I'm okay now, but... (by Nora Leigh)
I made a vow to myself before I married that if he ever hit me or took a drink of alcohol, I was out of there. No second chances.
I made this vow because abuse had been a part of my young life. My mother had been abused verbally and physically. My younger brother and I had been verbally abused. I had been sexually abused.
Abuse was not part of my earliest memories. I remember happier times when Dad would tell me a story, call me "Sugarfoot" and blow on the bottoms of my feet while I squealed in delight. He would help with milking the cows and goats. He would never say anything bad about Mama’s cooking. He would take us places and buy us a Coke or a popsicle. Sometimes he would take all of us to the café in town. At the end of the day, he would sit down after dinner and drink one beer. When Mama went downstairs after reading me a story and tucking me in, I would fall asleep to the comforting drone of voices from the rooms below and the tinkling creek across the road. I was safe. I was secure.
I don't know exactly when it happened or if it was sudden, but Dad changed. Though my memory has faded with time, I distinctly remember how he no longer drank just one beer after dinner. Instead, he had one in his hand continually until I went to bed.
I was still very young when things changed. I remember waking to the sound of Mama talking to Dad about something she didn’t want to do. I was much too young to comprehend what was transpiring as I heard her tell him to stay away from her in the middle of the night. I just knew her voice sounded funny. My baby brother was born a few days before my fourth birthday. Many years later I would learn he had been forcibly conceived.
I don’t remember Mama being happy after things changed. She still read to us and we took walks like before. But she didn't smile much. She didn’t sing anymore while she baked. Sometimes she would just sit for a long time, doing nothing.
Dad would boast of how he'd had to teach Mama everything she knew about cooking when they got married. He often said mean things to her and sometimes I saw her crying in the kitchen. He said she looked like the (mostly nude) woman on the pin-up calendar back when they were first married, but she had "let herself go." He criticized her appearance, saying she was getting fat and her hair was a mess. But then he'd say that it wouldn't do any good for her to go to the beauty parlor. Cutting her hair wouldn't make her look any better.
Before I started school, he began touching me down there when we were alone. I didn’t like it but he did it anyway. He told me matter-of-factly that if I ever told anyone, the state would take me away and I’d never see my mother or brothers again. I didn’t know who "the state" was but what he said terrified me. I kept the secret so long, I locked it away and buried it. It was as though I had forgotten it for a time.
Sometimes I couldn’t hear the creek anymore because of the angry voices downstairs. When I was in second grade, Dad told me that if he ever caught Mama with another man, he would kill them both. I remember the fear looming constantly; fear of being touched, fear of Dad hurting Mama, fear of being taken away if I ever told.
My teacher said I didn’t pay attention in class. I wasn’t doing all my work like I should. I missed too much school. I wasn't working up to my potential. I tried to listen to the teacher but I could never stop worrying about Mama. Was she okay? I knew that Dad would sometimes go by the house in the middle of the day. Sometimes I had a stomachache in the morning so I wouldn’t have to go to school. I could be there in case Dad came home and got mad at Mama.
I remember Mama asking me why I couldn't pay attention in class. Not only was I afraid because of Dad's threats, I couldn't put into words what I was feeling. I lacked the vocabulary to express my thoughts and emotions.
Mama wanted to go to church. Dad would only go on Christmas and Easter. The rest of the time, he said they were all "a bunch of hypocrites" and he didn’t need to be around them. She took us by herself for a while. After things began to change, Dad insisted she stay home and cook dinner. Mama had always cooked Sunday dinner and we ate at five o'clock. Now he wanted to eat dinner at noon on Sundays.
I didn’t see Dad hit Mama. My little brother says he did. And I don't doubt his memory. He was at home four more years after I went off to school.
Mama took my brother and I into town one day. She told me to stay in the car and watch him. Then she went into a big building. I asked her why she went there. "To see what to do about Dad being mean," she said. What were they going to do? She said they told her it was “a family matter” and they couldn’t do anything to help us.
I once overheard Mama telling a friend that Dad had said he was going to make my little brother into “a real man.” His definition of a real man was summed up this way: “I like my women wild, my coffee black, and my whiskey straight.” He bragged that he could “take down” any man when he was younger. Sometimes he would put his pistol in his pocket and say something about "going to kill somebody." Mama said he wouldn’t get any further than the first bar he came to. But I was still scared.
When I was about eleven, I became aware of the neighbor woman Dad paid to "go out and have fun" with him. And I knew there were others.
One day there was a disagreement. Dad made a sexual reference to me in front of Mama. I was just shy of my twelfth birthday.
When I was twelve, Mama took my little brother and I to live in town. For one whole week, Dad did not know where we were. And for that one week, I was happy and free of fear; excited about living in town. Then Mama told us that she had to tell Dad where we lived. The fear instantly returned. She took us to church and Dad was there, waiting for us. The pastor quickly ushered them into his office.
