How my mother’s abusive relationship changed the way I love
If I close my eyes, I can still feel the knife clutched inside my palm. In fifth grade, I’d just broken my arm from a brutal tree fall, and my mom had entangled herself in a dangerous relationship with a “reformed” convict. He will forever be remembered as “Monster.” As a mother myself, there are many moving parts of my mom’s story I understand now. I didn’t understand then.
She couldn’t “just leave.”
It’s not so simple. When she tried, Monster threatened or pleaded with her, lying with promises of a changed heart. I knew a heart so black could never truly change. But as a young girl trapped in Monster’s box, all I could control was how I’d react within every relationship I’d ever have thereafter — whether consciously or not.
This twisted couple-ship progressed rapidly. From his introductory sweet-talk to the moving of his things into our already cramped apartment, I’d been put on a downhill slope with no cliff I could careen off of for relief. Before I knew it, the dingy, old pull-out mattress my younger brother and I shared next to our mother’s bed — the place that made us feel safe — was forbidden. Mom’s room became Monster’s room, and we were no longer welcome.
It was his house now, not ours.
It wasn’t long before Monster controlled everything. From how much we ate, to who Mom spoke to, and even/especially how much time she spent with us.
He’d become angry quickly, and isolated Mom from anyone who knew or needed her so that he could be her only focus.
As my broken arm healed in its uncomfortable, bulky cast, Monster envied any drop of care my mom offered. He wouldn’t allow her to fuss, or mother, even as I slept upright in a recliner. I couldn’t bathe alone, and I had great difficulty dressing, but he didn’t care. As long as Mom was his, and his alone, I could have died in that cast, on that recliner, and he wouldn’t have flinched. More troubling, I’ll always wonder if Mom would have. I somehow became a real life Flower in the proverbial Attic, and wasn’t sure if I’d survive.
During the peak of Monster’s wrath — after he spun my cat by the tail and dragged my mom out of a bar by the hair and repeatedly kicked her in the head — I kept a knife under my pillow. Some days, I thought he’d kill my mom, others, all of us.
When Mom finally managed to end things with him for good (after many attempts and fails), I clutched that knife so tight, there would have been no hesitation in my use of it.
I was scared he’d break in to kill us. Scared he’d follow us, kill us somewhere obscure. Scared he’d let Mom think he’d moved on, only to kill us months later.
There was no relief after their break. My heart was the one that changed.
Years later, as I traversed through high school heartbreak, a failed marriage directly out of my senior year, and now, a second marriage to the father of my two children, I struggle with the past.
The memories embed themselves in every decision I make, even as an adult.
Monster, and the version of my mother who aided and abetted him, stripped me of basic needs — love, empathy, nurturing, kindness, safety, security — and I’ve since flailed helplessly trying to replace them. They are, in fact, seemingly irreplaceable.
I panic easily, overwhelm quickly, and fear everyone. I look to my children; I offer them security through things like routines and schedules, and plans for their safety. My chest tightens whenever those schedules and plans falter. How can I keep them safe if I’m in a continual state of fear? I acknowledge my role as their mother, but managing relationships with my husband, friends, and family riddles me with uncertainty. It’s love, sure, but subconsciously conditional. A moment of fear (or lack of safety) flips a switch in my heart, and I’m cold again. Walls all the way up, dead to the person who caused such unimaginable pain. It was how I survived childhood, and thus, an instinctual way I survive life now.
Love, to me, is transient; a foreign state of being. Because what is love if it hurts the way it hurt my mom, the way it hurt me all those years ago?
I’m still working on how to open up, to change my heart to trust.
When I wake some mornings, I still feel the etching of the knife in my palm. I wish I didn’t. I wish things had been different, that Monster never existed. I can’t change the past, but I can remind myself I’m safe now; I’m in control. This is my reality now — not that Hell.
Monster’s impact on our lives all those years ago not only changed who I was, but who I would be. It re-directed my thoughts and feelings, funneling them into complicated vessels that ruined many relationships. His presence pre-empted potentially solid friendships, because I couldn’t see past my fear of being vulnerable. Even now, as my amazing husband and I celebrate 10 years of marriage, I’m not able to understand how great we could be. I’m too focused on the broken parts of myself that emphasize what a scared little girl I still am. I don’t yet know how to break free from the shackles that our abuser’s presence put on me, or how to live as freely as I imagine I did before he entered my life.
My mom and I have worked through a lot of this, and our relationship today is strong.
Though, I may not forget all that happened, and I might not ever know what it’s like to love someone without this intrinsic fear rooted deep in my being, I actually forgive the soulless Monster who stole our ability to ever feel safe. I could wake tomorrow with the feeling of the knife in my palm again — but he’s not here anymore. I refuse to let those memories dictate the wife, mother, and woman I am. Trust may not come easily, and fear rests on the surface. But those two things also ensure that I keep my own family safe.
My kids are safe. I’m safe. I’m loved. My husband is not Monster, and he never will be. This is what I know, what is true. My past cannot take away my present. If I let it, Monster wins. And I’ll be damned if he takes another thing from me ever again.
If you or someone you know needs help, call The National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Counselors are available 24/7 and calls are toll-free. You can chat with a counselor online here.