I learned from an early age that my family needed to be protected. In my childlike way, I saw them as being unable to handle the secrets I held, or even to be able to deal with daily problems. I saw the family around me, as being a swirling mass of chaos, and the only way to bring some control and calm to the situation, was for me to be a silent rock.
While this sounds very egocentric, it meshes with some of the basic principles of childhood development. Dunn (1991, as cited in Claiborne & Drewery, 2010, p. 157), discuss how children as young as two attempt to comfort their mother when they see her distressed. While Lewis (2002, as cited in Santrock, 2007, p. 340), talk about the development of shame and guilt for not meeting societal expectations in children as young as two and a half. So it makes developmental sense, that by the time I was first abused at the age of three (nearly four), I could understand (in a childlike way) the implications of telling. I could grasp the idea that it might either hurt someone else, or bring shame on myself for not meeting my mothers expectations – after all I was told at the event that it was “bad”, “dirty”, “wrong” and “naughty”… all very emotive words to a sensitive child.
Reading the literature on dysfunctional families, it also becomes clear that the need to protect my family meant that I lost sense of appropriate boundaries (Kerig, 2005). It meant that I became enmeshed in the problems of some of my family (father, sister and one of my brothers) and held other members of my family quite distant from myself (mother and other brother). Throughout the family, there was almost no boundaries where I was concerned. My other siblings were able to create some sense of boundaries, but I seemed unable to do so. This is possibly because of the age gap between us – there is a five year age gap between myself and the next oldest child, but only four years difference between my other siblings combined. It could also be because I was a difficult baby/child and I didn’t emotionally attach securely to anyone, with the associated developmental impact (Claiborne & Drewery, 2010, p. 49-51).
At this point, the intellectual part of me is happy with the theory as it helps to explain why we got where we did… the cynical part of me notes that we never had a chance… while the emotional part is screaming in pain…
So what does all this theory mean? On one level, it helps to explain why we ended up in a dysfunctional family and were an easy target for abuse… we had no concept of what an appropriate boundary was; we were used to protecting others; and we didn’t really understand that it was wrong, because we didn’t understand where we ended and the rest of the world began. On another level, there’s pain… total and utter pain… it doesn’t matter why it happened, it happened and it hurt.
In the midst of writing this post, I’ve seen the work place therapist. In that one hour “talk” we did a sociogram of three people – my neighbour, the mother and sister. It was incredible and awful… On the floor we placed whiteboard magnets for each person in relation to myself…
First, was my neighbour, who was placed about 5cm from my marker… she was safety, freedom and acceptance. But she was also shame and pain… I once overheard my neighbour, the mother, the sister and my neighbours daughter discussing how good it was that I wasn’t around because I was so annoying. She was the safest thing I had outside of the teachers at school.
Second to be placed, was a marker for the mother, who was about 15cm away from my marker… she was not to be trusted, to be protected, consumed with the problems of my sister and joked about me being the mistake at the end.
Third to be placed, was my sister’s marker… this is where the lack of boundaries really showed… I told the work place therapist that she should be placed on the other side of the room, and on top of my marker. There was nothing in-between, she was either invading my space or ignoring me. She controlled many aspects of my life. We shared a room for many years and she invaded my space so often, in so many ways.
This seemingly simple task brought up so much… W filled in the rest of the memory surrounding what happened after we overheard the discussion about us being so annoying – we got down off the fence and went inside the house to be hurt… We realised how young we dissociated, as we remembered getting a hug from a teacher for correcting a story; but we were depersonalised at the time, as we were so terrified that we hadn’t corrected the story “properly”.
Sophie cried… W was tough… Little Michelle stuttered…
Our work place therapist kept bringing us back to the emotions…
It was difficult, but not overwhelming.
What does all of this mean? Well, for once I can understand the theory and associate some of the emotions with it. Yes, I parented/protected those around me… I looked after my family’s needs before my own, I kept the secrets, all the while learning to cope and adapt through the gift/curse of dissociation. I failed to learn and understand what appropriate boundaries were – physically, sexually, psychologically and emotionally. I learned to lock away my emotions, and although these emotions hurt to look at and experience, they won’t destroy me – unless I let them.
My work place therapist said today that I was a strong child… Right now, that statement is enough for me to believe that I can heal and grow beyond the confined world I find myself in.
Claiborne, L., & Drewery, W. (2010). Human development: Family, place, culture. North Ryde, New South Wales, Australia: McGraw-Hill Australia.
Kerig, P. (2005). Revisiting the construct of boundary dissolution: A multidimensional perspective. Journal of Emotional Abuse 5(2/3), 5-42. doi: 10.1300/J135v05n0202
Santrock, J. (2007). Child development (11th ed.). Boston: McGraw-Hill.