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Words Do Hurt

The following was written in response to a prolonged series of flame wars on a recovery newsgroup that I read on a regular basis.

I stayed out of the flame wars - but could not help but notice that many posters I know and respect were not only being deeply hurt by what was being said; but were also getting involved in the denigration, name-calling, and worse.

One poster noted that noninvolvement is a form of involvement and; in a strange way, approval of the dynamics.

I thought about that for quite a while - and posted the following to the newsgroup in response, in particular to one person, but also to the entire group - because it applied (in my opinion) to all who were involved. Note; I've changed the name of the person to whom I originally addressed this to the generic "Anonymous."

Words really do hurt...


Hi, Anonymous; and others who chose to read...

No flames in this post at all, fwiw...

On the wall of the hallway of Mou's and my home is a poster, showing a picture of a young girl with very wide near-tears eyes...

Superimposed on that picture is a repeating column of:

You Idiot
You Idiot
You Idiot
You Idiot
You Idiot

The caption simply says "You don't have to hit to hurt" ...

In our society and culture, it seems (to me) at least that all of us adults completely agree that ill-chosen words can hurt children - but that hey, because we are adults, "sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me."

Yeah, right.

We take care of the children (again, yeah, right?) by being careful with what we say to them because their sense of self and self-worth is fragile, new, and evolving -

But hey hey, don't need to do that with adults at all, right? We adults know who we are, our egos are strong, formed, complete, nothing can touch that at all, oh no; we're adults, after all.


If that were true, all of the various support groups would have no need to exist.

FWIW, I've never read anywhere on the net, web, or in professional journals anything to contradict that abuse survivors, trauma survivors - any survivors - have very low or nonexistent have little or no self-esteem.

Indeed, all of those sources - and more - stress that a survivor is particularly vulnerable to further abuse and trauma of any kind; "sensitized" - and more likely to believe negative things about themselves than positive.

Those of you who know me know much of my own childhood, and some of you were reading the group when my prior marriage broke up.

Part of the reason for the 21-year marriage dying is that both I and my ex-wife are both survivors; and neither one of us had the tools and skills to deal with the repercussions of abuse. I was as much to blame in that (very codependently) I swallowed all of the cultural, social, and religious doctrine, and damn near lost all sense of identity with who I am as a result... "Men are strong, macho", "Forget the past, get on with your life", etc. etc. ad nauseum.

So, I tried to "be the perfect husband", "head of household", etc.; tried to repress, deny, and otherwise "forget about the past" with devastating results; not just to me and the ex-wife, but also to our son. He, as a result of living in that environment, does his own fair share of denying, suppressing, and acting out - and some of that acting out takes the form of refusing any help of any kind, excessive drinking, drugs (less of that now than just two years ago), fits of violence - which thus far have been taken out on inanimate objects.

Part of the results of this, for me, was that I lost what little sense of self I had, lost all self-respect and sense of self-worth that my guardians had helped me rebuild after I and my siblings were literally rescued from the original abusive (mental, physical, sexual) environment.

Getting back to the words concept though.

All during the 21 years, my ex would handle literally all disagreements by saying "I'm going to get a job, leave you, and divorce you."

She always accompanied her tirades (no exceptions) with various accusations:

I have never loved you, I am going to get job and leave you

You cannot support this family, cannot support me, and you never will.

Your mother said you are hard to live with, and she is right.

No one can understand you

I've never respected you

You are a slob

You will never be a real man

You are selfish, self-centered

You are not a man, you are a wimp, you cannot stand on your own two feet

You are a failure for not finishing college

You are a failure as a husband, provider, and father, and you always will be

You owe me for the shit you've put me through

I'm going to make you pay till the day you die

You aren't a man, you can't even keep a decent job

You are married to your computers

Get out of my life

I wish you were dead

God is going to get you

I can't stand your guts

You are an ugly man

Don't come near me, you disgust me

You turn Shane against me

I married you to spite my mother

Shane always takes your side because you've brainwashed him

You never discipline Shane

You don't spend any time with me

I have never loved you

You never take me anywhere

Your poetry is dark, disturbing, I don't like it

The music you listen to is disturbing, moody, dark

We have nothing in common

You are no christian, and you are not a spiritual leader, you're a child of Satan

You are a dark evil man

You are sick, twisted, insane

You are a mean, cruel, vicious man, you are evil

You're demon possessed

It hurt the first time she said this to me, and it hurt each and every time; yet, I kept trying, and no matter what I did to please her, it only got worse.

