I wait until my kids and husband go to bed. I wait ten extra minutes just in case. Then I take my new book out of the bag: Family Violence: Legal, Medical and Social Perspectives.
It’s a textbook organized by types of violence. The only light on in the house is the one next to the sofa where I curl up to read.
I flip through pages: Neglect, sexual abuse, ritual abuse. Everything is here.
I pause at physical abuse. There are lists of signs. Inconsistent stories from caretakers. Belt marks. Hand prints.
Burns are most common for kids under three. I think of my burn. How old was I? I was older, because I could walk to the doctor’s office by myself.
I read more. Kids hurt themselves doing normal, every day activities. They bruise themselves when they bump or fall on bony parts of their body: elbow, knee, forehead. The book says to look for marks on fleshy parts where kids would not fall or bump: the underside of an arm, the area around the genitals.
I shut the book. I can’t read more. It is 11pm. I should go to bed but I can’t because I don’t know what would go through my head during that time from when my head touches the pillow and my brain goes to sleep. Anything could come up. Some nights I stay up so late, get myself so tired, that I don’t remember the moment between putting my head on the pillow and falling asleep. Those are my best nights.
I walk around the house cleaning. Waiting until I can pick up the book again. I have twenty emails to answer. I have three business plans to review. I have a magazine article to write. I am not doing that. I am doing something else, but if you asked me what I’m doing I would not know.
It’s midnight and I sit down on the sofa to read again. I flip through random spots in the book so I’m sort of reading and sort of getting ready to stop reading.
There are six pages of burns.
I stare at the pages. I have a scar from a burn. It’s so prominent that it’s on my passport as an identifying mark: on the inside of the upper right thigh. I can remember filling out the passport form. I remember one of my parents – I don’t know which one – reminding me that I can fill in the section about scars. I remember thinking I didn’t know they knew I had a scar there. Or I didn’t know we acknowledge it. I just remember thinking, really? We are going to put that on my passport?
Everyone said that the iron fell on me. I pulled the iron off the ironing board and it fell on me.
But just now, this late in life, I realize that an eight-year-old cannot pull an iron off an ironing board and hit the inside of her thigh. And, even if it did, somehow, hit the inside of my thigh, how could it have been there long enough to give me a third-degree burn?
I went to the doctor’s office after school for weeks. The burn was disgusting and she treated it with yellow stuff and gauze. For a few weeks, the doctor was there for me every day after school, and I got a lollipop after each redressing of the wound. If I rearranged things in my head I could tell myself that my life was getting normal because someone was meeting me after school and giving me an after school snack.
No one questioned whether or not I pulled the iron. We all just kept saying that I pulled the iron down. I do not have any idea what happened.
But here’s what I know: my ability to see abuse is really limited.
I am terrified that I have no judgement for how to parent. I’m terrified that abuse seems full of nuance and I don’t see it. I don’t understand how people learn what is abuse, and my kids are growing up. It’s getting too late.
I answer emails at 2am, 3am. My kids see me nap in the day so often that they tell people I sleep all the time.
At this point I don’t have a work schedule because I need a clear head to work, with lots of room to think, but as soon as I get that, bad thoughts might come. Which makes me almost scared to clear room in my life to do work. I walk around worrying that a thought will come up that I can’t get rid of.
But the truth is that I’m operating at about half my ability because I let myself be unproductive. I tell myself I’m special so I can stay up all night and then not function during the day. I tell myself I have that burn on my thigh. Or the scar on my eyebrow, or the nail in my heart. Whatever it is. That’s why I tell myself I don’t have to function like a normal person.
But that’s more sad than all the stories hidden in my head. The saddest story is thinking you’re special, you’re different, you’re too messed up to take responsibility for adult life. It is not interesting to be the messed up person who never goes to sleep. All people who think they’re special in their fucked-up ways are boring. They are boring because they use the idea that they are special to excuse them from meeting the regular struggles of adult life, like getting enough sleep and being accountable for a to do list.
I can only let myself buy books about family violence and tell stories about my messed up childhood if I’m not going to let it derail me. There are milestones I need to hit throughout the day: make breakfast at a normal time, don’t leave dishes in the sink. Answer the phone for a scheduled call. Meet writing deadlines. Follow through on promises to the kids even if it means playing Go Fish.
It’s so easy to say you’re different and special. It’s much harder to hold yourself to the standards most adults hold themselves to.
So what am I doing to stop acting like I’m crazy and absolved from adult life? Going to sleep before midnight. It’s a small step, but making small, intentional behavioral change is what works to create bigger, more substantive change.