Living in the Gray: Situating Abuse in its Context

My therapist and I often talk about living in the gray areas in life. I struggle with my family’s black-and-white approaches to morality, in part because it seems hypocritical for there to be no recognition of their wrongdoings. Unhealthily, perhaps, I too sometimes take this stance as I ascribe total negative moral evaluations to myself whenever I fuck up. But I revel in the nuances of human existence and find comfort in uncovering layers of reasoning behind people’s actions.

Before this summer, I had a very black-and-white approach to abuse. Sympathetic media portrayals of even mildly, unwillingly emotionally abusive characters was enough for me to feel enraged. Fast forward to me coming to terms with the fact that I was raised in an abusive environment and everything was turned on its head.

I find it more comforting to think of the abuse as glorified bullying, but the power dynamics, chronic nature, and lasting effects make me struggle to feel comfortable calling it only that. In part, because I think part of the struggle of coming to terms with this is recognizing the fact that I still love very dearly the people who happened to be abusive. They were not abusive 24/7; they were not only defined abusers–they were also loving and self-sacrificing caregivers.

It’s important to situate that one person in particular in their context. They were responding to the trauma of a family coming to terms with a very sensational and terrifying experience. They had traumas in their childhood before I was even born. They were having to navigate cutting seemingly dangerous people out of their lives, and somehow making up for the void left by even the most absent of fathers. But they were young, scared, and felt responsible for caring for me. This doesn’t make their abusive behavior acceptable, and doesn’t make it my fault, but it does shed light on the fact that they didn’t even realize how abusive it was.

My family had physically lost me at one point, and now that I was back, they were desperate to keep me from being physically/figuratively/spiritually lost again. That’s why they enacted such stringent surveillance. That’s why they shamed and discouraged me from all sorts of uncertain or morally ambiguous pursuits. In an attempt to keep me happy and safe they demeaned and demoralized me into being a depressed and anxious child. Perhaps their behaviors would have rolled off my shoulders had I grown up secure. If, at a young age, I had been able to trust and be trusted. But all of us were vulnerable subjects—all of us were traumatized; so their behavior spiraled into abuse and I internalized all of the negativity readily, already primed to feeling unworthy given the lack of consistency in my care growing up.

As a child I reproduced this type of bullying behavior to a friend because I felt powerless in my familial relationships and thus enacted power dynamics the only way I knew how to someone who was only nominally less powerful than me (she was younger). Coming to this realization was very painful, and at some point I was unsure of whether I could live with it. I am terrified of having children because I worry about the self-perpetuating nature of trauma and how that would affect the children I’d raise. But realizing that I had already done damage to someone years ago still made me sick to my stomach.

I decided to contact this friend. She had called me out on our childhood dynamic a few years ago, and ever since then I carried that guilt with me. I apologized, but internally assumed it better if I just stay out of her life for good. Perhaps selfishly—it was because I couldn’t bear to spend time with someone I had hurt. I called her up a few weeks ago, and we chatted for a while. She talked about law school and we talked about college, and then she had to go so we hung up. There never seemed a point where it felt appropriate to bring up what I wanted to say to her. So after we hung up, I quickly sent her a text.

She sent this response:
“______, do not feel guilty for actions as a child. You did not have a sense of right and wrong at the time. I [forgave] you through my friendship over the years. It did not really affect me significantly, mainly just in the moment, but I don’t remember much anyway. I’m not perfect myself and have acted in demeaning ways as an adult. Just be the humble person you are and you will be fine.”

It made me cry. There was such genuine forgiveness in her message. It felt like a burden lifted. And I wish I could also be that forgiving, but it’s difficult. At this point, I’m on very surface-level speaking terms with my brother. I don’t speak with my father. And I avoid my mother, terrified of what she’s going to say next.

These days, I have been having a particularly hard time being generous with my family because they are so desperate to marry me off and so calloused in their evaluations of my character. I brought this up to my therapist this weekend because I had had such a horrible and damaging week because of it.

At first she was stumped. I appreciated her empathy. She told me she could viscerally feel the sensation of being stuck that I had been trying to navigate, and for a few minutes it seemed like we weren’t going to be able to get through the issue in any productive way in that session.

Then she told me to prepare myself going into interactions with my mother. I think one thing that I realized is that my mother has an almost childlike giddiness at the thought of getting me married. It’s so naïve. A woman who has been through two painful marriages is convinced that marrying me off will be the end all? It didn’t make sense. But my mother always felt responsible for not having kept me safe, even when that feeling was unfounded. Now, by doing this the “right way”, she’s convinced she’ll be absolved of her guilt. All of this is subconscious, of course. So talking through this with my therapist, she suggested that I look at this as how my mother is coping with this 20-year trauma.

It has nothing to do with me as a person. I’m absorbing her stress and her expectations, but she’s fabricating a version of myself that does not exist. That’s why I’m getting so sick. I can’t consolidate this fictional version of me with all of vastly different characteristics with who I am and yet I’m being told they’re the same person with the same end goals. But my mother doesn’t know how to get to know me; to get me married, because getting to know someone who’s so vastly different from herself is painful for her. It makes it seem as if I am unlike her on purpose—as a slight to her, as if I existed as her polar opposite to spite her and insult her caregiving.

It’s patronizing. I have to coddle the caregivers in my life. To be true to myself, I have to fucking lie through my teeth to them. It’s understandable if I can’t accept it yet, particularly when there’s so much painful stimuli from them. But I need to be generous with my family, like I’m generous with others. They deserve it. They have been through so much. It’s hard to let it go because I’m the body these practices are acted on, but they can not see their context. To see it would require them to dig up traumas they have adapted coping mechanisms for. It’s my responsibility to navigate these relationships while not absorbing the stress of misplaces and falsely constructed expectations.

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