When Bullied Children Grow Up

It’s been about 4 years since my diagnosis of Complex PTSD following severe psychological childhood bullying, and subsequent domestic violence relationships.

I was diagnosed a full year before I accepted that diagnosis. I left that therapist the moment she suggested the PTSD, and that it began with the bullying, because I had never associated the way that “friend” treated us as bullying. I’d merely seen it as one girl being a real bitch.

My counsellor came to her conclusion by asking me to detail my early childhood experiences. She had suspicions that the symptoms I was displaying were related to early childhood trauma, but I think that initially she suspected some sort of family abuse, until she heard about the loving and accepting and nurturing environment that my family had given me.

That’s when she began asking me about my experiences with friends, with school, and then with men.

That bullying label she applied to that girl.. it came as a shock. Through our sessions, I began to detail specific incidents; and in doing so, remembered more of them.

In order to explain the specific type of bullying I experienced, it’s probably easiest to liken it to a domestic violence relationship.

That girl started out sweet, and friendly. Within a very short period of time, she changed direction and would cast one of us out every couple of days, forcing the rest of us to go along with it under threat of being the outcast; the girl who nobody was allowed to speak to, the girl the group would whisper about behind their hands, the girl who would be laughed at and humiliated and occasionally pushed around the playground.

At 8 years of age, it’s a very scary and confusing experience, to have people that you love treating you in such a manner, with absolutely no explanation as to why.

What was more damaging was what happened when she decided your time as an outcast was over – she asked you why YOU had ignored THEM.

I now know that there’s a term for that behaviour, and it’s designed to make you question your own perception, to take the power away from you, the power that allows you to stand up for yourself. It’s called Gaslighting.

She began to control every aspect of our lives, both in school and out of school.

She decided which boys we should have a crush on. The boy she picked for me was a boy I actually had a crush on. She told me to ask him out, I did, she then became jealous when he bought me a gift, and she told me I had to break up with him. I did that, too.

None of us were allowed to have sleepovers without her being present. If we did, we had to keep it secret, so we couldn’t go back to school the following Monday and laugh and giggle about the silly little things we’d done. We had to tiptoe around each other and pretend nothing had happened.

It was rare for us to dare her wrath because inevitably, the girl you’d invited over, when she felt she was next in line for being outcast, would dob you in to protect herself. We all did it. It taught us that we couldn’t trust anyone, especially each other. We learned to keep happiness a secret, in case it was used against us.

We all discovered quickly that none of us were allowed to excel in anything. Some of us deliberately failed exams, others held back their sporting potential, and each of us tried desperately to become her Best Friend; the one afforded protection over all others.

She constantly accused us of having a secret.

Have you ever tried to prove you don’t have a secret? You can’t. You simply get accused of lying, regardless of what you say, and the conversation goes round in so many circles, with them suddenly changing direction, or throwing in another accusation, until your brain is so confused, and exhausted, and too full of anxiety over the consequences of this conversation that in the end, you just admit to something to make it stop – the punishment is preferable to the interrogation.

My first romantic relationship was practically identical to my relationship with this bully. He employed all of the same tactics, and threw in a whole bunch of cheating to go with it. The gaslighting, though. He was a master, and the end result of all of that relationship was a girl who didn’t believe in herself, her memories, or her own feelings. Everything I thought, felt, or saw was incorrect, so I lived a secret life on the internet, with friends he was unable to touch. It was the only place I had ever been allowed to learn who I was.

A year after that initial diagnosis, I went back to my therapist. I finally believed her.

From then, my mind was a place I didn’t recognise. All of the barriers I’d created over the years had been broken down, but life itself hadn’t stopped to allow me to process it. I didn’t know how to cope. It was touch and go for awhile there, with so much rage exploding onto the people I came into contact with, and the destruction of some dear relationships.

