How I Stopped Being the Queen of Pain

What I remember most about my mom is her encouraging me to frisk my friends before they left the house. Her paranoia turned clinical around my 14th birthday and grew delusions. By then, I wasn’t her daughter anymore. I was a clone from outer space.

According to her, I must die.

Our relationship never recovered. She could never stay on her pills, and the pills always changed. Every few months I became something evil that had to be destroyed. When I was allowed in the house, I didn’t feel safe unless my dad was home. He thought I was being dramatic — until one night she broke a dish over his head, and tried to push him down the stairs.

In the lobby outside the emergency room, I wanted to say “Told you.” But I didn’t. It felt inappropriate.

So we sat and waited.

Years later I launched myself headfirst into journalism. Crime drew my attention. Maybe it was because the police had been to my house so many times. The only person who’d ever seen me cry was a responding officer. At the age of 22, someone like me didn’t look very hardened or experienced in the dark sides of human nature.

Law enforcement treated me like an innocent little creature.

One day I was interviewing an investigator, and he started talking about one of the worst crime scenes he’d ever been to. A father had suffered a schizophrenic episode and wound up killing his daughter and her husband. Blood was everywhere, especially the bathroom. You could see where the daughter had tried to climb through a window.

I can’t remember if the investigator showed me photos, or just described everything in such graphic detail that my brain made their own. Either way, I remember thinking to myself, “I’m one of the lucky ones.”

Every time I visited home, part of me wondered if this was it. Maybe this was the day my mom killed me in the shower.

Or while sitting on the toilet.

This is the kind of moment that stays with you, and the meaning keeps unraveling over time like an onion. Now I get it. The investigator thought he was warning me about the pitfalls of crime reporting. What he really did was remind me of my upbringing.

When you’re abused, everyone else’s nightmares become your Monday afternoon. You might not grasp what happened to you until later in life, when you keep hearing everyone else’s personal trauma. They talk about bad dreams and ruined prom dates. You keep thinking, that can’t be the worst thing that’s ever happened to them.

It just can’t.

Because if that’s true, then life really is unfair.

My partner confides in me about his bad dreams. He talks about how stressed he gets watching Game of Thrones.

I try not to roll my eyes.

For a survivor, this is part of love — not rolling your eyes at what they find difficult in life. Sometimes it’s hard.

You’re not supposed to compare the difficulties in your life to everyone else’s. It’s selfish and immature.

Some of us do it anyway, for too long.

We quietly judge anyone who hasn’t suffered enough in our opinion. Then one day you realize how disabling this attitude is. No matter what you went through, it doesn’t make you the arbiter of other people’s pain. We all want and need the same things.

There’s a few things they don’t teach you about life after abuse. Recovery takes longer than you think. It’s not just about feeling happy or safe. It’s not about sharing your feelings, either.

That doesn’t usually help. Eventually the sympathy runs out. Everyone has heard your story, and they expect you to get over it — even if you can’t just yet. Nobody even says what they mean when they say you should “get over it,” but it’s pretty close to “stop talking about it.

The closest I’ve gotten to getting over it is no longer letting it define what I want out of life, or what I think I’m capable of.

It also means dealing with the effects and aftershocks in ways that don’t cost you friends, ruin your health, or get you fired. That’s about the best any of us can do. If you’ve got that down, you’re in good shape.

Getting over it is also about learning how to do things that everyone else picked up earlier in life, things they assume everyone else knows — things they learned when they were kids that you didn’t.

Even if you’re stable, you’re still missing big chunks of the human experience that everyone else takes for granted.

Every day, your brain stumbles into a 404 Error. Page not found. For example, you don’t know how to trust someone. You don’t know how to open up and be vulnerable. You don’t know how to ask for things. You don’t know how to comfort someone, because you’ve never been comforted.

Abuse teaches you not to do these things.

You spend most of your life learning how to do everything yourself, never complain, never ask for anything. You practice making yourself small and invisible. Because for you, getting noticed is dangerous. (Or it used to be.) You’re also a little weird. You relive the trauma in the most banal ways — like small talk at parties. You have to learn how to pivot when everyone starts asking about each other’s families.

Unlearning these behaviors takes huge amounts of self-awareness.

You have to get good at catching yourself in the middle of a toxic thought pattern and sliding it under a microscope. You have to juggle to competing thoughts. The abuse is causing you to want to act or think a certain way, but actually doing that is a choice.

You have practice acting like someone who wasn’t abused, without forgetting who you are. It’s hard. Some of us feel like our pain is the only thing we have. But pain isn’t a reward. Overcoming it, that’s the reward.

That’s the thing you can be proud of.

Arbitrating other people’s pain and suffering is a lot of work, and it doesn’t pay well. You’re better off letting everyone be the distressed heroine in their own story if they want.

Sometimes you have to be your own superhero.

And you have to be quiet about it.

Abuse doesn’t give you superpowers, but overcoming it does. It’s pretty simple. Working through your pain forces you to develop extraordinary levels of those traits and qualities everyone’s so hungry for these days — fortitude, confidence, emotional intelligence, grit.

You also see the world from a unique angle. You didn’t grow up with the same socialization as everyone else, so your thinking is always outside the box. It’s not exactly something you’d wish on someone, and you didn’t ask for it, but so what? Use it to your advantage.

Once you’ve honed those tools, they stay with you. They’re available for use in other parts of your life.

It used to take everything I had not to randomly burst into tears in public. The thunderstorms haven’t stopped. I just have better radar to see them coming, and a bunker.

People like us learn how to take care of ourselves early on, even in adolescence, because nobody else will. We learn all the tricks of winning friends and influencing people, because we have to.

Nobody was there to tell us we had inherent worth, so we had to find that worth and add value to other people’s lives.

We stopped feeling sorry for ourselves when we looked around and saw the empty courtyard in our lives, and the late RSVPs to our pity parties. The queen of pain sits on a cold throne, over an abandoned court. You can give it up anytime. All you have to do is get up and start doings things. The world is just as forgiving as it is cruel.

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