Jason learned growing up that those close to you could get past your protective guard and hurt you. The safest thing to do was to keep people out. But Jason also knew that to get ahead in life, people expected you to be personable and friendly. You needed to, at least, give the appearance of being open; you needed, for example, to be able to make and take jokes. Jason hated jokes; they weren’t funny and people only told them as a way to put you down. But he learned to keep that reaction hidden, to force himself to smile and laugh. Jason wore a mask of friendliness on the outside and kept his distrust and suspicion on the inside. As a result, he was acquainted with many but friends with few. Jason realized early on that the only person he could really trust was himself.
Gina learned early on not to trust herself. Making decisions on her own was stressful, while asking others was much easier. People would always be available to tell her what to do and how to do it. Gina knew that if she tried to do things her way, she’d fail. If she did what others said, then she could at least attempt to deflect some of the blame when things didn’t go well. And people didn’t yell at her for wanting to do something different. Gina knew people wouldn’t like her for who she was. She learned to find out what they liked and then try her hardest to become just that. Empty inside, Gina relied on others to fill her up.
Children who are abused may adapt by distorting who and when to trust. Childhood abuse warps a child’s understanding of and ability to trust. Children, who are incredibly vulnerable, must trust the adults who care for them. When those adults are untrustworthy, children can draw different conclusions. Like Jason, some children conclude that trust is a precious commodity to be hoarded. These children tend to isolate and draw on their own resources to function. Others, like Gina, learn to distrust themselves and rely solely on others. Children like Jason are closed doors who let in no one. Children like Gina are wide-open doors who let in everyone.
Life on High Alert
Cindy glanced at the clock, feeling her breathing increase. He was late. Maybe he wouldn’t come tonight. She could always hope. Then again, maybe it was just better to get it over with, at least for a while. Waiting, in some ways, was worse. At least when it was happening, she knew it would soon be over. Waiting meant it hadn’t begun. Oddly, the only time Cindy was safe from him was right after it happened. She could always count on a lull; just as she could always count on the lull ending.
Stephen really wanted to go to the game. Why wasn’t anything easy? All his friends were going and had been laughing and talking about what a fun time they’d have. The game was a big deal; he had to be there. But, first, he had to get his mom to agree. As he rounded the corner in his neighborhood, Stephen went over in his mind every reason she could give not to let him go. He needed to find a way around each of her objections. Of course, Stephen told himself he had to be careful. He couldn’t give the impression he was arguing; that always set her off. Presentation and timing were everything. Mention the game when she was distracted by something else and make going seem like no big deal. If she knew how much the game meant to him, she might say yes, but she’d also find a way to make him pay.
Children who are abused may adapt by retaining a habit of constant vigilance—as though they’re constantly under a state of siege. Their worlds are populated not by security but by patterns of risk and attack. On a regular basis, or on a whim, they know they can become the targets of harm. Watching out for such harm, planning for it, attempting to forestall it, and finding ways to survive it create a life lived on high alert. Paradoxically, such children can experience more stress when harm is not occurring. The storm becomes the known; calm is unknown and, therefore, suspect.
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