The Devil’s Own Colors: Making Something of Yourself in the Wake of Childhood Abuse and Neglect

“Those are the Devil’s own colors, and you won’t wear them in my house.”

Red and black, black’s contested status aside, have always been my favorite colors. I just like them. Red looks vibrant and brave and joyful to me. Black looks comfortable and quiet and calm and enigmatic. They pair well.

My mother’s favorite colors were blue – teal particularly – and white.

I don’t remember exactly when she decided that my favorite colors combined represented devilry and damnation, but it was part of a pattern. Anything that I liked particularly was devilish unless it jibed with whatever should could use me for. Affection. Status. Vicarious achievement. I learned to hate drawing because she so twisted my early interest by prying and prodding. Writing, at least, was unspectacular and easy to conceal. And she hated to read. I made my creative impulse invisible to protect it.

Much of my early life – up to my late teens, I’d say – was split starkly between surface worlds and secret worlds. I and my brother were victims of profound emotional, physical,  educational, and medical neglect. We were ‘homeschooled,’ in one of the cartoonishly terrible ways people always imagine: Effectively not schooled at all, and instead raised in seclusion having effectively never gone to school. My mother hit me in the face for my inability to explain algebra problems to her up until she stopped trying to teach me at all. I did work in my head. I couldn’t show my work because I hadn’t developed an explainable method. I was between nine and twelve. I got frustrated. She got frustrated. I got hit.

I have a scar over my left eyebrow where she hit me in the face with a wallpaper brush, one of those cheap unfinished ones that’s all splintery wood and sharp corners. I remember running into my room and her screaming behind me to stop crying because she didn’t mean to do it, screaming that I was picking on her and making her look like a monster.

My mother used me as her therapist and surrogate partner. She confided in me things a child can’t carry, explaining the loss of three siblings to miscarriage to me when I was as young as 5. Explaining over and over. Explaining my aunts’ rapes over and over. Telling me exactly when we were in danger of losing the house, or the car, or anything else. And I was never to tell anyone else. She encouraged me to tell her long, rambling stories about how I would grow up and be smart and successful and take care of her and everyone else. I was her soldier when I wasn’t her pet monster.

And I was a monster, if she was to be believed. I was a bully, prone to fits of anger and violence, dangerous to my younger brother, cold and calculating and sneaky. I was greedy and selfish and mean. I was a devil who chose his colors too transparently.

She touched, discussed, scrutinized, and criticized parts of my developing body that I wasn’t even allowed to mention. She sexualized even the most harmless things I would do with other people. She would tell people I was masturbating in public when I pulled on the legs and waist of my too-short, outgrown, torn shorts to cover my underwear. She would tell my father while I was in the room, and she would look at me.

I’d always known that my relationship to my mother wasn’t good, that her relationship to just about no one was any good. According to my father, though, that was simply how mothers were.

My relationship to my father was different, more stable, less painful, but not what I’ve since learned is normal. Ours was closer to a peer relationship. We were two people dealing in our own ways with the same bad circumstance. I never felt like he could protect me – indeed, in many ways he failed utterly to do that – and instead viewed him as somehow who came close to Getting It. He was a wailing wall and had some adult sway over my mother by way of being large enough to (usually) escape physical threat and legally adult enough to control the family finances to some extent. My dad wasn’t my dad like you imagine a dad to be. He was a bigger soldier in the same private war as me.

By the time I was twelve, I’d come to realize that my life – from roots to leafy tops – was not normal. That things were broken and that I had no real resources through which to fix them and could only mitigate the damage. I also resolved that no one could ever know just how broken everything was, how broken I was. I had to stop being so hurt, I had to excel at anything, I had to stop thrashing to stay alive and start building some kind of positive inner momentum. I didn’t want to be pitied. I didn’t want help. Help came with strings attached and pity hurt terribly. Pity only meant someone knew I’d been broken.

