Saturday, August 01, 2015

Promotional Post: Wounds of the Father by Elizabeth Garrison



In the bestselling tradition of Smashed and Glass Castle, this raw, eye-opening memoir tells the powerful story of Elizabeth Garrison’s fractured childhood, descent into teenage drug addiction, and struggle to overcome nearly insurmountable odds. Elizabeth invites the reader behind the closed doors of a picture-perfect Christian family to reveal a dark, hidden world of child abuse, domestic violence, and chilling family secrets all performed in the name of God under the tyrannical rule of her father. Like countless teenage girls, Elizabeth turns to drugs and alcohol to escape. With smack-you-in-the-face honesty, Elizabeth chronicles the dark realities and real-life horrors of teenage drug abuse, living on the streets, foster homes, and treatment centers. She paints an unsparing portrait of scratching and clawing her way out of the grips of child abuse, addiction, and betrayal to find the strength within herself to save her own life. 


The First Time

I choked on the smell of burning flesh. Flames engulfed dismembered hands, arms, legs. Black smoke covered blank faces. My eyes blistered.
He was coming for me. I couldn’t see him, but I knew. I knew I was next.
A scream rang out, snapping my eyes open. There was water between my legs. A blue alarm clock with red digits came out of the dark. I finally recognized my bedroom. Throwing off the covers, I ran for the door, flung it open, and sprinted up the stairs leaving the darkness of the basement behind.
I furtively looked over my shoulder as I walked through the living room and into my parents’ bedroom. My dad’s throat clicked with each breath as if something was caught there. My mom lay flat on her back with her mouth wide open. I tapped lightly on her shoulder, and then rushed back against the wall because one time when I woke her up, I scared her and she split my lip open. She didn’t move. I stepped forward and nudged her harder. “Mom…Mom…”
She opened her eyes, blinked over and over again. She looked to her left at my dad lying beside her before speaking. “What? Elizabeth…Go back to bed.”
I whispered, “I had a bad dream.”
“It’s just a dream,” she sighed. “Go back to bed.”
“But Mom, it was bad. Real bad. I dreamt I was in hell.”
She was quiet for a moment. “Well, you know you won’t go to hell as long as you’ve asked for forgiveness from your sins. Do you want me to pray with you?”
“No,” I replied softly. I didn’t need any help praying to God for my forgiveness. At the age of six, I’d already been praying earnestly for my soul for years.
Anyway, it wasn’t the devil I was afraid of––it was God. God was the one who wanted to send people to hell. My parents described hell as a lake of fire where you suffered and burned forever. I was terrified of going there, which was why I had gotten saved for the first time when I was three. I had told my mom I didn’t want to go to hell and she led me through the prayer that would save my soul. After that, I started getting saved on a regular basis. They said you only needed to do it once, but I wasn’t taking any chances with burning forever and begging to die with no mercy. Ever. Besides, I already suspected something was wrong with me––that I wasn’t like other little girls.
The first time I told anyone there was something different about me was the summer of fourth grade. I was riding my purple Huffy to the local pool with the sun burning down on my shoulders already peeling from their latest sunburn. I had left my body and was desperately trying to get back into it. It was as if there was a ladder in my head that I could crawl up to get out of myself and watch my body perform from somewhere above me. Once again, I had crawled up my ladder and was watching myself ride my bike, looking down at my pink swimsuit with the hole in the middle wondering when my blond hair had gotten so long. I wanted to get back into my body but couldn’t get there. I hated it when I couldn’t get back.
Sometimes I crawled up the ladder and was lost there for hours. Other times for days. I never knew where I went when I didn’t watch. It was if I crawled up the ladder and disappeared into nothingness for a while. The ability to leave my body scared me because I’d lose pieces of time in my life. I had no idea why I did it. It dawned on me that afternoon that maybe other people didn’t have a ladder. Maybe it was only in my brain. I decided to ask Daniel, my older brother, about it when I got back home. I hoped he’d assure me I was fine and that the same thing happened to him.
