“Mother, you had me, but I never had you
I wanted you. You didn’t want me.
So I just got to tell you
–John Lennon, “Mother”
I was at the hardware store last week returning a heat gun. The cashier was an older woman I recognized, but couldn’t remember where. She explained she knew me since I was a child.
Ah fuck, I thought. She’s gonna ask me about my—
“So how’s your mom doing?”
Fucking called it.
I lied and told her she was fine, hoping it wouldn’t spur further conversation. It never works.
“You look just like her! Give her hug for me when you see her next!”
“Uh…yeah. I will.”
That hug isn’t happening. I haven’t spoken to my mother in about seven years. It would be almost eight, but seven years ago I went to my brother’s low key birthday party not realizing she would also be there and she struck up a conversation in front of everyone like she wasn’t a toxic person I hadn’t spoken to in a year.
Most people close to me know the story of why I cut my own mother out of my life, but once in a while I’ll get some random person who knew me when I was a child who will proceed to ask about her along with the dreaded comment that I look so much like her. I hated hearing I looked like her as a kid when I had a decent relationship with her, but now I despise the comparison with every fiber of my being as an adult with depression and anxiety issues partially resulting from her actions.
My relationship with her was good during my childhood. I would put on my thrift store rabbit fur coat and black Mary Jane shoes and go see movies with her at the old movie theater in town. We often had cheap breakfast local café diner where the old folks would sit at the diner bar sipping their coffee while gossiping about the latest happenings in town—“coffee clutchers” she called them. If we didn’t have breakfast at the diner, she would cook a crepe-style pancake which was slathered in butter, rolled into log, and cut into slices before liberally sprinkling the entire thing with white sugar—“eggy pancakes” she called them just as her mother had called them when she was little. When I was sick, she would make chicken soup with dumplings so big I could barely fit a whole one in my mouth.
Then when I was about 12, my parents started divorce proceedings that lasted two years. It wasn’t surprising since my parents fought all the time and Dad had developed a reputation for being an abusive husband. Mother always stuck to the story that they had mutually agreed to a divorce and things only got nasty because his mother stepped in. Grandma stuck her nose in other people’s businesses so I bought the story, but something about that story never made sense to me. I learned that abusers typically don’t let go of their victims so easily. Sure, my parents fought about divorce proceedings, but they argued over things like who gets the kids and possessions like any couple divorcing would. By all accounts, Mother should have been happy to get away from him and Dad should have been angry that his wife left him. Instead, it was quite the opposite.
I didn’t realize it at the time, Dad was much happier despite everything while Mother became increasingly bitter and spiteful. There was a time where she was going into the state’s online criminal record system every day and looking up any dirt on him or his friends, especially new ones. She struck gold when Dad’s new girlfriend, who he has been with ever since, came up in the system as having a warrant out for her arrest for writing bad checks. Mother acted so sickeningly sweet and kind to her face when Dad’s girlfriend dropped us off from a visit, but once she left Mother called the police, told them what gas station she was fueling up at, and they promptly arrested her. She claimed she did it because it was the right thing to do, but she had really done it to get back at my dad.
She became mentally and emotionally abusive towards me, though it didn’t occur to me that what she was even doing could be considered abuse as I thought it had to be physical to be abuse. The only times I recall it becoming physical was a couple of times she dumped liquids on me–one time she poured an entire liter of generic soda on my head as I cried on my bed and another time she dumped a bucket of cold water on me while I slept and implied the next bucket would be from the toilet if I didn’t get up.
The intensity of the abuse was so gradual that I doubt I could figure out the exact point it started. I think it started with little offhanded comments. One of her favorite things to say was, “There’s too much estrogen in this house” with an exasperated huff—I was the only daughter out of three kids and the only other female in the house. Eventually, she was screaming at me so viciously—often for the littlest things or things I didn’t even do—it felt like it was tearing into my heart. She could act as sweet as a Disney princess one moment and then a screaming monster the next and vice versa—“Snow White” and “Mother Monster” I called them. She puts on a good show when certain people are around and some people have found it hard to believe she would treat me the way she did, which is why I don’t bother explaining to the random people why I have zero relationship with her.
My depression peaked in my late teens and I was put in a psychiatric unit on three occasions my senior year of high school. Not that she ever believed me anyways—“What do you have to be depressed about?” The doctor gave me some antidepressants, but I felt worse on the pills. The doctor never properly explained that I could tell them the pills made me feel suicidal without fear of retaliation for it—I was afraid of being put in the psychiatric unit again that I didn’t tell anyone. It didn’t matter anyways because I tried committing suicide with my pills and ended back in the hospital anyways. Mother didn’t act concerned for my well-being at all. I had been taken to a hospital an hour away from home and she complained that she had to drive all that way to pick me up when I was released from the hospital. Once I was home, her little narcissistic brain had convinced her that I would kill her in her sleep (despite expressing no desire to hurt anyone besides myself) and proceeded to hide all the knives. But when my brother went to the hospital for mental health issues, she gladly drove to the hospital an hour away whenever she could and was heavily involved in his recovery.
Yet I still loved her for some reason. I would occasionally buy her favorite chocolates: Turtles. When I worked overnights, I would come home in the morning and start up the coffee pot for her before she woke up. (Strange how she would complain how I didn’t get up in the early morning before my overnight position yet she herself wasn’t up until 8 o’clock or so.) On Mother’s Day or her birthday, I would do things like make handmade cards and potted flower arrangements. One year, I entered her in a Mother’s Day contest to win a bunch of services from a local hair salon. My entry didn’t win, but the salon decided to send 50% off coupons for the services included in the prize to both the mother and child. Even though I paid for her services and she was initially grateful and happy to be treated, Mother later accused me of entering her in the contest to get the coupon for myself even though they hadn’t decided to give out the coupons until after the contest was over. Anytime I gave her something out of love there was a good chance I would be accused of having an “ulterior motive” for doing so.
