[Content Note: The post below, as well as part 2 and part 3, contain discussions of physical and emotional abuse. The focus, as you could probably infer from the title of this post, is on abuse from a parent toward children, but I did include some discussions of spousal abuse as well.]
If there’s anything else I should be adding a content note for, please let me know. I’m not sure. It’s a long post, and a lot of things get brought up. Triggers, Menstruation, just a lot of random things. I use an explicit word at some point so the post is probably NSFW.
I told you all that I wanted to blog about abuse? Well now, here I finally am, doing that.
Growing up in an emotionally abusive environment was… confusing.
I had somehow learned what child abuse was at quite a young age. It was your parents hurting you or mistreating you.
Works of fiction I was interested in certainly did address the topic1, but also, my public school’s curriculum included brief units on (the most severe forms of) abuse and neglect. However, my school focused only on physical and sexual forms of abuse and never once really touched upon the type of abuse my mom was beginning to exhibit — the concept of emotional abuse is still, to this day, not being taught in the school system I grew up in. I will hopefully deal with my thoughts about all of this in a later post, eventually.
I also knew, from a very young age, that abuse was something that happened from husbands towards wives too, and I’m not sure when I first learned that fact, but what I do know is that my abusive mother herself brought up the concept many times!
My earliest memories of my mom and dad were after they were already “separated”. They were technically married, and had not taken any legal steps within the US court system in terms of custody arrangements or filing for divorce or anything like that, but they were separated in the sense of living in different states (in the USA, and not neighboring ones). I’m talking about one parent on the east coast and the other on the west coast type of 6-hour-plane-ride distance. They were separated from the time when I, their daughter, was age 3 through when I was age 18. They never actually got divorced until I was an adult. But my whole childhood, they were “essentially divorced”. And the main reason they were “essentially divorced” was that my father was — allegedly — physically abusive to her when I was just a baby/toddler. My mom was more than happy to remind me and my younger brother of that over, and over, and over. The earliest memories I have of my mom talking about my dad include her discussing him as abusive.
She’d say that 1) he maliciously broke her finger, and 2) he did something that resulted in her breaking her rib. She told stories of those two events over and over. She also repeatedly called him a “sadistic” man, and I don’t remember when I first looked up the definition of that pretty complicated vocabulary word in a dictionary, but I knew from a quite young age that she meant he actually, literally, took pleasure in other people’s pain. She’d add explicit curse words to her statements, words that a kid who had been my age probably shouldn’t have been hearing. For instance, she’d say he was an “abusive, sadistic asshole”, her tone dripping with such vitriol as she spoke about him.
Regardless, she’d happily let us spend time alone with him when he came to visit. She arranged for us, as very young children, to talk to him on the phone for an hour or so every Saturday. She didn’t prevent him from being a big part of our lives. We felt completely loved by him, and completely loved him back. I vaguely remember that there was a time when we were young when my mother clearly harbored very negative feelings toward him but would inform me and my brother that she didn’t want to speak poorly of him, because he was our dad. But before long, she stopped trying to hide her hate for him. And it became pretty upsetting, because the man she was calling sadistic had probably always been our favorite person on the planet. He was the kindest man. He was so much fun to be with.
That vocabulary word (“Sadistic”) has become particularly uncomfortable for me now, actually. It’s some type of trigger that brings me back to my upbringing with my abusive mother. It’s not a PTSD type of trigger, as I don’t have PTSD. At least… I don’t think I do. I have never had the severe symptoms commonly associated with PTSD. I have maybe had minor symptoms though like hypervigilance, but then again, I don’t know if I really have…? I haven’t really discussed this with any mental health professionals so… I don’t know.
The form of “being triggered” that happens to me is pretty minor, and I know I am very lucky in that regard. What I experience is simply that every time I read or hear the word “sadistic”, I am reminded of my mom, and what she’d always say about my dad. It’s an uncontrollable memory connection for me, a reminder of something I’d probably rather forget. Nothing more than that. The triggered memory is of something that was frequent, significant, and negative in my childhood. The triggering item, the word “sadistic”, is possibly more like a grief trigger than a trauma trigger. My mother’s not dead; please don’t misunderstand me. I’m just saying… I’m not sure how to categorize it. So many things — often linguistic but not always — are similar triggers for me. They cause involuntary memories of some type, memories that are usually negative and therefore unwanted, to surface. Maybe I’ll expand on this in some other blog post sometime.
