Breaking the silence of parental emotional abuse

Trigger Warning: Emotional abuse. Cancer. Loss. 

Breaking the silence

May is tough for me. It’s tough at work, because I have spent the last several years in marketing for a crib mattress company and a greenhouse. It’s tough on social media, because all the ads and posts are about how to honor the woman who gave you everything. It’s tough on my mental state, because I have to realize again and again that I was raised by an emotionally abusive mother.

This is not something I have talked about publicly, because protecting the secrets is deeply ingrained in people who have experienced emotional abuse and trauma. 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. I did the same with “Toxic Parents” later. No one could see me doubt my upbringing. No one could know.

Unpacking a traumatic childhood is a lot of work. I’ve realized I don’t have very many memories of my home life from roughly age 6-12, and the positive memories I do have are from school.

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.

I started seeing a therapist when I was 14 after I started writing in my diary about wanting to die. Mom thought the therapist was indulging me and that there was nothing actually wrong besides routine teenage angst. I went until age 28 before being diagnosed with not only anxiety but severe anxiety.

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. It has taken decades for me to love my body, even though it’s fat. I’ve also finally found my own sense of style and I dress for myself in a way that makes me feel good and happy. I wear form fitting clothing as a fat woman, much to the hisses of fat shamers on the internet (and probably mom). I have stopped hiding behind baggy clothing.

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).

If momma was cleaning, everybody was cleaning. Well, the girls were. My sister and I were treated differently by mom but both 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.

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 (her live-in partner, they weren’t married, but I considered him a parent) for six months after the divorce. We got along pretty great. 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 and realizing that she had a huge 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 that she had started a project and was writing each of her children a letter, and she started with my sister, the youngest, and would work backwards. She told me this supposedly to make sure I wouldn’t get jealous if my sister mentioned her letter to me. Then 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.

I chose to stay home for Thanksgiving, partly out of not wanting to deal with the obligation and partly out of wanting to plan and create my own vegan meal and not just eat some sides and desserts I made myself while everyone else ate “normal things.” I also didn’t want to see my brother, whom I had cut contact with for various reasons.

“Yeah, that’s what I thought.”

Her snarky response aside, my husband and I had a nice quiet vegan Thanksgiving. Christmas was another story.

My sister came to town and we set off to mom’s for Christmas morning, knowing we’d have to see our brother and deal with the general unease of family gatherings. My husband actually stayed home, because he had hurt himself falling on some ice and wasn’t up for a day out and about. Mom mentioned to me that she had mailed a lot of my sister’s presents to her already, so I shouldn’t be worried if I had more presents than she did. We had roughly the same amount of presents. Also we were 28 and 24, and gift jealousy was about a decade too late to be a thing.

We got through Christmas and returned to our lives, and then on January 22, 2017 I finally had enough.

This story still seems to petty to me, but it was the moment I finally saw through everything and finally realized nothing would change and that her effect on my life had been there forever and was not something I could overcome in her presence. So I am being completely honest and telling the real story of what made me cease contact with my mother.

I asked what we were going to do for my birthday in April. Her response: “Well, what did you do for mine?”

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 that 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.

This may not make sense to readers. I don’t write this to make sense. I write because it helps me and because breaking my silence helps me.

I went without contact until February 28, 2018.

Unbeknownst to my mother (at least, I think so), 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 we were not told.

My sister called mom and was told 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 sadly, 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 actually 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. She told mom that I would be coming. Mom said that was fine. 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 moments after we left. I think he was waiting. I don’t think he wanted us to see.

We attended a family funeral 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. I did not feel comfortable.

After the funeral, I went right back to no contact. Every day I think about calling her to see if she’s okay. Every day I think about sending her a gift or a card. I think about stopping by the house. I think about reaching out, knowing she is in pain.

But she leveraged a human life in a grudge against me. She kept me from someone I loved, on purpose. 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.

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17 thoughts on “Breaking the silence of parental emotional abuse

  1. Olufola Adeniyi says:

    Caitlin, I can’t claim to know or understand how you feel or the trauma that you have gone through, and I understand that you have every right to feel like you can’t forgive her. But the truth is (and I had to find out myself) forgiveness is not for the other person, forgiveness is for YOU. Holding a grudge against someone for what they have done to you only hurts you; they might not even realise the gravity of what they did to you. But every time you remember, it hurts you and not them. Learning to forgive and let go of the hurt releases the hold that the memory of their action has on you. The fact that you have forgiven a person (your mom, in this case) does not mean that you have to let them back into your life or allow them to influence you. Doctors will tell you that a person’s state of mind is very important to the physical body especially when as concerns illness and recovery. I’m sure that positive thoughts & emotions affect our bodies positively and in the same way so do negative thoughts and emotions.

