Saturday Bonus Post – Guest Post by Aine

Today’s Guest Post is by Aine.  She talks about the abuse she suffered in her FOO.  It is  a long post and I considered breaking it up into two posts, but decided that it needs to be read in its entirety.


I just spent 2 hours in my garden removing thistles.  As I was pulling these insidious weeds I realized maybe my garden is a metaphor for abuse.  At least it’s a metaphor that fits my experience.

Years ago I decided that since I have to cut the grass each week, I may as well make my yard something I WANT to spend time in.  So my husband and I rented a sod cutter, removed all the grass from our front yard, and roto-tilled horse manure into the fresh soil.  Half the yard was already a garden, though it was weak due to pea gravel mixing in with the soil from shoveling snow in the winter.  Then I planted that garden.  I chose a variety of plants, some were already there, and I tried to work with a specific color palette.

The parts of the front garden that had manure tilled in were established and strong within 2 years.  The garden was lush and green.  Grape hyacinths, yellow daffodils and Jonquils, plus red tulips bloom in the spring.  As they die off, purple anemones bloom (though they don’t spread as much as I’d like); deep purple Columbine bloom at the same time as the pink Weigela.  The light pink lilies, given as a wedding favor many years ago, will bloom about the same time as the blue perennial geranium.  This year I get a surprise, too! The deep purple irises I planted a few years ago that had been choked out by the summer phlox will make a glorious appearance in about a week.  I’m so excited! Later in the summer, orange daylilies and purple phlox will accompany the morning glories that bloom blue and fade to pink over several days.  All of these flowers have a beautiful background of various shades of green throughout the season; Lamb’s ear with its silvery green foliage dotted throughout the yard. In the end of summer orange/crimson sedum bloom to signal fall is about to arrive.

My front garden is beautiful to me; when my kids were younger I loved to sit on the front porch, watch the kids play in the street, and enjoy the sights and smells of the garden.  Thanks to the phlox and morning glories I see many varieties of butterflies and an occasional humming bird.

Today was not a day to enjoy the garden in such a way. Today was a day to remove the bitterness that can grow in a garden. My lovely garden has been neglected for several years.  Depression, business, exhaustion, life: there are many reasons for the neglect. In the end, the reasons don’t really matter.  All that mattered today at 9am was that what was once a lush and lovely garden was riddled horribly with ugly, nasty, prickly, thistle.  Last year I tended my garden only twice then neglected it for the rest of the season. For several years before that, the garden was tended once or not at all.

I think it’s interesting that thistle can also be used as a medicinal herb, though I don’t know if the particular variety growing in my yard has that potential.  There were also several varieties of dandelion mixed in with the thistle.  Dandelion is known as a common weed; but, like many weeds, it has medicinal properties for which it is no longer celebrated. Dandelion leaves are bitter herbs. They can help with digestive and liver problems. But it’s a rare person who enjoys eating dandelion leaves. The flowers can be turned into a flower essence or even a sweet jam. According to my grandfather, his mother made dandelion wine.

As I yanked out the thistle, I realized it could represent the abuse or dysfunction I’ve experienced in my family of origin.

Growing up, there were three of us. I, Aine, was born first. A year later, Brianna followed; several years later, Gabriel was born.  My dad’s father was a very abusive man. For example: my dad remembers Grandpa demanding Grandma and her mother  make him a sandwich.  They refused, so Grandpa declared he’d beat my father until they made him that sandwich. And he did just that. My dad’s brother has commented that he’s surprised my father survived childhood because the beatings he endured were so severe. I believe the abuse within my family is generational; its hold on the people is lessening with each generation but it’s been there for a long time. My great-grandfather was an orphan, raised by Greek monks. I don’t know if he was continuing abuse he learned at the monastery or if he simply didn’t have any tools to recover from his childhood or raise 9 children.  My grandfather was #7 of the 9 and very close to his mother.  After he married, he continued to sleep at his mother’s house despite having a home and bride of his own. His mother had to kick him out to make him “leave and cleave”.  Eventually, my grandparents lived in a multi-generational home that contained my grandmother’s parents, their children and spouses, and their children all lived together. The men/boys stayed in one room, and the women/girls in another bedroom.  That didn’t change until my father was in high school.

