I still remember the day. November 21, 2016. The day I celebrated 500 days of freedom. The day I planned to celebrate my successes. The day I went to the beach to release the stones I had lost into the ocean. The day I carried with me the stones of all I had gained. Stones I still have to this day, laid out right by my desk, reminding me of my new truths.
It was also the day I let go of the stones it was time to give away. Guilt. Shame. Fault. Blame. They were no longer weighing me down. I was free from them. I was free from my trauma. I was free from my mother.
I remember how I felt that day. Like I accomplished something. Like I had started a new life. Like I had finally realized what it felt like to be free. I felt a sense of happiness amidst the grief. I finally knew what it was like to feel safe, I knew what it was like not to worry. It took 500 days for me to get there, but I got there none the less.
But those feelings were soon ripped away from me, because November 21, 2016 wasn’t just my 500th day of freedom. It was also the day my mother found me.
Just days after I celebrated my new-found freedom and safety, I received her first letter in the mail. A business envelope with no return address. A catalog sheet of gravestones, ready for my choosing. They were the stones my mother believed I deserved. The ultimate punishment for going against her.
I ran away. I escaped prison. And I told my story. Because I knew upon my leaving, that people were still in danger. Telling was the only way to help them. And it did help. Some people were able to see through her manipulation and get out before it was too late. But others are still being hurt by her. And in many ways, I am still being hurt by her.
She took away my freedom. She took away my sense of safety. With each piece of mail she sent, she took it all away from me. That accomplishment I felt, that glimpse of happiness I got to experience, it all faded away.
My life was no longer one of freedom, no longer one of safety. Even in distance, my mother was no longer so far away. She made her presence known. She took away all of the things I worked so hard for since running away, with just a few pages of words, with just a sheet of gravestones.
Why? Why couldn’t she let me experience that freedom just a little bit longer? Why couldn’t she just let me feel safe? Why did she have to take that all away from me?
I haven’t been the same since then. As much as I’ve moved around, I am still afraid of being found. As much as I try to be invisible, I can still be traced. As much as I try to live my life, I am still in fear of her. Is she watching me from afar? Is she behind me? Is she waiting outside my door? Are her words sitting in my mailbox? Is she sitting there, reading my thoughts? Is she planning to hurt me? Will she be picking my gravestone?
I haven’t felt safe since then. I’m not sure I ever will. Because I know as long as she is here on earth, I am in danger. It’s something I cannot change. I chose to be on my own while leaving her to hurt others. I chose to run away instead of putting her in jail. I chose to hide instead of bringing her to justice. I chose this life, and I set myself up for these consequences.
I should have known better, but I was drawn away by the illusion of a free life. A life I now know cannot exist.
I just want to feel safe.
She jumped off the edge of the boat into the deep blue ocean. She didn’t tell anyone that she didn’t know how to swim. She took her chances. She couldn’t stay on the boat any longer, knowing that the boat was soon going to sink and they would all sink with it. The others refused to acknowledge that the boat sinking. So she left them there to drown. She couldn’t save them. She chose to go her own way, risking life or death as opposed to just the latter.
As she dove in, she found herself falling deeper and deeper into the sea. Overwhelmed, floating into a complete unknown. She opened her eyes and looked around her. She saw hundreds of fish swimming about. All the beautiful colors surrounding her. Majestic sea creatures, existing in harmony. The pink and white coral on the sea floor. The glistening sand beneath her feet. It was peaceful. It was safe. So many things she had never seen before, so many new things to explore. She walked across the sand, a stable ground, experiencing happiness for the first time in her life, experiencing freedom.
But she got so lost in the wonder that she didn’t realize she was drowning. She didn’t realize there were sharks circling her. She tried to get away, but she fell deeper into the sea, into a black abyss. There were no more beautiful colors. No more glistening sand. No support beneath her feet. Just darkness, and a shark swimming above her, waiting to attack.
She tried to swim back up out of the darkness. She tried to get away. But she had never swam before. She didn’t know what she was doing. She tried so hard to escape the shark, but it was relentless. It could smell her fear. It could see her, but she could no longer see it.
She moved her legs as hard as she could. She tried to push her feet but there was nothing to support her. She waved her hands about, hoping someone would see and save her. But no one was there. She was swimming alone, with no idea of what to do next. Powerless against the shark. Powerless within the water.
