IT HAPPENED TO ME: I Didn’t Realize My Mother Was Abusive Until Years Later

The insults, sharp, subtle cut-downs, late-night rages over something as small as an empty roll of toilet paper in the bathroom -- that wasn’t abuse. I really was inconsiderate and spoiled, just like Mom said. Right?
Publish date:
October 13, 2015
parents, recovery, moms, abusive relationships, family drama, abuse, emotional abuse

It’s 2:30 in the afternoon on a school day, I’m 12 years old, and I can't explain why I’m afraid to go home. It will be several years before this feeling registers as anything more than an elevated heart rate, cold quivering stomach and tremors in my hands. I have became so used to the constant undercurrent of fear and apprehension that its absence comes as a shock.

If I had disclosed this feeling to any of my friends at the time, I wouldn’t have known how to explain it. As is typical of teenage girls within a close-knit social circle, we all shared our struggles intimately in long talks. We bared our souls indiscriminately.

I shared my struggles with disordered eating, burgeoning depression and terror at the future. But for some reason I could never reveal what linked all these things together; the jumping-off point for many of my other issues -- I was afraid to be home, and I was afraid of my mother.

Did she hit me? No. Did she sexually abuse me? No. But she told me in extreme, graphic, horrifying detail of her own experience with sexual abuse at the hands of her father, usually when she was angry and wanted to let me know how good I had it. That was abuse, she said, and of course I was never abused.

In my young mind, I assumed that it would be easy for me to know abuse when I saw it. The insults, sharp, subtle cut-downs, late-night rages over something as small as an empty roll of toilet paper in the bathroom I shared with my sister or a slammed door— that wasn’t abuse. I really was inconsiderate, judgmental, spoiled and overprivileged, just like Mom said. Right?

Over the last few years I’ve come to realize how very wrong I was. Only when I began digging at the roots that had been entwining themselves in my psyche from a young age did I come to the conclusion that my childhood wasn’t normal. It wasn’t normal at all.

Out shopping with my twin sister in preparation for our first year of college, we felt the draw of old memories and recounted a few gems from our middle and high school years, laughing together. Suddenly I felt acute anxiety, and found myself blurting out a little too quickly, “Do you you remember that time Mom thought we were laughing at her and threw scalding water on us?”

She paused. We were combing through racks of discounted clothes and I couldn’t see her face. After a heavy beat, she answered, “Yeah. Yeah, I remember that.”

I felt a chill. “That really happened?”

“Yes,” said my sister. We never talked about it again.

When I brought it up to my mother a week later, the first time in six months we had spoken, she told me I was lying, that she would never do anything like that. Even then, it took everything I had not to doubt my own memory and believe her.

What made it so difficult was the simple fact that, in our early childhood, she had been by all accounts a good mother. Even my father said so. I had missed her during the day at school; I had called her, affectionately, “Mommy.” There hadn’t been the undercurrent of something wrong, all the time, in our house.

Things changed when I was around the age of 10, the point at which I now realize my mother was no longer able to effectively control her drinking.

The difference between her sober and non-sober selves was so pronounced that by the time I was 12, I began to think of her as two different people, “Bad Mom” and “Good Mom.” Good Mom was interested in her three children; she helped us with our problems, comforted us, made dinner without accusing us of being spoiled brats for having enough food to eat, spoke to us like she loved us and cared.

Bad Mom was quietly, poisonously enraged. The look on her face was one of perpetual disgust and anger. She didn’t trust us. She accused her pre-pubescent and adolescent children of taking drugs we weren’t taking, having sex we weren’t having, and most of all of hating her.

And during her vicious rages and quiet, slow-simmering emotional cut-downs, she always liked to remind us that we had it good, because so many other kids, like her, had to suffer mistreatment from their parents, but we didn’t. It’s ludicrously ironic now, but as child her logic made perfect sense, and I reasoned myself out of blaming her. She was right. I was wrong.

She only mocked us, subjected us to strange accusations and verbal cruelty, and endangered us by driving drunk because she knew best, and we had always done something, anything, wrong.

My parent’s marriage, understandably, was on shaky ground from the start. The first suggestions of divorce came when I was nine, but it wasn’t until I was 15 that they actually separated.

My father, struggling to care for the three of us emotionally in the way my mother wouldn’t or couldn’t, sent us individually to a family therapist as a way to help us deal with the divorce.

The therapist asked how the situation made me feel, and I told the truth: “Better. It’s a relief. I’m glad it happened.” And it was true.

After years of constant uncertainty, belittling, and the mounting awareness that my mother was losing her grip on ordinary behavior, I was beginning to realize that I had been afraid. Without a trusted adult telling me in a multitude of ways that everything I did was suspect and somehow bad, I regained a shred of emotional security.

After the divorce, my siblings and I lived with my father and eventually his new girlfriend, a lively, incredibly friendly woman whom I immediately regarded as a stepmother.

When my sister and I first opened up to her about what had really happened between us and our mother, we weren’t prepared for her reaction. She cried, shocked, and finally said, “I’m so sorry. I didn’t know how bad it was for you.”

My father, subjected to her abuse in other ways, wasn’t even fully aware of what our mother had done. I still haven’t been able to tell him about the “hot water incident," as my sister and I called it. Deep down, I’m still afraid no one will believe me.

Living separately and hours away, it became difficult for my mother to exert the same control over our lives as she had before. But she tried.

My first weekend away at college, I was enjoying an evening out with my roommate and a couple of new friends when she called me. She had ovarian cancer, she said, and had been given six months to live. She said she loved me, and I dissolved into tears and called my father.

When I hysterically recounted what she’d said, there was a long pause.

“She’s lying,” he said flatly. “I guarantee she’s lying. She’s done it before.”

And she had. Years ago, drunk and out of control, she had spun a tale of terminal ovarian cancer to get his attention and had gone as far as faking an operation. I was in abject shock, told my horrified roommate what was happening, and didn’t speak to my mother for two months. When I finally brought it up, she said it had never happened.

That was the incident that solidified my growing awareness that something wasn’t right. I fully realize how strange it is that it took me so long to realize this was a form of abuse, but anything can seem normal when you don't know anything different.

It’s now clear why I looked forward so passionately to overnight visits with friends, and why watching them interact with their mothers, easily, lovingly, and unafraid, made me feel so cold and so perplexingly angry. I was jealous of any parent-child relationship that wasn’t rooted in fear and uncertainty. On my darker days, I still feel that twinge of envy.

Today I speak to my mother only sometimes, and never in any great depth. There’s nothing below the surface that would be pleasant to explore.

Through a lot of struggle and experimentation I’ve managed to mostly fill the space left behind by my relationship with her, but I can’t deny the hereditary blueprint I must live with. The face in the mirror shows traces of hers. We have the same figure. We love the same foods. And in many ways, we are afraid in the same ways.

I recognize the demons that drove her to a place of instability and anger because they rear their heads in my own life, and I must struggle every day not to go down that same path. It would be all too easy to become like her, because the first picture I saw of adult womanhood is the broken one she showed me.

It scares me. I worry every day that I might be doomed to repeat her mistakes, and that I’ll end up just as unfulfilled and isolated as I grow older.

But when the fear rises up, I look at the people in my life who love me -- my father and stepmother, my two siblings, my boyfriend of two years and his wonderful family -- and at my own reserve of strength, which she was never able to squash with her abuse.

I realize now that she was wrong, that I deserve better than she gave me.