Though I spent my entire life living under the same roof as my mom, a stay-at-home parent, we were complete strangers. Like any skilled abuser, my father had isolated me from the rest of my family, making me think I was unlovable to everyone but him. I steered clear of my mother, thinking to myself it’s better to be alone, than it would be to feel her rejection — as my father had convinced me would happen. It wasn’t until four years ago, after my mom put a restraining order against my father, that I discovered she was, like me, a victim of his abuse.
Content warning: This article contains information about abuse, PTSD, and self-harm, which some may find triggering.
After she left, she confided in me that since the time my parents began dating as teenagers, my father was abusive toward her. Like all abuse, it started out small: My father was controlling, possessive, and jealous of her, but his “bad traits” grew into something bigger. Though we lived in the same house, my father's expert isolation drove me and my mother completely apart, to the point that our only interactions with each other occurred once every couple months, and almost always ended in a fight. That was, until she left him, and the truth about what she experienced poured out after being bottled up for decades.
It was easier to be angry with her as the parent I perceived as not protecting me, rather than be angry at the parent that instilled fear in me. I was too young to understand the impossible decisions she faced as a mother, and as a woman. As a traumatized child, I couldn’t fathom why she stayed with my father. But as I grew up, now the same age as she was when she married him, I knew her decision to stay was anything but easy. Nothing was easy. Could she leave, and risk losing custody of me and my siblings? At least with all of us under one roof, the abuse could be contained and monitored.
Not to mention, what would people say? Who would believe us? My mom had neatly hidden everything she experienced from me and everyone else in her life under a curated collection of Christmas cards and family photos — much like I hid the extent of my trauma from her, burying it under a host of destructive coping skills.
As I began to work through my trauma, piece by piece, this anger I had harbored against my mom grew into a sense of empathy and sadness for her. There were so many parallels to our stories. We both were only trying to survive the best way we knew how. So I forgave her.
Post-traumatic stress disorder is an isolating, exhausting, and onerous mental illness. Trauma makes me second-guess the intentions of every person in my life, hyper vigilant of the constant movement of the world around me. It makes me question my own thoughts, and interrogate my own feelings. Intrusive memories are triggered in a split second — by something as benign as a candle that smells like the one my mom always lit at Christmastime, or a voice in a crowded cafe that sounds a little too much like my father. They can send me into an immediate spiral of grief and panic. Like tying two tin cans to string and trying to communicate, trauma even makes the basic act of asking for support feel distant, muffled, and pointless at times.
Yet, even when I feel like I'm in the most unreachable place, the tiniest voice in the farthest corner of my mind reminds me that I share this pain with my mom — despite how lonely trauma can make me feel, I'm truly not alone. I hesitate to say I’m lucky: There’s nothing lucky about abuse, but I can’t help but feel I am lucky (in the most loosely applied sense of the word) to have my mom while living with lifelong PTSD. There is an unspoken understanding between my mom and me that requires no explanations, that I believe can only occur when you live through the same traumatic experiences.
My mom and I have different coping skills, but she understands my trauma better than anyone else. She chews on ice obsessively when she’s anxious, while I compulsively pick the skin around my nails. I still struggle with self-harm and my eating disorder, but instead of scolding me for my lapses, she waits patiently for me to figure out how to heal again. I, on the other hand, patiently wait for her to come back when she moves into space of denial or numbness, because the PTSD is just too overwhelming. We both struggle with night terrors, we both are constantly on-guard, jumping into fight or flight mode in the most minute disagreements with people, and we both still have a lifetime of healing in front of us.
But, at least I can say “us,” and "we," and know that I have my mother even on my worst days.
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic abuse, you can call 911 or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1(800) 799-SAFE (7233), or visit thehotline.org.
Bustle’s ‘Family Thread’ series looks at the many ways our family relationships and our mental health are connected — and how that shapes us.