Broken Glass10 October 2017
Content Warnings: self-harm, addiction, eating disorders, trauma, emotional and physical abuse
My partner and I have been together for three months now. He sometimes asks me to tell him about my childhood, and every time, without fail, I’m confronted with gaping years of blankness. There are few stories I can recount from ages one to thirteen – many of them are violent and triggering, and recounting them would be like clicking open a screamer video unwittingly.
He has always had a relatively good relationship with his family – they get together frequently and he’s always taking the train back to his hometown to see his parents. He speaks of them fondly, and when he first asked about mine, I could only choke out a cold, “I don’t have a good relationship with them”. He’s always unsure of what to do when I emerge from the bedroom after a brief phone call with my mum, looking exhausted and on the verge of a breakdown.
I’ve always known to some degree that my family was dysfunctional. Over the last few years, I’ve struggled with depression and anxiety, undiagnosed but frustratingly foregrounded. I’ve been going to counselling for a year now, and have spoken to my sister frequently about our shared mental struggle, but only recently have I realised that the biggest neon sign in my life perhaps is not depression or anxiety, but CPTSD.
Complex post-traumatic stress disorder stems from long-term exposure to toxic, stressful environments. For me, there is no before-CPTSD. There is no sense of self outside of my trauma, because I have only cultivated my identity in the environment of trauma and abuse. How do you negotiate an identity when you grow up in a household where your parents regularly hurl emotional and psychological abuse? Where sometimes your father raises a hand, or throws the nearest teacup at your head, or tries to choke you on New Year’s Eve (no, Dad, I haven’t forgotten)? What do you do when you realise before you’ve even stepped out into the world, parents will break your heart before anyone else can?
For the entirety of the first year after I moved out, I had no fucking clue who I was. My mother had crafted a stubborn image of me in her mind, one of a selfish, ungrateful, stupid child that might never live up to her standards. “You know we just want you to be happy and don’t mind if you end up working at McDonald’s, right?” she’d say, condescendingly. I would have absorbed it like a sponge if I were still in high school.
I didn’t know who to trust, who I could turn to absorb an identity from, who I could find that might project a character onto me like my mother did. I knew she was wrong, but I could never find the correct solution. The only thing I did know was that I was a broken person coming from a broken family with parents who refused to acknowledge that we were as broken as that metronome my father had smashed against the wall. That one that I see hurling towards me sometimes when I close my eyes. The only thing I did know was that simple sounds, like the whirring of a washing machine and a soft crack of a floorboard, regularly gave me hour-long panic attacks.
That year, I closed myself off. I built walls around myself, letting my trauma take control of my life. I drank, I smoked, I stopped eating and drinking water and taking care of myself and I tried my best not to relapse into self-harm. It got harder and harder for me to meet new people, because I felt like bits of broken glass crammed together into a thinning body; who could love a skeleton with no personality? I didn’t want to have to confront the nature of my identity being built on a foundation of violence, and I certainly didn’t want to face the possibility of my trauma being dismissed again and again with, “they’re your parents, they love you and you should love them”.
It seems impossible to me that there are some daughters out there who love their fathers. How do their stomachs not churn at their fathers’ voices? Maybe my deepest secret is that I hate my father – I don’t mean to hide it, but having such a strongly negative stance on immediate family tends to turn people away. I have a more complicated relationship with my feelings towards my mother – it’s hard not to feel love towards your parents when they’ve been there your whole life. It’s a cycle; I develop an immune system to their manipulation, but once I go home, or even just phone them, I’m back in their trap, struggling to discern my real self from the apparent devil child my mother gave birth to. It’s difficult to always hate them. They’ve financially supported me for two decades of my life, and as manipulative as it is on their part, I truly feel that I owe them a debt. They’ve been generous with their money, and suddenly I don’t know if they’re really truly abusive, or if I’m just that ungrateful kid that deserves a teacup thrown my way.
For these three months, I’ve struggled to stay independent from my partner, who has been wonderful in trying to understand my background. It can be tempting to rely on him, place all this empty love on him, and slowly wither away into his shadow and hope for the best. But recognising that I’ve suffered from CPTSD means I deserve more. It means that my identity isn’t just about my trauma. It’s about stepping forward and slowly learning to stand on my own two feet (before trying to walk). It’s about realising, maybe with a bit of pain, that I might not have a self pre-CPTSD, but I can create a self starting now. One that I’m happy with and that is completely my own. I’ll be building walls, not to grapple with my parents’ siege, but to maybe, finally, lock them out of my identity.