Friday, December 16, 2016

#216 - Scar Tissue

WARNING: A disturbing scene is described in the post below, and at least one word may not be suitable for sensitive ears.

The other day, I was listening to an interview a friend and former colleague was doing on a New Orleans radio station about a documentary she's been working on for the past decade. (Talk about dedication!) The documentary, titled "Battlefield: Home," is about the battles servicemen and women, along with their families, face when they return home from active duty.

My friend's film has nothing much to do with this post except that it got me thinking about the idea of scar tissue. We usually think of scar tissue in terms of surgical procedures. However, many of us carry around scar tissue of a different nature.

In the case of my friend's parents, that scar tissue was created by supremely traumatic events. My friend's mother was a child survivor of the second atomic blast during World War II, in Nagasaki. Her it father was a survivor of two tours (if I remember correctly) in Vietnam. Those experiences, I'm sure, left emotional scar tissue, something that really never goes away.

As my friend was talking about her parents, I began to think about my own scar tissue. When I was five, my father left for work one day, never to return (something I've posted about on a couple of previous occasions). The story my mother gave me for the rest of her life was that he left because he could not handle having a family. The story I later got from another family member was that my father had a penchant for underage girls. My mother found out and kicked him out. Scar number one.

My mother soon found herself a new beau who would become husband number two. Living in Los Angeles, a bustling metropolis, and having the looks my mother had, she should have had a good chance of landing a Mr. Right type. The man she ended up with turned out to be all wrong.

Husband number two came into my mother's life after a short stint in San Quentin (you know, the other prison Johnny Cash recorded a concert in) for killing another man in a bar fight. When my mother met him, husband number two was working as a truck driver but apparently did not like driving a truck because he promptly quit as soon as they married and moved us to a small town in the Mojave Desert. To the best of my recollection, he never worked again during the five years they were married.

Of course, expecting to feed, clothe, and house a family of five (he had a son and I had a sister) on the income of a waitress would have been hard enough. It turns out the bar fight was not an isolated demonstration of the temper of husband number two.

He was prone to yelling at my mother and not at all reluctant to slap her around from time to time. For the most part, I have blotted the specifics of those years out, but one episode has never left me. So vivid was it at the time that I have never been able to blot it out.

One day, for reasons I don't recall (possibly something to do with an assumption on the part of husband number two that my mother had held back some of her tip money, although he never really seemed to need a reason), husband number two began yelling at and slapping my mother. He ripped off the top half of my mother's clothing and yelled for his son to bring the scissors because he was going to "cut her tits" to teach her a lesson. I was eight. Scar number two.

For several years after my mother and husband number two split (they were married for five years, together for about three years of that time), my mother raised us as a single mother with the help of an elderly couple. My sister and I  slept in a converted chicken coop. The husband was a nice, easy going man. The wife was a fire and brimstone type who continually browbeat and belittled her husband (perhaps my first experience with the idea of a battered husband).

After a few years of this existence, my mother was convinced to move us all back to the Seattle area, where I was born. Along the way (both before and after the move), my mother cycled through a series of boyfriends and lover always searching for Mr. Right and never even finding Mr. Maybe.

Some of these affairs lasted a few months (one was a Vietnam vet with a steel plate in his head, one was a man 15 years her junior, another was about ten years younger). The ones that lasted the longest also seemed to be the ones that did the most damage.

One such affair was, in many ways a reenactment of husband number two. This affair, begun while I was in high school, involved a younger man with a volatile temper who usually just yelled at my mother, sister, and me, though he was not above the occasional slap. (By this time, I had long since learned not to cry when I got in trouble and was whipped with a belt, so I was somewhat numb emotionally.)

One night in December, just after my birthday, boyfriend number whatever came home from work after having gone out for a few drinks, and he was in a foul mood. I don't recall what my mother was supposed to have done, but I do remember that the shouting match that ensued soon became physical, with him slapping her and ripping her top off, exposing her in an eerie reenactment of the episode from nearly a decade before.

By this time, I was 17 and thought I might be able to step in and help protect my mother. I picked up a baseball bat and threatened to bash in his skull if he didn't stop hitting her. He laughed. I froze, unable to follow through. He threw her and us out of the house. (It was snowing, much like it is today, and my mother was half-naked.) When the police came, my mother refused to press charges. The boyfriend later proposed marriage, something I talked my mother out of by threatening to leave for good if she accepted. Scar number three.

Life's experiences help prepare us to survive, and I have survived, though I'm not sure I've really lived. There have been times I'm not sure I wanted to live, even spending time during my colleges years wishing I were dead and thinking about suicide. Like the episode with the baseball bat, though, I was not able to follow through (although I did once attempt an overdose of aspirin, of all things).

Over time, I have developed a thick skin. This has allowed me to endure bullying at school, abuse at home, and other things life has thrown at me along the way. On the other hand, I have encountered road blocks and obstacles made more difficult due to that thick skin which provided a safety layer but kept people at arm's length.

My experiences have made it difficult for me to make friends, love, express myself verbally. They have also led to me developing my own temper, which I am thankfully usually able to keep in check and am (more thankfully) able to keep from escalating into the realm of the physical.

My wife argues that I need to leave the past behind, and she's right as far as that goes. I have managed for the most part to move on from those experiences. Therapy helped some in that regard, though I never felt able to share some of the most traumatic episodes in those sessions.

However, our experiences do shape us, for better and for worse, and the scar tissue each of us develops as the result of our experiences do help to define us or at least create the hurdles we must overcome in order to reach whatever potential we might have.

In some ways, I am who I am because of what I experienced growing up. In other ways, I am who I am in spite of those experiences. Even at this stage of my life, I am still healing. Whatever may have created your scar tissue, I hope you are healing as well.

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