Things I’m glad my mother did for me:
Prior to first grade, she forced me to drill in the 12-times-12 multiplication table until I knew it forward and backward.
She taught me never to run with scissors and not to hand knives to people blade first.
She taught me to eat with my mouth closed.
She introduced me to kimchi.
Things I’m glad my father did for me:
He taught me not to open a car door and try to get out while it was still moving.
He taught me to use hot sauce on everything and that MSG is good.
Thinking about those good deeds, it’s hard to believe just how abusive my parents could be. But I’m forced to remember it daily, because I have to deal with the consequences, one of which is my habit of eating too fast. This came about because during my teenage years my father entered a phase where he had extreme anger at a coworker. I can’t remember the coworker’s name. I’ll call him Eric.
I never met Eric. I only knew him because at the dinner table my father used the name Eric when pounding the table and yelling at me while I tried to eat. He’d pop a vein in his forehead and turn red with rage, even screaming himself hoarse, calling me Eric and telling me what a jerk I was. When I tried to politely remind him that I wasn’t Eric, it would make him really mad.
“DON’T TRY THAT WITH ME, MISTER. I KNOW EXACTLY WHO YOU ARE!!”
My mother never stepped in to stop this, because she was afraid of my father. In fact, she made things worse by enforcing the rule that I couldn’t leave the dinner table until I’d finished all my food. I couldn’t defy her and leave anyway because of the seating arrangement. I was always made to sit with my back to the wall, and the only way out was past my father. My father was short but strong. I needed permission to leave, and it was dangerous to leave without my mother granting me permission.
So, I learned to wolf my food down just so I could get out of the trap. Every single dinner, seven days a week, for some six years or so, until I could get away from the house altogether and live on my own.
I could have escaped sooner, but I wasn’t allowed to get a job for reasons I still don’t understand. They said it would interfere with my schoolwork, but that didn’t make any sense to me.
All that was more than 50 years ago, but I have never been able to break the habit of eating too fast. It’s a choking hazard. I have to be especially wary of it when I’m eating sandwiches. One trick I’ve learned: I took up eating with chopsticks when possible. I’d cut my food up before starting to eat so there were no big chunks, and I’d get in one bite at a time with chopsticks. That helped slow me down.
When I tell people I’m a recovering child abuse survivor, I often get unsolicited advice along the lines of “you just need to put it behind you.” People have no concept of how transformative emotional abuse can be. It changes you in ways you can’t forget. If I tried to forget the dinner table screaming and what I had to do to cope, I’d have choked to death years ago. Forgetting doesn’t work. Carrying the coping forward works.
What also works is learning to laugh at the memories. Especially Dad’s popped vein and lobster face while he called me Eric, spitting and losing his voice. I couldn’t laugh at the time, but now, in hindsight, the whole performance is hilarious. I don’t need to forget the comedy. I need to cherish and treasure it always.
This column is in part thanks to mandatory CPR and first aid training for Real Change employees.
One of the tidbits of the training was they don’t call abdominal thrusts the Heimlich maneuver anymore. So, during the ride home with other coworkers, the subject was of course raised: “Have you ever done the Heimlich to anyone?” I said no but that I’d had it done to me.
Thanks to Katie Comboy, our volunteer manager, for inspiring this one!
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Read more of the May 24-30, 2023 issue.