“You’re an ungrateful little shit this morning,” my mother said as she shoved another present in my face. It was Christmas morning 1988 and the sheer number of presents was overwhelming. My parents were all about “showing” their love through gifts. They bought our love. Or at least they tried.
There were 3 girls all of us around a similar age. Good Methodists holding candles and singing Silent Night on Christmas Eve and calling their children “ungrateful little shits” on Christmas morning.
I will never forget the look on her face as she said it. I can still hear the tone in her voice. “You’re an ungrateful little shit.”
I was an ungrateful child. There’s no doubt about it. I needed love and attention, but instead I got solitude and abuse. The physical and sexual abuse from another member of my family had started earlier that year. Emotional and verbal had started years before. I acted out, I told my mother about how I was pulled into closets and what I was forced to do, yet, nothing was ever done.
So yes, I was ungrateful for the things, because I was tired of looking like a perfectly “normal” family on the outside and living in a little house of horrors on the inside. Each present after the other was designed to isolate us more and more.
And it worked, I hated to leave my room; I would sneak around the house desperate to be unnoticed. I would hide as best I could. I wasn’t exactly safe in my room either, but it was better than “out there” in the common areas of the house.
It was a life of waiting for the next bad things to happen, a life of escape, a life haunted. I became a teenager and as the physical and sexual abuse subsided in my home, I repeated the pattern with my boyfriend. Shocking, right?
So yes, I was ungrateful for this life. As I became an adult I struggled to let my guard down, and still struggle, I still hold my breathe at restaurants as the waiter walks me toward a table in the middle of the room. Where will I sit? I cannot have my back to a door; I need to see what’s coming at me. (Side note: through years of therapy I no longer ask for another table or have a panic attack, however, I am still aware that my back is to people and at least mentally have to calm myself down.)
I’m always on guard, immediately untrusting. These sound like bad traits, but they were my resiliencies, my lifelines. I survived the house of horrors, I even survived the boyfriend, but not unscathed.
Years later as I had become a chaplain in a hospital I was critiqued by my peers that I didn’t know how to celebrate with people. “You’re great in a crisis,” they said, “when the ER calls and it’s a major event, we want you to be on call, but when something good happens, you are overly cautious with the family, you are still preparing them for the worst instead of celebrating even the minor joys.”
They were not wrong, I had no idea how to celebrate, no idea how to show my gratitude. My life had been a string of one crisis after another; my life had been survival of pain. I knew how to do that, I had no idea how to react when things went well, how to give thanks and glory to God, how to be grateful.
I was superb at being ungrateful, holding you as you sobbed and screamed “WHY? WHY? How could God let this happen?” I would hold you, whisper in your ear, “God loves you, God is with you, God weeps with you. You are not alone.” This was my strength.
I was terrible at “Oh thank you Jesus, this is a miracle!” I would walk away from tragedies that turned into miracles and shake my head. Actually, this was, is, and always will be my hope, as sick as it may sound. I am not God, never have been, never will be.
Admittedly, I am still skeptical of miracles, I still expect the worst, but I’m trying. I’m moving toward a more loving relationship with myself and my God, and thus, learning to trust other people.
I am still an ungrateful (not so little) shit. I also live in immense gratitude for my scathed life, the imperfect people who have entered it, and the moments where I am proven wrong and someone shouts, “Praise Jesus, it’s a miracle!” I am also immensely privileged to hold you in your pain and whisper in your ear. “God is here, God feels your pain. I am so sorry. You are not alone.”