CW: Abuse and violence, slut-shaming
No matter how far in years I get from my grandparents’ and uncle’s abuse I still have dreams where either my grandfather or my uncle are hovering over my face calling me a stupid little whore and telling me that I’m worthless.
But they’ve changed. I used to wake up hyperventilating, still feeling the grip of their fingers on my shoulder or the sting of being “popped in the mouth” for talking back.
When I was younger the response would be cowering, looking up at them from a bowed head, supplication – but even then, sniping back defiantly and getting a hand or fist to my face for the trouble.
As I grew older, angrier, and more self-assured the dreams changed. I’d simply ignore them – as I often did in those days. The problem with ignoring them though, was that things would escalate. They didn’t like to be ignored. While the rule was never laid down verbally – women were not to ignore furious men. And all of the men in this house were permanently furious. Particularly with me. In my dreams, and in the reality of my later adolescent years, this became one of my primary tactics against them – treating them like petulant children to be ignored. It was dangerous and I knew that it would bring wrath upon me – but in my battered about brain I told myself that if I was going to be hit anyway I was damned well going to assert myself before it happened.
Maybe that’s why the dreams started. As I grew and became emotionally more resilient, my wit sharper, and own internal rage steeped in time – the thick and bitter tea of my adult personality wrote new dreams.
The one I woke to this morning, I came home to find my grandparents hosting a party full of (mostly) men. It was clear when I arrived that they’d been talking about me. A couple of men sneered at me the way my uncle used to – insolently amused by the presence of the “ungrateful little bitch” they’d been discussing. A look I came home to all the time. Those were the days I’d stay in my room with the door locked or go out and stay with friends – only to be greeted by insistence that I was out using drugs or sleeping around and not more or less hiding from more bruises or verbal abuse.
But the dream was blended with the present, and I immediately left the room to tend to my chickens. My grandparents had, in the dream, promised to look after a brooder of chicks but had left them largely without food and water – and they were dying. A part of the dream that hearkened back to the reality of my past when my grandfather promised to look after my gerbils for ten days while I was on a road trip – only for me to come home and find them stone dead and rotting in their cage and my grandfather muttering, “Not my responsibility.”
I’d been followed by one of the men who insisted upon helping me give a thirsty, fading chick water by eyedropper. While “helping” me he began to insult me – telling me what my grandparents had told him and hovering over me, trying to intimidate me – asking me if it was true that I was a slut. I put the chick away, finished with it for the moment, and moved to leave.
He put a hand on my shoulder and squeezed it – the signal from my childhood that said, “No. You’re going to stay and take this.” to whatever they had coming for me. The signal that, in my childhood, would have been met with a bowed head and raised eyes, the overly exposed whites denoting my anxiety not unlike the gaze of a frightened dog.
But time and anger brewed a stronger woman than in those days – and I looked up at the man directly, straight in the eye – and in cool and even tones said, “You’re going to have to get that hand off of me.”
Again he sneered at me, “Or you’ll what?”
“I’ll give you to the count of three and then I’ll have to break it. Do you think that I grew up in this house not learning how to beat a grown man’s ass? That’s how you survive here. But I would rather not get blood on me today. So I’m telling you now to remove your hand before I have to hurt you.”
I began to count, holding up my right hand and hovering it over my left shoulder as if ready to snatch his hand away and break it, as I’d promised.
I kept his gaze on mine as I counted and it was clear that he wasn’t going to let go.
He squeezed and broke into a full grin.
And then I punched him in the throat. He was surprised by the sucker punch and let go of me, only to drop when a moment later I delivered a knee to his groin.
Now it was me who sneered as I stepped over his fetal body and back to the house.
That was when I woke up having to pee, a little annoyed that I’d been interrupted from such a pleasant revenge dream.
When I was much younger I’d started having these – what I called vengeance dreams. At first I was terrified that I was becoming a psychopath when I’d dream about kicking my grandfather while he laid on the ground. I worried that I’d become a sadist and what the implications of that meant for me as an adult.
I only realised much later that part of it was wishful thinking – like when you think of a good retort several minutes too late. The other part was mental training. It was my brain telling me what to do should this happen again. And I listened.