And, hearing from therapists, counselors, social leaders, and more "She's unhappy because there is something wrong with you and your approach" resulted in my own believing that the accusations were right - and that HURT.

Heh. Our society does seem to automatically condemn the man in most divorce cases: "Oh the poor woman, he must be an absolute monster"

For what that's worth, I know that is not true in a lot of cases; women can be monsters too. My own genetic grandmother taught me that.

The pain went pretty damned deep, feeding off what my own abusers had told me, said to me; more on this below.

For me, it hit rock-bottom on a Saturday morning in August of 1994.

The divorce was in stasis because the ex didn't have a job yet and therefore no place to live apart from me; we were under the same roof but different rooms, and avoided each other like the plague; literally leading separate lives.

That didn't prevent her from further tirades each time she saw me though; so I spent as much time at work - and away from the house that I could, going to the Delaware Water Gap or to the nearby canal just to walk by myself, or (many times) to get an uninterrupted night's sleep in my truck.

The previous Friday night I had gone to Home Depot and picked up a quart of hydrochloric acid and a quart of sulfuric acid, and filled a glass thermos with a half-and-half mixture and left that in my truck.

Saturday morning, I drove to work (after yet another of the ex's tirades) and went to my office; I told NO ONE where I was going or why. My son had already escaped to a friend's house for the day, and the ex yelled "get out of my site, you ugly pig" as I went out the door.

When I got to my office, I wrote out a suicide note, blaming myself for the ex's - and my son's - misery; quoting many of the things my ex had accused me of (see the list above) as why I was so bad and unworthy to live.

I opened the thermos and was lifting it to my mouth - and the phone rang. Instinctively, literally without thinking, I put the thermos down and automatically picked the phone up and answered.

It was geode (a member of that online support group).

Somehow, she knew something was wrong, and knew to call me at work and she asked me what was wrong.

I did not tell her about what I was ready to do; I did not WANT anyone to intervene, talk me out of it; I only told her that I was incredibly depressed, and could not see how I had any future - after all, who'd want a debt- ridden two-time loser who couldn't do anything right?

I don't remember much of what was said; only that after I hung up the phone, I took the acid to the bathroom and poured it down the toilet, and then headed out to the Delaware Water Gap. Much of that week is a blur to me.

Words... words said intentionally to hurt me, get back at me for wrongs real and imagined; those words FED my own lack of self-esteem caused by the abuse endured during my childhood, my life.

And drove me to the edge of death - and I have to admit that pit looked incredibly inviting.

Heh... the abuse of childhood.

Yes, physical and sexual abuse; and one hell of a lot of it, applied in some of the most inventive and horrific ways imaginable.

Yet, It was the words that did the most damage: the physical stuff could and did heal (often slowly), but at least those healed; yes, admittedly leaving mental and emotional scars.

The words... so similar to the ex's own.

The words spoken to me by the adults in my life: my father, stepfather, maternal grandfather and grandmother, and aunts and uncles.

You are nothing, you are lower than a worm

You aren't worthy to lick my ass clean

You are a slut, a child-whore, good for nothing except fucking

You are a laughable, pathetic excuse for a kid

You deserve to be abused and hurt because you are a nasty little boy

You are sick, twisted, and evil, and that's why you have to endure this to cleanse your soul

You are a lying, sick baby

No one respects you or thinks you are worth anything

You are less than shit, and eating shit would be an honor for you

Go get yourself fucked by a dog, that's all you are good for

You are a whimpering whining crybaby

You are psychotic, irrational, and deserve to be locked away

You were born a bastard, and will die a bastard

You are a cowardly, pathetic, bean-brained bootlicking little prick

You like causing trouble, so you have to take the consequences

You're nothing but a mealy-mouthed mother-fucking crybaby

Even dog shit is more valuable than you

Sigh... and that's just a small sample of the words said, over and over again.

Words such as these are - for many survivors - incredibly damaging; echoing what the survivor has been told repeatedly by the abusers, reinforcing the lies and conditioning inflicted (intentionally or not) by the same abusers.

Hearing them from my abusers destroyed what self esteem I had; hearing variations of them years later from my guardians and my ex undid and destroyed what little self-esteem I'd built up, and drove me to death's door.

One can intellectualize and use the "words cannot hurt you" aphorism (cliché?) - and, intellectually, that is true: They're just sound waves, and one can intellectually chose to believe - or not believe - the message delivered.

Thing is - the soul, psyche, whatever one cares to call it - is NOT by nature intellectual and it cannot be convinced by intellectual and logical discourse or reason.

