Breaking down the walls
In order to protect the self, many people talk about an imaginary, impenetrable wall, that they build from the inside out. It is a very clear image of something strong and weather-able, which is designed to keep safety and calm within, and perceived threat and chaos out. It is easy to visualise the layout of the bricks and their over-lapping pattern, bound together by something equally durable and long lasting. But what really is it? When did we build it? Why do we build it? Where does it come from? And how do we break it down?
I was 8 when the sexual abuse at the hands of my dad started and although I have not unlocked or examined all of these memories yet, I have the clearest memory of the physical pain. I would never cry, as the more pain I felt the happier my dad appeared to be, and even though I was very young at only 8, I remember thinking I was not going to give him the satisfaction of knowing how much he was hurting me. Here was a man, who was supposed to love me and protect me and keep me safe, doing the complete polar opposite. The ground was fractured in an earthquake like, epic way. The first bricks were laid on the broken earth.
My relationship with my mum was and had always been very difficult, but this became much more strained as I struggled to comprehend the abuse. I could not talk to her. I could not tell her what was happening. She made her mind up that I was a problem child, but she did nothing to try and reach or understand me. We argued a lot over every little thing, as I lost patience and faith in her and her ability to protect and look after me, as she should. I wanted her attention. I wanted her love. I wanted her to notice. I wanted her to care enough to ask me what was wrong and the reason for my angst and anger. There was no real nurturing or life guidance (although the morals and manners I have, came from somewhere). She did not see what she should have seen and I do not think I can ever forgive her for that.
Years passed by and at the time I needed my mum the most, she gave up. She could not handle the battle that everything became and she took the decision to ‘dump’ me at my grandparents house. There was no explanation or conversation about her decision and because of this, my mum made me feel like she hated me and that she didn’t want me. I felt worthless, unwanted, defective, broken, inadequate, vulnerable, abandoned and a whole host of other negative emotions I am sure you don’t need me to list. (I must say that I don’t blame my mum for not seeing signs so much now. Why would you look for abuse committed by your husband?). I added more bricks to the wall from a place of rejection and misunderstanding.
My grandparents were and still are, emotionally unavailable and this void, I believe, comes from a very British ‘stiff upper lip mentality’ and the generation gap. My emotional development and maturity was halted further by living with them. (This is not their fault however: just the way it was). We did not speak about how I was feeling and I could be quite secretive about my whereabouts and mental stability. It was easy to hide my distress from them because they were not tuned in to look for it. It was easy to escape to the railway line, where I contemplated suicide (see my poem ‘Someone like me’) and to consume vast amounts of alcohol to numb (at 15 years old), without any questions being asked. By this time, my core beliefs were already faulty and damaged and I laid more bricks, to hide from the thoughts, which constantly told me I was not good enough, I was not worthy, there was something inherently bad about me, and that nobody really cared.
I began gathering evidence in my head, to support what I started to believe to be true. It was my fault. Every row was my fault. There was something wrong with me. I was fat (I was completely underweight before moving in to my grandparents). I was ugly. I was a liar (relating to sibling disagreements, not disclosure). I had done this. I had done that. I did not matter. I rationalised and internalised what I had been told and shown and I used this evidence to cement the bricks together.
I laid more bricks very quickly because I was trapped in a place I did not like: I felt shame and embarrassment because of what my dad had taken from me; I felt confusion and anger at my mum’s reaction to how this presented itself; I felt frustration and resentment towards my grandparents for not noticing I was not OK; and it was just too much to handle. I recently found this quote and it makes a lot of sense to me and I think this sums up what I was doing, perfectly:
For me, my wall was initially started as a way of coping with trauma, pain and torment but I think building and maintaining it, quickly become a bad habit and a way of life. At times, my wall has had a guard of its own, who stood and patrolled with a baseball bat. I radiated an abrasive attitude making sure to convey, the very clear message, that no-one was going to hurt me again and until proven otherwise, I did not trust you. I was hard to reach and to get to know, because I wanted it that way. My first response was always defence, up until as recently as 6 years ago.
I hid in the shadows, behind the wall, because I did not want people to see the story that inspired its erection. I threw the occasional stone from behind the wall to deflect attention from myself. I was the life and soul of the party on the outside, but I was blocking and containing pain on the inside. My wall was completed quickly, as I struggled to comprehend what had been happening at home and in my head. Building walls in a reactional way and in such a hurry, means that you run the risk of leaving things behind; essential parts of who you are. I left a lot of me, on the other side of the wall; the part that recognises my own good qualities and belief in my self; the part that trusts and believes in human kindness; the rational reasoning part.
