Failure to thrive is a medical term applied to infants who are unable to gain weight and who, frequently, are delayed in meeting the usual developmental bench marks. The causes are most often illness or an eating disorder. Once a diagnosis is made, then a treatment protocol can be developed to help the family help the child.
I believe that failure to thrive also applies to children who experience any form of psychological maltreatment. Children look to their parents for safety and security. They look to their parents to know that they are loved and wanted. When we’re so young and vulnerable, so much of our developing sense of who we are comes from how our parents treat us. When parents repeatedly ignore their children and their need for social interaction or they spurn or they terrorize their children in any way and for any reason, the impact on their children is both immediate and also long-reaching. The child’s social and emotional development is severely and negatively affected.
I used to say to anyone who asked that, while I might not have been physically or sexually abused in my home, I was emotionally abused. To say that out loud felt like I was fishing for sympathy even as I knew [and know] that is was [and is] the truth. What I know now is that I was a victim of psychological maltreatment in my home where my father’s word was the law. To gainsay him was to do so at our peril.
So what did that emotional abuse look like? I felt rejected. I was judged as being imperfect because I had issues with weight. I was given really charming nicknames like ‘Man Mountain’ and ‘Bucket’. I wasn’t allowed to get angry and let that out. I was told in no uncertain terms that if I was going to cry, I had to leave the room. There was no safe way for me to express what I was feeling no matter what my emotional state was. I was consistently ridiculed and humiliated and belittled.
I lived in terror in our house. It was filled with chaos and noise. When I came home from school, I never knew which Ed Winter I’d see – the jovial one or the frustrated and annoyed one. And it had nothing to do with what I did. It had everything to do with how he felt about other things in life which affected his mood and which he often ended up taking out on our family. There were so many times when I felt like a pet whipping boy. I could never question anything either parent and especially Ed said without fearing being spanked hard. Hell, Ed even chased me up our street with the intent to hit me when I was 17 because I told him to take a long leap off a very short pier. [I’m being polite here.]
My father had unreasonable expectations of me and my sisters. I remember coming home with all A’s on my report card and only one B and being questioned about why I got the B. My successes did not matter at all. And if we didn’t meet these unreasonable expectations, then we could expect some form of reprisal – usually withholding a privilege or being banished to our rooms or some other similar form of punishment. And, to top that off, the expectations constantly changed. We could do something one day without consequence and be berated for doing it the next. There was no sense of safety because of the unpredictability in which we lived.
There was rarely any voluntary demonstration of affection. Ed’s hugs always felt stilted to me. I don’t remember him saying without any prompting that he loved me and he was proud of me. I don’t ever remember him telling any of us that he loved us. And there was a sense that love and nurturing came with conditions – toe the line and measure up or I would not be supported and provided with opportunities to investigate and learn and develop my innate curiosity and also continue to expand my burgeoning skill in anything. It was, “Do what I’m tellin’ you!” or I wouldn’t get to do what I wanted to do.
And most of all, there was always a sense of guardedness in our house. We all learned to fit a role which would mollify Ed. My mother was acquiescent and was what he expected of a wife – not too demanding and never questioning and always supporting his edicts while trying to find a way for him to relate to his daughters. My oldest sister was the quiet, conscientious one – never demanding attention. The middle sister was the social chameleon who shared Ed’s love of French and who could make him laugh. Me? I was the brainiac and the musician. As long as each of us stayed within our expected roles and made no attempt to break free of them, then life at home was bearable. Might not be joyous or free or spontaneous and we all learned to accept the trade off – maintain the status quo or face condemnation and punishment of some sort.
Is it any wonder that I used to sit in my room and bang my head against the wall [like that pain was easier to endure than being caught in the cross hairs of intense scrutiny when I was in the same room as my father], that I had an ulcer by the time I was 14, that I developed insomnia, that I developed a clinical depression by the time I was 16? And most important of all, is it any wonder that I looked outside myself for approval and acceptance and a sense of who I was and what I was capable of becoming?
As I grew up, I felt ignored. And worse, I felt unloved and unlovable. So I would do anything to get the attention I craved. It might be negative attention and that was better to me than no attention at all. I came to judge myself a monumental screw-up. There had to be something so wrong with me that I never felt accepted or acceptable. And as I got older, that feeling only intensified and became like acid burning a hole in my spirit. It’s this last result of being emotionally abused that has been the most far reaching and toxic throughout my life.