    “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.” Lewis B. Smedes

    On Mon, May 14, 2018 at 1:03 PM Born Again Minimalist wrote:

    > Caitlin posted: “Trigger Warning: Emotional abuse. Cancer. Loss. May is > tough for me. It’s tough at work, because I have spent the last several > years in marketing for an crib mattress company and a greenhouse. It’s > tough on social media, because all the ads and posts ” >

  2. kimdolan64 says:

    I have a similar situation. I agree, forgiveness is a good first step, and you may have to keep going back to it, massaging it and reflecting. If feels like a lot of extra energy and it doesn’t always end but there is so much for you to gained with healing. I am not a religious person but I went to church with my mother this past mothers day and they read the Woman’s institute prayer written in 1904 that I feel it is good words to live by.

    Keep us O Lord from pettiness; let us be large in thought, in word and deed.

    Let us be done with fault finding and leave off self seeking.

    May we put away all pretence and meet each other face to face, without self pity and without prejudice.

    May we never be hasty in judgment and always generous.

    Let us take time for all things; make us grow calm, serene, gentle.

    Teach us to put into action our better impulses straight forward and unafraid.

    Grant that we may realize that it is the little things that create differences; that in the big things of life we are one.

    And may we strive to touch and know the great human heart common to us all, and O Lord God let us not forget to be kind.

  3. Lindsay says:

    You have become a bright and beautiful person despite the trauma. That is something to take tremendous pride in.
    Mother’s Day is the worst. For so many people and so many reasons. My heart is with you.

  4. sometimescloudyinphiladelphia says:

    This post came right on time. I have experienced the same thing with my mom recently. We have been off and on for over ten years and I can definitely relate to certain things feeling like a transaction.. or certain unacceptable behaviors being so subtle that if you called them out one by one they would get brushed off. It makes you question your own ability to reason. I haven’t talked to my mom in three months and I think, like you, I need the space to heal outside of her presence. The lack of accountability and being made into a villain when I’m not catering to her in a particular way are not healthy for me now and they never were. At 30, I’ve had to take some long, hard looks in the mirror and be accountable for myself. So, with that said, everyone in my life has to be open to being accountable for themselves too.
    Anyway, thank you for sharing. I’ve been trying to find something to read from someone who could relate to this particular issue and this post showed up. Thanks again! Sending you love, clarity and healing from Philly 🙂

    • Caitlin says:

      Thank you so much and I’m glad this post helped you. I’m newly 30 myself and it’s the year of not taking anybody’s crap anymore for me 🙂 sending love and healing!

  5. Motherhood Heals says:

    Thank you so much for this post. I understand you so well. Everything you’ve described and experienced has been so similar to things I experienced while growing up. I totally understand about stopping communication once you realized her love was purely conditional. I had a moment very similar to that, and instead of her cutting me out (which was norma), I decided to stop communicating. I was done. My own mental health and heart were more important. Things are a little better now, but I’m still cautious with her. I don’t post about her often but I did on Mother’s Day on my instagram @Niqueclaire2 if you want to read it.

  6. wsquared says:

    Thanks for your honesty, Caitlin. You’re absolutely right, you don’t have to forgive her. But don’t be surprised if someday you do – for yourself, not for her. I didn’t think I’d ever forgive my mom when I was your age, but now a couple of decades later, I live with her and take care of her since my dad died. In those 20+ years I got to a place within myself where I knew she no longer had control over me – that I mattered to me more than she did, and that she could no longer hurt me unless I allowed her to. Oddly enough, she’s grateful to me now and we get along very well for the most part. She has no recollection of the way she treated me when I was a kid (and beyond) and we don’t talk about it. We don’t have to. I know it happened, I know I survived it, and I know that now I’m past it. I understand that it was always about her, not me, and knowing that allows me to feel compassion for her and to care for her now. It took me a long time to get to this place, though, so I’m not suggesting for a moment that your decision to cut off contact is not absolutely right on the money, or that your experience will be like mine. Everyone is different. Do whatever you have to do to make yourself well and whole. I’m just gently suggesting that somewhere in your heart you leave a little room for the possibility that you won’t always feel the way you do right now. Life is long. It could take years, and it may not happen at all, but someday you may be ready to forgive her – for your sake, not hers. Take care. I wish you well. 🙂

  7. agshap says:

    Thank you for this post….been there, done that. But I often think though we were estranged, it was her loss – she lost out on knowing her 5 grandchildren…no matter how hard I tried to speak to her, there came a time for my own sanity to realize some things are not going to change..

  8. Lisa Bennett says:

    I understand that your self-esteem is damaged and how hard it is to recover. I lived for most of my life with chronically low self-esteem. But with love and help you will recover — it may take years, but you can learn to love yourself and others unconditionally. It is a beautiful gift. The forgiveness will come when you get the hang of the unconditional aspect. Forgiving your Mom will help you to be healthy and well. I wish you the very best.

  9. silent-abuse says:

    What a beautiful and devastating story. Thank you for sharing, and I’m horrified your mother used her dying husband as a weapon against you. But you were so correct and brave to sever contact, abusers like that don’t change and they’ll never understand what they’ve done.

    This part: ‘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”’ captures my feelings perfectly. I still sometimes doubt I was abused and those days are terrible as I slip back into the thought processes my ex-husband planted in me to make me doubt myself and my intuition.

    I wish you all the best in your life free from your abuser.

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