Sitting cross-legged on his bed, watching him sort through his baseball cards for what seemed like the hundredth time, I asked Daniel, “Do you ever forget where you are?”
He looked up at me, “What do you mean?”
“Well, like you watch yourself do things. But you’re not there. You see yourself.” It was so hard to explain, but I kept trying. “You know you’re real but you can’t feel it? Like you float. Up above.”
He cocked his head to the side, wrinkled his forehead, and frowned. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” He went back to his cards.
Daniel was more than just my older brother. He was my best friend and wiser than I thought I’d ever be. If he didn’t know what I was talking about then it probably meant nobody else did either and they’d think I was a freak if I told them. I decided to keep my ability a secret. I had lots of secrets so I figured one more wouldn’t matter. But even if I kept all of my secrets from other people, I knew there was no hiding from God because he was everywhere and saw everything. There was no escaping him.
“He can read your thoughts. He knows what you’re thinking,” my mom liked to warn us kids.
I’d feel ashamed because my thoughts were anything but pure like they were supposed to be. They were filled with rage. As much as I loved my brother, I also hated him for the things he did when we were left alone in our house while my dad worked at the hospital and my mom ran errands. He’d terrorize my younger sister, Sarah, and I. He’d lock me in closets and pummel me with his scrawny fists while he sat on my chest and spat in my face. He’d force Sarah into our dark unfinished basement and bury her inside the antique chest carried over by my ancestors from Sweden. He’d sit on top of it, listening to her screams and I could never do anything to save her.
I liked to think about the ways I could hurt him back. I wanted to be able to destroy him with my fists the way he beat Sarah and I, but he was bigger and stronger than I was. I wished there was a way to make him cry and spit in his face the way he spat in mine. We tried to get him to stop, but every time we told on him, our tales were met with laughter and rebuke.
“Quit being a tattletale,” My dad would respond. “You kids need to learn to get along.”
“Daniel’s an abuser,” Sarah, would say quietly, tears welling in her blue eyes while she stood slightly hidden behind my legs. She was only five the first time she said it. I didn’t know how she even knew the word. My dad found this hilarious as if she had just performed a stand-up comedy routine.
“Oh, Sarah. You’re exaggerating,” he’d say through forced and purposeful laughter. His wasn’t the kind of laughter that naturally comes from the belly and explodes from the mouth. His version of laughing was making noises that sounded like dry coughs while he moved his mouth in an upward sneer.
The conversation always ended there. If my dad decided a matter was insignificant then that was the end of the discussion and according to him, the way Daniel treated us wasn’t important. I didn’t dare force the issue because each time I pushed or pressured an issue my mom would admonish and remind me I was not supposed to question my dad in any way. It was our job to do as he told us. Period. Over the years, my mom told me numerous times that men were above us in the order of things. She explained there was hierarchy in which God sat at the very top. Men were next in line, which meant that my dad was the closest thing to God.
My dad had a working partnership with God and he took his position very seriously. God had rules about everything. If you broke the rules you were a sinner and God punished sinners. He’d make your life miserable until you repented. The same rules applied in my house, only my dad punished the sins that occurred there.
Every time I disobeyed, my dad threw me over his lap and held my legs down with one hand while his other hand gripped a wooden paddle. He had carved the paddle himself and painted it white. It hung in the closet in the living room at all times. Before every spanking he would say, “God loves us so much that he has to punish us. I’m doing this because I love you.” Then, he would extend his arm all the way up and slam the paddle down on my butt over and over again. The longer it took for me to cry, the harder the paddle got and the longer it took before it was over.
Nobody in the house was allowed to argue with him. If I argued with him about anything, he would send me to my room with the instructions that I couldn’t come out of my room until I quit being angry and was ready to obey. Sometimes in my room, when I was really mad, I’d twist the heads of my stuffed animals until I almost ripped them off. Other times I took my scissors and stabbed them in the stomach until white puffs came out and floated around my bedroom. I wasn’t let out of my room until I could apologize for whatever transgression I’d committed. I’d apologize through gritted teeth, knowing I wasn’t really sorry and God knew I was lying. There was no way to win. I was a sinner.
