In my late twenties, I found myself wondering if I had been raised in an abusive home. And I was horrified with myself for even considering it.
When a book-on-CD at the library caught my eye, “Will I Ever Be Good Enough? Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers,” I hid the case in my car so no one would see.
No one could see me doubt my upbringing. No one could know.
Unpacking a traumatic childhood is a lot of work. It’s hard to piece together enough evidence to convince myself and others that I was abused, because emotional abuse is like death by a thousand cuts.
Any one example on its own can be brushed off as a rough patch or a bad day. There aren’t bruises or scars I can point to in order to show you where and how I was hurt. The behavioral responses from emotional trauma develop over time amidst issues like depression, anxiety, and complex PTSD.
Identifying the trauma
I started seeing a therapist when I was 14 after writing in my diary about wanting to die. My mom thought the therapist was indulging me and that there was nothing actually wrong besides routine teenage angst.
The messages I had ingrained into my head from puberty onward were things like:
“No one is going to want to date you if you eat like a pig.”
“I’m going to put a tape recorder in your pockets on dates so I can see if you eat so sloppy.”
“That isn’t flattering on you.”
“Your inhaler is a placebo, you just need to lose weight.”
The criticism of my appearance, coupled with forcing me to eat a restrictive diet from a young age, led to a very unhealthy relationship with food and my body. I am now in recovery from a decades long eating disorder and obsession with restrictive dieting.
Other messages I internalized were about laziness and cleanliness:
“If you have time to lean, you have time to clean.”
“Lazy, worthless, good for nothing kids.” (Said while kicking dirty clothes on the floor).
My sister and I were treated differently by mom but both of us were expected to maintain a robust schedule of chores and housekeeping. Laziness was not an option, and my worth was tied up in what I looked like and how well I could keep a house clean.
Trying to find myself
Chronically low self-esteem led me to marry the first man I ever dated, because I didn’t expect anyone to ever love me, let alone want to have sex with me. The second time she met him, my mom told me that she knew I’d marry him. When we got engaged, she told me he wasn’t good enough for me. I married him anyway. And I divorced him.
I lived with my mother and stepdad (they weren’t married, but I considered him a parent) for six months after the divorce. We got along well. I paid my rent in chores and job applications and was able to move out into my own place quickly. She and I remained in close contact for several years, while I heavily identified with the “mother knows best” train of thought.
After all — she knew my ex husband wasn’t right for me and I should have listened.
After living on my own for 18 months, I moved in with the man who would become my second husband. We hadn’t always planned on getting married. Both divorced once already, we were wary of marriage and thought we might just live together long-term and have a life without legal documentation. I told my mom this over lunch.
“So… S and I are thinking we might not get married.”
“Oh, good. You were settling.”
I explained that we were still planning on living a life together, just not marrying. We got through lunch and I continued a relationship with her.
Then I started reading the books.
Early boundary setting
Books about abusive parents and traumatic childhoods made me realize that she had immense control over my psyche and mental well-being. Her voice was a broken record in my head, pointing out all my faults and failures.
I started to pull back.
My husband and I were engaged in April 2016 and after Mother’s Day went by with just a “Happy Mother’s Day” text from me and no gift or visit, I was talking to mom on the phone one day on my way home from work. She told me she was upset with me because I didn’t do anything for Mother’s Day and because I wasn’t involving her in my wedding planning.
I told her I had pulled back to work through a lot of my childhood issues and she pulled out her favorite refrain:
“It’s in the past, I don’t understand why it still bothers you so much.”
At a loss for how to explain that trauma doesn’t just dissolve because it happened a long time ago, I made plans to go wedding shopping with her and things were relatively fine. Post-wedding, she confessed that my stepdad had to talk her into getting us a gift because she had wanted to just send a “Happy wedding” text, in response to my “Happy Mother’s Day” text.
I recall coming to their house one day and sitting down with my stepdad to explain that my issues were with my mother, not with him. And that I didn’t hate her, I just needed space. He listened, he understood. I felt better knowing I had told him a little piece of my truth.
