"This hurts me more than it hurts you," my parents would say when they spanked me or whipped me with belts and switches as punishment when I was a child.
Discipline: when does it cross the line from teaching a child a lesson to scarring them emotionally?
My strict upbringing shaped so much of my self-image and self-esteem. I know it will hurt my mother to read this. I know she believes she did the best job she could at raising me. She always says that I can't possibly understand how hard it is to be a mother, because I don't have children. Maybe she's right.
I've talked a lot about how I was taught to be a "good little girl." I've written about how the emotional pressure to live up to my mother's expectations led me to struggle with suicide after I came out of the closet. However, what I have not talked about is the direct link that I see between the overzealous physical and emotional reprimands I received as a child and my adult choices of violent, co-dependent partners.
I grew up in a small town in Georgia, smack in the middle of the Old South, where ignorance reigned supreme and words like "nigger," "dyke," and "faggot" were thrown around without caution. The general attitude around child rearing was "spare the rod, spoil the child." This was the cultural landscape in which my parents grew up, as well. I know that they suffered violence and emotional abuse at the hands of their own parents. The dysfunction was generational.
My parents gave me the best education, the best clothes, and the best opportunities, and they loved me. I can't deny that. But the terror in which I lived was often unbearable. I felt I had to do everything they told me to do: I had to be the perfect, sweet, good little girl in order to stay out of trouble. Being bad meant I got the belt from my father or a good spanking from my mother.
When I did something like argue with my brother, my mother would say, "OK, that's enough! One!" She would begin to count the number of times I'd be spanked. Continued bad behavior increased the count.
I had to cut my own switches from the woods.
Somewhere along the line I devised a clever system to try to avoid my punishments. I would hide between the trees as long as I could, in hopes that they would forget about me. When they called out for me, I would pick up a big, fat tree limb and carry it back to the house. When I returned, they would say, "That's too big. Go get something smaller." I'd return to the forest and find a tiny little stick that was old and crumbling, thinking that it would break as they hit my bare buttocks with it.
"This is ridiculous," they would say. "Go cut me something from the tree -- and the wood better be green." Long, green switches bent well and stung when they hit you.
I remember the flush of humiliation I'd feel as I pulled my pants down and leaned over the kitchen counter. The seconds before the first hit were the scariest, because I didn't know how hard the pressure would be applied. I would squish my eyelids together and tense up, waiting for the end. Afterwards, they'd send me to my room to "think about what I did." I would cry hard, thinking about what a stupid girl I was, and plan how I could be better so that I wouldn't disappoint my parents so much next time. At times I was inconsolable, curling up on my bed alone, sobbing into the pillow.
As I aged, it became inappropriate to be spanked or whipped anymore, so my punishments evolved into pressure of a more psychological nature -- which was just as scarring, but in a different way.
At 15 I left for boarding school. At 17 I entered into my first abusive relationship. My boyfriend called me names and controlled me by telling me that I never did things the right way. He said that if I loved him, I would do things the way he wanted them done. He separated me from my friends and eventually from my family. We were together from my senior year of high school all the way through college, and the abuse got worse over time.
Even before the relationship, I already thought that I was a bad, broken girl. I thought something was deeply wrong with me. I just couldn't be good. I couldn't make anyone happy. I felt that everyone was constantly disappointed by me. At certain points I believed that I was possessed by a demon, because I was sexually attracted to women.
My boyfriend took advantage of my insecurities and used them to manipulate me. I dedicated myself to being his slave, and I cooked, cleaned, and did his laundry, and I even stopped wearing makeup, because he told me that I looked "ugly and slutty" wearing it.
Lucky for me, he broke up with me during our last semester in college, but several years later, after I came out of the closet, I ended up in another bad relationship, this time with an alcoholic girlfriend who would drink herself into violent, blacked-out rages.
My self-loathing also translated to my sex life, as I spent my teens and early 20s ignoring my true sexual identity, embarking upon a penis-hopping tour. When I was 25 I was raped, and I didn't tell anyone for two main reasons: because I thought that pretty much no one would believe me, and because I thought that anyone who did believe me would say that the rape was my fault, because I was a bad girl.
So how did I begin to break the long cycle of co-dependent relationships, dysfunction, and pain? Therapy.
I recognized that I needed help. Outside, I seemed happy and confident. Inside, I was miserable and falling apart. With the help of a therapist I began to explore the past to try to unlock the truth and disentangle the lies I internalized.
I talked about everything. I cried my eyeballs out. I began to see that the past really is over, and that while I can't erase the damage, I can correct the harmful effects of the past by breaking the patterns of self-hatred that tormented me.
I will talk more in the future about exactly how I walked the road to healing. But what I want to tell you is that you can change the way you see yourself, and you can be the one to break the chain of pain and stop the violence.
If you are experiencing domestic abuse and want to seek help, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (1-800-799-7233).
Next week I'm interviewing my dear friend, the fabulous Cindy Gallop, about sex after 50. It's going to be a no-holds-barred discussion, so I will see you then!