Their divorce was final after two long years of separation. Dad was allowed visitation every other weekend. He was required to pay child support, though it was seldom paid. And when it was, it was almost never the full amount. Mama didn't have enough money for a lawyer, so she couldn't take him to court for nonpayment. Even when she was able to find work, she didn't make enough to support us. Mama was fifty years old with no job history and no skills. She provided what she could with help from the church and my older brother.
Visits with Dad were miserable. He continually asked what Mama was doing. He repeatedly threatened that if she took up with another man he would kill her. I saw a pistol in the backseat of his car during one visit to our house. He appeared to be capable of following through on his threats and I was scared.
One time when Dad picked me up and took me to eat, I told him we didn't have any food and that we really needed his child support. He mockingly told me that Mama wouldn't have anything to worry about if she hadn't left him. And then he said that she was going to wind up a lonely old woman. I felt guilty for eating the restaurant food he bought me, knowing Mama didn't have food at home. I asked him if we could stop at the grocery store and he said we could. Then he made sure all the clerks and customers could hear him as he loudly proclaimed, "You can get anything you want since your mother can't take care of you!" I was so angry and embarrassed. But I didn't say anything to him.
When I was fourteen, Dad tried to persuade me to "be real nice" and "friendly" to the local truckers for money. He said I would be able to fix up my own room at his house by doing this. I said no. He called me a selfish bitch just like my mother when I started to use homework as an excuse not to visit.
Dad died in November of my senior year in high school. I was confused. I assumed that I should be overwhelmed by grief. And I played the part of a dutiful daughter at his funeral – but that’s how it felt, like I was playing a part. What I genuinely felt was relief.
Dad was no longer living, but his legacy of fear would affect my entire adult life. The fear of someone finding out about the secret, something bad happening to Mama, his unpredictability would continue to haunt me even after he was gone. To some extent, it still does.
The fear (that I was not good enough, not “as good as” anyone else, was not pretty, was not like other people, was not “worthy”) followed me into my sixties. I never considered myself to be particularly attractive. I was shocked when my adult son saw of picture of me at eighteen and exclaimed “Mom! You were a BABE!” I stared at the photograph and hardly recognized that beautiful young woman.
Trust is hard.
I was blessed to marry a man who, though he didn’t always understand my emotions, was patient and committed. He was always there for me. Many times, he simply could not understand why I was angry or upset or depressed. He assumed that when he had to wake me from a dream, as I was kicking and fighting, that my anger was directed at him. I never remembered the dreams. But I know now that those dreams were not about him.
I learned in college that, statistically, women who grew up as I did are less likely to be able to maintain a stable relationship, let alone a marriage. I have been extraordinarily blessed. My husband and I enjoy a loving, peaceful relationship of nearly forty-five years.
One day I was meditating, letting myself be open to inspiration without any specific focus. It was as if a bright, clear, beautiful light bulb was turned on – I was clean and worthy. What I had understood intellectually for many years was now indelibly etched into my emotions.
I was 62 years old. I didn't realize the emotional weight I was carrying until it lifted off my shoulders.
I have always been a woman of faith. I was taught in my youth that no woman should give away her “virtue” before she was legally married. It was a painful teaching because I felt that I was already unclean. What no one taught me was that I was totally innocent of any sin because I was the victim of a crime. I didn’t realize that until I was in my thirties, taking classes in college that addressed the topic of abuse. I understood it intellectually. Emotionally, the negative feelings and "damaged" self-image lingered. I somehow assumed that every other young woman in my classes was pure and untouched, somehow more “righteous” than I could ever be. That burden is now gone, as if evaporated.
I carried a burden of guilt for so many years. I knew, intellectually, that what my dad did to me was a crime and I was not to blame. Emotionally, I felt guilty without even knowing I felt guilty.
Some will say, “But you are okay now.” Some will say, “Get over it. It happened when you were a child!” Some will say, “Your mother should have left a lot sooner.”
Yes, I am okay now. But I carried open emotional wounds for decades. I’m okay now, but the scars have been slow to heal. I have been in a 50-year-long process of recovery culminating in my sixties. Yes, I am okay now. But there is no simple ‘getting over it’ because it will always be a part of who I am.
As for my mother, she also grew up in an abusive home. She did the best she could for my brothers and me. I never told her about the things my dad did to me sexually. I feared she would blame herself and never be able to forgive herself. She too never felt "good enough." I never stopped wanting to protect her.
If you have suffered the painful wounds of abuse, you understand everything I've shared. If you haven't, I hope I have helped you to be more understanding and compassionate with those who have.
I read everything Shari writes on the subject of abuse. After her last post, I reached out. I asked if she thought I might be able to help someone else by sharing my story. She said yes, and invited me to write a guest post on her blog.
She told me it would also help me to share my story; that helping others feel less alone is not only a powerful tool in our own healing, but a reward beyond description.
It's liberating to experience this for myself.
Thanks for reading.
~ Nora Leigh
~ Nora Leigh