My father chased my friend away with a baseball bat. He had become known for doing this. On this particular day, he used the same bat to teach me a lesson. I was never to bring a friend home again, and I never did. Not out of fear but because as the whispers spread, friends never stuck around long enough.
I have few memories as a child and the ones I do have are the ones I want to forget. No one protected me. I wore bruises and had broken bones. This was the damage that could be seen. There was the invisible damage, both emotional and violating.
My siblings and I pleaded with our mother many times but she’d never leave. I remember her telling us that she was struck across the face with a belt by her father and that we “didn’t have it so bad.” There are few times I can recall when she attempted to stop my father. Those times were met with her being thrown off to the side.
Society was different in the 1970’s and early 80's. Any type of child or domestic abuse was considered a family matter and best to turn a blind eye. Teachers had to have known but never mentioned it. It wasn’t just one teacher, either. The abuse went on through elementary, junior high and into high school.
One night a neighbor knocked on our door concerned about the noise. I was relieved and wanted to be sure he saw me. I peered through the crack between my father and the entryway, willing to risk it all. “Come inside!?” I pleaded. My father back handed me. I stumbled and fell to the floor. The neighbor left.
By the time I was fourteen I came to terms with the realization of “this isn’t normal.” I knew it wasn’t right and I was scared. I was scared someday he might kill me. I was also scared he might not.
Another time, I was at the hospital with a broken arm he “accidentally” snapped while holding me down. My grandmother insisted I go. My father lost patience with my crying while we waited an eternity for my name to be called. He smashed my head into a metal door. I had a cast put on my arm and the freshly cut gash on my face stitched up.
Then, the doctor sent me home.
I was on my own. No one was going to swoop in. No one was going to protect me. At fourteen years old I did the only thing I knew how to protect myself. I swallowed every bottle of medication in our bathroom. I didn’t want to die. I wanted to be safe, and at the time I believed dying was the only way I could be.
I woke up the next day in the emergency room with a tube in my nose and a catheter. I vomited on the floor. I screamed. I cried. The nurse came in and reassured me I was okay. I knew I wasn’t. As long as I was alive I wasn’t safe.
I was transferred to the child psychiatric unit at St. Vincent Hospital in Harrison, New York. I spent the next fifteen months there. My family came once a month for counseling sessions. My brother wouldn’t look at me. I thought he hated me. Later in adulthood it occurred to me he was angry I left him home alone.
I was medicated with Haldol. My muscles were rigid. I wasn’t able to open my hands and my neck was stuck, cocked to one side. If they suggested discharge I did something to ensure I would stay longer. I starved myself. I faked violent outbursts. I cut myself. I threatened suicide. Each act did extend my stay. I would have done anything not to go home but eventually, I had to.
I’m not certain why now. Why thirty years later? Do I need closure, or feel resentment, or need to fill in the blanks I can’t remember? The question that’s been weighing on me the most for some time now is, did I report the abuse to the staff? Did they know and still sent me home?
I contacted St. Vincent to request my records.
I’ll never know so I had to learn to not need to.
I let it go. All I have are pieces of memories from that chapter in my life but I’m not that child anymore. I’m not a victim.
I wasn’t the cause of the problem. I wasn’t a bad child, nor am I a bad person. My father was mentally ill and he was never able to get help, for whatever his reasons were. He lived with himself longer than I did.
My children never knew the same pain and fear I experienced as a child. I raised them with encouragement, independence, love and nurturing. I taught them to have compassion and to respect humanity. I believe in them.
Children are people. If I want them to respect me I must respect them.
I sometimes find myself wondering if I would have raised them differently if my own childhood were different, if I hadn’t grown up the way I did or strive to be nothing like him. Maybe my father did teach me a lesson after all and if nothing else, I’m grateful for that.