I knew, on some level, that my childhood was far from ideal. I was born and raised in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in southeast Kentucky. My family lived in poverty much like many other families in that area.
We moved around a few times. We lived in unfinished houses, shacks, and government housing. There was always a lot of settling going on. No matter where we settled, the place would succumb to cockroaches and cats and dogs running in and out of the house. When we lived in shacks, things were dirty. Why bother cleaning?
Without proper insulation in our housing, winters were freezing. We had to rely on kerosene heaters. The smell of kerosene still makes me shudder. And it was miserable during the summers. On the hottest days, we’d wake up early and go sit at McDonald’s until nightfall.
We had plenty of food at the first of the month but barely enough at the end. My family was dependent on food stamps and welfare. No surplus of money was ever saved. Always blown. I longed for ballet lessons but that was never even a possibility. I longed for a lot of things.
Growing up, I thought my mother was the best. She kept the family together, she did all the work, nd sacrificed so much. She loved us more than anything and would do anything for us. We owed her everything. During one of my therapy stints in 2013, though, I started getting an inkling that this was bullshit.
My siblings and I spent our lives consoling our mom. She had it the worst and she was always depressed. She had a hellish childhood and the rest of her life was one big painful experience. We all felt bad for her, it broke our hearts, we yearned to make it all go away. Her children wanted to save her, to fix her.
To ever speak out against mom, to pin any responsibility on her was a breach of trust and she’d quickly withdraw her love as a punishment. Guilt squelched any “rebellion” against our golden goddess of a mother.
But I started tracing my behaviors back to my relationship with mom. My other siblings weren’t ready to face it, so I buried it. I kept my mouth shut like always. In 2015, my second oldest sister started to go to therapy and coming to terms with the reality of the past. I felt brave enough to face it and to begin speaking out. When I started back to therapy last year, I started to dig into the very core of my being.
I had been in denial for 30 some years and I finally felt like I had permission to face the truth and in turn, tell my story. That’s the ugly thing about a traumatic childhood. You’re entirely dependent on others no matter how they treat you. Many parents and caregivers think that having their child not die means they’ve done a great job. My siblings and I were fed and clean. As long as we looked alright and remained alive, that made my mom the World’s Best Mother.
But there is so much more to raising a child.
See, the brutal truth is that my mother was and is abusive. We walked on eggshells, being careful where we tread. Holding our breaths, we never knew what would set her off. She threw temper tantrums and still hiding a wounded little girl inside who was always afraid, hurt, angry, and sad. Our home life was a war zone. Anything she said—went. She is the mother, no one is allowed to defy her.
It’s an unsettling feeling to know that I had been manipulated, practically brainwashed into believing my mother was a saint. That it was the world’s fault, my dad’s fault, our fault that life was so terrible for her.
No one’s problems were worse that mom’s. No one could compete. Life was a competition to mom. She always needed to be the victor. Winning through control, manipulation, and playing the victim/martyr.
Her unpredictable mood swings, rage, spewing spiteful words, throwing things, smacking our faces and in our mouths more times that I can count. We were called bitches, stupid, smartasses, even as very small children. We were told we were hated, that she never wanted to be a mother. That she wished we’d never been born. But other times, she’d tell us how we were the best things that ever happened to her. I never knew what to believe.
She never asked us how we were doing, how we were feeling. We weren’t taught to express ourselves. Of course, when we had problems, she’d relate them back to herself and we’d leave those conversations knowing that our problems never took precedence over hers. We couldn’t leave her sight in public. But at home, she wanted us to leave her alone.
We weren’t allowed over at anyone’s house, especially if a male was present. She trusted no one. We trusted no one.
No apologies were ever given after her infamous meltdowns. It was swept under the rug and she would smooth it over with a joke or some banal conversation.
We weren’t allowed or taught independence. No chance of becoming capable individuals. We weren’t expected to clean or cook for ourselves. We weren’t assigned chores. We weren’t taught discipline or hard work. Why earn anything if one could receive handouts from others? Our mother decided everything for us. We couldn’t be trusted to make the right choice.
While my mom was extremely aggressive, my dad was passive. An enabler. He never intervened. He never protected us or stood up for our rights. My parents fought constantly. Big blowouts that always ended up with him packing a suitcase and leaving for his mom’s house. He’d always come back, though. But sometimes we never knew. My dad had always been the bad guy growing up because he was lazy and in and out of jobs. I didn’t learn until later that he had/has anxiety. Avoiding responsibilities is seen as laziness. But anxiety can cause one to go hide instead of providing for a family.
