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For years, I thought that my overachieving, perfectionism, and need for control were about proving that I was good enough—being the best, being perfect, was the only way to be “enough.” But a session with an intuitive coach brought something else to the fore—I needed to be perfect, so that I could be safe. If I could be perfect, then I would be above reproach, beyond criticism or punishment of any sort.

I want to share one story to illustrate how unsafe making even a small choice could be in my home. One Sunday morning, when I was about eight years old, I was getting ready for church. I had put on a dress, and I decided that I wanted to see what it would feel like to wear my white tights without any underwear. My mother discovered what I had done, flew into a rage, and decided that I needed to be “spanked” for it. This meant that I had to come into my parents’ room, strip from the waist down, bend over my parents’ bed, and submit to being beaten with my dad’s belt on my bare bottom and thighs until whoever was hitting me felt better. That was the response to my curiosity about what it felt like to wear tights without panties.

This is where my frantic desire to control everything came from. I never could have predicted that this action would be met with such violence. If I had had any idea that I would’ve been beaten for making that choice, I certainly would never have considered it—much less, done it. To give myself an illusion of safety, I had to try to figure out the “right” way to do something, and make sure that I did everything the right way, every time.

Of course, how is a child supposed to know? There was no way to know. That uncertainty—not knowing what would anger my parents and result in a beating—is at the heart of the fundamental dynamic in my home growing up: fear.

Fear As A Perfectly Rational Response

While we often talk about fear as being an “irrational” emotion, fear was a perfectly rational response to the environment in my home. Dad would explicitly use our fear of him to control us. If we weren’t moving fast enough or doing what he wanted, he would unbuckle his belt and quickly pull it out through the loops on his pants, which makes a distinct whoosh sound—and we would run like hell to do whatever he wanted, to avoid a beating. To this day, I can’t hear that sound without clutching in fear, and feeling sick to my stomach.

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Because I never knew what might happen, I tried to stay out of the way as much as I could, which meant that I spent a lot of time alone. When I was seven years old, we moved into a big, run-down Victorian house. It had been a two-family home for years, and my parents converted it back to a one-family. The kids had the upstairs apartment, which meant we each had our own room. Mine had been the kitchen, so I had a working sink, stove, and refrigerator in those early months—which was wonderful for playing “house.”

That room became my sanctuary. I retreated to it whenever I could. I loved to read and would be absorbed in books for hours on end. We had a fair number of books as children, but I spent so much time reading that I burned through them quickly, so I would read the same ones over and over. We had a couple of big books of myths, legends, and fairy tales that I loved. I also read the “Little House” books so many times that I had whole passages memorized.

I felt relatively safe in my room, and reading transported me to happier places and, in the case of Laura Ingalls Wilder, a happier family. Being alone in my room also made it easier for me to “check out,” as Jennie and I came to call it. When things got to be too much for us, we would just go someplace else, mentally.

Later in adulthood, as we begged our parents to work on our problems, and then tried to make a break with them when they refused to do it, we joked that our family was like the Hotel California: “You can ‘check out’ any time you like, but you can never leave.”

Outside the family, my fear gave me an “aloof” quality. It wasn’t that I didn’t have any friends, but I was always the type of person who had one or two close friends, with the rest being more like acquaintances. I could socialize effectively in a group—for example, friends I made through singing in the choir or working on the musical—but I was very guarded. That, combined with my academic and musical successes, caused many people to view me as “stuck up.”

In reality, I was just terrified. This problem followed me into adulthood, with people often viewing me as arrogant. This is the main reason I still go by “Ronni”—the nickname I was given by my brother, who couldn’t say “Veronica” when he was little. I think my given name is beautiful, and even tried to start using it as I moved out of college. But it’s a very formal sounding name, and it enhanced the tendency for people to view me as “stuck up”—so I have continued to use “Ronni,” so that people see me as more friendly and approachable.

Fear: A Steadfast Companion

I’ve said that the fear I experienced was a rational response to my home environment— and it was—but the fear ran so deep in my younger days that I was afraid of things that didn’t make sense. Actually, there was an ongoing battle between my constant fear and the drive to achieve. But fear often won out, as I began to be afraid of failing at the most basic things— things that millions of people can do, things that are not that big of a deal.

The classic example is when I became old enough to take driver’s training. I was convinced that I would not be able to pass the course. I tried to tell myself that I was being ridiculous, but I could not shake the feeling that I would not be able to get through it successfully. I finally started looking at specific people I knew, who were a year older, who already had their driver’s licenses. I thought, “OK— these people managed to do it. You can, too.” I still wasn’t thoroughly convinced.

