I have learned – the hard way – the importance of speaking up. And I know now that neglect, abandonment or being treated in a rude way is not okay. Respect is a fundamental right. We each deserve it. And it is our own responsibility to have a voice, ask for what we want, protect our families, seek counseling, or leave abusive or negligent situations.
It’s easy to crawl in a hole when we don’t feel safe. The pull to shrivel up and disappear is strong when we feel ignored, attacked or bullied.
My brother and I both learned to “run for cover” early in life. His heart finally failed, and I still struggle with insomnia or get a stomach-crunching hairball when I’m frightened.
He was the target. I was the good girl. For a while, I didn’t think anything was wrong in the family. We ate dinner together; Lee came and went, like older brothers do. Mom and Dad fought, but Dad was pretty passive, giving in to her tirades each time. Then they “made up.” We all pretended everything was fine while she baked chocolate chip cookies.
One night when Lee and I both flew in to visit home from two different parts of the country, I was excited to be together. I loved laughing and goofing off with my big, robust brother. On that visit, he went down the street to do some shopping and came back wearing a pink pastel sweater. (They were in style for men then.)
Mom was enraged, her face bulging red, spewing awful words at my cherished bro. I remember staring at her in disbelief. At that point I was still in denial about her anger. It took many years for me to realize the toll that verbal abuse took on my brother. Then, I didn’t understand how severe her mood swings were. While Dad modeled being invisible and placating, it took a long time for me to learn that being mistreated was something I would not tolerate.
My brother blushed a bit and started to numb out with a martini in the kitchen while Mom fumed foul language and criticisms. The pink sweater was a pulsating trigger for her. She screamed, “It’s ugly, feminine, in terrible taste, take it back!” She nitpicked him all night. Finally, we all fell asleep, exhausted.
I was well over 40 and he was over 50. Honestly, I don’t remember much about what happened to the sweater. I never saw him wear it again. We both shut down, didn’t utter a peep. I knew his soul was slaughtered, but I froze. Now I realize that if either of us had stood up for him, if we had had our voices, been clear about our needs, it might have revived our dignity or esteem and maybe changed the family system. But, we had learned so well to pretend these flare-ups didn’t happen.
I believe something in him died that day. It wasn’t that Lee had never been yelled at before; it was just a turning point. A few years later he had an incapacitating heart attack, after once being so vital and athletic. He spent the rest of his life, about 10 years, fragile and incapacitated, in diapers, at a nursing home, unable to walk or talk, eventually losing all his teeth.
If only I had spoken up for him. If only.