He constantly promised us things. To take us camping, take us fishing, take us somewhere there’d be some excuse the day before to not go. I didn’t go camping for the first time until I was 26.
Our family was enmeshed. The children were not individual humans but appendages. Only extensions of our parents. They owned us. We took on emotional and mental responsibilities that we should have never taken on.
Our mom saw us as the substitute family she longed for as a kid. We had to fix her, to save her. My mother was always waiting for someone to save her. She unloaded all of her needs and baggage onto us.
My siblings and I didn’t have great relationships growing up. She divided and conquered. She hated it if she thought one of us were taking someone else’s side over hers. She was very competitive and jealous.
I’m close now with my sisters. I don’t speak to my brother. Only texts on birthdays and holidays. My eldest sister is taking medication for OCD. My brother has rage issues and his health has been declining the last few years. My other sister suffered with anxiety and has been in therapy since last year. It pains me to think we all thought/think there is something wrong with us. But we all have a common denominator.
Being the youngest, my mother set me apart. I was the baby, the favorite, the last hope. She told the others this. They, of course, being children rejected and resented me. They teased me if they were brave enough and often left me out. They were too afraid to be around me all the time. If they made me cry, my mother would dole out severe punishment. I had to live with the guilt. I didn’t have my siblings and my mom was too consumed in her misery to be there for me.
So, I was alone. Even with 6 people in the house, I was alone. I was an omnipotent monster that sat on a pedestal in the dark.
Throughout life, I was told how talented I was but was never congratulated on my accomplishments. I was always reminded that I could be doing so much more with my life. What was the matter with me?
We did not have boundaries or any privacy in our enmeshed family. My mother and I were the most enmeshed, though. She never saw me for me. She doesn’t even know me now. She repressed my individuality and constantly told me how I was exactly like her in every way. I had nothing of my own. I put on a show and was whoever she wanted me to be to try and protect myself from her rage. I never fully escaped it, though. I lived in constant fear. A constant unease and expectation that things were going to turn bad. Because they always did.
The day I got a divorce I called my mom to tell her. The first 5 minutes she told me how stupid I was and how it was the biggest mistake of my life. The next 8 was conceding that I’ll do whatever I want, even though she wouldn’t have done what I did, and she can’t do anything about it. Then the next hour was spent analyzing all of her problems and woes.
So, as of right now, I have nothing to do with my mother. Her toxicity is too much for me. I am deep in recovery and having a relationship with her impedes it.
I do love her. I love both of my parents. Growing up, mom read to us. She gave her children the love of reading. She corrected our grammar. She urged our educations. She inspired in me, the love and fascination with pioneer life. She has a sense of humor when she lets down her guard. My dad inspired the love of nature and the outdoors in my heart. And later in life encouraged a gentle, loving relationship with God.
My dad is mostly different now. He will sit and listen to us. He has apologized for his parenting. He tries and that is something. My mother, however, is so entrenched in her negativity and pain that she doesn’t recognize how toxic and abusive she was and is. Her life’s motto is, “Life sucks and then you die.” It is people’s behavior now which determines my involvement with them. My love is unconditional, something I was never gifted with.
I know why they were like they were. They both had abusive childhoods. Abused in every way. I pity them. I am truly sorry that their childhood was filled with pain and abuse. But my mother’s toxic shame and instability and my dad’s fear and anxiety have stolen most of their lives and produced four very sad, lonely, and miserable children.
I also know the past is the past and you can’t change it. People say, “Oh you can’t keep blaming your parents. You have to take responsibility now.” It’s true to a point. One has to be aware first of all those demons and understand how and when they got there. You can’t have power over anything until you name it.
At 32, I am finally aware and able to name all of those little demons. Give everything a name. I have been putting in the work. I didn’t want to live my life the way I had been living it. I wanted help. I wanted to change. And my mom and dad could have done the same.
Everyone can do the same, especially when it’s not about you anymore. When you bring children into this world, you must break the cycle. Abuse begets abuse. Change it. My mother thinks that because she didn’t drink, or beat the shit out of us, or touch us sexually, that she didn’t abuse us.
I had to learn that that is a lie. Emotional and verbal abuse leave scars just as deep. I had to learn that it isn’t my fault; it never was. I walked around for 31 years searching for the truth. Once I found it, I’ve had to take responsibility. Just like my dad had to and just like my mom has to.
There is no excuse.
Go on to Backstory Part III: The Cure here.