The Onion


I just didn’t get it. Why was I always finding myself in the same situations with men, over and over again?

Maybe it was that ridiculous internet dating thing… Not that every person I’d met online or otherwise was a total leech, but the web obviously made it easier for less scrupulous individuals to hide their intentions. But I hadn’t run into trouble just meeting people online. The last one to draw me in I’d met at a work function. I’d met others in different ways, like at the gym, at the bar, at church, through friends. Even a couple of women I’d become friends with turned out to have an eerily snaky side. More often than not, I seemed to attract people who had little to no empathy for others, people who, over time, showed a strong pattern of manipulative behavior, deception, and in some cases, criminality. Not that I was perfect, but I made an effort to live with integrity, kindness, and truthfulness – so why on earth did I attract people who seemed to delight in doing the opposite?


I went No Contact with the last (and one of the worst) of these people nearly two years ago, and since then it has been quite the ride, coming to terms emotionally with the aftermath of these tumultuous encounters, and gradually discovering my own part in these disasters. On some level I am thankful for the experiences, as opportunities for growth, and that I am still alive to pay it forward and serve as a warning to others. Having said that, life would have been a lot nicer without being subjected to the mind fucking and other stupidity.

What I have learned, I can compare to peeling away the outside layers of an onion, one by one. Wrapping my mind around each of the layers has taken time, and a lot of reading, not to mention crawling out from under the rock of denial and accepting that these things really happened.

  • Abusers, narcissists, and psychopaths figured prominently in my twenties and thirties (the milder cases came earlier, the real headcases appeared later). Abused financially, sexually, psychologically, verbally, and threatened physically. Because I was never actually beaten, I had the misconception for a long time that I’d never experienced “real” abuse – a misconception that I think a lot of people, especially women, have. Now I believe that physical abuse is almost always preceded by other forms of abuse that start innocuously and escalate over time.

Again, WTF? Dysfunctional “entanglements” (I hesitate to call them relationships) were clearly the norm for me. I didn’t seek this stuff out, but it sure as hell seemed to find me. My recent “lightbulb moment” was when I realized the same pattern manifested in a slightly different way earlier in my life.

  • In my mid to late teens, I had a much older boyfriend who had constantly been pressuring me to have sex. I held out for about three years, but he tried pretty hard. During the same time period, I was often approached by older men, and at one high school dance when I was about fifteen, one of the supervising parents, a (drunk) man in his early forties, backed me into a corner and was trying to get me to slow dance with him. I was rescued by some acquaintances who understood what was going on – I was mostly just confused and had no idea how to handle the situation.

WTF? How did this happen? Why was I so damn confused and unsure how to act when faced with a really creepy situation? And why did I stay with a guy who had me under constant pressure to do something I was very much against doing?

  •  During junior high and high school, I was the constant target of bullies. Junior high was the worst – I often came home with welts and bruises from my tormentors. My parents and the teachers did nothing to help me, though I know I talked about my situation with my folks because I threatened to quit school altogether if I didn’t get to go to another school. (I’d saved up enough of my own money to pay for tuition to a different school, if they refused to let me change schools.) I only fought back against the bullies a couple of times, because I was terrified that retaliation would either get me more bullying, or get me in worse trouble with parents and teachers than the pain the bullying was causing me.

Once again, WTF? I know this was a really long time ago, but what the fuck is wrong with this picture? Never mind the bullies – where were my parents in all of this? Why did I fear fighting back so much, when I had done nothing to deserve the abuse? Peeling back another layer…

  • From the moment I started going to school,  I was called names by my classmates. Mild bullying started and went on throughout elementary school.

Every kid probably goes through some of this stuff at some point. I don’t know if it happened to me more than it happened to others, but even then, I wouldn’t fight back. But another tidbit that is perhaps more telling:

  • A pedophile targeted me and nearly molested me when I was about age six. My cousin saved me, literally. Interestingly, despite our respective parents having been fairly close, having frequent social interaction, he knew that what was happening was dangerous, but I just froze – again, just like at the high school dance, I was mostly just confused and didn’t know what to do. I would surely have been molested had he not been there.

But the layers still haven’t all been peeled back yet…

  • Inappropriate sexual contact by an older relative. I was four. He was eleven or twelve. I didn’t tell anyone until just a couple of years ago – again, I was confused and didn’t know what to do, in fact, even though it didn’t seem right, I didn’t understand until years later that my cousin’s behavior was inappropriate. I only opened up after I found out through the grapevine that he had gone on to molest his stepsister; if I had known what was happening to me when it happened, and spoken up, maybe she wouldn’t have gone through what she did.

Still, the pattern already seemed to be established, even at age four.

The most elusive piece of the puzzle, to me, was why me and not my peers (like the cousin who saved me from the pedophile)? Why did I see the world the way I did? Why didn’t I stick up for myself? Why didn’t I go to my parents with these things when I was scared or confused?

Because I was already used to being treated that way.

It took me a long time to grasp that even though I’d only had a couple of physically insignificant spankings, my parents had been abusing and bullying me for years by the time anyone else started in on the action.

Their tactics?

