I was born in 1954 into a large family: seven kids, and I was number five. My father was an alcoholic and was verbally and physically abusive. In a big family like that, it was better to try to be invisible and not be noticed, because when you got noticed, you got in trouble, or hit.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently, about feeling invisible. Not to be able to show your feelings means you’re not really acknowledging your feelings for yourself, just repressing them and stuffing them down. To learn that as a child, and then to continue doing that for years, you get really good at it.
People knew there was a problem and they just stayed away. My dad was a tough, nasty creature. He was so mean to people in the neighborhood that a lot of people, even kids in the neighborhood, just didn’t want to have anything to do with us. It was really isolating and I didn’t have a lot of friends. It was very embarrassing to have such an awful parent. I was ashamed of my family and never brought anybody home.
I always knew something was wrong, that there was a better way to live. I just didn’t know where it was or who knew that secret, or who could help me with that. I didn’t know I was depressed, or even what depression was. I just knew that I felt crappy all the time: when I was a kid, when I was a teenager, when I was a young adult. I was depressed all throughout my marriage, and I was also angry. I have come to learn that depression and sadness can be covered over by anger.
Once, in junior high school, I was trying to get some reaction out of my parents. It was dangerous to get that attention from my father, but I’m a teenager. I’m going to do things that teenagers do. I started dating black teenagers. We were not in an integrated neighborhood to say the least, and my dad was a huge racist. That did not go over well when they found out. My dad went up to the high school and talked to the principal and took me out of school.
He said you’re not going back to school. I was terrified. I didn’t know what was going to happen to me. What does this mean for my life? What does this mean for my future? You have to go to school. I had no support from anyone. It was pretty bleak. The school was not coming to my aid. The teachers that I knew, the librarian that I was friends with, weren’t coming to save me. I couldn’t ask for help. I was ashamed and embarrassed to have such a horrible parent.
I have an older brother who died of drug and alcohol abuse a few years ago. He was the one that was the most abused by my dad, the most picked on. My dad softened up towards my youngest sister.I’m absolutely convinced that my mother must have made it clear to my father that this child is your last chance to have a relationship with any one of your children, so if you don’t do it with this child, then you’re not going to have a relationship with any one of them. I have thought about this a lot over the years.
After I was divorced, I had a roommate for a couple years who was getting group therapy on healing her wounded inner child. I thought this sounded really interesting, so I went to see that therapist, and I joined a new group that she was running. I took to it very quickly. There were things like journal writing with the non-dominant hand to access your inner voice. I really liked that a lot, and I still use that.
All of us in the group would go out and buy cheap dishes at thrift stores. Then we would have our date, throwing plates and dishes at the wall. Just to get the anger out, and it was all about our parents. You have to be angry at your parents before you can forgive them. I was raised Catholic. It’s supposed to be a great benefit if you can forgive everyone, but you really can’t do that automatically. You have to learn how to do that, and I think I have certainly learned a lot about forgiving by going through it, and throwing the plates helped a lot.
I practiced all the new skills I learned with my wounded inner child for four years over and over and over again, just like you have to do with an actual little kid. She asks the same questions over and over. Is it okay that I feel this way? Did I do something wrong? She tells me how I feel about things even if I am not sure. She will pull up things from the past, and I will say, “I didn’t even know that that was what I was feeling, or where that came from.”
I think of my inner child as mostly healed. I’m not sure that she will ever be 100% healed. I don’t have the feeling of the angst. The sadness and the fear and just that constant kind of bad feeling has gone away.
I feel like I got my life back. It’s a miracle. My inner child definitely helps me with that. I can access her joy at a lot of things: when I’m walking in the woods, walking down the street, when I see people dancing or singing or listening to music. My life is totally different now. I feel like I’m 16 years old and I’ve got the rest of my life to live, but I’m not worried about it. I’m not concerned about it. I can enjoy and feel things without having any bad repercussions or anything bad happening to me.
I do artwork for myself and I draw, sometimes with my non-dominant hand. I take such joy in that. It’s been 5 years since the end of group, and I have a stack of journals that is growing. I’m just having a great life.
Therese Henderson is an administrative assistant in the Sloan School of Management