James Fell looks back on the legacy of emotional abuse and fear that could’ve been carried forward into his life… but wasn’t.
There was blood everywhere, and I was screaming.
The blood was pouring out of my left knee; childhood trauma provides vivid recollection despite 40 years having past.
We were visiting my grandmother in Victoria, British Columbia. A friend named Brent – you make friends quickly at that age – was chasing me through the house in a game of tag, and the sliding glass door that lead to the back deck was sparkling clean.
In other words, I thought it was open. Give me a break; I was five.
Fortunately, I did not go through the window. I hit it with my knee, and fell backwards. Then, blood, plus screaming. This followed by my uncle driving me to the hospital through the rolling coastal hills at a speed that punished the suspension of the pre-1970s model four-door car while my mother had a minor meltdown in the backseat as she attempted to hold my knee together with six squares of toilet paper.
I still hadn’t stopped screaming. I remember the screaming, but not the pain.
Thirty stitches plus an annoyed doctor and nurse later I was in the cafeteria drinking chocolate milk – a rare treat. Then we went back to grandma’s house and she proceeded to chew me out about her shattered glass door.
That was my first inkling that she wasn’t such a nice person.
It’s not good to air the family’s dirty laundry, but she’s been gone 14 years, and while she didn’t have much positive impact on people’s lives while she was above ground, perhaps this lesson I’m about to share can allow her to provide some benefit to the living.
Well, I do know one good thing she did, besides giving birth to a couple of children who grew up to be awesome. She drove an ambulance during the Blitz in London.
I achieved a fuller realization that she was batshit when I was seven. My parents had divorced and we lived with her for six painful months. I was getting an apple and she told me to give her half. So I got a knife and cut, and being seven, it was a haphazard job. I was left with one piece substantially larger than the other.
It seemed wise to give my grandmother the larger half, so I did. Then she proceeded to berate me for being a “greedy little bugger.” She told me that I should have given her the bigger half. I was looking at my half, which was about one-third of an apple, and then looked at her two-thirds of an apple, and said to myself: You really are a nutbag.
Well, not those exact words, but the spirit is there.
For 31 years I watched her torture my mother. My mother told me horror stories about her childhood, and I believe them. My mother had one of the shittiest, abusive childhoods you can imagine. So, yes, she’s a little neurotic as an adult.
But she is not at all abusive, quite the opposite.
I have never wanted for love my entire life. She showered both my sister and me with love to the point it was almost annoying. “Yeah, I get it, Mom. You love me, but now you’re embarrassing me.” I always knew from my earliest days that, no matter what, my mom had my back. She’d walk through fire for me. Actually, she’d run through it, and she’s not much of a runner.
She told me about being 12-years old and being forced to stand outside in the winter rain yet again, wearing nothing but a skirt and blouse. It was then that she promised herself she would never treat her own children in such a manner.
But when she became pregnant with my older sister there was a moment of panic. She still feared she would be like her own mother and perpetuate a cycle of abuse. She spoke of this to her doctor, who gave her some simple yet poignant advice: “All the suffering you’ve endured can be undone by loving your children with all your heart. Think of what your own mother would have done, and then do the opposite.”
And then she told me of feeling the growing child inside her, and that even though my sister was not yet born she loved her already anyway. Her heart lifted.
Such a thing qualifies for the word: “epiphany.”
I remember having my own life-changing epiphany once. I was in my 20s, and I was overweight, drinking far too much, flunking out of university, and deeply in debt. Then I read a simple quote by folk singer Joan Baez, of all people, who said, “Action is the antidote to despair.”
And so, I took action, and in stages, my despair waned.
For 25 years I had always hated physical activity of any sort. I had zero innate athletic talent. I was bullied for being a spaz and always picked last when teams were selected. It took time, but I transformed into someone who is now defined by exercise. It has given me far more than just a job. It changed my life for the better in ways beyond counting. Speaking of having a good life, my mom didn’t let her upbringing hold her back. She blew apart glass ceilings and had a very successful business career.
My message is this: The circumstances of the first part of your life don’t have to define the second part. No matter what transpired yesterday or the days preceding it, this does not determine what happens on neither this day, nor the days yet to come.
No one makes it through life without some scars. Some are visible, like the one on my knee, and some are not. The bullying and belittling I faced in school left its share of invisible scars, and for a time I let them define who I was, until it was time to change that.
Sometimes change happens rapidly and with an epiphanic moment. Sometimes it takes years and baby steps. Change is inevitable, but you’re the one who influences the direction such change will take.
If you’re tired of the path you’re on, you can switch to a new one. They’re your feet, and you have the freedom to place them where you choose.
Originally appeared at SixPackAbs.com
Photo: Flickr/.v1ctor Casale.