I was slightly taken back when I reached up for salt on my spice shelf and saw cayenne pepper. Really? In my house? I couldn’t recall buying it, nor do I think I would have. I’m not a big pepper user, especially not a HOT pepper user. I thought back and wondered where it might have come from.
After opening the top, I realized it had been used at some point. But by whom?
In childhood, this was a weapon, a punishment. Not for saying swear words, but rather when pain was to be inflicted. Cayenne pepper hurts! I don’t know if it does now; I’m not willing to put a spoonful in my mouth to see. But I know to my little self, it was horrifying, and that’s the immediate memories I have when I see it.
I put it back on the shelf instead of tossing it. I don’t know why. I suppose I just get tired of THINGS having power over me.
My brothers and I used to joke (I often still do) about how we couldn’t choose which was our favorite: plastic or metal? (We also made the same jokes about soap in the mouth: bar or liquid? Yum!*)
I obviously have and use hangers in my home, and mostly it’s fine. But every once in a while, I’ll find myself just holding one, staring off into space, remembering. The unbearable sting, the sound one makes whipping through the air, landing on skin, the cries. Our cries. Thankfully, those are welts and bruises that healed and left me with only minor scars in my memory.
But the worst weapon? Words.
There are many spoken bits I remember from childhood:
“It takes more electricity to turn a light on and off than to leave it on for the few moments you’ll be out of the room.”
“You use more gas to restart a car than if you just leave it idling.”
I don’t know if any of those two gems of wisdom are real or not (or if they were real at least for the time), but they stuck with me.
“You’re not worth it.”
“I wish you were never born!”
“You ruin everything.”
“No one could ever love you the way I do.”
And on and on. Words are powerful. They have the strength to lift you out of the dirt, and they have the power to push your face in the dirt. Used without love, they can destroy a child, making them feel ugly, worthless, and wishing they really were never born. And when they’re not used at all, when they are withheld when they are so badly needed, the hurt is equally paralyzing.
Making it out of childhood without hurting myself or engaging in risky behaviors (other than my desperate need for love, which led to my first marriage, young pregnancy, and the last often repeated statement listed above) led me to believe I was ok. But I never realized how mean I was to myself, repeating words of the past whenever I failed at something or merely looked at myself in the mirror. The words of my past have haunted me throughout my adult years, telling me I’m not smart enough to go to school, not talented enough to be a writer/photographer, not pretty enough to keep my husband loving me, not good enough for a father to want anything to do with me, not enough not enough not enough not enough!
Words have been the weapon that lasted the longest and caused the most damage. I still hear them when I’m standing on the edge of something great in my life, or I hear the echo of silence when I wait for the approval that will never come. Though I get better day by day, it can often be hard to hear the words of love and support from those who love me now through the muddled chaos of the past.
*Many survivors of abuse find comfort in being able to laugh at what happened. It doesn’t mean we find it funny so much as we use humor to take the edge off. Interestingly enough, I have found the humor often offends those who have never experienced what we’ve experienced, and therefore they get the idea that we take what happened lightly. We do not. But to laugh is to heal. At least, that has been the case in MY experience.