One time when my uncle had me cornered against a wall, angry at me over some imagined slight against him. He slapped me across the face and then, for the first time in my life, I responded in an instant by backhanding him three times as hard across his face. He stood for a moment in stunned rage before grabbing me and hitting me repeatedly. That wasn’t a dream though. That happened. It did, however, inform more training dreams. Through repeated abuse and that training while I slept, I taught myself how to fight back.
When I was about 14 my grandfather slapped me for very little reason. I have no idea why in hindsight but I remember that I was furious about it because it was over something like me speaking when not allowed to. Something petty. I stewed for a moment, watching his hand sitting on the table while he talked to my grandmother, ignoring me. Then something in me snapped and I launched myself at him and bit the hand that had just slapped me. He didn’t even know how to respond and jerked it back in shock. I hissed at him, “Touch me again and I’ll make you bleed.” That wasn’t a dream though. That happened. And it was a promise I’d keep.
A couple of weeks later he was yelling at my grandmother who was not only much smaller than him, at my 5’3″ she was (at approximately 5’1″ or 5’0″) significantly much smaller than me. He was getting there himself by that point. He’d gotten much thinner and frail in his old age, and a little shorter. I had a lot of weight on him at that point – which he was constantly happy to remind me by derisively calling out, “Fatass” or “fucking whale” as I’d walk past. Little did he realise how much power that fat ass would give me against him the older (and stronger) I became. I inserted myself between them. He was threatening her as often happened. Threatening to hit her, even though I never actually saw him do that – he reserved the back of his hand for children. He knew from experience that when teachers and police would question the bruises that he’d carefully cultivated the “she tells lies” story and that no one would believe me. Two women in the house with bruises though, and someone was going to jail. Someone was more likely to listen to an adult than a child.
He didn’t appreciate my bold move of moving between them and immediately shoved me backward. I reeled – but only a little, knocked back a step or two by the action. I very vividly remember clenching my teeth and inhaling a long breath through them before I returned the favour and shoved him backward. He fell like a bag of sand onto his ass and laid there on the floor. In my head I heard all of the times he threatened to “knock (me) on my ass” if I didn’t shut up and I hovered over him as he sputtered at me that he was going to make me pay for what I’d done. But in that moment he realised that he no longer had the physical power to dominate me – and he never laid a hand on me again. That wasn’t a dream though. That happened.
My uncle was a different story. He was much younger and a bit taller than my grandfather – two years later he’d strangle me while my screaming grandparents pulled him off of me – because he was shouting at them that he was going to fuck something up and I – by that time full of vinegar and salt – inserted myself into the argument by telling him, “You ain’t shit. No one here is afraid of you.” He launched himself at me and wrapped his hands around my throat, screaming in my face. I called the police. They didn’t come. I’d been told my entire life to tell someone I trusted that I’d been hurt and they’d help me. I can tell you with some certainty that this is a laughable fantasy for many children. I told teachers, counsellors, police, doctors. No one ever helped me. One day there was a police officer at our door asking me if I needed help. My uncle’s fingers dug into my shoulder as he said, “She makes things up.” And you’d think the officer would have seen that intimidation. You’d think. But if he did he opted not to get involved in a “family dispute” and left me with the man who had assaulted me – all the angrier for having been reported. He told me that night that he’d murder me if I ever reported him again. That wasn’t a dream though. That happened.
And every one of the acts led to dreams that steeled me against the next act. If I couldn’t have a supportive voice in my family showing me how to defend and protect myself against their assaults – I would make my own in my mind. I was still attacked, still abused by them – but I began to harden as a person. I had gone from a child physically forced to behave to a woman who refused to be told to sit down, to shut up, or to do as she was told in any fashion.
I’m asked – not infrequently – by well meaning but frustrated people, why I can’t let things go. Why I always have to fight. Why am I so angry? Why am I so aggressive?
If you’ve gotten to this point by now without realising that it’s a defense mechanism – a tactic for survival, now deeply ingrained into my personality, you may be lucky enough not to have suffered extreme physical abuse for your entire childhood.
These days I’m told by grown men that I’m very intimidating.
I take that as a huge compliment.