It's a long hard path to undo that kind of damage, and it doesn't take much to knock someone down who is just beginning to get a grip on what recovery means and what that takes.

For that matter, it doesn't take much to knock the wind out of a survivor who has come a long way either; there are some things that - to this day - will take me right to my knees, gasping for breath.

All I know is that the denigration, put-downs, and name-calling that has being going on from all sides takes me right back to the abusive environments I was in.

Oh, I know I am not in those environments now; but it still hurts. Heh... like a severe burn so to speak; and I do know what that is like; I have scars from third-degree burns.

The burn heals - but is incredibly sensitive to heat for years after the original injury.

I know this for a fact; my right hand was severely burned in 1953, and in 1965, in my high-school bio class, we were learning about the nervous system - and how the body (somewhat) repairs those kinds of injuries.

I was curious, and told my teacher that my burn scars did indeed seem more sensitive to heat than the rest of my skin - and that I'd like to test that.

He set up several beakers over bunsen burners, put in thermometers, and waited till they reached the temps he wanted. He didn't let me see the readings; just himself and the other students saw what the actual temps were before the experiment.

By the way - he did state that he would not take any beaker past the temp where first-degree burns could occur.

He had me put my left hand, the unburned one, in the middle beaker (there were 9 of them) - it felt lukewarm; then he had me put my right hand in a beaker two more to the right.


He then had me put my left hand in the same beaker - it felt warm, but was not painful at all.

He then asked me if I'd be willing to place my unburned hand in the last two (warmer/hotter) beakers. I did; and the very last one was hot, but tolerably so.

The beaker where my burns hurt was at 100 degrees fahrenheit... the last beaker was at 110 degrees.

Abuse injuries - physical, mental, emotional... are like burn scars, Anonymous.

Going back to the main concept again here.

Anonymous, the idea of having a right to be angry and to express that anger has been discussed more times than I can count on this newsgroup and others.

And, I agree that we survivors deserve that right; after all, it was taken away from us (most of us, anyway) by our abusers - I know if I showed any anger at all, my abusers not only beat and sexually abused me, but also did the same to my sister and brother as an object lesson.

I learned real fast not to show anger in their presence.

I learned too that using newsgroups as an outlet did several things to me; it frustrated me, because someone would be there to respond in kind - and escalate - and the firestorm would be underway - and I (and the others) would never get in "the last word." Very frustrating, time-consuming, and energy draining, that.

And oh, I did my own fair share of name calling and denigration; I had very good teachers.

Getting involved in the flame wares also prevented me from working any of my own issues and triggers; there simply was not enough time to do that; there was not enough time to share the things I do have that can contribute to healing and recovery. There wasn't enough time to share my own perspectives on issues - based on my own experiences - so that I could receive feedback from other survivors based on their experiences and thus gain new perspectives that might be helpful to my own recovery.

All because I was too busy responding to and escalating "the wrongs done me", by flaming and responding to flames.

Another topic that has been discussed is reading posts, and responsibility for what one says - and what kind of impact what one says can have. The current thread underway about reading/not reading has happened before, over and over again, with the same arguments, same statements being made; just different folks saying and rehashing it all (in most cases).

FWIW, I've always used the "n" key - or it's equivalent; never have had a kill file, and probably never will... and, I read nearly every post written.

Not everyone is where I am in that regard; nor am I where others are - and that's actually OK.

Thing is; there have been times I've skipped flames-in-progress; expanding the thread only enough to check and see if some of my friends have posted.

I read what my friends had written because they've often good insights to read that nearly always have helped me.

The flipside of that is sometimes they quote participants of the flames - and there have been times some of the quoted statements left me feeling like I was right back in my mother and stepfather's house or in my grandmother's house, being beaten down verbally and physically.

And, the real kicker for me is there have been times someone has posted under a completely different topic that has NO apparent tie-in to a flamewar-in-progress, or flames at all - and there will be the same gut-punching quotes of those involved in one or another of the flamewars...

It DOES hurt, Anonymous, even when the quotes, name-calling, and denigration are not aimed at me specifically.

Others have also noted this... and you yourself have begun to ask "just how far does one's responsibility in watching what one writes go?"

Maybe what I've shared here from my own experiences will help you answer that question, Anonymous.

For what it's worth, I hope what I have shared here helps all who've been involved in the various flamewars understand that yes; words DO hurt.

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Words that soak into your soul are whispered, not yelled
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Last updated: Saturday, 03-Jan-2015 18:13:24 PST