Healing From Childhood Abuse – My Lesson #2

I placed the paper in the door mail slot.  The friendly secretary of the business I was dealing with needed a document from me and had asked me to drop it in the empty office’s door slot and she would retrieve it later that day.  Past the slot lid the paper didn’t seem to drop much and a part of it was still sticking up.  I placed my hand in to try to push or slide it down a bit further, ignoring the light pain on the back of my hand from something sticking out on the metal of the slot lid.  From the back sharp edge of the lid or one of the wire springs?  I don’t know because I ignored the fact I was being injured, I was just intent that what I thought needed be done should get done.

I gave up on getting the paper to go down much more and went back to my car, looking at the wide red scratch on the thin skin of the back of my hand.  For the first time in my life I had the direct awareness that I am willing to injure myself to accomplish even the least important tasks.  I always knew I had this habit, but it was the first time I acknowledged it as an odd agreement to abuse to my body.

Plenty of times I have noticed deep bruises on my self at the end of the day after tackling a larger project, like painting or rearranging a room.  I vaguely remember pain during certain moments, but I had obviously never stopped or paused when receiving these significant thumps and bumps. I’ve leaned my shins against a step on a ladder and disassociate from the pain until I finished the task and climbed down, only to have black indentations from the pressure and bruising. I will push myself past the feeling of exhaustion, or hunger, or pain in almost all things I undertake, no matter how small or unnecessary, much long after I noticed most more protective people do.

These are not done as a conscious decision to bear something unpleasant to get an important task done, which would be understandable to me, but these things are done daily as a way of being.  I’m now noticing this as another example of how I relate to the world in a manner that is dismissive of my place in this world, of my “I don’t matter, getting this task done is more important” approach to things.

It hit me for the first time that day I got that scratch on my hand, that was large enough that it took over a week to disappear, that there was no need to injure myself.  I could have gone in more carefully or, upon feeling metal digging into my skin, could have withdrawn my hand and consider either another tactic or if what I was doing was even necessary in the first place (and it really wasn’t).

I would imagine that this is common among those who were physically abused during childhood.  I’ve learned to dismiss pain to my body, and I try to recall some of what led to that so I can more firmly remove such a twisted habit from myself.

My abuses were never of the more torturous kinds, and I am grateful at least for that.  They were lighter but constant – almost daily slaps and outright “wailings” where I would feel clenched fists raining on my body.  I noticed even then that in the moment of being assaulted it almost never hurt.  It was a few minutes later when I was all alone and she had left the room that I would then feel the pain, whether light or sharp, depending on the blows.  I see now that my mind was so wired to this that now my brain still doesn’t register pain at the time I’m receiving an injury.

My pain was never an excuse to not get something done.  I once had a severe stiff neck from sleeping funny or from an open bedroom window, I don’t recall.  But I do recall the pain and near immobility of my neck, especially since it was the first time I had experienced this as a young person at around 14.  I also don’t recall the details around this event but I was informed that I needed to be somewhere and hadn’t had time to shower.  I still had to at least wash my hair, though, as a teenager who’s hair couldn’t miss a day of washing without it being visibly oily.  I went to hang over the bathtub to wash my hair under the spout but had to do so under incredible pain.  My mother, who had okayed me washing my hair and who knew my neck was stiff, felt I was moving too slowly and grabbed my head and pushed it under the spout, telling me I was being stupid.  Then there was the blinding flash of white pain and the involuntary gasp and the freezing of my body.

It was a small incident but it was just one of many such incidents constant through my childhood and it added to the constant messages to my brain – the pain doesn’t matter, just get the job done.  I was sickened by and shrank from the cruelty of it even at the time, but it didn’t matter.  My inner being still picked up the message.  It had to, it was trying to keep myself sane and safe in the only way it knew how – to downplay the pain.

The day a couple of months ago that I “deliberately” scratched myself was a true realization.  I had never seen myself as someone to protect my self from physical pain, like it was a revelation that this was something that I could do!  It’s so funny to me.  It’s like one part of ourselves does something automatically and yet there is a simultaneous part of ourselves that, when it finally stops and looks at what we’re doing, can go, “That’s ridiculous, stop it.”

