Like many other children, I dreaded bathtime. Not because of the water; I love being in water and have for as long as I remember. Not because of the occasional sting of shampoo in the eye, or the coldness getting out, either. Those were only minor considerations.
I dreaded bathtime because of the cuticle treatment.
My mother had apparently learned that after tub-time is when it is best to remove that fold of extra skin that grows at the base of our fingernails, and so, at least once a week, after we were toweled off and in our bathrobes, my sister and I would have to undergo our mother’s ministrations as she would first apply the “softening solution” to our cuticles, before she wielded the orange-stick on the still-tender skin, shaping, prodding, even jabbing if we squirmed. The desired result would be a smooth, unbroken line of fresh skin, unhampered by any excess growth of dead tissue, pink, sensitive, and, above all, tidy.
I honestly don’t remember how well my sister submitted to this treatment; I only know that I never sat still enough and that my older sibling would often be tasked with holding my arms down so that I wouldn’t grab my hands away. We would often joke about how “nervous” I was, and I would apologize profusely to both mother and sister for my sin of being too sensitive, of being somehow unable to withstand the pain of the sharp stick on tender flesh, or the final trimming away of the excess skin with the nail-scissors. I had learned, earlier than I can remember, that if my squirming resulted in a jagged edge or, heaven forbid, a break in the skin, it would require multiple repetitions of the treatment until the cuticles were once again deemed “acceptable.”
I spent much of my childhood learning what was acceptable and what was not. Taking too long to make up my bed in the morning, dawdling over my food, making too much noise or not wiping up the floor well enough – these were all “unacceptable,” and even “unfair,” and the various sheddings of my body – from a drippy nose to dropping hair – were deemed highly offensive, taken as a deliberate act to ruin the carefully maintained, immaculate clean of my mother’s house.
There were more than ragged fingernails to draw parental criticism: one afternoon on the bus ride from school, I burst out in tears of frustration and anxiety, brought on by the way the cuff of my sweater looked “incorrect” against my too-pale skin; doubtless I drew curious stares from my fellow children as I sobbed and tried to adjust my clothing before I got home – I am not sure what had set me off, or even what fashion guideline I feared I had transgressed, but I remember the sense of dread that I knew my appearance was not acceptable, and would draw at the very least a withering comment, if not the confiscation of some favorite piece of clothing, on the grounds that “you just can’t wear things like that; you’re too sloppy to pull it off.”
As I grew up, I would begin to take care of my own fingernails, and would often poke, jab, and even cut the skin until there were no more ragged edges, no tag of skin hanging out of place. My musical instrument meant I had to keep my nails quite short, but it was not long before I learned to keep at least one good edge, the better to pick at scabs and sores. I could not leave any wound upon arms or legs alone, tearing into and re-traumatizing a relatively small scrape until it was a horrific gash, and taking pleasure in the release that pulling the scab away from the flesh gave me – in giving myself these small injuries, I was atoning for the sin of existing, as I was sure that my very presence gave offence to all around; I certainly felt that way at home, and I could not imagine that anyone else would find me any less in the way than my parents seemed to. And so, in order to apologize to the world for my odious presence, I picked apart my arms, and in a cycle of making them uglier and feeling guilty and digging into them again and again, I tried to make things right with the world I had offended, with my own, crueller, and much more visible version of the cuticle treatment.
When we are raised in the grip of undue influence, it can take many years beyond the span of adulthood to understand the true nature of the coercion which seemed so normal in the family. For most of my young adulthood, I carried with me the message of “you will never be good enough” with me, the conviction of my worthlessness every bit as strong as religious fervor, taking every challenge against the authority of my internal parental self-condemnation as a personal insult to my family and my reality. Across half a continent and a full decade, I believed myself to be ugly, worthless, unacceptable. If someone bullied me, it was because I was weak. If someone hurt me, it was because I had left myself vulnerable. If I was attacked, I had been asking for it. No matter what happened to me, my mother was quick to remind me that it was my fault, the world was right and I was wrong, and those who had injured me were not to blame, or at least not as much as the careless girl who had allowed the injuries to happen through her inattention to detail.
Only after many years was I able to shed the “religion” of self-abasement my mother had foisted upon me and step away from the shadow of my family’s undue influence. Even today, my arms are a network of scars from scratches that do not heal fast enough, picked into re-injury if I do not remember to remain vigilant against self-harm. But now I realize that I am not “unacceptable,” and that the eyes of the world, for the most part, are much less likely to condemn and judge, and that most people are kind and compassionate, and do not judge me for a stray thread hanging on a cuff, or even a ragged cuticle. Although I have many miles to go, I now know that the cuticle treatment was nothing more than an exercise in power, a manipulation of pain, designed to train a small child into unquestioning submission. I have learned that I am acceptable as I am, and not an unwelcome intrusion into the world.
It is harder than many think to shed the pervasive assumptions of childhood, especially when the first assumption is “don’t question!”. However, it can be done, and, like leaving any abusive relationship, the first step is to recognize the coercion for what it is, to know that it is wrong, and that it is not you that is unacceptable, but the abuse that you have suffered that was unacceptable. Once you realize that you are not wrong but rather wronged, then the “bubble” of influence becomes visible, all the easier for you to step outside, to escape, and, ultimately, to thrive.
What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Do you have a story about undue influence in the family that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you!