This article contains reflections related to child abuse that may be uncomfortable or triggering for survivors and some others.
Years ago, I began writing a poem about one of the languages my mother spoke. It began, “Pain is my mother’s tongue, but I speak it fluently.” I thought the line was dope. I did my, that’s-dope dance, with the expectation of creating the most profound piece of work in my repertoire. But I stopped writing the poem shortly thereafter. It was just too difficult to write about what I suffered. If I’m honest, it’s still difficult. Whenever I try to write about the abuse I witnessed and suffered, I fail. With all the being said, if you’re reading this article, celebrate with me, for me, because I’m doing it now.
My family has had a long history of violence and abuse. Generation after generation, members have been inducted into this secret society for both the abused and abuser. Bruises, broken bones and hospital stays immodestly pronounced initiation. No one spoke about their membership, but you knew early on. I’d started first grade when my sisters and I watched our cousin be “spanked” with an extension cord while she squirmed naked in the bathtub. We knew then we weren’t alone and we gathered around her afterward, trying to console her.
One of my earliest memories is my angry mother throwing my sister across the bed and biting her on the back to punctuate the sentiment. My sister’s offense was that she couldn’t figure out how to tie her wrap around skirt. I stood there, watching, terrified. Inside my clenched fists were the ties to my skirt that I, likewise, had no clue how to tie. This is only one of the many scenes I can recall at a moment’s notice. I’ve kept these vignettes secure to protect myself and my mother. As a child, acknowledging my own abuse, would out my mom as my abuser. I felt responsible for my mother and still do to a degree because she’s a member, too. She was abused. To what extent, I’ll probably never know because she won’t speak of it. I did witness part of the abuse she suffered in adulthood, though.
Because of my history, by the time I was 10, I could glean someone’s potential for violence easily. This is how I knew the union between my mother and stepfather would not end well. I was afraid to live with this man—a stranger, who came out of nowhere, it seemed. I didn’t like him. He wasn’t nice, especially when my mother wasn’t looking. The two were married in my grandmother’s living room, and my sisters and I weren’t invited. I don’t remember much from that day, except the ominous feeling that things wouldn’t go well. I would have liked for my stepfather to prove me wrong, but he didn’t. He just brought more pain.
Like most children who live in a violent home, I was unable to ignore my mother’s abuse. I suspected it and saw signs but never saw proof. My mother was different; her disposition changed. Though she was abusive before, she was still charismatic; we’d see her smile from time to time. Once she joined with my stepfather in “holy matrimony,” she grew angrier and even more isolated from us. Her light that would occasionally flicker, he snuffed out. Not long after their wedding (maybe two months or so), my suspicions about what was happening between the two of them were confirmed.
My three sisters and I returned home from summer vacation in Wisconsin and no one was home. While it was empty, when we entered the apartment, something felt off. First of all, my mother should have been there. Nothing was out of place, but it was darker and more eerie than usual. We slowly walked to our room, surveying our surroundings, as we went. We could see light flickering from television in the hallway; it illuminated our bedroom. Once we were all in our bedroom doorway, I tried to make sense of what I was seeing. Having heard the arguments for about a week before, I knew something bad had happened. I’d felt the tension and braced myself for what was coming. I heard one of my sisters gasp and noticed the damage to the wall. It looked like the side of someone’s face was pressed into the wall. Later I learned it was my mom’s face.
We were abused physically and emotionally for years to follow that night. My 13th birthday was the culmination of my mother’s rage toward me. No one had planned anything for my birthday, so I took matters into my own hands. After finishing my chores, I planned to go to my uncle’s house to have a good time with his family. The day went as scheduled. But when I returned home, my mother confronted me with what I thought was casual anger. At most, I’d expected for her to curse me out and slap me a couple of times. I never imagined she’d pick up a chair and hit me on the head with it. I stood, reeling and shocked that I’d misjudged her anger. In what seemed like slow motion, I lowered my head to cry and blood began to gush from my scalp. Things sped up then, to the point of near chaos. I remembered hearing yelling, seeing lights from the ambulance and my mother leaving the house, dressed in her work uniform.
Before I realized its harm to me and how important it was to be a healthier me for my daughter, I could overdose on these memories and allow them to feed the anger I felt towards my mother. I was angry because she didn’t acknowledge the abuse, that she never apologized, and that she abandoned me emotionally and physically. After much deliberate work and professional help, I use my experiences to help my clients deal with their past abuse; to inspire them to create a better narrative in their own lives. I had to heal my emotional scars and live beyond the casualty of victimhood. I’ve seen what happens when you don’t heal. I’m kin to it, born of it. The anger builds, feeds the legacy and new members are inducted. Your life is akin to a battlefield, littered with bruised and battered people who have tried to love you and save you from a type of combat they can never truly understand.
At this point in my life, my childhood can sometimes seem like it happened to someone else. I’m healthy mentally and emotionally, but the effort never stops. I’ve shifted a narrative so far from my past that the beginning and end don’t fit, depending on who you ask. I worked hard to love me and replace my mother’s hurtful words and actions with my own loving ones. I did that. I’m doing it. I survived. But more importantly, I’ve thrived.
*The name of this author has been withheld, as she is a practicing mental health professional and this level of personal disclosure may impede others’ healing work.