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I grew up without a mom. She was physically there, unwillingly and absentmindedly, for the first 19 years of my life. Although her disappearance nearly two decades ago seemed sudden, I suppose she disappeared slowly over a long period of time.
When I was little my mom was my Wonder Woman. She was this beautiful superhero wearing a nurse’s uniform, with perfect hair and lipstick. She was who I wanted to be, my best friend, and everything I adored. Her career and many responsibilities as a registered nurse were something I greatly admired.
As I grew older, we shared a love of sunbathing, beaches, and shopping. Some of my favorite nights were spent going out to dinner with her and watching In Living Color on TV. It was one of the few times I had her attention and she laughed freely. But what I didn’t notice was that the disappearance had already begun.
I believe it began when I was in elementary school. I experienced several years of sexual abuse at the hands of her father, a beloved preacher. Part of the reason I didn’t tell anyone it was going on was my love for my mom. He was her only remaining parent and I didn’t want to break her heart.
So my tiny body and soul absorbed the impact and I comforted myself with the knowledge that my mom was being spared enormous pain.
I eventually couldn’t take the escalating abuse and told my dad what was happening. The mom that I had suffered for didn’t want to believe me. Only when my grandfather admitted what he had done did she accept the truth.
My parents shielded me from the court proceedings that followed. I didn’t learn until much later that she begged the Judge for leniency. My grandfather was charged with a misdemeanor and never spent a day in jail for what he did.
Immediately after that my mom severed ties with her father. We never discussed the subject.
Shortly after my admission of sexual abuse, my parents divorced. I think their already strained marriage couldn’t take what had happened with my grandfather. I moved in with my mom and we seemed to grow closer. But we began to fight more as I entered middle school and even more when I entered high school.
The stresses on her of being a working single mom with a demanding job were part of the problem. The rest of it was my inability to heal from a trauma that was buried for everyone but me. I had problems with childhood PTSD and depression.
My mom didn't want to deal with my emotions and perhaps didn’t know how to. It was her reaction or lack of one that led me to internalize what had happened. Internalization of well-being is explained in this article by Case Western Reserve University Professor Megan R. Holmes as “the absence of internalizing behavior problems, which include a child being withdrawn or experiencing somatic problems, anxiety, or depression.”
This internalization helps explain my nature as a child. I simply didn’t know how to process my emotions or the trauma and never should’ve been left to do it on my own.
It seemed like our lives were improving the year she met her boyfriend. She was happy and I was happy that she was happy. I was thrilled to have him in our lives, until he began to act inappropriately. It started out subtle enough, a hand placed where it shouldn’t be during a hug or a flirtatious comment when my Mom wasn’t nearby. Subtle enough for me to shrug off and ignore.
When the odd behavior increased, I talked to my mom who assured me I was imagining things. She told me based on my past experience with abuse I was taking his “fatherly gestures” the wrong way. Oh, how I wanted her to be right.
Eventually things got so bad that I told her this was no mistake, no hallucination. He denied it and she decided to believe him.
She kept dating this man for the remaining two years of my high school experience. Naturally, we fought. We fought a lot. I would yell the typical teenager battle cry of “I hate you!” and she would reply that she hated me back. That I had ruined her life. That I didn’t want her to be happy.
Then one sunny day at the age of 15, my mom took me to a group foster home. She tried her best to convince the director to take me in and she tried her best to convince the state to do the same. I don’t remember much from that day but I remember the director apologizing profusely to me in private for the behavior of my mom. She told me I didn’t belong there, and so back home with my mom I went.
So I learned to do what any survivor does — I looked forward. I looked forward to my graduation from high school and college. I truly believed that education would save me. I believed it would give me a home away from the one where I wasn’t wanted and a job so I could provide for myself.
I stopped fighting with my mom. I told her I loved her and wanted her to be happy no matter who that was with. I swallowed my pain. We resumed our beach trips and shopping like nothing had happened. Basically, I ignored what was right and true. I ignored my own emotional and mental needs for the sake of our relationship.
I didn’t understand at that age the importance of putting mental health first or the impact neglecting it could have on my physical health. I am not and was not alone because almost one in four Americans will experience a diagnosable mental illness. Left untreated, mental illness can impact our physical health in a variety of ways.
Looking back I see this in my adolescent sleep problems, nightmares, anxiety, migraines, stomachaches, and frequent colds and flus. Many years would pass before I learned the importance of self care in all physical and mental aspects. This was something I had to learn myself because my Mom was not there to teach me.
Eventually I graduated from high school. I was accepted to college and I moved away. During my first year, I went through a natural disaster. I called on my increasingly distant mom for help. I had lost everything. She offered me unwanted makeup samples leftover from her brief stint with Mary Kay cosmetics.
I sat on the steps of what once was my home with her and cried. It was the last time I would sit there and the last time I gave her the opportunity to not show up for me.
Since that time, nearly two decades ago, she has sent cards and stopped sending cards. She has cussed out a friend who gave me her email address. She has reignited her relationship with her father despite what he did to me. I have not seen her or spoken to her once despite attempts to reach out to her.
And me? I have graduated college. I have attended graduate school. I have lived and survived domestic violence. I have lost it all more than once and started over without her time and time again. I have been sad, angry, and every emotion in between. All without her.
I have done my best to let go.
One day maybe she will reach out, but I’m no longer holding my breath. I’ve learned to exhale and say goodbye to what was never there. I like to think I’m stronger for it. That I’m wiser and kinder for it. That one day I will give the love she never gave me to a little one of my own. And there’s so much of that love to give. For that I am thankful.
I am not my Mom and I am no longer my mother’s daughter. I am myself and every bit of who I am that I have battled to be without her help.