Childhood Trauma Follows you Forever
On mental scars that last a lifetime and affect your every relationship
I am a cautionary tale.
Domestic abuse against children exists but it’s not written about often enough.
Those who grow up in violent homes at the hands of violent parents are scarred for life. As teenagers and adults, they’re more vulnerable to substance abuse and crippling mental health issues. What’s more, they may grow up to become violent themselves, thus perpetuating the cycle.
I do not have children and may never have them. There are many reasons for this, but one is that I have what’s best described as bad genes.
My grandmother physically and verbally abused my mother and remained a bully until the end of her life, even bedridden. To give you the measure of the woman, one day when my mother had gone to visit her, my gran yelled at her to get out and never come back. Those visits were always a source of extreme distress for my mother but she saw them as doing her duty.
Of course there was no choice but to abide by my grandmother’s decision. As a result, my mom found out the old bat had died when she read her obituary in the newspaper. When she called me with the news, my first thought was “Good riddance!” and yet I am not a callous person. Having seen my grandmother in action and how she ostracized my mother — and by extension me — after my parents divorced, I had no sympathy.
Rather than comfort and support her daughter when she became a single mom, my gran found nothing better than to send her vitriolic letters. Her words were dripping with spite and hatred. “I should have sent you to work in a factory rather than let you while away your time studying,” is a line that sticks.
As for me, I used to have my gran’s name as one of my middle names and have since then excised it from my identity. I was given it as a mark of respect; it was a family tradition. Then again, who in their right mind names their kid after someone who never loved them and made their life a living hell? It was like being called Adolf.
And yet, my mother was determined to take me to my gran’s grave so I could pay my respects when I was last in France. I dillydallied for as long as I could and by the time we got to the cemetery, it was closed. These days I won’t have any problem articulating my refusal to go with confidence. But back then my mother and I were still walking on eggshells around each other and repairing our relationship. Or rather, we were trying to forge a relationship as we’d never had much of one.
Because my mother was the carbon copy of her mother.
My mother’s hand was always swift to connect with my body.
There are many examples of how violent she used to be but I only remember a couple. She once broke a hairbrush on my kneecap, the handle snapped in two. Although the pain was sharp I recall bursting out laughing because the incident was pure slapstick. I was very young as my parents still lived together, so probably between six and nine.
She also used to try and beat up my dad, running after him with the vacuum cleaner (the kind with a long hose and attachments). Sometimes she grabbed one of his technical design metal or plexiglas long rulers and went after us with that. But because my dad is a placid character and doesn’t anger easily if ever at all, he never ever laid a finger on her. He also always protected me by acting as a buffer. “Don’t hit the kid!” he’d say but of course she refused to listen. Unfortunately, he worked very long hours and was seldom home. The best thing my parents ever did was get a divorce.
With my dad out of the picture, I had to develop shrewd coping strategies to avoid my mother’s wrath. The main one involved barricading myself in the bathroom, the only room with a lock.
To this day, I spend an inordinate amount of time in bathrooms as I forever equate them with safe spaces.
My mom once slapped me so hard she broke my glasses, and I had to go to school wearing glasses held together with tape until a replacement arrived. She grabbed me so forcefully she scratched my arm deeply and left scars. There were bruises on my face at least once, that time I “walked into a door”, or so I pretended.
She went after me with the broom, too. Whatever was at hand could become a weapon. I could go on, but thankfully my helpful brain has wiped out most of my childhood and adolescence. Only the most gruesome and the happiest moments remain, the former far outweighing the latter.
The coping mechanisms you develop under duress as a defenseless child will never leave you and may turn you into a strange adult, keenly aware of danger, never not on high alert, and also prone to making excuses for those who hurt you.
This is what I did, this is what I do, this is what I wish I could stop doing.
In spite of it all, I grew up into a well-adjusted, capable adult but I also experienced many things no one should ever have to deal with. For example, I’ve been on the receiving end of far too many instances of sexual assault and have dealt with far too many abusive men.
Instead of isolated incidents, these formed a pattern. My predisposition to abuse is something I wasn’t always aware of. Now that I know, I should approach every relationship with fellow humans with caution, and yet, candor and curiosity keep getting in the way.
In 2013, I finally collapsed and ended up with a major depressive disorder diagnosis, losing five years of my life.
That I have been too cash-strapped to afford therapy since then has made getting better difficult and tentative.
And painfully slow albeit not impossible when I set about trying to save my own life. The problem with therapy is that I am such a trauma lasagna that when I eventually get to it, it’ll likely take a few years to mitigate all the damage and get to a point when it can no longer hurt me. Meanwhile, I’m no stranger to PTSD which is as unpredictable as it is brutal when it strikes.
When it comes to my birth mother, I’ve only got the one. (But when it comes to mother figures, I have the most wonderful, inspiring, and funny stepmom in the world, a woman I would do anything for. She is the mom I always wished for but never had.)
Owing to a strong sense of duty even though I’ve spent my life running away from trauma, I took it upon myself to try and build bridges with my mother a few years go. At the time, she was in her late 60s, retired, and living a lonely, withdrawn life, her past and the guilt associated with it gnawing away at her. I spent many years estranged from her, wishing I didn’t have a mother at all.
But seeing her so miserable and lonely broke my heart so I made the effort to go toward her despite my initial reluctance.
Although we had a rough time when I was growing up, it’s important to stress that my mom has never not been there for me when I’ve needed her. She is a reliable, dependable, and helpful person. But she’s also someone who has never felt comfortable in her own skin.
We talked a lot and shared our respective mental health issues. Against all odds, this brought us closer.
While I haven’t yet been able to snip away the burden of the past, I understand now that she did the best she could as a single mom while not having the care or support she needed herself. Not only is she a depressive, but she’s also very much the product of her horrendous upbringing.
Like me, she still lives with that trauma.
Violence is violence and there’s no excuse for ever hitting the powerless person who depends on you for everything and trusts you to protect them.
Eradicating this most despicable of parenting practices requires a twofold approach: a legal framework and awareness campaigns among children as well as telephone helplines.
There was none of that when I was growing up: I thought my life was normal because abuse was all I knew.
Fast forward to 2001 and I’m living in the UK where children charity Childline is ramping up their publicity efforts. How dysfunctional my early home life was becomes apparent and the realization hits me like a tsunami. I deal with it the only way I know and pen an open-hearted letter to the editor of one of Britain’s national broadsheets to get things off my chest so I can forget about it all. I won’t discover for years that the letter actually made it in print, the only letter to the editor I’ve ever written.
As for Mom and I, we sort of get along now but we’ll be working on our relationship for the rest of our lives, assuming I’m able to find the strength to do so.
Having just spent three traumatic days with her during which my mental health took a nosedive, one question remains unanswered:
Do blood ties mean we should try and find compassion for our abuser, or would it just be healthier to let go and be free at last?
I’m a French-American writer and journalist living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.