When the Witches Stopped Singing

Covert loyalties are like icebergs; they lurk beneath the surface of consciousness. When one person in a family begins to change, the rest must change as well. When I stopped drinking at twenty-three and disrupted the familial balance, my father stopped speaking to me. I didn’t care. I was grateful to be alive. I took recovery seriously and tried to be “good,” like a kid who’s been seriously slapped, even beaten. Abused by some older man, you know? I didn’t think I’d make it. I was sure that at any minute, something malevolent might be waiting around the corner to snatch and strangle me.

Indeed something was. The year I stopped drinking, a guy lurked in my neighborhood, on college campuses and beaches, and in the bar where my friends hung out. Every month, a woman my age vanished. As the numbers rose, witnesses claimed the suspect approached targets with a cast on his arm and a nice smile. He dropped a pile of books or tried to lift a kayak onto his car. “Can you help me?” he asked.

That was quite the lesson. Trying to help someone could get me killed.

As for my addictions, I was instructed to concentrate on my recovery and those around me would change on their own. Or not. They were no longer my problem. Say no to all requests that do not contribute to your goals—I wrote on a card. That was probably from Alan Lakein, then my equivalent to a higher power. I would control time. I would manage time. I would control my life.

Though no longer drinking, I continued to be blind to my relationship with money and success. Without anesthesia, the information I was accessing was so secretive I could not bear admitting any more. When I stopped dating a psychiatrist and would-be writer, he cast his curse: “You can’t handle success. You’ll just drink again. Or kill yourself.”

In Thou Shalt Not Be Aware, psychotherapist Alice Miller states that a child abused in early life will repeat the same patterns—called repetition compulsions—in adulthood. If an abused child tries to like herself, she’s filled with enormous fear. She believes her parents, whom she has internalized, can still punish her. Because idealization of the parents is necessary for a child’s survival, she hesitates to report or even recognize the abuse. This denial is supported by most around her.

The child grows up to believe she should give everything away, to stay at the break-even point or just below. The belief that love cannot exist without suffering results in the impoverishment of the spirit and finances, along with a need to believe that being at someone else’s mercy is life’s normal pattern.

In my family, to have money was not cool - “those rich people” - although not having it was equally shameful. Having a business sense was for boors, who were inexplicably our family enemies. I never questioned why having a business sense was bad or why being artistic and creative had to be antithetical to taking care of oneself.

According to Miller, the abused child responds to any hint of success by withdrawing or self-sabotage because she fears retaliation from those around her. She has ambivalent relations with pretty much everything. She links love and hate, success and failure in relationships, work, and finances, and fears any recognition she might receive in the public sphere. If she dares question her idealizations of childhood, she doubts her own perceptions. If therapists suggest she must feel angry, she retreats. “It wasn’t that bad,” she insists.

Rage, however, is an appropriate response to cruelty. A person cannot finish grieving until she knows what she is weeping for. I feared examining the ways I thwarted myself. If I owned the malevolent voices, they might kill me.

When I was about to complete graduate school in writing, I went to a psychic reader. She said I would be offered a job that was not what I wanted to do. “The money isn’t even that good,” she said, sounding indignant. “Stick with your writing. If you sidetrack now, it will take you a long time to summons up the energy again.” The job was as a counselor, but I accepted it anyway. I told my father the fortune teller said I was destined for success, love, and prosperity, except that someone had placed a curse on me and wished me dead. “That’s me, of course,” Dad said. He laughed. On the third day of orientation, after years without drinking, I started up again. I thought I could stop as easily as I had at twenty-three, but I couldn’t put the pieces back together again.

Five months later, I abandoned my shiny new job and checked into a hospital. I developed acute viral pericarditis, a sort of old-fashioned wasting disease. I cried a lot. I wept for the ten-year-old who wrote in her diary, “I just got the hardest spanking of my life. Then my dad lied to my mother and said he didn’t slap me. First, he slapped me real hard across the face and then he hit me on the rear. I couldn’t even walk. I just screamed and cried. I couldn’t stop coughing.” I understood when a child my age, who constantly overheard her parents talking about being poor, talked her younger siblings into joining hands and walking in front of a train.

I spent my early years trying to erase myself and the financial burden of my parents’ choice to have six children in ten years. At fifteen, I applied for a work permit for weekend shifts as a nurse’s aide in a retirement home by day and a waitress at a highway restaurant by night. I paid room and board to my parents, my dental bills, and saved for college. My parents’ best friend was a “funny uncle” who took me to the theater, films, art galleries, readings, and concerts. He bought me clothes and shoes for school dances and proms. He put a new roof on my parents’ house when they could not afford it. The price was his drunken molestation.