Anyway… I never quite believed my father had ever been abusive to my mom. I knew my father. He didn’t seem capable of purposely twisting someone’s finger the way my mom said he did. I would wonder if he’d just changed from his previously abusive ways, or if the truth was that he’d never actually been abusive at all.
I had seen my parents fight, during the times when he was back in town to visit me & my brother once every 6 weeks or so. Their fights would involve very loud shouting and my dad running away from her physical presence, picking up a kitchen chair as a shield, not as a weapon, and not hurting her with it, just using it to literally block her from being able to touch him. I had seem him run out of the house and into his car and drive away without even having gotten a chance to say goodbye to me and my brother. He didn’t have to explain why. We knew. My brother and I could see and hear, with our own eyes and ears, that our mom had clearly been “acting so crazy”2, but he’d call on the phone before long to wish us goodbye before getting on a plane back to his home.
Witnessing this level of fighting is already abusive. It might be counter intuitive that witnessing my mother emotionally and verbally abusing my father was actually abusive to me too, but many sources — such as page 24 of the paperback version of the book I’m currently reading, Bullies and Victims — say witnessing physical violence in the home on a regular basis is in itself emotional abuse of children. These fights between my parents that I witnessed were not very physical, but they did involve my dad being chased and running away from my mother, usually him leaving the house with door slamming, and things that were intense and oh-so-very-close to escalating into real physical violence. It was traumatic enough to be one of the most memorable parts of my father’s many visits to my town/my home when I was very young. I also remember a few good things, time I spent with him that was wonderful, but these bad memories are powerful. And the bad memories are so much easier to remember than all of the good things, sometimes.
My mother, in her own way, committed the first three of the six types of emotional abuse3: “Rejecting”, “Ignoring”, and “Terrorizing”. She was definitely not “Corrupting” me and my brother in any way, the fifth category, but number four, “Isolating” and number six “Exploiting” she was in some ways very close to committing too, or maybe she was committing those forms of abuse in extremely minor ways. I’m not sure. The three additional forms mentioned in this other page linked to here when discussing emotional abuse in adult relationships, “Aggressing”, “Denying”, and “Minimizing” were also committed by my mother toward me. I’ll try to explain in a series of posts, eventually, everything she did. Well, not everything. But I’ll try to break it down as much as I can. I really want to.
As I said to start off this whole piece… Growing up in an emotionally abusive environment was… confusing.
This page on Dysfunctional Families explains,
Healthy families are not perfect; they may have yelling, bickering, misunderstanding, tension, hurt, and anger – but not all the time. In healthy families emotional expression is allowed and accepted. Family members can freely ask for and give attention.
(emphasis mine) and
Children are consistently treated with respect, and do not fear emotional, verbal, physical, or sexual abuse. Parents can be counted on to provide care for their children. Children are given responsibilities appropriate to their age and are not expected to take on parental responsibilities. Finally, in healthy families everyone makes mistakes; mistakes are allowed. Perfection is unattainable, unrealistic, and potentially dull and sterile.
(Again, the emphasis is mine.)
That’s part of what was so confusing. Healthy families are not perfect. A mom “yelling at” her kid for “doing something wrong” is normal. But making a simple and small mistake… is not (usually) actually doing something wrong. Only abusers constantly conflate the two. Many families include a small amount of unhealthy emotional abuse. Even the small amounts are not okay, and I strongly believe that now. I believe even good parents should be striving to be better and even though it is possible to commit an abusive act without being an abuser, abusive acts are still not okay. But back then, all I could guess was that if “everyone experiences it”, it must not be abuse, right? If half of the sitcom reruns you could catch on TV were shows like Everybody Loves Raymond, Malcolm in the Middle, and Two and a Half Men where wives and mothers are constantly shown to be downright mean and unlikable people, people their children and husbands are literally afraid of, women who threaten and sometimes even physically hurt their families… and these were supposed to be relatively “Typical” wives/mothers, then my mom’s behavior wasn’t really that unusual, right?
If everyone is scared of making their parents mad to the point where expressions like, “My mom will kill me if she finds out” become commonplace and casual statements that are often half-jokes, then how was I supposed to tell the difference between a mother that is flawed but ultimately, in the long run, loving and non-abusive, and… my own mother?