But I learned how to cope. I learned how to process it, and I learned how to put the pieces of my past together with the reactions of my present. I healed, I became a more productive member of society, I lost all that rage, the self-hatred, and a fair chunk of the shame I’d been carrying for the majority of my life. I don’t have panic attacks, I don’t react to current situations in a manner affected by all of my past. I can quite confidently say that my C-PTSD, while it will always exist within me, no longer affects my daily life.

It’s been a good four years.

I had a beautiful baby girl, who had some physical challenges in the form of Developmental Hip Dysplasia, but my therapy and diagnosis gave me all the tools I needed to get her and ourselves through it unscathed.

She’s recently started a couple of days a week at Day Care. It’s an exciting opportunity for her to socialise with other children.

While it’s a wonderful opportunity for her, I’ve found that it’s been quite triggering for me – I wasn’t expecting that.

My daughter is pure sunshine. She’s friendly, and happy, and loves to share. She adores other children, and gets so excited to spend time with them. What’s triggering me is the fact that at the moment, it’s her chasing after them.

It’s a silly thing to be hurt by.

I only see her at drop off and pickup; an emotional time for all of the children. It shouldn’t affect me that those children stick to the kids they already know, but it upsets me to see my daughter on her own so much. If she engages with another child, it’s because she initiated it, or she sits on the periphery, smiling or laughing at what they’re doing, just waiting to be invited to play.

This is most definitely a situation where only time will help. She needs to settle in to the environment and the concept of being away from her family for hours on end. They all need time to get to know each other. I know that once they’re comfortable, they’re going to adore her and she won’t even need an invitation to play.

I know that this is a situation where I need to remember that my experience is not her experience. I’m desperate for her to know something that I never did – the pure, guileless love of a friend you can trust. A friend who cares for you enough to stand up for you. A friend that you can spend time with, without worrying that the fun moments you’re sharing are going to be erased the very moment they dob you in for inviting them over.

I’m not worried that I will taint her experience with my own. I know that I can keep my hurt from clouding her life, because I was given the tools to do so.

I am just surprised by the extent of the damage done to me by one little girl, over a period of five tiny little years. Experiences that ended 20 years ago but are still resonating within my subconscious, despite therapy and all the work I’ve done to heal from them.

I’m not angry about it, I’m not hurt by it (anymore). I am aware that her behaviour had to have been due to her own experiences in her own life. I can’t blame an 8 year old girl for not having the tools she needed to deal with whatever traumatic situation she was experiencing. Her behaviour ended up putting me in that same position, years later.

I am just… surprised. I am in awe of the power of the brain, and of the consequences of traumatic childhood experiences.

I am also now more prepared for the future; for the days my daughter comes home crying because someone was mean to her. They’re going to trigger me. They’re going to make me angry, and they’re going to *hurt*. I am determined, however, to encourage my daughter’s natural empathy for the suffering of others, whilst helping her to cultivate a healthy self-esteem.

That’s far easier said than done. My own parents did exactly the same things for me, and I still fell into this trap. I refused their help when they tried to intervene. I forbade them from contacting the school or her parents because by that time, the damage had already been done. Just like with that high school boyfriend, I needed that bully to love me. I believed both of them when they told me that nobody else would want me, so I did all I could to become what they wanted me to be. Of course, what they wanted me to be was broken and in their control, so nothing I changed about myself ever made a difference, except in the damage it did to me.

For now, I’m going to work on putting my own feelings aside, and focus only on the positives that this new day care experience is providing for my daughter.

Hopefully, by the time bullying starts, I’ll have developed a strategy for helping my daughter through it.

You know, that… or schools will have actually done something to address the epidemic.

A Lofty Dream

I’m really hungry, today, but only for a café breakfast.

I’m not cereal hungry, or toast hungry, or even Work Morning Tea hungry, with their party pies, sausage rolls, cocktail frankfurts and some-kind-of-cheesecake.

No.

I am only hungry for eggs benedict on sourdough, with heaps of hollandaise sauce, chipolatas, fried tomatoes and bacon. Lots and lots of bacon.

