On the Severing of Ties

Why Am I Telling You this?

I chose to sever ties with my parents and siblings. Today I’m gonna start to tell you some stuff about why. Not the kind of stuff I expected to share here originally. Not the kind of stuff I would just tell anyone. But it seems to be the right time to do it. Because to share it with you is to go deeper into why I am here, alive at this time on this Earth, and why I write at all. To share it is to let you know that you are not alone. To tell you about it is to say, ‘hey, I get it. I’ve been there too.’ We all have stuff we’ve survived that ranges from less than pleasant to all-out reprehensible. Stuff we’d prefer to forget.

We never do really forget, though, do we? These things shape us, sometimes define us. For me, to tell you about them is my way of saying I care about you. To let you into my private world. I’m gonna do it so that it might help you. That’s what gives my life meaning – helping. I am here to offer assistance as you walk along your path. Like the person I told you about a while back that offered me their walking stick on the hiking trail.

So grab a cup of something, curl up on your sofa and sit back, and allow me to tell you my story of estrangement. Here goes…

The House

We’re in front of a house on Stirling Lane, painted green and surrounded by shrubbery and flowers. There are two cars in the driveway and a family of six inside. There’s a well cared for lawn that is mowed every Saturday morning like clockwork. There’s a pair of homemade rope and wood swings hanging from the branch of the tree in the backyard. Looks like a nice place, right? Come to dinner with us for a moment and you’ll see it isn’t as nice on the inside.

Dinner Rules

I’m nine or so. I’m sitting at the kitchen table eating, as was required, every last thing on my plate. Didn’t matter if I was hungry or not, or if I liked it or not, or if I wanted more or not, I ate what was deemed mine to eat. We weren’t allowed to talk at the dinner table. We were told ‘children should be seen and not heard’. I most definitely was not THAT kind of kid. I have a voice. I have questions and curiosities that need expression. For me, it’s like breathing to wonder out loud and share thoughts with those around me. Night after night I sat there, repressing my true nature, trying like hell to please these people who were the king and queen of the house.

One Particular Evening

I do not recall how it began. But it included, as it often did, my father deliberately antagonizing me. He seemed to enjoy getting me riled up, agitating me and picking on me. He said more than once how I ‘needed to be toughened up’, that I was ‘too sensitive for this world’. So his choice for a parenting technique was to bully me and verbally abuse me in front of the family when I showed this sensitivity. Often I would cry, only to be criticized for that, too. I was not allowed to leave the table when I wanted more than anything to retreat to the privacy of my bedroom to feel the grief and emotion that was spilling over. No. I had to stay in my chair and wait for permission to get up from the table. Permission that was always denied in moments like this.

This was a particularly emotional moment for me. I was crying so hard I could not control myself. Bet some of you have been there. When tears are streaming and snot is dripping and you can’t breathe right. I recall my father sitting, as always, at the head of the table. It was his kingdom and this was his throne. My mother sat to his right, I sat at his left. To my left was one of my younger sisters. My brother (a year younger than me) was assigned the seat the other end of the table, opposite my father. It was the other privileged position at the kitchen table and he earned it by being born male. To my brother’s left, my youngest sister sat next to my mother.

Not Stopping

My father repeatedly told me to stop crying. I simply couldn’t. I was being tormented and I was in deep pain from his cruelty. He threatened me over and over that I would regret it if I didn’t get a hold of myself. I was sobbing uncontrollably. There was no comfort in sight for me. Not a tissue offered. Everyone was just watching us, like rubberneckers glued to a car accident in progress.

He got up, got a glass out of the cabinet, filled it with water and set it in front of him as he sat back down. He warned me then, saying that if I didn’t stop, the water would be thrown in my face. I didn’t believe he would – or could – do something like that. I sat there sobbing, not believing he would go through with it. I could not stop crying despite my best efforts. He did it. He threw the water in my face. I gasped for breath, looked at my mother, whose face was blank and whose demeanor was deferent and subservient, as always, when it came to him. And my siblings laughed. They giggled at my humiliation, at my shame, at his bullying and bravado. They laughed. Not for long, because he shushed them after a bit. But that laughter? It lingers. It rings in my ears from time to time still. It has for decades.

At this point, you might be feeling compassion for me. Empathy. Even sorrow. Thank you for that, you generous souls. I’m grateful. I want you to know that it does not end there. Because while it has taken me a long time – several decades – to wrestle with this particular event, I do find value in the experience.

