Arguing with a Psychopath

I touched on this stuff a bit in a previous post on how to help your children stop arguing with you about everything. While I hope there is some tension breaking haha moments in the rest of this post, please know it is also not really funny.  It is about living with abuse.

In that previous post I explained that on one occasion in my stupid young life, I was around 9 or 10 I think, my father told me to stop arguing with him, and I replied in total sincerity, “I’m not arguing, you are.”  I’ll share more about this sad tale today.

I believed this to be true because I was right, and he was wrong.  Understand, in this case,  I didn’t just think I was right, it was an objective fact. We were having a vitally important, life-changing, no, world-changing,  argument about….. which channel the television was on.   I was close enough to see and he wasn’t, so I was not guessing- I was looking at the number (old school, numbers on the dial, not digital).  Why was he arguing with me about it?  Because that’s what he was like.  Why was I arguing with him?  Because I was right. Also, more than a little self-destructive.

You see, that’s kind of how I thought it worked- if you were right, you were not arguing. It was only arguing if you were wrong or you were merely debating opinions. But if the facts were on your side, you were not arguing by stating them.
In direct contradiction of your elders.
Even if they told you to stop.

So I said those unforgettable words.  I thought I was speaking the voice of reason and truth when I said, “I am not arguing. You are.”  But I don’t remember what happened after that, except he stood up and I knew I was doomed.

I’m writing this so that you will laugh, but I really don’t remember what happened next. I don’t remember it in the sense that there is a visual screen in my head of everything up to the second he stood up, and then the screen blinks, and I am back in that room and both resentful and in quite a bit of pain and I know it was bad.  Odd that I know I am *back* in the room, even though the time period when I must have left has been deleted from my screen.  I feel quite confident that I am much happier that way.  The things I do remember are bad enough.

In the aftermath of the beating I am sure I am blocking out, I don’t think I actually learned anything I didn’t already know, either.  What I already knew was that it stupid and dangerous to contradict that man.  Confirmed.

But I did it anyway, and of course people want to know why, what was I thinking, how could I be so dumb/stubborn/persistent/arrogant/short-sighted. I used to ask myself that question a lot, too, believe me. But then I realized that the reason I acted as though I didn’t know or didn’t care that it was mad, bad, and dangerous to get on his bad side is because I had learned there was no way for *me* not to be on his bad side if that was the mood he was in that day. I ignored the danger because the danger of saying what I wanted to say and doing what I wanted to do was actually no more stupid and dangerous than living in the same house with the man and minding my own business and being ‘good,’ whatever the definition of that was on any given day.  I had given up trying to understand how I could make it not stupid and dangerous.

I had tried. Because abusers always blame their victims, even in their rare apologies (‘I am so sorry you look like a tenderized piece of meat, but if you would just do what I say, I wouldn’t have to discipline you’), and in parent child abuse, the victim is too young, too inexperienced, often nonverbal when it begins- the victim has no defense against that, no way of arguing, no way of knowing that it isn’t true, at least at first. It’s insidious.  The victim is being told there is some code, some level of control the victim has to make this stop.  But the key to unlock that code is elusive, because it is a complete fiction, of course.

I was quite, quite small by the time I realized that if there was a code to this, I was never going to discover it, so I gave up trying very much.   By the time of the ‘which channel is it beating’ at 9 or so, I was well beyond trying to find the safety button, and firmly into the fatalistic stage of being highly cynical about the notion there was a code I could live by which could keep me safe.  I had a strong suspicion, confirmed by many encounters with Unpleasantness, that the only way to avoid the Unpleasantness was not to be me, or not to be there at all, and as I had zero control over either of those circumstances, without having the terminology for it I was making my choices based on the fact that I lived with a grizzly bear who some days would be kind and some days would chew me up and spit me back out, and there was no escape so I could just do what I wanted regardless of future consequences.  It worked as well as anything could have for the circumstances I was in.  I think you can see how much of a failure this life philosophy is when one lives in a more normal world. But by the time I lived in a normal world, my brain had been entirely rewired outside the realm of normal.

One of my siblings did manage to avoid more beatings than the other two of us, and he believes it is because he learned the code.  It is true that he was more compliant and careful and unlike me, he did not poke the bear on a regular basis.  But I am older, and I know that he was still wearing diapers when I realized with crystal clarity, “I can’t stop him. It doesn’t matter what I do. If it doesn’t matter what I do, then I can do what I want to anyways,” (I was around 3).  The grizzly bear was teaching the middle child a very different lesson.

I learned when I was an adult that abusive parents often do just this- they pick one child.  That child is either the one most often abused, or almost never directly abused.  I don’t think they do it with full and wide awake consciousness of what they are doing, but they need there to be at least one member of the family they are not brutally abusing so that they can comfortably justify to themselves that it’s not them, it’s that awful kid (those awful kids) who just won’t listen.  After all, they don’t treat all the kids like this. So obviously, it’s the victim’s fault for being the way they are.   And so one of us came in for far less abuse than the other two.  Not that his life was all sunshine and roses, either, but his childhood was not much like mine, and the lessons reinforced for him were very different than the reinforcement I received.

I was a mess, and I might have been a mess anyway, but we’ll never know. I was also abused early on in the preverbal stage by my first babysitter when my mother went back to work.  Abuse in the pre-verbal stage turns out to be a killer for the most serious form of PTSD issues, but I didn’t know that, either, until the last couple years.

