It's a Thursday night in August, just past 10 p.m., and my mother is texting me. This might seem like a harmless nuisance except my mother is not supposed to text me. Two years ago I asked her to give me space and not reach out. She responded with an "ok" and proceeded to respect my wishes for 13 days. Nobody's mother listens, but why would I go through the trouble of asking the woman who birthed me to leave me alone: she physically and verbally abused me for 17 years and has been harassing me ever since.
I don't have enough fingers and toes to count how many times I came home to this speech: "I hate you. I wish you would walk into traffic and get hit by a truck. Why don't you kill yourself? You ruin everyone's life and can't you tell they wish you weren't around anymore." The cause was always the same: Either I had lost one of my gloves or my hat or a scarf or I was asking my mother for some sort affection or attention. Whenever I said "I love you" her favorite response was "I don't love you at all."
A friend recently sent me a photo of an essay and poem I wrote for Mother's Day in the 4th grade and the last line was, "A Mother may act like she doesn't love you sometimes/ but a mother will love you all her life." Another friend once wondered aloud how nobody noticed that line but the answer is simple: it was always my fault. My single mother dropped me off at a babysitter every day and any time I would do anything that might make her upset coming to pick me up—usually misplacing an item—they'd repeat the same mantra: "Stop making your mother angry. You know she can be a savage." These women had known my mother before she married my father. They once told a story of how my mother had beat me when I was 5 with a metal folding chair because I lost the slip she bought for me to wear under a dress.
When I was younger I just sat silent during these stories or nervously laughed and said, "It's true; she's crazy!" But the reasons for her deranged rantings and vicious beatings were always because I wasn't conforming. I wasn't avoiding all the behaviors that would prevent her from beating me. Never mind that I was simply being a kid. I was robbed of the privilege to be human. I wasn't allowed to play outside. She would attack any mentions of friends asking me why I felt the need to have people love me when I was clearly unlovable. Why was I so desperate for attention? I took to painting watercolor butterflies as a pastime for long Saturdays spent in the house. My mother would rip them down and tear them up while yelling. I was ruining her walls with my ugly shit. At 13, I told her that if she wasn't my mom, that I would not be her friend in any way. That only sparked another three hours of hearing how worthless I was and had always been.
When I was 16, I had a panic attack after showing up to school with bruises on my arms. My mother had beat me mercilessly that morning with a heavy plastic lid of a bucket because I had finally hit her back. I remember the look in her eyes when I pushed her off me: her irises went black and she said, "Yes! I've been waiting all these years for you to hit me. Now I'm gonna destroy you." There was a sick smile on her face as she bit her lip in what seemed like joy and rage. She broke the lid, a brush, and a shoe on my body. After spilling my guts to my guidance counselor and my best friends that afternoon, Child Services got involved. I was sent to therapy.
By now I had stopped eating and taken to sleeping for hours when not at school. I was depressed. My usually pristine grades suffered and I started dating the kind of guys that would put guns to my head as jokes or try and force me to have sex with their friends. I was worthless and nobody ever told me different. My father had run off to Mexico and I was waiting until my 18th birthday to escape to college or Europe and never look back.
My plans were thwarted when at 17 my mother suddenly stopped. All of a sudden she was in my corner and I was given free reign to do what I wanted with my life. She never apologized or even made any mention of the abuse. I wanted to never see her again but the guilt of being a bad daughter made me cower and acquiesce. What kind of daughter would I be if I shunned the love my mother was finally trying to give to me? It took me almost another decade to realize that this was all a trap.
My mother's method of physical abuse could no longer work as an adult. As her only daughter, her fear of being abandoned by me had reached palpable levels. The price for this was now a quite insidious criticism of everything I had ever done. I was a whore because I drank too much and stayed out too late. I didn't shower before bed because I was a dog. There was a period in my 20s where I moved back home for my final year of school and ended up sharing a bed with my mom for a small period of time. I would sleep on friends' couches or floors just to prevent hearing about my "absolutely disgusting life in the streets" at 3 a.m. when I would get home. The verbal abuse became too much so I moved out despite the fact that I made $25,000 a year and was close to $100,000 in student loan debt. Staying home wasn't worth enduring that crushing feeling that made me believe I was small and worthless. I could no longer be made to believe that I was to blame.