It is very possible that maybe I have more than one wall; I am certainly aware of at least two: One that protects my brain and one that protects my heart, but they are very linked, intertwined and co-dependent. The wall around my heart protects me from emotional invasion and perceived threats or attacks. It’s main purpose is to hide my vulnerability and to contain my emotions from the outside world (although I am told that this is ineffective). The wall around my brain protects me from my own memories which can trigger the reactional emotional memories. I think that there might be a secondary, smaller wall surrounding my heart, because I have definitely been able to let people past that one, in order to sustain relationships and friendships.
For so many years, I have not wanted to think about the wall and the things that made it up and bound it together. I did not even like the appearance of the wall and I tried to make the wall more aesthetically pleasing by rendering it with plaster (distractions). This plaster served to also reinforce the wall, despite the fact I tested it’s stability and deliberately tried to blow it up with self harming behaviours. I did not care about me, because I thought nobody else did. I weathered a rocky marriage but the wall didn’t do so well. The plaster started cracking.
After escaping from the marriage which gave me two beautiful children, I re-met a man who bought normality and calmness to me, over the outer wall. He met me when I was probably at one of my lowest points, but he was not put off by my baggage and accepted me as I was. But I did not let him in entirely (I have shared almost everything with him now). He was an insider.
Only when a special lady, took it upon herself to not accept my wall, to take the time to ask why the wall was there, did I think to look beyond it. She gently placed her ladder up against the wall, took the time to see beyond it and she showed me that she cared. She was an outsider. She has spent many hours with me, standing on that ladder looking in and continues to do so. I let her. I trusted her. She has never judged me.
She helped me to see my wall has been my best friend and also my worst enemy, but it has provided no real safety. I trapped myself behind the wall, but there was no way out; no escape. I swam around in a sea of self doubt, that I perpetuated. I forgot that a wall is two sided: I may have been successful in keeping people out, but I was also successful at not letting people in. I had became quite insular and self sufficient, because I would not rely on anyone, for fear of being let down. This independence became the focus of the fight I continued to play out. But the fight is a long, lonely and pointless one, that I simply became too tired to continue alone. I forgot how to state and ask for what I needed. Asking for help and accepting it still does not come easily to me.
With this lovely lady’s support, I started to remove the plaster and examine the bare bricks. Through the therapy process I think I have been removing the bricks, examining them and laying them on the floor. I think I understand now that my wall/s was/were built on a very shaky foundation and that this was not my fault. I have written about some of the bricks: trapped emotions; struggling when I became a parent; triggers that impact everyday. A lot of the bricks are now, either void or deformed. Some bricks are heavier than others and take a lot more effort to move. Some bricks are not needed any more.
There are inherently some parts of your personality, that are shaped by the love, care, support and direction of your parents. A sense of security and self and an understanding of our own worth, are supposed to be instigated by nurturing parenting. I did not learn these, or emotional coping skills from my parents. I did not feel safe and secure and grounded with them. Instead I absorbed the emotional atmosphere around me and internalised fear and shame. I think this has resulted in the placement of hollow bricks that serve no purpose, but are just there.
Recently I have felt like I need to completely take down the wall, every brick, taking out the faulty and deformed bricks, to lay proper and stable foundations, in order to rebuild the wall and make it stronger. In therapy last week though, the question was posed: what would be the last brick to be removed? This is a very deep question. It suggests that there is an end point. It suggests that there is an aim. The truth is, I do not know what that last brick is. What is it I want from dismantling the wall?
I built this wall to protect me, but I do not need protecting any more, as I don’t live with the fear I used to live with. I want to feel loved and valued and worthy. I want to be accepted. I am learning about who I am and what makes me tick. I believe in the connections I have made with special people and I am no longer looking for signs of rejection. I am moving towards a place, where I think I am actually all right.
I have not crumbled, taking down a few of the bricks, although it has been hard going. I am starting to see the value that others see in me. The question has changed from, “how can anybody love me if my own parents didn’t”, to, “how can anybody love me if I don’t love myself”. I want to let go and be in the moment and maybe, in order to do that, I do not need this wall any more. The restriction it poses may be why I have felt like I am only existing and not really living. Maybe, the wall is now the self sabotaging problem. I will continue with dismantling and see where I end up.