A Different Kind of Abuse
We get so used to seeing childhood trauma through one particular lens, but there are many--often insidious--ways to experience abuse.
When I became a mother at 32, I was petrified because I still didn’t have my life all together. Not at all. And I didn’t have great parenting role models growing up since both of my parents battled mental illness and neither one was particularly open or proactive about getting help for their emotions.
My pregnancy was filled with severe depression and anxiety. I envied women who were able to celebrate the lives growing inside them and feel excitement for their future. I didn’t. My partner left me very early on, I was unable to work, and I didn’t belong with anyone.
Never really having had a great support system, I spent most of those months with strangers. Suicidal ideation was a daily struggle and I wished that I would die suddenly and accidentally so I wouldn’t have to keep trying to hang on when happiness was so far out of reach.
The only thing that kept me going was reading about attachment theory and parenting with empathy. I was so scared about how I would cope as a single mom without family or friends to truly lean on, yet there was something about this idea that I could do something to help spare my child some of my pain. It gave me a tiny fragment of hope.
It’s hard for me to articulate, but over the past few years I have been learning just how traumatic my childhood was and how it really twisted me up inside. How I never felt protected, and never felt good enough for anything or anyone.
When we think about child abuse, we think about severe beatings, alcohol or drug abuse, and parents who constantly tell their kids that they’re stupid. But I wasn’t hit much--just “spanked” with a hairbrush or plastic hangers, and occasionally shoved or slapped. And I wasn’t constantly called names--but “crybaby” was the one that stuck. Nothing I had to say ever mattered since I was just a crybaby, of course.
I never thought those things were abuse… until I realized it wasn’t okay. Now I see how being treated that way left me with very deep scars and toxic beliefs about my worth.
I grew up in what I would label a “family cult.” My older sister and I were raised by our single mother who was very religious. Deeply religious. Not healthy religious. More like… have you seen Stephen King’s Carrie? So a mom like that. I call it a family cult because although it was just my mother shaping and teaching our beliefs, it was all about her personal interpretation of God and the bible , with no outside source to balance her out— and she was not to be questioned.
For as long as I can remember, I was afraid of doing the wrong things, of disappointing my mom, or of making her angry. It was just this very real, very strong everyday fear. The quickest way to anger my mom was to disagree with her about her spiritual beliefs. Even just the hint of a differing idea was an abomination. Once in high school I dared say I didn’t think Christians needed to speak in tongues. Yeah. That was a bad day for me.
As a result, I believed well into adulthood that I could never be myself in front of my mom. That I couldn’t tell her no, and ultimately, that I had to obey her. Like I owed her my loyalty.
And honestly, growing up I really just thought she was too strict. I thought she meant well — and I still believe that she means well — but I’ve also come to understand that what I endured from her was unacceptably toxic and I’m still dealing with the consequences.
My mother didn’t believe in children having privacy. So in junior high and high school, she would read my diaries or journals when I was in the shower. Or she’d go through my school bag to read notes from my friends. I’d get out of the shower and be shocked by some terrible confrontation where she tossed bible verses on index cards at me with words like REBELLION, SEXUAL IMMORALITY, and WITCHCRAFT underlined and in all caps.
It’s almost funny because I was a really good, completely sheltered kid, so my mom actually had nothing to worry about. Through my entire high school career, I kissed two boys. I knew nothing about sex. I knew nothing about drugs. I would call my father —from whom I hated to ask for anything — and ask him to pick me up from parties if alcohol was being served. I. Was. A. Good. Kid.
Okay, but yes, I was still a teenager. So what kind of rebellion did I get into? Dating. Not that I could even go anywhere with a boyfriend, like to a movie, or anything. But I’d occasionally have a boyfriend in school and kept it a secret because she said I could date at 16, but I didn’t really believe she would ever be okay with my dating.
I couldn’t talk about boys with my mom. To this day, I can’t watch a TV show or movie with her and not feel uncomfortable during a kissing scene. Does she think I’m looking too closely? Am I looking too interested?
See, my mother believed I was a slut. She thought I was having sex and refused to let me see the school nutritionist for my chunky body and PCOS, because she believed it was a cover for my wanting to get on The Pill. Anytime my friends and I exchanged notes referencing the flirty or aggressive behavior of our classmates, my mom read them as if my friends and I were doing those things.
Even at nearly 36, she insists I’m lying and that I was the sexually explicit, aggressive and provocative girl with boys as a teen. ICYMI? I wasn’t.
