My husband is a lover… and a yeller. He is thoughtful and understanding, sweet, kind, and funny as hell — but his temper is short. When my daughter “acts out,” he immediately raises his voice. Of course, his response sounds harsh — but he does show restraint. His words may be short and sharp, but they are not derogatory. He never puts our daughter down, and there are times when a stricter tone is absolutely necessary. I also have no problem stepping in (and speaking up) if I feel my husband is out of line. But inside, any time he raises his voice, I am panicked. My hands tremble, my legs quiver, and my heart begins to race. I am nauseated and numb — because his response reminds me of a darker time.
I was (well, am) the product of mental and emotional abuse.
From the outside looking in, my childhood seemed solid. I had two parents, a cute cocker spaniel, a younger brother whom I doted on and fought with — and more stuff than you can imagine. My toy box was overflowing. My closet (and fridge) were always full. In short, I had a good life. A #blessed life. I came from a “stable” two-parent nuclear family and home — but behind the yellow walls of our single-story Ft. Lauderdale home were secrets. So many secrets. The biggest of which was the neglect. In our family, there was a near-total absence of support, affection and love.
Of course, I don’t recall when it began. Emotional abuse is a complex issue, and there was no moment or mark to define it. It began slowly, insidiously — with a put-down here and a disparaging comment there. But my mother’s mouth — and her mind games — caused me a great deal of pain. And they still affect me to this day.
You see, my mother mocked and ridiculed me often. She reminded me that I wasn’t good enough or smart enough. She said things like “I wish I never had you” and “you’re a mistake.” Then, later, she apologized. She spat out each hate-filled phrase carelessly, flippantly and without an ounce of concern or regard — presumably because she thought she could just “take it back” later, free and clear.
She distanced herself emotionally, too. I envied friends who spoke with their mothers (about school, toys or boys) because, in my home, there was just noise — or silence. I was overwhelmed by our relationship or swallowed in the void. And, over time, her insults and absence worked; I started to believe I was stupid and fat, needy and dramatic, that I was a total fuck-up. I felt helpless, hopeless and completely alone, and then — at my most vulnerable — she isolated me. I wasn’t allowed to go out, to “hang out” (with neighbors or friends) and things like parties, dances, dinner dates and sleepovers were strictly forbidden. In short, I had little to no social life, and it remained that way for years.
Of course, you may be wondering why I didn’t “get out” or rebel — why I didn’t stand up and fight back — and that is a fair question. Hell, it is a very good question. But the cycle of abuse is complicated. It’s full of ups and downs, of great highs and crushing lows — and abusers use these tactics to break you and control you. Throughout my childhood, I felt like I had no value, that I didn’t deserve love. And because there was no physical violence involved, I dismissed my mother’s actions. I saw my mother as harsh, cold and callous — but not abusive.
It took me two decades, four counselors, three psychologists and one kick-ass psychiatrist to come to terms with what really happened in my past.
But today, my mother’s past behaviors have an impact on my children — her grandchildren — because I am so afraid of becoming like her that I am extremely soft. The pendulum has swung in the other direction.
I’m overly involved in my daughter’s life. I engage her, play with her and praise her constantly. I have a hard time saying no. I smother my young son. I hug and hold him and let him sleep in my arms or at my breast whenever he wants. He is so small and fragile. I do not want to let him go, and I struggle with discipline. I rarely raise my voice.
And while there is nothing wrong with being an active, loving parent, I will be the first to admit that I am a pushover. Discipline is a point of contention between me and my husband. I can’t stand conflict, even though I know disagreements can be healthy and help our children learn and grow. Yet both tension and tears cause me anxiety. I cry when my children cry.
So how do I move forward? How do I cope? I work closely with my doctors. I regularly discuss my apprehensions and fears, and I have learned the power of forgiveness. I have let my mother (and myself) off the hook. And while things are far from perfect — I still struggle with boundaries, discipline and my self-esteem — I keep going: for myself, my husband and my two beautiful kids. Because they deserve a good mom. The happy, healthy, loving mom I never had.