But she kept fighting. She knew she had to. She kicked and screamed her way out of the dark abyss. The shark was still following her, but she could see better now. She felt the sand beneath her feet again. She saw the colors of the new world, a world that was hidden from her for so long. She was finally learning to swim. All by herself.
Somehow, she managed to make it to the surface. She could see the sun breaking through. A beautiful sight. A new hope. Shadows of promise. She tried so hard to reach it, but she was tired. Tired of running from the shark. Tired of trying to swim when she was never taught how to. This new world had been too much for her.
She continued to look at the sun as it was breaking through the water’s surface. But she was sinking. She lost all her power. She lost her way. She sunk back into the darkness of the ocean, wondering if the shark will ever give up its hunt, wondering if she’d ever get to see the sun again.
[This piece is a writing activity I completed in therapy — the prompt was to create a story inspired by the image].
Last Friday marked six months of stability for me.
I use the term stability loosely, because in quite a few ways, I am anything but stable. My health is
kind of a mess. My eating disorder has hit some pretty low lows. My emotions waver from non-existent to overwhelming. I’ve been spending 30 to 40 hours a week in intensive group therapy. I am not exactly the picture of stability here, and I know that.
But stability is much more than that. For me, stability started the day I found a safe place to live.
I didn’t realize it at the time. I thought that when I ran away from home and moved down here, that was stability. But I mistook freedom as stability when it really wasn’t. It was a change in environment, an improvement in many aspects, but it wasn’t stability. I tried so hard to move forward by going to therapy twice a week, yet I was still struggling. I was stuck because I was spending all of my energy trying to manage the stress in my environment that I had nothing left to put towards managing myself.
It took a long time (and a bit of outside influence) for me to realize that the way I was living wasn’t healthy or stable. So I worked (with help from others) to change that. I changed my environment. Things started looking up; not great, but getting there.
But that didn’t last, because after a month, I ended up broke and homeless. Well, this is great. Now I am the most unstable I have ever been. I was about to give up. But then, a friend stepped up and offered me a place to live. And that’s when the real change started. Because it was way more than just a place to live.
These past six months have been some of the hardest, yet some of the best months of my life. For the first time, I am living somewhere stable. I don’t have to hide in my bedroom. I don’t have to sleep outside. I don’t have to worry about how I’m going to eat because there is always food available (whether or not I am willing to eat it is another story, but…progress). I don’t have to worry about getting yelled at, or put down, or hurt. I can make mistakes and still be cared for because care isn’t conditional here.
I’m not used to this life. I’ve never had anyone there to tell me I need to eat, that I need to take my medication because I’m getting sick, that I need to go to the doctor, that I need to go to treatment. It’s a completely different dynamic. Before, I could just self-destruct and it wouldn’t matter because no one would notice, no one would care. That’s just not the case any more. I don’t just affect me; I affect others.
There’s been so much change over these last six months. Even though my health has declined a bit, I’ve managed to cope with it somewhat well. There are still (many) times when I need a push to take my medication or to make a doctor’s appointment, but I do it (eventually). I experienced the loss of the first dog I came to love last weekend and I’ve been able to grieve his death with spiraling out of control. That was a first for me. I also had support, and I was able to support others. Another first.
Even in the hardest times, I’ve managed to find happiness in the smallest things. Playing with the dogs. Going out to dinner with the family. Shopping at Walmart on a Saturday. Watching TV with a friend. Playing cards with the kids. Baking cookies and making dinner for the people I care about. These are the things I try to remind myself of when I want to give up. The brief glimmers of something better. The somethings I was never able to do, let alone enjoy before.
I take pride in the small accomplishments. Making it through the Costco parking lot without freezing from fear. Sitting through dinner at a restaurant without having an anxiety attack. Shopping in the grocery store without running away before I’m done. Eating a meal in its entirety. Going to a party without getting drunk. Trying new foods. Going to places I’ve never been before. Little things that no one really celebrates because it’s normal for them. But it has never been normal for me.
Yea, I’m a mess. I can’t work. I survive off medication. I spend most of my days in therapy.
But I’m not the same mess I was before. I have safety and stability. I have food on the table. I have people who listen to me and help me. I have reasons to not give up.
I guess I’m a little more organized chaos and a little less clusterfuck.
I went to a session today on self-compassion.
It was actually my idea. It was supposed to be an orientation group for new people, but no one was going and the other groups were getting full. So the lead therapist asked what group topic people wanted to cover instead, and for some reason, I blurted out self-compassion.
