IT HAPPENED TO ME: I Found My Estranged Family on Instagram

I’ve always had the suspicion that I just didn’t fit in my family. That there’s my mom, dad, and my brother, and very awkwardly, there’s me, the ugly one who gives everyone a headache.
Publish date:
February 18, 2015
relationships, family, Instagram, Reflection, Estranged

My mom wasn’t terribly difficult to find on Instagram.

Oh, I thought. Of course she has an Instagram. I blocked her on Facebook a long time ago. After the estrangement, I didn’t let her existence on social media concern me. Out of sight, out of mind.

I saw her and I clicked. I was curious. I don’t know why I was curious, exactly. Maybe the attic I keep my estranged family in was getting stuffy from lack of air, attended to only by memories, not life right now.

I found out my brother is married. I think he has a baby. Hard-to-describe emotions washed over me as I flipped through those pictures. His wife is beautiful. Would I approve of her? Would she approve of me? How easy would it be to be "family" with her when I’ve known my brother for decades and her for . . . well, I don’t know her.

And the baby. How hard it is to describe the significance of the word aunt. I sucked in air at this point. I remembered an aunt of mine spoken poorly of by members of the rest of the family. She was never around for family functions, or much of anything. I always loved her.

I wonder if I’ll be that aunt, the one you want to know more about. Mostly what hit me was that my family had appeared to move on with quite a lot of ease. They eat fancy food. They have regular gatherings. They go on nice, beachy vacations. There’s a childhood picture of me. I’m not a part of that.

Without being too specific, years ago my mom sent me a text message saying that if I didn’t do [x], she wanted nothing to do with me. This came after decades of emotional and physical abuse. I took her up on it and flung myself into a season of freedom, poverty, and homelessness. But most of all, freedom.

By the next Christmas, I had to cut off our entire extended family, including my brother, and all of our friends, people who I hold dear and who mean a lot to me, who were close to me and had been all our lives.

It was an extreme, radical step, but I was growing tired of finding evidence that my mom was asking people for information. Like when I moved cross-country, and a cousin attempted to abduct me. (Or just innocently tried to force me into coffee after I’d driven 32 hours and wanted to sleep, and then proceeded to freak out when I politely declined. I don’t know.)

My mom continued to take steps like this until I spoke out about the abuse — on my personal blog, on Facebook, and on sites like this. She went completely silent and stopped trying to contact me when I spoke plainly about what happened and stopped being afraid. To everyone.

She’s a rich businesswoman, highly regarded in her community, a chairman of committees and boards of directors, but I wasn’t a dirty little secret she could keep.

Everything had been okay until I saw the Instagram. And it’s not like I expected different. I’ve always had the suspicion that I just didn’t fit in my family. That there’s my mom, dad, and my brother, and very awkwardly, there’s me, the ugly one who gives everyone a headache. I felt like that was literally true, that there could be no way they missed me, when I scrolled through the happy highlight reel of their life.

But Instagram is just that — a highlight reel. An Internet photo album set to preserve the good stuff. Sure, who wouldn’t want to be in my family based on that Instagram? You don’t see the fights. You don’t see the way she purses her lips and controls the entire room with the tone of her voice, and not in a charming way.

I did cry. I felt completely empty for a while, because these are completely reasonable emotions to feel. After all, they are my family, and I did spend 24 years with them, so their existence is central to my identity, whether I’d like to admit that or not.

You cannot just leave an abusive situation and be okay again in a short amount of time. It takes years, even decades to process. A lot of people never get as far as I have. I have a job and an apartment across the country from my abuser in a city she can’t come to stalk me in. She can’t hurt me, even if she wanted to try.

When I lock my door at night, she’s not allowed in. I’ve progressed to the point where I don’t panic every time I hear a knock on the door.

I have friends and loved ones who value me, whose highlight reel I belong in, smiling and laughing like those pictures. It’s important to remind myself of that. Just because I don’t belong in that particular highlight reel doesn’t mean I’m not loved or valued anymore.

Also, it will get better. I am convinced that I’m not going to live an entire life of poverty, in a tiny little apartment and in a monotonous job, mostly alone. I am going to have my own lovely family, where I will do my best not to inflict the same scars my mother left on me. One of these Christmases, there will be a stocking hung on a mantle with my name on it. I will have gifts to wrap and put under trees. I just have to wait.

I’m glad I saw my mom’s Instagram account, even if it hurt. The fantasies and memories can’t live alone in that attic of mine forever. Someday reality has to join them. It’s okay. Reality is still there. I have the benefit of knowing the people behind the pictures, of remembering the time she tied me down to a table and forced contacts in my eyes when I was young. Remembering when she denied me medical care after a pediatrician wanted to test me for Crohn’s. Those things still exist alongside the pictures.

Readers who escaped abusive families: Have you found your abuser on social media? How did you deal?