Recently, Julie Anne from Spiritual Sounding Board posted the story of “Sheldon.” It was so intense, so triggering….and so dang familiar….that instead of clogging up Julie Anne and Sheldon’s comment feeds, I wanted to reply to him here. This is my story, and it never should have happened. However, as long as churches defend abusers and place heavy burdens on victims, these stories must be told, so that the Body of Christ can learn how to tend wounded sheep.
I wish so deeply that you hadn’t experienced such crazy abuse at the hands of your parents, then your family’s pastor. I also wish that I couldn’t write this long letter to you and say, “Dangit, I understand.”
I wanted to share the highlights (lowlights?) of my story with you, and any of our readers, just because…it always made me feel more sane to know that I wasn’t alone. Between the parents (or any other abusers) who are crazy, and the church institutions that blindly defend them, it’s easy for us to suffer from gaslighting, and start to believe that, “Hey, maybe we should just submit harder, or do something different, and everything would be okay!” No, we would just slowly lose our minds and our identities. Like a caged animal in a zoo, eventually we would forget that freedom ever existed. Writing down our story is like dropping pebbles behind us in the forest: we remember that there is a way out.
The Early Years…
My mother never physically abused me—I just got to watch her physically abuse my father and sister. From my earliest childhood, I knew my mother had what she called “White-out rages,” where she claimed that she literally couldn’t see anything, and lashed out with her fists at my father. I witnessed her punch, kick, slap, and scream at him over and over again. Since I was apparently “such a good listener,” she would then pack me in the car, drive me all over the county, and explain exactly why he made her do it.
I learned the all-important lie before I could even talk: the victim is responsible for the abuser’s behavior.
The worst part of any week was the thirty-minute drive to church. My parents would scream, yell, argue in circles, and then get out of the car in the church parking lot and act like nothing was wrong!! How could they do that? Why would they do that? Every time they smiled at another parishoner, I wanted to scream, “It’s all a lie! They just threatened divorce for the thousanth time! They pulled over on the side of the road, she stormed off into a cornfield, and he begged her to not leave him alone with the baby!”
The Walkman was literally the greatest invention of my life. I could drown out their insanity with my music. My most vivid visual memories of my elementary school years are the floorboard of the car, punctuated by the soundtrack of the homemade mix-cassette-tapes I made off of the radio.
I grew older, I fell in love with Jesus in my own right, and I eventually went away to college. (That journey is another story and another can of worms altogether.) I was still frequently dragged back into the drama of my family—once, my mother even assaulted my sister, and drove for hours to my school to come pick me up so I could “intervene” with her.
This Can’t Be Happening….
However, the worst night was right before “Star Wars: Attack of the Clones” came out in the theaters. I was so excited to go on a “group date” to this moviewith a guy I cared about…and I got a screaming phone call from my brother: “Mom punched dad, and broke his jaw. He says he’s leaving. You’ve got to come home and do something!!”
I arrived at my parents’ million-dollar house the next day. Mom and dad were laying on their bed in their sweats. He was holding her hand. He was just finishing up a bowl of Honey Combs, wanted another, and asked my mom if she wanted some.
“No thank you, honey,” she said.
He turned to get up, and I saw the huge, swollen bulge on the left side of his face.
“Hey sweetheart,” he said to me. “What are you doing home from school?”
Walking straight into a Raymond Carver story, I thought.
I have absolutely no memory of what happened later that day. My best guess is that everyone else acted like nothing had happened—except that I knew my father had to look in the mirror while he shaved. I wondered, did he wince when the razor scraped over that part of his jawline? Did he close his eyes and compartmentalize? Logistically, I know that he didn’t leave. I went back to my school, my job, my dance-around-relationship with a guy I sort’ve liked.
Later—I don’t know how many days later—I got a call from my mother while I was at work. Dad had left, and she had taken so many sleeping pills that she was slurring and crying. It was the first of four suicide attempts.
A Slow Awakening….
Over the next two years, I realized the truth of a saying from the book Understanding the Borderline Mother, by Christine Lawson: “Children are the first to know, and the last to recognize, that something is wrong with their parents.” I became a surrogate caregiver and spouse to my mom. I gave her money. I gave her time. I set her up with support from my church (she and I went to different churches—also another story) and I was there for her whenever she needed me, at any time of the day or night. I became absorbed in her needs, in her drama, in her sexual escapades (which she described to me in detail), in her hatred of my father, in her desire to have my father back…and slowly, over those two years, I realized two things:
1) I was a tool to meet her needs, nothing more.
2) She was not getting better.
She’d started and stopped therapy. She’d started and stopped meds. She continued to verbally and physically abuse my brother and sister. She stalked my father from two states away.
The Final Straw….
Then, she started on a peculiar form of sabotage—my relationship with my future husband. I called to tell her we were engaged, and she started crying, begging me for money. Which I hurredly and gladly gave, since she said she was going to be evicted the next day.
I called her to set up at time to pick out a wedding dress. “You realize he’s just like your father. He’s going to leave you the moment you gain weight.” WHAT??
I called my sister to let her know we’d picked out wedding invitations. “You realize, if that son of a bitch ever lays a hand on you again, I’m kicking his f*cking ass.”
