By Elena Kristof
Several weeks ago, I found myself mingling about a deserted playground with a couple of my closest women friends. With our backs to a creaky swing set and our bare feet in the sandbox, we suddenly — and rather appropriately given our kiddie surroundings — began discussing our childhoods. Specifically, the trauma, abuse, neglect, and fear that hung over each of our respective upbringings.
While each of us embodied our own unique version of “damaged goods,” our various perspectives on what we’ve found in the aftermath of our childhoods spanned the spectrum. Health and closure. Forgiveness and redemption. Exile and eternal numbness. Confusion and grief. An emotional phantom pain at the knowledge that whatever it was we needed was never there to begin with. We spoke of the struggles and hardships we’d been forced to dodge — seemingly from day one — and the painful imprints that’d been scattered along the trail ever since.
Yet the slope of abuse is a slippery one. Not simply given the ugly subject matter itself, but the means (or lack thereof) by which we attempt to measure it, assign a name to it, define and gauge and give weight to it. It often seems the further you wander from physical, tangible abuse, the more intricate its implications.
One friend’s mother slapped her constantly. Hard. Across the face. Across the torso and back. Her childhood was riddled with bruises and broken bones. Her mother would “shake her until she shut up and stopped crying,” painting herself as the misunderstood, under-equipped caregiver of some kind of intentionally spiteful child. Everything my friend did, from age three on, was because she was an idiot, “a foolish girl.” Another know-nothing know-it-all. And naturally, anything that ever happened to my friend was subsequently her fault. She had it all coming. She made her bed, now she had to lie in it. From her mother, there was no mercy. No grace. No common ground. No empathy. No hope. Yet her mother was there, present — however terrifying.
Another friend spoke of a ghost mom. Mentally unstable. Constantly in and out of hospitals for breakdowns, “breakthroughs,” and break ups. Substance abuse ran rampant. Her mother never laid a hand on her, yet she rarely laid eyes on her either. Large chapters of my friend’s childhood involve her, alone in an abandoned house, hungry and unlooked after. The physical whereabouts of her mom were rarely known, and a general moot point anyway, as when Mom did manage to come home — often without food — she wasn’t mentally engaged in the first place. My friend dug through dumpsters. Stole from gas stations and begged beside fast food joints. Subsided on garbage, in garbage.
My mother remains perpetually indefinable. She somehow creeps between the convoluted crevices of both of my girlfriends’ extremes. She slips between my fingers every time I think I’ve managed to catch her, cup her in both hands, peer closer for any traces of compassion. She never hit me. She rarely ignored me. She provided the basics needed for survival, even occasionally feigned caring. Yet somehow, she terrified me nonetheless. Growing up, her presence was one to be dodged, her attention a terrifying energy force to be avoided at all costs. The name of my game was to be as invisible as possible. Don’t feed the bear, don’t shake the cage, and above all else, don’t act surprised when night after night, you watched with your own eyes as some unnamable, shadowed split-personality spread across her demeanor.
The product of two alcoholic, abusive parents, my mother staunchly refused any and all substances. Booze was not allowed in our household. Neither was sugar. Or television. Or friends. Or the typical roughhousing that came along with two other siblings. There were no messes. No chaos. No joy. She ran a tightly controlled ship, wherein everything from random cabinets to entire living quarters were padlocked shut. And while no one was ever actually thrown overboard — meaning, beat to smithereens or abandoned for weeks on end — walking the plank and facing the shark on a daily, sometimes hourly basis, was as wounding as anything else.
As adults, my girlfriends stand firm along the “stories thus far” of their lives. They are confident and unwavering on the narrative of abuse in their respective upbringings. While each of us ran away from our incapable mothers the moment we reached our teenage years, unlike me, they have concrete recollections to reference, a series of specific examples to showcase should “the way they are today” ever require a bit more context. They have testimonies. They have scar tissue — literal and figurative. They have forever-long lists of the innumerable times their moms were too there or never there, too stern or not stern enough. They can identify with ease and certainty the many ways in which their mothers fucked them up, fucked them over, or were completely fucked themselves.
I don’t envy either of their upbringings, yet I can’t help but wonder what it would be like to at least know as much. To have the stories and the scars. To have the memories. When I circle back over the void of my childhood, I come back draped in dread, somehow emptier than when I started. I have few examples of the ways in which my mother totally “lost it,” and to this day, struggle to describe one of her “episodes.” I’m unable to paint any specific scenes, and can draw no supporting evidence of my tribulations from surrounding adults (let alone an absent, enabling father). Perhaps more painful, and equally detrimental concerning my ability to understand my experience, is that my younger siblings have both crawled into their own states of adulthood with an equally suspicious decade-long, blank mental slate.
Concerning their histories of maltreatments and manipulations, my friends know what happened. They know the truth. Their truth. I feel as though I’m chasing ghosts. I’ll trip over a faint glimmer of a memory, then dodge frantically after it. I’ll dig through a wounded half-recollection, and lose it within an emotionally cracked house of mirrors. Follow a skewed reflection of my mother and watch horrified, as it warps into me. When the lines are blurred and the edges are sharp, where does she end and I begin? I feel around desperately in the dark, with nothing but Pain, Fear, and Unease as my guideposts. Needless to say, it’s slow going.
Perhaps it helps that over time, my friends’ mothers have either fessed up to any former wrongdoings, or disappeared altogether. In many ways, their cases are “solved.” The perpetrator nods solemnly over the “mistakes that they made,” and while “health” or “a relationship” certainly don’t blossom overnight, some pseudo peace appears to be made. Or else, their mothers continue the pattern of never showing up — there’s never a “trial,” and the emotional door that was long since sealed-off remains forever-barricaded shut.
My mother has seemingly reined in her demons via some combination of Jesus, Dr. Phil, and the healing powers of crystals. And of course, alongside her reinvention comes no recollection of our horrific years past. The rare and devastating conversations we’ve had that touched on our excruciating history dissolved into her screaming through her tears that “she did the best she could” — a heartbreaking mantra of dismissal and self-validation. Rather than directly stare down her fragmented self and suss through her bullshit the hard, honest way, she’s buried it all under a downward dog and the latest “uplifting” mantras from new-age, self-help authors.
I can’t conjure a time when my mother slapped me, yet I can’t land on a scene wherein she didn’t scare me either. She never deserted me — some concoction of leftovers was always on the dinner table — yet when she was randomly triggered and spiraling out of control, when she started screaming gibberish and went looking for a fight, when there was nowhere to run and no way to hide, she abandoned me nonetheless.
It’s taken years of therapy to peel back what I’d assumed was “built-in” rage, or “normal” fantasies involving her death, to uncover the ultimate sad, slippery truth:
She was an abuser.
And while I don’t have the physical marks, or even the tangible memories to stuff assuredly into my mounting collection of evidence, I’m learning that my experiences, however murky and unclear, however shifting and subtle, are confirmation enough. Piecing together my past, much like planning for my future, is a work in progress.
Lead image credit: César Gutiérrez, Flickr