In a world saturated with bad reality TV, one of my favorite shows is The Biggest Loser. In a recent episode, after reaching the milestone of losing one hundred pounds, one of the contestants exclaimed, “I’m learning to love someone I’ve never known. I am learning to love someone who I never knew existed.”
My problem was never weight or addiction. My problem was that I was raised by a sadistic woman – a mother with undiagnosed borderline personality disorder and narcissistic personality disorder – who was abusive in every way possible. My problem was that I was raised in a family that dismissed her behavior as simply peculiar. My problem was that I was raised in a wider society that refuses to acknowledge that mothers can also be predators and sometimes prey on their girl children. My problem was that, even as an adult child, I was expected to shut up and submit. The statement from The Biggest Loser contestant speaks to what recovery from this type of systematic, long-term abuse has been – a journey of discovering a person who really never had the opportunity to exist. Me.
I didn’t start to exist until my thirty-fifth birthday, when I got a restraining order against my mother. I had been working as a body worker and yoga teacher for a number of years. Although I was actively healing others, I was extremely disconnected from myself emotionally and physically. I had to disconnect in order to survive. I had learned to minimize and even deny all aspects of physical pain at my mother’s hands. As I worked on other people, I began to notice a growing feeling – that of resentment. I was not just giving until it hurt. I was giving beyond the hurt. I was giving and didn’t even know I was hurting.
Soon after my grandfather passed away, I began to wonder whether I was really the one with the problem. I began to think that maybe it wasn’t appropriate that my mother disparage me to friends and employers based on minor infractions. Mind you, that infraction could be something as minor as not calling her back within a suitable time frame – such as ten minutes. I began to think that maybe when I visited, it was wrong that I couldn’t use the restroom in private. These were just some of the minor things I had to endure.
When I began to question my mother on these and other behaviors, she became more hostile than usual. Somehow, I found my voice and suggested she not contact me until she gotten some professional help. I told her I would be willing to speak to her through a therapist of her choosing, but I wasn’t going to take the blame for our contentious relationship anymore. It wasn’t all my fault, which is something she’d claimed my entire life. Borderlines and narcissistic people rarely acknowledge their pathologies. So I cut off contact.
My mother treated me more like a batterer treats a partner rather than the way a mother should treat a daughter. When her false apologies and pleading didn’t work, the gifts came. I sent them back. The phone calls became more belligerent and threatening. When that didn’t work, she sent the police to my door at all hours of the night with her number in hand. When that didn’t work, she called the manager of apartment building, claiming I was in distress. When that didn’t work, she began to physically stalk me and threaten my life with the help of a man she’d recruited to her cause. The man followed me to work and called me on the phone, demanding I forgive my mother. These things were all quite disturbing, but the worst was her scratching on my door between two to three in the morning. Her eye blocked the peep hole and she whispered, “You’re going to do what I say because you’re my child.”
It was a well-timed visit to my acupuncturist that turned the tide. After checking my pulse and looking at my tongue, this woman who had been treating me for three years asked me, “What the hell is going on with you?” And, for some reason, for one of the first times, I told the truth about my mother. Maybe I knew she would believe me.
She took my hand and said, “You need to call the police.”
I said, “But it’s my mother.”
Her voice kept getting softer, but she continued to say, “You need to call the police.” She also gave me the number to her therapist and more than suggested I make an appointment.
The restraining order opened the world for me. For the first time, I felt safe from my mother. Many survivors of this type of long-term systematic abuse – or terrorism, as I prefer to call it – aren’t able to fully recognize the impact of the abuse until years after they have ceased contact with the abuser. Some can’t acknowledge it until after the abuser dies. As for me, as in the well-known movie and book, I began to exhale. The only other moment in my life that I’d felt safe from my mother was when I’d gone overseas in college and when I’d been hospitalized for depression.
The diagnosis of depression, in my opinion, was a misdiagnosis. I was suffering from complex PTSD – the result of physical, emotional, sexual, financial, and spiritual abuse at the hands of my mother. Now, it is a recognized fact that trauma, particularly long-term trauma, changes the brain and has an impact on brain development in children and teens. Moments of trauma or terror shut down the frontal cortex of the brain and the reptilian brain takes over. For this reason, many survivors of trauma often have trouble remembering assaults committed against them. They may remember certain smells, fixate on one particular visual, or completely disassociate. The brain is protecting itself from what healthy human beings recognize as unthinkable.
Now, to be fair, the diagnosis of complex PTSD didn’t exist in the mid-nineties. Unfortunately, the therapist and staff working with me were too eager to put the family back together. The problem was that I didn’t have a family. I was born into a group of mentally ill people and those who enabled bad behavior. The therapist I had when I was younger essentially reinforced the idea of shut up and submit. I bought it until I found my voice and finally set a boundary with my mother.
The restraining order was a first step for me, but the journey to recovery has been long, painful, arduous, heartbreaking, devastating, bittersweet, and beautiful. I call it an unearthing. My usual modus operandi was to avoid, evade, and suppress myself, but this way of being is no longer acceptable. From a Buddhist perspective, I was not awake. I was not present in my life. I didn’t know I existed or even had a right to exist. I had to cut my mother out of my life in order to begin to remove the mask.
Part of the unearthing for me has been to acknowledge the ways my mother and family of origin were not and are not capable of love. The next part and hardest part has been recognizing the ways I’ve internalized that lack of love through acts of deprivation, self-harm, self-negligence, and self-sabotage. There has also been a host of unexplained somatic pain throughout my body. I am uncovering and unraveling those lies that my mother told me – lies that feel as though they are woven deep into my cells.
And in all truth, the shit hurts, and it’s not easy. But things feel different. They feel different because the more I feel the pain, sadness, grief, and loss, the more my body opens. Weird, somatic body pain lessens and disappears. My body continues to experience a newfound freedom. People tell me I look different and lighter in spirit. I am not only learning to see myself. I am learning to feel myself – to exist, to feel that I am body and embodied. It is through allowing my flesh to deeply weep that I have been able to live authentically and embrace those moments of joy.
The process of healing brings me back almost twenty years to a moment when I was a junior in college. A friend of mine had just had a baby. I mean just. When I went into the room, there were drops of blood on the floor and the placenta was still sitting in a basin. She was holding her new son in her arms, and I was in utter awe of him. He was finally here in the world, and he was wailing. What hit was the smell. It was primordial, raw, earthy, bloody. It was unadulterated, unrestrained life.
The unearthing that began with that restraining order over nine years ago has become a rebirthing. What I am doing with each moment of grief, each discovery, is uncovering my potential and acting on it in the best way I know how. Sometimes, I stumble because I’m new to me. There are things and experiences that are more than likely lost, and I deeply grieve these – deeply. But I would never go back to not existing, to not being real. Because as Miss Celia from The Color Purple declares, “I am here!” I am finally figuring out that I am here and that I am meant to more than exist. I am meant to love and to be loved and to thrive.[Headline image: The photo shows a Black woman up close seated at a table. Her hair is short and partially visible. Her mouth is closed in a frown and her head is down. There is a blue plate on the table and a woman in the distance who is blurry and wearing a white shirt.]