After being yelled at once again, I flew into my bedroom and collapsed upon my army-regulation-taut bed. Tears coursed down my cheeks as my fists pounded my pillow, the only allowable outlet for the rage rushing through my body.
The offense? I can’t recall. It most likely had something to do with my sister. I was seven years older but couldn’t see what difference age made in the realm of discipline. She was practically perfect in the eyes of my parents while I was the demon child. Her hair should have been Goldilocks’ yellow and the purity of her heart should have matched Sleeping Beauty’s. I was the Ugly Duckling, the orphan in Dickens’ novel, the Cinderella of the evil stepsisters.
At the ripe old age of thirteen I decided that life at home was unfair and I should run away. At that time, we lived in the small rural community of Beavercreek, Ohio, several miles outside of Dayton. There were more farms than people and the population of cattle exceeded that of the entire town. No buses came near and the closest pay phone was over a mile away at a Chevron gas station.
I had very little money. When I shook out the coins from my piggy bank it totaled almost three dollars. Not enough to go anywhere. Not enough to buy much more than a couple of meals at a burger joint.
As darkness fell, I contemplated my options. Once my parents were asleep, I could sneak out of the house and walk into the woods at the end of our lot. I was confidant that I could find my way out to the main road about a half a mile away. From there I was unsure where I would go, but anywhere had to be better than home.
Stealth would be critical. I pictured myself following the road, hidden from view in the darkened recesses of the woods. If I made it that far there was a major intersection. From there I could go north or south.
If I turned south and could walk that far, I’d end up in Dayton. That would be the logical way to go, except for the fact that I knew little of the city. This was the 1960s, a time of racial unrest all across America. There were parts of town that would be too dangerous for a naïve white girl, and so I ruled out the city.
North would take me deeper into farm country. The land was flat and unbroken by stands of trees, culverts or any other form of natural hideout. I imagined myself sleeping in barns and sheds by day, traveling by dark of night in order to avoid detection. However, I was terrified of horses, cows, sheep, and goats, and so knew I could never share a stall with any of them.
If I continued west following the road that paralleled the forest, I would end up in the town of Beavercreek. There was no Post Office, bank, fast food restaurant, or bus station. There was a police station, but I believed that the police would only return me home without listening to my concerns.
My high school was miles outside of town, deep in farm country. There were some houses along that route that could offer hiding places under porches and behind bushes, but I was terrified of spiders and bugs. I pictured myself dashing from house to house, hiding until the coast was clear. Stealth was my new middle name and cleverness clung to my shoulders. Until I remembered that I had no money.
That left turning around and heading east, back past the woods and my housing development. Eventually I would reach the main road that went to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. Along that stretch was a gas station, A & W, Kroger’s, and a five and dime store. If I got that far, I figured I could get a job at Kroger’s in the produce section, as I knew about fruits and vegetables since we grew all that we ate. But no, that was too close to home.
All night long I planned scenarios that I believed would never work. I was too young, too naïve, too scared of my own shadow, and too paralyzed to take action. My only recourse was to stay in a house where I felt unloved and to make the best of my situation.
As the morning sky lightened to a silvery gray my tears had long since dried and my heart had sealed itself from additional hurt. I made several resolutions that I was determined to keep: never speak to my sister, avoid my mother and father, speak only when commanded to do so, save every penny, seek an escape route, and stay numb. These were perhaps not the best options, but they were all I had.
They stood me well. By not speaking to my sister, I avoided painful spankings. When I was blamed for something she did, a regular occurrence, I took the punishment as bravely as possible. I complied with any orders given without protest even when I knew they were unfair.
By avoiding my parents, I was able to stay out of arguments about preferential treatment. I answered when questioned, in as few words as possible. I did as told, even when my parents increased my list of chores.
I saved money, forgoing new clothes (which I had to buy for myself while my sister’s were provided), no records which I loved and no teen magazines. Slowly my pennies turned into dollars, building into a tidy nest egg.
I kept my grades up, especially once I was told we were moving to California, the land of community colleges. With surprisingly mature long-range vision, I saw that my only way out of the house was through a college education. I set my sights set on earning a scholarship. I chose the hardest classes and spent hours every night rereading text and memorizing facts.
The most challenging promise I had made was to keep my heart numb. I cry way to easily, and my feelings can jump from ecstatic to miserable with the slightest provocation. To keep myself on track I wrote reminders on my calendar. I filled my school bag with notes to myself. I taped signs on the head of my bed, inside my closet door, and on the book covers of my textbooks. Even so I slipped. Over and over I allowed my family to break my heart with their lies, their cruel comments, their physical abuses, and then hated myself for forgoing my pledge.
The struggle was never-ending. At no time could I let down my protective walls, for when I did, a knife slid in and cut my heart. The walls got thicker and taller as I sealed myself into a prison of my own making. I became an expert at repair work, for with each failure on my part, I had to plaster the holes and toughen the exterior of my heart.
After years of doing this, there was no “me.” I was a student with no personality. A friend to none and a silent force without power. An emotional wreck inside, but inhumanly serene on the outside. A plastic face masking tear-filled eyes.
Because of my excellent grades I won a scholarship from the state of California. My parents would not let me leave home that first year, so I enrolled in the local community college. The work was easy. In fact, I was frequently told to transfer out of the easy class into the next level. In this way I prepared myself for my sophomore year when I would be permitted to follow my brother to the University of Southern California, my yearned-for haven.
Off and on I made a friend or two. We partied, talked long into the night, and even studied together, until I discovered that most of these so-called friends were only interested in my brain. I dated a few boys and got serious with two. Both of them walked away when I respectfully declined to participate in recreational activities that required my sacrifice to their enjoyment. I was sexually abused by my brother’s best friend, but didn’t report it for fear of being accused of lying.
During the summer before my senior year I applied for a position as a residence hall advisor. I interviewed and was turned down. When I inquired as to why, I was told that it was too negative, too hard on myself. I got angry. Very, very angry. I walked around with a furrowed brow until I admitted to myself it was true.
I had worked so hard to seal myself off from pain that I had also closed doors to enjoyment. So with the same level of determination that I had applied to keeping myself numb, I turned to joy.
I removed all my self-imposed boundaries and became a party-girl. There were lots of, late-night frivolity which sometimes caused me to take potentially life-threatening chances. Determined to forge a fun-loving personality out of a rock, I took the high road and plunged off a cliff.
After years of trespassing into the land of fun and games, I realized this was not the path to success and freedom from home. In order to get back on track, I resurrected my defenses and kept them in place for many years.
Unless you’ve lived the life of an abused child, you cannot understand the day-to-day struggle to stay safe and sane. As a teacher I’ve come across damaged children who did not build defenses and who were consequently seriously hurt.
I wanted so badly to heal them, there was little I could do to glue together the broken pieces of their lives.
There were times when I felt as if I was down in a deep, dark well, trying to scale the walls into the light. I would get close to the top, make what I considered a friend, have some good conversations, and then slowly sink back into the depths when the friend did not act as an equal partner.
I am sure now that I was deep in the throes of depression. I might have benefited from psychiatric care, but where would the money come from? Time healed me. Through work in a fulltime job I began to see myself as a person of intelligence, a person who succeeded, a person who survived. My defenses disappeared and I found true friends and true love.
My life was a struggle, one that is now thankfully behind me, locked in the recesses of my heart. The struggle made me stronger, more able to confront the difficulties of life.
My history is one of challenges. While I couldn’t overcome them all, I did climb out of the well into the light.