a child’s laughter through abuse and trauma/Psychology Today

As a small child laughter was one of those things that I loved to do. I can remember going to the library and checking out joke books. As many as I could carry. A trait I suppose I inherited from my mom and dad. My mother loved a good corny joke. She would often tell one and she would laugh from her belly once the punchline was revealed. She would then wait for me to tell a joke in return so we could inevitably have our own little laugh fest. Once she asked me “what do you call a cow with no legs?” she would always give me 3 guesses. I never guessed right and through laughing eyes and bearing all of her teeth she would say “ground beef!” And we would burst into laughter like to giddy school girls, rolling around on the floor and holding our sides until our eyes were full of water and there wasn’t a care in the world.

Those are the memories I chose to share with my girls and for a long time, they were the only ones I shared with my husband as well. Memories filled with joy and laughter, light, deserved discipline and wisdom. But there was always a lingering, a well matched unspoken traumatic memory of sorts that would accompany the good memories that I shared. A memory hidden behind a fortified wall of shame and denial peering out in my minds eye that always tethered me to my fears and kept me from telling the hurtful parts of my childhood. Never giving thought to the realization that maybe if I was allowed by society to tell my truth earlier in life, it may have saved my girls from despair in there own lives.

I was born in 1970, the dawn of the Sexual Revolution . The 70s was the decade that broke away from the Stepford Wives of the 50s and the Civil Rights Movement of the 50s and 60s. I was a little black girl who was a direct descendant of slavery on both sides of my family. My maternal grandparents were well to do black folks from the west side of the tracks and my paternal grandparents were from the south side of the tracks. I was a very well rounded child. I knew what it was like to be well off and poor, not poverty stricken, just poor growing up in the south. There were no vast differences in my up bringing no matter what side of the track I gleaned from at any given time. I was expected to be seen and not heard. I was expected to succeed in school. I was expected to mind my elders at all cost. There were rules that applied to girls mostly and not boys. I was expected to be a little lady everywhere I went. I was expected to sit on the porch on hot summer days with my girl cousins as our boy cousins could roam the streets until dusk.

It would seem our existence as girls would mirror the women in our lives that were grooming us. As an adult I often wondered if we were also mirroring the dark places of their lives, mirroring the generational curses that no one knew about or dared utter a word about outside of the violation. After all my paternal grandmother who helped raise me was the granddaughter of a slave, she was born in 1908 and she only told me snippets of her childhood. Born under the boot of the Jim Crow era she would often recount the story of trudging through mud filled paths to get to a one room school house. She told me about a greasy lunch sack with potatoes in it to heat by the fire as she learned to read and write. She showed me how to make dolls from straw to play with as she did as a child. She was a maid, so she showed me how to cook and clean and press clothes. There were never unicorns and rainbows in her storytelling. There were never monsters and demons either. But her eyes and her tone always conveyed a message of seriousness and truth that if I believed in these life lessons, that if I stayed on a certain path, only good things would be my reward. As a child her eyes never spoke to me and said, I am protecting you from the ugly in the world, the hardships of being small, being a girl, being black and having no control of your very own life and the things that she prayed would never happen to me, that maybe happened to her. Things she would carry to her grave. Things that I surely will. If she ever did experience heartache on the level I did, she never said a word. I wish to God she had. I wish that while everyone else was feeling their freedom in the 70s,she would have done the same. I will say this, my grandma was the strongest woman I have ever met in my entire life. It is her shoulders I stood on as I laughed and shared a summertime snack with the family friend who sexually molested me. I stood on her shoulders as I lied to my well to do elders about failing 2 grades in school ( with a smile) in order to keep the shame off my mama. it was her shoulders I stood on as the talkative class clown in school, being disruptive, because the silence in class only brought the images and noises to the forefront of my mind about how badly my stepfather would beat my mother or spiritually torture me in my dreams at night. Everyone loved my smile as a child, complimenting the brightness of my eyes and the cheeriness of my spirit. I mastered the art of smiling through pain, whether it be physical or mental.