After the wedding in August things were relatively calm, aside from the fact that really any time I spent with her, I’d come home and end up picking a fight with my husband over something. We came to the conclusion that my mom was getting into my head and I was bringing home doubts about him and our marriage.
On January 22, 2017 I finally had enough.
On our way to the grocery store, I asked what we were going to do for my birthday in April.
Her response: “Well, what did you do for mine?”
It may seem petty or shallow, but in this moment, I realized every aspect of the love, affection, and validation I had ever gotten from my mother had been a transaction.
What did I do to earn her love? What did I do to earn a treat, to earn a break, to earn a hug?
I stopped speaking to her the next day, without explanation, without ceremony, without premeditation. I simply decided I couldn’t keep her in my life.
She wrote me out of her will and threw away anything in her home that belonged to me.
I went without contact until February 28, 2018.
Some things are unforgivable
Unbeknownst to my mother, I had reached out to my stepdad a few times in 2017. I sent him a card addressed with my left hand from a PO box, so she wouldn’t know it was from me. I explained that I needed to not speak to her, but I didn’t want to lose him. I offered to buy him lunch.
He called me and said that he’d love to get lunch. I cried with relief. He said he’d call the next time he had a job out near where I worked.
We spoke a few more times, about once every few months. I sent a Father’s Day gift, he thanked me. I’d call him or text him if my car was acting funny, he’d give me advice. I called him when I hit a deer and totaled my car, he called back to check on me a few days later. I texted him when I started a new job. We were still trying to coordinate those lunch plans.
At the end of February, our furnace was acting weird and the house wasn’t heating. I called my stepdad and didn’t hear back. The next day I texted him and received a response from my mother instead.
“[Stepdad] is sick and can not help you at the present time. Unfortunately. He stopped working and is unable to drive”
“He says try turning off and back on”
“Okay thank you.”
“Is he okay?”
“He has lung cancer.”
“Getting chemo treatment. Is on oxygen 24/7.”
“How long has he been sick”
“December 2nd he was diagnosed at the ER”
Between my mom and stepdad, there are six adult children. Four of them knew about the cancer. My sister and I were not told. It became apparent as we spoke to the rest of the siblings that we were deliberately not told. For three months he had been dealing with cancer, and the orders were to not tell us.
Mom told my sister that our stepdad specifically wanted me to not know, because if my mom wasn’t in my life, he couldn’t be either. My sister reported this to me gravely, and my response genuinely shocked her: “I don’t believe that, that is not true.”
It hadn’t occurred to her that our mother would lie.
My sister came to visit him and she caught him on a good day. He was alert. She asked him if he wanted to see me and he said yes, he did. She told him what mom said, that he hadn’t wanted to see me. He looked surprised.
We expected him to be stable for a year or more, but complications arose and he ended up hospitalized with fluid in a lung. It looked bad. My sister told me when my mom left the hospital and I was able to go see him. He was sleeping. He woke up briefly and asked how I was doing before he drifted back to sleep. I stayed for a couple hours and went home again. He was able to leave ICU.
A couple days later, things were bad again. My sister got a call that he wasn’t expected to make it through the night.
I was able to see him that night, though he wasn’t aware or alert. I held his hand. I whispered to him, joking that this was a pretty extreme way to get my mom and I back in a room together. I almost remember him smiling.
Eventually the decision was made to take him off the machines. It was time. We waited, surrounded by family, and eventually my sister and I had to leave. We could no longer bear to be there. And he passed just minutes after we left.
I think he was waiting. I don’t think he wanted us to see.
We attended a family memorial at mom’s house that weekend. Things were flawlessly normal. We talked, joked, acted like always. It was very jarring to know that we hadn’t spoken in so long and could still put the masks back on.
After the funeral, I went right back to no contact.
For months, I thought about calling her to see if she’s okay. I thought about sending her a gift or a card. I thought about stopping by the house.
But she leveraged the life of someone I love in a grudge against me. I never got to see him in a way he deserved to be remembered. My last memories of him are sick and weak in a hospital bed.
I do not forgive her. And I do not have to.