When I stopped self-anesthetizing, I suffered terrifying nightmares. My mother or father or the sister the funny uncle preferred over me told me to die or slashed me with knives. Or, equally devastating, they turned their backs. The nightmares were rooted in fact. When I dated guys my own age, graduated from college and graduate school, or published my first piece, my father stopped speaking to me, a kind of emotional incest.

Kids inherit messages to fulfill on behalf of their parents. My father rebelled against his immigrant parents by attending art school. At thirty-three, repeatedly shamed by his father, he put away his art supplies and worked instead pouring concrete sidewalks and basements. When he arrived home each day, I traced the paths of toxic chemicals etched into his artist hands.

At thirty-three, I too tossed aside my mentors’ support and stepped in front of the train.

I didn’t associate work with money. A few times when I earned what for me were decent wages, it seemed an accident. When a friend described negotiating his salary, office, and benefits, I couldn’t imagine such a thing. When I had money or possessions, I felt guilty. I maintained an inner rule never to spend on myself. Even as a child, on birthdays I prided myself on buying gifts for my guests.

Carolyn See says never tell anyone you want to write. “Keep your writing secret, like a lover,” she says. “Because writing is your lover.” For me it seemed safer to be drunk or drugged, sick, invisible, unlikeable, bad. I could be moderately successful as an educator or counselor, fields that drained me, but whenever writing seemed within reach, I threw it away. The more recognition I received, the less I felt it was mine. Early on, I stopped letting praise in. I could only filter punishment. As the family caretaker/hero, I offered my rewards and honors to my parents like a golden retriever offering sticks.

When I stopped drinking the second time, I landed in a new support system, an alternate worldview. I learned to share feelings—or how to even have them in the first place—and to communicate more clearly and directly. I stopped expecting others to solve my problems and took more responsibility. I learned that when something was right for me, I wouldn’t have to force it. I learned to check out decisions with at least two other people and to become willing to listen to their feedback, although the final decision was mine.

I slowly began to introduce pleasure into my life, sometimes as simple as a manicure and pedicure, decent haircuts, clothes that fit, a dance class, and nourishing food. Each time, I faced my guilt, reinforced by those familiar nightmare voices. To give myself pleasure or to be healthy was new. To be calm was unfamiliar. I became more skilled at being relaxed, at listening to my body, at playing, and at sitting back before I reacted. As a result, I had more to give. It made sense that when I felt so deeply hurt, I tried in some inchoate way to heal myself through caring for others.

I could not think my way into any of that. I had to fall there. Slowly, I learned to look at life with a kind of lightness. I wasn’t important. As the Dalai Lama frequently observes, we’re just one of seven billion. Healing doesn’t happen in one swoop.

Slowly, gradually, and yet often with immense joy, I rearranged the family within.

I also joined a support group. That boyfriend once placed the curse that if I became visible or successful, what he wanted for himself, I would drink or die. Now I learned if I didn’t reveal my secrets, I might drink or die. The therapist facilitating the group first scheduled a private conference. “You’re resilient and strong,” she told me. On my way to the first group session, though, I arrived early and decided to top off my gas tank. My hand slipped, and I sprayed gasoline all over myself.

I ran into a thrift store and bought a change of clothes. The fifteen group members, aged fourteen to seventy, pretended not to notice the reek. “I’d rather burn myself alive than be in this room,” I explained. As it turned out, I didn’t say much that first day. A twenty-something woman with an angel’s face shared how her addict husband had died in her arms a few hours earlier. How could my problems compare to that? I didn’t need this group.

Or maybe I did. My father died unexpectedly, and my mother started to fade away. I faded with her. She could not eat, and neither could I. I lost weight, becoming almost as skeletal as she was. I took long walks in the forest with my dogs. Eventually, my sadness occupied most of every day. I returned to the group. I poured out some of my secrets. I was convinced that once the story was out, I would no longer be able to live in the small town of my birth. Like Oedipus, unable to bear my crimes, I would be exiled, gouging out my eyes with the brooch of my dying mother.

The group members hugged me. They told me they loved me. They shared their own experiences, some eerily identical to mine. Later, when the therapist went on vacation, she asked me to peer facilitate the group.

KC PEDERSEN's writing appears in Sou’wester, Hunger Mountain, Weber Journal, Emry’s Journal, Superstition Review, Under the Sun, Still Point Arts Journal, Lunch Ticket, Juked, Quiddity, PANK, and elsewhere, and includes nominations for Pushcarts, Best American Essays, and other awards. “Getting a Life-Coming of Age with Killers” was selected as Notable for Best American Essays 2018. Additional writing can be found at www.kiriepedersen.com