AUTHOR’S NOTE: This post may trigger, be very cautious when reading if you have a history of early and severe childhood trauma.
*The Dissociation of Being Both the Witness to and the Victim of My Mother’s Vicious Attacks
The comment I received today on my mother’s letters that I transcribed yesterday, reminds me of the FACT of the very REAL TRUTH that what I am facing in my process of ‘re-covery’ is the long term damage done to me by the unwarranted outbursts of my mother’s violent brutality and rage against me that I know occurred beginning in the time of my life that is way beyond my conscious ability to ‘re-member’ on any level except as those memories were all stored within my body from the time I was very, very tiny.
Yet while I may not have the ability to ‘recall’ the memories of her violence to me that started from the time I was born (with the exception of the early memory I describe below), I can feel them in my body. At the instant I read the commenter’s words this morning, I could instantaneously feel the sadness in my body – the terrible, overwhelming, all consuming sadness that so washed over and through me from the time I was so tiny that it all but swept away any foothold I might have been continually trying to gain (as nature would intend any small child to acquire) of a sense of myself in the ongoing experience of my own life.
I could not ‘come up with’ any version of myself from the time I was so tiny that could possibly enable me to stand within myself against my mother. She made certain that it was impossible for me to do. This makes me think about witness abuse as it might well apply to my own inner experience of in some strange way being both the target for and the victim of my mother’s abuse — at the same time I was also the witness to it.
The part of me that was the witness knew a sense of hopelessness that nothing would ever be done to prevent another outbreak of violence against Linda from happening again. Perhaps this was a platform that part of me shared with my siblings, even my 2 year old sister in the incident described about The Fire Ants, as they helplessly had to witness in terror such unprovoked and unstoppable HURT being perpetrated against one of their peers – their sister, in my siblings’ case and against myself in my own case.
I have to say that this is the very first time I’ve ever had this thought, and I will explore it because it appears here today in response to this reader’s comment. It seems entirely possible to me as I write this morning that because of the ongoing violence on so many levels that was continually erupting in my world around me – with me as the target – from the time I entered this world in a body, that I was subdivided within my own self as I experienced every new incident of abuse.
This kind of violence against infants and young children does NOT promote integration of the self in the world or of the self in a body or of the self into a working model of the world. It produces continued fragmentation, in part because there is no way a very young child can ever exercise enough control to prevent the incidents from happening over and over and over again. The outbreaks of violence, with me as the target, happened outside a reasonable world of reason. There was no predictability. There was no link between consequence and cause.
As I write this I can see a whole new vista, a whole new field of potential understanding as it begins to open up inside my own thinking. It is true. I DID witness my mother’s insane switches from ‘being nice’ to ‘being angry’ just as my siblings did. The only difference between me and them – although it was a HUGE one – was that I bore the physical, psychological, and emotional burden and brunt of her rage. Although it is only at this moment that I am beginning to see that there were really two separate things going on at the same time, thinking about myself as not only the recipient of her rage attacks but also of myself as the witness of them at the same time, lets me WONDER about different things in different ways.
Wondering is good. Having the ability to wonder is, I believe, something that nearly everyone takes fore granted. But I can assure you that wondering is something that I was deprived of as a child. Wondering happens within a mind that has grown up knowing from its beginnings that it has room to wander around within itself, within its own world of thought. All wandering requires enough room to move, even the wandering around within one’s own mind.
My mother consumed all the room in my early childhood. It would not be unlike being in a small confined area with limited supply of oxygen: My mother consumed it all and left none for me. She was all-consuming, and she nearly constantly devoured ME with her rage. Although there were repeated pauses or ‘reprieves’ from her attacks, I could never know for how long I was ‘free’ nor could I know where, when or why the next attack would begin. There was no safe, secure room to wander in between her attacks, not EVEN within my own growing mind.
Without this safe and secure room to wander as a child, the whole human-nature urging that we naturally are supposed to have that leads us to explore our environment – either outer or inner – cannot occur. Without space to wander, we cannot possibly LEARN to exercise the human ability to wonder, either.
So I could never really wonder what it was I did wrong that made my mother so angry at me. I could never wonder about what I could do to prevent her attacks, either. They ‘just happened’ the same way the sun rises in the morning and sets itself at night. Her rage and violence against me was a fact of my life like all other facts. There was no reason and their was no escape. And I was given no room to wander around within my own growing brain-mind as a child so that I could wonder about anything that had to do with my mother. I was always in the midst of an attack, recovering from an attack or on some level trying to monitor my existence in the world as I waited for the next attack or tried to prevent one.
Because having enough safe space to wander around in my own growing brain-mind so that I might wonder was removed from me in childhood, I do not take wondering fore granted now. Today I received a ‘break in the clouds’ that lets me wonder about being both the witness to and the victim of my mother’s extreme violence against me. Today I want to separate these two experiences apart from each other so that by considering each form of abuse individually I can gain more power within myself to heal from them BOTH.
If one imagines being a target, and if one then looks through that perspective on the experience of being shot at, it becomes obvious that given an ability to slow the process down in slow motion the experience of knowing one is going to be hit at any second and the experience of actually feeling the impact are two different things. Even though I have always thought of my mother’s attacks as a ‘one thing’, they were not. There was always a split-second experience of knowing the attack was coming and there was nothing I could do to avoid or escape it.
At those moments I witnessed the oncoming attack like looking up in the sky just in time to see a bomb falling out of it about to hit your head. Human brains are expertly designed to read and understand facial expressions and body language. Whenever I had that split second of time between seeing her come at me and feeling her attacks on the target my body was for her rage, I could see that change that came over both her face and her body.
