I was abused for seventeen years. That’s quite a long time. The true miracle of this book (and my definition, my life) is that it’s not just about the abuse. Like I’ve said in the early chapters this is not going to be one of Those Books (I’m not Jodi Picoult for goodness sake) and if I was I would be the first one to burn it and shoot myself.
But I do think I need at least one chapter to really “Go Tell it On The Mountain” and give you an idea of what it was like. And what it was like wasn’t pretty.
I say seventeen years but it probably started when I was born. Once again like I said in Chapter 1, you don’t cart a newborn child around multiple homes and stick him with grandparents that don’t speak to him and frankly probably don’t even care or want him there. It just ain’t right.
As to how we lived during the worst times…I’m quite at pains to explain what living like that was like. Everything was an ordeal and a struggle, from buying an electric kettle to going out to dinner. You couldn’t just “do” anything, there had to be plans and allowances made and things to decide – all before anything was actually done.
I remember wanting to buy a new TV at one point. Out came the newspaper articles, where my Dad would check for prices. Then after checking about six stores, the decision would be made -let’s not buy anything. The decision was rarely to buy anything.
I would be quite frustrated and sometimes tell my Mum. Or try. Because don’t forget, you can’t speak badly about your father even though he is a Bad Man and a Creep. (those were HER issues with her own father) So back to Dad and the non-purchase of the TV. We would then try to rationally figure out Mum’s behavior – an impossible task. At this point I just wanted to get angry at Mum and maybe get a hug in return so I would feel better. Nothing doing. Don’t forget that at around this time Meimei would probably also get anxious and upset at what was going on and we’d have to factor that in too.
Sometimes it felt like the very air was trying to eat you alive. A grey redness permeated each and every thing, and there was a horrible, terrible sense of strain about things, as if something was perpetually tearing at you and you could do nothing about it. Even little things were sometimes so, so hard to do…I can remember once in my late teenage being unable to pick up a piece of tissue paper and staring at it for about a minute, almost crying at my inability.
The rule of thumb in abusive and dysfunctional families is not to talk and not to feel – heaven forfend you do the worst of both worlds…that’s right, talk about feelings! The biggest no-no among no-nos, it just Did Not Happen. Feelings? What were those?
The admonishment for most of my teenage years was to keep things Practical and Short. Bullet points please. Nothing could be said unless it could be said in a single sentence. And even when I tried my hardest to do that, no one would listen much, if at all.
We were fed this cock-and-bull story (very real in my parents’ minds, no doubt) that All Chinese Families were like this. Many years later I would realize that it was not ALL Chinese families that were like that, but just the unhealthy ones. That took some time though. Firstly I had to actually meet these Healthy Chinese Families, and they were not exactly in great supply.
It was a friend of my sister who really helped here. She had had a fight with her father and she ran out of the house. Pretty common teenage behavior right? Her father thought he was right (Chinese male superiority thing again) but actually asked around and discovered that, no, amazingly enough, he was not. Daughter came home. He apologized by buying her dinner (no talking – remember, Asian family!) and all was well again.
We learn things in all sorts of ways (tell me about it…I haven’t been in school since I was fifteen) and from this I learnt that it was possible for parents and children to disagree and not have the world end when they did it. There were means of communication that weren’t verbal in nature. You could say sorry, and mean it, and have it accepted, not denied. All this and be Chinese too! Who woulda thunk it?
As my cultural understanding and worldview widened and deepened and my therapy progressed apace I began to see just how wide and deep the lies spread. It had nothing to do with Singapore, Japan, America or whatever – abuse was still abuse.
I’ll explain a few other things about abuse further. Firstly, most people in that situation don’t even realize they are being abused. I remember the first time I told my sister that we were abused she put her fingers in her ears. I had a hard time with it myself. My childhood was ok! I mean, even teenage was horrible and I was suicidal and things were bad…at least things were ok when I was younger right? Right? Right?
It sounded hollow even to me. I had read the books and I understood them and oh how I could explicate and explain and expound and analyze…but not feel. Because your body and mind will block out what you need to in order to survive. Why? Read on.
Running away is often not an option for abused children. The same people who are beating you up (whether emotionally or physically) are the same people who are feeding, clothing and housing you. That’s why you hear all these horror stories of sexual abuse victims who stay with their families.
Speaking of which, I was spared the horror of penetrative sexual abuse, but not sexual abuse. This is probably going to get the book an R rating but I want to be as truthful as I possibly can, so here goes.
When I was younger my mother would undress in front of me. Not a problem, but she also told me not to look and that I would get “red eyes”. Now that was a problem. The addition of shame to what might be a normal activity makes it…not so normal.