I want to sit at a table in the sun, the sound of cutlery clinking onto plates and the crinkle of newspapers being read while people sip coffees and juices and catch up on each other’s news. I want to have a reason to wear something other than my House or Work clothes – perhaps I would even brush my hair. With a brush.

… Okay, with my fingers.

… Okay, so I’d just put it in a ponytail and not even look in the mirror to check that it didn’t have lumps all up in its grill. (It would).

Either way, this is how you’ll find me tomorrow morning, *guything and daughter in tow, fulfilling a dream that used to be my weekly reality…

*Since I can’t call him my husband, I’m too old to have a boyfriend, and ‘partner’ just sounds like we’re lawyers, he’s going to be formally referred to as ‘guything’.

When Old Becomes New

For many years I had a secret dream. A dream I wouldn’t even voice aloud to myself, not even in the voice that lived inside my head. 

I felt so undeserving of this dream that I brushed it off when it came up in conversation and made self-deprecating jokes about my inability to handle the task purely to hide just how vulnerable it made me feel to want something I felt so incapable of doing.

It’s been two months since my dream came true with the birth of my daughter, and what began as the most terrifying journey soon became a pleasant and happy experience as I grew with confidence in my own ability and in my relationship with my baby.

As weeks went by I began to miss my autonomy, my friends, my ability to just unwind and not be thinking about sterilising bottles or changing nappies, so last Friday my parents watched our daughter and my partner and I joined my friends on a night out – a night that began in all the ways my drinking history has taught me to avoid.

Unsurprisingly to many, I ended up where those historic sessions always found me; 20 odd vodka redbulls later, not able to tell you my own name – In fact, I was probably in the worst shape I’ve ever been, and that’s coming from someone who has given themselves pancreatitis from drinking. 

The day that followed was the most heartbreaking of my life.

It’s a day of new feelings, and of meeting old ones long buried and long forgotten.

I was dizzy, weak, unable to throw up but unable to keep anything down. I couldn’t pick my daughter up without the fear of dropping her. She cried and my partner was the only one who could help her. I couldn’t feed her, change her or bathe her. I couldn’t comfort her and I probably terrified her with the amount of alcohol that was steaming out of my body. My skin was grey, my eyes were bloodshot and my body shook.

I cried most of the day.

I felt physically better the next day (though by no means what you would call “well”), but mentally, I was beginning the sharp descent into the boozeblues.

This is where those old feelings brush up against new feelings.

It has occurred to me in these days that have followed that mentally and emotionally, I am back where I began in motherhood. I don’t have a single ounce of faith in my own ability as a parent as a result of ending up in that same boozetown I swore I had left behind. 

If I fell this far already, when I was enjoying our life so much, what am I going to do when we have actual challenges to face?

It seems my confidence is intrinsically linked to my control over my drinking – when I fail at controlling that, I lose any shred of faith in my ability to function anywhere else in life. All I see is how worthless and useless and selfish I am to not be able to stop, even when something so perfect is waiting to see me the next day.

I’ve spent the past few days with my old friends regret, fear, self-loathing and The Whisperer – she’s the one who speaks to people when they’re at their lowest, looking for ways to stop feeling those ugly feelings about themselves – she sits on your chest, fills up your veins, squeezes your lungs and tiptoes through your mind, kicking dust all over the things you find most precious. 

Now, when my daughter cries, I can’t say what she needs. Until Friday, I was okay with guessing. Now it feels like everything is a guess. It makes me feel small and not good enough for her.

We’ve been talking a lot the past couple of days, my daughter and I. She’s been smiling at me and laughing. Until Friday, those smiles and laughs were just that – a baby’s smiles and laughs. Now part of me aches because she’s too beautiful for me. She’s two months old and I’ve already let her down.

And now I remember why she was my secret dream, because this is what I knew was in me. This is why I knew I’d fail. 

So this is it. This is the memory I need to keep each time I take myself to the bar to buy a drink. I need to remember how this feels, rather than try to forget it.

It’s in the forgetting that we end up having to remember.

