Today’s story is one needing to be told, but because it deals with the complicated issues of a family, it will be credited to “Jane Anonymous”. It deals with the heartbreak of living with your bully, and having no one believe you.
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Two comments or their variations fill my childhood: “Kids will be kids” and “Why did you antagonize her?” One dismisses what happened to me and one says what happened to me was my fault. The cruelty of both statements is sharp. But what is sharper is that those comments are responses. For years I asked for help and that was the response. For years I asked for help and no one ever helped me. So I did what lots of victims of continued abuse do…I stopped asking for anything from anybody.
Bullying is the issue de jour these days and that is a good thing. Teachers talk about it, clergy talks about it, actors talk about it, kids talk about it. This is a good step and one in the right direction. But the fact is, the folks talking had better be doing. Because if you know a kid is being bullied and you do nothing, you are worse than the bully. And the fact is that while things may indeed get better, those better things are built on a shaky foundation.
The biggest hurdle I faced is that my worst bully was my older sister. Years of therapy and medication later and I can tell you that her misplaced anger landed squarely on me and my adult self understands that and can forgive her. But my parents? Again, my adult self understands their struggle to parent us. But forgiving is harder. Way harder. They were the adults and they not only didn’t protect me, but they blamed me.
My sin? Having been born I suppose. My sister is four years older than me and never accepted having a sibling. She abused and assaulted me multiple times a week from my infancy until I was twelve years old. Twelve years. Twelve years of hearing how I was hated and deserved to die, waking with pillows on my face, “accidently” falling down the stairs, falling off chairs, getting locked in buildings and cellars in subzero weather, twelve years of being the most uncoordinated child on the planet.
For 11 years of that hell, my parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents, family friends, teachers, and small town community ignored my cuts and scrapes, bruises, and tears. When they did react, it was brushed away as if every kid’s big sister acted like this. I didn’t think so but what did I know? I was a kid. When Mom got frustrated over my crying and my bloodied skin, she’d wonder again why we just couldn’t get along.
And sometimes we did. That was the hardest part. The walking on eggshells every day of my childhood, waiting for my sister to get mad at me for something and hit me or slam me into the walls or steal my stuff or wreck my room or whatever eased the rage within her. By the end I knew better than to say anything. Besides the guilt of being asked what I did to set her off, any questioning only led to retaliation.
That last summer was the worst. She was 16 and even more enraged than usual. We were washing dishes. Our little sister was 2 and our parents were out baling hay. She was washing and when I dried a spatula, I tossed it back into the sink, saying “oops, you missed some gunk.”
It was like a horror movie, all slow motion and silent. But it got real fast as she chased me into first one room and then another, fists flying. Finally, she caught me in my parents’ room. I was on the floor, backed against the bed when she grabbed my throat. It’s been 30 years but I can still hear the sounds of her fingers bruising my larynx, her nails tearing the skin on my neck, my heartbeat speeding up and then pounding so loudly in my ears that I couldn’t hear what she was yelling, only see her contorted face as she screamed at me, spittle landing on my face.
I honestly don’t know how I lived. I lost consciousness and she stopped, thinking she had killed me. All I remember is lying on the floor and seeing my baby sister crying in the corner having witnessed the whole thing.
The scars on my neck are still here but they are so faint no one notices them. But I know they are there. Because when someone hurts you, the scars don’t ever really go away. They just stop being noticeable to people who don’t really want to see your pain.
All these years later, my adult self still remembers those moments. But mostly my adult self doesn’t ask for help. I learned too well that most people will just turn away, especially if there isn’t much blood. Luckily I found someone who didn’t turn away and instead helps shore up my shaky foundation.
But as a mom, I am always listening, waiting. My biggest act of faith was to have more than one child because I swore I would never put a child through what I did. And as a grown-up child and sibling, the rift is always there. At family gatherings, I’m the one still walking on eggshells, waiting to be hurt. I look at my siblings and my parents and wonder why they seem to have put it behind us, as if twelve years of bullying didn’t happen. But it did.
It does get better. But some days, it doesn’t feel like it.