I used to curl up in a ball and hide in the back of the one tiny closets in the old shack I grew up in, for all the good that did because the closet had no door. It was a shack the size of the garage with only one place to hide. Duh.
Somewhere along my journey I realized that when I was reading, I didn’t get hit. Hmmm, having a book in my hand somehow created an invisible force field around me in which I was relatively safe, at least from physical harm–much better than the little doorless closet! In fact, when I was reading, it was almost like I, myself was invisible. Sweet.
From the time I was six years old, and thus eligible to get my own library card at Upland Public Library, they knew me by name. (God bless the people who thought up free, public libraries.) When I was done with the maximum number of books I was allowed to check out at one time, I’d go back to reading from the unlikely set of encyclopedias that were the only nice, relatively clean thing in that filthy little shack. I loved the feel of those hard bound books in my hands because that feeling meant that I was magically safe in the closet of my making–at least for a time. I loved those encyclopedias and read a little from them every day of my childhood, but I’d read the label on the ketchup bottle if necessary (sometimes ketchup was the only food in the house).
What a welcome reprieve reading provided. As the years went on, I learned a little about a wide range of subjects, my vocabulary exploded, and my test scores spiked. As an aside, I’m convinced that IQ scores reveal much more about a person’s vocabulary than they do about their intelligence. My heart used to break for the kids who only spoke a few words of English. They weren’t dumb. In fact, I knew that many were very smart–but they were often subjugated to the “slow kid” category and virtually dismissed because they had no idea what the foreign-looking words on the page said. I hope we are doing better for those kids nowadays.
In my teenage years, after I emancipated and was on my own, I realized that it wasn’t just my mother and father who left. People I thought were friends left when I was no longer willing to go along with what they wanted from me or able to meet their expectations. I was like the kid who would give away the cookies in her lunch in order to be allowed to play with the cool girls. But the cookies always run out, and you’re no longer able to do what you always did to stay in the group. You either have to produce more cookies or get left behind. I always ran out of cookies.
So since people who get close enough to harm, ultimately leave and tear out a chunk of your heart when they go, why would I ever leave my nice, safe invisible- force-field-closet? Irrefutable evidence demonstrated time and again that there was great danger in doing so. The guys who said they’d love me forever said the same thing to the next girls. The girls who said that I was the sister they never had evidently found other long-lost siblings. Other than my husband and some precious girlfriends, everyone, eventually left.
You can’t be hurt if you won’t let anyone close enough to do so. And you can’t be left behind if you’re happily in peaceful solitude. And what’s not to be happy about? Over the years, my tiny, filthy closet, in which I would roll up in a ball and cover my ears until I thought it was safe to dare to listen, became an elegant, comfortable, cozy space that is my own, private, no-one-else-allowed place. Like a backyard “boys-only” clubhouse, the closet I’ve erected is off limits to other humans—even the ones I adore.
My closet has everything I need. There’s a phone to the outside world (but I don’t care too much for it). I ALWAYS have my books. Only now I own them. I still love the public library, but with my financial success came beautiful shelves filled with hardbound books I’ve acquired, accumulated, and yes, assimilated into the fabric of my being. And the internet allows me to follow the journeys of others, and to share what I hope will help those younger abuse victims coming up behind me on the path… all safely from my cozy closet.
Hide and Seek
Life in the very safe “invisible closet” I had erected to protect myself from harmful humans was great. It wasn’t broken, so I wasn’t trying to fix it. And then a game of Hide and Seek rocked my world and resulted in the throwing open of the plutonium-strength door that protected my invisible-force-field-closet-safe-place.
I regularly play Hide and Seek with two of the most precious people in the world. The little boys, aged 8 and 11 as I write this, represent two-thirds of the “blood relatives” I have on planet Earth. (There are probably others, but I’d rather not to “seek” and “find” them.)
One date night I announced that I would be hiding first, with the oldest counting, because I had found the ultimate hiding place. I threw down the challenge, I gave them some vague clues (the whole idea is to help them learn to be adventurous in a totally safe way), and I ran off as soon as the counting began.
