This will hurt me more than it hurts you, Dad says. He is not angry. He is disappointed, but calm. My father raises his belt. Tears already flowing, I clench my muscles as the belt smacks my bare bottom. Thwack! Thwack! Thwack! Afterward, I sit on the edge of the bed with snot on my face. Dad hugs me and prays with me. I feel powerless and small.
Do not think I was abused. I was not. My father was a consistent disciplinarian. Mom could snap and fly into a rage. But Dad was reliable, methodical. His reliability framed the foundation for our family. It meant that I always had a safe place to sleep, clean clothes, three meals a day, a ride to school, a good education, and someone to call when, as a teenager, I was in a car accident. More than most other children in the world. Much more than my father had growing up. I took it for granted. I needed to.
Dad’s reliability also meant that he is the one: the one I needed to please, the one I needed to understand and be understood by. But I didn’t understand his words. This will hurt me more than it hurts you. I turned them over and over to make sense of them. They become a tangled heap of confusion in my heaving heart.
Physical pain is the way to make someone stop doing what is wrong and start doing what is right. Parents must punish children. Parents do it even though it hurts them. It is okay because it is done out of love. I shouldn’t feel angry or upset. Dad is more hurt than I am. He loves me.
My heart wrestles to make the pain, the punishment, the words Dad says, how I feel and what I think make sense. But I can’t. I need my family, my father, and my life to be alright. So I shove down the thought that what I feel is wrong. I don’t want to believe that pain and powerlessness are part of love. I hide these deep inside and cover them with a story. I tell myself that I have a special family, a reliable father, a wonderful life. I tell myself the story over and over and I believe it. I need to.
Years after my last spanking I sit on a therapist’s couch. Gently she walks with me into the deep trough of memory. She asks, How did you feel growing up in your family? I search for the right word. Erased.
I add quickly — But they loved me. We were very close. I had everything I needed. I was so lucky.
Did it feel like love?”
Did it what?! Where does she get such a question? How can she even ask? What psychobabble juju is this?
I begin to tremble. If I tell the truth I will destroy my story that I had a special family, a wonderful childhood. If I lose my story I will shatter into a trillion pieces and disappear. They loved me. I know they loved me.
Did it feel like love? she asks again and waits. I inhale. Then exhale. My voice is small —
No. It didn’t feel like love.”
The room is still. I speak the truth* and I do not disappear.
I see the This-may-hurt-but-I-love-you moments in my life. The pain. The self-betrayal. The stories I told myself to make them alright. And I weep.
*Did my parents love me? Yes. Did it feel like love? No. Both are true.
This is one essay in a series I’m writing about personal anger. Something happens when we tell our stories. Only when we face & frame our stories of anger can we process this difficult emotion and learn how it can serve us.
If I talk about my anger, maybe you will find ways to talk about your anger too.
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