I now know

Nineteen days ago, at 6:18pm, my eyes lit upon a piece of my heart that I’d never known had been missing until we met.

She was tiny and perfect and couldn’t possibly be real. Couldn’t possibly be something my partner and I had created.

She couldn’t possibly be a soul that I would be priveleged enough to spend the rest of my days loving in a capacity that is so sacred, you don’t ever understand the infinity of its depth until you step into those same shoes yourself – the shoes of a Mother.

It’s all you hear during pregnancy – “It can’t be described”, “You’ll know it when you feel it”, “It’s different for everyone”.

Those vague responses are all used to describe everything from labour to breastfeeding to the concept of motherhood itself and I’d always found it to be a cop out… until now.

I think the simple truth is that words just aren’t enough. Words have power, but not here.

This place – motherhood – is enormous. It’s terrifying, confusing, depressing, filthy, humiliating, wounding, and wonderful. It heals, it fulfills dreams, it overwhelms and it brings you undone, both in sadness and in a happiness you never thought was possible.

With one wind-powered smile from my daughter, every single scar left open from my past no longer exists. It’s just gone. It doesn’t matter anymore.

And with one pained scream erupting from her sad little mouth, every single fear I’ve ever had in my life comes together in a great wave to crash over me and set my heart racing.

I spend hours staring at the monitor watching her breathe, or counting the wrinkles on her hands – those perfect little hands, so inconceivably small and delicate.

She overwhelms me.

There are so many things about her existence that I never expected…

I never expected pregnancy to be so empowering. I never expected the sight of my giant belly to bring me peace, to make me feel whole – I’d never realised there was a part of me that seemed to need that confirmation that I was, in fact, a woman capable of nurturing life – but it seems I did because pregnancy gave me a confidence I’ve never experienced before – a confidence where truly, nothing really mattered except my family and our security – outside influences, opinions, rumours all went by the wayside and suddenly, I felt capable of anything – if I can nurture life, I can do anything.

I never expected labour to be anything besides painful and undignified. I had no concept of what it would involve – no way to predict the pain – and sure, it certainly was painful. There were moments when the contractions were one after the other, on top of each other, two at once, almost… and in those moments I wanted to give up, to give in – oh god, take me for a c-section, anything to stop this!

… but in those moments I also realised that there was no longer room in my life to do that running away I’d become so good at. Here, now, I had no choice – there’s no going back when you’re in labour – you have to keep going through it, even though it hurts and you’re exhausted… because very soon (you hope), you are going to have to push through the things you don’t want to do on a regular basis. You’re going to have a tiny human who is entirely dependent on you for their survival – there’s no room whatsoever for “I’ll feed them later. I’ll just watch two more episodes of this and then feed them”.

And so the contractions kept coming, and I had to keep breathing. And pushing.

And then she was there, and her father was smiling and I was exhausted, confused, and in love.

Then everyone went home, and it was just Alia and I, alone in our hospital room. I stared at her, marveling at how much she looks like her father. Even her sleep-smile is his.

Then I remembered the needle thing in my arm, and how it was attached to a big walky-around thing which was plugged into the wall because the battery was flat, and it dawned on me…

she was staying in my room with me. Motherhood had begun.

I was exhausted from labour. I’d been unable to keep my eyes open to enjoy her when she was born and now I was only going to get a couple of hours sleep before I had to feed her? Change her?

Suddenly, I was terrified, and had to call the midwife to do it for me until that needle thing was able to be taken out in a few hours.

My first job as a mum and already, I had to get someone else to do it.

… this was the other stuff I never expected. That confidence I’d had as a pregnant woman was gone, and had been replaced with a feeling I’ve known far too intimately for far too long – fear and insecurity. I can’t do this. I have no idea what I’m doing. What if it’s wrong? They will judge me and I will get in trouble.

