When My Childhood Coping Mechanism Became Harmful as an Adult
Editor’s Note: If you’ve experienced domestic violence, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact The National Domestic Violence Hotline online by clicking “chat now” or calling 1-800-799-7233.
I remember the exact moment I met her.
His screams from the hallway had gotten too loud to bear and I crawled onto the floor of my closet with my tape player to try to drown them out of my head. Just me and Michael huddled together on that tiny closet floor.
He was telling me what a pretty young thing I was and I was repeating after him. To this day, I still don’t know what “tenderoni” means.
At some point, my mind wandered and I saw her. She was a little girl, just like me: same age, two younger brothers, same town, same school, crazy about Michael Jackson, collection of smelly stickers in a little plastic photo album (bubble gum was also her favorite), wishing for a pair of jelly shoes for Christmas.
There was just one minor difference: Her mom wasn’t out in the hallway beating the shit out of her brother.
Her mom was pulling cookies out of the oven and getting ready to lay down and read her a story before bed. Her house smelled like cinnamon.
For a long time, my “imaginary friend” helped me survive the reality of my life by giving me a way to cope. Believing that someone just like me was being loved and cared for gave me hope that everything would be OK for my brothers and me. She gave me relief from the deep shame of not knowing how — or being brave enough — to save us.
As I got older, I began to idolize her and used her to judge myself harshly. She became a measuring stick, always happy to point out the many ways I didn’t make the cut. She kept me in line, making sure that I didn’t get “too wild” or “too crazy.” I believed that she had her act together, and this began my long search for the person who had “the” answers, who knew how to do life “right.” This person was obviously not me.
Many years later in counseling I would realize that she had transformed into my inner “good girl” voice — a harsh, merciless perfectionist. As an adult she would show up in full force anytime company was coming over to my house (What will they think if your house isn’t just so?), when I was teaching my children a new concept (Why can’t you just get that right?), when I was attempting to make a new friend (Why would they want to be friends with you?), or when I would try to figure out how to be joyful (you’ll finally be happy when you learn how to be like that).
Her goals were unattainable. I remember a low point when my husband was being helpful by cleaning the living room one day. He was messing around and having fun by vacuuming concentric circles into the carpet. My “good girl” lost her fucking mind. She yelled at him, pitched a fit, grabbed the vacuum and promptly taught him to do it the “right” way. I’ve since apologized and been forgiven, but that memory still makes me sad.
Over time, I’ve learned to recognize her voice in my mind before she whisks me away in her tornado. Two of her biggest warning signs are:
1. Anytime I hear the word “should.”
2. When I start comparing myself to anyone else.
I’ve learned how to befriend her. She used to be large and in charge. She’s still around, but visits much less frequently now. When she shows up, I know she’s feeling afraid and just wants to protect me from getting hurt. That’s what she did for so many years, and she was damn good at it, too. I forgive her for being the overachiever that she is, then I comfort her in the same way that I always imagined she was being comforted in her cinnamon-scented childhood home: I make her cookies, get her favorite blanket to snuggle up in and sit with her while we listen to Michael Jackson tell us how pretty we are.
Follow the journey here.
If you or a loved one is affected by domestic violence or emotional abuse and need help, call The National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233.
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