Another early lesson every victim is taught is: There is no choice. This may be true for a child, but as an adult, if you keep telling yourself that, then you’re buying into your abusers’ lies. The only way to break the chain of abuse is to learn and use the next tool:
THE RIGHT TO CHOOSE
There is always a choice. It may not be a pleasant choice or an easy choice, but there is always a choice. It starts with the choice between life and death. Choosing death is a permanent answer to a temporary problem. Choosing death means not simply closing the door on all your options but nailing the door shut. Choosing life means there are opportunities, some good and some bad. Don’t cheat yourself out of the opportunities. You’ve been cheated enough already.
Choose life. Choose to be your best self. Choose to accept the past. Choose to change, now. Choose a new and brighter future.
I lost track of the number of times I was criticized for some trivial infraction, a light left on, a dish in the sink, a door left ajar. (All infractions committed by other members of the family.) I would be asked what could be done to make sure I never made the mistake again. If I did remember to clean the bowl, it wasn’t done fast enough, or clean enough. If I remembered to turn off the light, I was chastised because they were coming into the room, and I had turned the light out on them. If I closed the door, I was reprimanded because they needed it open. No matter what I did, I knew it would never be good enough. I gave up, and chose instead to only do the bare minimum, that way if I had to do it again at least I knew it wasn’t my best that had been rejected. Not a great lesson to learn let alone hold onto.
It wasn’t until I was employed by a national corporation that I finally learned how to work, because it was what I was paid to do, and doing a slipshod job didn’t make it better.
Doing my best was my responsibility. And I’ve finally learned to take pride in my work. But I had to stop trying to rebel against the arbitrary dictates that haunted me. They truly no longer mattered, except in my own mind. When I no longer cared about those past fickle demands, I was able to shed one of the shackles holding me to the past.
I know it’s difficult to make choices when the lessons you learned were contradictory and arbitrary. I remember seeking advice, when I was growing up, on numerous occasions, and my disappointment when I was told, “You decide.” It was understood that I knew what was expected of me, except that often I didn’t.
What “you decide” actually meant to me was: “Do what I want you to do, because if you don’t I’ll be terribly disappointed in you.” Typing that out, it doesn’t sound so bad, but I remember how angry I was, how abandoned I felt, how alone I felt. Add to that the realization that I would be reminded, repeatedly, of my mistake.
They wouldn’t even discuss it. Every question was answered with, “You decide.” And if I was wrong, I was punished, and told, “You knew better.” I didn’t, except that looking back I’d suddenly see what they wanted, and I’d chastise myself, thinking, “You knew better.” After the fact! I was blaming myself for not being a mind reader, for not having foresight but 20/20 hindsight like the rest of the world. I was given no guidance and punished for not making the silently expected decision, accepting full responsibility, and blaming myself for not being “the better” expected of me. I wasn’t perfect, by their definition. I was flawed. What a surprise. Have I mentioned before that I’m not perfect? I’m not.
I’ve struggled with this chapter because making choices was always such an excruciating process. Did I remember to consider every single possibility, including the unlikely and obscure ones? What if I made a decision and another possibility came to light? I had to start the process all over again. What if I was wrong? What were the consequences if I made the wrong choice? Could I live with those consequences? How would my choice affect everyone around me, both known and unknown?
Every decision felt as if it might be life or death. On more than one occasion it was implied that it was. And I had been punished for making the wrong decision. I learned early that it was best to make the right decision, every time, in order to avoid being punished. Not in order to do what was best for me, but to avoid being punished.
I agonized over every decision. I vividly remember when I was making one of my career decisions, and the person from whom I was seeking advice said, “So you’re wrong, and you’re out some money. It’s only money.”
She made it sound so reasonable. And yet, I knew what I was facing. Every misstep, every miscalculation, every infraction was dissected and a plan made to make sure I never made the same mistake again, ever, or anything like it.
When I made decisions with which I was happy, I had to make sure I would be able to answer every rebuttal, every query, every negative comment. If I didn’t, I found myself faced with: “Ah ha! You should have considered that aspect. If you’d only asked me. Why won’t you listen to me?”
With regards to my career, this always led back to the same argument: Majoring in engineering was considered to be the only possible course for my future education, regardless of the fact that I almost flunked out of high school calculus, with tutoring. Any other course of study I suggested was promptly shot down in as many ways as possible, short of refusing to help me pay for school, though that was threatened, periodically.
