Childhood trauma

Comfort Food

I heard the screams weekly, echoing through the house, like an alarm clock set on weekday mornings. They filled the emptiness of the hollow rooms down the hall, the pleas for mercy apparent in the desperation of the young woman’s voice. She begged and resisted to little avail, the pounding of flesh against the hardwood floors and walls beating too harshly against my eardrums. The thuds against the floor mimicked my knocking against the door to my twin brother’s room. He opened it quickly with phone in hand and his computer monitor ablaze with Youtube videos. I walked in and made myself comfortable. I sat, legs criss-crossed, on his bed while the cacophony in the background blurred into white noise. My brother and I pressed snooze, ignoring the screams, unimpressed because they’d become routine to our lives.

The young woman was our elder sister. She was also the bane of my parents’ existence. She struggled academically throughout her schooling, frequently receiving cautionary comments from teachers written in red ink on her report cards. For first-generation parents who had sacrificed their comfortable lives in Korea for their kids’ educations, these red-inked comments were tattoos of disgrace.

My mother and father refused to accept that my sister wasn’t academically inclined. Rather, they remained adamant in converting my book-averse sister into an Ivy League-bound academic, overwhelming her with afterschool programs and tutors. She still returned home with mediocre grades, failing freshman math and scraping by introductory English.

Because my sister was bombarded with demeaning comments regarding her academic incompetence, she lacked self esteem and eventually stopped trying altogether. She gradually reached a point where she stopped caring about my parents’ expectations. Instead, she began ditching class and hung out with risque and “troublesome” (occasional pot-smoking nicotine addicts with divorced parents) kids. This blatant disrespect for our parents’ effort to amend her lead to the violent fights within our parents.

So, the living room became a war zone where one word from either our parents or my sister would trigger an outburst of rage: plates shattered across the floor, bodies pinned down to the ground and unintended insults thrown carelessly at one another. In our home, there were no neutral territories, so any room was subject to this brute violence. Not surprisingly, our home was riddled with holes created by these unrelenting fists, heavy hearts and iron-willed egos.

By the time I was 10, I had familiarized myself with these circumstances, not realizing until I was in high school that the domestic violence prevalent at home wasn’t the case for my peers. Nevertheless, it persisted, and I eventually became victim to my parents’ warped idea of parenting.

Any deviance from my parents’ understanding of the world was justification for discipline that ranged from something as harmless as walking two miles home from middle school to as detrimental as being hit with an iron bar or wooden rod until my body became numb. In the beginning, I never challenged or questioned why my parents chose to raise my siblings and me this way, because they had strategically ingrained in me as a child that tough love was the purest form of love, the best validation a parent could ever give.

I swallowed this lie whole and believed whatever I did warranted discipline. But as I grew older or, in my parents’ perspectives, “ Americanized,” I slowly resisted their obsessive influence in my life.

I initially bottled up emotions, harboring an undeniable hatred for both my parents and Korean culture, and refused to acknowledge that my toxic home environment was valid enough to vent to others. I isolated myself by denying anyone access into my world but relied on temporary catharses sports, music, academic achievements, maintain my sanity.

These quick fixes never resolved my problems but deluded me into thinking that things at home were OK. Deep down, I knew that I would reach a tipping point, one where I would defy my parents through drastic action. It was just a matter of when, not if.

I was right. Through a series of unfortunate events, I ended up living for weeks away from my parents at parks and friends’ and strangers’ homes when I was 15. This detachment from my parents, like an expedited college experience, provided me a space where I could free myself from my parents and the emotional and physical abuse they had created. This liberation, however, came at an unexpected cost.

I suppressed any fond memories I had with my parents to protect myself and fixated instead on the traumatic events that had pushed me to cut them from my life. I painted them in a light that exaggerated their shadows without realizing that this only caused an illusion, impeding me from fully comprehending my reality. I needed a broader perspective, an escape from my narrow understanding of my parents, so I returned home, but only once my social worker and parents reached a compromise.

When I went back home, nothing was the same. I became a stranger, and it took a while before my parents began addressing me by name and holding conversations beyond just acknowledging my existence. But slowly, my parents and I formed a relationship that bridged our differences.

This relationship was nothing close to perfect, but it was a significant improvement from the past. Like an open-ended question that propels a person out of ignorance, our new bond pushed us into an uncomfortable unknown that inched us closer to closure and healing and even closer to understanding.

Lauren Ahn writes the Friday blog on inedible nourishment. Contact her at [email protected].

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