Trigger warning for Hurts Me More Than You series: posts in this series may include detailed descriptions of corporal punishment and physical abuse and violence towards children.
Our physical abuse was defined as love.
I used to think that there was only one thing that was not ideal during my childhood. What I remember as isolated incidents, the times that my mom was not ok with my dad’s behavior. I’m now seeing with different eyes the methods of ‘discipline’ and ‘training’ that my parents used. Realizing that what was abusive, I considered normal.
When it came to “training” or “discipline” there was no doubt my parents believed it was for our ultimate good. That it was an expression of their love for us. They “chastised” us because they wanted to keep our souls out of an “eternal lake of fire.” We were told many things about how this abuse was actually love, and demanded by God:
“I do this because I love you.” “This hurts me more than it hurts you.” “God disciplines those he loves.” “Parents who don’t discipline their children hate them.”
When I was younger, spankings and time alone were the main methods of “discipline” that I remember. It didn’t really matter how old you were. A first time for one of us, I remember my sibling being around maybe eighteen months. My mom and I came home from the grocery store and my younger sibling was very… subdued? Dad said they had had their first training session, or something like that. No idea what, if anything, had been done wrong.
I know there was some statement by dad on how he had done it while my mom was gone because she would have been too soft.
I don’t even know how to describe what they used to strike us with. It was made of something like leather, very thick and smooth, too big to be from a belt.
There was always a pronouncement of how many times we would be hit. “That’s eight!” or the like. My mom had a penchant for counting, like some parents do when they want you to do something “one, two, three…” In our case each count represented another “spanking”. Before you could be punished, or “chastised”, you had to express absolute submission. This meant not crying, removing your pants and underwear, and bending over the bed.
Afterwards you had to hug them, and usually there was a drawn out discussion about what you had done wrong.
I remember being maybe five years old. It was after my dad had spanked me, and I was crying. I didn’t want to touch him, so I was backed up towards the wall away from him, and really didn’t want to hug. He was explaining to me that just like I was backing away from him, my sin separates me from him, and hurts our relationship.
Conditional affection, love defined as chastisement, and the blame laid to me for problems in our relationship.
I distinctly remember a “training” moment when I was a small person, at whatever potty training age was. I remember being given specific instruction to go in the toilet and not my underwear, or else. It seems like mom and dad left me alone to play for awhile, because I remember the moment when they came to my door and discovered I had gone in my pants. It seems like the reasoning was that I was rebellious or lazy, but I couldn’t say. “Sins of omission” and all that. I was in big trouble, was given a lecture and spanked. I also remember that I was wearing orange.
I have a memory of playing in my room with a doll that cried if you turned it over. I was spanking the doll with the leather instrument my parents used on me and making my doll cry. My parents discovered me and I was in big trouble. To this day I have no idea what was so wrong, I was a child emulating my parents.
There is one term my dad uses to this day that concisely defines the picture of God I was painted.
“God’ll help you with that.”
Seemingly sanguine, it was used as a threat or condemnation. It meant something along the lines of: “If you don’t get your act together God will make your life living hell until you shape up.”
Similarly, if dad said “I can help you with that” it was meant as a threat. Figure out how to obey on your own, or the consequences would be severe.
Around eight I have fewer and fewer memories. The bottom dropped out of life and everything was hard, for all of us. Never got easier after that. From age eight until I moved out life was a constant stress. You never knew when something was going to happen, when someone was going to get hurt. Sundays were the worst because dad was home all day. There was plenty of ‘discipline’. I have no idea what was deserved and what wasn’t.
Something must have happened to the leather thing, because my mom adopted a sturdy wooden spoon. She broke a few of those with use. Dad, I think, used his hand for a bit because I remember his graduation to a board due to the strain on his hand.
I was around ten or eleven years old when dad made a board with a handle and put work into sanding and finishing it. I remember it being 2+ feet long and five or six inches wide. I only have the memory, nothing exact, and of course everything is bigger when you’re a child.
There was a big to-do about the whole thing. Dad talked about a board from his childhood that had holes in it and two separate layers along with a handle. One of those -you’re so lucky I had to walk to school uphill both ways- kind of things. I don’t even know if the story was true.
The existence of this new form of punishment was a big threat. I had no doubt dad would use it on us. At this point I was already afraid of hearing his truck in the driveway. I remember cleaning my section of the room immaculately. The hangers in our closet were so straight that looking at then made me dizzy.
The very first time dad pronounced punishment with the new board it was for me. We were getting groceries as a family. My younger sibling started to walk away to go be with dad. We got in trouble for being between parents alone in the store, so I grabbed my sibling’s sweatshirt and told him to stay. He went to dad and told him what I had done. Dad got in my face and said he was going to punish me with the board. I fell apart right there in the grocery store, absolutely hysterical. My parents herded us out of the store, I was screaming and crying the whole way home. My dad told me to shut up, no more noise on the way home. I couldn’t stop crying. Mom suggested to my sibling that we take the punishment together, split it or something. He would have been around five ears old. To this day I don’t understand why she said that. I don’t remember any more of what happened. It seems like mom and dad started dickering (maybe about her suggestion that I get less) and then dad left angry, for a long time. I don’t know for sure.
I figured out that if something mattered to you, they’d use it to punish you. If you did something wrong, they’d take it away. If you didn’t do something right, they’d tell you that you might have gotten what you wanted back, but now you wouldn’t.
I made it my mission in life to care about absolutely nothing.
If I didn’t want it they couldn’t use it against me. I didn’t care about eating. I didn’t care about spending time with them. I didn’t care about being alone. I had no friends after eleven, so they couldn’t keep me from seeing anyone. One sibling was particularly hard to use the method of removing “privileges” on. I remember my mom saying in exasperation that there was nothing that mattered to him, how was she going to take it away? Removing meals or no food for a day was an oft used punishment.
I remember distinctly the moment when I realized I could never be good enough. It was never going to stop.
I had made dinner for the entire family, cleared up and was just finishing washing every dish. My dad came into the kitchen and screamed at me. I remember dad saying that if I thought that was good enough I was crazy. I don’t remember anything after that.
I figured out there was nothing I could do to protect myself or my siblings. All I wanted was to find a way to prove that we didn’t deserve it. That we had done the right thing. We had obeyed even if dad didn’t think so. I became increasingly depressed and suicidal as I faced the reality that there wasn’t a standard of perfect that christians agreed to. Even if I were capable of perfection, we couldn’t even decide what it was.
The years from early grade school and all through my teens are a blur. I have very few isolated incidents that I remember. Screaming and cursing, unpredictable enough to completely catch you off guard.
My brothers definitely got the worst of the punishments. I don’t know why this is. Maybe they thought boys were sturdier or more rebellious and needed more force to make an impression. Maybe my parents had a harder time breaking their spirit. Maybe because they were younger than me and got the worst of my dad’s anger as his stability waned.
My dad beat my brothers. I have no difficulty calling it a beating. If you hit your child with a board using all your force countless times on a regular basis, that is a beating.
I know there was punishment that I never knew of, and sometimes there were things I heard about later. Dad would go into a room with one of us and I had no idea what happened. Most of the time I would intentionally go outside in the yard so I didn’t have to hear the screaming of my sibling.
Every day it shatters my heart to know that I was there, and there was nothing I could do about any of this. I wanted to do something, I wanted to protect my siblings. But I was helpless. I wished I could take it all for them, find a way to teach them how to avoid all of it, to be good enough. In hindsight I know it was fruitless.
This ‘training’ is not what love is, but I was raised to believe that it was.