As I began the recovery process, I was forced to recognize that fear had been a steadfast companion throughout my life to that point. It was staggering to admit that I really had been living in constant fear—of just about everything.

Only Their Pain Mattered

Another key facet of the unhealthy emotional dynamics in the home was how clearly my parents communicated that only their pain mattered. My mother, in particular, was always quick to dismiss our pain by saying, “I never meant to hurt you,” as if that meant that we weren’t, in fact, hurt.

Probably the clearest example of how completely I had internalized the message that my pain didn’t matter happened when I was fifteen years old. Out of nowhere, one of my back molars started to hurt. At first, it was a dull ache. I tried taking aspirin to relieve the pain, but it just got worse. The pain would wake me up in the middle of the night. I prayed that God would remove the pain. I got up and took more aspirin. I walked the floor in the middle of the night for hours, holding my jaw, crying—begging for relief from the pain.

I went on like this for a full two weeks before I finally told my mother. She took me to our dentist, who I had just seen six weeks prior for a cleaning. He had missed a cavity that was (by now) pretty bad. He referred me to an oral surgeon, who said that the nerves in my teeth were surprisingly close to the surface for someone my age. He said I needed a root canal and performed it within the next couple of days.

None of this was particularly striking to me at the time, except that I was disappointed that my dentist had missed the cavity on my earlier visit. It wasn’t until I was in the recovery process in my mid-30s that I remembered this episode, and thought, “Oh My God! How is it that I didn’t go to my mother immediately?! I was in so much pain, and I said nothing. I can’t imagine my daughter not coming to me if she were in pain!” That’s when I realized how completely I had internalized the message that my pain did not matter.

Their Emotional Needs

My parents’ emotional needs were primary in other ways. It was a jumbled mess of required demonstrations of loyalty, and rules that always kept changing so that you could never successfully meet them.

It is both terrifying and disorienting to be part of a family where the expectations are constantly shifting. There is no way to be safe. There is no validation. And becoming an adult provides no relief. There is only more striving, and continual misery, because you never meet the mark. NEVER.

As I look at these patterns now, it’s clear that I kept coming back, time and again, looking for validation that I was never going to get. It’s a dysfunctional way to keep people bonded to you. Parents are supposed to clearly communicate to their children that they are OK. That’s their main job—to help their children develop of strong sense of self that allows them to feel like they are loved, and they are safe, no matter what.

When children don’t get this, when they are abused, they will keep coming back in the hopes that they will finally please their parents and receive the message that they are good enough. That’s what I kept doing. It took a long time to realize that all the effort was futile.

Unwinding A Lifetime of Fear and Dysfunction 

Trying to unwind a lifetime of fear and dysfunction is a painfully slow task. When I first went to Al-Anon they told me, “If it took you 30 years to get to this point, it will take you 30 years to unwind it.” That was not good news. I was, apparently, at the beginning of a very long slog, so I tried to be happy with the little victories along the way.

For example, one day, when my daughter was about 3 or 4, she was sitting at the kitchen table, waiting for me to make her some juice. I was standing at the sink, trying to shake the frozen can of concentrated juice into the pitcher, so I could begin to add water, but it refused to come out. I began to shake more vigorously, and finally the stubborn lump of slush came out with a SPLAT that left me covered with purple splotches. In a split second, a torrent of expletives flooded my brain, but I was careful not to let them out. In the next second, my daughter was laughing hysterically. Immediately, I knew she was right—this was funny. If it had happened to anyone else, I would have laughed. And then I found myself laughing with her. I took a deep breath—a tiny win.

Trying to wear a new groove into an old record takes a great deal of time and persistence, and there were many times where I was trying to do the “right” thing—respond in a calm, patient way—while I was churning on the inside. One day, I was vacuuming the living room rug. My then five-year-old daughter wanted to help. To be perfectly blunt, I did not want her help. I just wanted to get the job done. But I knew that a good mother would let her help, so I gave her the handle and took a step back.

The vacuum stood almost as tall as she, and she pushed it around—ineffectually, but gleefully. “I’m helping you, Mommy!” She grinned at me. I smiled, but as I stood there watching, I felt like I was coming apart. It was a totally, over the top, ridiculous reaction, but I really thought I might physically explode. I managed to hide this, and she probably spent less than two minutes “helping” before she returned the vacuum to me. She was perfectly happy, and blissfully unaware of what I was feeling, but I thought, “Something must be seriously wrong with me. Who gets so upset over something so small??”

