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.


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  1. ru
    ru says:

    Hi Penelope,

    Just reflecting on what you wrote, on one level definitely what you went through is traumatic and terrible. On another level that you didn’t write about, there’s more. You title the post “thinking your problems are special…” which could also be your way to underline the trying to figure out adjustment to everyone else’s version of normal. Granted abuse is not right, and being able to do dishes, feed your kids is the basic normal functions of daily lives – but that’ wasn’t your normal for a long time and you have to re-adjust your value system to redefine normal. Habits and beliefs once formed can take long long time to change.

    When a child is young and unknowing of what is right and wrong, getting burned and being told it was an accident – that is the only kind of normal you know. Once you grow up, you realize the reality you created in your mind need to change is uncomfortable no matter how much better the new normal is. You buying this book to read it in hiding from your family is one way of seeking comfort in old familiarity (one where you don’t have to make an effort to adjust).

    Every new step counts, you can pause and look back. But keep walking. ^^

  2. mysticaltyger
    mysticaltyger says:

    I really appreciate the fact that you are not letting yourself off the hook for being accountable for adult responsibilities as a result of your childhood abuse. This was a great piece! At the same time, if you are making a real effort to do the right thing, it’s ok to cut yourself a little slack. Just keep on keepin’ on!

  3. Mandy
    Mandy says:

    I whole-heartedly treasure your openness, which I’ve enjoyed via dozens of your blog posts. Thank you for sharing your talents with us.

  4. laura
    laura says:

    You refer to the things most adults do. But honestly, it is a fraction of adults I know that actually do that. Most of the people I know are broke. Many live in worlds of fantasy and delusion about what it will take to get life in order for them. I have often thought that your blog is not for them. On the whole the advice and insight you give is for educated people who more or less have their lives together, because for many, going to bed on time, leaving the house, deciding what to eat or wear or what intoxicants it will take to get through the day and how to come by them are the big issues and how to get a job is something they will worry about after they spontaneously achieve enlightenment or win the lottery or get around to losing 150 lb.
    The world is a traumatised place. But I think it is getting better.

  5. Jean Wilson
    Jean Wilson says:

    You know what they say – when you’re going through hell, keep going.

    Have also had my share of really messed up family dynamics. But I’m trying to learn to be grateful for it – now I know what to say to other people going through difficulty instead of standing there staring at my shoes. It feels good to help someone else. Adversity also has a way of making you fearless, in a good way, when you know exactly what you’re made of and what you can withstand.

    FWIW, the National Assoc. for the Mentally Ill has made a difference for me (since some of those in my life have diagnoses). They give practical advice like, don’t sit in a corner where you can’t get out the door if you need to. It might help: http://www.nami.org.

  6. Karen
    Karen says:

    Oh, Penelope. How do you get inside my head? Rather, how does what’s in my head escape and find it’s way onto your blog so it can confront me? And how the hell do you make it sounds so damn good?

    I blame my perfectionism on my abuse. I blame my procrastination on my perfectionism. I blame my inability to find a job on my procrastination. Until I’m wrapped up in an unsolvable tangle. And then I blame it all on that.

    Then I read what you write and I’m blown away by the honesty. You are so damned accomplished and so damned flawed. Maybe there’s hope for me. Not because I’m special. But because I’m not.

  7. Antonia
    Antonia says:

    Omg, I read his article like three times and I always thought the Headline went ‘Thinking Your Problems Are Special Ends Up Making You STUCK UP’


  8. Celeste
    Celeste says:

    I know this feeling, of not wanting to experience those moments between laying down and falling asleep. I spent 6 solid years staying awake til 5am, not allowing myself to sleep until someone trustworthy was awake. I was standing guard. My children were small. I would not close my eyes and allow something bad to happen to them. It has improved now that they are older, less defenseless. I’m grateful to sleep more. I’m regretful of how low functioning I was, for so long, because of it. Peace to you <3

  9. Vanessa
    Vanessa says:

    Love this post so very much. It’s a month later that I’m seeing it, and I’m kind of glad I was delayed, because I needed to read it TODAY.

    Thank you for reminding me my problems aren’t speciall the way I handle my problems is what is special, and it’s my job to do it well, and do it right the first time, or apologize while fixing shit.

    You are great. I wish I knew what I wanted to do with my life, because posts like this motivate me to do greater things, and move on from my past. I have no path. It’s no surprise I’m not going anywhere.

    Anyway, thank you again. This is beautifully painful and your honesty is brutal, for the reader and the writer. I appreciate you sharing your thoughts with us.


    • Vanessa
      Vanessa says:

      *Thank you for reminding me my problems aren’t special: the way I handle my problems is what is special, and it’s my job to do it well, and do it right the first time, or apologize while fixing shit.

  10. Joe
    Joe says:

    So is the Farmer still slapping you around, or what? Inquiring minds want to know. Posts like this one merely beg the question.

  11. Justin B.
    Justin B. says:

    Thanks for the great post. I went through a similar realization, and now I find it incredibly difficutly to empathize when others when they make excuses for themselves.

    It’s like there’s a moment when some people tell themselves: “I am not special. I did not lose control forever. I have control over my response to this moment, and I have no right to give up on myself and the people who rely on me.” That’s an incredibly difficult pill to swallow (at least it was for me).

    In saying this, I hope that I am not missing the mark. Thank you for sharing your experience, and good luck on your journey.

  12. Susan
    Susan says:

    I have read this post about 6 times and I keep coming back to this specifically:

    “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.”

    I guess we are all screwed up in some way or another ….but it is very boring… very boring. My brother emailed me your blog link a few months ago. You are the first blog I think I have ever read! I don’t sleep well, so you caught my attention. My brother, my sister and I are all struggling with the loss of our father who fell drastically short in many ways. Some of your posts have been very meaningful and helpful. Just wanted to say thank you.

  13. Maria Lockhart
    Maria Lockhart says:

    Oh dear, thans for writing about Asperger women. I am Asperger too, and Irealized that I have suffered for family violence all my life long. First as a child, from my mother, sister and brother. Then I got married and I had awful years of violence auntil I got divorced, and the second couple was even worst.
    I really not concius at all when someone hurts me, I takes me some time to get in touch with myself and understand my inner pain. When I was a child certain things happens that i cant remember, but I remember myself crying so often, alone, in the dark, When you write I think about myself, so lost for years and years and alone. I have two children, I am Mom and Dad , My older son is Asperger and I am 47 and only few months ago I realize I am Asperger too.
    When you mention your Iron scar, I remember so many scars not in the skin but in my soul, and so many things that happened in my chilhood, that are blocked on my mind and the silence of my family when I was hurt in front of them is even more painful, is like if all of them felt the same, that I was nothing, Now I am aware of this and I am beginning to forgive, because they are all so ill, so disfunctional, and they dont really want to talk about past and look at their own weakness.
    Thanks for being yourself, tanks for writing, it is nice to find someone that I can talk about this things.

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