In my sophomore year of high school, my then boyfriend drove me home from school — I usually took the bus. He kissed me when we said goodbye. Yup. We were kissing, just kissing. But my mother happened to be checking the mail and she saw me kissing this boy in his car and I was practically grounded for the rest of my high school years.
She called me a slut and an embarrassment. She went through my drawers and threw away any underwear that she believed to be “too sexy.” Underwear she bought, not me. I wasn’t allowed to go out with friends on most occasions and she lectured me daily about how she couldn’t trust me any longer. When school dances came up after that, she grilled me and warned me to be good with further bible verses warning me of judgment.
And the boyfriend? Of course, I ended it immediately.
Experiences like these made me feel as if I could never relax, never be myself, and never be believed. I was going through life on eggshells. If I had a personal life, it had to be in secret. Throughout my teenage years and even into my twenties, I had actual nightmares about my mom not believing me. I constantly felt like I was in SERIOUS trouble or just about to be in trouble and that there was nothing I could do to control what happened next.
The whole time, I was this very devout Christian kid. I was aware that classmates thought I was a goody goody and a little uptight, but I was constantly told by my own mom that I was immoral and rebellious. Which to me meant I could never measure up or be good enough in any way.
When I look back on my teenage years now, I’m shocked that it took me so long to begin to understand how unhealthy my world was. To be able to see it wasn’t normal. And to come to terms with the fact that being AFRAID of your mom isn’t a good thing.
Obviously, anytime I had a problem, or anytime I DID mess up and need help, I felt completely alone because I knew I couldn’t go to my mom. She wouldn’t believe me, wouldn’t believe in me, or surely wouldn’t be on my side.
I grew up so… afraid, but without actually knowing what I was so afraid of. I just felt… like I’d been made completely wrong.
When I was 20 I married my college boyfriend and it only lasted two and a half years, because I was so twisted up inside about myself and fearful of sex that we could never consummate the marriage. I had vaginismus.
And I was so incredibly unhappy so ashamed, that I quickly gained an enormous amount of weight. I was about 180 pounds when I met my ex-husband in 2002, and 308 pounds when he left me in 2006.
He had started sleeping with his high school sweetheart and left me a note written on a paper plate that he had crumpled to fit inside our mailbox. That’s how he ended the marriage. It was my first experience of being abandoned in a relationship. But not the last.
And do you know what my mother told me when I returned to our home state after my husband left me? That she had always known I had sexual hangups. Yup. In her mind, my marriage ended because I was sex-crazed and such a deviant. In reality, I was too scared to even have sex.
But clearly, I could never have a real and honest conversation with my mother. I still can’t, though I’ve tried. I’ve been around long enough to see other families handle their disagreements with love and kindness, but as soon as I try to offer another viewpoint, my mother is telling me I’m crazy or selfish, going to hell, or am really sick in the head.
I have never heard her tell me that I am loved no matter what. She’s never told me she’s on my side whether we agree or disagree. But I’ve got a lifetime of painful memories where she’s writing off anything I go through and telling me that I need deliverance — yes, as in I am demon possessed.
These things have left long lasting scars on my psyche, emotional wounds which seem to take a lifetime to even start to heal. But they’ve also taught me a valuable lesson:
I have to support my own daughter’s emotional wellness.
Understand that I am still struggling to sort myself out, and I’m only just beginning to comprehend why and how good mental health matters so much. It’s not only for us as individuals. It’s for our kids too.
I believe that the most important job we have as parents is simply preparing our kids for a lifetime of positive mental hygiene. It really doesn’t matter how well-read, how bright, or how studious our kids are if they can’t acknowledge, experience and manage their emotions. Mental health impacts every other aspect of life, which means that we can’t afford to let it be an afterthought.
Healthy mental hygiene must be at the forefront of our minds as parents and educators if we intend to raise healthy, well-adjusted kids. Emotional intelligence and resiliency cannot be swept under the rug without unwanted consequences. In fact, I would argue that successful parenting requires setting intentions for what we want our kids to learn from us, while keeping in mind that the way we speak to them will become their inner voice. And the way we treat them will become their inner guide.
I say this as someone who has survived some incredibly toxic family dynamics — far too much dysfunction for one reading. Yet I’m managing to raise my daughter with a completely different kind of approach. That’s important, because when you’ve been abused as a child, it’s exceptionally easy to run on autopilot. We who’ve been mistreated as kids also struggle with disassociation, and when that happens we effortlessly slide into unhealthy habits.
