Cinderella and Abuse: She Can’t “Just Leave”

IMG_0307This is not a post about Disney, or Cinderella, or the movie that I haven’t seen. This is a post about a post, by a mom who wants to explain “What Cinderella Teaches Girls About Abuse.” To paraphrase, she says that the movie teaches girls that the answer to all of life’s problems is to be kind, even when that means sacrificing your very self. She writes that this Cinderella, “is indeed kind, but somehow she thinks that courage is needed to endure abuse rather than to flee.” I have no patience for this remark, because an abusive narrative is never that simple.  Whatever the movie has to say about kindness and courage, this mother taught her girls a dangerous and false lesson about abuse.

It glares out from me in this line: “Even my seven-year-old  turned to me and said, ‘Why doesn’t she just leave?’ Good question. ”

No! This is not a GOOD question! Every time I read and reread this, I want to rush into that moment, grab their hands, and say “This is an important question, but the answer is: she does not leave because she has nowhere else to go.”

I thought more of us knew that it is not ok to ask an abuse victim why she hasn’t left yet.

If it’s true that this Cinderella film contains an abuse narrative, then this Cinderella has no self to sacrifice. I don’t know if this iteration of Cinderella is brave, weak, simpering, courageous, selfish, annoying, and it doesn’t matter. By the time you’re old enough to go to a ball, as the child of an emotionally and verbally abusive parent figure, you don’t have a clue where you end and she begins. Or he, in my case.

I took ONE STEP outside the lines my father drew for me, and it brought down a rage that I had never experienced, not directed at me. He did it over the phone, and he left me in a puddle in the grass in the courtyard of my dorm. I will never forget how sick I felt, when I began to unpack the lies. My father’s lies, and my stepmother’s complicity, will haunt me forever, but I also have to live with memories of begging them to love me and trying with all my little heart to be everything I thought they wanted. I am not ashamed. I asked them to love me, because they were supposed to love me.

This moment describes a courage, missed by this blogger, that perhaps only an abused child can recognize: “Cinderella is locked in the attic by her step-mother in an attempt to keep the Prince from finding her. What does Cinderella do? She briefly questions her step-mother about why she is so mean and hateful towards her. ”

A single question – why?

Why do you do this to me, when I have tried all my life to be everything you want? I am good. I am kind. Why?

Every abused child asks herself this question every day. To vocalize that question, to actually ask for an answer, is not something that I ever had the courage do to. The writer mentions Stockholm Syndrome – well, I didn’t know that there was anything wrong! Call it Stockholm Syndrome or Gaslighting, but abuse victims, especially the youngest, rarely see the abuse that is so obvious to everyone on the outside, looking in.

I am angry, and I’m afraid to say that I’m angry, that this woman’s featured post received praise from so many for teaching her daughters that an abuse victim who stays is weak. Yes, she is on point when she tells them, “that they are never to sacrifice their own self-worth in order to be kind.  I let them know that girls and women can draw their own boundaries and let people know when they have crossed them. That’s okay.” But I did not see boundaries and watch my father cross them, tell him to stop, and go save myself, when he didn’t.

I did not learn to protect my self-worth effectively or to draw healthy boundaries because the person in charge of protecting me did not teach me these things. Where was my own mother, in this story? For most of my life, she was in the same predicament. Life was about survival, and to survive in an abusive home, you never rock the boat. By the time I stopped the cycle, I was married. I had a child. And the best I could do was back away, in total silence, from a great geographical distance, and simply stop answering his calls and emails. I didn’t speak up. I said nothing. I was an adult, and I am still terrified that he is right: I am worth nothing, without him.

It’s not hard to get this one right, even with Cinderella. Steven Sondheim nailed it, in Into the Woods, with “On the Steps of the Palace.”

“So then which do you pick:
Where you’re safe, out of sight,
And yourself, but where everything’s wrong?
Or where everything’s right
And you know that you’ll never belong?”

When safety and abuse are synonymous, and you do not believe that you deserve anything better, you can’t “just leave.”

When you talk to your children about self-worth and kindness, bask in the privilege that they possess, the privilege every child should possess–self-worth that no one has trampled, and boundaries no one has crossed. I pray that my own child never knows what it feels like to have his boundaries erased, to feel violated, to feel that he is worthless. Feel the sun on your faces and enjoy what ought to be a right, and seems too often, to be a privilege granted at random.