I have been working through the relationship between my sister and I. Having been raised in an abusive dynamic, we are both now raising our own families.  Sometimes we continue the dysfunction, sometimes we fix it.

My relationship with my sister; how can I describe this relationship? We were born 1 year apart and raised as twins.  I look like my mother’s side of the family and my sister looks like my dad’s side. Only once in 4 decades has anyone looked at the two of us and thought we were sisters. We look nothing alike, though our voices are similar.

I remember only snippets of early childhood. In counseling I have gotten in touch with the child I was, and I remember feeling abandoned and unloved. I don’t remember ever feeling bonded to my sister. What few memories I have of early childhood do not contain her; only interactions with my parents.  My earliest memory is from when I was 3.  We were visiting my grandparents on a week night. My uncle came home after work, and I decided I needed attention so I crawled behind him, pretending to be a dog or kitten. I wanted him to acknowledge me, pet me, notice me.  He didn’t see me and opened the heavy metal screen door right into my forehead. Blood everywhere; super fast drive to the hospital; wheeling into an exam room; talk of stitches; watching them dab with a cloth (I thought those were the stitches and that they were putting them into my head); and then all better.  When I was released I asked for my sister and was told she was getting milk with my uncle.  Until this very retelling, I never realized the incident started because I was feeling lost and invisible; I wanted attention from someone and figured since I can’t get it as myself maybe I could get it by being something else.  Sometimes I take a pillow, pretend she’s little Aine, and just hold her close so she can know I love her. I am enough for her. I will protect her. And I will ALWAYS be here for her.

Back to my garden metaphor: for years my sister’s behavior has been excused and therefore accepted. When she behaves a certain way, family would simply shrug their shoulders and say, “That’s Brianna.”  There’s no controlling her, and no ignoring her. She has always been my dad’s favorite. When she was 2 weeks old she caught a cold and had to sleep upright, on my dad’s chest, for at least a week, until she was better. After that bonding, she wouldn’t eat for anyone but Dad. She wouldn’t calm down for anyone but Dad. And even as an adult, no one can control her but Dad. In our 40s, she still calls him Daddy.

Our father is an alcoholic, and our mother is an enabler, or at the very least co-dependent.  Other childhood memories are of belt whipping sessions where Dad would sit us down in a row, demand to know if we’d broken any of the family food rules, and if we had, he’d spank us with the belt.  I learned quickly to lie to avoid the beatings.  I did not feel any need to protect my siblings during these times. We were each trying to survive, and there was no way I’d sacrifice myself for anyone.  As teenagers, my sis and I were in the same sport. We were virtual strangers who happened to share a room. I didn’t know much about her, and I didn’t care to know more. In my mind, she was a usurper; trying to take from me what was mine.  I was the oldest, so I should have more freedoms and privileges that came with meeting the high expectations placed on the oldest. Instead, she was given the same privileges at the same time. Her personality is more boisterous, and appears to be stronger. She’s not quiet, cannot hold her tongue when she has an opinion, and every opinion is a strong opinion.  When she is not happy she lets everyone know, and no one has the opportunity to be happy on their own, separate from her.

In adulthood I noticed a trend. When she didn’t have anyone else in her life to be angry with, she would turn her ire to me.  She continued the lessons I learned as a child: I’m not good enough; I’m not safe being myself; I’m not lovable; I’m not worth respect.  She picked on my weight, my shape, that I hadn’t gotten back to normal size after the baby; I wasn’t teaching my children properly; I wasn’t ever good enough.   When her car couldn’t accommodate my son’s car seat, rather than fixing the problem and making him as safe as possible, she laughed when his whole car seat tipped over going around corners.  When she had alone time with my kids, she’d ask them if I talk about her and what I said. She made fun of my smaller breast size to my 18 month old son. She made fun of the fact that I couldn’t get a shower often due to having many children and no chance to leave them for even 10 minutes to clean up. At that point we lived with my parents (and sister) with our 3 kids.  Rather than watching my kids for 15 minutes to help me clean up, she’d ridicule me.

