but I did. And the adults who were there to protect me and be my advocate, failed to do either.
This is, my mother tells me, one of her greatest regrets in life. I cannot hold anger or resentment against her. I'm sure she did the best she could where she was at the time.
That event was the single-most empowering moment in my life, regardless of the outcome. I spoke up and I got what I wanted. Peace. Strength.
As a teenager I kept getting into horribly unhealthy, co-dependent relationships. I had very little self confidence, no sense of self. When I broke up with my troubled boyfriend at 16, he attempted suicide by swallowing a bunch of pills and coming over to my house. While he recovered in the hospital, mouth still chalky, I agreed to get back together with him. He needed me.
Later (after that relationship eventually ended) when I discovered a different boyfriend had been cheating on me, I quickly and angrily broke up with him, only to turn around and beg him to take me back hours later. Couldn't handle being alone.
There are a few other examples I could give but I think I want to leave it there. Suffice to say, my life has been a long battle of making people happy at a high cost to my own happiness. A few times, I almost paid the highest price. Thank goodness I avoided getting into too much trouble or killed!
These days, the events that test my pathological need to please are pretty minor in comparison. Outright manipulation, threats to my security or obvious breaches of boundaries will evoke a strong reaction from me, though. To the point that I've built up a pretty high wall to protect myself. But for those people who are masters at manipulation, or whose neediness comes in a package that pulls my heart in a million different directions, I bend. I succumb. It takes me a little longer to figure out that I'm being manipulated or taken advantage of. If I communicate my boundary or feelings and they don't respect it, I close the door and lock it behind me.
These days, I find myself asking "what do I want?" a lot. I don't have all the answers yet, but I know I'm on my way. It's getting easier as the kids get older and I'm morphing out of Extreme Mommy Mode and into Coach Mom Mode. I have some room to breath and explore me and my voice more.
It's also getting easier because my partner couldn't manipulate his way out of a paper bag. His soul is pure. We supports things that feed my heart and happiness, and objects to things (and people) who don't. He is an echo of my Wise Self, and a trusted advocate. While we intentionally and constantly try to make each other happy, we are both sensitive to when the other is sacrificing for the other and we stop and regroup. It is an amazing partnership of championing for one another.
As I buried my 11.5 year toxic marriage - unearthing myself in the process, and then learning how to be in the first healthy relationship of my life, I realize that this has been an extremely transformative decade of life (probably the most transformative I'll ever experience, to be honest -- and hopeful).
I'm finishing out the last few months of my 30s with a new physical transformation, which you can read about here: www.five2forty.blogspot.com
I completed my Sobember with amazing fresh perspective. I feel like I've done some amazing work to take a good/bad/ugly look at my intentions, patterns, and stumbling blocks. It hasn't been pretty, but it's been necessary. I had a glass of wine last weekend and again on Thanksgiving, and each time, I didn't enjoy it like I did before November. Maybe because the intention of drinking was different. I'm not particularly craving anything or anxious to hit the bars. I'm actually feeling pretty indifferent to alcohol in general.
In all, this month has been amazingly important. I uncovered some deeply rooted systems (coping mechanisms) that have served and protected me throughout my life. I am ready to build some stronger, healthier systems that can hold a brand new structure for this brand new life that I'm creating. No more serving others while sacrificing my happiness. No more avoiding conflict. No more validating others while minimizing myself to an unrecognizable state. No more shame.
I think this is what they call growing up? It only took me 39 years...but better late than never, right?