And I should know. I experienced it myself.
No One Deserves To Be Abused
I am the first to admit that, growing up, I was no angel. I sometimes lied about insignificant things like eating the last ice cream sandwich in the fridge that was meant for someone else and I often played practical jokes on my little brother. Like the time I convinced him that God was calling…on the phone. It was actually me using the wireless handset connected to the speakerphone in the other room (I still think that’s hilarious! 🤣).
But there were other times when it seemed like being punished was not appropriate. Like the multiple occasions my mom told me to something, and I completely forgot (I was very absent-minded as a child). Or the time I was playing with my barbie dolls and accidentally broke the head off of one. Yet, on the latter occasion, I found myself using my arms as a shield as the headless barbie was swung at me sharply and repeatedly, like a police officer might pitch his baton at an armed criminal. My arm was so sore that for days after, I walked around with a makeshift sling, unable to move it fully.
We can debate for hours about whether or not any specific occasions calls for some sort of penalty. But what’s not debatable is that abuse is never acceptable.
The Experience That Broke Me
Despite extreme financial hardship, my sisters and I were enrolled in dance school. Our family was frequently late on tuition payments, something the owner came to expect over the many years we attended. Which is why I was surprised one day, when my dance teacher told me I couldn’t leave the studio until we payed our overdue tuition bill.
“Tell your mom to come in here,” she said. I felt trapped. Not only were there other members around, but I had to leave right away so I could make it to basketball practice. I told her that, but when she wouldn’t budge, I began to get nervous. So, in an effort to get out of there, I told her the truth.
“Oh,” she said, shocked at my honesty. “Okay.” Then she let me leave. A week later, I was mortified to hear her explain to my mom how loudly I divulged our money problems in the middle of the tiny studio. Adult members who were present nodded vigorously, and chimed in with their own recollections of the story. The walk from the studio to the car was ominously silent.
I won’t recount what happened on the ride home. It is an experience I would prefer to forget entirely. Just know that life changed for me that day. When I got home, I made a decision that would change the way I related to people for decades to come.
Trauma Destroys Trust
I started dancing when I was 2 years old. I danced several days a week for 10 years, learning and loving ballet, tap, jazz, and acrobatics. The studio was a place where I felt comfortable, confident, like it was my home away from home. I’ll never forget how betrayed I felt that day my instructor sold me out. As if I had done something horribly wrong, when all I did was tell her the truth. After that day, I quit dancing, my greatest passion, and never went back to the studio again.
Even now, as I type, my hands are shaking. That day in the studio, I learned an important life lesson, one that I carried with me for two decades. It was this: Trust is the enemy of self-protection. The only way to stay safe is to avoid it altogether.
I learned that I couldn’t protect myself physically. But if I focused hard enough, I could use my mind to separate my mental and emotional experience from my bodily experience. I could build an imaginary wall between myself and the world and use my imagination to create a place where I remained free from harm. Having studied psychology for 14 years, I now know that, disassociation is an outgrowth of trauma. And I mastered it. For years, it turned out to be my greatest weapon against abuse. But eventually, it would turn out to be my biggest crutch.
Interested in seeing how this story plays out? Check out my previous blog post:
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