I was the one who held the family together. My mother resented me for taking on her role in all but name. From dawn to dusk, I ran our Midwest home, which housed a family of two parents, four kids (including myself), and a dog. And still, I waited on everyone hand and foot, until I saw myself as nothing short of a personal slave. I was rarely thanked. I felt like a machine that was good for nothing but cleaning and serving. Verbal abuse from both my parents began. At one point, I wrote down a list of the phrases I heard from my parents day in, day out, and read it to my grandmother. She cried. And yet, through all of this, I still strived for thoroughness and perfection in whatever I did, trying my utmost to satisfy my mother, my father, and the family. My mother would be screaming at me, and I would get in further trouble if I showed that I was upset, on the grounds that any type of strong emotion makes her dizziness worse. Therefore, I was the reason for further aggravating her illness.
2013 was a very, very dark year. All summer and into the end of the year, I did nothing short of starving myself to exhaustion so that the fury at how I was being treated wouldn’t break loose. I tried to leave with my grandparents, and failed. I didn’t have any energy to fight back. I didn’t feel human. Physically pushing myself to the breaking point, not eating anything till nightfall, and surviving on three hours of sleep were my ways of keeping myself in check. If I couldn’t control the environment of the home or the people in it, at least I could have some semblance of control over myself – or so I thought. Eventually, I couldn’t keep up my own schooling, schooling my siblings, and running the house, and I dropped my education all-together. And because of the self-enforced insomnia – amid the chaos around and inside me – and an online boyfriend who began abusing me psychologically from day one, I continued in a downward spiral, which resulted in constant dark euphoria, complete indifference for anything I used to enjoy, numbness, and suicidal fantasies. Again, I decided to stay with my grandparents, but changed my mind last minute, and moved out west for my sister.
A mere month after my father moved the whole family across the country at the beginning of 2014 – and less than a week after my eighteenth birthday – I packed a duffle bag and prepared to run away. I was going to run to the nearest motel and commit suicide. The combination – of hiding my emotions for four years and the strain it caused; my physical, emotional, and mental condition; and my psychopath boyfriend – was too much for me to take any longer. My parents caught me trying to leave, and after the huge, unavoidable confrontation, I stayed. It was the worst night of my life, and also the night I fell into self-harm. Miraculously, I was able to retreat far enough inside myself that I could pretend everything was fine the very next day. When in reality, I, and the situation, were the furthest thing from okay.
Over a period of a few months, after cutting off all contact with my abusive boyfriend, I built a wall around myself, slowly and painfully teaching myself to hide my emotions and body language – at least when I was in the vicinity of my parents. I learned to become a stone. And while I could remain cool, collected, silent, while my mother screamed at me, so much as a raised voice from my father would shatter my resolve instantly, no matter what I did. And if I tried to stand against him, he would verbally beat me down, stomping on any shreds of self-confidence and worth that I still clung to, that my perspective was wrong, that I was wrong, that he was the parent, that I wasn’t the parent, and therefore I had to obey. He would keep after me until I surrendered, and admitted that I was wrong, that he was right, and that I was sorry. But underneath the guise of submission and fragility that I portrayed, there were tidal waves of pure rage searing my heart and mind like fire, a storm that was released once I was behind closed doors. I was only remotely okay three days of that entire summer, and the self-harm continued till mid-December.
Everything came to a head after my week-long trip to DC with my grandparents this spring. I returned home transformed into this confident, hopeful young woman. I was treated like an adult while in DC; my words, thoughts, and opinions mattered, even to a Representative of Congress, and I experienced a level of respect and acknowledgement such as I’d never known; I was responsible for myself, and no one else. During that week, I finally caught a glimpse of who I could be. But being back home, once the initial high of being away from my entire family for the first time in my life wore off, it took all that away. I started reversing all the progress I’d thought I made, and there seemed to be nothing I could do to stop it. I very quickly discovered that I still had to ask permission for something even as simple as a snack. In response to this, my therapist began working with me about creating boundaries, gaining what forms of independence I could manage, and saying “no” to my parents when the need arose. As soon as I began to employ these methods, my parents’ attitude toward me changed. They thought I had been lying about no longer being rebellious, because suddenly I was beginning to question their choices again, to stand up for myself, and to demand that things had to change. It turns out they were only considerate and gentle with me so long as I didn’t challenge them. I was nineteen, a perfectly-legal, mature-for-my-age adult, and still, my parents would not accept that reality, and did everything they could to undermine me.