I know; there are those of you, with your jaw on the floor, screaming, “Pay for it yourself!” I was never allowed to have a job because school was my work, end of story.
Just how deeply was it embedded in my brain that I was not to work and go to school? Anytime I brought up finding a job, I was reminded that school was a full-time job.
For as long as I can remember, every opportunity was grabbed to drum into me the dangers of single women out on their own. Every time a woman was raped or robbed or murdered, it was brought to my attention to make sure that I knew it was because the woman was alone. It was harped on even more if the woman actually lived alone. It wouldn’t have happened, if she hadn’t been alone.
I know what it’s like to feel as if there are no choices.
I did eventually learn how to go to school and work at the same time, years later. And my last career choice, before I started writing, I did pay for myself. I loved my work, and I was proud of myself for paying for it.
On some levels, I understood that the choices were mine. That being said, I needed a clearer illustration. The movie Runaway Bride opened a whole new world of possibilities for me.
In the movie, the heroine was depicted as someone who constantly allowed others to define her, what she was, what she liked. The hero pins her with her problem asking if she even knows what kind of eggs she likes.
When I saw the movie I proudly declared that I like my eggs over-easy. But, to my shame, I realized that what kind of eggs I liked was one of the few things of which I was certain. There was a world of other things I had no clue about. I’d been told, both directly and indirectly, what I could like and what I couldn’t, what I could feel and what I couldn’t, and what I was to think and what wasn’t acceptable.
The majority of my choices were simple expediency. Whatever was easiest was what I liked because the less trouble I caused, the fewer “headaches” I endured. Actually, it saved a lot of heartache. If you wanted only the very least, it was okay when that’s all that came your way. Prepare for the worst; pray for the best, and hopefully end up pleasantly surprised. Anything that wasn’t worst was good.
All that being said, sooner or later, you have to start deciding what you want, and that means making choices. For me, it really helped to start with simple things, and what’s simple for you may not be simple for me, and vice versa.
A huge issue for me is food. I was knowingly fed food that literally made me ill. I ate the family dog’s food as a small child because I was hungry. As a teenager, I skipped the wheat mush that was for breakfast and the sandwich on whole wheat bread for lunch, because I couldn’t eat either one. I’m allergic to bran. I drank a lot of milk because it’s filling.
So one of my starting points was what food do I like, really? What clothes do I like? What do I like to read? What do I like to watch on TV and at the movies? What music do I like? Do I even like going to the movies or going shopping? All things most people discover during their childhood and teen years.
I truly had to unearth what I liked as opposed to what would keep my life as peaceful as possible, with as little turmoil as possible. I had been tentatively exploring this for several years, but the movie helped me clarify the process. Then I started making a more concerted effort.
As I explored my likes, I discovered the wonder of recognizing that wants reached a deeper level. There are lots of things I like, but don’t want in my life. Asking myself if I liked something was pretty cut and dried. It required no work, no effort, nothing but the expression of my opinion.
But asking myself if I want something means opening myself to so many possibilities. This requires a commitment, if nothing else, a commitment to reach for what I want.
About a year ago, I wrote a note to myself that I placed next to my computer. “I want more choices, more freedom, and bigger paychecks.” After looking at it, day after day, for months, I realized that I limited myself to one coping choice: eating.
Being the problem solver that I am, I realized I needed what? More CHOICES! So, what are my choices?
Eating is still an option. Sorry, but quitting eating cold turkey simply isn’t a viable possibility. However, if I have healthier choices available, I’m more likely to pick them, or at least a better chance than if I don’t have them. I also know that if I don’t have some unhealthy choices available, I will binge. I will not buy into the idea that my eating must be perfect or I’m bad. Life is too short. So, eating is still on the table. Thank goodness.
Other coping choices include music, television, walks, cross-stitch, and coloring with crayons or pencils or pens. I am frequently frustrated by the fact that I forget those options. But I’m again endeavoring to make more conscious choices rather than what is expedient.
One of my favorite, more recent experiments was when I decided to figure out what chocolate I liked. I’d always settled for whatever chocolate was available. I bought fourteen different kinds of chocolate, milk and dark, and taste tested each. Once I discovered my favorites, I stopped buying anything else. I ate less chocolate because I was satisfied by what I liked the best. It was my choice. Not what others told me was best for me, but what I chose as best. And I allowed myself to change my mind without recriminations.