I say “for some reason” because I’ve been avoiding self-compassion groups when they’ve been offered. I hate self-compassion. I understand it on an intellectual level, but in practice it feels like one of the hardest things in the world, something I’d rather not (and don’t) bother with.
I don’t know why I said it. Perhaps it was the pain medication kicking in. Perhaps it’s because I wanted to learn how to be compassionate towards myself as I’m learning once again how to navigate the world on crutches. Or maybe another part of me knew it was needed. Regardless of the reason, I said it, and everyone was in agreement.
It was a good group. We each picked out a random card from some kind of motivational collection and shared it with the group. I happened to pick the card with the quote:
“Those who bring sunshine into the lives of others cannot keep it from themselves.”
There is no safety here, no sense of security. The very small amount I may have had is lost now. I spend every day waiting for her. I check for her behind the unlocked doors of the house I live in. I look for her down the street wherever I’m walking. I see her in my nightmares. I hear her voice in my head. She lives here, now more than ever.
Part of me wishes she would get it over with already. Punish me for my sins. End my life.
I was never supposed to tell. And I spent so many years not telling a soul. But then I started to speak, only to be shut down.
I already knew that was happening. You’re just confused. You’re misinterpreting her love. Mothers don’t do those things. She’s not that kind of person. Your mother loves you.
My mother was right. No one understood. No one believed me. So I gave up the fight . And then I escaped and I believed that I was free. I found my voice and I told the world who my mother was and is — I committed the ultimate sin, the most horrendous crime against my mother. And the punishment for that is death.
I wonder when she comes for me, will they all stand and watch, just as they stood and watched her abuse me? Will they cover their eyes and pretend like they can’t see anything, just like they covered their eyes and pretended they couldn’t see the scars? Will they turn and walk away, just as they turned and walked away from me all those times they knew what was happening?
Or will they see me on the ground, bloody and broken and dying, and give me a band-aid so they can say they tried to help me? Your bunnies, your prayers, your positive thoughts did nothing to save me. Bunnies didn’t stop the rape. Jesus didn’t stop the beating. Affirmations didn’t stop the pain. I needed help — not material things or spirits or empty words. I needed help and I got a band-aid. You can’t put a band-aid on a hemorrhage.
They want to hide me. They tell me they help me find safety. But they don’t understand that I will never be safe. They don’t understand that no matter where I run away, she will always find me. I will never be safe for as long as she is breathing. She cannot be stopped. She is a criminal free to roam, a monster in plain sight. No longer a captor of my body, but always a captor of my mind.
The damage is done. No one can help me now. The fear is a part of me; it runs through my veins. The pain cannot be healed; it lives on in every scar. That can never be taken away or erased. It’s permanent.
My mother thinks of my death as punishment, but I think of it as a reward. Killing me is the best thing she could do for me, the greatest gift she could ever give to me. It’s the only way the fear will end, the only way to stop all of the pain.
She’s already taken so much life from me. She shattered my mind, she murdered my spirit, she drowned my soul. There’s nothing left to take but the life from my body.
Take it all away.
I checked the mail today.
A few pieces of junk mail. A credit card bill. And one envelope with my name and address handwritten on it, in familiar handwriting.
I told myself, this couldn’t be. She doesn’t know where I live. She said she doesn’t know anything; that’s why she gave my friend that letter to give to me. It’s just a coincidence.
I hesitated for awhile. But then I opened it.
There was a single piece of paper inside, with pictures of gravestones. No letter, no note, no explanation. Just a paper with different gravestones for me to choose.
I looked at the envelope again. My mother has always had a distinctive way of writing certain letters of the alphabet. The writing was the same.
My mother wrote out that envelope. She knows where I live. She lied to everyone.
Whose gravestone am I supposed to be choosing?
I am scared. My hands are still shaking, and I can’t stop crying for more than five minutes before I break down again.
She is coming for me. And I don’t want to die.
I wonder what it must be like to crawl into bed at night and just fall asleep.
I could never do that. Not as a child, and not now as an adult. I crawl into bed and lay there for hours, tired, exhausted, yet unable to sleep.
I check the closets. I lock the door. I wrap myself up in my layers and I crawl in bed and wait.
Some days, I wait for sleep. I try to quiet the increasingly loud noise in my head. I think about a million things I don’t even need to think about. After a few hours, I finally fall asleep.
On other, more difficult days, I wait my mother. I lay still in my bed and wait for her to come through my bedroom door, just like I waited for her when I was back home.
