my abusive relationship from my mother's eyes
This post originally appeared on the One Love Foundation blog.
Setting: My childhood bedroom, in my parents’ house, in my hometown. It is Thanksgiving Day, and my mother and I have just finished dinner. My father would not be home until close to midnight, as the medical field tends to not slow for holidays. My mother sits on the edge of my bed, pensive, with a cup of tea in her hand. She stirs it, slowly. We are talking about a topic she does not love, which is when I dated an abusive man for a period of time the previous year.
She exhales, and begins to speak.
Mom: “I have always wanted there to be a special someone in your life who gets you, and is your best friend forever. It’s not easy, as a mother, to see your child go through anything less than that -- you’ve had two severely unhealthy relationships in a row, now.”
It’s true; I’ve been in two long-term relationships, and both were abusive -- lasting about a year apiece. My most recent one was much more severe than the first, ending a about one year ago.
Me: “So what was it like as a mother, to watch me go through a second bad relationship?”
Mom: “I didn’t know in the beginning that things were going to get as bad as they did, but I did know from day one that I didn't like him. I also knew that if I let you know that, you wouldn't be honest with me if things were ever not okay and you needed help. I’d seen you do it before, with your first boyfriend, so I stayed quiet from the very beginning.”
A pattern I found after my breakup was that most people knew very early on that there was something off about my relationship, but I was so wrapped up in the abusive paradigm that I distanced myself from anyone who was vocal about that. The more vocal, the more distant -- which my mother caught on to, and took notes on.
Mom: “I didn’t like the person he turned you into. It started with smaller things, but then it was huge stuff, like when you drove to Baltimore for a Beyonce concert and skipped the actual concert. You’d given him your extra ticket, but when you got back, you said something about how he’d been in some kind of pain and needed to go to the hospital instead. You’d been talking about that show for months. The daughter I knew would have sent him to the hospital in an Uber and gone to the concert alone. You’d been seeing him for two months. That’s when I saw he had a hold over you, and it’s probably how he learned it, too.
I asked her for the clues she found outside of the larger incidents -- and she told me that they were many, and frequent, and almost exhausting to try and keep up with and analyze.
Mom: “You were going through money so fast and I couldn't tell where it was being spent; it didn't make any sense. You made more than enough to cover your expenses and still have a cushion. You'd ask for help with a bill, so I'd send you money. And then a couple days later, you'd ask for even more, but once it was for the same bill. Later on, that’s how I figured out you were paying his bills on top of yours. None of it was like you. Your reasons for doing things or not doing things weren’t even your words. You read Russian literature for pleasure; you know all these beautiful words, but everything you said was rehearsed. Your whole lifestyle was wild – all these trips, night out after night out, tons of time taken off work -- things you’d never done before. It all came on so quickly, almost out of nowhere. Except I knew it wasn’t out of nowhere; I knew it was him."
My mother learned all of this from social media and infrequent phone calls; I rarely visited, and when I did, it was usually because my boyfriend had some demand for a large sum of money. Depending on the number, I’d hop in the car and drive up to Virginia -- to make the ask in person.
Mom: “You didn't come home to visit as much, and you wouldn't let us come down to see you. When you did come home, there was always an agenda. You weren’t yourself. You weren’t relaxed. You always brought him with you, and you always left with cash or a check for whatever objective he’d given you that time. I couldn’t get to you; I’d try to talk to you, but it was like you were in a fog. It reached the point where you weren't in the same reality and I didn't know exactly how to go about helping you get back. You couldn't make eye contact with me. Or you were looking him, constantly measuring what you could say in front of him, as if you couldn't afford to misstep. And as soon as you got in the car I'm sure you heard all about it if you did.
He had this awful, brute body language. When I asked you something, he'd give you a sideways glance, and wait for you to give me an answer, as if he had prepped you. And then he’d relax back into his chair. He had control over what you said and did in front of me, because I could tell you were lying to my face. I saw that, added to everything else, and started to be afraid that if you didn't keep jumping through hoops, and covering for him, he would do something awful or aggressive -- if he wasn’t already. I was afraid there would be consequences if he couldn’t control you completely. There was a rage in him.
I thought it was his military background; something with his PTSD, or experience overseas that just made him easily agitated.
Then, I stopped making excuses.
Because I began to worry that he would kill you. The military background, the PTSD, the instability, the dependence on you, not to mention the control – it all scared me. I laid in bed at night and absolutely worried that he would kill you.
Stunned, I asked her what kept her from intervening. This is hard for me to ask, and harder for her to answer, I’m sure. We are both tearful at this point, my mother and I. We have never discussed this part of the story.