Fighting that desperate need to control—to do it my way, and get it done on my timetable—felt like a bomb going off inside me. Later, I realized that the fact that I was able to hand over the vacuum and at least look calm on the outside was a step forward—another small victory.

The Desire to be a Good Mom

When I think back to those years, what stands out the most is my desire to be a good mom. I wanted to be loving, kind, patient. I wanted my daughter to know that she mattered, that she was the most important thing in our lives. She deserved my very best effort, and in order to be the best mom I could, I had to be the best person I could.

She was also the driving factor behind my decision to cut contact with my parents. I was determined that she would not be harmed by the same dynamics that had wounded me. I wanted her to grow up happy and healthy. But cutting contact did not provide a clean emotional break, nor did it protect my daughter in the way I had hoped.

She was six years old when I first told her we had to stop seeing my parents, and it was very difficult for her to understand. She had some behavioral issues over the next year or two which I am convinced were linked to the break. To her, my parents were loving, and they represented fun and presents. It didn’t make sense that she couldn’t see them.

I remember one time during the period after making the break, my daughter had been acting up, and then went stomping and yelling up to her room. I sat down on the stairs and sobbed, thinking, “I did this to protect her from pain, and she’s still suffering!” It really made me wonder if I had done the right thing.

Feeling Waaaay More Messed Up...

The early years of recovery were often difficult. There were so many challenges, such as coping with the feeling that I was waaaay more messed up than I thought I was. At times, it was overwhelming. There was also this tremendous internal struggle that no one could see, and sometimes I felt sorry for myself. I felt like I wasn’t getting “credit” for all the hard work I was doing because only I knew it was happening.

There was so much fear—recognizing how much fear I had always lived with—and now being afraid I would never be “normal,” that I was “damaged goods.” All that fear was front and center. My big task then became trying to move through the fear. It felt like such a lonely, hidden struggle.

A few years into recovery, when my daughter was about 8 or 9 years old, I said to her, “I am the bravest person you know.” And I really felt like I was. This journey of recovery required me to reexamine my entire life, recognize the times that I was badly abused, and feel the pain associated with that trauma—in many cases, for the first time.

I was also trying to cut those new grooves into the old record, to create healthy patterns for myself, and to ensure that I broke the cycle for my daughter. It was a slow, difficult process—requiring what felt like constant effort. Even for the average person, doing something new always requires risk. But for those who grew up in abusive situations, it’s downright terrifying.

What you know from the past may be “bad,” but it’s familiar, and maybe even comfortable in some ways. This means that trying to learn, to grow—whether to improve your own life, or the lives of others—is an act of bravery. Leaving the comfort of the familiar for the uncertainty of something unknown, with no guarantee that it will materialize or be worthwhile, is scary. But I was willing to try. Win, lose, or draw—that made me brave. -- Ronni Tichenor

Copyright 2022. All Rights Reserved.
Printed with permission of the authors.

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BOOK: Healing Begins with Us

Healing Begins with Us: Breaking the Cycle of Trauma and Abuse and Rebuilding the Sibling Bond
by Ronni Tichenor, PhD, and Jennie Weaver, FNP-BC 

book cover of Healing Begins with Us by Ronni Tichenor and Jennie WeaverHealing Begins With Us is the story of two sisters who weren’t supposed to be friends. Ronni and Jennie grew up in a home with addiction, mental illness, and abuse issues that generated unhealthy dynamics and often pitted them against each other.

In this book, they tell the raw truth about their childhood experiences, including the abuse that occurred between them. As they moved toward adulthood, they managed to come together and chart a path that allowed them to heal their relationship, and break the cycle of intergenerational trauma and abuse in creating their own families. Using their personal and professional experience, they offer advice to help others who are looking to heal from their own painful upbringings, or heal their sibling relationships.

For more info and/or to order this book, click here. Also available as an Audiobook and as a Kindle edition.

About the Authors

photo of Ronni Tichenorphoto of Jennie WeaverRonni Tichenor has a PhD in sociology, specializing in family studies, from the University of Michigan. Jennie Weaver received her degree from the Vanderbilt School of Nursing and is a board-certified family nurse practitioner with over 25 years of experience in family practice and mental health.

Their new book, Healing Begins with Us: Breaking the Cycle of Trauma and Abuse and Rebuilding the Sibling Bond (Heart Wisdom LLC, April 5, 2022), shares their inspiring and hopeful story of healing from their painful upbringing.

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