So, around twelve, I went some kind of crazy. The son of the preacher at the fascist Baptist church our mother joined after a brush with death drove her into the arms of the Lord made my brother cry telling him our evil was why our mother was in the hospital again, and that she’d die and go to Hell. I didn’t love my mother then, and I don’t now, but I have always loved my brother. I hung that boy off a fire escape outside the church choir room, two stories up, until he was screaming and bawling, and flung him back onto the platform. He never took his sanctimonious needling so far again, and I never got in trouble. If being a devil at strategic moments was so effective, I didn’t mind.

A girl my age at church approached me once, and her friends circled and whisked her away.

“Don’t talk to Cai. Cai’s got the Devil.”

It was supposed to bother me, I imagine, but it didn’t. I’d resigned myself to that for a long time, to being perceived as evil. What was important to me was that people perceive me as competent as well, and as strong. I got smart, or smarter than chain smoking encyclopedias can make a kid. I sang in that same choir room, I did a uniquely Southern Baptist activity called Bible Drill in which you literally memorize the Bible quite well. Bible verses are embedded in me, though my eternally Godless heart has stripped them of their dogmatic relevance. I remember certain ones positively sang to me.

The heavens declare the glory of God,

and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.”

Psalm 19:1

I got good at things that people saw as valuable. I started defining myself.

My most drastic act of self definition was the Great American Space Wall. See, my mother was a compulsive hoarder and channeled her compulsions into decorating my brother’s and my room with… whatever she scrounged and liked. I remember she brought home rolls and rolls of some bright, Christmas patterned corrugated paper made for decorating deli counters and stapled it to my walls. And cardboard cutouts of things like pink Caddies and jukeboxes and just goddamn whatever else she got for free. I hated my impersonal, squeezed out, hoard-decked room. I hated my bed stacked with stuffed animals I didn’t want. I hated my closet full of stuff I didn’t ask for. I hated the peeling art deco dresser and bedside table. I hated the broad swath of stained baby blue wall where the green cardboard ran out.

So I begged, borrowed, stole, and even received through honorable means a metric fuckload of paint and, using the hoard’s stores of National Geographic magazines and encyclopedias as reference, painted the solar system across that entire sky blue wall. I covered the blue in matte black void and vivid planetary bodies and spit-sprays of stars in bright white and a questionable rainbow of colors. I constructed the Great American Space Wall largely in solitude and secret, and by the time my dad caught me at what I was doing I imagine I was too far along for him to bother being bothered. My mother was content enough because it was at least an artistic rebellion.

I stopped using my given name in many unofficial contexts. When I sent out writing submissions and contest entries, I always included a mononymous pseudonym. Attaching the name I associated with being so deeply and repeatedly wounded to something that meant so much to me felt wrong. I had a good friend who I called my favorite person and, as far as I know, died young never knowing my full name or calling me my given name. We called each other by nicknames. That’s just how it was, how we were mutually comfortable.

My discomfort with my name, my redefinition of myself by abandoning it, never faded. When my mother mistook media consumption for medical career interest and sent me to a summer camp for teenagers going into medical professions when I was 17, I was faced with both deep social discomfort and an unexpected opportunity. On the jouncy bus ride out to our cabins, the boys in my cabin kept leaning across the aisles and over the seats and scrutinizing me with an enthusiasm for newness that adults can’t match.

“We’re all from the same school. Where the heck are you from?”

“Where do you go to church?”

“Are you in college prep?”

“Why haven’t we seen you before?”

“What’s you name?”

“Who are you?”

K.

I’m K.

I spell it out now, but it was a letter then. It was a spontaneous choice, a placeholder chosen – among other reasons – because it was the first letter of the pseudonym I’d been using since middle school. It was the first time I’d been surrounded by people who didn’t know, couldn’t know, my given name. I had to correct a counselor in private just once, and he penciled it in as my preferred name. For the whole time I was there, even if I was bored and annoyed, I didn’t feel broken. I felt more capable than I ever had of just being a person as opposed to a stack of problems packed into a skin suit.

That was my operating principle: Ask for nothing, let no one see what’s wrong with you. Get smart, get resourceful, get respected, get out. I did get out, far out, and I might get farther out before long.

