We’re in my childhood bedroom, in my parents’ house, in my hometown. It is Thanksgiving Day, and my mother and I have just finished dinner. My father would not be home until close to midnight, as the medical field tends to not slow for holidays.
My mother sits on the edge of my bed, pensive. We are talking about a topic she does not love, which is when I dated an abusive man for a period of time the previous year.
She exhales and begins to speak.
Mom: “I have always wanted there to be a special someone in your life who gets you, and is your best friend forever. It’s not easy, as a mother, to see your child go through anything less than that — you’ve had two unhealthy relationships in a row, now.”
It’s true; I’ve been in two long-term relationships, and both were unhealthy — lasting about a year apiece. My most recent one was much more severe than the first, ending about one year ago.
Me: “So what was it like as a mother, to watch me go through a second bad relationship?”
Mom: “I didn’t know in the beginning that things were going to get as bad as they did, but I did know from day one that I didn’t like him. I also knew that if I let you know that, you wouldn’t be honest with me if things were ever not okay and you needed help. I’d seen you do it before, with your first boyfriend, so I stayed quiet from the very beginning.”
Recognizing the Signs
I asked my mom what clues she found outside of the larger incidents — and she told me that they were many, and frequent, and almost exhausting to try and keep up with and analyze.
“Your Behavior Changed”
Mom: “The unhealthy patterns started with smaller things, but then it turned into huge things, like when you drove to Baltimore for a Beyonce concert and skipped the actual concert. You’d given him your extra ticket, but when you got back, you said something about how he’d been in some kind of pain and needed to go to the hospital instead. You’d been talking about that show for months. The daughter I knew would have sent him to the hospital in an Uber and gone to the concert alone. You’d been seeing him for two months. That’s when I saw he had a hold over you, and it’s probably how he learned it, too.”
“Your Lifestyle Changed”
Mom: “You were going through money so fast and I couldn’t tell where it was being spent; it didn’t make any sense. You made more than enough to cover your expenses and still have a cushion. You’d ask for help with a bill, so I’d send you money. And then a couple days later, you’d ask for even more, but once it was for the same bill. That’s how I figured out you were paying his bills on top of yours. None of this was like you.”
“Your reasons for doing things or not doing things weren’t even your words. Everything you said was rehearsed. Your whole lifestyle was wild – all these trips, night out after a night out, tons of time taken off work — things you’d never done before. It all came on so quickly, almost out of nowhere. Except I knew it wasn’t out of nowhere; I knew it was him.”
“You Stopped Coming Home”
Mom: “You didn’t come home to visit as much, and you wouldn’t let us come down to see you. When you did come home, there was always an agenda. You weren’t yourself. You weren’t relaxed. You always brought him with you, and you always left with cash or a check for whatever objective he’d given you that time. I couldn’t get to you;
I tried to talk to you, but it was like you were in a fog and I didn’t know exactly how to go about helping you get back.
You couldn’t make eye contact with me. Or you were looking at him, constantly measuring what you could say in front of him as if you couldn’t afford to misstep.”
“Your Partner Controlled You”
“He had this awful body language. When I asked you something, he’d give you a sideways glance, and wait for you to give me an answer, as if he had prepped you. And then he’d relax back into his chair. He had control over what you said and did in front of me. I started to be afraid that if you didn’t keep jumping through hoops and covering for him, he would do something awful or aggressive.”
Stunned, I asked her what kept her from intervening. This is hard for me to ask, and harder for her to answer, I’m sure. We are both tearful at this point, my mother and I. We have never discussed this part of the story.
Mom: “Your relationship with him could have destroyed your relationship with me. I’m sure that’s what he wanted — for you to separate from me. I knew that if I got difficult, that he would make you cut ties. I knew he had that kind of that influence, and I knew your life depended on that not happening.”
“You Shut Me Out”
Mom: “I was up here, three states away; you were down there, and I had no way to assess for myself. I’d call and text, and you’d insist that everything was fine. I was never around you enough to be sure. I was afraid that if I offended you, you’d shut that door and I’d lose you.
So I kept calm. And I just waited. I prayed a lot. I told you that I loved you so many times.
I was addicted to your Instagram and Facebook because when you wouldn’t talk to me, it was the only way I could get information. I got so nervous when you didn’t post anything for a few days. It made me angry that I didn’t have the power to pull you out of this.”
Mom: “One day you called me because you found out he was starting a rumor about you. You said to me, “Mom, I think he is trying to tear my life apart; I think he’s trying to isolate me from the rest of the world.” I already knew that and was glad you were seeing it.”
“I actually found out that you’d ended things from reading your blog; you never told me that you guys broke up. I don’t know exactly what happened. You were just as tight-lipped about his departure. You never discussed it with me. But I watched you come back to life. You started suddenly doing all this stuff — working out again, being involved in stuff again. So that made me hope that you were breaking the cycle and changing all the settings.”
Mom: “You’re a therapist, and you had a therapist. If anyone should have “known” better and been spared from this, it was you. But then I look at you now, and you’re a different person as a result of it all.
Before, while you were with him, you were angry…lost…victimized. Now, your feet are on the ground. You are so self-aware now; you did so much work and dug so deep into figuring out why you had a tendency to choose abusive people instead of just being ashamed of it.
You’re my hero for that. You’re a lot of people’s hero for that.
Now, you’re frustrated that this happens to other people. I have no doubt in my mind that you’re going to accomplish anything you set your mind to because you’re always thinking about what you needed someone to say when you couldn’t speak on your own.”
Advice From One Parent To Another
Our tears have turned to tears of joy and gratitude now. I have one more thing to ask my mother — what she would tell parents who see their children, or people who see their loved ones, in what could be an unhealthy situation.
Mom: “I think it’s hard for anyone to hear they’re wrong about something, and it feels bold to tell them, especially with matters of the heart. You can create opportunities to share, but you can’t make them do the sharing. You just have to keep reassuring them that you’re in their corner no matter what should arise. If you intervene, unless that person is really ready to change and leave, they’ll go right back.”
Mom: “So don’t alienate your child, or your friend, or whoever, to where they won’t come to you with a problem. Do what you can to keep it supportive and tension-free so that when they are ready to talk, they will. If you destroy that, there’s no go-to. I would like to think everyone has someone in their life they can talk to. If you even think you’re that person, be careful not to jeopardize that gift.”
And what a gift my mother is to me is not lost on me. We return to lighter topics — what kind of pie is still left in the kitchen, for starters. The holiday season and dawn of a new year have me feeling more thankful than usual, because of my own journey and how far I have come in just a short time. It gives me hope that the tides really can turn, and abuse really can lessen, if we keep shedding light on things and telling about them as we are able to. A little bit more light every day, and perhaps no one will have to be in that darkness anymore.