Anyone who has ever experienced the kind of attack a rage-filled adult can turn on a small child knows what I am talking about. Looking back, I would describe it as if she would instantly be consumed and possessed by some force that I could see as it changed her face, and particularly her eyes and her mouth. I know that I knew this ‘look’ from the time I was born.
My earliest memory of ,y mother’s violence against me came shortly after I had written the letter in which I disowned my mother. The memory came to me like memories often can come, literally ‘out of the blue’. I had simply walked from the ground of my back yard at the house I was living in, up the steps onto the deck, and was crossing the deck when I suddenly felt very small. I was in a very small body in a crib. I could feel my back on the mattress. I could see the wide spaces between bars (of course I didn’t know what any of this was during the time I experienced what I remembered this day).
I heard sounds. I knew what the sounds were and in the memory I listened. My mother was walking hard down a hallway, stomping her feet. I could sense the weight that was her body. I heard her hand on the bed room door knob, the sound of the knob turning, the sound of the door opening as she continued through it and up to the crib where I lay. Her face appeared above me a split second before her huge hand reached toward me. She was screaming at me. Her eyes were filled with rage. Her hand hurt me.
I knew as the memory appeared at that instant I was walking across my deck – and as I stood suddenly still – that I was very, very small because her hand as it came down toward me was nearly half the size of my body.
At this moment as I write about making the distinction between the difference of the experience of knowing one is going to be attacked just before it happens, and what the actual experience of the attack itself is must be an important one for us as victims to examine. I quickly learned once this infant memory returned to me, complete with the sensory memories of sound, sight and touch, that I do not need in any way to question the accuracy of that memory – or of any of my memories. I also know that memory was not of the FIRST time I had experienced my mother’s out-of-control violence and hatred against tiny me.
That this memory would reappear to me this morning as I write this fascinates me. It lets me know how ‘on target’ my own healing process truly is. This is a memory of being both the witness and the victim, nearly simultaneously, but not quite so. And it lets me know how deep within me, within my body, within my brain-mind and nervous system my pain and sadness truly is. Because at the second this morning that I read this blog’s poster’s comment, as the words traveled through my eyes and into my brain, as they traveled a place of understanding the of words themselves, it was this pain and sadness that was triggered within me at the same instant the understanding of the words themselves hit me.
What I choose to tell myself at this moment is that nothing about my process today is anything to be afraid of. It is, however, something to be extremely cautious and careful with. I cannot go directly to that pain. I can feel it in my body. I can feel how close that sadness is from the pressure of tears that want to appear in my eyes and spill out. But I choose not to let them come, because I don’t want to cry right now. I never have to wonder about crying. I have cried so many tears in my lifetime I could wonder how I could possibly have any left over to cry now.
I know the tears are not what I want, and therefore are not what I need today. I need to open up the spaces between the experiences of terrible trauma and terror that I experienced for 18 years so that I can create spaces big enough that I can wander around IN MY THOUGHTS, so that I can WONDER.
I suspect that it is within these wondering spaces that I can let the light of the REAL reality shine into me. This new light of reality can wipe out the darkness that my mother’s reality created within me from the moment I was born.
I see today that this darkness came to me from her through at least two separate, different yet intertwined ways: She forced me to be a witness of Linda’s abuse very nearly – but not quite – at the same time that she forced me to be the target of it.
This will all connect for me later on as I explore and wonder about something that seems like a mystery to me. Many, many times during my childhood – believe it or not – her attacks took me completely by surprise. I understand now this must be in part because I was so dissociated between my own experiences of my own experiences of my childhood that it was like I was a completely different person many times when she attacked me than I was when she attacked me again.
When I look back from the present at my child self in the past I can say that simple common sense, based upon thousands of experiences of being attacked by my mother, should have been ‘enough’ to prevent me from ever being surprised when she attacked me again. BUT – I was OFTEN surprised. I remember that feeling and that state of disorientation when I would look up and see her ‘coming at me’. I would be surprised like it was the first time it ever happened. I felt confused, and would watch as if she was moving in slow motion as she moved toward me.
Today I wonder, “How could that have been so? How could I possibly have been surprised when she attacked me?” I KNOW it was possible because I remember it. I remember that witnessing of her impending attacks as I was like abruptly shocked out of a daydream, out of one reality into another. This lets me know in my current explorations toward healing that the realities I experienced IN BETWEEN her attacks were numb, dazed, floating pieces that were not connected to each other, probably BECAUSE they were so violently interrupted without warning and separated from one another by her attacks. This was most likely to happen for me at times when my mother’s attacks on me were even more incoherently disconnected to my ongoing experience than usual.
So part of my healing process is about figuring out what, in reality, can be wondered about and what cannot. This will help me come to KNOW what was and is ‘really real’ as I separate it out from what was real to my mother and what was real as I experienced life with her. My entire childhood from birth to age 18 happened in her world, and her world built my brain-mind. In her world, everything was mostly hit and very little miss. It was irrational, had no logical cause and effect, was disorganized and disoriented, was incongruous, and completely unsafe and insecure.
Any pauses between her attacks left me in that dissociated dazed place of being ‘in between’. These ‘in between’ places could be, and were, violently interrupted often, and often without any warning. This pattern without a pattern left me no safe place within myself to wonder. Nearly my entire life force as a child was occupied with enduring and surviving what my mother did to me.
But today I have yet another piece of information that is important to my recovery. I am beginning to understand that the ‘witness abuse survivor’ part of my existence could be completely surprised at times when she turned her rage on me, even though the ‘target abuse survivor’ had clear memory of being under her attack. The experience of these two separate experiences can obviously and factually be dissociated from each other. I know this because it happened to me.