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How Child Abuse Made Me 'Allergic' to Living at Home

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Editor’s note: If you have experienced emotional abuse or domestic violence, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741. You can also contact The National Domestic Violence Hotline online by clicking “chat now” or calling 1-800-799-7233.

Half my lifetime ago, at 17, I was thrown out of my house and for the first time didn’t return. I survived because I had another house to go to, a sanctuary from the nightmare I was living in. I couldn’t see the obvious then: that I was being abused and had been my whole life. My feelings then were primitive, alarming and clear: “If you don’t get out, you could die.”

• What is PTSD?

One of my first memories is of being berated for hours as a “manipulative whore” because I’d lied that morning about brushing my teeth. “You’ll end up in the gutter like your bitch mother,” he said. I was 5. I still remember my horror when he checked the bristles of my toothbrush with his fingers.

Though I danced around it for years, accepting the truth about my home situation wouldn’t come until my mid-20s, when a family friend came to rescue me from the house for the last time and said, “he batters you.” The truth of that statement hit me so hard, the recognition so sharp, I wondered that I hadn’t always known. I wondered why no one had said those words to me before. Maybe someone had; my memory is so full of holes, it’s impossible to know.

My survival instincts are fierce. I’ve been told what a miracle it is that I didn’t end up dead or a “junkie prostitute.” I feel sad every time a doctor compliments me on my high pain tolerance. Did you know itching is a form of pain? Growing up, I had severe hives more days than not. Sometimes my lips and eyes would balloon. Doctors made me carry an Epi-pen when my tongue began to swell. They thought my throat could be next.

My mother would insist to the string of doctors, “Anna’s under severe stress.” She told me the story of how her appendix scar swelled up the first time she met her in-laws from a previous abusive marriage. Besides her, though, no one wanted to accept I was allergic to living at home. “Stress was made up by Americans,” he said. Perhaps now it’s a Chinese hoax. You never know. The last I heard, Hillary Clinton is to blame for my leaving home. Very busy woman.

I developed an autoimmune disorder way too young, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, meaning my metabolism slowed to that of a middle-aged woman before I’d even started middle school. I was told that the disease was my fault, that I chose to be a lazy parasite. Because I was bullied at home, I was also bullied at school. In fifth grade, most of my class joined an anti-Anna club, shunning me as fat and smelly. I hated myself too much to fight back, but my French teacher found out and yelled at the class, “This is how the Nazis began!” At home, I was told the world hates fat, weak people so I’d better get used to it.

He told me I was disfigured, physically and mentally. I believed it. I called myself Quasimodo because of all the allergies. He called me “begemotik” or “little hippo.” Funny, right?

Under interrogation at 12, I admitted I was afraid of him. He locked me in the house for five days until I agreed to change my custody arrangement. The timing was no accident; at 12, I could tell the court who I wanted to live with. He used to brag about it to people in casual conversation, maybe still does. “I thought she’d end up in an institution,” he’d muse proudly. “She should have broken. I was surprised, honestly. I got away with murder.” Hello, intergenerational trauma.

The chaos took a toll on every aspect of my life, because my life wasn’t my own. Taking care of myself was and still is a betrayal of him. By the time I reached high school, I was serially exhausted. I took naps on benches at school. Several times, I was mistaken for homeless, even though I lived in a mansion on top of a hill. To be fair, there was the time at Duke I got stopped at night by campus police for pushing a shopping cart full of laundry and cigarettes while in a bathrobe and slippers. Some of the hot messiness is all me.

Until recently, I regularly struggled with stress headaches, migraines, nausea and vomiting, muscle tension and fatigue. I no longer get hives but my face breaks out every time he starts in again, which he still does. Those are just the physical symptoms of complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD). In addition to anxiety and depression, my other symptoms include hypervigilance, dissociation, trouble focusing and all sorts of fun trust issues. In case you hadn’t noticed, abuse really fucks you up.

He still terrifies me. I hate my phone, though I’m also addicted to it. I don’t like being available and I’m scared of being caged. I have nightmares of being paralyzed while something slowly but surely comes to get me.

Repeated trauma like child abuse or domestic violence can affect a person similarly to the trauma of prison or a concentration camp. Years of captivity fractured my mind and self in ways I’m still learning about and healing from. Some parts of me can be restored, while some are long gone. Some parts of me I’m finally learning to love, as damaged as they may be.

2017 was a revelatory year for me. I started it depressed and frustrated because I wanted to write something like this but was too scared. Now I’ve written this, and I’m still here. I mean, holy shit. Imagine carrying that as an open secret your whole life. I know there will be repercussions, but I don’t give a fuck. As weird as it is, my life settled down a lot in 2017. I feel like I’m finally building something for myself that won’t be torn down. I can imagine a future that’s all my own, something I never dared to dream about before.

I’ve long been on a mission to heal and I’ve clearly turned some kind of corner. My friends are all ride or die, love you guys so much. Over the years I’ve found ways to be kind to myself: Niko, therapy, self-medicating, properly medicating, traveling, having a ton of fun, being grateful for every day I get some goddamn peace and quiet.

I had to learn as an adult how to want things for myself without feeling selfish, something impossible when your life revolves around accommodating someone else. Yes, abuse is about pain, but to me, it’s more about loss. Abusers take until there’s nothing left, like vampires; they steal your time, your focus and your strength. They step on your dreams, your ambitions, your friendships and relationships, anything you care about that threatens their grip on you. Most of all, they try to kill your hope. It’s sadistic and predatory. I wish everyone had the resources I did to get out.

For the first time in my life, my past isn’t overwhelming my present. That totally rocks. Wishing you all a happy 2018.

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.

Getty Images photo via LSOphoto

Originally published: February 23, 2018
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