And so that’s what I said to myself that day, to just stop it.  I finally had a protector, it was myself.  I no longer consent to the messages that my physical pain doesn’t matter (and I think, at times, was even wanted by the abuser).  A part of me needed to downplay it then, I now release it from having to do that from this time forward.wear-your-heart-on-the-palm-of-your-hands-2-1314770

From Isaiah 42:3, I think of the bruised reed that the Lord won’t break.  I know there is the more spiritual sense that the verse and chapter is intending, but surely the physical sense is there for me, especially since the two may often intertwine.  I feel the goodness in the Saviour that He will notice the bruised reed and wish to not further harm it, but to heal it.  It speaks to me because I am a reed that learned to bruise itself, all against my God-given instinct, and to learn to take care of and protect my body as He would want me to do.

So, from now on, and with the continuing healing from God, I will acknowledge that injurious physical pain in life will come, but I will now seek to protect myself from it when and where I can.  There is a line between being stoic and being self-abusive.

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14 thoughts on “Healing From Childhood Abuse – My Lesson #2

    • Yes, I just read yours and the Philippians verse you had at the end of your post could have easily been applied to mine as well. It’s a wonderful thing to start being able to see things a little differently and begin to let go of emotional shackles.

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  1. This is so profound. What a revelation! And I agree, it is very strange how a part of us will automatically do something, while another part of us will say “This is ridiculous, stop it!”

    When I read that part about your mother roughly shoving you, with your hurt neck, under the faucet…. it went all through me. I wanted to cry. I also wanted to shove her under a faucet. After twisting her neck first, so she could get the full effect of what she did to you.

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  2. This is such a powerful article as a reminder that we can protect ourselves. I feel guilty when I do as if it is immoral to admit pain or set a boundary.
    I love this statement “I’m now noticing this as another example of how I relate to the world in a manner that is dismissive of my place in this world, of my “I don’t matter, getting this task done is more important” approach to things.:
    The other side of ignoring your own pain is that it can be protection from further abuse. That wall we build, of not revealing the hurt, we learned revealing hurt in front of narcissists gave them pleasure and sometimes they doubled their efforts when they understood how to stomp on the pain button. And so tuning out the physical and emotional pain was sometimes a way of preventing more. The defiance of “you will not see me cry” is some self-preservation of dignity. It can be a way of being strong in adversity Yet, over time we can become numb to our own pain and be careless with ourselves. Healing means we understand we don’t have to live that way.

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    • I was focused on the slow erosion of self-protection through abuse that I totally forgot to add in this post the other aspect to it that you brought up – that to not show pain was an act of dignity! That is so true, thank you for bringing that up!

      I remember with my mother, and then later my husband and a live-in boyfriend, that when I was assaulted I would get back up and look them in the eye. By the time I was an adult with the abusive men in my life, i was a pro at ‘never let them see me cry’ – or wince, or look down, or cringe, etc.

      I wasn’t going to fight back my mother and I couldn’t fight with the men, so dignity was ALL I had and I would exercise it like my life depended on it. Like you said, it’s like instinctively we knew they would get a charge our of our pain and we knew our last area of control was to not let them get a feed off of it.

      Thanks again for bringing up this important point to understanding why we sometimes do what we do.

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      • It has helped me have a sense of self-efficacy to see that beyond some label of learned helplessness or Stockholm Syndrome that a part of my soul was strongly resisting to aid in my staying alive. I remember being battered severely (except my face) and going to church, putting on a massive radiant smile and playing the piano for worship. Someone commented “the joy on the piano players face gives me joy” They didn’t know my joy was resistance or what proceeded it. The history of gospel music has much about resistance hidden in its words. Singing at all was resistance.

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  3. I wasn’t allowed to cry or show my emotions so I retreated within myself, tried to forget certain incidents. When I was ill I wasn’t allowed to vomit or make that noise or make the noise of coughing. They wavered between sporadic kindness, rage and neglect. For a long time I was unconsciously holding myself as worthless. I wasn’t sure of my identity. Today, I go from extrovert to introvert and wonder if I’m split somehow.
    Thank you for sharing Prairie Girl. I feel your hurt from the senseless cruelty of your mother who should have loved and protected you. We are all gifts from God.

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