I was 25, and I had just learned it was possible to say no.
And just like a giddy two-year-old, I began to slap down this word in the midst of conversations, relationships, workdays.
One of my library managers planned all our Halloween costumes that fall. We would all dress up as characters from The Wizard of Oz, she said.
No was what I said.
Men on buses asked for my phone number.
A young woman who frequently rode the bus with me from Shoreline to downtown Seattle, clad in pink pajamas and rabbit slippers, often rested her head on my shoulder and told me stories that left me half-believing an eight-year-old was trapped in the body of a 26-year-old. I didn’t mind her friendliness, her animal warmth, but when she asked me for money, I used my favorite new word.
We were off the bus by then, and she screamed at me on the sidewalk in front of Macy’s. I thought you were a nice person. I thought you actually cared about me, but you’re not. You’re just a selfish bitch who doesn’t think of anyone but herself.
No one but my parents had ever accused me of such a thing before. I felt proud. Sure, I said. I’m okay with that. And I walked away.
I had not been permitted to learn the contours and tones of “no” as a child. I was only just discovering that it could be an assertion, a dare, an act of revenge, a question, a victory. This one syllable contained an entire language. So I began to learn as an adult, the only way one ever learns to speak a foreign language.
Lots and lots of mistakes.
* * *
It was not a good time to be my friend.
I was 26 years old now, and friends sometimes opened their inboxes to find an email from me. Shocked at first, and then outraged, they read my accusations. How could you possibly think that kind of behavior would be okay? Stop making fun of me. Stop trying to dominate me.
This became such a regular occurrence, an outraged email from me out of the blue every few months, that one of my friends joked to another, “Do you know about her emails?”
Everyone in my friend circle did.
Even my brother said, “This is scary. I mean, we’re all wondering who you’re gonna cut off next. It could be me.”
None of us had the slightest idea what was happening.
I was only just beginning to enter the aftermath of abuse. And in that first stage of healing after trauma, you’re constantly dragged back into it. Everything triggered me. A line of sarcasm. A snub. A mocking laugh. And then my brain believed I was facing down my father once again. Fight or flight.
And so I responded to a momentary discourtesy as if it were equivalent to my parents’ abuse. I drew boundaries, which—in these contexts—were lines in the sand. And I always did it at a distance, over email, because this was what had worked with my parents.
And then I shouted my favorite word. I shouted it from doorways and from my second-story window down at a group of skateboarders on restaurant property. I shouted it at men from my seat on the bus and at friends from my keyboard at home. I shouted it as a declaration of independence, a demand for freedom, a criticism of a society that had tolerated and sometimes condoned all the assaults and the abuse, a rebellion against my whole history—not yet understanding that the vehemence with which I shouted it was also, for anyone literate in the signs of post-traumatic stress, an embodiment of that very same history.
* * *
Abused children never had the chance to express healthy anger. Even feeling anger—the dead giveaway of lowered eyebrows, pursed lips, a raised voice—was too dangerous. My father, like all abusers and dictators, had honed a keen sixth sense of sniffing out the least resistance. And then he beat it out of me, physically or emotionally.
This didn’t mean I stopped getting angry about the abuse. But it does mean that I didn’t grow up in a household where self-assertions or angry frowns were possible. My feelings had to boil over. I had to lose control of myself. Like so many child abuse survivors, I vacillated between destructive, murderous rage and passivity.
I don’t know if I will ever be good at anger. I am 38 years old now, and I no longer send friends and acquaintances surprise emails. But still, I don’t get angry when I should. I only get angry after the guests have left and the crumbs are wiped off the table, and only then, after I am safely hidden from people who were unkind or merely oblivious, do I allow myself to feel my anger about a snub or criticism or imposition.
I have taken an assertive communication course. I know that I can speak up in the moment. I can say, “Hey, that’s really hurtful.” But unless the communication is at a distance or I’ve known the person a long time and feel safe with them, I don’t assert myself. I’m still too afraid. I understand that this leaves people thinking I’m easy to push around. I’m easy to walk all over. At best, they think I’m “nice.” At worst, it invites further abuse.
But then they see the murderous rage.
People don’t expect that.
Most people don’t understand trauma well. They don’t understand that if someone is always curled into a ball, crying don’t hurt me, don’t hurt me, please I’m so nice, the behavior isn’t a response to you. It’s a response to the monstrous shadow-ghost towering behind you, looking over your shoulder. Grown women and men still hiding from abusive parents. Grown LGBTQ people who are still hiding from their bullies. Grown people of color still hoping that niceness will temper the racists who traumatized them as children. And if someone acts enough like that monstrous ghost, the “kill them with kindness” defense mechanism will be dropped, and the survivor will shred you to pieces like a caged tiger.
Not because we want to. Not because we are strong. But because we have two modes. That’s all mistreated children were taught. Helplessness or violence. And for anyone who has been brutalized by their parents, the rage is always there. It is my shadow.
My rage has cost me friendships and well-being and, once, my lease.
I know that learning to make friends with my anger, to not only feel it but to express it appropriately and swiftly is something I may never be good at. It’s not the same as the niceness of women who are socialized to be nice for the sake of relationships. Child abuse survivors have been trained to fear their own anger, to experience it as life-threatening. And to fear something that is part of yourself, something that is necessary for connection because it protects us from unhealthy people, is one of the most tragic and long-lasting consequences of child abuse.
For the rest of my life, I will try to let out my anger and name it before it becomes rage. I will often fail. But I will try to accept the failures as a part of healing. I will try to believe that I will not end up beaten or locked in a pitch-black room if I dare to assert myself. And I will try to believe that I can be angry, and my anger doesn’t mean I’m a bad person. And to understand that it also doesn’t mean I’m right and now get to make someone pay.
This is not a goal. It is a journey. It is a faith that I haven’t yet found.
But I will keep trying.
I owe my life and those I love nothing less.