So I don’t know how much is just a natural inborn quirkiness native to me and how much is the result of what we lived with.  In addition to my fatalistic approach to living with a sociopath (or psychopath, I never do keep them straight), I also had some twisted notion that somehow, speaking up and saying what I believed to be true was noble, admirable, strength of character, being me, being true to myself, being brave, even.   I wouldn’t say I was wrong about that altogether, there was some species of courage about it,  but I sure might have been wiser about prioritizing what mattered and what didn’t.  I don’t know why I thought it was so important to be true to myself over whether we were watching channel 7 or channel 9, or any of a number of other trivialities which I argued about because stuff like standing up for the truth of what colour the flower by the front door was, or whether or not the radio reception in the car staticked out every time we went under an overpass (I asked why it happened, he said it didn’t, I said it did, he said it didn’t, I pointed it out the next three overpasses and then I think we pulled over).  All of these things were of equal importance to me, being right, no matter how trivial the issue, and insisting on it,  was somehow being true to myself.

Saving myself a beating once in a while would have been more productive.  Maybe.  But then we are back where we started, because really, I believe the only difference is I would have been beaten for some other cause than arguing about television channels or flower colours or radio static.


Why spill my guts like this in public in such demoralizing, embarrassing, and unedifying fashion?  Well, sometimes I wonder, I really do.  But then the emails come- not a lot, just one here, one there.  They say thank-you.  They say, “I didn’t know how that experience connected to this result in my life.”  They say, ‘I understand myself/my spouse/my friend/my parent better, now.

Once or twice they have said, “Because of you I am getting out while my kids are still young.”  That alone makes it worth it to me to spill my guts and embarrass the living and be a black sheep forever.  One time of hearing something like that, and I almost feel like it was worthwhile to live what I lived so that somebody else’s misery can be cut short, so they can get the counseling early enough on it would make a more significant difference.

Or I meet somebody in real life who didn’t want to put it in an email, but is able to come up and tell me they are so grateful.  They experienced this too, or something like it, and never understand the symptoms, never knew it was not just them, never realized that some troubling way of thinking, some life habit had its start back in the darkness they never speak of, or they are just relieved to know somebody else knows, that they are not alone.

And a handful of times, I have had somebody come up to me and say they had disbelieved a victim, but recognize some of the things I have talked about in these posts and have been able to revise their understanding, ask some different questions and in the process,  support a victim and help, instead of revictimising.  I have also had somebody email me to ask something like, “I am worried that somebody in my church is an abuser.  Here are the things that concern me. I took my concerns to my church leadership and they dismissed me.  Do you think I’m crazy?”  I have been able to offer some observations from own experience that actually protected at least some real children in real time.  Every time something like this happens, I am encouraged not to perpetuate the silence, because it does help others.  I also know how much I have been helped by those who did not keep silence.

It was reading a post by Dymphna at Gates of Vienna (usually a great source for political news, and news about Islamic terrorism) that started me on a path to understanding how the trauma of my early childhood had shaped the way I functioned in ways I had never even imagined.  I have almost no sense of time, and I seldom am able to really think and plan in a real way beyond today. It is always today.  This is, I realize, often a blessing, but it isn’t always. Children of abuse sometimes do react this way because their future has been stolen. They never owned it. That fatalism of damned if I do or don’t translated into other areas as well.   But if Dymphna had never departed from the usual fare at the Gates of Vienna and opened up about some painful, grievous experiences for strangers to read, I would not have known, and it was immensely helpful for me to know.

If Les Ferguson, Jr. had not opened up his blog to strangers, sharing the emotional anguish and heart-ache of devastating experiences nobody should ever have to even know about, let alone endure, and written about what to do when church is a house of pain, there are things I would not know, not be able to understand, not have been able to even begin to work on.

Bloggers like the person behind SecretAngel and others showed me more. The list could be longer. It should be longer, but I am typing this late at night and can’t remember all i should remember. But a long, long list of people shared pieces, details, aspects of the kinds of horrors we don’t talk about in public, and how it changed them, and what they had learned to cope, and every one of them helped me.

My earliest memory involves an incident so brutal I disassociated.  I have always vividly recalled this event as an onlooker, floating in a spot a few feet away and above my physical body.  Also, it has happened to me a handful of times since.  I didn’t even know that was weird.  I have probably said to people something like, “you know that feeling when you are floating outside your body and looking on?” and not understand their blank spares. I not only did not know that it’s not something everybody does,  I also did not have a word for it until I stumbled across another blog where the blogger talked about disassociating as a symptom of PTSD and it sounded like strangely familiar territory for me. Knowing that it was weird, and then having a name for it was the start of figuring out what to do about it, because I’ve been doing it since I was 2.  And I would probably still not know it was weird and a symptom of a larger problem if some other blogger hadn’t been brave enough to talk about her experiences.

I know reading this stuff isn’t fun and it doesn’t make you feel like rainbows and sparkles have covered your day.  But for some of us, reading something like this does help us put some distance between us and the darkness, it can be the start of a journey out, of understanding things you never realized you needed to understand before, because you thought they were normal.  Like disassociation.  Doesn’t everybody have out of body experiences when under extreme stress?  Um, turns out, not so much.  (to be honest, this discovery still kind of stuns me.  You normal people do not do this?  Really?   I cannot even imagine)

You may find helpful:

Webpage explaining some of the effects of complex trauma

Holidays can be hard.  Here are some coping tools.

EMDR Therapy was a huge help to me.  And I learned about it from a blogger who wrote about abuse issues.

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