He Made Me Eat off the Floor When I Was Eight
How I retroactively claimed the power of my “no”
In Some Snapshots from My Shitty Childhood, I wrote briefly about being forced, as a child, to eat directly from the floor. I’ll go more deeply into that memory here, and I’ll show you how I was able to transform it from a memory of abuse into a celebration of a small boy’s courage and power.
I was about eight years old, and we were eating spaghetti at the table in our kitchen in the suburbs of London. I was focused on my food when my mother’s boyfriend, who was sitting next to me, suddenly pushed his chair out and stood up. He grabbed me and picked up my plate. While glaring at me through his bottle glasses, spit and denture glue spraying from his methamphetamine-sunken cheeks, he yelled, “If you’re going to behave like an animal, then I’ll treat you like one.”
While the rest of my family watched, he dragged me across the room to where the stove was. There, he emptied my plate of food directly onto the red tiles, next to the bowls used to feed the dog and cats.
“Eat it,” he growled.
It took a moment for what was happening sink in. Once I realized what he was telling me to do, I felt fearful of him, but I also felt anger and resistance. I imagined how ashamed I would feel, and I didn’t want to do it.
“No,” found its way up from my gut, and trembled from my lips.
“Eat it, or I’ll put you through that window,” he immediately shot back. These phrases always confused me a little, but also made me chuckle inside; these bizarre, auto-spoken, grammatically perverse concoctions that he would blurt out when he was enraged. Another one of his favorites was “believe you me,” which I think is a command that means, “you, believe me.” To me, this always sounded like a phase that was being vomited up from medieval times, from an era before any kind of popular literacy, when the language spoken in the cobbled alleyways barely resembled anything that had ever been written down.
Even though he didn’t look at any window or point to any window, I assumed that the window he was talking about was the long, high window that ran behind the counter above the sink. We were on the ground floor, so I wouldn’t fall far, but I presumed that he meant to put me through the window without first opening it. That could lead to life-threatening cuts.
So, in my own home, I was apparently being given a choice, by this strange 30-something-year-old hobo who looked like he had aged well past 70: a choice between (A) being thrown through a window and (B) eating from the floor in front of my family.
“Why didn’t your mum go to the police?” friends have asked me when I told them stories of what happened in my childhood home. She did, and, according to her, the police told her that this strange man’s continual threats and attempts to kill us, and his refusal to leave, were “a domestic concern” that didn’t involve them. He first arrived in our lives as a homeless man who my father had met in rehab. He arrived as a guest in our home, someone who my parents had intended to help. The moral of the story is that you should be careful of who you let into your home.
I could feel his rage building, and I had to choose. Internally, I noticed a kind of giving-up occurring. There was hopelessness, a sense that I had no choice, that I had to comply and go against my own values and sense of what was right. I hadn’t done anything wrong. I had just been eating food, probably eagerly, because I was often, secretly, very hungry. And this broken child-man in front of me was requiring me to enact an embarrassing scene likely projected from his shadowy past.
I don’t remember exactly how it happened, but, full of shame, I demonstrated my compliance in front the other members of my family. I probably kneeled down or got down on my hands and knees. The story I have is that once he saw that I was going to do it, he let me go. As I write this, however, I’m wondering if I actually did it and blocked it out of my memory. I can’t remember.
A couple of weekends ago, in the Oaks Room at the Best Western Hotel in Novato, I was at my fifth weekend of eight in my master-level certification training with NLP Marin. In a practice session, I took the role of “subject” while the “programmer” supported me in moving from a recurring problem state in which I was “putting the needs of others above my own” towards my desired state of “confidently advocating for my needs.” The third student, taking the “meta” role, witnessed the process, along with a couple of teaching assistants. Using the tools of transformational NLP, the programmer accompanied me in discovering and tracing the associated isomorphic structure back to the imprint in that kitchen of my childhood home. That might not have been the first time I had experienced something like that, but it was certainly significant.
My default position in the scene was dissociated from what was happening, my point of view hovering above and to the side of my little body. The programmer guided my awareness into the child’s body to look out through the eyes, to breath through the lungs, and to feel what it was like to for him at that time. The overwhelmingly clear sensation was the feeling of anger that was arising, the anger that was expressing as the word, “no.”
“It feels so good,” I said and I felt the energy rising up through my body. “It’s like a guilty pleasure,” I continued. “Should anger feel this good?” As we stayed with the feeling of anger, back then, in the experience of me saying “no,” in the present time, in the Oaks Room, my body started to alternate between sobbing and laughing. The body doesn’t know anything of time. The body dutifully holds onto incomplete experiences, and embodies them, until they are able to be integrated.
While the 45-year-old version of my body released tears of rageful joy, my eight-year-old body expressed a pure tone of protective anger through its mouth, expressed as the word “no” yelled at, and through, the memory-phantom of that decrepit 30-something-year-old abuser. As snot dripped from my nose in Novato, California, an increasingly resonant blast of energy was being unleashed from the mouth of an eight-year-old in the suburbs of early 1980s London.
“It’s like a shock-wave from a nuclear explosion,” I said to the programmer. “It’s melting and tearing the skin from his face. It’s destroying the window and the whole wall of the house.” Even though a force strong enough to bend and snap palm trees was coursing through our home, my family sat, safely watching, at our kitchen table.
“This is what they need to see!” I said. “This is my gift to them. This is the power of my no!” I realized that saying no in that instant was profoundly transformational for the others in my family. I was noticing and expressing the clarity of my own principles. This was wrong and I was speaking up. The most powerful moment in that memory was not being dragged across the room, nor capitulating to his imperative; it was me saying “no.” That was the most powerful and important moment.
As his bones were baked and shattered, disintegrated sideways in a shower of dust flowing out through the opening that used to house the kitchen window, a deep peace came over me. As I write this, I realize that I actually ended up putting him through the window.
“It so still,” I said, “and he’s just a charred stump.” I felt deeply calm.
“I let him down, back then, when I took away his agency,” I continued, “He promised to put me through the window if I didn’t do it and I made it so that he didn’t have to live up to his word. If I had been older and wiser, I would have empowered him to follow through on his word.” Instead, by giving in and allowing him to not have to prove his integrity, I was taking care of him, protecting his fragile ego. I backed down so he didn’t have to. This is one of the aspects of wisdom I can now carry forward in life: don’t fall into the trap of taking away the agency of others.
But now he’s just a blackened stump of charcoal in my memory. I cannot even think of what happened without seeing the wall missing from the house and feeling the power behind that anger flowing through my body, the power of my own inherent sense of goodness and the integrity of my word.
In the weeks since that session, there have been significant relevant changes in my life. One of those changes is that I have started to more actively advocate for my needs at work. I realized that there have been ways that I have been taking care of the needs of the company that were unnecessarily costly for me personally. This has led to me speaking up and asking more clearly for what I want and need.
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