I might have mentioned before that there was no privacy in the house for anything. Mum went into this door and that as she pleased. At one point when she was younger my sister tried to keep a diary and my mother read every word. (needless to say Meimei abandoned that idea quickly)
This went double for erotica and pornography. Friends asked me why I used to leave my, ahem, recreational magazines and erotica with their spines facing out (so you could see the titles) rather than the other way around. I gave a flippant answer (I’m not ashamed of what I read!) but I think the real reason was because my Mum would go read all of it anyway, so what did it matter?
Yeah, she read all my porn. Not only did she do that, she talked to my sister about it. She would ask her what I was “into” and did that mean I was a sexual deviant? I remember an occasion she whispered concernedly to her that a certain manga I had was “quite explicit.” I told my Dad and he snorted and said “well, that’s sort of the point isn’t it?” Even Florence laughed at that one.
She also commented about the size of…well, you know. How did she know what size it was? She looked. She looked at me when I was sleeping (I sometimes slept naked) and I think at one point actually threw my covers off? (I was so sleepy I couldn’t tell) According to my sister she once even opened the door while I was bathing to “take a towel.” Ummm…so you couldn’t wait five minutes till I was finished to take a towel?
When I was twelve and had just come back to Singapore I was still this really nerdy (and kind of prudish) kid who was just beginning to discover his sexuality. There was a time in which I was watching TV and Vanessa Mae (you know, the violinist?) was on and she was playing violin in a particular skimpy top in the ocean. I looked at the screen and I was like “hmmm…is it her violin playing I like, her looks or some combination of both?”
My Mum caught me looking and POUNCED on it. I can’t remember actually what she said but she teased me mercilessly. To say I was mortally embarrassed would be an understatement. She did this a few more times over my teenage (which as I’m sure you can recall wasn’t exactly a great time for me) with especial attention to whatever…female body parts I was looking at that time.
To make things worse she left HER porn in the open. My Mum loved reading online erotica (sometimes think that’s all she ever read on her computer) and left her laptop lying everywhere. If I pointed that out she would just say that it was her house and that she could read whatever she wanted wherever she wanted. Well you could just maybe CLOSE THE FUCKING COVER?
It feels good to get that all out in the open here. I was always too busy with surviving to really think about these things. Thank God for the Internet and fanfiction. I had no one to ask about human sexuality and I found it all out on my own. I think she once told my sister her womb would fall out if she ate a certain something. That was sex ed in my house for you.
But the worst horror would only strike when I was in my twenties.
My mother wanted to have her nipples operated on, (I believe she thought her areolae were too wide) for some reason that I cannot fathom till this day. Women have all sorts of complexes about their bodies, some very benign, some not at all. It’s not for me to say what they can or can’t do.
What they shouldn’t do, though, is ask their sons about it. When this happened I think I was 25-26, and so I was well warned and fortified about such issues – as possible as it to be ready for abuse (i.e, not at all) I found it unpleasant and disgusting to the extreme. Not nipples, of course – as a healthy heterosexual male I have no problems with them. I just didn’t think it was proper, right or in any way normal for her to talk to about it with her SON.
I initially just told her off and I thought that was that. She would go talk to her gynecologist or something and that would be the end of things. No, she wanted to talk to me about it. She had to talk to me about it. She initially bothered Meimei for days on end about it (since they are both female) until I stepped in. (another blow I took willingly for my sister) So she tried to talk to me about it.
Every. Single. Day.
She asked me about it when I came in the front door. She mentioned it “casually” in passing. She talked about it at the dinner table (I am not kidding) She even ambushed me in front of my room and wanted to go search for pre and post-op pictures. She once stripped in front of me without so much as a by-your-leave and starting asking me questions.
There’s only so much of this anyone can take. I finally took the path of least resistance and told her that I could talk to her about it ONCE, for like ten minutes or something. Those were some of the longest ten minutes of my life. I will not go into details except to say that there were some images of nipples, and some discussion of them, and a decision was made.
Oh wait I actually remember how it ended. There was this image of a nipple with particularly wide areola on one of the medical sites we visited. I think the image had a caption that said that her boyfriend had no problem with wide areola since they look like pepperoni and hey – what guy dislikes pepperoni pizza? I pointed to it and said that I agreed. (seriously I think the guy had a point!)
She patted me on the shoulder and said that I was a Good Boy – which threatened to tear the very definitions of that term asunder.
I won’t deny that it’s pretty painful remembering all that. According to my sister there was some on her end as well, but not that bad. Thinking back I think the comments made at twelve actually scarred me far more than the Nipple Incident (as I called it) because I was at least semi-ready for the latter but not at all prepared for the former.
Perhaps the worst thing about abuse is that the perpetrators themselves don’t think they are doing anything wrong. The victims are typically helpless – they cannot resist because the same people hurting them are the same people whom they depend on for love, affection, and safety. Which are sporadically given and often not at all.
