I recently stumbled upon an article about Toxic Families.
Looking back, I see an uncanny similarity to my childhood. It’s funny how time can ease those bad memories, the fears, and the pain. The wounds are still present but we forget what the discomfort felt like. Then, when we look at the scar, we unwilling recall every detail of the past. People will tell you, don’t look at the scar, don’t speak of the scar, forget the scar. Some think if the scar is invisible, the circumstance is imaginary. Nothing can be farther from the truth.
I was the youngest of three in the family with a single parent household, until my mother began dating our step father when I was a young five year old.
I was soon assessed and unequally measured up against my siblings and I didn’t fare well. I cried too much and acted like a baby. I sucked my thumb, wet my bed, talked too much and was too loud. I was lazy in school, did not pay attention, did not listen nor did I perform well in school. I was too sensitive, and too emotional.
I realize now that I was a neglected child. I had all the classic signs that something was wrong but none of the adults would acknowledge or validate my very real and natural reactions to my circumstances. If I were in the foster care or an adoptee, I would have been classified as a special needs child.
My needs and my disabilities were ignored, despite the absence of my father and the only child in our family who did not have a biological father to actively spend quality time with me (which I had between the ages of birth and four years old but then abruptly stopped). Watching my two older siblings leave for the weekend with their paternal grandparents or father after us three kids were inseparable for most the time and then being told that I couldn’t go because this was “their grandparents or father” left me feeling forsaken. Their grandparents, the Whitaker’s, did try to include me. They started sending me $25.00 during Christmas time, the same amount as my siblings. I would be reminded by our mother how generous it was of them to include me and how grateful I should be. On rare occasions I eventually got to tag along with my siblings but not until I got much older. I remember a time or two being reminded by my sister that they were “her” grandparents, not mine. She didn’t have to tell me. I mean they were nice to me but I was very aware that I was not their grandchild. I felt like a guest when visiting, not family. Even my brother and sister acted different when we were visiting with the Whitakers. (Back then, none of us kids knew that their father is actually listed as my father on my birth certificate.)
What little scraps I got, I accepted it. After all, I didn’t have my father or paternal grandparents picking me up or doting over me. My paternal family didn’t have much to do with me, except for my sister Chick. There were no letters, Christmas or birthday cards or presents, no phone calls or visits with my paternal family except on a very rare occasion. I recall my mother taking me to a family reunion on my father’s side when I was a freshman in high school. That was the first time we had seen each other since I was a baby. Hardly anyone recognized me. And I surely didn’t remember most of them. I got to invite a friend of mine who’s Italian. She fit right in with my Italian relatives and many thought she was family instead of me. My paternal family didn’t know me. My cousins, in-laws, aunts and uncles did not know me. They knew my sister Chick, my half-sister from my dad, but they didn’t know me. I had to keep explaining that I was Mario’s daughter. My father, at the time, was in prison for murder. But again, none of that mattered to my parents or family. They didn’t feel the need to take me to a counselor or psychologist to help me cope. My emotional or physical challenges, which began when I was a baby, were all in my head. I was blamed for everything.
I was called,
Squirt (Nickname), a pun on being a bed-wetter
I was accused of being too sensitive, overreacting and weak.
These labels would stick with me throughout my childhood and adulthood.
To borrow a quote from Oprah, my family didn’t see me, hear me and what I said didn’t really matter.
I will never forgot the first time I went to the state of Texas, DARS office to see if I qualified for disability assistance for my hearing impairment. And I did. That was first time I received validation. It felt strange, really. I kept waiting for someone to accuse me of faking it, since my family never acknowledged my hearing impairment or tried to provide any accommodations. They treated me as if I was equal to my siblings (and classmates) when in fact I was not. They all had normal hearing, I did not.
When DARS recently sent me to a new audiologist for a hearing test to reassess my hearing and to see if I qualified for new hearing aids, the doctor, who is also hearing impaired asked me when I was diagnosed. I told him when I was in the second grade. So his next question was assuming that I got hearing aids at the same time. I explained to him that I did not. He said his parents, who were both teachers discovered his hearing loss which was approximately about the same as mine as a child. He said his speech and learning progress didn’t match up to his older sister so his parents knew something was wrong. I told him that was funny because it was actually the teachers that discovered my hearing loss and noticed I was not speaking or learning at the same rate as my classmates. But for whatever reason, even after I was diagnosed with permanent hearing loss (mild right ear and moderate left ear), my parents chose not to pursue hearing aids or any other type of assistance to help me with my hearing impairment. Despite the repeated comments on my report cards that stated, “She does not listen, does not pay attention. She day dreams a lot,” they still didn’t get it nor did they go to school to defend me or explain my situation. The comments from my parents on the back of my report card are proof of that. Now, I realize my parents were not rocket scientist or college educated at the time, but my goodness, the proof was very apparent and yet they ignored my diagnoses and even blamed me as the reason for my grades and behavior in school. Not only did they ignore the diagnoses but they never took me to an audiologist for the remainder of my school years to have my hearing re-tested. Think about that. Can you imagine your child being diagnosed with a vision problem and not buying him glasses nor getting annual exams to see if his vision got worse. More often than not, once you’ve been diagnosed with a vision or hearing impairment, over time, your ability level will decrease. My mother said, “The school tested you every year.” But sadly, it’s not the school’s responsibility to monitor our children’s health issues; it’s our parents.
In addition, schools do not always catch a child’s ability to see or hear or monitor their progress. My co-worker told me a story about her nephew (her brother’s step son) who is in the third grade. She said after the school suggested their son have an eye exam, his parents learned that their son has a serious visual impairment. She said his glasses were so thick. She commented at how he used to squint all the time (for years) and no one ever thought anything of it. She said the first time she saw him with his glasses on; he was smiling, talking and seemed so much more confident, a big change from his previous behavior. Imagine that. Just obtaining glasses and being able to see better made him more confident. His parents felt really bad for not noticing earlier and she said they kept apologizing to him over and over again and treated him extra special. As parents, we are not perfect. We miss things. But when we learn that our child has special needs and there is a valid reason why our child may not be performing the way we expect (age appropriately) and we have an opportunity to help them perform better but choose to ignore it, that’s neglect.
So instead of my family validating my impairment or emotional needs, they scapegoated me. I became an easy target and easy prey. I was weak. If something happened to me, they responded, “Well you should have known better,” or “you should have done this,” or “you should have learned.” Then as I got older, the comments would continue as such, (actual comments copied from emails or facebook), “You are reading too much into this,” “I think you’re over analyzing situations.” “Don’t make problems where none exist.” “Feeling sorry for yourself.” “Don’t make a big deal about it.” “By all means, do whatever you can to help others and yourself. Just remember, others need positives to move forward….not negatives or rehashing. It might work in a therapy session, but not here! No audience!”, and lastly, “LOST CAUSE….LOST SOUL!!!”
I have to admit, the last one hurt real bad. I don’t think I could ever say that to one of my children.
And if that wasn’t enough, my family would recruit other members of the family and some friends to chime in and bash Karen and then forward me their email.
This was from my uncle after reading My Storybook Father, “A lot had it worse than she did growing up. I can recall Colleen’s pouts,” and “Surviving the Sisters of St. Joseph who must of been trained by the Nazis. Also boo hoo…..my cousins and my two best friends moving away before I even got into high school.”
Some people will never see you or hear you or validate you. And some will.
I had another uncle share this, “I have a better understanding of what she went through in life. My life was a walk in the park compared to what came her way. With God beside her she has done an amazing job.”