Church was the central part of our family life. We went to church faithfully and consistently, but never to the same church for any length of time. Inevitably, my parents would find fault with the church’s beliefs or practices and we’d move to a different one. But we always went to church––Sunday morning, Sunday evening, Wednesday night, and to any other Bible studies or church functions held during the week. If we couldn’t make it to church for some reason, we’d have a service at home where we’d sing songs and my dad would preach a sermon.
I liked church and believed everything they taught me there. Daniel hated it and Sarah always fell asleep whenever we had to sit through the entire adult sermon, but I never minded because I knew I needed to be there. I sang so loud to the hymns that I hurt my throat. During prayer time, I squeezed my eyes shut so tightly that blue spots appeared as I begged God not to let me be scared of all the things I was afraid of and to make the faceless monster stop coming into my room at night. I strained my ears, trying to absorb every word the preacher spoke. I knew each time he talked about bad seeds he was directing his sermon towards me. He used lots of big words that I didn’t understand, but once I got home, I looked them up in my parents’ big dictionary.
No matter how long we stayed at a church, my parents were seen as upstanding members. My dad led Bible studies, prayer groups, and served communion on Sundays. My mom taught Bible school and stood by my dad’s side at all church functions. They had the pastor over and people from the church regularly came to the house to pray with my dad in the living room. He was respected and revered. My mom was the picture of a perfect Christian wife, supportive of my dad one hundred percent and submissive to his every word. She bustled around taking care of people, always the perfect hostess at dinners.
“You have such a wonderful family,” fellow church members said. “Your children are so well behaved.”
And we were. I was the golden child of Christianity. I was completely well mannered and well-behaved, knew all of my verses since I had read my Bible through cover to cover, and gave the right answer to every question. But not everyone in our family was like us. My mom told us kids that her extended family weren’t saved and we were to look at them as examples of what would happen if we didn’t stay on the right path. They all drank and drinking was something people who weren’t saved did. She’d point to her father and say with a warning, “Look at him. You don’t want to end up that way.”
At family functions, I saw what alcohol did to the adults. Their first few drinks seemed like fun. They’d get all giddy and laugh about silly things. They paid attention to my cousins and me, impressed with anything we did. Our somersaults and cartwheels that usually went unnoticed were suddenly applauded. Sometimes they acted like children––free and careless, playing games with us. But inevitably, there came a time when the silliness disappeared and was replaced by angry outbursts. My grandpa would start yelling at my grandma about something trivial she had said or done like forgetting to get the mail from the end of the driveway. Uncles waged wars against the aunts for unknown reasons. My mom would run in and out of rooms trying to quiet the storms. Us kids would head downstairs to the basement or outside to hide from the chaos.
Everyone called my grandpa an alcoholic. I didn’t understand what it meant so I always studied him carefully. He had a big nose that seemed to take up his whole face. It intrigued me. Sometimes it was purple and at other times it had red squiggly lines running a tangled web through the skin. His eyes always watered. At times the water was so thick it seemed almost solid, like snot that might start moving down his face if he blinked hard enough. And his skin turned color, moving from a yellowish green to a swollen red. His words slurred, like he had a mouthful of marbles he had to speak around. And even though my grandma was the smoker, he coughed and cleared his throat constantly.
When we went up to northern Minnesota to visit, he never met us in the driveway like grandma always did. We’d have to wait for his entrance sitting around the kitchen table. Eventually, we’d see him walking towards the porch door, crooked and hunched over. He’d walk across the porch and into the kitchen with his beer in his right hand, tucked neatly inside a Bud Light coolie.
“Hi, Dad” my mom would pipe up the minute he was inside. She’d jump up from her seat to stand in front of him, announcing her presence bodily so he’d know she was there.
“Oh, Robin,” he’d exclaim, stopping in his tracks, always surprised to see her. His body swayed back and forth, slightly as he fidgeted with things on the table.