I don’t think of myself as broken anymore. I’m scarred, I suffer adherences and contractures from poor care and extreme circumstances. Figurative, literal. My teeth are weak, my legs are bent, my wrists are knobby, because as I found out as an adult I didn’t receive adequate nutrition when those parts of me needed it most. I have cracked, broken teeth because I seldom received even basic dental care and never got the orthodontic work I needed. I walk without a limp or discomfort despite an untreated fracture in my right ankle. I have white oval of scar tissue from the canine tooth of a feral dog that came up on my dog and I in the woods when I was ten or eleven. There’s a black spot on the sole of my right foot where I stepped on a nail that went straight through two layers of my sneaker.

Most recently, I’ve developed a birdshot spray of scars that sweeps sickle swipe-like from the middle of my back to the inward bend of my ribcage on the left side. According to the first doctor I’d been to see since I started my four year college at 21, prolonged acute stress had caused a momentary immune system crash that allowed the herpes zoster virus that had laid dormant in my spinal cord since I had chickenpox at 5 to blossom into an uncommon case of shingles at just 30 years old.

I was otherwise healthy. Good resting heart rate, good blood pressure, healthy weight if a touch soft and heavy, no abnormalities to suggest a persistent immune suppression. He didn’t believe I hadn’t been to a doctor in nearly ten years. His nurse didn’t believe I was as old as thirty. She didn’t believe I’d only been to the dentist five times in my life, most recently to have a tooth crushed by a wisdom tooth extracted.

I had succeeded, again, at masquerading as a well-adjusted person with a good background.

But that isn’t true. I may be adjusted, but as an adult I don’t think I can say I’ve adjusted well. I’ve learned that there are clinical, scary words for what I have been through and what I’ve done to survive.

I suffer from hypervigilance, a symptom of PTSD and complex PTSD that throws your body and brain’s threat sensors into overdrive with little or no provocation and holds them there for hours or days or weeks. It keeps me up at night, it wears me out, it makes me frightened and prepared to fight at all times when I feel I’m not contributing adequately or I’m a burden or I’m resented by someone I view as holding some sway over the material continuation of my life. When a woman is angry or even anxious around me, I’m waiting to be hit or to have something I care about destroyed or taken. It has taken years and years and many kind and patient Good Examples to get me to a place where I’m not silently terrified of being alone in a room with a middle aged woman.

Without a job, constantly struggling to find some way to (in my mind) just stay alive, suffering chronic tooth pain until I started a crowd fund to get it pulled, I had been hypervigilant for approximately six months before what looked and felt like a spontaneously appearing second degree burn bloomed across my back and side. For the two weeks I spent laying saltwater towels across half my body and feeling like someone had welded a hot pan to me, I didn’t stop badgering my one chance at employment for an appointment schedule. I was prepared to buy athletic bandages and mummify myself to wear work appropriate clothes if she’d just hire me.

My damage had bubbled up and manifested in some of the most terrible persistent pain I’ve ever experienced, and I was still trying to work and contribute and thrive so that I wouldn’t need anyone. Now, it’s a scar constellation.

My coping mechanisms aren’t all so damaging or so automatic. One lets me do a lot of things most people find very hard. I can perform, speak publicly, endure pain and disgust and discomfort while still mechanically functioning and not flinching away. I’ve called it a lot of things since I started controlling it around the same time I decided no one could ever know how bad things were. Turning off. Putting myself away. Closing the vault doors. I simply step emotionally or sensorially out of my circumstances. I turn off. I do the thing.

How does a ten year old fight off a wild dog? Turn off. Do the thing. Bury the machete you’re using to clear brush in its hip and get away. Wash off, cover up, worry about it later.

How does a twelve year old endure having a nail extracted and the wound flushed out with rubbing alcohol and a pressurized spray of water on the concrete slab of a porch at sunset? Turn off. Do the thing. Look, you already almost can’t tell there’s a hole.

How does a fifteen year old walk into a house that stinks of death and cigarettes, mop down white-turned-mahogany walls with heavy chemicals, sweep out piles of newspaper clippings and dead animals, on a day so many his age are safe at school? Turn off. Do the thing. It’s just a thing that’s got to be done. A house to flip means more money. If she doesn’t fill it with shit.