So many nights of my childhood were spent laying in bed and waiting. Not waiting for sleep. Not waiting for dreams. Not waiting for the tooth fairy. I was waiting for my mother. I was waiting for her to come in and tear me apart. I was waiting for the pain to be over so I could just go to sleep.
I learned to expect it. I stopped asking questions. I stopped fighting back. I stopped wondering why. I couldn’t do it any more. I knew it wasn’t going to change. So I gave up. And I gave in.
Sometimes, I would stare at the ceiling. I’d talk to Superman, hoping he would hear my thoughts, and asked him to come and save me. I waited for him to fly in through the window, but he never did find me.
Sometimes, I would think about being in a different family. I imagined being adopted. I dreamed I was sitting in a cage at the shelter, waiting for a new family to pick me up and love me, but no new family ever came.
Sometimes, I watched my spirit float away from me, and I followed her. We would sit on the big branch of the tree right outside my window, waiting for the hurt to end so I could come back to me.
It would always end.. If there was one thing I could count on, it was that the pain was only temporary. She’d leave, and I’d come back. I could finally go to sleep, because I knew she wasn’t going to hurt me again. I found solace in that, in knowing that when it was over, it was over.
I wanted a normal night. I wanted someone to read me a story. I wanted someone to check for monsters underneath my bed, and tell me everything was safe. I wanted someone to tuck me in and tell me they loved me. I got none of that. There were no bedtime stories. There was no love or safety. And there were never any monsters under my bed, because the monster was standing right beside it.
Anxiety. Fear. Dread. It all became my nighttime normal. And even though she stopped as I got older, the fear anxiety, fear, and dread never left. They continued to be my nighttime normal. I continued to spend every night waiting for my mother to come back. And I am still spending my nights waiting for her to come back.
I try to remember that she is not here. I know the doors are locked, I know we are miles and miles away from her. She is not coming for us. She can’t hurt us anymore.
But sometimes I forget all that. Sometimes I can’t remember. I am still anticipating something that hasn’t happened for 20 years, but my mind doesn’t always know that.Sometimes it feels like something is missing; I feel like I need her to come in and get it over with just so I can sleep.
I find comfort in familiarity, and all of those nights that my mother hurt me became my familiar. Any deviation from the pattern only creates more panic, and that was true in my childhood and still true in my adulthood.
I feel frustrated, because I don’t know how else to convince myself that my mother cannot hurt me any more. I don’t know how to believe that it doesn’t have to be this way.
I feel sad, because adult me knows that no child should have had to endure the things my mother did to me. Bed is supposed to calming and relaxing, not a place of panic.
I feel ashamed, because some nights, the only way I can fall asleep is to hurt myself in the very same way she hurt me. And then I feel disgusted.
I feel angry, because I want to be able to crawl in bed and night and go to sleep, and have good dreams. I don’t want the fear. I don’t want the panic and anxiety. I just want comfort and peace, and the ability to sleep without a struggle.
My mother stole the night from me. I want it back.
When the doorbell rings, normal people stop what they’re doing, see who’s there, and answer the door.
When the doorbell rings, I stop what I’m doing. My heart races, so much that I can hear it beating in my ears. I can’t breathe. I don’t want to breathe, because I’m afraid if I do, they will know I am here. Five different scenarios run through my head, and none of them are good (or even rational). I always end up hiding in the closet or the bathroom, waiting for the worst to happen.
One incident is enough to drain me for the rest of the day. By the time I’ve calmed down (minutes, sometimes hours later), I have no energy left to do anything but sleep.
But yesterday, the doorbell rang (and was followed by several knocks on the door) not once, not twice, but six times.
I was a wreck. The first two times it happened, I was downstairs and locked myself in the bathroom. I was able to calm myself down after ten or so minutes. Then when it happened a third time, the panic was overwhelming. It was too much. I didn’t feel safe. I locked every lock and closed every window, then went upstairs to my room and locked my door.
Then it happened a fourth time. My mind went into overdrive. My mother found me. She knows I’m here. It’s the only thing that made sense. Who else would be ringing the bell and knocking so consistently? Not the mailman. Not a solicitor. It was someone who wanted me to open that door. It’s her.
By the time the bell rang a sixth time, I had barricaded my door with so much crap that no one would be able to push their way in. But I still didn’t feel safe. I knew where I was. I knew I was in my bedroom. I knew the doors were locked and I was blocked in. But I still felt in danger. I was scared of my mother. My mother, who doesn’t even know where I live.