AND

It is never a good question to ask, “Why doesn’t she just leave?” Teach your children to stop asking that question.

Medical Mystery, 27 Months Postpartum

Fair warning: I’m going to swear, at the end of this.

Something is very wrong. At first, I thought that I was exhausted from holiday travel, and I assumed that this had triggered mid-winter depression. It’s not uncommon. I asked my psychiatrist for a higher dose of anti-depressants and bought a sun lamp. It let up. Then, it got worse. Curious about why my cycles seemed closer together, I started tracking them. To my very great surprise, they were almost a week shorter than they used to be. When the migraines and moods hit for the second time in January, I fell apart. I couldn’t wake up before noon, but I couldn’t make myself fall asleep, even with a sleep aid. I had taken on this “depression” by setting up a schedule for myself, so it was a sudden change in my sleep patterns. By day 2, I couldn’t stop crying. I had a panic attack about calling my therapist, let alone going to her office. I made it in once or twice, in all of February. I went in to get blood drawn (six vials) so my psychiatrist could run some tests. I saw her as soon as the results were in, but before she even looked at the labs, she listened to me. It was a medical mystery she had seen before: women who had given birth for the first time in our late 20s/30s (instead of at 19, as previous generations might have), seemed to have PMS that sounded almost like peri-menopause. My labs did show a potential risk for some thyroid dysfunction, which would explain a lot, and my Vitamin D levels were very low, so that might explain a lot, too.

Hormones were the big worry, though. We talked about who to see, next. The Vitamin D was the easiest fix: since my number on that test had been 14, instead of between 30 and 100, the normal range, every single time I had been tested since before my pregnancy, and nothing I had tried had budged that number even a little bit, she told me that an endocrinologist would prescribe “this brand that seems to work, when nothing else gets absorbed.” I don’t know what the brand is, yet, and that doesn’t really make sense to me, scientifically, but I had heard about this from a friend, very recently. Because I cannot gain weight–I am eating, people! and I am still under weight by 5-10 pounds! no amount of bacon has given me 5 more pounds!–and have a few other symptoms, she recommended an endocrinologist who wouldn’t focus on the numbers that might not mean much. Evidently, the range of “normal” for thyroid tests is not reliable; we don’t test people who feel great, so no lab has a great idea of what is actually normal. Printouts from labs give you big bold “out of range!” numbers, even when something is just a tiny bit out of range, so it was important to see a specialist who was willing to “try things” to see if they helped me feel better. I listened; I was willing to try just about anything, by then.

By the time I saw my psychiatrist, I was functioning again. I walked to her office, which isn’t far, but that means that I did this all by myself, while my mother-in-law took care of the toddler, at her house, and my husband worked. I made it through 24 hours alone, without freaking out, while ten days earlier, at the beginning of my cycle, I had actually eaten breakfast in bed, because getting out of bed was just. too. much. The timing of all of this sparked a long story, from this Doctor Who Listens, a rare creature, and not one I had expected to meet, having chosen her from an insurance directory based on her proximity to my house.

A long time ago, decades, perhaps, she had met with a “coop” of psychiatrists, ob/gyns, midwives, and endocrinologists; they were all seeing women who had had their first babies in their 30s and arrived at their respective offices with the same symptoms. They couldn’t sleep without waking every few hours, even when their children were sleeping for six. They had “PMS like teenagers” and skin changes to match. Their cycles seemed to refuse to go back to what they had been, before children. They were exhausted, all the time. Some of the doctors in the coop dismissed this as Motherhood. Some decided to start testing hormone levels. They saw enough women with levels somewhere between Healthy 30-year-old Women Levels and Peri-Menopausal Levels to convince about half the care providers that pregnancy was causing a permanent change for the worse.

To make life extra fun, I don’t fit neatly into any category: no obvious thyroid dysfunction, no obvious estrogen withdrawal, definitely no psychiatric cause. The last bit is very good news. My fears that I was spiraling into some sort of psychotic break have been put to rest. The fact that I have no answers and now wait on Doctor Time for appointments and new tests and still don’t know what any of those tests will be or what they will show? That fact SUCKS for anxiety levels. I’m a tangled ball of anxious thoughts, racing around my mind like NASCAR drivers.