Daniel, Sarah, and I eagerly waited to be given our freedom to play on the farm. But first we had to give our ritual greeting in unison, “Hi, Grandpa.”
He’d respond with a hello, looking over our heads towards the window. He rarely spoke to me directly and never called me by my first name. He’d commence to talk to my mom and it was the same questions every time.
“How’s the weather?”
My mom would describe what the weather was like in our town located five hours south. They always seemed to be fascinated with the weather, especially during the winter when they could talk about all of the storms.
“How was traffic?”
My mom would relate in detail all the roads where traffic got thick and our progress had been slowed. Her report included any areas of construction along the way and she never forgot to mention Interstate 494, which grandpa seemed to have a keen interest in at all times. Finally, she’d comment on anything that was out of the ordinary like a deer or a car accident.
“How long are you staying?”
It never mattered how long we were staying––my grandpa’s response was always the same. He seemed happy whether we were staying for two days or two weeks. Sometimes I wasn’t even sure if he knew time had passed since our last visit. He seemed oblivious like he might not have noticed Christmas if it wasn’t for the huge tree in the living room. “Where’s Mark?”
It was very unusual to see my mom doing anything without my dad, but most of the time when we stayed at my grandparents, my father stayed with his sister who lived a town away. He stopped in occasionally to see us or to eat supper at the long table piled with food.
My mom never tired of trying to communicate with my grandpa. Every day we stayed there she would get up at five in the morning to sit with him. She said it was the most sober you could ever get him. Every time we left, my mom would give us kids the warning to stay away from the sin of alcohol.
For this reason, I was completely surprised that taking my first drink didn’t feel at all like a sin. I didn’t get the horrible pit in my stomach or the sticky palms that other sins gave me. It was the summer of sixth grade and I was twelve. It happened at my neighbor’s house, the Palmers. They lived behind us on our dead-end street. A chain link fence separated our backyards. My parents disapproved of the Palmers, but this wasn’t unusual since they disapproved of most people. Other people were of this world and our family was not––we were born-again Christians. The Palmers attended St. John’s Lutheran Church down the block faithfully, but according to my parents, they still weren’t saved. My parents had an amazing ability to know the fate of people’s souls and the majority of them were going straight to hell.
Not only were they Lutheran, but Mr. Palmer owned the only bar in town, a heinous crime against God. On the weekends, cars would cover the length of their driveway and extend into the street. My mom would roll her eyes and say, “Looks like the Palmers are having another wild party.” My dad would nod his head and glare like they were committing murder behind us rather than simply having a good time.
Wendy Palmer was my age. My parents didn’t like for us to play together but occasionally they’d allow it. Every time they relented, my mom would watch carefully as she was certain Wendy would steal one of my toys.
Late one afternoon, my mom let me go to Wendy’s as long as I promised to be home for dinner at five. I was always excited to play with the bad girl. Trying to be good all the time was exhausting. We jumped outside on her trampoline for a while until we got bored and went inside to do something else.
As we walked into the kitchen, I knew immediately by the bottles of booze scattered all over the counter that it was the night of one of their wild parties. I eyed a bowl of the forbidden parents’ punch. Wendy’s parents were nowhere in sight. We looked at the punch bowl and then back at each other. One of us chose to voice out loud what we were both thinking and said, “Let’s drink it.”
Wendy grabbed two small punch glasses and filled them to the top. We giggled with the excitement born of the fear of getting caught as we successfully carried the glasses into Wendy’s bedroom and locked the door behind us. After carefully setting the glasses on the dresser, we collapsed on the bed laughing hysterically.
“Shh!” I warned through my laughter. I eyed my glass, wondering about the magical potion that made adults act like silly children or get so mad they threw things.
I picked mine up, silent now. This was a serious matter. Feeling like Alice in Wonderland, I sipped slowly, slightly scared of what might happen. I swished the punch around in my mouth savoring the strange taste. It was different than anything my taste buds had been blessed with before, very sweet and thick. I swallowed with more force than was usually required. As the liquid went down my throat, it left a warm trail that went through my veins and all the way to my stomach. Tingles coursed all through my body. I shivered, looked at Wendy, and smiled.
