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My Healing From Her Illness

Names have been changed.

My mom used to waltz and sing with my twin sister Tammy and me. She picked us our own “personal” songs. Mine were “Once upon a Dream” from Sleeping Beauty and “Edelweiss” from The Sound of Music. She would dance around the house with us, singing our songs. It always felt so nice. My mother also read all of the Harry Potter books to us, with special voices for each character. Every morning, she had us go out into the backyard and yell, “GOOD MORNING, WORLD! I’M GONNA KICK YOUR BUTT!”

When we were teething, my mom gave us frozen fruits and vegetables as well as sushi to chew on, instead of stuffing a plastic pacifier in our mouths. It taught me to love healthy food, even if kids my age didn’t understand why I craved broccoli and spinach.

She never fed us canned food. She used to talk about how unhealthy Chef Boyardee was and how only “latchkey kids” have to eat that and McDonald’s, because their parents couldn’t be bothered with giving their kids good food. She didn’t work. We never realized we were living far beyond our means.

Never Sure

My father died when we were young, and I don’t remember him. My mother was his second wife, and he never added my mother, my sister, and me into his will. So when he died, everything went to my three grown, distant stepsisters. My mother had stopped working when she was pregnant with us, believing she would never have to work again. She called herself “retired” at 38 years old.

When my father died, all we received were Social Security checks because my mother refused to work but also refused to go on welfare. But she continued spending as if she was still supported by him. She also became depressed and began drinking, which got steadily worse as the years progressed.

On top of being an alcoholic, my mother was mentally and emotionally unstable. I studied psychology in high school and college, and I now believe that my mother’s mood swings came from fear of abandonment, and that she may even have borderline personality disorder. The drinking made her mood swings worse.

But when I was little, I believed the punishments and her inconsistent moods were somehow my fault, that I was bad because I’d made my mother angry. When she was sober, she’d tell me I was beautiful and smart, but when she was drunk she’d accuse my sister and me of being “whores.” We were 12 years old.

I could never be sure of the sincerity of the compliments she gave when sober, because she’d say the opposite when she was drunk. To this day I don’t know if drinking made her tell us how she really felt—and all her compliments were lies—or if it made her say things she didn’t mean. I have a lot of trust and self-esteem issues because of her inconsistent judgments.

One day when I was in elementary school, a counselor asked me about a bruise on my face. I told the truth, that the bruise came from my mother when she slammed me into the toilet that morning.

After that, a social worker confronted my mother about the abuse. Then my mother started telling me and my sister how her foster fathers (yes, plural) raped and sexually abused her when she was a child. She said that if we told on her again, the government would take us and put us into foster care.

“You want to tear apart our family, the only people who give a sh-t about you? Who the f-ck is gonna sing you to sleep, huh? Go ahead, call the cops. Have fun having your foster daddy make you suck his c-ck. No n-gger foster family is going to give you filet mignon or rack of lamb like I do. You’ll be lucky if those n-ggers feed you that Chef Boyardee sh-t,” she slurred one time when she was drunk. She threatened to put us into foster care when we misbehaved.

From Bad to Worse

When Tammy and I were 15 years old, my mother ran out of money and lost the house. My mother didn’t have many friends when I was younger, I guess because of her alcoholism. I didn’t have many friends because of her alcoholism either. So we had nobody to turn to when we lost the house and were forced out.

After struggling and worrying that we were going to be homeless, she eventually found someone to rent us a small apartment, a shock after living in a four-story home my whole life. The bills for our storage units kept piling up. My mother still refused to work or seek help. The landlord kept raising the rent.

Besides struggling with the bills and her depression, my mother had trouble accepting that my twin sister and I were becoming interested in things separate from her. My mother yelled when she found out my sister was considering atheism. She screamed insults and curses when she found out my sister and I were both dating black boys, because she was extremely racist. (We’re white.) She told me, when I became engaged to my black boyfriend after three years, that she wouldn’t let us marry, even though we planned to wait til after college.

When I was 17, after an altercation with my sister, my mother took all the food and the money and left us alone in the house. We figured she was doing it to scare us into “behaving” because she had threatened it in the past. We believed that she would come back eventually. My sister and I had our boyfriends bring us food and tried to live on our own. After a week, someone noticed and told the authorities. We were forced into foster care —the exact punishment my mother had threatened us with.

image by YC-Art Dept

My mother returned and realized what had happened. She knew she couldn’t shake the neglect charges, so she left for North Carolina and refused to work with the foster care agency or come to court dates, though she still somehow felt she was entitled to parental rights. I’ve seen my mother only once since she left. We write letters to each other every month or so. I don’t feel comfortable giving her my cell phone number yet.