For years I thought I owed her a huge debt because when my son was 1 I had to go back to work and she would fill in for my sitter when my son was sick. Being his first year in daycare, he was sick often. I could rely on my sister to rearrange her schedule to watch my son at a moment’s notice. For 5 months she could watch my son in my parents’ home if needed.  I thought because she helped my family survive those months that I owed her a debt and I could never pay it back. She never said this, though her expectations spoke loud and clear.  When we moved out of my parents’ home and I had another part time job, she drove to my home to watch the kids while I was at work.   All this set up is because she decided when she had kids she wanted family to watch her children for at least their first year of life; and she decided that would be me. I was never asked, and I didn’t think it strange that I wasn’t asked. Rather, I felt that since she watched my son when I needed her, it made sense that I pay her back by watching her child.  Watching her child for 1 year turned into watching 4 of her children, as each was born, for 6 years.  For the most part this was an arrangement that worked for both of us. We needed the financial help, and she was able to pay far less for childcare than the going rate.

What wasn’t acceptable was the verbal abuse I suffered.  If anything was not perfect, I was blamed, shamed, berated. Often.  If a baby had a diaper rash, I was my fault. She would take the baby home, change the diaper where she discovered the rash, then call me screaming. Since I didn’t have answers she’d scream some more and hang up on me.  It took a long time for her to realize the diaper rashes were unfortunately normal for babies.  When the toddlers were sent in a nice dress and, as is usual for toddlers, get food smeared on the dress despite a bib, I’d receive yet another screaming, blaming, shaming phone call and then get hung up on.  One time, I replaced the dress with 2 dresses that were a price that I could afford. She gave them back; she was able to get the “stain” out of the expensive dress and didn’t need the new ones.  Of course I didn’t receive an apology for the shaming, screaming phone call over the stained dress.

I loved spending time with my nieces and nephews; I loved getting to know them, bonding with them, and it was wonderful that they knew me more than just from holidays and birthdays. I hope that the love and acceptance they received at my home will counteract what they’re taught at home. Maybe one day they’ll remember that Aunt Aine was a safe person who always accepted them as they are.

Ways abuse is similar to those darn thistles:

Thistles seemed harmless at first. They are a nice green, and their flowers are odd but pretty. Certain species of thistle are beneficial. The birds eat thistle seeds in the fall and winter, which is why I kept the thistle in the garden to feed the birds. However, the birds didn’t eat all the seeds. Many remained to germinate into new plants.  The garden I’d created became the perfect home for thistle.  Abuse can be difficult to ascertain and sometimes seems harmless in the beginning. Sometimes it is an odd comment, perhaps something that seems like a helpful suggestion. Or maybe it’s a quick flash of anger and loss of composure that one hasn’t seen before. Since the behavior is out of character those of us who grew up with such behavior accept it. Allowing the abuse to continue unchecked is similar to when I ignored the thistle in my garden. The thistle didn’t take over the garden overnight, but it grew silently and among the other beautiful flowers.  Since I left the thistle alone, it took root and thrived, and eventually took over the garden, just as abuse does to relationships and families.

When trying to pull out a thistle plant, I discovered many will grow side by side, very close to another plant, making it look like they’re a single plant. The truth was they were individual plants, so I could pull them one at a time.  With abuse, rarely does the abuser harm people in one way. They have many ways which they use to hurt and destroy.  To remove thistle from my garden I have to go through and take out each plant, at the root, and completely eradicate it from the garden.  To be free from abuse, we do the slow, hard work of identifying what is abuse and remove it. It takes a long time to do this, and the work is never done.  The words that cut so deep can lie in the recesses of our minds and can subconsciously affect how we think of ourselves and others.

To remove thistle, I had to grasp the base of the plant, right at the dirt, to get the root along with the plant. I have to be very careful when grasping the base because there are some varieties that are more difficult to remove. These varieties have special thorns that grow at the soil level, making it really painful to grab right where I needed to remove the root.  I learned that if I smoothed the stem of the plant upward, the stickers were broken, making it easier to pull the plant out.  When we identify and work to remove abuse in our lives, there are always repercussions. The abuser knows they are losing control and will increase abusive behavior to bring their victim back under control. It is painful to remove oneself from the abuse, but definitely worth it. There are ways to eradicate abuse from one’s life that’s less painful than other ways.