I’m giving myself a gift, the right to make different choices. I’ve also discovered that I can bribe myself away from food with the promise to spend the same amount on books.
As I edit this material that I wrote months ago, I note the simplicity of the choices I’m allowing myself. In the meantime, life is happening, and I must make decisions, every day. I do my work to the best of my ability, every day. I’m endeavoring to take care of myself. I try to be a good friend. I’m trying to become a better person.
So what is it for which I’m truly striving? What are my intentions? Not what do I ultimately want to achieve ten years down the road, but what direction do I want to choose, right now, today?
I want to make choices because they are what I want, not because it’s easy or obvious or expected, and even more not to have decisions made for me by default because of my inaction.
“I” decide, “me,” no one else, what to make of everything that crosses my path. Everything. So much of life is neither good nor evil, it simply is, but what I make of it in my life and in my own mind decides its value to me. And it doesn’t matter what the value is to someone else, unless it is truly evil.
I’m not quite sure how to define evil, beyond the obvious that the adversary is evil. There is a difference between poor choices and evil. I suppose I haven’t thought about it because if you’ve encountered it even once, you never forget.
I endeavor to be circumspect about what I define as evil. Anything that opposes goodness must needs be evil. Evil cannot tolerate light and truth.
Evil does exist. It is an insatiable hunger, devouring everything that will allow it to do so. But allowing it is a choice. Sometimes, I catch the backlash of someone else’s choice, but it does not change my right to choose which I follow: good or evil, even if only in my mind. Not even God will choose for me; He requires I choose for myself what path I will follow, toward Him or away from Him.
The right to choose, free agency, free will, whatever you want to call it, is not something anyone gives us. It simply is. It cannot be given or taken away by anything “outside.” I am the only one capable of making me decide to accept my right to choose or throw it away.
Other people may endeavor to influence, but they may not decide. They may force me to a point where there is only one choice, but I still decide how I will make that choice a part of my life. Will I choose to focus on the good or the evil? Will I choose to recognize the truth, no matter how painful, or will I choose the momentarily comforting lie? Will I choose to fight for truth or choose to do nothing or fight against it?
I’ve spent a great deal of my life choosing to do nothing in the hopes of not choosing wrongly. It does not work. I’ve made a lot of choices that haven’t turned out as I’d hoped, but I have continued to move forward, into being a better person and making better choices.
In the last few years, I’ve been working toward this end: Accepting and taking responsibility for changing myself. The only thing actually within my power to do. Hopefully, by changing myself, I will influence the world around me for the better. I can do no more than that. No one can. I truly do not want to abdicate responsibility or revel in the blame game. When I do that I suffer. I feel diminished. When I make choices I feel empowered. I feel like I’m becoming more than I was before.
To that end, it took me years to realize that though I couldn’t choose my family, I could choose my friends. I had read all the books about surrounding yourself with positive people. I appreciated the advice, but didn’t actually understand how to implement it in my life. I had been taught that you didn’t turn anyone away because you could never have too many friends. I made a lot of mistakes, hurt feelings, disappointed people, and felt like I’d made a general hash out of my life because I didn’t know how to cultivate healthy relationships. When I began to be more selective about my friends, I was chastised. But I kept trying to develop healthier relationships.
In the last ten years, I have been blessed with incredible friends. They inspire me, comfort me, encourage me, strengthen me, love me. Knowing them has changed me, for the better. They have taught me about healthy relationships. And I would never have known any of them existed if not for the risks I have been willing to take by making different choices than I had in the past.
One of those choices is how I choose to see myself. God blessed me with an eye opener. A friend had sent me an email titled “Bitchology.” It gave different definitions, like Babe In Total Control of Herself. And a bitch was someone who didn’t put up with anything from anyone. I laughed and shared it with several friends, one of whom wrote back that she laughed at first and then found herself more and more offended. She has a gift for words, putting things simply and yet eloquently and succinctly. As I read her reply to me, at first, I felt chastised, and then I realized I could feel badly or I could shut up and buck up and admit she was right. Yep, she was right.
