Where were you on 9/11? You remember vividly, don’t you. You remember exactly where you were when you heard of the horrible attack on the United States. You remember the time of day, the weather, where you were and whom you were with.
This is what I remember: It was a beautiful sunny day with blue skies. I’d just arrived at my job at a printing company. As my co-worker, Gloria, and I climbed the stairs to the office together, she asked me in a strange voice if I’d been listening to the radio in my car. And I panicked.
That’s what I remember. Panicking. Behaving weirdly. “I was just listening the the classical station” I responded nervously as though being interrogated.
Gloria probably didn’t even notice my anxiety, my defensiveness. Her mind was shocked by the horror of the attack she’d heard about on her car radio — an attack I had yet to hear about. But I’ll never forget how weirdly I acted on the morning of 9/11.
It was almost as weird as Jacob Stockdale behaved when his family was on an episode of Wife Swap. The four Stockdale boys were raised in an extremely strict no-dating, no-television, no-video games, radio-only-if-you-deserve-it environment of a dour mother and father who kept an iron grip on their bluegrass playing sons. So when Mrs. Tonkovic became their mother-for-a-week and tried to bring a little joy, a little normalcy, into their lives by letting the boys watch TV and play video games, Jacob Stockdale freaked. As Mrs. Tonkovic tells it:
“When I switched the rules and I was going to let them have fun, let them have a television and video games, and experience life a little bit, [Jacob] ran outside crying.
And when I went out after him, I asked him what was wrong, and he said that his mom and dad would tell him that he would ‘burn in hell.’ “
Remember the Turpin Children? Turpin, Turpin … oh yes, the Magnificent 13 Turpins who were held hostage, isolated, starved and held in chains by their parents, David and Louise Turpin. They were “weird” too. One young woman remembers attending music classes with one of the Turpin boys, probably Joshua, the eldest who was later discovered shackled. One day, the class held a buffet lunch. As she tells it:
“He stood by the [buffet] table and sat down with his plate
and literally just ate plate after plate after plate.
I’ll never forget this … he was clearly famished.”
Even if you, like me, tried your hardest to hide narcissistic and/or cult abuse (through shame because we supposedly deserved it or caused it), even if you feigned normalcy, you couldn’t hide it all. Sometimes, you just behaved weirdly without realizing it or meaning to. Three main “weirdnesses” spring to mind.
Survivors are nervous, anxious people. Cats on a hot tin roof. Always apologizing. Always saying “sorry.”
We’re afraid to exist. Afraid of everyone. Scared to offend anyone. Embarrassed to share our true opinions. Ashamed for even acting mildly irritable, even if someone steps way over a line. Uncomfortable if our preferences are considered. It’s easier to be alone. Alone is safe. Alone is comfortable. In aloneness is some relief from anxiety.
Anxiety that began very early.
She was just five years old. It was her first time interacting with “outsiders” by herself in the safety of a children’s church choir. But already, her weirdness and anxiety were showing.
While all the other little girls played with the toy kitchen, pretending to wash the dishes, she was the bossy one. Telling them how to do it. Telling them they were doing it wrong.
Later, when the choir leaders had all the children lie down on the floor, she was the only one who couldn’t do it. Oh, she laid down, but she kept her neck stiff, holding her head up. It took a lot of coaxing and going against her own conscience to lay down. Relaxation was out of the question. She was so worried about getting in trouble with her mommy later for getting her hair dirty by laying on the floor, which was specifically a no-no.
At age five, she was already weird … and it would only get worse.
You are guilty. There’s no way you aren’t guilty. The more the narcissist interrogates you or the cult member cross-examines you, the guiltier you behave.
But the truth is … you’re not guilty! You know for a fact you never committed whatever it is they’re trying to pin on you. You’d raise your hand and swear to it on a Bible. But the more they press you, the more they express doubt in your honesty, the more guiltily you behave.
I know it all too well. The year was 2010 when I ordered my first smartphone. Well, it wasn’t exactly a “smartphone.” In fact, the IT guys at my office guffawed and called it my “slightly intelligent phone.” But I loved my Sidekick with the revolving screen and keyboard. Best of all, it could go online!
It took my narcissists a couple of months to get on the ball. But when I was sat down at the old kitchen table for one of those chats, my stomach was already in knots. Adrenalin coursed through my system, knotting my stomach and making my ears itch. Being sat down at the kitchen table was never a good sign. Half the time I had no idea what I’d done wrong.
This time it wasn’t what I had done wrong, but a suspicion of what I might do wrong. “Have you looked at pornography on your phone?” I was somberly asked.
“No,” I responded truthfully, starting to squirm. That was true. In fact, not only had I not viewed pornography, I was so naive I wasn’t even sure what it was. Paintings? Photographs of naked bodies? The idea that people actually had sex on camera didn’t even occur to me at that moment.
“Really!?!” They pressed me further, their body language screaming, “We don’t believe you!”
“Really!” I insisted, behaving even guiltier. At that moment, any body language expert or polygraph would’ve dramatically declared, “…and that was a lie!” but it wasn’t.
The impossibility of being believed made me behave in a very guilty manner. What I now see as narcissistic projection was so upsetting, it made the adrenalin squirt, the face flush, the heart rate increase and the ears itch. When accused of lying, my husband starts to shake uncontrollably which others have pounced on as proof of lying. Actually, he’s upset, angry and hurt that his honesty and honest words are being questioned. That’s why he shakes.
It’s not physical hunger for food, it’s hunger for all the things we never got to have, experience and try. All the things that abuse stole from us. It creates a hunger for normal things normal people take foregranted. But us? We behave weirdly when “the untold want, by life and land ne’er granted” — is finally granted! Like Joshua Turpin eating like he was ending a nine-day fast, we too are hungry. Starving!
We may be starving for kindness. One simple, small morsel of kindness makes us dissolve into tears.
We may be starving for rebellion and adventure. I’ll never forget the day, on a roadtrip with friends, that the roadsign said “DeSmet 10 miles” flashed by. I suddenly remembered a family trip to DeSmet, SD, home of Laura Ingalls Wilder, that was cancelled at the last minute and never revisited. Finally realizing that dashed dream of seeing DeSmet … I cried all the way there, happy, weird tears.
We may be starving for self-expression. I went from a weirdly always-smiling, never-unhappy, she-never-talks-in-meetings young woman to one who expresses herself, if anything, too dramatically. Now I’m dialing it back, but for awhile it felt good to just let it all out.
We may be starving for the liberty and freedom just to be ourselves. To live the schedule that works for us. To eat what we want to eat, when we want to eat it. The simplest things may seem like a sybaritic luxury. A hot shower, a hot bath is not something one should, weirdly, have to ask for. It’s part-and-parcel of normal life.
I acted weirdly on 9/11 because, even though I was 21 years of age, I still was not allowed to listen to any radio station on the dial. The cult I called “family” still controlled what I saw, heard and knew by controlling my media. Gloria’s innocuous question freaked me out. Yes, I behaved weirdly. I felt interrogated.
That’s part and parcel of being an abuse survivor. Not because there’s anything organically wrong with us. No, our “weirdnesses” are clues to us and to others that all is not well in the kingdom. In that way, they’re a gift pointing us towards healing.