When No Amount of Success Can Fill the Void Left by Childhood Abuse
My go-to method of coping with the trauma of childhood abuse and neglect was to achieve. School, and eventually work, were my escapes. They were the places I got positive reinforcement for doing a good job, and I was always eager to please. At home, if I did a good job, it would either go unnoticed or there would suddenly be some alternate criteria that meant I failed. To escape at home, I read. I was less likely to be a target if I made myself invisible with a book. While there’s plenty of external positive reinforcement for achievement, on the inside, I felt like a fraud. Success felt empty because it could not be a substitute for love and acceptance.
In kindergarten, I read and worked at a fourth-grade level. I was told this many years later by my mother, who added that she made sure to play down my aptitude so as to not upset my older brother who struggled to read. I don’t think it occurred to her families can celebrate each other’s strengths, even when they are different. If I did anything that stood out, I was quickly ushered to the background. I was expected to do well in school, but my parents never asked me about what I was studying or bothered to look at my homework. It never occurred to either of us they could, and maybe should, engage me intellectually, or at all. They expected me to be totally independent, which was fine by me, because depending on them for anything led to disappointment.
In my junior year of high school, I figured out I had enough credits to graduate early if I took some additional classes at the local community college. It meant a total of nine classes, in addition to a pile of activities I was involved in at school, but I was motivated to leave home as soon as possible. The added bonus was it kept me so busy, I was rarely home anyway. With great relief, I left for college two months after my 17th birthday. I drove myself 2,000 miles away to start my own life. At school, I watched my new roommate say goodbye to her tearful, sweet mother, who had driven her to school and helped her get settled into our dorm. I had already been emotionally living on my own for so many years I had forgotten having an emotional attachment to a parent was normal.
For me, when things got hard, I got busy. I was accustomed to working long hours, and often I was rewarded for them. At school and work, I excelled, but no one, except for a small handful of my closest friends, knew about the abuse. Even then, it would take years for me to tell those I was close to about some details. My external persona was to be positive and motivational to others. I was a mentor and a leader. I looked out for others. I excelled in my work. I was called “inspirational.” I treated people with the encouragement and praise I never got at home, and being that person for others helped me create distance from my own pain.
However, over the years, the underlying effects were eating away at me. I worked myself into exhaustion, but nothing I accomplished seemed like it was “enough.” Success felt empty because it had been my only option for survival. It was not a choice, but a compulsion.
I struggled with survivor guilt over what I had achieved. Statistically, I should not have fared as well as I had, given the prolonged exposure to sexual and psychological abuse. Over the years, my brother became debilitated from serious mental illness, and the complications from it haunted me. Our ways of coping were completely unalike, but we had been unfairly compared to each other throughout our lives. He fell into many of the same toxic patterns of our parents, and I had internalized the message any success on my part would steal his glory.
I eventually went no-contact with my family, and I thought I had moved on. In my work, I racked up multiple achievements. I had a loving, supportive, and safe marriage. In spite of my anxiety over being a better parent than my own, my kids turned out to be well-adjusted, amazing little people capable of love and empathy. I had broken the cycle. Still, I felt little satisfaction, because nothing could fill the void, which for me was the love and validation I needed as a child, but never experienced.
Hard work and perseverance gave me opportunities that helped lift me out of my abusive past, but it could not heal me. Sucking it up and pretending I was fine could get me through a day, a week, or even a season, but it could not get me through life. The deep healing I needed could only be accessed by first examining the vast depth of the wound. I’ve been committed to growth my whole life, and objectively I know I am considered a success story.
But it took years to grieve the losses in my life. Only now am I finally starting to feel like I’m allowed to take credit for a lifetime of decisions that put me on a path of trauma recovery. I’m now middle-aged and mid-career, but in many ways I feel like my life is just beginning. Finally, I can enjoy who I am. Finally, I can enjoy what I do. Finally, I know the difference.
Getty image by Cavan Images