Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Reach Out, Take My Hand

I know many of us have on our hearts the senseless tragedy in Connecticut, and many here in Washington State are mourning the loss of a sweet little girl to suicide. May these deaths inspire us to reach out to others, to listen to their pain, to offer solace, and to work toward a society that recognizes and treats abuse and mental illness of all kinds.

The powerful story below was submitted by a reader.
When I was 11 or 12, I decided I was going to commit suicide. I took a sleeping bag, a family sized bottle of Bayer Aspirin, and a canteen into the woods, where . . .  I lost my nerve after a few hours. I left all of these items in the forest, and if my mother ever looked for the sleeping bag, the aspirin, and the canteen, she never questioned why these items were missing. 
I lost my nerve because, according to church doctrine, I could not determine if I had reached the age of reason, and in taking my own life I would go to hell. Sermons gave conflicting opinions. Our believer friend “Lasse,” who we all consulted regarding spiritual matters, thought it was age 20, but some ministers said confirmation age, and another believer thought it could be as low as age eight. I did not want to take any chances on hell, so I did not kill myself. 

Now, in my fifth decade of life, I have safely determined I’ll either have to go by natural causes or by catastrophic accident. 
I was a willful child. I could not be forced or cajoled into some things I did not want to do. If my mother said, “Do x or you will not get dessert,” I said fine and went without dessert. Yet I did help out around the house, just as much as my sisters, and I willingly took on some chores of my own doing, but I did refuse to do others. I also mouthed off. I rolled eyeballs. I challenged my mother, especially when I thought she said stupid things, or blamed someone unjustly. 
Our family looked so perfect from the outside. We lived in a community that had very few people from our Laestadian church, and we socialized nearly exclusively with them and were encouraged to make only "believer" friends. We lived deep in the woods. But underneath the fa├žade—of the many children with high IQ's and off-the-charts comprehensive tests scores and who all made the honor roll every quarter—we were a troubled family. 
My father had a secret second life and often had extramarital affairs, beginning from the time of his wife’s second pregnancy, which resulted in my birth. Despite the ban against alcohol, sometimes we found hidden bottles in the sofa cushions. My mother had frequent explosive emotional breakdowns and tirades in which she blamed her children for her misery, not the real cause, her husband. I was her most frequent target. I made the mistake, many times, of challenging her, whereas my more compliant siblings hid in the garage or shoved fingers in their ears and hid in closets during her outbursts, which seemed to last for hours. 
I found out later that this probably had more to do with birth order than anything else, that I became the family’s scapegoated child. It started with my mother, who rejected me, perhaps like she believed her husband was rejecting her. I was the perfect 7 year old foil, the perfect object for projection. Then it moved on to all my siblings who also rejected me, even the littlest one, and pretty soon every day was a terrible uphill battle. It is hard for me to fathom the terrible things my siblings were allowed to say to me, in my parents’ presence, without censure. Yet if I were ever to retaliate, and call them names back, I was punished, or subject to further name calling by my own mother. Only once do I recall a parent intervening, and it was my father, who was usually not home. 
I brought my low self-esteem and hang-dog personality to school with me, and it only took two to three years of abuse at home before my classmates started picking on me too. I hung my head low and never protested, and no one believed I was troubled—just quiet and shy. The older me understands my mother’s life was a mess. Seven children, a wandering spouse, and too much month left at the end of the money. I understand why she looked at my face, and saw her own, and rejected it. It was a form of rejecting herself. I understand why my compliant siblings became her favorites, and why I became her perfect scapegoat. 
It took many decades to realize that I was not a bad person, and that indeed, I was an especially good and loving person. I have many, stories that I could tell, but I don’t think this blog is the appropriate forum. I wish the 11-year old me had met someone—anyone—who might have helped me. I am not sure if I would have been believed, given my family’s very good status in the community. I was never any speck of trouble at school and neither were my siblings. I did meet someone, a couple years down the line, who was a member of my church. She liked me. She told me I was pretty, and smart, and called me her “other daughter.” Sometimes as I was going about doing chores at home, I would think about her and smile. 
Maybe she saved my life. 
I never shared with her my family troubles, but maybe she knew or was able to read between the lines. I am glad I changed my mind. I would never have gone to college, married, and had children. I learned there was life outside of the Laestadian movement, and that my family was not emotionally healthy. I have worked very hard in the last few years to understand that my family’s problems were not all my fault. I was not the cause of all our problems, despite my mother’s repeated insistence that “this family could be happy if it wasn’t for you” (which seemed to be said at every attempt I ever made to hold her accountable for her actions and/or behavior). 
I also understand there is a difference between being a bit strong-willed and independent, and being a bad person. Thirty years after my contemplated suicide, I also fully realize that I am not and have never been crazy, either, and I question the sanity of a mother who would hurl accusations of a daughter of being “schizophrenic” just because she was not compliant. I have weathered many storms in my life and I have never found myself out of touch with reality or in a locked mental ward. But even if I had, it would not have made me a bad person who deserved physical and verbal abuse!
I heard about the news about the 13 year old girl from the OALC who hung herself, and that her mother described her as a “strong-willed” child, and I see myself in her story. I don’t know many details of her story, but I understand the place where she is coming from, where there is no place where you can find relief from verbal, physical, and emotional abuse. Some young people even have to deal with sexual abuse, which I am relieved to say was never an issue for me. 
If there are any young people reading this blog who are looking for help, please contact someone—a school social worker, a teacher, or nurse—an enlightened witness—to understand you’re not bad. It could be as simple as the woman who said nice things about me at a time that no one else did. It might be a neighbor, a teacher, or even someone at your church.
Thank you, reader, for sharing your story. And thanks also to the reader who submitted resources for the Help Stop Abuse page.

1 comment:

  1. Reader, I’m sure glad you lost your nerve then, but haven’t now–when it comes to expressing yourself. Wow! What a story. Well written, too. I like the line “too much month left at the end of the money.” Many of us have been there, especially with these big families.

    Congratulations on achieving the understanding that the problems were not your fault. It’s not a trivial thing to do. Getting over that hurdle was surely not made any easier for you by the teaching about “sin corruption” that you heard in Laestadianism from childhood onward. You are just a wretched sinner, the doctrine goes, worthy of nothing but damnation. But, guess what! We (and only we, the right group of Laestadians) happen to have a band-aid you can put on the festering wound of guilt and unworthiness that we have created in your little child mind. Be careful, though; it needs to be replaced on a regular basis with the preaching of forgiveness. Given that upbringing and your toxic family life, your insight into your own self-worth is all the more impressive.

    One area where I’m happy to say that the LLC is now doing things right is its awareness of mental health issues and the limitations of its preachers when it comes to counseling people. Decades ago, the line was that the only treatment needed for mental distress was the forgiveness of sins. But that changed somewhere along the way, thankfully, and now people are encouraged to seek professional help when they need it. There have been congregational discussions and articles in the Voice of Zion about the value of counseling and drug abuse treatment.

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