I vividly remember sitting across from my stepfather, Joe, at the kitchen table. In his hands were a stack of multiplication flashcards about 2 inches thick. His impatient, beady eyes drilled right into the center of mine as he snapped each card in front of my face.
WHAT is 8 x 5?
I SAID, WHAT is 8 x 5?
NO! We did this one already. THINK 8 – 5 times. WHAT is it? DON’T count on your hands.
I said nothing as tears scrambled down my red hot cheeks. I felt trapped and as much as I tried to force myself to come up with the right answer – I couldn’t. All I could hear in my panicked 6-year-old brain was, You are so DUMB. This is all your fault. See what you did? You never get anything right. Stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid. I hate you, I HATE YOU!
Frustrated, Joe pushed himself up from the table grabbed another beer from the fridge and stumbled into the living room. He mumbled something to my mother like, She’s your stupid kid. You go help her. The next thing I felt was my mother twisting a fistful of my hair around her pointer and middle finger. She yanked my head up off of my chest and put her lips right up against my ear. She was clenching her teeth tight, but I could still smell the alcohol on her breath.
You little brat, you see what you did?
You wanna act dumb?
That’s right. You keep it up and see what happens.
She released her grip, smacked me upside the back of my head and left the room.
As the hours passed, they got drunker and the verbal insults morphed into more physical assaults.
If there was one thing I learned that day it certainly had nothing to do with math or multiplication tables. As a child who grew up in an alcoholic, abusive home, I became skilled at taking responsibility for my parents’ feelings, reactions and drinking. You see, I learned that if I was smarter, then my stepfather wouldn’t have exploded, my mother wouldn’t have had to pull my hair, I wouldn’t have made her upset. They wouldn’t have kept on drinking and the fighting would have never started.
I couldn’t see the loopholes in this logic at the time but the lessons stuck and have shaped who I am today. As an adult I still struggle with feeling overly responsible for things that consciously I know I have no control over. As a result, I find it difficult to assert myself and set boundaries without feeling overwhelmingly guilty. I am still working on unlearning these messages, and believe me, when you are ready to make changes in your life, you will be given plenty of opportunities to practice. It takes time and loads of patience to undo the damage that has been done, but you can and you will — take it from me.