Posts Tagged ‘child abuse’
I was working to meet a writing deadline when my phone started blowing up with news alerts on the afternoon of Monday, August 8th. While I have learned to temper my reaction when looking at what are usually politics-related headlines, I verbally exclaimed, “No!” when I read that singer, actor, and philanthropist Olivia Newton-John had passed away.
It was about this moment that I began receiving what ended up being dozens of texts and emails from friends checking on me—all of whom were aware of the special place in my heart Ms. Newton-John occupied. While I was never close with her, I did have the good fortune of meeting her on multiple occasions and one time even got to buy her a drink at an Australia celebration event. Yet I know being a self-professed superfan is a moniker I share with millions.
When people think of timeless films from the last century, they don’t immediately mention Grease as one of them. And yet it’s a movie that so many of us have in common—a collective cinematic experience that has now spanned decades and touched countless lives (many of whom, like me, wished life was more like a musical). While the soundtrack and irresistible charm of the film speak for themselves, Ms. Newton-John’s portrayal of an outsider who’s finding her way through the halls of Rydell High was something many of us could relate to. At some point, we all were or are trying to find our way in life. And if we could put a fun transformation and a catchy song on the face of that angst, why not?
For me, Ms. Newton-John represented more than an icon that lay the audio-meets-visual foreground for artists like Madonna and even Beyoncé. As an extremely overweight, closeted child growing up on military bases overseas, her image and music proved to be somewhat of a touchstone—something to look to that I could both idolize and aspire to. Oh, how I longed to fit in. And Ms. Newton-John’s lust for life (and even actual lust in her hit song and video Physical) proved to be inspirational to me.
More than that, I was also a child of extreme parental abuse from both my mother and father. I look back on that time in my life and wonder how my sister and I survived those years of acute neglect and horrific mistreatment. Somehow, our nearly worn-out videocassette copies of Grease and Xanadu proved to be respites during many storms.
There were countless times my sister and I weren’t sure how we were going to process or even survive the parent-induced torture we were experiencing. But we would often find some calm by immersing ourselves in the neon-infused fortress of Xanadu. During that movie’s running time, we were safe. We were at peace. We were free to be children.
I wonder if these memories are why I was hit so hard by Ms. Newton-John’s passing. Or perhaps it was because she was a well-known philanthropist who was singing about environmental causes as far back as the 1980s, a tireless advocate for animals, and during her 30-year bout with cancer, became a beacon of light for others dealing with the disease (including my own mother-in-law, who passed as a result of her own cancer journey several years ago).
I admit I initially questioned my being in a state of mourning this past week. After all, despite a lifetime of fandom and having curated many playlists that Ms. Newton-John’s music is still a part of, I wasn’t close with her. My thoughts turn to her husband and daughter, both of whom I’ve also met and been able to spend time with. While I can’t imagine the level of grief they’re feeling, I suppose it’s fair to partake in their emotions in a reverent way. After all, they were generous enough to share their wife and mother with the rest of us—even during her final months.
As I mourned, I made it my mission to find something positive to take from it all. Seeing actor Jane Seymour talk about her friendship with Ms. Newton-John on the Today show helped with that. Ms. Seymour spoke of Ms. Newton-John’s capacity to step outside herself, never complain, and always inquire about others—no matter what she happened to be going through. So even after she’s left this world, there’s great inspiration waiting to be found in the celebrity who, in many ways, helped me survive my youth. A clear reason why, along with everyone else’s reasons for being hopelessly devoted to her, Ms. Newton-John, although gone, will never be forgotten.
Mother’s Day is an occasion that always gives me pause since I spent most of my childhood struggling to survive in a household ruled by a monster (AKA my abusive mother). For anyone who thinks my descriptor is a bit harsh, I can assure you it’s not. What my sister and I endured while growing up was quite horrific in regard to the constant abuse we suffered—along with the lies we were forced to cover-up on behalf of dear ol’ mom.
I have a vivid memory of a time I tried to report the abuse to the police. Because it was many years ago (and because we, as a society, didn’t know better at the time) they dismissed my claims (since the bulk of the abuse wasn’t physical) and refused to investigate. Imagine a young teen hanging up the phone and turning to said abuser (my mother in this case) who had just heard me make the call. I get chills thinking about incidents like these. But still, I’ve made a vow to never suppress them or pretend as if they didn’t take place.
As faithful readers of this blog know, I spent most of my young life morbidly obese. I started to gain weight around first grade and by the time I graduated college weighed over 450 pounds. I imagine some mental health professionals might attribute this to creating a layer of protection to shield me from any relationship that I thought might cause me more—or continued—harm. This is not to say I didn’t struggle to lose this “layer of protection” throughout my childhood (even though I knew it made my mother livid to have an obese child given her penchant for telling people I had a disease that caused weight gain as opposed to simply confessing that I overate).
Once a young adult living on my own, I eventually realized that I had to let go of the mental weight (mostly comprised of memories of abuse) before I could let go of the physical weight. But even though I accomplished the goal of shedding the excess weight (and have remained a healthy weight since), I never want to forget what my sister and I went through. This is not to say I have a victim mentality. I wouldn’t encourage that in myself or anyone else. But an attitude of “acceptance” has proved most healing.
This happened. The abuse happened. It was real.
These days I can go for long periods of time without thinking about the abuse that my sister and I suffered (even though some of its after effects have been far reaching). But when “holidays” like Mother’s Day roll around, I can’t help but get a pit in my stomach when I see commercial-friendly media images that show mother and child (infant, toddler, teen or otherwise) living their happiest moments on screen or in print. I never knew this kind of relationship with my own mother. The concept remains foreign to me even to this day.
