I consider myself a positive person who tries to look for the good in every situation. I generally believe that focusing on what I am grateful for is a healthy perspective to have. Since coming to terms with the the childhood abuse I endured, I also have a newfound respect for admitting just how terrible it is when something really, really shitty happens.
Acknowledging how bad the abuse really was was a huge step for me. Previously, I had been minimizing it, and somewhat cooperating with the abuser’s voice in my head that told me it didn’t happen, and if it did, it wasn’t that bad, and that I was being over-dramatic about it. Not wanting to sound negative to others stopped me from speaking up about abuse for too many years. So, I allowed myself to comment more about it. I brought up more details about my abuse in everyday conversation, even though many of the details were dark conversation killers. I decided that the people who love me most are the ones interested in hearing me talk about it, and the ones who aren’t interested don’t matter. I narrowed my circle to the people willing to listen, and I kept speaking up.
The thing is, all the dark, terrible, abusive childhood memories are also mixed in with some happy ones. What’s even more confusing is how “happy” memories and “painful” memories are often filed in the same box. It would be so much easier if the past was all bad or all good. It requires a lot of unpacking to sort out what really happened and how I feel about it.
Events and opportunities that should have been fun and enjoyable often have negative associations for me. For example, my family often camped at a lake. We had a boat, and eventually a houseboat, in which some of my high school friends remember visiting. What I remember most about those trips was the can of Budweiser my dad had cracked open in the cupholder of the RV driving up to the lake, and the endless open cans that proceeded all weekend. I remember him shouting his head off at me while forcing me to learn how to water ski. I remember being a toddler, left to myself for hours, where I swam alone in the muddy water. I remember being a teenager, sexually assaulted by a boy from another houseboat, because our elders were all too drunk or zoned out to care what was going on. I remember having to go up to the lake in the wintertime, even though it was too cold to do anything, and I was missing out on high school activities with friends. I remember the way I was constantly shouted at for the way I failed to clean the boat to my dad’s specifications.
But I also remember getting to have the occasional friend come with us, and the happy times laughing and swimming with them. I remember warm nights on the water, and moments of beautiful solitude.
My parents had a knack for taking good things and turning them into terrible things. For years I felt guilty about my negative experiences at the lake. I internalized their accusation that I was being selfish and didn’t appreciate having all those things. But I realized I’ve never had a problem with gratitude. In fact, looking back, I have squeezed gratitude out of some of the roughest situations. The problem was that I can’t change the experience of being emotionally, psychologically, and sexually abused and turn it into a happy lie.
I love the water, and I love getting away into nature. However, sometimes going to the lake means I am flooded with painful memories even when I am around kind, loving people. It’s weird that even vacations can be triggering for me, but there it is.
I am determined to reclaim the good in my childhood. It wasn’t the lake or the houseboat that was the problem, it was the company. The opportunity to spend more time in nature is just what I need to recharge and heal, yet even that is something I need to take back from my abusers in order to enjoy it. I am also reclaiming gratitude. Not the accusation that I should be more grateful, but that the whole time, I really was grateful for the occasional moments of good. Even if I acknowledge that ninety percent of the memories are painful, I can still acknowledge and reclaim the ten percent that were good. For me, the key is holding both of these truths in my hand without discounting one or the other.