October 22, 2021
I have a few clear memories from when I was four-years-old. I remember the birch trees in our front yard in Parma Heights and turning my tricycle upside down, pretending it was an ice cream machine. I remember doing the Tarzan call over our back fence, hoping my neighbor, Sharon, would climb over to play. I remember my breath becoming condensation on the inside of my Secret Squirrel Halloween mask. I remember the Christmas tree and learning that I could swallow SpaghettiO’s without chewing them. I didn’t remember being molested.
This might be the hardest thing I’ve ever written but I have to. I have to because I remember now and that memory has allowed me to connect so many dots in my life, a series of dots that includes a trail of tears full of damaged relationships with family members and other people I supposedly loved. Two failed marriages and a third that is hanging by the tiniest of threads. All connected to one weekend in 1968.
Over the years I’ve trumpeted the benefits of therapy as a place of self-evolution and fixing broken patterns. “I worry about the people NOT in therapy,” I’d tell my students. Since my first drop into clinical depression, that I fictionalized in my novel, The Mission of the Sacred Heart, therapy has been a place to put out the emotional fires. But it’s often just tinkering around the edges and not getting to the root. The root takes time to dig down to, maybe years.
I was in couples counseling about a dozen years ago when I had a very clear childhood memory that stopped me cold. My young parents were looking for their American dream and got involved in some of those “multi-level marketing schemes,” like Amway. They would take weekends to go to sales seminars and drop me off with an older couple that lived down the block. While sitting on our therapists couch, I remembered my parents picking me up at the end of a weekend away and me crying uncontrollably, thinking they had left me with these people forever and being so relieved they hadn’t. I chalked it up to a root cause of my vague abandonment issues and moved on.
This pandemic has offered us an opportunity for self work. My patient and loving wife has helped me to identify my tendency to center myself instead of her in our marriage. (Something I’ve written about in this blog.) She was strong enough to name it; narcissism. She gave me reading list on the subject so I could continue my work. I was reading one of her recommendations, Why Do I Do That? Psychological Defense Mechanisms and the Hidden Ways They Shape Our Lives, and I began to see a lifelong pattern that started with endless fights with my younger brother and my tendency to be in perpetual “battle mode” in my romantic relationships. But I was puzzled about why I could see this pattern and seemingly be powerless to stop it.
Then, one day, because I really wanted to know, I was reading about theories on the origin of Narcissistic Personality Syndrome. And there it was in black and white, that one root can be child sexual abuse. It was like great whooshing enveloped me. I suddenly remembered why I was crying so hard when my parents picked me up from the neighbor babysitters. I had a crystal clear memory of being in the guest room, window facing the street, with the man, maybe twice as old as my 25-year-old father, standing in front of me, staring, with my clothes in a pile on the floor in front of me. The memory gets a little hazy after that, but I know I was crying because I needed my parents to rescue me from how that man was hurting me.
Realizing this literally stopped my breath. I began to hyperventilate and then sob. The timing was not perfect because I was in the middle of a me-caused crisis with my wife. I had shared an intimate detail of our lives with a friend (who was really just a local bartender) that she had asked me not to share. I had betrayed her trust in the most callous of ways for no reason other than momentary titillation, wounding this person I claim to love. This realization shed light on that and so much more. My hyper-sexuality, my narcissism, and probably why I never had a best friend.
That 4-year-old didn’t have the skills to stop this abuse so he erected a wall around himself for protection. I entered into a world where I constantly had to be on guard and defend myself. Everyone was a potential attacker, including my little brother, who I was endlessly cruel towards. I would see his efforts to emulate me as sinister attempts to take the things that were unique about me for himself. At age 10 I remember freaking out because he said he liked Elton John. Elton John was mine! I should have just said, “Yeah, Ronnie. Elton is awesome. Let me play you some of my favorite songs.” Instead I beat him up. That hyper-defensiveness and self-centering (and fortunately not the violence) followed me into adulthood and sabotaged every single romantic relationship I entered. I can provide you a list of women who will testify that was not a very good boyfriend or husband.
That 4-year-old also didn’t have the skills to process what was occurring. How could my parents let this happen? So all that trauma got folded into my subconscious and came out in my toxic personality traits. That’s where it hid until I was 57-years old, and by then those brain pathways were pretty well-worn grooves.
I found a new therapist to help me work on this psychodynamic that has only hurt people I love. She’s a hypo-therapist, so much of the work has involved talking to that 4-year-old who has been in control of my mind and behavior since 1968. I can take care of him, acknowledge his pain, and move forward as the adult version of me. But that kid is strong. He doesn’t want to let go. One thing that is painfully clear is that alcohol, something often abused by adult abuse victims, lets that kid out with a vengeance. So as of today, I’m going back to my straightedge tendencies. No more Portland benders. I can’t let the child cause more pain. And he’s caused a lot pain.
The research is clear, people who experience trauma tend to traumatize others. Veterans with PTSD have higher rates among domestic abusers. So many of the hate criminals I’ve studied over the years have histories of abuse in their background. Roughly one in seven American children experiences abuse, and you can bet that many of them are going to turn that pain outward, creating an endless cycle of trauma.
One of my favorite novels is Nick Hornby’s 1995 book, High Fidelity. The protagonist, Rob, is going through another break-up and decides to write all his ex’s to ask them why they broke up with him. I’m tempted to write all my ex’s to tell them that I know why they broke up with me and to apologize. Profusely. But my work has be in the present, being ever-mindful of this hurt 4-year-old that lives inside me. His need to lash out and erect walls has destroyed so much. I want to give him love and protection so he, and the other people I love, can finally feel centered and safe with me.
I know two things. What happened to me wasn’t my fault and that this internal dynamic that my abuse shaped is not an easy thing to change. Wish me luck on this path. It’s not going to be a straight line. And also that I’m sorry that I didn’t figure this out sooner. So sorry.