Trauma

The Trauma of Emotionally Toxic Parenting

Words can damage souls.

Posted May 04, 2016 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch

I like to say I fear no words but that's a lie.

I fear the C-word, because I have health anxiety. And I have health anxiety because my mother, who may or may not have had Borderline Personality Disorder, spent my childhood panicking about my body and the steel brace I wore because I was born without hip sockets. My weight: forever medium, yet Mom said after meals, We ate like f---ing pigs! while poking my clothes, seeking rolls of fat. She growled when I smiled: Your incisors are BROWN. Pinworms: Placing me, naked, face-down on the couch, parting my seven-year-old buttocks with her fingernails, summoning Dad: Come see these damn things crawling in and out!

She scolded me for inhaling their microscopic eggs off some shit-fingered kid

The very air was dangerous. Wet grass, which gives girls colds in their panties, could kill.

I also fear words—any words, but telling you this gives you power over me—said loudly. Shouted. Yelled. The word "yell" itself scares me, because in my mind I hear "yell" yelled. My parents yelled at me. A lot. They screamed cusswords into my face, their hot saliva speckling my eyes. Now that sounds like a lie: Why would two highly educated intellectuals roar at a mild-mannered, obedient, anxious child? They said they had no choice, because I was a f---ing slob. They said I drove them to it by using language they loathed: Barfo, for instance. And you guys

The main word I fear lately is the A-word. I can barely say or write it, here or anywhere. Which A-word? you demand. Australia? App?

Hint: It rhymes with Larousse. Vamoose. Abstruse. 

I can't type it. I can't. 

That's why I came here today. To say this. 

I had what witnesses would call an absolutely ordinary childhood: Sun-baked suburban home. Food. Clothes. No siblings. Never beaten, never sexually assaulted. 

See? I evaded using the A-word there. Instead, I wrote "assaulted," because horrible as assault is, it remains alien to me, thus oddly anodyne.

I had an absolutely ordinary childhood during which, day after day, I was humiliated, shamed, deprived of privacy, and terrified.

My parents said they loved me: G'night, I love you! They had anger issues. They had no previous experience with kids. They suffered, too. Mom had IBS and was bullied as an obese child. Dad grew up fatherless, in slums. But both were adults when they screamed at me.

A name exists for this. It is not physical maltreatment of the Mommie Dearest kind but emotional, verbal—the A-word. Vamoose.

And don't I wish I wasn't writing this? Don't I wish I was lilting about dragonflies, kabuki, or one of my other interests, instead of chanting childhood anecdotes like Coleridge's Ancient Mariner who collared helpless passersby to rant, froth-lipped, eternally, about an albatross? 

I'm writing this to tell the world of not just me but way too many of us: We who were traumatized with words and looks by toxic parents who believed they were doing their best, when we were too young to know otherwise, too young to believe this was anything but universal, normal, justified. Too young for any form of self-defense.

Society might call our type of touchless trauma tiny. So it seems, compared to war and sex crimes. But new studies show that childhood verbal and emotional ... Larousse ... can damage its victims as lastingly and harshly as can physical assault. 

This is because, according to developmental psychologists, the human brain acquires self-awareness at age three, then remains in hyper-absorbent learning mode for 20 years. Terrify someone so young that his or her sense of self is larva-soft, someone whose only god is you. Tell him or her that he or she is ugly, stupid, boring, bad, a fag, a pig. Do this early and often. Do it in the comfortable closed-circuit crucible called home. Do it authoritatively. Never apologize. Abracadabra: You, making no mark upon the flesh, have slashed a soul and tossed aside its disconnected, twitching bits. 

I am living proof. I wish I wasn't. I want out. I want to stop repeating myself, want to walk out of my childhood free and clear and start thinking of other things—kabuki, ravens—but cannot until I stop using these anecdotes as standup-comic shtick whose practiced, memorized rimshot delivery anesthetizes me.  

We the toxically parented, we the emotionally and verbally vamoosed either silence ourselves as we were silenced or tell our tales endlessly as if this telling will itself release us. But it won't. Silence and logorrhea can both become empty la-la-la-la-I-can't-hear-you rituals.

Which we repeat because we cannot bear to hate those who meant well. We must seek some spell in between: some way to sanctify our stories, in silence or sound, as scathing epic Iliad-esque tragedies which we somehow survived. (At least one friend of mine has not.) 

But criticizing incisors and calling someone the F-word are miniscule, you say. Maybe between adults. (Maybe.) But, inflicted on children during those developmental years, such interchanges become retroviruses. Depth charges. Time bombs tick-tick-ticking in our heads.

Did your parents insult you? Did they mock, humiliate, reject, and/or neglect you? Steep you in their addictions and other adult pain? Were they too self-absorbed to even see you? Did they demand worship, trample boundaries and damn your dreams? Consistently?

That was ... abstruse.

I'm not saying let's wave our pain around like Pity Me flags. I'm saying almost the opposite: We who were emotionally/verbally toxically parented want to feel normal and enter the adult world. We don't want to blame ourselves anymore. We don't want to be numb, dissociated, frozen, sleepless, hypervigilant, incapable of giving or receiving love and trust. 

We want to know why we are this way. 

Because trauma can do this. Trauma is why. 

Because society decrees that only body-involved violence "counts," that we are lucky by comparison, that we call ourselves ungrateful, spoiled, selfish and childish. Staggering like zombies, we refuse to name our suffering.

So I will. We were traumatized. 

Sticks and stones break bones. Words can sever souls. 

I wish I'd had a somewhat different childhood. I wish I could drop this topic, but I can't. I wish I had another song. I don't, not yet, but maybe if I sing this one with meaning now ... ? What happened in that hot-roofed house decades ago is why I'm stuck. It's why I often hate myself. I need not pretend anymore to wonder why. This hurts like murder, but whom have I spent a lifetime trying to protect? And it happened by accident, with perfume and marshmallow Peeps. It happened in sunshine, with love.

Were you toxically parented too? Follow me (as @Toxic_Parenting) on Twitter and join this Facebook group