The Gifts

I didn’t ask for it. Nor did I deserve it. But I found gifts in the experience. Here’s what I found: First, I now understand and thoroughly believe that I was not to blame. Not. At. All. There was nothing wrong with me that caused this to happen. There was nothing about me that asked for it or deserved it. There is absolutely nothing about me that entitled these people to treat me as they did. Second, this event is mine. It is a part of my life, it happened in my childhood and it belongs to a set of experiences that shaped me and made me the way I continue to be. I can deny it and repress it, try to forget it and ignore it. But it’s there. It cannot be erased.

Now What?

What do I do with that info? This awareness of my blamelessness has helped me to back up. To move to a place inside of me where I can be more objective and less emotional, more of an observer of what happened and less of a victim frozen in it. I do still feel anger and outrage over it sometimes. I still can think of it and cringe inside. But I do have the option of sitting back and simply watching it from a distance. And that brings some peace.

How Did I Get Here?

It’s taken years of persistence, a stalwart commitment to the damaged 9-year-old child that I was, and a determined love for myself to get me to this objective place. I have sought the world over for understanding of what happened, how it happened and why it happened to me. I have not found the answer to why and I may never find it. I’m ok with that. Because what I found instead is the merit of this experience.

See, deep inside of this dinner table event is this: I know from personal experience what humiliation feels like. I know what abuse is first-hand. I have been at the mercy of bullies and withstood the experiences. I have been shamed by an exposure of my deepest and most painful feelings hanging out there for the entire family to witness and mock. And I survived. With my heart, mind and soul intact. I’m not sure how it happened, but it did.

I also realized I was given something. I have found a truth. This did not only happen TO me, it happened FOR me.

FOR me?

What I found in that moment and others like it is the quality of deep and passionate empathy. In me was born a strong and resolute compassion for people who suffer. In me was born a solidarity with others who have been victimized by cruelty and abuse and marginalization. And that voice I mentioned? I am allowing it to speak now. Even at the dinner table these days. I speak lovingly and humorously to my children and husband. I tell stories to people I know in order to teach and amuse. I write poems and article and essays and stories to help others…and we are back to where I started. It’s why I am here in the first place.

6 Comments

  1. I will definitely read those posts. I have a feeling we have certain experiences in common with siblings, not the same cause but the same outcomes. Just know that someone out there understands and supports you. Hugs!

  2. Hello Sarah. Thanks for caring enough to comment. I agree that, looking at this one situation, it is very likely that my siblings were acting out of self-preservation. We all were in our own ways. But over the years it became a pattern, if not a tradition, for my siblings to perpetrate the same type of abuse and scapegoating that my parents did. There are two other posts that may help you see the context of my relationships with them. If you have time, read Swimming and Scorn on Summer Afternoons and/or Me and Charlie. My siblings had carved me out of their lives to a point where I was stifling in a tiny corner, confused as to what had happened, with all the blame laid at my feet… I say, no more. Thank you for your understanding and your hugs. You are much appreciated, Sarah.

  3. Oh dear one, how my heart reaches out to you, and how happy I am that you have found some good, some strength, out of all this. I have had the same estrangements, although from a different kind of abuse, and I know full well how it affects us. The day I started to find strength instead of pain form the experience was a freeing day and I am so proud of you for getting there as well. It takes a particular brand of strength that most will never know.

    I completely understand your feelings towards your parents, but may I ask a question about your siblings? Were there more events that involved them? Could their laughter have been their own self-preservation from your father? It would not excuse what they did, not at all, but maybe it could lead to a certain understanding of their actions, especially given their ages at the time? I don’t know your history and therefore am NOT stating this is the case, I am just asking because I found some of this understanding with my own siblings, even though it took me a long time to get there. Above all, I am sending understanding hugs to you!

  4. Thanks for sharing your comment. Fortitude is definitely necessary. I’m pretty stubborn with what I ‘know’ inside, so that helped me through the many times I wanted to quit on myself. For me, and I suspect a lot of other people if not everyone, LOVE is the core of all that is and LOVE is the answer to all that is. I’m glad this offered you food for thought. 🙂

  5. Something similar happened to me, on multiple occasions. Reading this has given me a lot of food for thought as I try to figure out how to own my story. Kudos to you for pursuing not only empathy but love itself!

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