We were “that family” on the block. The one whose mom screamed obscenities out the window at her kids. The one who pulled her kids hair in public and called them names. The one you look at because you can’t stop looking and you want to stop, but you can’t. I was that daughter. Hated, shamed, abused, neglected and unwanted.
I grew up in a non-religious, un-churched family. I was the oldest. My mom lived with mental illness. From what I know it was depression and anxiety. However, she made it very clear to me that according to her my existence was the source of her problems.
Much of my childhood is a blank. I have scattered memories of punishment and abuse. One memory is of being very small and asking for water and having a wooden spoon broken over my head. I have other random memories of objects being thrown at me and my hair being pulled; Hiding in my room hoping she would leave me alone; The sound of her bedroom door opening and the sinking feeling as I wondered what was coming. Splashes of memories, but basically a dark hole.
Although there are few memories, there was a very clear, specific feeling that permeates my childhood. And it was FEAR. Cold, dark, paralyzing fear.
In middle school I would come home and my senses would be hyper-aware. As I stood at the door I would pause to gather my courage for what lay behind. Slowly I would open the door and listen for sounds to see if she was awake. I would smell the air to see if food was cooking, which would be an indication that maybe today would not be such a bad day. I would peer around, looking to see where she was to prepare for whatever would inevitably come. Trying to sense danger, I slinked through the house hoping not to be seen or heard; always trying to avoid her.
I heard terrible words daily, “I hate you, I wish you were dead, you ruined my life, I wish I had an abortion, I should have had a hysterectomy before you were ever born.” There was one constant phrase that she spoke like a curse over me, “when you grow up you will be fat and ugly and no one will ever love you.” I couldn’t understand what I did wrong or what I could do to try and make her love me. I know that I tried and tried to be good enough.
Crying would be met with a stiff, “shut your mouth or I’ll really give you something to cry about.” Shame would wash over me as she humiliated me outside on the sidewalk in front of my friends. Friends who never came inside, friends who were terrified of her. They teased me at school about my mom. Laughed at me and pulled my hair, mocking me for what she was like. In sixth grade a group of girls told me that they were going to call the police and report her. I was terrified, begging them not to until they promised they wouldn’t. Another sign of how deep the abuse went. What you know is better than what you don’t know.
My immediate family didn’t stop her. I was often told to just get along and stop causing so much trouble with Mom. Extended family laughed at her behavior or just ignored it. This is what happens in cycles of abuse. No one stands up and says stop, so the cycle repeats itself over and over. The dynamics are complex. Taking a stand is hard.
As a teen I searched for meaning and purpose in life. I searched for God, although I didn’t know where to even start looking. It didn’t take long for me to find out that the answer wasn’t in drugs, drinking or partying or boyfriends. That life was empty and filled with pain.
When I was 16, I was invited to a Youth For Christ event. I found a very approachable youth worker and asked if I could talk. We met and I poured my heart out to her. She explained the Bible, God and Jesus. She told me that I could have a new life. I went home and got on my knees and told God that if He was real, I needed Him to take control in my life because I was making a mess of it. And He did. My heart had hope. A warmth washed over me and I felt like I was no longer alone.
A year later I met my future husband. When he came to our house for the first time my Mom said her first chilling words to him, “What do you want with that slut? Look how ugly she is and look at all the pimples on her face.” Mortified, he took me for a walk and asked who that woman was in our house. I replied that it was my Mom. He was horrified and said moms don’t say those things. I told that him my mom did. I was 17. I didn’t know anything different.
As my boyfriend began pointing out truths in my life I realized I needed help. I began going to a Christian therapist. It was hard. More than hard, it was like climbing a mountain or running a marathon. I sat in his office and poured out my heart. All the things that had happened in my life. The shame I felt, how terrible I was. I couldn’t look him in the eye. I was afraid of what I would see.
After several months of therapy he told me in one session that today he wanted me to look into his eyes. It was physically difficult. I had to force myself to bring my eyes up to his face. And when I did meet his gaze, a wall crumbled inside me. I saw compassion. No judgement. No shame. Progress was being made.
Eventually my boyfriend asked me to marry him. We celebrated and planned a life together. I had begun distancing myself from my mom. Slowly starting to set small boundaries. Boundaries and dysfunction don’t mix well and I was met with strong opposition.
One boundary I clearly set was not allowing her to attend a bridal shower the young ladies at church were putting on for me. Somehow she found out and when I got home she was livid. Her and my dad stopped me as I walked to my room and asked me how I could hurt my mom so deeply by not inviting her. I took that as my opportunity. I told them everything I could remember about the abuse and humiliation she heaped on me my entire life. I talked and talked until I was all talked out. I wasn’t prepared for what came next. She sat and looked right at me and said, “You are lying. None of that ever happened. Why would you say such horrible things?” At that point I knew that reality was on one side and her version of reality was on the other side. Those two would never meet.
