When I first began writing memoir, I struggled with so many doubts about what I was doing. I looked for approval, or even permission, from others to share my story. After all, who did I think I was to be putting family secrets out there for complete strangers to see? I ended up feeling like a little child who was doing bad things. If I got caught, I was going to be “in trouble.”
When I was a kid, I was “in trouble” a lot. Although looking back, I rarely did anything that I would consider misbehaving. My stepmother ruled her household from a couch covered in cigarette ashes, knitting needles, Coke bottles, and crossword puzzles. Regardless of what we were doing, if she called us, we were to say “Coming!” march out to the living room, and then ask, “Yes Ma’am?” We were to wait respectfully for her to issue her command— “Get me another Coke, and a glass with 3 ice cubes.” Then we did it. Any deviation from this routine meant we were “in trouble.”
“In trouble” looked different depending on the infraction. I may get a wooden spoon across my bare ass, or I may be sent to my room to sit in silence for a few hours or several days. I was under the rule of a woman whose commands would change with her mood, and whose punishments were as unpredictable as the wind. But the terrifying part for me was knowing, rather believing in my very core, that her actions were sanctioned by a God who had condemned me to eternal death. I was convinced I deserved to be sent to a hell full of torture and unending pain. Not because of anything I did, but because of who I was.
So, I endured the impossible rules day in and day out to be punished less. I felt trapped. I had left my mother’s care in order to flee a physically abusive stepfather. When my mother divorced him, I didn’t return because I had been brainwashed into believing my very soul depended on me staying with my mentally ill stepmother and obeying her commands. Even when my father divorced my stepmother, I stayed with her, :working out my salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12).
At one point I even told her I thought she was an angel, sent by God to save me. I felt compelled to worship her, like a victim of Stockholm syndrome, in love with my captor. The concept of her humanity eluded me, she was my sun and moon. Speaking out against her was against the laws of my existence. And so, I didn’t—even when I was called to the guidance counselors office to speak to the child protective services caseworker investigating my stepsister’s claim that she was being abused. Bruises from beatings were normal, not something we told our guidance counselor about, so I lied for my stepmother.
So, now that I am free from my stepmother’s reign, why do I still struggle with telling the truth? Why, when I sit down to write about the impact of my stepfather’s violence, or my stepmother’s mental illness, do I hear the specters of my past imprisoners threatening to punish me? Why wouldn’t I? Afterall, these are secrets I was conditioned never to tell under fear of eternal damnation. And yet I speak.
Are these words I write 100% accurate? If there was somehow a recording of these events, would my stories align with what had actually happened? Probably not exactly.
This is the point I struggle with most-it doesn’t matter.
That’s right, it doesn’t matter if I don’t have all the details precisely correct. It doesn’t matter if my mother, my father, my stepsister, or even my closest family member, my sister, remembers the event in the same way, because it didn’t happen to them in the same way it happened to me.
And this is the second point I struggle with-that is okay.
I left my mother’s house and went to live with my father when I was 8 years old. I went from one type of abusive household to an entirely different, more damaging one. I’ve blocked a lot of it out, having just fragments occasionally float to the top of my consciousness, clouded with ideas of different parts of me intervening, comforting me, plotting impish revenge, and tying me to the hope there will be an end to it all.
Because I didn’t remember all the exact details, I remained silent for far too long.
So, why do I feel the need to write about these things now? Why don’t I just bury them, or at the most, reprocess them with my therapist and get over them? Why do I have to put this ugly information out there and expose the dirty laundry of my family, especially those who are still alive, some having been victims themselves? AND, on top of that, why do I need to broadcast these secrets in my writing, especially knowing they aren’t entirely accurate?
The answer is both painfully simple and excruciatingly complicated. First, I believe, with every ounce of my being, that releasing these secrets that have been stored for decades in my body, mind, and soul is saving my life. It sounds dramatic, maybe even narcissistic, but it is simply true. I know that while sharing about my past may cause some of the others who were involved to feel shame, embarrassment, and pain, this is not my intention. As Toni Morrison said:
“A writer’s life and work are not a gift to mankind, they are its necessity.” - Toni Morrison
Trauma-resolution work is like surgery on an infected wound. Slicing into the swollen, puss-filled grossness to get to the source hurts like hell, and smells like death. Those who are around me now experience the stench—enduring the brooding, self-absorbed, overly sensitive sometimes hurtful wounded creature I become. Hurt people, hurt people. Those who were around me then, and are still in my life now, may have to relive the uncomfortable or traumatic experiences they would rather forget. They may stumble across my blog, or receive a phone call from me asking if they “remember the day when…” Neither of these positions are pleasant. But my healing, while unpleasant and painful, is necessary for my survival. Walking through the process with me is entirely up to you. But this is just the first reason.
The second reason I write about these memories isn’t just because of my own survival. There are literally millions of people like me who need to know it is okay to talk about the secrets of their childhood—the monsters beneath their bed.
If showing others how taking a surgical knife to a festering wound helps them bring relief from a rotting, deadly injury they have been carrying around with them, it is worth it. If sharing a messy, clouded memory of a traumatic event from my past that brings embarrassment to someone who was there but brings another person strength to begin their own healing process, then it is worth it.
I’m sorry to those who were present at the time and would rather forget. You may want to deny, argue, accuse me of lying, or feel hurt, take it as a personal attack, or even turn away from me. I cannot make you understand why I do this. I hope someday you will understand, but I cannot keep silent while I wait. I do love you, and want you to walk your own journey, but I’ll risk you not believing me so I can continue to heal, and hope others are able to heal along side of me. Again, I look to Toni Morrison for words:
“If you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else." - Toni Morrison
I have had several people reach out to me just to let me know how my words resonate with them, give them the courage to face the monsters under their own beds. I am so appreciative of every single one of you who lets me know I'm not shouting into a void. If you have been helped by any of these writings and would like to let me know, you can email me at WillKoehlerLCSW@aTraumaInformedLife.com or find me on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or LinkedIn.