Younger thistle are easier to remove than the older. As a thistle ages it gets really big, and thornier.   Younger plants are softer and their roots don’t go as deep.  Sometimes, it’s easier to remove the young ones then move on to the older, deeper-rooted thistle.  Since abusers are constantly changing their tactics to keep their victims in control, learning to identify a new tactic early can help the victim to move forward toward freedom.

I ignored the thistle in the past, thinking the ugly nature of the plant was worth keeping around because there was some value.  However, the ugly plant couldn’t be contained and soon took over all fertile soil surrounding it.  When it became obvious this insidious plant was taking over what was once a beautiful space, I needed to wait for the right time to remove it. If I pulled the weeds when the soil wasn’t prepared, more of the root would break off; the thorns would have been stiffer and more painful to the touch. I also needed a plan for removing the most difficult of plants.  If I waited too long, the plant would flower; even if I pulled the weed with the flowers, it will turn to seed despite lack of soil. It’s the nature of the weed to survive.  Even though some of the roots remain in the soil, the new plant will be easy to remove under the correct conditions.  It is imperative to wear appropriate clothing to protect from the thorns. Even with proper protection, some of the barbs get through; while the thorns do hurt, though, the protective layers keep them from sticking and getting infected.

In February I finally realized the abusive weeds I’d allowed to remain in the beautiful garden of my life needed to be removed. There had once been a reason to keep my sister in my life, but the abuser’s presence was far more toxic than any benefit.  I was blamed for a health problem in one of my children. I was shamed; the false character qualities assigned to me as a child were thrown into my face.  She screamed that I am stubborn, accused of having an attitude, and cared only about myself and not my children, that I always put myself first, and not my children.  That wasn’t the truth, though. I fought against the words, yelling back against the accusations. They weren’t true when I was a child, and they’re not true today. My sister used my child’s health crisis as an opportunity to dredge up her past pain, to attack me when nothing made sense, and to abuse me through her own pain over my family’s emergency. My sister made our family crisis all about her.

As I work to remove the thistle of abuse, I do run into thorns. At first, my boundary was that I would not discuss any of my children with her.  When she used the excuse of my hurting child to verbally abuse me she lost the right to know anything about my children or to have relationship with me. I am the gate to them and she knows it. I’ve had to protect my children from other family members who would use them for personal gain and she knows I won’t hesitate to do it again.  I also refuse to speak to her. All communication can be done in email, text or FB messages.  There were attempts to extract information on my kids; repeated attempts to give unrequested advice veiled as an apology or concern over my child’s well being.  When I plainly stated I wouldn’t discuss my children with her, she attempted other avenues like contacting my husband and my kids through social media. She asked for information and gave the same unrequested advice. Ironically, while she thinks she is a vast source of knowledge, she was too late; even before discussing the situation with her I already had the solution in the works.

It’s been 5 months since I’ve spoken to my sister as a sister.  She has turned her vitriol toward Gabriel and his wife. She’s posted immature comments on my children’s Facebook pages. When one of my kids or their friends point out her immature behavior she launches into personal attacks against that person. The last time this happened my husband stood up to her, argued back, and we learned more about the twisted workings of her mind.  As I’d initially suspected, in her mind there isn’t any way to pay her back for favors we thought were freely given. Even 20 years later, she will dredge them up and throw them as weapons at us. She also believes she’s the innocent party and hasn’t done anything wrong.  My boundary stands strong and unyielding.

My protective gear for removal has been counseling, a strong support network, and energy work.  My life coach recently made a statement that rings true for me, and I ask myself the question often:

“Does this thing serve me more than the space it occupies would serve me?” (Christy Dianne Farr)I ask this of relationships, items in my home, volunteer service work I engage in, and my time.  At this point in my life, the relationship with my sister does not serve me more than the headspace needed to deal with the relationship. Therefore, the relationship doesn’t get much thought nor does it continue.


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