I still remember the voices in my head when the razorblade, gripped in my hand, hovered over my left wrist. Useless. Trash. You can’t do anything right. Failure. Nobody likes you. These words played in an infinite loop in my head, getting louder as I pressed down and dragged across my wrist, my hand steadier than I’d expected. I’m not going to lie and say it didn’t hurt; it hurt like your nerves are set on fire, and the throbbing pain that followed as the cuts healed was almost unbearable. But as I repeated the press-and-drag motion, I felt relief—for a moment, this physical pain stole my attention, and I was deaf, for once, to the voices in my head telling me I wasn’t good enough.
That was the first of several self-harm episodes over the years, beginning in high school and continued into my young adulthood. I was not a chronic cutter; I could count the number of times I self-harmed with one hand. I was a high-functioning depressive and conscientious in predisposition, so I would always try to “work my way out” of what I called a slump. When I was younger I would write in my journal and funnel my energy into studying, keeping things to myself partly because a large part of me believed the voices in my head. That I wasn’t good enough, that I could do better, that I was ugly, fat, unlovable.
It wasn’t until I started seeing a therapist after college—one that I actually liked and wasn’t culturally incompetent—did I realize where these voices came from. I had never even questioned it; I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me they might be lies. I guess when you grow up listening to certain things said about yourself, especially coming from your own mother, it’s easy to believe them. Too easy. What she said to me quickly became thoughts steeped in self-loathing: I wish I had never been born. I hope I’ll die in my sleep tonight.
It’s ironic, isn’t it, that the person who gave birth to me made me wish it never happened in the first place.
You might think this is just another sob story, but it isn’t, and I’m not here to win your sympathy. This is to help me come to terms with distancing myself from my mother and to be at peace with this distance.
When my mother told me I was useless, I believed her. Every single time. I remember distinctly that it’s something she said a lot to not just me, but also my brother and my father, tossing the derogative liberally like a sentence-filler. She would call me useless when I dropped a bowl by accident at 7 years old; when I forgot to run an errand for her at 13; when I decided to not apply to medical school at 21; when I tried to cook something and burned the pan in the process at 23; when I didn’t listen to her and stayed out late at 25. I admit that I have floundered quite a bit in my twenties, and I did make a plethora of mistakes. There were mistakes I made because I was inexcusably foolish and immature and self-centered, and some of them could have been avoided if I had listened to my mother. But as I pushed my way through therapy and gradually opened up to close friends, I learned that mistakes didn’t equal character flaws. I had to be taught to accept instead of dismiss comments containing positive words like beautiful, talented, kind, intelligent.
I did not get very far.
It was so hard to dissociate myself from all the negative adjectives that I gave up many times. It was just easier to believe the lies because they were familiar, a twisted form of comfort. It’s called learned helplessness in psychology—I stopped trying to avoid self-destructive behaviors (eating disorders, reckless sex, binge drinking), to get better emotionally and stronger mentally. Things my mother had said to me when she was clear-minded or racked with anger—“You’ll never find someone to marry if you don’t learn to be patient”, “That nail color looks so ugly; you have terrible taste”, “I told you to go to med school; why didn’t you listen to me? Look at you, making less than 60K a year”—burrowed deep into my heart along with their implications, that nothing I did would please her, I wasn’t good enough and I never would be. And I never thought she was wrong—everyone else saw her as a model parent, a respectable teacher, a mother who knew how to raise her children. So she must be right that I was a failure, right? And so I thought, why bother? And at one point, I decided I didn’t want to get better. That this was it, my life mired in ruins, a train wreck that no one would happen across.
But a small part of me didn’t actually give up, and I made friends who constantly encouraged me, pounded positive thinking into my head. My mindset was changing without me knowing. Then one time, a few months ago, I got so fed up that I confronted my mother as she threw me another useless: I made one mistake and that reflects on what kind of person I am? She spat back Yes.
I was stunned. That’s when it dawned on me that she was still completely oblivious to what she was doing, even today, years after the family therapy she was forced into partaking consequent to my first suicide attempt, and despite that one time she stumbled upon my diary and apologized to me with tears rolling down her face. I realized that she was never going to change; in her head, she was always in the right and I was always in the wrong. To her, imperfection meant worthlessness, and disagreement meant a complete disregard for her parental authority. No matter what I said or how I tried to reason with her, I could never get across to her because she would always refuse to put herself in my shoes.
So I shook my head, said nothing, and moved out within the next few weeks, which I had already planned and saved for months prior. It was something I should have done years ago once I was financially stable—almost everyone had pitched moving out as a way to remove myself from my toxic mother and her emotional abuse. When I told her that I was moving out, she was enraged. Went berserk and said she doubted she really gave birth to me because I always rebelled against her, never did as she asked. I wasn’t what I should be if I really were her daughter, carrying her genes. I told her I wanted to be independent, the excuse I thought would sound most acceptable in her head, but it wasn’t—she spat scorn on it, called me ungrateful and unfilial. I didn’t tell her the real reason I wanted—needed—to move: I had to be apart from her, physically, in order to preserve the last shreds of my sanity. I should have told her, but she wouldn’t have listened anyway.
As I navigated through my twenties, I began to gain bearings on who I am—what fires me up, what saddens me, what bores me, what causes vibrations in my soul—and also to accept this person that is me. Slowly, I learned to differentiate my mother’s voice from my own. It took well over a decade for me to tell myself with conviction that what my mother says about me reflects more of who she is than who I am. But there are still times when I relapse and those voices creep up in the back of my head. It’s a soft buzz, but one that’s persistent and annoying, like mosquitoes that keep circling around you. It’s easier now that I’m no longer under the same roof as she is, no longer subjected to random bouts of verbal abuse, remarks which she would never for the life of her see as abusive. But she’s still my mother, the person whose voice opened my ears as a newborn, and it might take a lifetime for me to completely erase the traces of her verbalized disappointment and contempt.
One day, instead of merely ignoring the voices buzzing in my head, I can counter them, negate them at least: I am NOT useless. I am NOT unpretty. I am NOT a failure. I CAN do things right. I am NOT these things you say I am—I am who I am.