I was dumbfounded, and asked her straight up, “Cecillia, are you high?”
“Ok, call me when you’re sober,” I said, and hung up the phone. I immediately called my mother. “Where did Cecillia get the idea that my fiance was beating me?”
“Well, she said you were hiding bruises all over your back, that you were acting like you were scared that she would see them.”
“Mother, I live TWO HOURS AWAY. When would she have seen me? When would we have changed clothes in the same room?”
It turns out Cecillia got the idea from my mother. She was stoned enough to believe it actually happened, and that she actually saw it with her own eyes.
I received drunk, screaming, crying, drug-induced, late-night phone calls every single day until a month before our wedding. My future husband and I had moved to a new city four hours away, started new jobs, paid rent on two apartments until we were officially married….and despite the distance, I was still crumbling under the weight of my mother’s insanity. I finally told my fiance, “This is never, ever going to change. She’s going to harass us until we split up. I need you to sit with me for this next phone call.”
I held his hand, dialed her number, and haltingly told her not to call me again until she was willing to get some help. She screamed at me that she was only calling about wedding presents, at two in the morning. I told her again, “I’m not speaking to you again until you get some help.” She hung up.
She called back. I let it go to voicemail.
She called again. And again. And again.
Once she called more than thirty times in a single day.
I answered once, to agree to let her come to the wedding. The wedding is a whole different story, but in some ways, it was just like my youthful drives to church: smile when people are around, pretend like nothing is wrong, and have a complete and utter meltdown in private.
Some time later, she assaulted my sister, beating her to a bloody pulp in the hallway of her apartment over a dispute about a credit card. The police were called. Apparently my mother played enough of a victim that the police believed it was both of their faults. I knew better. I knew that my sister had been hit enough times that she’d decided to fight back. In a sick, twisted sort of way, I was proud of her for defending herself.
But it cemented my resolve: do NOT let this woman back into your life until she’s treated for whatever screw is loose in her head.
To this day, my sister defends and maintains a relationship with my mother.
Enter Pastor, Stage Left….
Sheldon, the worst part of this story is actually not the abuse that my sister and father suffered. As you know, the worst part is the response of the people in the church community when survivors try to TELL SOMEONE what happened.
My sister found out through the grapevine that I was pregnant with my first child, and told my mother. My mother then called my former pastor ,from my former state, that I hadn’t seen in eight years, and told him she was suicidal because her beloved daughter was pregnant, and had cut her out of her future grandchild’s life.
I was sitting in Panera, trying to write a play, when my former pastor called me. I could tell you what I was wearing, where I was sitting, and what I was eating, as I spent forty-five minutes trying to explain to this man that my mother was an abusive person. That she lived and breathed a lie. That she was pulling the wool over his eyes with her, “My daughter has abandoned me” act.
Guess how he responded?
He told me I needed to “Honor my father and mother.” He told me that I was not doing the “normal” things a daughter should do when she’s pregnant—shop for baby clothes together, pick out names, take pictures, etc. (At that point, I almost threw up my brocolli-chedar soup-in-a-breadbowl, because all I could think was, “What part of this situation sounds NORMAL to you??”)
I told him I couldn’t do that, because I was afraid she would abuse the baby. He said, “Taylor Joy, you are being a tool of the devil to hurt your mom.”
I froze. I’d spent six years of my life in this man’s church. It was a small church. I’d thought he and I had known each other well. My mother had been in his church exactly three times. She wasn’t even a person in his pastoral care. How could he believe this about me? How could he take her word over mine? Wasn’t she harming me? My brother and sister? My father? My husband? My future baby? Who was the tool of the devil here?
I ended that conversation as quickly as I could—and I don’t remember any response I made to that accusation.
I immediately called one of the church elders, who’d been like a surrogate father to me during that season of life. It was a seventeen-minute call. He basically told me that our pastor was full of crap, that our pastor didn’t know the whole story, and that I was doing the right thing. “Your mother would be drunk on your doorstep every night if you let her into your life right now. You take care of that baby, and tell your husband I said hi.”
In seventeen minutes, my old friend may have saved our family’s sanity.
I Believe You….
Sheldon, I wish you’d had someone like that to speak sanity into your life—someone who would just say, “Yes, I see it, abuse is really happening, and it’s wrong.” I wish the the cop who came to your house had acknowledged the fact that yes, you were the victim. I’m able to write about this with some objectivity, some level of detachment, because our story is almost fifteen years old. However, when the pain was fresh and recent, all I wanted was for someone to believe me. I want you to know that I believe you. I believe you because I’ve lived it. I believe you because I’ve heard the exact same words you have. I believe you have the right to be hurt, angry, and free from their control. I believe you have the right to live your own life.
I don’t really know how to end this letter/post, except to say that I have to go get my kids some breakfast, and work today on being a better mother than I was yesterday. Life goes on, healing can come, good work can be done on your own soul, and there are good relationships to be had. I’ll write later on why I was able to stay a Christian–but i made a commitment that i would never, ever try to convert a victim of spiritual abuse back to Christianity, unless he or she asked. So, I hope this has been an encouragement to you, and please feel free to come by and talk any time.