HA notes: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Trista” is a pseudonym.
I grew up in patriarchy. The seeds of powerlessness and fear were sown in me from my earliest years. Having a voice or power in my family was not easy, in fact, it was a constant struggle. However, this system and hierarchy created and maintained by my parents allowed the rivalry and teasing typical of siblings to grow into unhealthy imbalances of power.
There was a distinct hierarchy in my family. Masculinity and age determined your respect within the family unit. My position as a girl and the youngest member of 7 children meant I was the lowest of the low. My position was to toe the family line, get along and agree with those who were ‘above’ me.
There was one sibling I did get along with very well. She (Anne) was two years my senior, and we were joined at the hip since I can remember. In many ways she faced the same trials I did, however, her sweet and caring demeanor made her a more naturally lovable person.
I was told that I should ‘submissively endure suffering as Christ did.’
I was regularly told I was inept, stupid, crazy and extreme. When I was mercilessly teased or abused to the point of tears, my mother would reprimand me for not loving my brothers. She told me stories of how much she desired brothers. It “shocked” her that I could not “endure a little teasing.” She would have traded most anything to have brothers. Teasing was normal and I was “weak,” “like a little girl” to be offended by the rudeness of my siblings.
On several occasions my mother told me the story of Stephen, the first Christian martyr, saying he loved his enemies and died for Christ. She asked me how he could be so holy and I was complaining about teasing? “Isn’t that silly?”
Minor errors or failures on my part were magnified and viewed as my identity. Once, one of my sisters, roughly 10 years my senior, told me, “You are inept, and incompetent. I know a five year old who knows how to use a key. No wonder mom and dad don’t let you do anything.” This rant was delivered after I accidentally broke her key to the house by turning it the wrong direction in the keyhole. At the time, I was 13 years old I was already insecure. The verbal attacks against my character only made me more angry, hurt and hateful towards myself and those around me.
As a girl it was my duty to ‘support the men’
Although an imbalance of power existed between me and all of my siblings, this imbalance was larger when the sibling was male. As a child I was expected to serve my older brothers without question. If they requested something I was ‘unloving’ if I did not do as I was told. Anne and I were often required to make food for them, clean up after them and in other ways serve them. When they were in college, we were required to make food for guests they had come over and prepare for parties that they were hosting.
My brothers were also heavily involved in sports. My sister and I were told, “You need to support and love your brothers.” When we begged to be involved in activities, sports or anything social, we were told that such things would conflict with our brothers and we “need to love your brothers. Why do you not want to support them?”
Under the patriarchy, it was clear girls did not matter. Our development, desires and needs were entirely subservient to males, because men act, while women are acted upon.
These things caused more anger in my heart. I hated being told I was useless, what I wanted didn’t matter. I would cry out in anger to God, “Why did you make me a woman?? I can’t do anything because I’m a girl and girls are useless.”
I felt a need to punish myself for being crazy
As a child I did not know how to cope with the feelings of helplessness, uselessness, hate and anger. I turned to self-harm at the age of 12 as a means of coping with how horrible I felt about my identity. Being homeschooled posed problems to self-harm. I was constantly watched, and my parents openly mocked the idea of therapy and mental health. They portrayed mental illness as a weakness, something attention seeking individuals contrived to gain pity.
I would find creative ways of hurting myself. I would chew my nails and fingers until they bled. Often my fingers would be raw from excessive chewing and peeling layers of skin off. I would scratch myself, especially my stomach, until I bled. I would ‘cut myself while shaving,’ craving the release I felt when my legs bled. Hiding in my closet I would bang my hands against a pole until they became swollen. One time I even purposefully beat my head against a wall in an effort to give myself a head injury.
I craved affection. I wanted to experience love.
I sincerely believed no one in my family cared about me. Part of the self-harm narrative was an effort on my behalf to gain the love of my family. In my mind I would rationalize, “If I am hurt very badly they won’t be mean to you. They would want to help you, right? See, they really do love you. You need to try harder to really hurt yourself.”
Often I would ponder dark thoughts, sure no one would notice if I were dead. I thought perhaps people would be happy to have the ‘crazy’ girl gone. I wanted to die, but was not sure how. It was something I constantly thought about. I would day dream of being murdered, mutilated and beaten to death. These imaginations served as a mental outlet for my pain.
I was careful not to display my pain to others. Instead, I developed a dual identity. I hated my siblings, but I desperately craved their affection. They were the only people on the planet I interacted with. If they did not love me, I believed myself beyond the love of anyone. In my world, friends were not allowed. Thus, if my own family did not love me, who on God’s green earth would ever see anything lovable in me?
On the outside, I was confident, defiant, strongly defending myself, rebelling in any way I could, actively antagonizing others in an attempt to exact revenge. This was the way my anger reacted.
Other times, my desire for affection would win and I would berate myself and say, I matter and I’m going to earn their respect. When my efforts failed I would oscillate back to hating my siblings and the pain they caused in my life.
Today, I am in my early twenties, a senior in college and headed towards a successful career. Yet when I am around my siblings, I feel like that hopeless, unloved child again. I never felt loved by my siblings. It is hard to feel love from people who hurt me so badly for so long. I still acutely feel the pain inflicted from childhood. It is impossible to negate years of being dismissed as a silly, crazy little girl.
The patriarchy damages its victims in many ways. In my case, it removed the joy of having those I call family.