At school or work or with those I wanted to be my friends, I would do anything to feel needed, included, and accepted. I would buy people things for no special occasion and give them those things to try and curry their favour and regard. I joined groups even if I was not really interested in belonging and then I would try to be the perfect member of the group – all so that I felt included somewhere. My goal was to feel like I fit in some place. I rarely said ‘no’ when I was asked to do something for someone else. Being asked to help meant, to me, that I was valuable and needed. I became hyper careful about what I said to anyone lest it be misunderstood and the other person take exception to what I said and then shut me out. I would try so hard to second guess myself and my choices so that I did not in any way inconvenience anyone else. I rarely did anything without trying to plan for every contingency and then hoped against hope that I would still not make a mistake. I was that afraid of being shunned.
The internal pressure I felt in putting these restrictions on myself would grow almost exponentially. Inevitably, it had to be released. And I would blow up. I know that I was scary to many people around me – particularly my mother and my sisters – mainly because the intensity of my eruption was always disproportionate to the final trigger that set me off. No one, least of all me, would know what might set me off. And my outburst would be so severe that others were afraid not only for themselves but also for me.
Then I learned to deal with my emotional upheaval by taking it out on things. I broke the window of the door in our vestibule, I kicked the door in my dad’s office and left my footprint in it, I slammed doors very loudly, I went into our basement and kicked the shit out of the clothes dryer. And while the pressure might be released to a degree, I would end up being punished for damaging something. And I often hurt myself. So, I developed a different set of strategies to deal with my bottled up fear and rage. I would isolate myself so that I didn’t hurt anyone or say something which I would later regret. Or, if I couldn’t get off and be alone, I would go inside myself and I’d shut up and stop listening. And I made sure that I held my arms close to my body so that I could not take a swing at anything.
While the pressure might be lessened for a time, it never totally disappeared. And it was that residual pressure which was the most damaging to me. I always felt afraid and angry at the same time. I was scared of my temper and of the power and strength of my outbursts. In choosing to isolate myself as a strategy to deal with my internal state, I began to feel socially inept. I used to say that, while I might be very intelligent, I was socially retarded. I was unsure of how to act in most social situations.
Eventually, the residual pressure had its effect on my physical state. I developed brutal migraine headaches which would be so severe that I would throw up and which would last, sometimes, for weeks. I developed such severe gall bladder problems that I couldn’t drink water without fearing the onset of a gall bladder attack. It had to be surgically fixed. I developed nodes on my vocal folds which required surgery to correct. I was diagnosed with arthritis when I was in my early 30’s and had visions of having to use a walker by the time I was 40. I developed severe tendonitis which affected my ability to walk with ease. Eventually, I developed a lumbar stenosis and was afraid that I would never be able to walk again unaided.
What I know now is that my body was letting me know that something wasn’t right for me. Each new physical ailment was a manifestation of my internal, emotional state. And as that internal state of unexpressed fear and rage became stronger and more concentrated so too the degree of my physical problems increased.
And what I also know is that it was when my physical state deteriorated to such a degree that I had to stop moving and take the time to really listen to and pay attention to all the clues which my body was giving me, that I became clear about my emotional state and how my physical state mirrored that. And I was then able to bring it all to full consciousness and own it and let the waves of emotion move through me without editing or attempting to stop them and know the truth of who I AM.
As I’ve written this, I’ve been concerned that those who read it will believe that it is only an apologia to give me license to ‘Ed bash’. My father was not a stellar dad, if one of those even exists, even as my mother was not the perfect mom. I think he wanted to be a good parent and I know that he did not, at least for me, succeed. He was a product of the parenting he received and how he parented was affected by his disappointments with his life and his sense of who he was. He grew up when two infamous phrases were bandied about: ‘Children should be seen and not heard.’ and ‘Spare the rod and spoil the child.’ Children were seen as often inconvenient and as imperfect little adults. That’s what he knew. He could only parent as he had been parented. And what I knew when I was very young was I never wanted to have children. I knew that I did not want to do to them what was done to me. I knew that I would parent as I had been parented. That was not something I was willing to perpetrate on anyone else. I was afraid to be a parent for fear of hurting and abusing my children.
I know that life’s messy and that things happen which we cannot control and which can confuse or hurt us. I know that loving someone else isn’t easy in the midst of all of that. And I know that I wish that my father had told me that he cared about me, that he loved me, that he liked me and that he was proud of me. Mom did and I needed to hear it from him, too.
As my friend Holly Irons shared on Facebook: “Being told you’re appreciated is one of the simplest yet most incredible things you can ever hear.” Remember to tell those in your life how much they mean to you and to do that often. The impact of those words will echo into eternity.