As for my mother being a “monster,” in hindsight I’ve come to accept that my mother was likely mentally ill given her outrageous behavior—which makes the real monsters other family members who, even though well aware of my mom’s actions, left my sister and I alone with her to raise us. I share this not out of spite, remorse or even sadness. But in an effort to let others who’ve had similar experiences know they’re not the only ones.
Many people breathe a sigh of relief when they learn what my sister and I lived through—because they were raised under similar circumstances. To talk about these issues doesn’t mean our goal is to demonize our parents. But abuse is abuse. And underage children often have no choice but to endure it—and to hopefully survive it. But even as adults—even when free from our abusers—we sometimes still have to make a conscious choice to continue to survive it. Especially on occasions when many are celebrating their mothers, which can potentially leave many adult survivors of child abuse feeling like we are weird, undeserving or, perhaps, as if we were in some way responsible for our tragic circumstances.
So yes—the occasion of Mother’s Day makes me somber. But it also reminds me that my sister and I—and so many of you—are survivors. We have all faced major challenges in our lives. Some on the outside, some from the inside. But we can continue to overcome these challenges (even the ones that still sometimes haunt us).
These days, when shopping for Mother’s Day cards, I pick up several. One card is for my sister, who’s managed to break the cycle of abuse and is an amazing mother to two beautiful children. And the additional cards are for other nurturing influences in my life who’ve taught me that a mother’s love can arrive in many forms (and from many different people). My self-defined version of Mother’s Day is definitely worthy of celebration. And yours can be, too. As long as its observed in a way that honors your fortitude—in addition to paying heed to moms of all kinds (perhaps even those, like mine, who were mentally ill and, maybe—just maybe—doing the best they knew how to do).
As media outlets trot out more and more people who knew Michael Jackson to share their impressions of him while he was alive, we seem to be left with an image of a performer who was very bitter about his past and quite resentful of having his childhood ‘stolen’ from him. Even among those who did not know Mr. Jackson personally, it seems to be common knowledge that he had issues with the way he was raised and the way he was constantly made to perform from a very early age. Of course, that was then, and this is now.
Sadly, Mr. Jackson’s time has now has passed. But even when he was alive, he gave an impression of a lost soul who had big issues regarding his childhood. This was not only reflected in his music, but also into the sometimes questionable relationships he had with children despite being an adult himself.
I did not know Mr. Jackson. But I know people similar to him. People who are convinced that because of what happened in their past, they cannot be happy today. In fact, I used to be one of those people.
My parents went through a very nasty split (and eventual divorce) when I was younger. The ordeal lasted for roughly 8-10 years and things got quite nasty between my Mom and Dad. They both also got quite abusive with my sister and I. My mother was basically a pathological liar who was desperate to be acknowledged publicly as young, single and childless (even though still married with two children).
My mother’s quest for what she perceived as acceptance led to some horrific incidences that would make a psychiatrist nod in understanding when also told that during that time period I was morbidly obese and continued to gain excess weight. In fact, my parents’ problems began when I was in 1st grade – about the time I started putting on excess weight in the first place. I added more and more excess weight through the years. And looking back, I can see that the weight served as a buffer of sorts (between me and my parents – as well as me and the outside world).
Because my father was never home and my mom was often out on the town (so to speak), I was left alone to raise my younger sister. There were times friends tried to intercede, but my sister and I knew that should we tell others the truth, there would be severe punishment from our parents. Despite this constant threat, at one point I tried calling the police to report the abuse. But because we lived on a military base in Germany, there was little understanding when I explained that the abuse was mostly the verbal and abandonment kind and only on occasion was physical. Thus, my sister and I were left to fend for ourselves. So in essence, our childhood was stolen from us as well.
While my heart goes out to Mr. Jackson and his lifetime of angst over his past, I also wonder if he could have just accepted what transpired, realized he’s an adult and moved on. At a certain point, we have to stop blaming our past (or others in our past) for the shortcomings we find ourselves facing in our present day lives.
Yes, I could tell harrowing tales of my Mom’s monstrous behavior. And I can point to spikes in my weight that correlated with may parents’ outbursts and abuse. But I can also point to a moment in my young adult life that I decided, ‘That was then, this is now.’ And that also happened to be the point when a lot of the excess weight began to be released.
There’s an old adage that goes something like this: ‘If you think of yourself as a victim, then you are a victim.’ And I refuse to be a victim. Especially the victim of something that happened years and years ago.
At a certain point, we need to let it go. For our own peace of mind and mental health. That was then. This is now.
I’m not suggesting we forget any past horrors. Or pretend they never happened. But today – in this moment – we need to take care of ourselves and provide whatever we feel might be missing as a result of past experiences. We can’t make the past go away. But we can control our ‘now’ – and our future. And by deciding that we’re going to stop giving the past anymore power, we can positively affect any circumstance we’re facing – whether weight loss related or if realted to some other kind of addiction or mental/physical crutch we rely on while pointing to the past and saying, “I can’t help it because this happened.”
It’s sad that Mr. Jackson’s legacy is as filled with grief and sadness as it is with memories of his incredible talent. But we can learn from him and from his pain. That in itself can be a gift to all of us from Mr. Jackson.
Acceptance. Understanding. And moving on – without pointing anymore fingers or trotting out the excuse of a past gone wrong.
We have today. And we’re in control. And that’s something worth celebrating – no matter what happened yesterday. No. Matter. What.