Survival Rules for Good Girls | Part 2 of 2

by Elouise

When I read through my list of survival rules, my heart sinks. By age 7 or 8 I’ve found a way to do what Daddy wants me to do by explaining it to myself my way.  For all my supposed independent thinking and determination to be my own person with my own will and my own voice, I failed. Or did I?

Observations about Part 1
I admit it:  In the end I behaved as a proper, well-mannered little girl who didn’t call undue attention to herself.  Just ask any adult who knew me.  I was a good little girl.

Do well-behaved women never make history? To outsiders and family friends, I was definitely a well-behaved little girl who would someday be a well-behaved woman. Not a great start for making history.

On the other hand:  I obeyed Daddy my way.  I hugged to myself an almost invisible yet powerful thread of independent thought and action even though Daddy believed he was in control.

Some might say I was just fooling myself.  I disagree.  This admittedly convoluted thought and action process kept something alive in me. I’m not sure what to call it or where it came from. It wasn’t sheer stubbornness.  I’d like to believe it was little-girl determination to live with integrity.

One thing is certain:  I was NOT obeying from my heart.  This was not what my father wanted.

It was, however, what I needed–especially in a situation that offered me no advocate and no safety.  I was my own advocate and created a tiny invisible space for safety inside of me.

So am I going to condemn that little girl who became who I am today?  Never.  In fact, I applaud her.  Her survival rules kept her spirit alive and kicking when she was forced to comply under duress.

I don’t know how I did it. Strength of will?  Character?  Resourcefulness? Perhaps all that and more, maintained in private spaces only I could enter in my heart, mind and emotions. Somehow I knew my father couldn’t have the last word about me.

Yet it wasn’t a solution and it wasn’t harmless.  It was a survival tactic that came with a high price tag.  Yes, I gave my father what he wanted.  I also paid a high cost–the slow death of possibilities that might have been open to me.  I still find myself grieving some of these from time to time.

In addition, I grieve the loss of close family relationships when I was growing up.  I grieve the cost my body and emotions paid then and later to survive.  I grieve years of wandering through much of my life in a kind of stupor. Not a mental stupor, but a bodily and emotional stupor. The kind brought on by numbness and fueled by never slowing down, stopping, looking back or taking a deep breath.

My First Assignment
When I began meeting with my psychotherapist it didn’t take long to get down to business. First assignment: Begin keeping a daily personal journal, including my dreams and anything else I’d like to write about.

Here’s what I wrote on the first page of my first journal, just inside the front cover:

This is my private journal.
If you read it, I’ll know you have violated me,
because your behaviors and attitudes will change toward me.
These words are between me and God. No one else.
10 Feb 1992

And here’s the first paragraph of my first entry, also written on Feb. 10, 1992:

I’m terrified. I’ve never kept a journal before—not because I don’t find writing about myself helpful, but because I’m afraid someone will see what I’ve written and know the truth about me. Maybe I’m afraid I’ll see it and know it.

Indeed. Reading through my first week of entries, I see that I have very little trouble putting on paper exactly what I’m experiencing inside.  Every so often I actually enjoy these few minutes of time to focus on what’s going on inside and around me.

I also see this other stuff that breaks out from time to time in the first pages of my journal.  I’m keeping track, in vivid detail, of every time I get interrupted.  It’s unnerving, especially since I think I’ve made it clear that I’m going to do some personal work now and do not want interruptions.

I note in my journal that the interruptions remind me of my childhood.  It seems nothing is out-of-bounds to my parents:  clothes closets, dresser drawers, books I’m reading, letters I receive in the mail, my thoughts, my feelings, and the look that’s on my face just now.  The older I get, the more I feel the need for privacy.

The Keep Out sign on the opening page of my first journal didn’t emerge from thin air. Neither did my response to interruptions; they feel like death to personal space and time. My body goes into high alert. I feel as though I’m 8 years old again. Helpless to change reality, sometimes holding my breath, body frozen and burning with anger all at the same time. Held captive to someone else’s agenda.  Waiting to exhale.  Or even inhale.

Agenda for a Beginner
When I see my therapist, I share whatever I’m comfortable sharing from my journal, and we talk about my dreams. We also do basic problem-solving to deal with my gut problems and need for basic survival skills.

Before long I have a short homework agenda:

  • Set up private space just for me
  • Clarify what is/is not interruption-worthy for me
  • Learn to practice deep breathing on a regular and emergency basis

Private space just for me?  I can’t imagine where or how that could possibly happen.  I have a home office where I work on teaching, research and writing projects, but it’s shared space in our attic. I have a desk and my own files, but the attic itself is open space. My husband has a desk at the other end of the attic; family members come and go at will.

I’m anxious.  I can’t imagine where I can set up space to relax (do nothing at all?), write in my journal, read, meditate, sing, listen to music, or practice deep breathing exercises to help get me through anxiety attacks.  I don’t have a clue what deep breathing is about. My therapist gives me a cassette tape with music and instructions.

Finding private space isn’t easy.  It means using some of our common space.  I have to answer questions:  What am I doing? Why? What if I need to talk to you? What if there’s an emergency?

I also negotiate with inner voices: What makes you think you deserve this? Look at all the disruption you’re causing! This is so selfish! You mean you’re going to shut your family out?  Just who do you think you are?!

In the end I create a small, comfortable spot in the attic. The more I work on it the more excited I get! It has an old easy chair, a small table, a lamp, a radio, a tape recorder, a timer, and space for books and magazines.  I hide my journal–religiously.

Look at this!  Isn’t it nice?  I love it.  There’s just one thing missing.  The attic door doesn’t have a lock.  Nor would it be easy to install one. So how do I ensure privacy?

I resort to increasingly creative, explicit and colorful Keep Out signs taped to the attic door.  They include my definition of what counts for an emergency.  Eventually I become comfortable instead of self-conscious when I head for the attic to spend time with myself.

Good news:  My Survival Rules for Good Girls are being turned upside down, replaced by Survival Rules Skills for a Mature, Responsible Adult Woman.

Shady news:  I’m not so good at staying out of trouble anymore. . . .

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 11 April 2014