The first time my stepfather called me a bitch, I was 10.
At the dinner table that night, I’d asked for a second dinner roll. And he took the bread basket, piled the remaining 4-5 rolls onto his own plate and told me I’d had enough.
‘Why do you get five pieces, and I only get one?’ I asked, indignant and confused.
And that’s when he said it:
Shut up, you little bitch. Just. Like. That.
I was manipulative, and stubborn, and smart-mouthed, and rude. I could never just learn the first time. And, this. This? It was somehow my fault. These are lies I believed about myself for the longest time and so many more.
But the truth is, I was a child.
A child grieving the loss of my dad in my home after the divorce of my parents. I wasn’t smiling, and embracing, and welcoming this new man into my heart and home right away for reasons that had absolutely nothing to do with him. What I needed was protection and support and time and space; not to be forced to act like I loved someone who wasn’t even kind to me. What I felt was real, but it was not honored.
My stepdad was critical of everything from my appearance, to my weight, to my academics and creative endeavors. He mocked me (and only me) openly and often.When my sister and I were alone with him, he was particularly cruel to me. But when I reported things he’d said or done to my mom when she returned home- he’d tell a very different version of events. My sister was afraid to come to my defense. My mom believed him. And, this. This? It was somehow my fault.
At first, even the slightest provocation made me blow. My angry outbursts always landed me in trouble- his (usually) quiet, calculated way of being hurtful went under the radar. It was ignored, or more often denied. So I learned (painfully, slowly-it’s not my nature) to shut up. And, I promised myself I would not let him win. To me, that meant striving and striving and striving some more. It meant acting smart, and funny, and relaxed in the world. It meant never giving him the satisfaction that he mattered enough to hold me back. And, this? This is how I chose to deal with him (and the scars of living life with him) for most of the 25 years he was in my life.
But the truth is, you can’t just ignore something and hope goes away.
I’m still angry. And it’s something that I have stuffed down, and sectioned off, and quieted and calmed in myself for a long, long time. But, I shouldn’t have to. Yes, I’m angry for that little girl, and I’m angry for the woman she has become. Because that is the only logical, healthy response. I have my own little 10 year old girl now. A precious, and curious, and sensitive, and serious, and (sometimes) smart-mouthed little girl.
And, yes, the first time my stepfather called me a bitch I was not much different than her.
I had asked for my fair share, I’d been indignant when I didn’t get it. And that, and that alone, had branded me a bitch. It wasn’t the first or the last time I’d be called that word by him or by another man for the same reason. And when it was said to me, about me, I let it consume and control me. Like the full range of my rightful emotions were greedy, or shameful, or wrong.
But the truth is, anger is a potent and powerful signifier of injustice. And I was right to feel it. I am right to feel it. It was and is a healthy response.
And if that makes me a bitch, well…