Mom: “Your relationship with him could have destroyed your relationship with me. I’m sure that’s what he wanted -- for you to separate from me. I knew that if I got difficult, that he would make you cut ties. I knew he had that kind of that influence, and I knew your life depended on that not happening.
But I was up here, three states away; you were down there, and I had no way to assess for myself. I'd call and text, and you’d insist that everything was fine. I was never around you enough to be sure. I was afraid that if I offended you, you'd shut that door and I'd lose you. I saw him using all your money, all your resources, and using you. I was afraid that if I confronted you, you'd stop coming home, speaking to me -- all of it.
So I kept calm. And I just waited. I prayed a lot. I told you that I loved you so many times.
I was addicted to your Instagram and Facebook, because when you wouldn’t talk to me, it was the only way I could get information. I got so nervous when you didn’t post anything for a few days. It made me angry that I didn't have the power to get rid of him, to pull you out of it.
Things got worse before they got better, but I also became more and more vocal about once I realized there was an alternative to the life I was living, which was a huge catalyst in bringing me out of that relationship.
Mom: “One day you called me because you found out he was starting a rumor mill about you. He’d told you that he heard a bunch of your friends at a bar saying terrible things about, but he defended you. You found out later that the opposite was true -- he was the one spewing vitriol. It was finally, for whatever reason, evidence you listened to. You said to me, “Mom, I think he is trying to tear my life apart; I think he’s trying to isolate me from the rest of the world.” I already knew that, and was glad you were seeing it. To me, it looked like he saw that you were considering walking away -- he was trying to stop it, with the rumors, with turning you against anyone he could. He knew how to render you unstable, but it wasn’t working anymore. The fog had cleared.
You started suddenly doing all this stuff that was very different from what I’d been seeing -- working out again, being involved in stuff again. I saw that you were helping a gym open, and lost my breath a little bit. So that made me hope they you were breaking the cycle and changing all the settings. Different people, different places.
I actually found out that you’d ended things from reading your blog; you never told me that you guys broke up. I don't know exactly what happened. You were just as tight-lipped about his departure. You never discussed it with me. But I watched you come back to life.
You came out to the world about it, all at once. It made me sad that you felt like you had to hide the things you were writing about at some point, but that’s just the reality – you did feel like you had to hide. And you’re using that to show others that they don’t. You didn’t just strike a match. You doused the walls of a once dark room in gasoline and lit the whole thing on fire.”
We take a break, to make some more tea. I ask her next about what it's like to see me a year removed from such a terrible situation.
“I can't help but look at every person that comes in your life and wonder if they’re a predator. Two of them already got to you. You're a smart person, and a capable one. You're a therapist, and you had a therapist. If anyone should have “known” better and been spared from this, it was you. But then I look at you now, and you’re a different person as a result of it all.
You're stronger now -- you're not weaker, thank God.
You are so self-aware now; you did so much work and dug so deep into figuring out why you had a tendency to choose abusive people instead of just being ashamed of it.
You’re my hero for that. You’re a lot of people’s hero for that.
Before, while you were with him, you were angry…lost…victimized. You were quiet, antsy, constantly analyzing and processing, keeping track of everything on a ticker tape because your total existence was on a tightrope.
Now, your feet are on the ground. I don't know where the tightrope is, and I hope I never see it again.
You’ve risen. You’re loud. You’re eager and determined. You’re frustrated that this happens to other people. I have no doubt in my mind that you're going to accomplish anything you set your mind to, because you’re always thinking about what you needed someone to say when you couldn’t speak on your own.”
Our tears have turned to tears of joy and gratitude now. I have one more thing to ask my mother -- what she would tell mothers who see their children, or people who see their loved ones, in what could be an abusive situation.
Mom: “I think it's hard for anyone to hear they're wrong about something, and it feels bold to tell them, especially with matters of the heart. You can create opportunities to share, but you can't make them do the sharing. You just have to keep reassuring them that you're in their corner no matter what should arise. If you intervene, unless that person is really ready to change and leave, they'll go right back.
So don't alienate your child, or your friend, or whoever, to where they won't come to you with a problem. Do what you can to keep it supportive and tension-free so that when they are ready to talk, they will. If you destroy that, there’s no go-to. I would like to think everyone has someone in their life they can talk to. If you even think you're that person, be careful not to jeopardize that gift.”
And what a gift my mother is to me is not lost on me. We return to lighter topics -- what kind of pie is still left in the kitchen, for starters. The holiday season and dawn of a new year have me feeling more thankful than usual, because of my own journey and how far I have come in just a short time. It gives me hope that the tides really can turn, and abuse really can lessen, if we keep shedding light on things and telling about them as we are able to. A little bit more light every day, and perhaps no one will have to be in that darkness anymore.