From my most excellent hiding place, I could hear the boys, along with my husband, looking for me. They looked in all the usual places. Then they looked in places they didn’t think I could actually squeeze into, but looked anyway because they were running out of potential hiding places. They called out, but I refused to “take the bait” and give away my position with a response or even a clearing of the throat—yep, I was that close. What they didn’t know is that I was hiding in a rarely used closet that the boys had seen a million times but had never been in. For them, it blended into the wall because they had never seen it open.
I stood totally still in the dark space behind the closed door, barely breathing, trying not to give myself away with an untimely sneeze or cough, when I heard the boys and my husband seem to stop searching and start talking. The voices faded farther away until they couldn’t be heard at all. At first I thought they were huddling to strategize on a new and yet untried response to my amazing disappearing act. But I didn’t hear them anymore. I waited in the dark closet.
I refused to give up the whereabouts of my most spectacular hiding place by simply walking out and taking the chance the one of them would see from where I had just emerged. So, I made myself comfortable. I sat down in the dark closet and waited, knowing from the experiences of my childhood that I was far more equipped to wait than they were. I would WIN this. (By now you are probably wondering if you’ve missed something…a woman in her 50’s playing Hide and Seek?! Yes, that’s correct. You heard right.)
Well, the time ticked by, and they never did come back to look for me. The boys and my husband had gone on to do something else. They quit looking. Darn.
When it finally became clear to me that no one was coming for me, I realized that regardless of how lovely my beautiful and comfortable closet is, I have always secretly hoped that someone would come find me.
As a little girl, I had hoped that my big, strong daddy would suddenly show up, break down the door, beat up my abuser, and rescue me from that place. Later I hoped that some big, strong, handsome guy on a white horse (or a white 8-cylinder Mustang) would sweep me up and ride out of town into our new, wonderful, pain-free life. When I figured out that none of that was ever going to happen (and that I didn’t want to be a victim to be saved anyway), I settled in, decorated the closet, installed multiple padlocks on the door, and ordered high-speed wireless.
Right up until the fateful Hide and Seek game, I had forgotten about the little closet of my childhood. It wasn’t until recounting this story to a friend, that I realized that I was actually quite content to be in the social isolation of my own making. It was in that conversation that my dear friend gently guided me to connect the dots between literally being left in the closet and figuratively keeping myself safely in the “closet of my making” so that others wouldn’t have an opportunity to hurt me.
Thank you, Dr. Karen Bergstrom, Director of Safe Families for Children, for leading me to the stunning realization that I had never stopped isolating myself, yet secretly hoping that someone would come looking for me. Thank you for refusing to give up on helping me feel safe with healthy social connections—almost as safe as I feel in the isolation of my beautiful closet. (SAFE families isn’t just for the kids and families served!)
Out of the Closet and Onto the Bridge
I eventually had to come out of the closet the night of that Hide and Seek game. It was time to make dinner. No one cared about the hiding place anymore. And they seemed to be so engrossed in their new game that they didn’t realize I had been missing in action. As I cracked open the door to what turned out to be the ultimate Hide and Seek hiding place, I realized that there were people in my life who had been knocking on the solid door of the invisible-force-field closet that separated me from all the people who wanted nothing from me other than, perhaps, return of the friendship they wanted to share.
One friend in particular had steadily rapped for quite some time without being hurt or offended by my lackluster response. Being a retired therapist, she knew that I couldn’t give what I didn’t have. So, she started where I was (rather than where she hoped I’d be), she waited, and she continued to gently knock, never giving up. It turns out that her ability to wait patiently surpasses even mine!
I knew from my friend’s persistence, and from my finely tuned weasel meter, that she was “safe.” Since gingerly exiting my beautiful, safe closet (where I would still prefer to be), my new sister-girlfriend, the one I never expected to find at this stage of my life, has gently led me out of the closet and is now encouraging me to step out on the bridge to the other side of life—to a life I never knew (or wanted to know) existed.
I’m out of my beautiful closet, and I’m enjoying the walk toward the bridge. But don’t push me. And please don’t get too close—I’m still not convinced that someone won’t push me off in a well meaning attempt to teach me how to swim in the waters below.
Rhonda Sciortino, author of Successful Survivors and the 8 character traits of survivors and how you can attain them, used the coping skills from an abusive childhood to achieve real success which she measures by good relationships, good health, peace, joy, and financial prosperity. Through her writing, speaking, and media appearances, she shares how others can use the obstacles in their lives as stepping stones to their real success.