Emotional Masks

Over the years while raising our girls, I wore my mask. I was never around them or my husband without it. But the one thing that always remained, truthful and constant was what I taught them about their true selves. The thing is I left home at 16. By the time I got married at 29, I had 3 girls. Only the youngest was my husband’s, but he essentially helped me raise all of them, before the 1st two had even reached school age (it’s complicated). I had been physically and mentally and sexually assaulted quite a few times within those 13 years before marriage. There was no need to tell anyone, no need to scream bloody murder, my existence had always been you are a liar, being gas lighted was engrafted into my flesh at a very young age. I learned to dull the physical pain and escape the mental torture with marijauna and alcohol. I refused to let the voice of my children be stifled. I refused to allow the world to use them as battering rams. We talked about sex, drugs and alcohol with them at a very young age. Probably while they were still learning to read and ride a bike without training wheels. “If anyone touches you or makes you feel uncomfortable in your space tell someone”. “If daddy or I make you feel uncomfortable or violates your space, tell another adult, tell your teacher, but never ever be silent”. I thought I had been cursed with having four girls. Why would God give me the responsibility of keeping them safe?

Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And splinters,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
So boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps
’Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now—
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.

After I got married, I found it very difficult to be completely intimate with my husband. I had no explanation for why certain basic and biblical intimate moments made me tense up. There was no distinction for this mask. I did not know a touch on my waist was from violations I endured as a young girl. I didn’t know my inability to relax before and during intercourse was my mind rejecting his love for me an how it manifested itself in my physical body. But he noticed, but he never said a word until a few years after we were married and I became comfortable with his true love for me. I was safe with him, I always was. But the trauma of my childhood affected me in ways I never knew.

Robin Williams, one of the greatest comedians and actors of all times was a master mask wearer. He suffered from severe depression. This was a partial but very detrimental result of his Parkinson’s and Lewy body disease diagnosis before his death. It broke my heart when I found out about his sudden but determined departure from this world. I kept thinking why didn’t he use his happy thought to stay afloat, like he did in the box office hit HOOK. I started keeping happy thoughts available for all sorts of situations. I am blessed to have more than one. Here is an article that can help with that LiveBold&Bloom.

But happiness is just an emotion and can be turned on and off just as a mask can be worn and removed. Joy however is biblical and comes from God’s strength, for those of us who believe in the ultimate creator. It is this joy that saw me through all of those ugly experiences that went on for years in my life. There was a period of time when I refused to believe their was a God, but something buried deep within me, behind the mask and surrounded by darkness, was shining through. The spirit of God that lived in me when everything else had died. It was fighting it’s way to the surface. I can remember vividly looking up from a black hole for years, and at the very top of this hole was a pin prick of golden light. For a longtime I just thought it was where I wanted to be, but I wasn’t deserving of such a brilliant light. I believed I deserved darkness. I was indeed a filthy bottom feeder and hell is where I existed for eternity. This was my reality. In the mean time, I had to work, I had to raise my girls, I had to socialize with friends, date, buy groceries, go to church (on occasion). I had to pull myself together through more sexual violations, I had to drink and smoke pot ( just to forget how dark my life was). I had to attend family functions, prove to my mom I was a good daughter. Grieve the loss of my grandmother, play the happy cousin at funeral reunions as my heart ached when my dad would turn away from me. All from the bottom of this hole with the golden pin prick light. All the while not seeing the joy that God was weaving into my spirit and connecting it to my flesh. The joy of my grandmother and grandfather loving me and protecting me as a small child. The joy of my mother taking me for a road trip to the beach, just me and her on any given day as a child. The joy of living in Charleston with my father as a teenager. The joy of my oldest child turning one and having survived me being her mom for a whole year. These events and many more would be what I pulled from when I would tell my girls memories of growing up and things I experienced. These were memories told with my happy mask.

Joy Overload

Nowadays I barely wear a mask. My trauma, my pain, my old life hasn’t disappeared. But I no longer hide behind masks to ease my suffering or because I am ashamed. My past no longer controls me or the destiny God has set before me, that He gave to me before I was born. I am who He says I am and even though my entire life helped to facilitate my greatness through pain, I will not dismiss the happiness I stumbled across along the way. Your life may have been seemingly filled with anguish and pain and most assuredly an impenetrable darkness, but I implore you on this day, join me on this journey. Let’s find your happiness together.

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