Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me!
Do you remember hearing this as a child? I used to say the words myself. However, over the course of my life, I never realized how wrong that little tune was. As a child, I grew up in a very dysfunctional home. I did not really know it was dysfunctional; I had not heard that term yet. As a child, I thought everyone grew up this way!
I do not remember much about my childhood because I grew up with two abusive parents. Therapists have said I blocked much of it out. One thing I do remember is the constant message: "I am not enough. I am not pretty enough. I am not thin enough. I am not smart enough or talented enough. I am lazy, disrespectful, awkward and, worst of all, Satan's child." The Scriptures were used to punish me; in them, all I heard was how bad I was. When I spilled my milk, I was going to hell! I believed that hell was this place I would be tortured for eternity. That was big news to swallow at age 6. I never did anything good enough. I never measured up to my male siblings. I was always in one of their shadows.
My mother was a stay-at-home mom. In fact, she never learned how to drive. She was a "neat freak," and we had a home that looked like a museum. However, not once in my childhood memories do I remember sitting down with her as she read a book or played a game. It was all about her house. She was frazzled all the time. She yelled at us for just about everything. When we did not respond the way she expected, we were rotten little brats. My mother was what some would call a hypochondriac. She was on many pills for this and that. The message that we got was that it was our fault. She would not be so nervous if we would just obey. She took no personal responsibility for anything. She continued in her world of blame and ridicule, and her words cut like a knife.
My father, on the other hand, was the breadwinning silent type. However, under that guise of quietness, was a very disturbed, untouchable man. He was manipulative and cunning. He did not have the welfare of his children at heart. Mixed in with the hurtful words were also painful actions that have scarred the deepest part of my soul. The people that were supposed to love and care for me the most violated me. I lived in a scary world, and there was nowhere to turn. I will not go into details about my abuse because that would be too graphic and disturbing.
You may be wondering why I am telling you all of this. How does this relate to the words that we hear or give to others? The scripture, "Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it" (Proverbs 22:6), has been ringing in my ears as I sit down to write this.
What happens when you didn't receive positive statements as a child? What begins to happen to your sense of self and how you relate to others? I understand today that my parents came from rough home lives also. How could someone treat his or her own children in that way? I don't remember all the details of my childhood, as I mentioned above. However, I do remember those stinging words many years later.
I did not realize how much my childhood affected me until I was a little bit older. I developed an eating disorder and, at the age of 16, almost died from bingeing and purging to the point of throwing up blood. I didn't know it had a name, anymore than I knew that I was becoming a full-blown alcoholic. All I knew was that it was a way to feel good. My eating disorder gave me a sense of control over something in my life.
Looking back now and after years of therapy, I realize my mother was also plagued all her life with an eating disorder and very low self-esteem. I know now that I grew up handicapped—not like someone with a physical disability, but a mental one that has been with me every day of my life. I struggled for many years being a victim. I had no boundaries to protect myself, and my parents were in no position to help me. I know now that is why I had turned to drugs, alcohol and the other destructive behaviors that continued to tear down my moral fiber. I really didn't think I had any morals. My boundaries were so skewed that black was white, white was black and there was not much gray in the world for me.
At 16, after my "brush with death," I had a serious talk with God. I had difficulty praying to the god that I grew up knowing. The god I grew up knowing was mean, abusive, uncaring, unloving and was more interested in punishing me than anything else. I began to read about a different God—a God of love, mercy and truth. This was a new concept for me. I knew I was going down fast, and needed a miracle. My life was spiraling down daily and, knowing that I lacked the tools to deal with my life, I remember writing something in desperation. It was short and to the point: "HELP!"
I continued to read the Bible and was learning about a different way of life. I got in contact with the Church and was introduced to some Church members in my hometown. I began to attend church services and entered a completely new world. However, I didn't feel I fit in this place. Everyone seemed so perfect. I had such deep, dark secrets; I thought if they really knew me, they wouldn't like me.
I moved out of the house and tried to live on my own. I was still drinking and had difficulty making ends meet. I continued to go to church but kept my dark life private. Later, my dad began coming to church. This was confusing to me because the abuse did not stop. Going to church caused a big uproar in my family, and he moved out into a friend's place. I became the pawn between my mom and dad. That is not a very nice place to be.
The only emotion I felt was anger. I had difficulty identifying any other emotion. When sadness came, I reached for my liquid comfort. I tried to be good, to do what the Bible was telling me, but I didn't know how to give it up. I didn't know any other way. After passing out the night before, I felt ashamed waking up to get ready for church. Many Sabbath mornings I would opt not to go to church because I couldn't understand how God could love me when I was so entrenched in this lifestyle. I was trying to hide from the rest of the congregation.
As time went on, I got help. I entered a treatment program for alcoholism. At the age of 20, I found out I was a full-blown alcoholic/addict! I didn't want to accept it, but the facts were staring me in the face. My recovery was long and hard. I not only had to give up my best friend (my booze and pills), but I had to begin to deal with the devastating effects of my life.
Let me tell you this: I still suffer, even on top of knowing God allows us to break the cycle of horrible abuse. I still suffer from depression. I still hear the words echo in my mind of how worthless I am, that I will never amount to anything or, worse yet, that all I will ever be good for is sex! I still feel the burn in my gut when I hear of a rape or atrocity against a child. I have gone to great lengths to protect children, and will the rest of my life. I am an advocate in every circle in which I am involved. I was never treated as special, or felt loved or valued. A part of me has not been filled because of that loss so long ago.
It is sometimes still a struggle to get all the things done that need to be done. My energy level at times is very low, and I have to fight thoughts of God not wanting me, being disappointed in me or never measuring up. I sometimes feel like a freak or outsider. I don't share my background much with others for fear of further ridicule or abuse. Sometimes that can be a very lonely place to be.
Words are powerful! What you say to another person can scar him or her for life. We need God to rescue us from those painful experiences and not repeat the patterns when these things have happened to us. We are not going to be perfect, but we can grow and change with God's help.
This story does have a happy ending. I have been clean and sober for 24+ years. I am an active member of the United Church of God; I have a wonderful, loving husband who has been with me over 20 years, through the good, bad and the ugly! I have two beautiful children who have had the privilege to grow up in a "normal" home, free from neglect and abuse. What a gift to our children!
God promises us a better way. My hope is in the future and what He has in store for us. I know that we can do nothing to change the past, but we can, and I know that God expects us to, overcome our present condition and help others. Next time you think about "sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me," think again!
This article appears in the following topics: Abuse - Mental/Physical/Sexual