Meaning, we repeat those same negative cycles — often without even realizing it. That’s why it takes a concerted effort to change course and implement healthy new habits.
When people praise my daughter’s cheerfulness or sweet nature, I often respond that she and I have been through a lot, and how we’ve worked incredibly hard to get to where we are with our wonderfully strong bond. It was a high-risk pregnancy, I spent a good deal of time in the hospital with severe preeclampsia, she spent her first couple of weeks in the NICU, and she was very much a high needs baby.
In the first two years, we dealt with colic, GERD, tongue tie, speech delay, food regression, oral aversion, sensory processing disorder and rigidity. We lived with strangers because I didn’t find work from home until she was about nine months old. She ended up needing occupational and speech therapy.
It’s not like I ascribed to “the bible of attachment parenting,” but everything I did came from a specific mindset — I was focused on giving my daughter the best emotional foundation possible and a strong bond to me. And honestly? It kept me sane.
Don’t get me wrong — my adjustment to motherhood was hard. In every way. Yet, despite the many challenges, I’ve been able to say I’m proud of myself and the mother I am. Raising my daughter, and doing it with the intention that she be emotionally well and escape much of the dysfunction I endured? It’s the best thing I’ve ever done with my life.
Attachment parenting generally focuses heavily on the 0–3 year old foundation. My daughter and I do share a special and strong bond, even though it hasn’t been all sunshine and moonbeams for me. It was never love at first sight for me either, I worked hard on my maternal side. Yet I’ve been able to put her emotional needs first even when I struggle with my own demons and mental health.
Lately, we’ve moved onto a pretty heavy dose of Mister Roger’s Neighborhood. Its’ modern offshoot, Daniel’s Tiger Neighborhood, has been a part of our entertainment since she first watched television, but it’s become a much greater part of our lives since she quit diapers at age three.
We sing the songs and talk about our feelings. I use the socio-emotional lessons in both shows frequently to reason with my daughter when she is caught up in a difficult emotion. And the more I go back to Fred Rogers’ work, I realize how passionate I am about beginning conversations about mental health and parenting.
If we struggle with our mental health as parents, there is no shame. At least, we don’t need to be ashamed, so please don’t buy into the stigma. But we do need to get help so our kids don’t suffer for it. Toxic parenting cycles which have been repeated generation after generation CAN be broken. That’s why we have to start talking about these things.
Love is at the root at everything, all learning, all relationships, love or the lack of it.
I believe that, and I believe that love is also at the root of our mental health — which is, of course something Mister Rogers spoke about a lot. He encouraged us to feel our feelings, to talk about our feelings, and to deal with our feelings in a positive way.
Children of abuse know that in a toxic family environment, feelings are hardly even mentionable. Exposing our feelings is dangerous. It opens us up to even more abuse.
What happens when we can’t talk about our feelings?
Well, we cope as best as we can. Typically, we cope in unhealthy ways since our true feelings have been bottled up or clamped down for so long. We battle addiction, toxic love lives, and might even become abusers ourselves. But Fred Rogers knew something far ahead of his time. He knew that the only healthy way to cope with our big feelings was to get through them.
I began writing this story by sharing some of my background to point out that abuse isn’t always obvious or what you’d expect. I don’t think any of my classmates or friends growing up had a clue about the realities of my home life.
Yet both I and my older sister have suffered and struggled to make sense of parenting and adulthood, because no one showed us a remotely healthy way. I only recently even got back into contact with my sister because we were estranged for many years.
Her story is different. She turned to drugs, spent time in prison, and eventually lost custody of her four children. But she turned her life around and is now helping others battle their own demons. She’s now one of the most upbeat and kindhearted people I know.
Meanwhile… our mother has become alarmingly more mentally unstable. And it’s not easy to talk about, because we do love our toxic mom. We think she means well and believes her own lies.
But there’s still a great deal of healing and sorting out to be done. For my daughter’s sake, I can’t stop working out my childhood if I want to avoid putting her through the same pain.
And I’ve become incredibly passionate about the issue of mental health and parenting. I want to start honest dialogues about how to parent in a positive way even when you weren't equipped with the basic tools.
You’re not bound to repeat toxic family habits if you want to go down a different path. And I hope that you do choose to go down a path that is both positive and intentional.
Do you have something to say about growing up in a dysfunctional family or parenting with mental illness? I would love to hear from you.