I had wanted to leave for a long time, but I never knew how and I didn’t know how to ask for help. Mother, with her ever increasing paranoia, had taught me to be afraid of everyone and everything and going out on my own was scarier than living with the monster at home. I managed to leave for a few months by living with my best friends, but we got into a huge fight one night, I went to Mother’s place to cool down, and she got a phone call informing me that I wasn’t allowed to stay there anymore. I left again for about two or three months before my boyfriend (now husband) and I ran out of places to stay and I went back to her, agreeing to pay for half of the rent and utilities. We were there for about two months when she screamed at me until I cried over an empty bottle of laundry soap that I hadn’t even emptied. My boyfriend told me, “I hate seeing you being abused like this.” It was a wake-up call and I knew I had to get out of that situation. We luckily found a nice apartment right away at an affordable price and his parents helped up with the down payment.
She was furious when I told her I had found an apartment and would be out by the end of the week. Mother spent the week stomping around the living room like an upset child in a fit of rage and bitching with her boyfriend about I had screwed them over. “You don’t screw over family!” she would complain loudly that whole week whenever we were in my room. It was ironic considering she was screwing me over: I figured out my “half” of the rent and utilities was $100-$200 more than what it should have been. Also, my half would have paid for the rent itself, but I found out months later after she was evicted that she hadn’t paid rent for the two months I lived back home with my boyfriend. She made our lives more difficult that week by doing things like banning us from using the kitchen to cook and confiscating the toilet paper. I retaliated by “forgetting” her birthday, which was coincidentally that week, and dipping her toothbrush in the toilet before flushing.
Initially I thought I would reconnect with her at some point, but I ended up reconnecting with my father instead. Dad dropped the ultimate bombshell while talking to him that first phone call: Mother had been the true abuser in their marriage. He described things to me that mirrored my own experiences. He, too, had seen her switch from kind and sweet to volatile and mean—he called her “Sybil” after the pseudonym for a woman who had multiple personalities. I also learned he was the one who solely filed for divorce. There was never any “mutual” divorce agreement and Grandma’s nose was in the whole thing from the beginning because she was actively helping her son divorce his wife. It became clear that she was the abuser in the relationship and she was bitter and angry that her victim escaped before she was ready to let him go. When she couldn’t hurt him anymore, she sought a new target: Me.
It also occurred to me that I didn’t recall seeing any of Dad’s supposed abuse. I remember witnessing intense shouting matches, but not any physical assault. It was strange I couldn’t remember, but simply chalked it up to bad memory. There was at least one time he hit her because she had gone to the police and they took photos. She had gotten copies and she was looking at them with some friends who were over at the house. “Oh! You know the police make them so much worse in the photos!” she said about the bruises in the photo with a cheerful grin and boisterous tone. The whole demeanor of the situation was bizarre. You’d think they were talking about photos from a portrait studio rather than evidence.
Soon after I left, she got my brother arrested. She was trying to get under his skin and push his buttons, which she was good at…well, she pushed the right one and he reacted by taking a swing at her. She suddenly went from being a mean bully to playing the victim. Mother also bruised easily; she could bump into a table and the next day there would be a huge bruise as if she had ran into it full force. I don’t condone what my brother did or what my Dad may have done, but considering her manipulative nature I wonder if she had actually instigated fights or made herself bruise in order to play the victim.
I didn’t know how manipulative she truly was until after I had cut her out of my life. For example, turns out my friends had never kicked me out of their place. When they had called that night, she had told them I would be staying with her from now on. What she told me was that I “wasn’t allowed to stay there anymore”. They were going out of town that weekend and she told them to leave my things on their doorstep, which I wasn’t aware of at all. From my perspective, I had been kicked out and they just threw my things outside their door. No wonder my friends didn’t understand why I was angry at them! They had been given the impression that I willingly left to live with my Mother! I figured they were playing dumb so they wouldn’t look like the bad guy to our circle of friends. It nearly ruined our friendship and it took two months or so before we made up. We only realized the deception when we were talking about her after I had moved out and realized she had told us two completely different things in that situation when it got brought up in the conversation somehow.
It took quite some time to transition from living under her thumb to living in a stable environment with my husband. In our first apartment, which was a basement remodeled into a nice apartment, I would tense up whenever I heard the landlords upstairs walking around in their house upstairs because it would remind me of the times Mother would stomp around the living room pissed off at something and worried she would take it out on me. I remember after a couple days in the new apartment realizing that I wasn’t going to get reamed a new one for using the kitchen to make myself dinner “after hours” when I came home from working second shift and feeling this sense of relief.
I’m still not fully healed and I’m not sure if I ever will be. Nearly eight years later, I can’t sleep with the bedroom door open. She would slam my bedroom door open and declare it would stay open until I apologized for whatever I had done to anger her. My room was a sanctuary and having the door wide open to what I considered my safe space caused a great amount of anxiety—I think she knew it and that’s why she would it so I would apologize immediately. Eight years later, I still have terrible and vivid nightmares about her where I wake up in a sweat. Eight long years of watching my friends post on Facebook about they have the best mom ever that serve as reminders that the woman who gave birth to me is a monster.
And every time I hear “You look just like her!” from some random person who probably remembers me as a toddler, I worry I’m turning into a monster, too.