“We act like we're a happy family,” I sobbed, watching Dad furiously stomp away from the house, “but we're not. We're really not.”
It was the first time I'd verbalized the truth that all was not well in the kingdom. Oh, we put on a good show for the neighbors, church, school and relatives. The loved-up parents striding hand-in-hand through life, their smiley A-Honor Roll daughter trailing shyly behind. But the reality was far different.
Verbal fights occurred frequently. Dad flew into blackout rages, running through the house like a rabid animal, screaming and swearing at the top of his lungs, beating the furniture, doors, woodwork, countertops 'til his fists bled.
But this was the first time I'd dared speak the truth.
“See, you can't handle it,” Mother snapped at me. “If you're going to get upset when we fight, I won't explain to you why we're fighting!”
The memory is as fresh today as when it happened twenty years ago. I can still see the crisp, white cafe-style kitchen curtains framing the figure of dad as he furiously strode away. Remember the shame for having emotions. For speaking the truth. For fearing for my family unit. And the terror of being blind-sided if Mother choose to keep me in the dark in future.
Instantly, I choked back my sobs and put on a smile. Yeah, that's the smile. The same one I'm wearing today. It's getting a little faded, a little threadbare, a little wrinkled at the corners from over-use, but it's still firmly in place.
I wore it the day Great-Grandma died. (Mom screamed, “Do you think it's funny she died!?!”)
I wore it the day Grandpa died.
I wore it when Mom slapped me across the face.
I wore it the day Dad kicked out the door in a rage.
I wore it the day Dad punched me in the face.
I wore it during my twenties, hating that I was forced to live with them and forbidden from moving out a la Stockholm Syndrome.
I wore it when they ended all my romantic relationships.
I wore it when Dad grimaced in jealous rage, looking away when my husband kissed me.
On the occasions when it did slip, Mother was quick to remind me, in the words of Denis Prager that, “Happiness is a serious problem,” and “Those who don't try to be as happy as they can have B.O. of the personality.”
Apparently, mine stank.
So I always put on the smile, along with my mascara and lipstick, before going anywhere. My mask. My disguise. A pastor once told me, “You radiate so much joy as you sing in the choir.” Fooled you too, I thought.
Apparently, I fooled everyone. In response to my “going No Contact” letter, Dad wrote, “...the grievances expressed in your October 2013 [No Contact] letter were totally unexpected. We had no prior sense of your being disturbed by our communications.”
No prior sense? No prior sense!?! My initial reaction was, in the words of Mrs. Cooper on The Big Bang Theory, “What bull dropped that on the barn floor?” Yes, I had responded with a smile to all “communications” just as I responded with a smile to all their abuses.
But my smile did slip, often and often, only to be quickly and severely shoved back into place by one or both parents. Apparently, someone is living in his own little dream world if he's forgotten all the shoving he did on that smile!
And apparently, I'm one hell of an actress!
The constant smile comes with a set of rules. They guide you on how to behave as though life is perfect...even when it isn't. I call it “Living Symbolically.”
Life Rules for “Living Symbolically”
Smile, always smile.
Behave as you would if life and people were perfect at all times, no matter what happens. Don't respond to the situation. Respond to the "perfect" world.
Always be happy.
Never react when someone hurts you.
Never set a boundary.
Never show pain of any kind - physical, mental, emotional or spiritual.
Never have compassion nor empathy for yourself.
Always “do unto others,” although they never do unto you.
Always make sure everyone else is happy.
Never do anything to please nor care for yourself.
Perhaps my psychologist friends know the proper term for it. There's a whiff of dissociation around it. And gobs of codependence. Whatever you choose to call it, it stinks. Reeks!
Did you grow up in an alcoholic or addicted family? Then you know what I'm talking about. If you grew up with mentally ill parents, it probably sounds familiar. Even if your family was sober yet highly dysfunctional, you know whereof I speak.
So how do we stop “living symbolically”?
To be continued...after I figure this shit out!
1/2/2016 12:40:43 pm
Light glimmers!!! We wear that damn smile to this day, even tho' we've escaped from our abusers, to assure everyone that we're OK...everything's OK...please, don't get mad...stay calm. We're "recycling" as Melodie Beattie calls it. It protected us in the past from volatile, angry abusers, and well, now it's a habit!
1/2/2016 09:01:03 pm
OH my word - you were living in my house! Thank you for this amazing piece of writing. So accurate. So sad.
I still smile. The circumstances are a bit different for me now though. I grew up with ritualistic abuse in a fractured family. Then, sold for sex, in my teens. I learned to be quiet with a pleasant look, no matter what horrors were going on, as you describe.
Lenora Thompson, Writer
12/28/2016 11:58:05 am
If you liked this article, you'll love the new one I published on this topic, "The Hell of Perpetual Happiness."
1/20/2018 12:48:51 pm
When I was growing up, things were all about my mum, but also she cared about us. She wanted us to be perfectly happy and live in a perfect world, perhaps she didn't know how to deal with it if we weren't ("What did i do WRONG?" she'd ask). And I'm soon going to be starting therapy, which I'm hoping will help me learn to connect with people and be less lonely and anxious. But it's orders of magnitude less than what you've experienced.
2/26/2019 11:11:14 am
This is great article. Yes, smile. Always smile. I was an abused child. My mother has bipolar disorder type ll. The type ll leads to rage, depression and more rage. It could be something small, but it was always there. A beating for anything and everything. I learned not to beat my own children. I learned to honor their emotions. But yet deep inside of me is the fear. She is 80 years old and frail, though the beatings have long stopped the emotional abuse continues and so does the fear. I know. I can see that she is frail. I want to take care of her. I want to make it all right. I want to protect her. Make her life perfect. I forget about my own. I smile through it all. I'm a Buddhist and we believe we owe are parents a debt of gratitude. Where does it end? I've got to figure this shit out too.
2/27/2019 01:02:26 am
"We had no prior sense of your being disturbed by our communications.”
1/7/2020 12:25:43 pm
We had the same DAD/FAMILY!! Been working on this for years. I've grown alot. I love your Blog. Been reading for years too. I appreciate you!
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