Fighting Myself

When I entered care, I struggled with depression. I felt abandoned by my mother and my twin sister as well. My sister ran away from our foster home multiple times to live with her friends, and I felt like I wasn’t wanted anymore. I struggled with the fact that, after spending 17 years seeing my sister’s and mother’s faces every morning, I woke up alone every day in a stranger’s house.

I hadn’t had many friends when I was young because I was afraid of them seeing my mother drunk. But when I became depressed the few friendships I had proved to be shallow—they expected me to bounce back when my mom left. A few claimed that I was choosing to be sad, that I liked the attention.

I began to mistrust other people’s sincerity. People told me how bad they felt for me and how they wanted to help, but then I’d hear rumors that they were saying that I was a spoiled crybaby. They never helped when I did ask, which was rare.

I spent the next two years questioning my self-worth. I decided to break off my engagement with my boyfriend of three years (the one my mother hated) and separate from him because of the stress I was under from foster care. I’ve heard that severe emotional and psychological stress can compromise your immune system. He got pneumonia and lost 30 pounds in a month after I broke up with him. I questioned whether I was an evil person, whether I’d broken his heart and caused his illness.

I thought it was my fault that I had no friends, because I was somehow unlikable and that I deserved to be alone, and maybe that’s why my mom had left. I believed that no one wanted to put the time and effort of staying loyal to me through my depression because I wasn’t worth that effort.

I started cutting the soles of my feet and alternating between anorexia and bulimia. I didn’t know what I looked like and I felt I always needed to change something. I felt I deserved to do something as disgusting as throwing up to look pretty.

I was afraid to make any new friends because I thought that when they saw I was depressed, they’d think I was boring, like my old friends did, and leave me. I didn’t want anyone to get close to me or know what was wrong because I thought they’d run away from me.

Loving Myself

But then I started therapy. It was a revelation for me, to listen to myself say what I was thinking about. I never consciously noticed my thought patterns until I told someone else what I was thinking. As I talked with my therapist, I realized I was focusing on the bad things that had happened recently, and the bad things I felt I had done.

I still have the same therapist, two years later. She is warm, thoughtful, tolerant, and most of all I don’t feel like a lab rat being studied. She never pried except when something I said didn’t make sense. She didn’t judge or criticize, just listened. She gave encouragement and praise when needed and supported my self-improvement. I feel like she knew that all I needed was someone to tell these things to so that I could hear myself. I felt like she knew I was intelligent enough to know what I would need to do to change, if only I could hear myself.

In addition to my therapist, a few newer friends pointed out that I wasn’t mentioning the good things that I had done and that had happened. I realized that they were right. I felt bad for talking as if everything in my life was horrible and I’d never deserve to be happy again. Wonderful things had happened to me, and the people I met had no idea because I wasn’t mentioning them.

I began to remember how my mom loved to sing to us. That meant something. My mother loved us enough to make us our own songs. Other people could love me too, even if they didn’t always show it. I was starting to learn to trust. Just because someone can say or do something mean didn’t mean it was my fault or that they hated me. It is just an individual event and if I wanted to know why they did it, I could only learn by asking them and telling them how it made me feel.

I began looking at myself and thinking of my health more than my weight. I didn’t want to have my ribs sticking out anymore. I still didn’t think I was pretty, but I knew that no one would want to visit me in the hospital because of my destructive behavior. I began eating healthy, though it was a struggle, and I began to feel better. I realized I didn’t have to be perfect to be beautiful or to make friends.

As I went through therapy and my daily life, I realized that most people don’t view cutters and bulimics with sympathy. In fact, I’ve seen cutters get dirty, disgusted looks from strangers for not covering up their scars in public. What I had intended by cutting, starving myself, and throwing up was to punish myself because I felt I hadn’t brought joy into anyone’s life.

But I was just making it worse. Cutting left scars that could last a lifetime and be judged well into the future. I wasn’t going to continue a behavior that wouldn’t help me, much less one that would offer more opportunities for people to shun me.

I studied my schoolwork and began to realize that I wasn’t stupid or worthless—I had a work ethic that I could be proud of. I get exemplary grades and got a 3.8 GPA my first year in college. I have worked hard all my life. I could smile knowing that I was trying, even if no one patted me on the back like I wanted. Everyone deserves a pat on the back sometimes, so I patted myself on the back for how far I’d come despite the lack of maternal support.

This story is part of the health literacy series, which is generously supported by the Cigna Foundation.

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