“I always knew my family was different; that my mom treated me differently than other moms treated their children. As I got older, I started noticing the environment in which we were living in wasn’t like other kids either. I just kept quiet about everything. What I didn’t realize… was how deeply those differences would affect me as I got older. I didn’t know how the terrible weight of those secrets would shape my self-worth.
It’s difficult to know where to begin, since it all truly began long before I was even born. My mother is severely mentally ill. She has been diagnosed with many different disorders but ultimately, she has bipolar with mania, Munchausen, and anorexia. As a child, none of these big words make sense or make a difference. In fact, growing up under the shadow of a mom who was incapable of showing me love was the only thing that mattered.
Mental illness and mental health issues are not something to be shamed. They should be respected, confronted and treated in hopes of bringing relief to the person inflicted; in attempt to ease the suffering sustained by that person’s family. But that is not what happened with my mom.
When I was 2 years old, my parents packed up everything and left all of our blood related family and friends to set out on a big religious movement. We were to join a growing community of other families whose vision was to raise their families in a wholesome God-fearing environment. We were separated and segregated from the outside world.
As the fellowship grew, so did the psychological warfare inflicted on us. We were taught shame and fear. We were controlled by men who shifted from peers into shepherds.
My experiences there were anything but of God. I was repeatedly molested by a man whom I was taught was closer to the Lord than anyone of us ever could be. My family could not afford the required weekly 10% tithe of the household’s income. So, I was the gift that was traded in exchange. I know in my heart it was never verbally stated to my parents that this was the ‘deal,’ but years later in my late 20s when I finally ended my silence and told my dad of the abuse… his response was, ‘I had a feeling that was what was happening.’
In these ‘special times’ with the elder of the congregation, I would sit on his lap and memorize my Bible verses. His hands would wander; my heart would race. I learned to disconnect from my body and survive in my imagination. Leaving the poor little girl of my childhood to fend for herself.
The experiences were terrible. But the part that killed my spirit the most, was having to pull my Sunday dress back down and walk out as if nothing had ever happened. I was 5 years old.
I never stood my ground. I never fought him off. I just swallowed my truth as far down as I could; to make it go away. Had my home life been more stable, had there been any sense of security or protection… maybe I would’ve told my parents. But it was chaotic at best.
Mental illness was viewed as a sign of the devil’s fight for your soul. The symptoms were seen as your giving in to that fight. And so my parents hid it behind the closed doors of our white picket fenced home. My mother never saw a doctor because she believed it was a spiritual malady rather than a mental disorder.
My mother’s sunlight was intoxicating. When I was in her good graces, she saw me as the sun, the moon, and the stars in her sky. But it was a very unsafe place to be. Because at any moment she would pull that warmth right from under me and turn cold as ice. I never knew what I did or didn’t do to take it away. I would lay in bed alone at night and wonder, ‘What was wrong with me? Why didn’t she love me anymore? Why is she always screaming and crying? What did I do to make her sad? Why would she crawl around on the floors in the middle of the night? Why is she always sick? How can I fix her?’
We finally escaped that church when I was 9. It was disbanded as a cult a few years later. But the abuse I suffered there sat in the pit of my heart like an anchor for most of my life.
As we tried to acclimate to the ‘outside’ world of home back in California, my mother’s mental health took a terrible turn for the worse. Her physical illnesses, created by her as a way to receive attention, became the focus of everyone in our home. Countless doctor visits with unexplained symptoms, unneeded procedures, and continuous medical emergencies overshadowed the warning signs I began to show as the memories of the sexual abuse I endured, began to surface.
My mother made her first attempt at suicide when I was around 11. It was terrifying. She just disappeared without a word. We were searching the streets for her alongside the police department. She was found under a tree by the busy street nearby; moments after having ingested a handful of her prescribed narcotics.
And no one talked about it. No one sat me down and explained it wasn’t my fault. We just swept it under the rug as we always did with anything too painful to work through.
My mom taught me how to hate myself. How to starve my body. She showed me how to keep secrets and act as if I was perfectly fine. She repeatedly used scares of suicide as a way to cry for the kind of attention that people who suffer from Munchausen seek, but as a young girl… each time she would disappear, I would search for her expecting to find her dead. She told me I was too emotional. Too much to deal with; too little of what she had hoped for in a daughter.
But of all the things she has ever said or done, one thing remained with me the longest… in all the episodes of her disappearing to hide under a tree somewhere and overdose, never once did she leave us a note. No note to release us from the guilt of her taking her own life. No explanations or even a few words to say she loved us. Nothing.
If my own mother didn’t love me, then no one else could possibly love me either. Nor could I love myself.
Walking the neighborhoods time and time again, looking for Mommy… my body shaking, my mouth numb from fear… I would try to come up with a reason for all of this. I wasn’t allowed to talk about it. I just had to internalize it and process it on my own.
The secrets a child keeps turns into their own secrets. And those evolve into a feeling of participation rather than victimization. I was damaged and dirty. A perverted child and an unlovable being. I felt unnecessary and unneeded.
My mother’s mental illnesses are not her fault. She did not give in to the devil nor is she being punished for some past life transgression. My mother’s mental illnesses and the way my family protects her abusive behaviors… are not my fault either! Keeping their secrets is not some God-given cross I was meant to bear. Being silent for the rest of my life is not my duty as a daughter. I allowed my story to fester inside of me so long and so deep that it grew into a beast I could no longer contain on my own.
Begging for my mother’s love, leaving my little girl body to be ravaged in the name of God’s love… drove me right into the deceivingly warm arms of addiction.
Alcohol and drugs took away my need to be held. Addiction relieved me of myself. I slowly became a shell of a woman, walking the streets in search of her next fix. Addiction does not discriminate. It will sneak up on you through a prescription for a tooth ache. It sits next to you in a classy bar. The need to escape pain will eventually drive you to the darkest corners of the earth.
I became homeless. Living on the streets, eating from garbage cans, sleeping in cars and run-down motels. Committing crimes to support my ever-going heroin habit and using more and more in attempt to block out the horrifying reality of my surroundings.
I was eventually sent to prison. Which is where I finally got enough time without drugs and alcohol to clear my head and find that spark of hope in my heart.
I have been clean and sober since May 1, 2011. It is a miracle to even be breathing today. And an even bigger blessing to have a life worth living.
My life before recovery was an existence soaked in shame and filth. The little girl inside of me snuffed out like a finished cigarette under the boot of a man who was done with her.
I can never go back and stand up for myself. I can’t turn back the hands of time and ask the questions I so desperately needed to hear the answers for. And I am unable to heal my mom. But what I am capable of doing, is loving the little girl with the blonde pig tails and curious blue eyes. I am free to hold her in the sunlight of my love. I can tell her she is enough and capable and strong. I can thank her for all she has survived; I will thrive in her name.
The road has been long; the memories etched in my skin. Slowly I found my voice and today I am silent about nothing. I published my first book, ‘Shape of a Woman,’ as a way to leave the light on for anyone suffocating in their own untold stories.
I discovered I am beautiful and worthy. I am a whole woman because of how I have been broken. It is in the broken parts of me, that you will find the treasures of who I am. Today, I am the mother I never had. Love IS what matters. I put my faith in my heart and have found my own way.”
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This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Jen Elizabeth of Murrieta, California. You can follow her journey on Instagram and learn more about her book here. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here, and subscribe to our best stories in our free newsletter here.
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