Over the next 20 years I worked on creating healthy boundaries between me and my mom. After getting married she phoned our home multiple times a day. She would beg me to come home and cook, clean and help. Co-dependence is a funny thing. She hated me but she needed me. It would seem after having told me that she hated my whole life that she would be happy that I was gone. It was just the opposite. She couldn’t stand that I was making my own life apart from her control.
I spent years, and I mean years, in therapy. I worked through many homework assignments, books and courses. The damage done created complex post-traumatic stress disorder. Years of abuse at the hands of the very one who should have protected me. All it would take would be a few words from her to reduce me to a shivering little girl terrified of being hurt. It didn’t matter that I was an adult, married, and had children of my own. The power she held over me was tremendous.
But slowly, with much effort and much therapy, I began to emerge from the dysfunction. I learned better coping skills. I learned how to love my husband and my children. I could identify the shameful words she would speak and tell her to stop.
But the damage is, in some ways, permanent. The senses that I depended on to survive as a child have remained heightened. What this looks like for me is – my hearing is very sensitive. I can’t handle a lot of loud noises well. My sense of smell is very acute and strong scents cause headaches. I see everything. And I mean everything. Every detail in every situation. Busy, crowded places overwhelm me. It’s like my environment is constantly dialed up full blast. I’d love to shut this off but 50 years later I still have not found a way to do that. I also live with depression and anxiety. Another common symptom of child abuse.
But the good news is that I’ve broken the cycle. Therapy helped. Although therapy could only do so much. God has truly been my healer.
I have had many times of prayer with others where I have brought memories to the Lord and left them at the cross. He has spoken to me through his word and brought life, healing and understanding to me. He has given me a new identity. As a child of God, special and loved and beautiful. I don’t know where I would be without Him.
So recovery for me has three parts: long-term therapy, the Lord, and a key final piece—forgiveness.
A few years ago my mom got sick. They were unsure what was all wrong but she needed to see a specialist. At church we had the monthly prayer meeting and in it the pastor asked us to examine our hearts and see what the Lord was calling us to die to in our life. It was clear to me. I knew He was asking me to walk with her through this illness. It was hard. Just the thought of it made me feel sick. I wrote in my journal that if the Lord wanted me to do this, I would, but He would have to help me.
So I went with her to her first appointment. We ended up going straight from that appointment to the hospital. She needed inpatient treatment.
After a week or so in the hospital, her skin was very dry and flaking off. As I looked at her I could feel a gentle prompting to go and buy her lotion and rub it on her. I was mortified. How could God ask me to do this? This was impossible! But, unsure and afraid, I went. It was physically difficult for me to walk to the store. As I went I repeated a prayer over and over and over, “Jesus, I can’t do this. You have to help me.” I prayed this as I walked to the drug store, picked out the lotion, paid for it and walked back. I prayed as I rubbed the lotion in my hands. I prayed as I reached out and touched her skin. And as I did a miracle happened. Forgiveness burst into my heart and God gave me love, compassion and empathy for her. It was amazing! And from then on I was able to hold her hands and pray with her.
Over the next year I spent many days at her bedside. Through surgery, procedures, tests with very few answers. We developed a beautiful relationship. She told me she loved me. She affirmed me as her daughter. She told me I was beautiful. We had many tender moments. I would wash her hair and massage her atrophying arms and legs. Rub lotion into her drying skin. Feed her and wash her face. It was a long, difficult year. She grew weaker and weaker. Eventually succumbing to the flu and developing pneumonia. The pneumonia worsened and she passed away peacefully with her family beside her.
As I tell people the story of my relationship with my mom one question always surfaces. “Did she ever apologize for how she treated you?” And the answer is no. She never did. And she doesn’t need to. Because forgiveness is not about her or for her. Forgiveness is about me. It sets me free from being bound to the past. Enslaved to my pain. Tied to the dysfunction, co-dependence and hatred.
Today the cycle of abuse is broken in my family. I don’t know how many generations it went back. But as I watch my children parent their children I can only think of one word. Redeemed. He has redeemed me from so much. And isn’t that what God calls us to? A new life. Taking something so wrong and bad and making it beautiful and good. And He doesn’t ask us to do it alone. He was with me all along. And there were many people who helped me in this journey. There is no way to thank them for what they have done in my life. The best I can do is to move forward and love the family He has given me. Create healthy relationships. Love and forgive.
About the Author:
The author of this post is an incredibly vibrant and outgoing woman in our community! She would actually be okay with sharing her name, but out of respect for extended family members, she has decided not to post it at this time. However, if you would like to get in touch with her, she would be happy to respond! Send emails to firstname.lastname@example.org and they will be forwarded to her.