How do you perform on a test that will determine whether you’ll get into an engineering track at college when you’ve never even been to school? Turn off. Do the thing. It’s just questions and answers. It’s just paper and you’re a meat machine with a pencil, and it’s just got to get done if you want to get out. It’s just a thing that’s got to get done.

How do you soothe the mother you don’t love when she asks you to come and spend her 48 hours under suicide watch with her? Turn off. Do the thing. You won’t mean a word and you’ll want to float away when it’s over, but just do the thing. Just turn off and it won’t burn while you’re here.

How do you keep working and looking for work when your skin is literally splitting from a condition for which people with medical insurance are not infrequently prescribed opiates? Turn off. Do the thing. Pain is temporary, but starvation is forever and very possible if the people who’ve decided to be your family get tired of carrying you.

And I can turn this on or off on any day that’s even modestly good. That’s either impressive or deeply disturbing depending on who you ask.

But it’s been useful to me. Like embracing the inevitability of rejection and suffering, it’s enabled me to live. It’s enabled me to sequester and shield the true parts of myself from destruction by things I couldn’t control. Like painting space across my bedroom wall, like deciding I could live with being a devil in my mother’s eyes, like deciding to project competence and stability from myself when my environment couldn’t provide it, it’s a key part of defining myself as capable and worthy when no one outside myself ever made me feel that way.

Since achieving distance from my childhood stressors, I’ve started to dismantle the idea that no one should I ever know what I went through. I’m upfront about what I like, as much as I can be, even the precious things I still fear people will destroy or invalidate. I tell people I never went to school until college. They’re shocked, but not disgusted or demeaning like I’d always imagined they would be.

I tell close friends about the wild dog and the preacher’s son and every other act of physical and emotional violence I committed as a child because I could only trust myself. I told my dental hygienist about growing up in a hoarded house, not cared for, not taken for medical care, fed Slim Fast shakes for over a year when I was 9 because my mother couldn’t stand to be on a diet alone. Eating frosting from buckets brought home for free because it was food and it was lunch time and how do I cook? Not a one of them is disgusted by me, or afraid of me. No one says I’m a loser or a devil. They’ve all said, in one way or another, something a friend put very well into words a couple days ago:

“You were trying to live.”

And that is how people who grow up under chronic, unpredictable stress come to be made. Through trying to live. We may not be nurtured, but through trying to stay alive we struggle to nurture and construct ourselves. I’ll never be the person my parents wanted or expected me to be. They didn’t put the right work into creating that person. They forced and left a child to construct himself however he could. They walled me off from social experiences that could have put me in contact with adults who could help me, isolated me from learning how to interact.

Through trying to live, through trying to sustain the parts of myself worth keeping, I’ve done like many others and simply nurtured myself into adulthood in my own halting, hobbled way. What I’ve done, what you’ve done if this has been your experience as well, isn’t wrong. It isn’t bad, and it doesn’t make you worth less than people who didn’t have to do that.

I am a different person than the person my parents tried for. I am a different person than the person they imagined when they named me. On Monday, I’ll take a significant step toward distancing myself from that imagined self and stepping into the person that I am: I’m (all good and true forces willing) signing the final paperwork to officially change my name. First, second, last, the whole bit. None of it has ever felt like mine.

More than once, I’ve joked that my new name translates to Circuitous In-joke Sandwich. It’s not wrong. All it is is three names clipped from three precious things that kept me going when no one who could help me bothered. Carrying my given name feels like a burden. Carrying these names is a way of keeping in mind something good that made me feel strong and understood and felt. It’s a manifestation of the part of me that’s always known that I’m not a devil, that I’m only trying to live and that that alone is ennobling and beautiful. People like me, we need to hang on to the things that do that for us, because it wasn’t installed in childhood.

I will change my name. I will work hard to undo the physical and psychological damage done to me by my early life. And I will wear the Devil’s colors to the last party we ever throw for my mother.

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