When I was 6, I was brushing my teeth before bed. I was one of those kids who put way too much toothpaste on the brush and took way too long to brush my teeth. However, I found it fun at the time. It meant, though, a mess to clean up for the adults in my life.

This particular night, my sister, who was 18 at the time, came in and saw the mess. To say she was less than impressed is probably an understatement. My sister cannot abide the smallest chaos around her. Everything must be orderly and precise within an inch of everyone else’s life. She always blamed this need on her lack of ability to see (she had glaucoma and was legally blind all her life). I think, though, that it was just her pathological need to control everything in her environment. Something I’m not unfamiliar with.

As I said, though, she came into the bathroom, saw the mess and it was on. Even though I was only 6 years old, I knew when I’d displeased her. Suddenly I felt a funny feeling in my stomach and waited to see what was coming. I didn’t want to brush my teeth any more.

She picked up the tube of toothpaste and said, “if you squeeze the tube from the middle you’ll get divorced.”

Even at 6 that made no sense to me and I laughed which was exactly the wrong response. “That’s silly,” I said.

She made her angry face and I cringed. “No one will love you if you can’t do things properly. You’ll be alone all your life and no one will want you.” With that she threw down the tube of toothpaste and left the bathroom.

Tearfully, I went back to brushing my teeth but it wasn’t fun like it was before. I cleaned the bathroom sink as well as I could, spending so much time doing so my father came in to see what was going on. I never told him what she said.

Brushing my teeth after that night became a chore filled with anxiety. Was I squeezing the toothpaste wrong? Was this too much toothpaste? I would measure the amount with my little finger every night. I brushed quickly, barely brushing at all. I began to associate the taste of toothpaste with that sick feeling in my stomach.

Even after I grew up into an adult, the ritual of brushing my teeth, once filled with fun, soon became a nightmare. It was reinforced by the twice yearly visits to a dentist I’m sure learned his bedside manner at the hands of the Nazis. He’d scream at me for not brushing properly then dig into my gums painfully while I cried and begged him to stop.

Years later, when I was in university and beginning to understand my own past, I asked my sister about it. She barely even remembered the incident that had scarred me so badly. Her only response was a mumble about joking around. I was shocked. It was one of the incidents that defined me as an adult and left my childhood a nightmare. There were no apologies, just a scathing remark about my “oversensitivity”.

Whenever my sister didn’t want to admit that her words hurt or that they cut deeply, the problem became my oversensitivity. I was too sensitive, too quick to take offense. I took her words to heart. After all, she was the person I saw as a mother figure in my life. My life’s devotion was to please her. If she said I was oversensitive, I grew anxious about every thought, every gesture, every word I uttered. Her word was truth. My need was to please her.

This is the Dance of the Abused. Please the abuser at all costs just to gain an ounce of love and acceptance. The abuser withholds that love unless it’s given with pain. Still, the abused welcomes it. It’s love from the one they’re trained to please no matter what. Sometimes the abuser will give gifts but these are not without their price. Each gift is a constant reminder that behaving, doing the abuser’s bidding, being perfect is the only way to gain their love.

Yet the other half of this dance is darker. There is no perfect. The abuser will always find some flaw, no matter how small, to justify their actions or words. Watching the abused dance for them is the abuser’s entertainment, their mana, their orgasm. It is this dance that the abuser focuses their every action and word and the abused will dance it. They must. They don’t know any other way.

Outsiders don’t understand this dance. They can’t. They can’t feel that drive that seats itself deep in the soul of the abused. All they see is the trundle of the abused and the glee of the abuser. It makes no sense to them. So they give such sage pieces of advice as “just don’t put up with it. I wouldn’t.” Or, “just leave.”

I hear people say again and again that words don’t hurt. There is a myth within a truth in that. Words are like stones in a sock. One word or two won’t hurt when they hit their target. 20 words or 50 words hurt. A hundred, a thousand words can kill. Yet, how many words does a person speak in one day? How many of those words are a stone in a sock? No person speaks a single word. Our words come together in the soul of their target and have impact.

I was a little girl. Those words were stones.