This feeling increased over the next few days and tears would just fall out of my eyes at random moments. My heart had never been so sad in my whole life. It felt that my entire body was built solely to house sadness, and it was full of it – it had no room left for it, so it just spilled over, onto my crisp hospital sheets, onto my failed boobs that my child couldn’t latch onto properly, and, if I’d been able to bring myself to physically touch my child – they would have fallen on her, too… but three days into her life, I didn’t want to hold her, change her, bathe her – I let my mother and my sister do that, and when everyone left at night, the walls would close in and I would fill up with that sad fear again.

Just you and me, kiddo.

I never stopped loving her. I never had mean or negative thoughts about her – she was still the most amazing little creature that has ever existed – it was me that was the problem.

But days passed, and with the incredible support of my family and my partner, sunshine crept back into the room and I was able to cope with the rollercoaster I was beginning to ride.

Now, nineteen days into her life, my little girl is feeding well, sleeping well and filling my entire family’s hearts with a light they haven’t known in many years. Our cats – the previous leaders of the house – have reacted in ways I never imagined – they run to check on her when she cries, and boycat even shared a cuddle with her and her dad yesterday.

Things are coming together…

Out of everything that I never expected, despite the constant warnings given, I never expected to find a love like this. It isn’t just love for my daughter, or a greater depth and passion that I hold for my partner, but an overwhelming awe for my own mother and every single thing she has done and continues to do for us – her children – that has astounded me the most.

I now know what she went through to bring us into this world, physically. I now understand the fear that would have flooded her each time our safety was in question, and I now know that it is impossible to measure the depth of her love for us, and just how overwhelming that is.

I now know that I will never be able to show her how grateful I am because she wouldn’t accept it – wouldn’t deem it necessary – our very existence gives her no choice – she does what she does because we are more important to her than she is.

I now know that that’s what parenthood is all about and that it lasts forever.

She is my light in dark places

You know that place where the feelings disappear?

Where there’s nothing but silence, a companionable silence that has no meaning behind it, just acceptance of whatever is, and that vague sense that what preceded this place was the snapped-elastic sensation of giving up on everything, all at once? And now there’s no resistance, just a weightless silence of nothing mattering anymore.

You feel relief wash over you, like you’re bathing in it, swimming in it, just floating in freedom from yourself, but there, under the water is a current. If it had colour, it would be a cartoonish wisp of blackness that tickles your toes and reminds you that this isn’t a dream.. that this is real. You’re finally here. You’re at the place where the noose hangs from the tree, the poison sparkles in the bottle, the pills pile up in your hands, the gun glistens in the moonlight.

It’s when that brings no fear that you have to tread most carefully.

I was lucky.

It was the feeling of pure calm that made me realise it wasn’t me who was holding the reins that night. No, they were being held by The Girl Who Lives Inside – the little downtrodden one who finds her voice when I find the middle of the bottle.

I used to feel sorry for her, when I realised she was in there. She’s the little girl me, the girlfriend me, the one who kept trying to tell me to leave these harmful people and I kept telling her to shut up.

I don’t feel sorry for her now. She isn’t a nice girl. She is made out of knives and bee stings and hatred and vomit and just like those people she kept warning me to leave, she also tries to hurt me.

She hates that I know about her now. She hasn’t been allowed out because I haven’t opened a bottle. I haven’t left the shores of sobriety for seven months – not a single escape tool has passed my lips – no cigarettes, no alcohol, no drugs.

I suppose she’s in there just biding her time, knowing that in a few very short months, my main reason for keeping the lid on the bottle will be out in the world, no longer sharing my blood, my oxygen, my body.

And I wonder if she will pounce. If she will take me back to that weightless place a month or so into my lack of sleep, when the sound of crying causes me to do the same. When the responsibility of being someone’s world becomes too overwhelming, will that elastic snap again? When it all piles on too heavy, I know she will be there with her bee stings and dagger-eyes, laughing at me for thinking I could get away.

What she may not have taken into account is something I’ve just realised – She’s never met me. Not this me.

This me is someone who is now needed by someone who won’t go seeking a better version of me elsewhere. For someone, I am finally going to be enough. I’m going to be their mum. And nobody is going to make me feel like she would be better off without me.