The Metaphor That Describes Why My Childhood Didn't 'Look' Abusive — Even Though It Was

Though I definitely grew up in an abusive household, it was only within the last year or so that I recognized and attached the word “abuse” to my upbringing. Since coming to this realization, my sister and I both have been plagued with questions.

Why didn’t we realize we were being abused?

Why didn’t we do anything about it?

Why didn’t an adult step in to help?

My younger sister’s therapist gave her a perfect metaphor to describe why we were likely unaware. In fact, you may be familiar with it — it’s known as the “boiling frog” metaphor.

Essentially, if a frog is put suddenly into boiling water, it will instinctively jump out. But if the frog is put into room temperature water then brought to a boil gradually, it won’t recognize the danger, will continue to adjust to the heat and slowly get cooked.

When my sister shared this with me, I remember thinking how perfectly it described our lives growing up. The abuse we experienced was so gradual that it “snuck up” on us. When the temperature of the abuse got hotter, we adjusted. When it got hotter again, we adjusted again. It was only in adulthood when we both experienced mental health struggles that we realized just how detrimental our home environment had been.

For years, my sister and I slowly got “cooked” — without ever realizing it.

Seemingly “harmless” comments like, “You were an accident baby,” were modified slightly, changed to things like, “You were an accident. I never wanted to be a mom.”

“Disciplinary spanking” turned into red hands on tender skin and being yanked up by the hair… hard.

What perhaps began as questionable parenting behavior devolved into outright abuse that tanked my self-esteem and made me believe I deserved to be treated as an inconvenience, an imposition and an overwhelming burden.

Looking back on my childhood often feels like watching this horrible TV show where there’s a little girl trapped in a glass box, going through life consumed by her own unworthiness, while “Present Me” pounds on the glass trying to tell her the truth about what she lived through. But she can’t hear me and I’m stuck watching her believe she is inherently “bad” and worthy of abandonment and abuse.

Unfortunately, I can’t go back in time and tell my younger self what I experienced wasn’t right or fair or deserved. But I can look forward and continue to tell those things to my present self.

If you can relate to any part of what I just described, you’re not alone. If you are struggling with shame about not knowing you were being abused, I want you to know it’s not your faultIf you are retroactively blaming yourself for not reaching out for help sooner, I want you to remember you were just a kid.

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Unsplash photo via Jack Hamilton

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