When we usually think about abuse, we think about the big things. A stepfather that can not keep his hands to himself, a mother covered in bruises, a skinny child in dirty clothes, bones that break too often, blood stained underwear, a black eye… Real trauma-causing abuse is often considered sexual or physical, big and painful, the worst of the worst, the darkest places existing in our world.
I know I think this way myself as well, when I have to talk about my abuse, I usually refer to the bruises my father gave me, how he would choke me on my bed, how he would lift me up on one arm, even when I was old enough to drink and how we would throw me against whatever hard thing was around. Trauma from abuse is often only understood when it is about the big things, but when I found myself crying like a baby over and ice cream I did not get 20 years ago, I suddenly realized how painful and traumatic small abuse can be as well.
To explain the situation that brought me to this realization, I will tell you about my day, previous Friday. I had an appointment with my psychologist and he had asked me to bring some pictures from my past, from my family and me. I do not have many of those but after a long search I found three, a happy baby me, a broken kid me and a way too grown-up just not teenager me.
In the baby picture I recognized my good-day self, a fun and loving creature, someone who makes jokes, can truly laugh and cares about the happiness of the people around her, the me I lost but desperately try to get back. In grown up child-me I recognized my bad days, my coping mechanisms and my strength, the me that came to existence by pain, the me I have become but try to get rid of. The middle one however is not what I was or what I am, instead, it show the progress, the period of change that turned the baby into the grown up.
This picture from when I was around 6 or 7 years old, shows my father, sister and me on a bench in Italy, on one of our summer holidays. My father on the left of the bench has a proud smile on his face and his arm around my little sister who is happily taking a big bite of a giant ice cream. I am on the right side of the bench, there is enough space between me and my sister for at least two mothers, I am playing with my own hands, looking at the camera with tears in my eyes.
So what happened just before this picture was taken? We stopped at an ice cream place, my sister bagged my parents for ice cream, my father went to get her some and and came back with just one cone. My sister was happy and started eating, delicious! But I wasn’t going to get an ice cream from my parents, they were willing to give me the money but they would not order it for me, I was too old. So I went into the store looked at the different flavors but then a woman started speaking to me in Italian and I panicked. I didn’t know Italian, nor English nor German,,, I didn’t know what she was saying and she kept talking. I panicked and ran outside, I couldn’t do it…
Outside I couldn’t find my parents, did they leave me? Am I now alone in this strange country? What should I do now? Again someone talks to me in a strange language, what does he want from me? I start crying, I am not old enough, I am not good enough to be here by myself it was stupid of me to wish I was… I start walking, if I just go straight I might find them and I will always know how to get back, tears are still running down my cheeks.
Anna! Here we are! Where is your ice cream?
They started talking to me and I didn’t know the language..
My parents laugh, we knew you wouldn’t be brave enough ,well, your loss, you’re sister says the ice cream tastes amazing! Now, stop being so pathetic, dry your tears and laugh at the camera..
This picture was taken before the digital era, when each picture was precious. So when it was developed weeks later and revealed to my parents their real anger started. I ruined their picture, I ruined a nice moment for them, I ruined the holiday, now they did not have enough pictures to show how amazing their holiday had been and how much fun we had as a perfect family. Once again, I am the worst daughter they can imagine, a shame to the family.
This picture did not capture what we expect real and traumatic abuse to be like, however, this story shows a lot of small abusive behavior of my parents. There is emotional abuse, discriminatory abuse and neglect. There is a lack of acceptance, nurturing, protection, free expression and emotional understanding. This picture tells a story which shows that I did not receive many of the basic needs a child has, it shows harm and trauma, and even though it is small, I was shaped by the painful events of this picture.
When I think about this whole incident today, it almost feels like a cruel joke, a prank or a carefully directed scene to make me feel small and worthless. I mean, my parents should have known that I was not going to be able to order myself and ice cream in a foreign country, I was barely able to do this in my own back then, I was insecure and shy, afraid of talking to people, afraid of being heard I guess. They knew I wasn’t going to come out of that store with what I wanted, but still they did not help me. I didn’t deserve their help and I guess there just needed to be a clear difference between me and my sister, I needed to be less.
And than the fact that they moved to another street, that they just left me alone doing something that scared me and couldn’t even wait to be there for me when I had failed They told me they left because they wanted to sit down and rest, enjoy the sun, the village and the ice cream. Apparently I was really not worth waiting for, they wanted something and did not consider me in any way for even a second. They knew that I was smart enough to not get lost, or weak enough to not walk away, so they just left me to do their own things.
And what about this picture? Why did they have to take it right that moment, when I was crying? My sister had almost finished her ice cream, so they had to hurry with taking the picture. I had to adjust my emotions to my sisters stupid melting snack, because without it, the picture would not show how much fun they had on their holiday. Besides, with this picture they could tell people how impossible I had been all those weeks in Italy, how great they were as parents for dealing with such a difficult child.
The reason I own this picture is because I took it from my from my parents photo album years ago, because I could not take the pain of it anymore. A couple of times a year, my mother would open her albums, forcing me to look at the old pictures with her, judging me in all of them. This one hurted me the most, because I remembered the fear and sadness of that day so clearly, that I could not take her blame and judgement on how I ruined the picture and was so weak and strange, it felt too unfair and painfull. So I made the picture disappear for her, but unfortunately the story did not disappear. I still have to listen to the funny memory of silly Anna who was not brave enough to order her own ice cream and extremely childish to cry about it. So stupid, so funny…
What hurts me the most about all of this, is that this whole story is about something so small, so easy. It’s just an ice cream, it’s just holding my hand and letting me point at the flavor I want, it’s just one minute of minimal help. It hurts me that even this was too much for my parents, they could not even allow me such a small this that even a stranger would probably give me. I mean, if you find yourself babysitting two kids, five and seven years old, and someone gives the youngest an ice cream and the oldest money to buy one, you would probably help this kid to get an ice cream, you would probably not leave her alone with the money and take the youngest to enjoy eating. At least I wouldn’t, but my parents could.
For me, my parents being able to do even this, without any feelings of guilt or compassion, shows more than just one good set of bruises. This story shows how my parents did not at all care about me, how they could not even meet my smallest needs, how they did not even want to try. It shows a kind of unbounded cruelty or unfairness, timeless and topic-less. We don’t hate you because you do bad things, we just hate you. You don’t get the same as your sister because you did not deserve it, we just don’t want to give you anything. We don’t believe that you are worthless because you fail us, you’re worthless because we have decided that you are.
Yes, my father used to hit me, I used to cover my bruises and live with physical pain, but this at least seemed to have a cause. I usually said or did something before it started, it seemed to be linked to rules and time, and even though the reasons for my father’s beatings often did not make sense and the punishment was way too hard, my “big” abuse had a boundary, it wasn’t continuous.
These small things are different though, they are always there, even today. No matter what I did or do, I am mistreated, all the time. There is no escape, no reason no end. My parents hate me unconditionally or something, they don’t accept me, they don’t protect me and they don’t care for me. The damage of all these daily small things is probably greater than all my past bruises combined. Their lack of love and affection, warmth and protection, understanding and acceptance is what truly turned me into the way too grown-up just not teenager me, the version of me that is behind many walls, unseen, unhappy, unloveable, unworthy…