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10 Kinds of Accidental Abuse

Were you damaged by those who "couldn't help it" or "didn't mean it"?

The first time someone said you'd been abused, were you shocked?

Did the A-word clang in your ears like an alien bell?

Then were you furious—at he or she who said it? At yourself for having hinted that it might be true?

Did the A-word sound impossible, irrelevant—because, OK, you suffered and maybe still do, but not because of crossbow-bearing supervillains. Your harmers meant well or hurt themselves too and/or couldn't help it and/or fed and clothed you so be grateful, scum.

Then did the A-word sink in like a fishhook, stuck?

Abuse often happens "by accident"—not uh-oh-car-skids-off-the-road, but arguably unintended, unpremeditated, perpetrated in a daze or with alleged love.

And what they never meant or couldn't help or thought was best harmed us. Their sorrows, hunger, biases, and incompetencies made us feel inadequate, untrusting, undeserving, scared, cold, gross, unsafe, unseen, erased.

Deliberate abuse is vicious, but at least it's obvious.

Accidental abuse is relatively covert, complex, clandestine, and/or conditional—committed by involuntary villains whose pain and/or good intentions arguably exempt them from blame.

"But she was abused, too," we might say. Or: "Drugs blurred his brain."

Or: "They wanted to make me beautiful." Or slim. Or smart. Or "good."

Maybe, while wielding harm, they wept. Or said, "Someday you'll understand."

We tell ourselves they were too sad, sick, young, naive, addicted, and/or anguished to accuse.

But often this just drives wounds deeper, forcing them to suppurate unseen.

Accidental abuse denies its victims the cause-and-effect catharsis of sheer, scathing, what-a-scumbag rage. Gauging how much our unaccusable abusers never meant to shame, insult, ignore, abandon, terrify, invalidate, sadden, sicken or starve us, gauging how much to forgive, forget, fathom, accept and never say makes us feel evil. Vengeful. Mean.

In upside-downland, we say: Our safety was our responsibility, not theirs.

I should have known better. Been better. Read their minds more clearly. Loved them more.

Healing from accidental abuse requires recognizing it. Whether we use the actual A-word or not, however we define these terms, however indeliberate it was, it was. We must stop calling our wounds self-inflicted and their festering our fault. We must trace new trails through the bottom of the sea between terror and time and loyalty.

Here are 10 contexts in which emotional trauma occurs "accidentally."

1. Your harmer suffered too. Their sorrow was contagious, ambient. You blamed yourself for causing it and/or failing to cheer them up.

2. They smothered you, demanding your constant companionship, always too close, knowing no boundaries, jealous of anyone you liked.

3. They said it was for your own good, their sky-high expectations and harsh penalties for "failure." Was it for your good—or theirs? Did love spur them—or shame?

4. They were emotionally unavailable: not brutal but unhuggable, aloof. You couldn't count on them for comfort or counsel.

5. They were physically absent, not because of war or illness but because they preferred to be elsewhere. Without you.

6. They followed cultural norms that members of other cultures would find horrifying, harsh, extreme, and cruel.

7. They tried atoning with apologies, promises, presents. Accepting these attempted amends made you feel bought, used, conflicted, confused.

8. They used you—as a best bud, show-dog, and/or proof of their skills, generosity, and goodness, proof that they were lovable and loved.

9. They overprotected you from every perceived danger, monitoring your every move, scaring and isolating you, and making you feel helpless.

10. They co-opted your skills and passions, adopting your sports, hobbies, or styles, hungry for thrills, identity, applause.

This is not about all-out cruelty but the blurry-bordered crisis of responsibility fumbled, unrecognized, warped, or ignored. Accidents are not always crimes but rack up casualties nonetheless.

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