I was still on edge even after the ringing and knocking stopped. Every single noise made me jump. Every car passing outside. Every creak of the floor. Every step the cat took downstairs. Every sound was magnified and I couldn’t make it stop.
My body was tired, but I couldn’t sleep. I spent hours fighting battles inside, trying to stay in the safe reality while my mind was tied to the dangerous past. After several hours, I gave up. I took just enough medicine to knock me out, because I knew that was the only way I was going to make it through.
Now as I’m sitting here, a day later, I’m wondering when it will stop. When will I not have to hide? When will I feel safe? When will I not be afraid of my mother? When will I not live in constant fear?
Is any of that even possible?
People don’t understand the fear I carry with me every day. You’re free now. Yea, I’m physically free. Mentally, I am still in prison. I am still a scared child. I am still in danger. Your mother won’t hurt you anymore, you got away. Exactly. I got away. I was never supposed to be able to leave her. I committed the ultimate sin, and now I am perpetually waiting for my punishment.
I’m tired. I’m tired of hiding every time there’s a knock at the door, because I’m afraid she will come in and get me. I’m tired of wearing four shirts and three pairs of underwear every day because I’m afraid she will come and hurt me. I’m tired of sleeping with a knife under my pillow every night because I’m afraid she will come and kill me.
I’m tired of living my life in fear, because it’s not the life I want to live.
I have an issue being assertive.
Standing up for myself was never a possibility before. I had to bow down to my mother for 29 years. I had to stand there and take whatever she threw at me. I couldn’t fight back. I couldn’t be assertive, because my mother never viewed me as a person.
I’ve had to learn how to stand up for myself. You would think, at 30 years old, I would have figured it out on my own. But no. I am learning now what I should have been taught as a child: assertiveness.
It feels so wrong. It feels so dangerous. If I had stood up for myself while I was living at home, I would have ended up in pain. Even though I’m not at home anymore, it’s been difficult to get over that gut reaction. But I’ve been working on it.
There was a situation on Wednesday. I was eating my dinner. The cat used the litter box, which didn’t bother me because I couldn’t really smell it (certain smells don’t affect me much, and the smell of shit is one of them). My roommate started spraying air freshener, which then made my food taste like chemical and flowers. I kept eating, because I promised my therapist I would eat dinner every day and I knew I needed it. Someone had commented that the smell was better than smelling poop, and I said not really. It was the truth.
Apparently that warranted name-calling, because she then called me a name. I asked her to please stop. She persisted and called me something else. I felt the noise in my head increasing, so I got up, threw away my food, and went upstairs without saying anything.
This wasn’t the first time it happened. I knew it was going to happen again. I knew that me just saying STOP wasn’t enough. I went outside and grounded myself. I told myself I was not at home anymore, that she was not my mother, that I can stand up for myself and be okay.
So I took a deep breath and came back inside. I was doing to do it. I was going to be assertive.
And I did it. I told her when I say stop, it means stop. I told her when I’m telling her to stop, it’s for a reason. I told her she needs to respect my boundaries. I told her this wasn’t the first time, that it’s not fair and I can’t tolerate it anymore.
She didn’t absorb anything I was saying. She immediately defended herself, saying she didn’t keep calling me names, she used adjectives (as if that was any better — I don’t understand). She made it seem like I was in the wrong, saying that she was offended by my attitude and I should be sorry (as if that warranted being called names and adjectives — again I don’t understand). She told me to move out if I didn’t like it. She didn’t care at all about what I was saying or feeling.
I got frustrated and went to my room. I was angry. I was upset. I was walking the line between present and past. I felt myself slipping. Then I dissociated, and came back to find a disaster on my head.
My head had a lump the size of a softball. There was blood on my desk from the cut on my forehead. My head was scraped down the center, and bruised across the top and the side. I looked like a disaster. I couldn’t feel anything.
There was no way I could hide this. This is it. My therapist is surely going to send me away. I went outside, sat on my steps and smoked the last of my cigarettes. I could have stayed out there all night if I had more.
I may not have felt any pain, but I certainly felt the panic. I broke my therapy contract. And I don’t even remember doing it. All I could think about was how mad my therapist was going to be when I showed up at session looking like I did. I ruined everything. I was going to miss school. I wasn’t going to be able to finish the book. I was going to end up locked away somewhere.
And none of this would have happened if people just listened when I say stop.