The Burden of Achievement

My go-to method of coping with abuse is to achieve. School, and eventually work, were my escape. They were the places I got positive reinforcement for doing a good job, and I was always eager to please. At home, if I did a good job, it would either go unnoticed or there would suddenly be some alternate criteria that meant I failed. To escape at home, I read. I was less likely to be a target if I made myself invisible with a book.

In Kindergarten, I read at a fourth grade level. I was told many years later by my mother. She added that she made sure to play down my aptitude so as to not upset my older brother who struggled to read. My mother had a way of shutting me down and enabling my brother. I was expected to do well in school, but my parents never asked me about what I was studying or bothered to look at my homework. It never occurred to either of us that they could, and maybe should, engage me intellectually, or at all. They expected me to be totally independent, which was fine by me, because depending on them for anything lead to disappointment.

In my junior year of high school I figured out that I had enough credits to graduate early, if I took some additional classes at the local community college. It meant a total of nine classes, in addition to a pile of activities I was involved in at school, but I was motivated to leave home as soon as possible. The added bonus was that it kept me so busy, I was rarely home anyway. With great relief, I left for college two months after my seventeenth birthday. I drove myself two thousand miles away to start my own life. At school, I watched my new roommate say goodbye to her tearful, sweet mother, who had driven her to school and helped her get settled into our dorm. I had already been emotionally living on my own for so many years that I had forgotten that having an emotional attachment to a parent was normal.

For me, when things got hard, I got busy. I was accustomed to working long hours, and often I was rewarded for them. There were many positive reinforcements to be had for my accomplishments at work and school. No one, except for a small handful of my closest friends, knew about the abuse. Even then, it would take years for me to tell those I was close to about some details. My external persona was to be positive and motivational to others. I was a mentor and a leader. I looked out for others. I excelled in my work. However, over the years, the underlying effects were eating away at me. I worked myself into exhaustion, but nothing I accomplished seemed like it was “enough.” Success felt empty because it had been my only option for survival. It was not a choice, but a compulsion.

I struggled with survivor guilt over what I had achieved. Statistically, I should not have fared as well as I had. Over the years, my brother became debilitated from serious mental illness, and the complications from it haunted me. Our ways of coping were completely unalike, but had been unfairly compared to each other throughout our lives. I had internalized the message that any success on my part would steal his glory.

I was celebrated in my work. I was happily married. My kids were shockingly well-adjusted, amazing little people capable of love and empathy. I had broken the cycle. Still, I felt little satisfaction, because nothing could fill the void, which for me was the love and validation I needed as a child, but never experienced.

Hard work and perseverance gave me opportunities that helped lift me out of my abusive past, but it could not heal me. Sucking it up and pretending I was fine could get me through a day, a week, or even a season, but it could not get me through life. The deep healing I needed could only be accessed by first examining the vast depth of the wound.

3 thoughts on “The Burden of Achievement

  1. Vicki – time and time again your words resonate so deeply with me – I sometimes think I must have written them in a weird dissociated state where I am the writer I would like to be. When the words of others resonate with our truth it cuts through the isolation and helps us to continue walking on this recovery path . Keep writing and keep sharing and keep healing. I am having to dig so deep at the moment to keep going and your words comfort me deeply .


  2. There is often a lot in your writing that is familiar to myself and my history- but this one I could have written. From an early age, straight A’s were expected (and delivered) but there was no acknowledgement for doing what my mother said, “is just your job.” The report cards were hastily shoved in a drawer so it would not make my brother who was a year younger than myself “feel bad.” Much later, when I wrote a couple of best selling books my mother would tell me (and anyone else who would listen) that I needed to be “taken down a peg or two.” Over and over without provocation she would ask, “Who do you think you are? Just because you wrote a book doesn’t make you anything.” I could go on, but you know this picture well. Now, decades later, I still have to consciously remind myself that straight A’s at anything (and everything) are not only not possible, but not desireable in a fully human life. Old habits die hard.

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