Coming Out As A Survior

“Is your writing real?”

I stall for a moment as I try to find the words that out me to yet another new person in my life. Whether it is conversations about childhood, holidays, or parental and sibling relationships, I know I’m about to be placed in a new category. I am confronted with my life-long feeling of Otherness.

I remind myself there is a reason I speak and write openly, I’m trying to dispel the Weirdness, the Otherness, the Shame. Because, yes, it’s all true.

Now I’m out again. I’m an abuse survivor.

When I was young, my sisters and I would watch Dr. Phil. Our mother enjoyed collecting life tips from him. Her approval of his messages made it okay for us to sprawl on the carpet floor and couch to watch the parade of emotionally traumatized, stunted, hurt people who sought his help, validation and “straight talk”. I was fascinated by the lives of these people that willingly sat in a chair with cameras and a studio audience to discuss their heartbreak, abuse, and struggles.

Dr. Phil always had the right answer. He knew what would fix them. He knew how to make them be better. The audience at home gained valuable advice to avoid the pitfalls and emotional damage that his guests experienced. Or at least they gained good quotes that could be displayed under a magnet on the refrigerator door. My sisters and I often joked that our family should go on the show. We discussed how mortified our mother would be to have to sit across from Dr. Phil, his audience and cameras glaring at her, as her daughters described why they had brought her here today.

I knew we’d have to trick her to get her on the show or else she would never come. Once, we teased her about it. She scoffed about how she would never do such a thing, then as she walked away gave her final thought over her shoulder, “…besides, you don’t air your dirty laundry in public.”

Skeletons are best left in the closet. We aren’t like those people on TV.

Don’t Air Your Dirty Laundry

This phrase has kept me silent through my life. And if not silent, then cryptic. And if not cryptic, then in allegiance, as I attempt to make sense of things that don’t make sense by making excuses. And it’s this pattern of silence that kicks in every time I am confronted with new people in my life. How do I drop this bomb that I keep carrying around?

I grew up conservative, Baptist, isolated and home schooled. Boom.

I was a born again Christian who thought her only purpose in life was to be a Good Wife and Good Mother until I gave all that up to become a Queer Atheist Feminist. Boom.

My mother belittled, hit, manipulated, isolated, taunted, and blamed me for everything even up to the late day I spoke to her. Boom.

I haven’t spoken to my mother in four year. Boom.

Two of my three sisters blame me and cut me out of their life. Boom.

My youngest sister struggles with her mental health and I feel responsible. Boom.

I struggle with my mental health to the point of hating myself and feeling worthless a lot of the time. Boom.

All this and more is not for “polite” conversation. Although I more often than not find support in the people I share this with, I still feel like I’m risking my reputation – the thing my mother finds so much more important than empathy, safety, and love. The shame still envelops my experience and tells me I’m strange and dirty and unworthy of support or love from those around me. I’m too weird to be around people. I’m a downer for being an abuse survivor.

I still blame myself for not having been stronger. Not being wiser. Not fighting back hard or earlier. I blame myself for not being able to save my sisters from their struggles. I even blame myself for not being able to save my mother from herself and the history of abuse she brought with her to me.

The current of Shame runs deep. Coming out as a survivor is slowly helping dismantle a lifetime of shame. But it still catches me when a new person learns about me.

My drive for authenticity is stronger than shame, though. So, I’ll let them keep battling, because with each one that authenticity wins, I get closer to owning my past and present for a loving, stable, whole future.

Maybe it makes me Weird. Maybe it makes me Other. Maybe it makes me Strong and Brave. Maybe it’s okay that I am an abuse survivor.

 

 

It Started Hopeful

It’s been four years, but I can still hear the moment she turned on me. The moment I knew I couldn’t do this anymore.

This was the last conversation I would have with my mother. 

It started hopeful. 

Even though this was the middle of a family crisis, I had found out four days prior that my mother’s husband was entering my twenty year old sister’s bedroom without invitation, while she slept. He had been cornering, intimidating her, forcing physical contact on her, and then repeatedly telling her she is worthless. 

She needed to get out of that house and our mother needed to understand how fucked up her husband is. 

It started hopeful. 

I had emailed my mother, expressing my concern. Emphasizing the importance of safety and distance from a man who is no friend to women. 

For the first time in ten years of him being in our life, she agreed with me. A single text message that read, “everything you wrote is true.”

Everything. I am right. I’m no long being hung out to dry with claims that I am too sensitive or man-hating. I am right. Everything is true. 

It started hopeful because I thought we were on equal footing. I thought we were working together. I thought I could finally save my sister and my family from years of disconnection. 

But by the time I got a phone call from my mother, I wasn’t right anymore. She explained to me that her husband just didn’t understand that he isn’t suppose to do all the things he had been doing to my sister. She explained that in fact, he was in danger from my sister and needed protection. Her voice encouraged me to stop fighting and give in to her reality. It encouraged me to accept this truth – the one that isn’t mine. The one that keeps my sister victimized. The one that allows abuse to keep going, and going, and going like it always had. I was suppose to shut up. 

Instead, I spoke. I told her this was wrong. I told her he was wrong. I told her I wanted my sister safe. 

Then she turned and sunk her teeth. 

“What did you think I was going to do,” she snapped, “leave him?”

My answer was and still is yes. 

Another bite, “you just don’t understand what it means to be a wife.”

“You don’t understand what it means to be a Christian.”

“I need harmony in my house. This is how I’m getting it. Your sister isn’t stable. If you want to whisper in her ear and stir the pot, then whatever she does is on you.”

Each phrase stabs into me then rips chunks away. I don’t even know how to escape. Instead I am stunned silent, save for the gasping tears I am holding back from her. She can never see or hear me cry – she enjoys too much satisfaction from my pain and apparent weakness. 

“Listen, you claim to want to talk about these things but you aren’t even talking. You just have to have things your way all the time.”

I knew for sometime that my mother is manipulative, abusive, and has little interest in protecting her children – even as adults. But I had never experienced her viciousness so clearly. She had kept me in line with years of put downs and deniable manipulation. But this was different. She needed to get me back in line or emotionally bleed to death on my own. 

My chest tightened as I managed to gasp a coherent, “I have to go” before I hung up and broke into pieces. I curled up on the study futon and sobbed. My heart was broken. She may have left me mangled with scars I carry all this time later, but I think the thing she tore from me that day was the last shred of trust and hope that I had a mother who loves me. I’ve begged for that love my whole life. I twisted myself into someone I thought she wanted in the hope I could finally be enough. 

Instead, I never was. Instead I was too whiny, lazy, wrong, angry, emotional. I questioned too much. I wasn’t feminine enough. I was too stupid. Too unmotivated. Too liberal. Too feminist. Too queer. Too radical. Too fat. Too out of shape. Drank too much. Liked to talk about sex and sexuality too much. I just needed to do as she said not as she did. I wasn’t suppose to ask why. 

I tried. I did. But I kept coming out. Who I am refused to be silenced. She screamed inside me, beating against her cage, demanding to be free. To be enough. 

So, that day four years ago, I let her. My mother broke me but not in the way she intended. She finally broke all trust and all hope that I could change her from the abuser she had always been. 

I then I would never talk to her again. I was finally free to say that I don’t need abuse in my life. I am happy for this freedom. What I wasn’t expecting was how much it all still follows me around. 

So, on this four year anniverary, I can still hear the moment she turned on me. The moment I knew I couldn’t do it anymore.