The unwritten rules were the hardest to stomach; I lived with constant anxiety about unknowingly doing something wrong. The one spanking I remember, my bare bottom being strapped, was for swearing, which I didn’t even know I was doing. I was simply imitating my older cousins, learning new words from them and had no idea what they meant. (This spanking preceded the incident of inappropriate sexual contact by a few months, interestingly.) I am of the mind that this spanking for breaking an unwritten, and never explained, rule was the end of me trusting my parents.

I was under constant pressure to perform from an early age, despite shyness – my music lessons started at age four, along with public recitals. If I resisted against performing publicly, I was subjected to guilt trips that held my salvation over my head, with Mom telling me, “It’s a sin not to share your talents.”

There were obscure threats of punishment for less than stellar school performance – “We don’t like C’s.” That’s the line I got from Dad (with Mom at his side), right before my first ever school report card came out. They didn’t need to tell me twice, and thankfully I excelled in school. My school performance ended up being my primary means of justifying my existence (this has carried over into my work life to this day). I was a human “doing” rather than a human “being”.

There was the regular criticism about physical attributes I had little to no control over, starting well before my teens – my weight, facial and body hair, etc. My parents were both chronic dieters since before I was born, so that should be no surprise. (I wonder where they they thought I got my hair genes from…) Yet when I asked if I could shave my legs at age eleven because I was self-conscious about my leg hair, my mother refused to let me have razors.

There was no intervention with the bullying at school, despite my parents and other relatives being closely involved with the school system, and me showing up at home with welts and bruises.

The religious aspect of my upbringing did nothing to counter the pervasive notion that I had to be perfect to be loved, to validate my existence. That I had to “turn the other cheek” and not fight back when I was mistreated, and give even if it was to my own detriment. I was forced to attend church every Sunday, even if mass was at 7:30 a.m. after I’d worked at my part-time job until 3:00 a.m., under the threat of damnation.

Of course, perfection is not possible, but when you’re a kid growing up with that all around you and no one is telling you any different, you’re going to end up with a pretty warped sense of self – if you end up with a sense of self at all.

I think I can honestly say that I still do not know who I am.


I’ve read dozens of books, trying to figure out how to avoid dysfunctional relationships in the future.  My quest started with books about how to identify “dangerous men”, and has evolved from there into a lot of introspection and identification of distinct patterns. The patterns that were there when I was four years old were still showing up when I was thirty-four. The relationship types were different, such as parent-child and love relationships, which made me believe none of these things that were happening to me were connected, but the essential dynamics were identical. Same story line, different but similar scenarios, different but similar characters, same emotions.


3 comments on “The Onion

  1. You’re not alone in this,it all sounds too familiar!And I still don’t know how to deal with it.It’s a real struggle,I never knew all this,until I finally decided to leave my Narc
    last year,after 28 years.
    I hope I didn’t make the same mistakes with my children,but for now,it’s impossible
    to see yet,our world has fallen apart,thanks to mr.Jekyll/Hyde.
    WTF was he thinking?Don’t want to see this man ever again!!
    All we can do right now,is study,read everything we can,and try to take good care of ourselves.I’m still in the surviving-mode most of the time,that’s also because
    alot of people don’t want to know and won’t even try to understand,as if I am
    making it all up…I kept quiet all those years,that’s what I learned from my parents…
    Keep quiet!..we don’t want your opinion….not important!…So thanks mom and dad,
    for making us numb,and not allowing us for being ourself,whatever that was!

    • What makes this stuff even harder to deal with, I think, is that society generally frowns upon blaming anyone else for one’s problems, especially one’s parents. We all make mistakes, to be sure, this is a fact of life, but I think to choose to remain in denial of unhealthy patterns to “keep the peace” is far more dangerous than unearthing and dealing with the putrid legacy of family dysfunction. The thing is, patterns are set in place when we are very young and don’t have a choice or the consciousness to even recognize let alone change them, so how can we be to blame? Blame is different than responsibility, though. As adults we can blame whomever or whatever we like, but it now falls to us to change the outcome and make different and healthier choices.

      In hindsight, I think “The Onion” has its roots even before my conception, that my parents played out their lives based on unhealthy influences from their own upbringings and respective cultural and religious influences. You and I and others who want to change may well be doing so because we have access to more information, and can start asking questions that even a generation ago we would not be able to find an answer to, or find others who understand our experience because they share it on some level.

      Astrid, you have clearly come a long way, even if you are still in survival mode. You’ve left your N (which is a HUGE accomplishment), even if those immediately around you choose to deny that what you went through was real. And maybe you made some big mistakes with your own children, but there is hope that you can sort some things out with them because you have gained wisdom, and decided that to continue doing things the way they had always been done was not healthy for you or for anyone.

  2. No one really likes victims of abuse, no one likes people who have had dysfunctional or abusive childhoods…. People talk the talk – but adult victims of childhood abuse get rejected by people who had nurturing and love. It makes them uncomfortable. I work in healthcare. I now recognise myself as codependent – i need to be needed. I know my colleagues find me a little “off” i care too much, i seem a little fragile, weak maybe, just “not like them” as though my pain may be infectious. So I withdraw, i refuse to explain why i am hypervigilant, a workaholic, too empathetic, why should I? Which leaves me to the mercy of narcissists. I understand them and them me.

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