When I was four the second early shame trauma happened.
I was standing on my yellow stool washing the dishes. It was one of my favorite things to do. My Mom had gotten a set of plastic dishes, so that I could wash them unsupervised. My Mom and little sister had gone over to our babysitter’s house.
My Dad was in the bathroom.
I was having a great time.
Then I heard my Dad’s voice. I didn’t want to be disturbed from my task, so I kept on washing, hoping he wouldn’t call again. But, of course, he did. I turned off the water. He was definitely not talking to someone on the phone. He was calling my name.
Reluctantly, I climbed down from the sink and walked over to the bathroom door. I called to him. In a raspy voice, he ordered me to come in.
I hesitated. My tummy felt tight. Somehow, I felt it was vital that I did not open the door. Still, he called me again.
When I stepped into the bathroom there was steam billowing through the air. It felt heavy. Through the mist, I saw Daddy reclined in the tub. But there was something wrong. There were red swirls in the water. His mouth was covered in tiny white bubbles. He was sunk down in the tub so that the water nearly came to his mouth.
It was scary. My Dad’s cry battled with the panic inside me. My Dad won. I came closer to the tub. He told me that he was stuck and that I had to help him out of the tub. That didn’t make any sense. He was very big, and I was so little. I stood frozen.
In that funny, raspy voice he commanded that I take his hand. When I did, he told me to pull. So, I did. Water splashed all over the floor. I pulled again. He grabbed the side of the tub and gave a mighty push.
Soon, he was lying on the bathroom floor, like some sort of grounded whale. Cuts on his wrists were still oozing blood, diluted by the bath water.
In that same strange voice, he told me to come and sit on his chest. When I did my panties and dress got all wet. Next, he ordered me to bounce on his chest. He told me it was the only way to get him to breath.
I did it, over and over, until my little legs were shaky. He was depending on me. Feeling both validated and afraid, I dared not stop.
The rest of the story I must guess at. I remember my Mom coming back and taking me to my room. I have a sense that there were flashing lights and lots of grownups talking. My mother says he doesn’t remember it. I know he was hospitalized for suicide attempts.
In the end, what really matters is how this incident affected me. I felt so important. I had saved my Daddy. But I also felt empty and confused.
Why had my Daddy done that? Why would he want to leave me? If he could do that to himself, what might he do to me? What would happen if I made him mad? If I made a mistake.
The only thing I could figure was that I must be perfect. That mistakes could be fatal.
I was convinced that I was not only bad. I was flawed. Why else would such a thing happen?
These early events did more than create a deep sense of shame and inadequacy. They set me up to accept anything my Father did, no matter how bad it might make me feel. Later it would turn into suicidal ideation.
No matter what my father did, I accepted the responsibility for it. Because there was more to come. A lot more.