Once I moved out the harassment started. She would text me for hours every day, call me several times and leave voicemails detailing her mornings and afternoons, her thoughts, what she was up to. If I didn't answer a text she called and called and called until I answered under the pretense of concern only to repeat the cycle the next day. Where she should go on vacation? Could I sign her up for her nursing classes or look for a job for her in Haiti? Could I create a Gmail account for her? Could she come over to use my computer? I was away but here I was trapped. Every text filled me with rage and then guilt; guilt that I was being a bad daughter and dishonoring my mother. Guilt that she was a woman tricked into marriage by a narcissistic, cheating man and then left with two kids and no child support. Guilt that my friends all loved my mom and thought she was so sweet not knowing I hated the sight of simply seeing the word "mom" on my phone. It crushed me and worse.
But I was battling other demons, too. I had been single since freshman year of college (when I dumped my controlling high school boyfriend), rotating between a cast of dudes who would have sex with me but still pretended we were platonic friends in public. Dudes who told me they weren't ready to love me just yet but I should stick around until they would pop up with a new girlfriend only to call me once that was over. Men who I would "dump" and ignore only to have them come back six months later claiming it'd be different this time. This is what I deserved and men didn't love me because it was my fault. If I couldn't get my mother to do it then who did I think I was? The only thing I had was my career, which was fraught with the anxiety of wanting to be a big success but perpetually thinking I could never pull it off.
When I would bring up not speaking to my mother, friends would tell me that it wasn't right for me not to talk to her, that she was the only one that I would ever have. Some would agree, saying I needed to and hoped we would reconcile. Others would joke, that's just what Haitians do and my childhood was not anything out of the ordinary. Very few people understood that this was not my mother; this was my abuser and they were asking me to maintain the cycle. But this is what we do to the abused. We silence them, we blame them or we make light of their poor decision not to remove themselves from the situation.
I'm 28 years old and I've been suffering with these things my entire life. I talk for hours with my roommate about not answering my mother's texts and just the sight of one spirals me into a madness of calling myself all sorts of vitriol for being a bad daughter. I'm a bossy bitch in the streets of New York but my crippling secret and silence about my abuse still brings me to tears more days than not.
My mother does not deserve to have her feelings considered. She is my abuser. The fact that my grandmother was also abusive is a factor but wholly irrelevant (her older sister was the only one who suffered, the same way my brother was never subjected to the physical abuse I was). She will never stop texting. She will never stop using guilt to manipulate. She'll use any tactic she can to keep me tied to her because her biggest fear is being alone. That is an abuser's biggest fear: abandonment. Abandonment means you have to face the monster in the mirror. All the people who try to tell me otherwise are, in turn, blaming me. To tell me that I can't stop talking to my mother no matter what means her behavior is excusable; I just need to find a way to excuse it.
Well, I've decided that's simply not my problem.
I tell this story because the way we speak about victims of abuse is the same across the board. Our language and our reasoning always circulates back to blame and forces the victim into silence. It's bad enough to already feel alone in what you are experiencing, but to ask for an ear and receive a wagging finger sends you right back in that space. My mother is still in my life not because I feel a love that is unconditional but because I feel like a bad person if I don't let her in.
What I have learned, however, is that I am a survivor and that I am not alone. I am not to blame and it's nobody's decision how I survive except my own. I am the only person that hears the voices and remembers the bruises. So the next time you go to comment on domestic and family violence, remember that abuse is the same in its makeup no matter what the dynamic. The silence and isolation and blame are what continue the cycle. The person understands that it isn't right but how can they fix it when they face criticism everywhere they turn. Why doesn't a victim leave? Because nobody allowed them to leave their demons behind.
[Illustration by Jim Cooke]