The other day, I wrote an article about what a trauma bond is and how to free yourself from one. In order to avoid reductionist definitions, this article is going to focus on what it felt like being in a trauma bond; if you need further understanding of trauma bonds and what they look like, read my article for an in-depth explanation:
How to Free Yourself from a Trauma Bond
Exploring the unhealthy attachment between abusers and abuse victims
Once I familiarized myself with trauma bonds, what they are, how they form, and how to break them, I began looking back on my life and experience with my trauma bond. I began exploring childhood memories of my relationship with my mother, who was the person I developed a trauma bond with.
While I can’t pinpoint the exact date when it all started, I can say that by the time I was in fourth grade in elementary school, I had crippling anxiety that I know was caused by my abusive upbringing. My anxiety was also about my mother.
I was always scared about how my father would treat her and would end up walking into my parents’ room just to see her crying. She would tell me everything that was going on. And when she wasn’t sitting in her room watching television, she was sleeping. It was my main priority to take care of her, particularly emotionally, but also coaching her through decision making, such as whether or not she should divorce my father.
As time went on and I should have been hanging out with friends and developing my own social life, I scurried home from school to make sure that she was all right. She had told me several times by middle school that if it weren’t for me, she would have killed herself. Or that I was the reason she was alive.
Any time I needed emotional support, I was ignored or it became a lecture on what I was doing or wanted to do was inherently wrong. The only right I could do was remain trapped in my bedroom all day, foregoing any chance of a social life.
I felt trapped and disassociated probably every day just to cope with the sheer amount of emotional neglect and emotional incest that was happening. I was her counselor, her decision-maker, the emotional-laborer, the mini-wife. And if I disobeyed or wanted to do something age appropriate and form friendships, there was always something wrong. She never approved of any of my friends from my elementary years onward. And she would say anything to drive a wedge between me and anyone else. She would also make sure that my confidence was not securely rooted in myself.
The only right thing I could do was be un-needing and the constant presence that comforted her in the midst of her depression. Any time we parted, I got anxious. I needed her in my life to feel calm. What if she killed herself and it was my fault? Who was going to protect her from my father?
My adolescence felt like a dissociative nightmare. I cried myself to sleep every night for a year in high school; I denied my own wants and needs. I no longer ate much at all; I stayed up late at night because that was the only time I found peace. Lack of food, lack of sleep, making sure I poured myself into my studies, isolation, being my mother’s confidant, and neglect was how I lived out my days.
I had never gotten to understand who I was as a person during that time. What were my likes and dislikes? I was afraid of everything. I didn’t go out and do new experiences because if I died, I was effectively killing her — she’d commit suicide. So I stayed in my room day after day, I stayed in that house day after day. My identity was counselor and protector, the good daughter. I defined myself by my role and through her, that was it.
Going away to college was a nightmare. I panicked and had anxiety attacks because I would be leaving her alone with my father. I begged him not to hurt her. But I diligently came home on the weekends where, instead of making plans with friends, I supported her.
When my parents divorced, I slowly stopped going to stay with her on the weekends. Now in my early twenties, I’d recognized a new type of freedom and started enjoying my weekends on campus. Everything died down and it felt peaceful, something that I noticed driving back and fourth on the weekend just didn’t.
She blamed me for not wanting to see her and for her loneliness. Once again I was responsible for her emotions and her life. She complained that we were drifting apart and that she wished I would be the sweet daughter she once knew. Now that my father wasn’t in her life, in my perspective, I didn’t have to worry. At this point, I was beginning to feel resentment toward her but tried to do what she demanded of me.
Even though I had space at this point, I still felt trapped. There were times I got so angry at her that I wanted to just cut her out of my life, but I felt trapped. If I did that, she would kill herself and it would be my fault. She had no one else, I was it.
Now I can recognize that I was never responsible for her emotions or her actions. At the time, however, the manipulation was so strong that I stuck it out, but since I had moved out for college, there was an undercurrent of abusive attacks that became more vitriolic over time.
I had become the ungrateful daughter, the scapegoat, something selfish. Enabling family members told me what I should do to support my mother, never seeing me. I was just someone to take care of her, even to them. Everyone worried about her mental state and whether or not the next antidepressant would help her get out of bed that she stayed in for days on end.
In college, the trauma bond was threatened and she ended up moving six hours away, marrying another man within months of her divorce. I panicked of course and when I visited I was once again her mental health provider. She wanted to kill herself again and it was on me to ensure she didn’t do that.
She returned to those threats to manipulate me further; they were the only thing that worked by this point since she and my father were no longer together. And I had had enough.
But that trauma bond, despite distance, was still there. I still felt overly responsible for her; I still needed her in my life. I knew our relationship was sinking and I did everything to fix it, thinking if I could heal and keep changing for the better, we would have a healthy relationship and I could be the daughter for once.
That never happened.
It drove us farther apart until we became estranged.
My mother’s trauma bond with me was all about control and the support she lacked in a marriage and with other adults. When I no longer lived up to those expectations of carrying her baggage by not being physically present, she found someone else to manipulate. And as we went no-contact for a little bit, I panicked every time thinking she may commit suicide. And then began mourning for a mother I never had but always wanted.
At some point I had to choose myself and I did. Being in that trauma bond was chaotic. It was exhausting and pushed me to the brink of mental health crisis after mental health crisis. I was no one, just someone who filled a role. I became claustrophobic after I left, always hating that feeling of being trapped. I learned how to breathe properly after I left, taking deep belly breaths.
Leaving was one of the hardest things I’ve done but it was so necessary. Grief is a cycle that I push through still although it’s lessened considerably. I no longer feel overly responsible simply because I can’t any more. It’s been difficult adjusting to a peaceful and healthy life as I’m in a very healthy marriage. From the chaos that a trauma bond instills to the quietude of now, it feels boring sometimes, even mind-numbing. But these are things that will purge over time. A lot of weight has been lifted from my shoulders and for the first time in my life, I want to live and experience everything I used to be terrified of. I’ve made my own peace with my once fear of death.
I can only hope if you’ve experienced a trauma bond or are in one now, that you’re able to find the inner strength you need to go no-contact. And I hope that on the other side, after all the panicked emotions are released and the grief is only lingering, that you find peace.