In many ways worse than war, because in that case you can fight back, and no one tells the losing side that they are wrong and they should love the people who are shooting them and killing their families.
Or maybe the worst thing is not that but that the abused children cover it up themselves. Mum and Dad can’t be bad, so I must be bad. There are many kinds of Hell that one can experience in this life, but abuse is most definitely one of them.
The effects manifest differently in each person. My depression and OCD were direct results of being in an environment with unavailable and toxic parents. The PTSD also came about because the multiple instances of trauma were simply ignored and never treated. All the fear and envy that I experienced was also because home life was so fraught with danger and I had little to no approbation and positive reinforcement from my parents. I could go on but I think I’ve made my point clear in most of the previous chapters.
On about her fourth or fifth session at Psycare my sister was told that my mother was a “dumper” – which is not only something that was true but also explained her approach to life. Anything she did not like or could not deal with was immediately someone else’s fault. It’s not me, it’s you – taken to an extreme.
Over the years we would become familiar with her core script, as they say in therapy. One of the central ideas of this theory is that people have certain stories (usually unconscious) they tell themselves, and if they are repeated enough they become true – since the subconscious mind is far stronger than the conscious one. What with all the psychoanalysis I did of what seemed like EVERYTHING, one by one our core scripts were revealed to us. I’ll just write them up here in this handy-dandy chart for you to see :
Have To Be Strong
Have To Be Right
Have To Analyze
Have to Behave Properly
Have to be Ok
Have to Do Everything Well
(lots of haves here)
Have to Take Care of Big Brother
Don’t Make Trouble for Anyone
Always Be a Good Little Sister
I’m Lazy and Bad
Don’t get Angry (only other people can get angry, not you)
Scared to be Alone
Everyone Must Help Me Do Everything I Want (and then some)
Everything I Don’t Like Is Bad and should be Criticised
If Anything Happens it’s Someone Else’s Fault
Must be Poor! Being Rich or Successful is Bad!
Ask Me to Do Something So I Can Do it Poorly and You Can Blame Me
I Can’t Help in Any Meaningful Way
Avoid Conflict at All Costs
It’s not pleasant reading, is it? Try living it.
The thing to remember here is that EVERYONE has these scripts in the back of their head. They differ from content and person but they are most definitely there. It’s just that they are particular entrenched and toxic in the case of abusive families.
Flexibility is a key indicator of mental health. It’s when things become locked in rigid roles and patterns that dysfunction sets in. It’s HAVING to be something (or someone) and not being able to choose.
As I studied abuse I began to realize now just how badly I had been abused (what with all the scoldings, beatings, criticism and unreasonable demands) but by definition how badly my parents must have been as well for them to have behaved as they did. As you’ll recall my father didn’t do anything at all to stop my Mum from her activities all these years. My mother was quite torn up about it as well – she used to lament (and almost cried at one point) how “no one stopped her”. Apparently she missed the memo that adults and parents are supposed to be responsible for themselves?
But that’s the thing with abuse. It shatters the self so that things that seem completely normal and commonplace get twisted into something phantasmagorical and nightmarish. Just living at home was torture at times. You never knew when someone was going to knock on the door and what demands they would make from you – Safety? Comfort? Nipple inspection? I couldn’t express emotion and I always had to keep it all in. I had to ensure that others were ok but the favor was never returned.
Behind every action and thought and word are the bleeding wounds of decades past, always making themselves felt. It all gets very intense. Another thing about abusive families is the constant emotional high you are subjected to. Dewi once gave me something to read which talked about how living there meant you were always Glad, Mad or Sad.
That summed it up well. Your neurons get hardwired into configurations that Nature never meant for them to be in, and over time you begin to think that is normal.
But what I think might be the hardest thing about abuse to deal with might be the love. What do you do with the love? Because no matter what kind of pain you are experiencing, and no matter what your loved ones are doing to you…there’s love there as well. You still love them, despite everything – and you know too that they love you. That disjunct cuts more deeply than any knife, and whatever you may be suffering at their hands pales in comparison to being unable to reconcile the twin realities of abuse and affection. Why would they do this?
How COULD they do this? And yet, and yet…you still cannot help but love. It’s not an easy question to answer, and I doubt that it truly can be.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – I have no idea how I made it through those years. Though therapy, video games and a lot of things helped greatly. Somehow I was able to find a sense of stability and strength despite the raging pathology that surrounded me. Maybe it was the bond between my sister and I. Maybe it was whatever it was that I felt when I watched Evangelion. I can’t know for sure but Florence has said more than once that whatever happened there was something inside that has never wavered. The blade had many forms indeed.