All my life, I have tried to pretend that if I think of an unkind label in a different light it somehow changes the meaning. “Crabby Appleton: an excuse for being crabby.” “Ding-a-ling, the lights are on but nobody’s home: Hormones.” “Shrew: Cute little creature.” “Weakling: Clark Kent came across that way.” As my friend pointed out, thinking of those labels in a different light did not change the fact that I accepted the labels assigned to me.
Wait… What? How did that happen? Why did I let it happen? Talk about a light in the darkness. Not a little flickering flame but a serious bolt of lightening making the night as bright as day. No more.
This coincided with a lesson my counselor endeavored to teach me. He asked me if I wanted to work for a mean boss who belittled me, criticized me, saw no good in me, and generally abused me. Then he asked if I wouldn’t prefer to work for a boss who was considerate, understanding, encouraging, and proud of me. A boss who would gently correct me when I was wrong, and a boss who would push me to be better, with kindness and an eye for my amazing potential.
My first thought was that I should want to work for the nice boss. That being said, something inside lamented that I’d accomplish more working for the mean boss, because I’d walk all over the nice boss.
I did not see where this was going. Then he asked me when I was going to fire the mean boss and let myself work for the nice boss.
What? Wait a minute! I was the mean boss, but I didn’t know how to be a nice boss. And it wasn’t as if I could register for a class at the local college about how to be my own nice boss. It started with having to recognize all the ways I was mean to myself.
Okay, I understand that exercising my right to choose is a huge part of becoming healthy. I also understand that I’ve made a lot of unhealthy choices. I was trained well. My abusers seem to feel the need to point out my bad choices, repeatedly, as if I didn’t know. No one is more critical of me than me.
For example: I know I’m overweight, but labeling myself fat does not make it better; saying so isn’t enlightening. I know this. I know what to do to change it, sort of; I’m learning, at any rate. Having someone point it out suggests I’m too stupid to figure it out on my own. I’m not. I get it. Telling me what to do to make it right is more likely to push me in the opposite direction, largely because my dietary needs are unusual. Telling me what I should do is counterproductive. Don’t should on me. (Thanks to my third counselor for that little gem.) It only makes me cranky because I know, and to be honest, I’m already pretty frustrated with myself.
I know that feeling safe helps me to lose weight. I know that feeling at peace with myself helps. I know that when I feel good enough that I’m eating right and practicing good sleeping habits and exercising then the excess weight melts off. That being said, my biggest enemy to weight loss is stress. My negative tape turns on so automatically it doesn’t even take a specific event to trigger it. And there I am feeling like a hamster in a wheel, going nowhere fast.
For all those who want to give me helpful advice about losing weight: My weight is not the problem. My weight is a symptom. The problem is in my head. It’s delightfully complicated.
I know I use my weight as a shield, an invisibility cloak, if you will. People don’t look at me when I’m fat. This means abusers don’t look at me when I’m fat. If they don’t look at me, then they don’t notice me, and I’m safe.
But I have finally come to realize that my thinking is flawed. My abusers still picked on me, so clearly the invisibility plan wasn’t working. My thinking that being fat kept me safe had to be acknowledged for what it was: A lie.
Now, I have a choice: I can continue to lie to myself, or I can admit the truth. I choose to admit the truth. Now, I have another choice: I can do nothing, or I can choose to do something. I am choosing to do something.
And a whole world of choices opens up!
From past experience, I can fret about what path to follow. I can investigate every possibility, i.e., every diet, exercise, positive thinking, you-name-it plan on the planet. I’m sure you can see where this is leading: A non-choice.
Because of my food issues (fears of going hungry, being noticed, allergies, etc.), I had to recognize and admit that dieting would not work for me. In order to lose weight, I have to eat less and exercise more. I do have to couple that with reminding myself that I am learning to be safe in my head, and that’s the only thing I have control over, and it’s enough.
There are so many choices available, but it’s difficult to see the possibilities if your eyes are closed. Awareness is the first step, awareness of the need to change, and awareness of the decision to take that step into a new direction. And an awareness that the only way to take that step is to choose it. It isn’t easy. It requires practice. And more practice.
Practice isn’t about perfect, it’s about developing my awareness of what I’m doing and why. I’m making deliberate changes because I choose to change, to become someone new because God has promised that it is possible. I choose to believe Him.
© 2010 The Project: The Tools I Wish I’d Known About Sooner / My Abuse Survivor’s Basic Toolkit by Judy