Trigger warning: physical discipline
The last time I visited my parents was for New Year’s Day, one of the Korean traditional holidays. My partner and I gave the big bow to my parents, and they gave us an envelope with lucky money accompanied by their blessings for our new year. We ate rice cake soup with a variety of savory pancakes and played yut nori on the matted floor. We took daily walks with their small dog and watched Korean audition programs together.
On the day of our return, my mother was busy packing up food she wanted to send with us. “Would you like Korean pears? How many? How about pan-fried dumplings?” I felt overwhelmed by her non-stop offers but tried to sound delighted and grateful, “Sure! Yes,” because I knew very well that this was how my mother shows her love.
Recently I have been undergoing Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, which was developed by Dr. Francine Shapiro in 1990 to treat patients with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). My therapist Beth and I had set our initial target on my memory from early childhood when my mother beat me for discipline. It took place in the living room of the townhouse I lived between the age of 5 and 11. My pants were rolled up to my knees to expose my calves. My mother sat on the floor perpendicular to my body, holding a thick yellow stick that came off an old kitchen cabinet door.
To enter the scene in my memory, I closed my eyes and started tapping my hands on each of my thighs. This bilateral stimulation was supposed to activate and integrate information from two hemispheres of my brain. The most negative belief about myself from this memory, I am not loved, was my starting mark. The end goal was its flip side: I am loved.
As soon as I landed in the targeted scene, I instantly got overwhelmed by loud sounds. My mother was yelling at me, and I was screaming and crying at top of my lungs. The sound hit every corner of the living room and the adjoining kitchen, shaking the walls. My head whirled. Beth asked what emotions came up as I looked at my child self.
“Any other feelings?”
“Sad, sad, sad.”
That was all I was feeling. I did not feel angry or fearful. Despite the physical punishment in my childhood, my mother showed her care for me the way she knew, enough that I now have complete trust in her love. I also came to understand why she chose to use physical punishment. It was a socially accepted and encouraged method of disciplining children in her generation and all the generations before hers in Korea. When I fell asleep with dried tears on my face after heavy beatings, I would often wake up to find her by my side crying, checking the wounded area, and applying ointment.
I felt sad watching the small child because she did not understand all this context at that time. The only thing she could feel was fear and pain. The only thing she could do was wishing for the beating to stop. Because she did not understand, she felt unloved, unwanted, and unworthy, and that belief took ground deep inside her.
After verbalizing what I experienced to my therapist, I went back in. This time somehow my present self was there, sharing the body of my child self. I kneeled in front of my mother and said, “You don’t have to beat her. You don’t.” Tears streamed down my face outside. My desire was strong. I wanted to take care of my mother. She put down the stick and quietly cried. I calmly held her hand and watched her.
Image by Aline Ponce from Pixabay
My mother got married to my father when she was 25 years old. She had me in the following year and my brother two years later. By the time she reached my current age, her daughter was already 12 years old. I was about to graduate from elementary school. One day she sat me down and said, “You are old enough now to listen to me without beating, so I won’t beat you anymore.” And she never did. I was shocked by this announcement. Parents announcing an end to their physical punishment was unheard of. Many of my friends continued to get disciplined well into middle school and high school years.
After 26 years from that day, this short and abrupt announcement has become significant. It is a piece of major evidence that my mother used beating for disciplinary purposes only. As the American Psychological Association attests to the lasting harms of physical discipline on children, the physical punishments that I experienced in my childhood had a great impact on my psychological health throughout my life. However, being able to discern discipline from abuse makes a huge difference in recovery. This difference also might have been the reason why I was able to keep my mother in my life.
Until I went away to attend college, I saw her just as my mother as if the only purpose of her existence was to play the role of a mother to me and my brother. My understanding of her life left no room for any other parts. Nowadays as I go through the ages that she once went through being a young mother, I can see her struggles in those days through more sympathetic eyes.
At the end of EMDR therapy, I saw my mother alone in our old apartment in Seoul. She cooked in the kitchen and then watched TV in the living room. She attended a neighborhood association meeting and talked with other women at the church. She laughed from time to time and seemed quite happy. Looking at her, I felt happy, too.
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You can also see all my letters from the year 2020 at DefinitelyNotOkay.com.