These are the first words I have written in weeks.

My sleep is getting worse, as my appointment with the recommended endocrinologist approaches. My fear is not that tests will show something horrible; I had enough blood work to rule out just about everything terrifying, including HIV and Lyme’s disease. (How’s that for thorough? From a psychiatrist! So rare!) Even before those first results came back, I wasn’t afraid that I was *dying* – I didn’t feel like my body was in major trouble. I just feel wrong, inside. So, my panic before getting those first results, and my anxiety, now, is that a lot of specialists and testing will tell me that nothing is wrong. I should go home and get more rest and take Vitamin D and go for more walks, and blah blah blah. Everything I’ve heard before. I want something we can all agree is THERE, and I want something that a simple medication can help with. I don’t want to go through anything like trying to find the right combination of psychiatric medications. I don’t want to try mood stabilizers. None of that is on the table, now, but I just don’t know what will be left to try, if this medical mystery remains a mystery. What if I feel so wrong, moods swinging every which way, for no discernible reason?

I want my body back. I want my mind returned to its previous state, even if that’s a state that requires enough anti-anxiety medication to make most adults sleep all day. I want more than two good days a month. I want to stop feeling terrified that my cycle is going to shorten again. I want to inhabit this body without fears about what it will do to my mind, once or twice a month.

I nearly hugged my psychiatrist, when she said, “Of course, there is no research on this, because it doesn’t happen to men.” She rattled off a list of things I’ve heard chalked up to changes every mother just has to deal with, and I realized all over again, for the 10,000th time, that women are told to put up with all kinds of pain and discomfort and anxiety and mood swings, because that’s just what life as a women is like.

I started teaching a HypnoBirthing course to a lovely family, and I heard myself talking with them about how the uterus functions, and why there is no physiological reason that healthy uterine muscles should cause us pain, not even during childbirth… and the light went on yet again. It says, right there, in the script I know so well, that even during a healthy woman’s menstrual cycle, there is no physiological reason for the pain we call “normal.” Painful cramping is a sign that hormones are out of balance. The medical community knows this, because these are just muscles, and as they function normally, just like any other muscle, they should not hurt. But just as the medical community KNOWS that birth happens without any need for medical intervention but BEHAVES as though each birth is a medical emergency, women who are not pregnant hear that, for no reason at all, we are destined for pain and suffering.

I need all my willpower not to start reciting my HypnoBirthing curriculum, when I hear women joking about how much childbirth sucks, and how it must just be amnesia that lets any woman agree to go through it all again. I remember almost every darn minute of my birth, and it was amazing. Sure, there were moments of discomfort and even pain, but my body, mind, heart, and soul worked together with my baby to accomplish this incredible thing: a baby’s gentle entry into the world, from my womb to my arms. The sensations I remember most clearly? Tension and pressure. Muscles tensing in this incredibly powerful, strong way, in waves what moved down when my baby was ready to move down through the birth path. Pressure as my body unfolded to make space for that tiny body to move, gently, from the uterus to the outside world. I later learned that my child crowned for AN HOUR, and all the while, I craved love and support and gentle reassurance, not painkillers.

I will not settle for a monthly cycle that sucks days from my life, because my body can function perfectly. If hormones calmed me down, during pregnancy and childbirth and that first year of breastfeeding, with no periods, then I refuse to accept that hormones will now turn me into a weeping, raging, miserable person I do not recognize. Somebody who knows where to look had better look everywhere, and find me some damn answers.

I see my midwife a week after I see the endocrinologist, and I’ve already spoken to her on the phone about what we’ll be discussing. Now I just have to pray that my body cooperates enough to let her do her work, because God help me, I only have 8 days between the onset of the next period, as predicted by my handy charting app, and my appointment with my midwife. In the meantime, you’ll find me on Polyvore, distracting myself by making collages of pretty things. And hey, if you want to buy some pretty things, or take a HypnoBirthing class, I am happily competent (no crying!) while I’m working on Jamberry, Chloe and Isabel, and childbirth education.

It felt so good to write this. I keep myself going by reminding myself that I am successfully refusing to lose ME to these moods, or even insomnia, while I wait for answers. I haven’t lost anything, the system has just been hacked by a nasty fucker who is not welcome and will not stay.

FMP app. I like elephants.

FMP app. I like elephants.