After one of the biggest fights with my mother that I’d had in months, thoughts of fleeing to my grandparents’ house began lurking at the corners of my mind. I told my grandmother that I wanted to come live with them after my younger sister’s high-school graduation. She told me to talk it over with my therapist. When I did a few days later, my therapist said, if the only thing that was keeping me in there was love for my siblings, that I should leave as soon as possible.
My parents refused to pay for the plane ticket, so my grandparents took care of it for me. I packed everything I could into nothing but a small suitcase, a laptop bag, and a carry-on. And six days later, on April 24, I left, and moved in with my grandparents.
And a lot of people probably won’t like what I’ve said. I might be labeled a liar, a hypocrite, a rebellious child, an exaggerator. So be it. Let them think what they want. I will not downplay what I’ve been through: downplaying improves life for the abuser, not the victim. But I know that many, many people can’t afford to stand up and say things as nothing less than how they are, because their situation is too dangerous, and they have nowhere to run: I’ve been through that, and I understand. Because I was taught that the word “No” shouldn’t be in my vocabulary, that parental authority – or any authority for that matter – should never be questioned, that I should feel guilty for saying “no”, or not wanting to do something that made me uncomfortable. Because I homeschooled my siblings when my mother couldn’t, but she refused to put any of us in school, even though life would have been easier for everyone. Because I was told “You can’t” more than “You can”, which taught me to always doubt myself, my thoughts, my feelings, my skills, my perspective, my reality. Because my parents’ beliefs and perceptions were shoved down my throat, and I was expected to be just like them, but my beliefs were somehow wrong and not valid. Because it was easier to stand up for my siblings than myself. Because I was taught that I was responsible for everyone’s happiness, that I was to blame if they were upset. Because I was taught that self-care was selfish, that I had to put my family first, and myself, last. Because I was taught not to be weak, or to need rest, and to feel guilty for asking for a break. Because I would get in more trouble for telling the truth, than for lying; that my needs would be overlooked simply because my parents knew I wouldn’t cause a scene. Because I was taught to never be a burden, a problem, or an inconvenience.
Because I was told how to think, how to act, how to understand, how to be.
I understand. Really, I do.
So what, if I’m a nineteen-year-old struggling to overcome Complex-PTSD, anxiety, and severe depression, who doesn’t even have a driver’s license, job, or diploma yet? The keyword is yet. I don’t have those things yet. But I’m working on getting them, and I promise, eventually, I will. I am learning how to live. I know the truth about myself. And the truth is this: I am a survivor of emotional abuse.
Since I’ve been here, I have been more happy, and content than I ever thought possible. I am smiling and laughing daily, and I’ve discovered that when I’m really happy, I scrunch up my nose. My eyes sparkle and are full of life. I am finally eating well and enough. I put myself first, and find satisfaction in taking care of myself. My bedroom overlooks the backyard and the bird-feeders. And if I lie down just right, I can see nothing but the trees and the sky, and it feels like I’m in the woods, and not in the suburbs. An old radio and CD player fill my room with soft music, joining with the birdsong from the open windows. I don’t feel the need to have a lock on my door because I feel safe and secure. I am still in therapy, and on medication. I am building a support system and I am connecting with people. I am having deep, intellectual, open-minded conversations on a daily basis. The love and trust I share with my grandparents is so deep that I find curling up next to either of them, resting my head on their shoulder, getting a hug, or asking to talk, is the most natural thing in the world. I am reading through the Bible for the first time, and reading in general for two hours a day. I have been given a piano for my very own, and fallen in love with it. I am getting back to writing my novels and practicing photography. I have been embraced and taken under the wing of both the pastor of my grandparents’ church, and the congregation. I am looking with assurance and hope at my future, and holding fast to the truth that I made the right decision. I am being treated with more respect, love, gentleness, compassion, and understanding than I have in my entire life. My grandparents are like the parents I’ve always longed for, the parents I’ve always needed. Most of all, though, I am feeling the loving, tenderness, and care of God such as I’ve never felt before. He brought me through everything, and He is with me, and I finally understand that. He freed me. I feel accepted, that I belong. That I am loved. And there are times when I am so overwhelmed by thankfulness and joy that I cry from the sheer immenseness of it.
This place is my Rivendell. And I am healing.