When Your Mother Is Your Abuser 

I never felt free to express joy — or fall apart. I spent all of those years on edge, afraid of what might happen next.

I spent seventeen years in an abusive relationship. Not only do I the physical scars to prove it, I carefully tote a heavy heap of emotional scars. Humiliation, fear, and shame were poured into my heart for years, by a person that claimed to love me — my mother.

I always believed things would get better. I fantasized that I would one day be taken into my abuser’s loving arms and everything would change. I strived to become the best person possible, so the humiliation and rejection would stop.

But happiness between the two of us never lasted long. I would inevitably make a mistake or commit a horrible offense, and once again I was made to feel like the biggest burden, the most dreaded disappointment, and the worst mistake.

When nothing changed, my fantasies went from dreams of love to dreams of escape. Over the years, I made five attempts to escape. I once stayed far away, feeling safer and freer than ever, but my abuser convinced everyone that my only option was to return home. Even then, I was hopeful my abuser needed and missed me. But each time I ran away and was led, forced, or convinced to return home, my abuser regarded me with the same disgust and rejection as always.

The physical harm is never the first thing that comes to mind. That kind of pain doesn’t linger. Having your face pushed into the kitchen floor until you can’t breathe, starting a new job with a black eye, or wearing long sleeves and pants in the summer to hide bruises — are easily endured. But nothing compares to dwelling in endless dread and fear.

It wasn’t until I found the financial means and the inner strength to leave that I learned there is nothing as dismal as never feeling safe or at ease. I never felt free to express joy — or fall apart. I spent all of those years on edge, afraid of what might happen next. Even when things were good (and many survivors will tell you there are good times) I was afraid because, when the good was gone and we were back to the anger, shame and humiliation, the feelings of hopelessness and sorrow were much worse.

Like many survivors, I kept my abuse a secret. Today, very few people know the details of what I endured. Most know my relationship with my mother was not healthy. But because my abuser is still a part of my life (although at a distance), the door is not truly closed. However, there is no more fear, as I have released myself from the hold that she had on my heart and soul.

The balance between protecting myself and accepting that our relationship will continue is something that I struggle with regularly. Some say “the past is the past,” and that I should forget about it. Some remind me that my abuser had a difficult life, and I should approach our relationship with grace. They remind me that abusers are often victims themselves. When my abuser tries to attack me with the same words of humiliation and rejection that were used years ago, I am told that I shouldn’t let it get to me because some people never change. 

Sometimes I cannot avoid my abuser; every visit with family, every phone call or any correspondence brings with it a tiny twinge of pain deep within me. Every holiday and significant life event is approached with a bit of apprehension because I know my abuser is going to be there, behaving as though all is well and nothing was ever wrong in the first place. My abuser takes great pride in all of my accomplishments by taking credit for the life I’ve built for myself. My abuser speaks about our relationship as though it were a wonderful and loving experience.

She doesn’t speak about the times when Child Protective Services came. Or when her boyfriend pulled her off of me, after she landed several punches to my head and kicks to my chest as I cowered in the corner of my bedroom. She doesn’t mention the police coming to our home several times and being arrested. She forgets how many times the school counselors intervened. She boasts about my academic performance, but she doesn’t tell anyone that my greatest performance was the daily act I put on — pretending that everything was fine.

Now that Mother’s Day has come and gone, I can breathe a sigh of relief until her birthday draws near and I feel that lingering dread in the pit of my stomach again. The balance of protecting myself and maintaining a respectful relationship at a distance is too complicated to explain. Every now and then I imagine what it would be like to approach Mother’s Day with delight and lovingly choose a gift, make a brunch reservation, or have a wonderful visit with the woman I call mom. But for me, Mother’s Day is not what it should be. My favorite thing about Mother’s Day is when it’s finally over.

I felt my story had to be shared because there are so many people out there with the same secret. I am writing under an anonymous byline to protect myself and the people I love. I can say I'm glad that my mother kept me alive. I’m glad that she made sure I went to school every day. I trust that she fed, bathed, and held me when I was an infant. And I am grateful for the life that I have today and aware that I would not exist without her. She taught me how to love by showing me exactly what love is not; perhaps the best thing about having her for a mother.

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