Today T accused me of being a Republican.
Those of you who’ve known me for a while know that I’m loudly liberal, but I come from a very conservative family. I worked on the last Presidential campaign as well as the campaigns of two Democratic senators from my state. I’m about to start a political organizing fellowship for a liberal lobbying group.
“You’re secretly a Republican,” T told me. “But only in regards to yourself. You think you don’t deserve any help.”
Shit, I thought. She’s right. I’m secretly a Republican.
She’s right: I don’t accept help well. I feel like I don’t deserve to have needs at all, so I definitely don’t deserve to have those needs met. And the worst of all is when I need help to meet those needs. When I need help, I’m slammed with massive amounts of shame. I feel worthless, needy, manipulative, incompetent. I feel like it would be better to die than to need help because if I let myself need, I’ll become a black hole that swallows up everything and turns it into nothing.
I’ve gotten slightly more comfortable with having needs. At one point, I nearly starved myself to death to prove I didn’t need anything. I pushed everyone away from me and wouldn’t let them care about me. I took care of everybody else because if I was busy it was easier to deny my needs, and if I was helping other people, it gave me permission to exist (but only a little bit). I’ve improved and gotten a little more comfortable with my needs–but I’m more comfortable with it in the same way I’m more comfortable with getting attacked by a mountain lion than by a grizzly bear.
It’s so tied up in guilt and shame, and it’s now become an endless chicken and egg situation. In the beginning, though, I think the shame and guilt came first–but the shame and guilt that comes to mind with this is from failing to meet my sisters’ needs, so I’m not entirely sure the guilt and shame came first.
With S, my middle sister, who’s 2 years younger than me, the guilt is for not saving her from our father. I remember a number of times when he abused both of us together or made one of us watch him hurt the other, but the memory I can’t get rid of is from the summer I turned 11. He wanted me to choose whether he’d hurt S or me. I couldn’t choose, so he held a gun to my head. I wanted to tell him to hurt me because then S wouldn’t get hurt, but I was already in a lot of pain and didn’t think I could take anymore. I chose S. He made me watch him rape her, and I’ve never forgiven myself. I know on a logical level that there was nothing I could’ve done, but I still feel like I should’ve saved her somehow. In my mind, this is THE representation of my father’s abuse, and if I could’ve saved her in this one moment, it would’ve saved her completely.
With E, my youngest sister, who’s 6 years younger, the guilt is for not saving her from our mother’s verbal and emotional abuse. When all three of us were living at home, I was the bad kid, S was the perfect kid, and E mostly got ignored. When I left, E became the bad child, the focus of our mother’s rage. My mother put her in a different high school every year, so her GPA was crap even though she was smart, and then my mother sent her to a wilderness “treatment program” because she didn’t accept the way our mother treated her. E hasn’t told me much about what happened there, but what she has said sounds pretty horrific. She wasn’t allowed to speak for the first 2 weeks, they took her asthma medication away, she got double pneumonia and was still forced to do a lot of physical activity outside in the winter. One of the other kids there lost a toe to frostbite. If I hadn’t left, I would’ve kept being the target. I spent years shielding her from our mother’s abuse as much as possible, but then I left her there to deal with it all alone.
In both cases, I put my needs above theirs. It’s human nature, the biological imperative for self-preservation, I know. I would never judge someone else for doing those things, but the rules are different for me. If I hadn’t prioritized my needs over theirs, they would’ve been safe. I didn’t abuse either of them, but I feel like I’m not much better than our parents. In both cases, I knew they’d both be abused, and I let it happen. Yes, yes, I know I was only a child and probably couldn’t have stopped my parents from abusing them if they wanted to…but I was never really a child. I had to be the grown-up in our family because my parents sure as hell weren’t being adults.
I feel guilty for putting my needs first, so I try not to have needs. I have needs anyway, which fuels the guilt. Then I feel even more like I shouldn’t have needs. Round and round she goes; where she stops nobody knows.
And on top of all of that, now I’m a secret Republican!