The difference, I realized eventually, was that my mom wasn’t just angrily yelling for one minute about something I legitimately did wrong. That was the type of event that would’ve been normal. My mom would yell for an hour straight, or sometimes longer, at the top of her lungs. She’d be punishing me for something so inconsequential and easy to forget, and the only lesson I was ever learning was to not make Mom mad. Which proved impossible. No matter what I did, she’d find a way to fault me for it. One of the few “punishment-worthy” things I “did wrong” that I actually do remember today is that I had missed a speck of food the first time I tried to hand wash a frying pan, so of course she had every right to shout at the top of her lungs until I got it right, not caring if I was crying and it was hard to see what I was scrubbing through my tears. She would keep violently shouting at me until that skillet was spotless.
Figuring out that her pattern of behavior was unacceptable parenting was a very slow and gradual process. There was that gut feeling that I think I always had that what she was doing was not okay. I cannot remember a time in my childhood when she wasn’t making me cry at least once a week. She’d get into a rage, completely furious at me for something I did, and I’d burst into tears. And she’d get mad at me for things that were never fair to be mad at me for. She’d even, eventually, be mad at me for crying. Early on, she’d feel bad for making me cry. Early on, the cycle of abuse had what is termed a “honeymoon stage” for romantic relationships. A more suitable name, given the parent/child aspect of the abusive relationship I experienced, is the alternate term the “Hearts and Flowers” stage. My mom would do something to make me cry, and then say she was sorry a few hours later, and even sometimes bought me candy to try to prove how sorry she was. Then one day, she stopped being sorry. The “Hearts and Flowers” stage did completely disappear, for me, as relatively often happens for victims of abuse.
1The animated television series Hey Arnold! showed Helga being fairly severely neglected by her parents, and that portrayal stuck with me in a powerful way. I know I was regularly watching this show around 4th grade-ish? Fairytales such as my favorite one Hansel and Gretel, and also Cinderalla, Rapunzel, Snow White, etc included abusive step-mothers and I was familiar with many of them starting when I was quite young, much younger than when I was watching Hey Arnold! most likely… I mean, I know that before I could even read, I was likely already watching Disney movies for some of the fairy tales, and hearing about others in different ways. I started reading the Harry Potter series around 4th grade as well and again, they really highlighted the concept of abuse, as did other books I enjoyed reading like A Series of Unfortunate Events did with Count Olaf. It’s hard to say how or when I was first exposed to the actual word “abuse” or the concept of child abuse, but most likely I first slowly learned the concept through fairy tale type stuff when I was extremely young, and then the word came along naturally at some point. Likely from my own parents, answering questions if I ever chose to ask. if you click the number at the start of this footnote, you should hopefully get to back to where you were, although I think you may be one line too far down? I’m still experimenting with and figuring out this whole WordPress footnote thing. This is my first time using them.
2For my entire childhood and into my adulthood, I’d call my mother “crazy” without realizing she actually had any diagnosable mental disorders. This article describes a lot of better alternatives to such ableist language. Linked within that article is an interesting take on abusive people who have personality disorders, such as my mother. I’m not sure I agree entirely with the points raised there, mainly because I have complicated feelings about personality disorders that aren’t fully fleshed out yet in addition to complicated views on the free will/determinism/compatibilism debate. (Can someone who knows how to edit the HTML on WordPress sites please help me figure out how to get a jump back to my second footnote thing? I’m struggling. This is my first time trying to use the footnote thing where you can click. I’d really appreciate any help. Anyway, do a Control + F search for “acting so crazy” to find where you were.)
3 Generally, the first 5 of the forms of “Psychological Maltreatment” is credited to Garbarino, Guttman & Seeley, from their 1986 book The Psychologically Battered Child. Obviously that book is about three decades old now, and perhaps there is some more recent research and analysis on the subject that contradicts it? I’m not sure. That book of theirs is quoted many places, however. A different place that describes these types of emotional abuse, providing different definitions and yes, one example of a place that explicitly credits these three people and their book from 3 decades ago, is here: https://www3.aifs.gov.au/cfca/publications/emotional-abuse-hidden-form-maltreatment#def (Do a Control + F search for “committed the first three” and you should hopefully go back to where you were.)