I was surprised to see Wendy’s pudgy face all scrunched up, with her lips turned up towards her nose. “Ick,” she exclaimed, “this stuff is gross.”
What was wrong with her? I took another drink and another until I emptied my glass and felt the thick sweetness coated inside my mouth. Now I knew why people drank. It was incredible.
I wanted more of the punch and to stay for the party, but I looked at the clock and saw I was almost late for dinner. If I wasn’t on time my mom would huff exaggerated sighs all through the meal with her lips pressed together in a straight line, holding back the words she wanted to say and refusing to look at me.
The world looked different when I stepped back outside. I didn’t remember the sun shining so brightly before, but now it was beaming down on me. My body felt like it was humming a tune all its own. I felt wild with excitement.
I had spent my entire life living in fear of doing bad things. I constantly worried about the paddle I’d get across my butt if I stepped out of line and I knew the awful things God did to girls who were bad. But at that moment, none of it seemed to matter. It was the first time I didn’t care about being bad and I wasn’t scared of God. I could breathe without feeling as if I’d choke on the air.
I didn’t know how much you had to drink before someone could smell it, but I didn’t want to take any chances, so I tried to hold my breath as I took my seat at the dinner table. I couldn’t put food in my mouth until after my dad prayed, but as soon as the prayer ended, I stuffed my mouth full of it.
Dinner was always a troublesome time at our house. We all had to be very careful not to upset my dad. He sat at the head of the table, which was appropriate since his moods dictated the event. Things ran smoothly if he was in a good mood. We could all talk and laugh about our day. But if he was in a bad mood, things were entirely different. He seethed anger as he ate. The silent anger lurking beneath the surface was almost worse than his explosions. When he brooded, his appearance changed and his movements became robotic––each move made with distinct force and precision. His face tightened and his forehead lined with stress. He looked as if he was in physical pain. My dad’s eyes, usually blue, turned dark and cold.
His overpowering silence and demeanor were our cue to be silent during the meal, but sometimes we’d miss the cue or we’d accidently do something to anger him. Anything could set him off like giggling or talking too loudly, and then whoever had misbehaved would get yanked off their chair and pulled into my parents’ bedroom for the wooden paddle.
While we screamed and cried, he’d paddle us until our butts stung and burned leaving red welts to remind us of our wrongdoing. When he was done he’d say, “You can come back to the dinner table as long as you can behave yourself.”
It was hard to decide whether or not I could behave myself since most of the time I didn’t know what I’d done wrong. Were my eyes haughty again? Had I been swinging my legs without knowing it? Or was it nothing? Sometimes I refused to go back to the table just to prove my point that I hadn’t done anything wrong. But he’d always return to his spot at the head and the meal would resume as if nothing had happened. Whoever was left at the table would follow his lead quietly.
“Hon, did you get enough to eat?” my mom would ask as he sat back down. “Do you want anything else?”
But tonight was different. Dinner didn’t bother me at all. I didn’t care if I made him mad. Released from the looming control of his anger, I felt separated from the rest of the family. The usual heaviness hanging over the dinner table wasn’t there. Light and free, I smiled at my secret.
The glass filled with the shimmering liquid from the punch bowl had awakened inside of me a hunger that, until that day, I never knew I had. Now I understood that I’d been empty ever since I could remember. I had never fit into the world I lived in that looked good on the outside but slowly killed me from the inside. Parts of my soul had always been missing, but I felt whole for the first time. The emptiness inside of me was gone and had been replaced by a warm glow that made my entire world look brighter and more bearable. I had to have more.

Elizabeth Garrison has a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology and works as a researcher for the National Center for Child Traumatic Stress. 
Her research focuses on the effects of childhood abuse and developing interventions to help children recover. She also is a well-known celebrity ghost-writer. Given her talent in helping others to tell their stories, Garrison decided it was time to tell her own story.

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