My Mom Was Emotionally Disturbed, But There’s No Excuse For How She Treated Me

This piece was excerpted from the New York Times best-selling memoir, Why Me?
Bekah Russom

I loved birthdays. My birthday was one time during the year that I was made to feel like a princess and one of the few times that my mother was actually nice to me all day long. As a child, my birthday celebrations had included big family get-togethers, Pizza Hut pizza-making parties, and smaller family parties. For some reason, birthdays were very important to Mom, and she would become consumed with trying to make bigger and better birthday parties every year. She almost looked forward to birthdays more than I did.

There was no better way to spend a birthday morning than one in Mrs. Beamish’s 3rd grade classroom. The birthday student would get a special decorated chair for the day, wear a crown on his or her head, and be leader in every line for the entire day! The principal would even get on the loudspeaker and wish the student a happy birthday—so the entire school would know about it!

Today was Rebecca’s birthday. Rebecca was a “sort-of” friend of mine. She acted like my friend outside of the school walls, but during the school day she would pick on me all the time. This didn’t bother me too much, though, because I thought Rebecca was the most beautiful girl in the school and I loved spending as much time with her as I could.

Rebecca had the life that I dreamed of. She had a big house, two dogs, and a really nice mom and dad. I would sit in Rebecca’s house sometimes and watch in amazement as Rebecca’s mom hugged and kissed her and combed the tangles out of her long hair.

“That family is just weird!” my mom would say. “They’re a little too touchy-feely for my liking.” But I didn’t think their behavior was weird. To me, it looked right.

I was on my way to school that morning when I heard Rebecca’s sing-song voice call out “Sarah! Wait for me!” I turned around and saw Rebecca was running up behind me, wearing the prettiest white dress with pink flowers lining the hem. Her mother had curled her hair that morning and put a shiny silver tiara at the top that glistened in the sunlight. At that moment, I felt a pang of jealousy in my stomach. For the first time, I hated Rebecca, hated her for having a mother who let her have long hair, hated her for wearing such a pretty dress and such a pretty sparkly thing in her hair.

“Aren’t you going to wish me a happy birthday?” Rebecca asked breathlessly.

“That’s right!” I exclaimed. “Happy Birthday!”

“Thanks!” said Rebecca. “I had such a good morning with my mom and dad! They made me orange French toast and hot cocoa . . . mmmmm, my favorites!”

I hadn’t had the best morning with my mother and stepfather, so the last thing I wanted to hear was how great someone else’s morning had been—but I plastered on a fake smile and said, “Wow! That sounds so good!”

“I know! Then tonight we’re having a party and cake and . . .” Rebecca stopped mid-sentence as we approached the school playground. She ran off, leaving me in the dust of her Nancy Janes. That was our friendship, outside of school grounds only!

I walked into our classroom early and saw that Rebecca’s chair was already decorated and a birthday crown was waiting on her desk. Mrs. Beamish was sitting at her big desk at the front of the room, grading papers from the day before.

“Sarah, why are you in here so early?” she asked. “Go outside and play with your friends.”

I desperately wanted to say, “I’m having a bad day and I want to just sit in here and get this day over with,” but I didn’t want to explain why I was having a bad day. So I turned around and went back out to playground. I sat down on an empty swing and watched as all the kids swarmed around Rebecca, glorifying her on her special day.

“It’s not fair,” I thought to myself. I wanted it to be my birthday. I wanted today to be a day when Mom spoiled me and the kids at school were nice to me and it was MY special day for once.

The longer I sat and stewed, the angrier I got. Finally, after what seemed like a million years, the first bell of the day rang. “Nice hair, Poodle,” said one of my classmates as we entered the building. That was the last straw. I stopped dead in my tracks, turned around, and punched the little boy who had made the poodle remark as hard as I could. The hallway went quiet, and everyone turned around and stared at me.

I felt shocked at what I’d done, but my small fist was still curled up, ready for round two. The little boy who had borne the brunt of my wrath was standing there with tears streaming down his face. I faintly whispered “I’m sorry” before I felt the enormous hands of the principal, Mr. Scott, on my shoulders and was led down to his office.

“Sarah,” he said quietly, “you know better than to hit. I’m giving you a detention before school tomorrow.”

My heart sank. The detention didn’t bother me, but taking the dreaded pink slip home to my mother was going to be horrible. I watched as Mr. Scott filled out the pink slip, my mind racing. “Maybe I can fake Mom’s signature; maybe I can run away . . .” Ideas flooded my head on how to avoid punishment for this, but none of them were any good. I would just have to go home after school and face whatever happened.

I spent the rest of the day sulking in the back of the classroom, the pit in my stomach growing while everyone fawned over Rebecca and whispered and talked about me. When the last bell finally rang at 3:05, I waited until everyone had left the classroom and then approached the teacher, Mrs. Beamish. “I’m sorry for hitting Michael,” I said in a soft voice, looking up with eyes pleading her to please make this pink slip go away.

Mrs. Beamish said, “I’m glad you’re sorry, Sarah, but you have to take responsibility for your actions, honey!”

My eyes welled up with tears, and I nodded my head and turned around. Just as I was about to leave the room, Mrs. Beamish said, “Just remember, Sarah, tomorrow is another day, a fresh start.”

For some reason, those words resonated in my mind and I felt a little better. Tomorrow would be a new day, a fresh start, and no matter what happened when I got home that afternoon, I would wake up tomorrow to a new day.

I walked home twice as slowly as usual. Rebecca didn’t walk home with me that day; she was busy with her school friends, talking about how great her party was going to be that night. Oh, how I wished today was my birthday and I was the one looking forward to cake and presents and family time!

I approached our apartment building, and my feet turned into lead. They didn’t want to go in, and who could blame them? Even my feet knew that what waited for me behind the door of our apartment couldn’t be good.

I finally opened the apartment door. Mom was vacuuming the living room for what was probably the fifth or sixth time that day. I took off my shoes and walked into the living room. Mom turned off the vacuum.

“So, I heard you had a bad day at school today,” she said in a calm voice.

The voice threw me off; this was not my mother’s normal reaction. I felt a bit calmer.

“I hit Michael,” I said meekly.

“Why?” Mom asked.

“I wanted it to be my birthday,” I replied.

“We’ll talk about this when your father gets home,” Mom said, and she turned the vacuum back on and continued cleaning.

I turned around and went to my room, relieved by the lack of reaction from Mom but also confused about why she wasn’t hitting or screaming at me right now. The comment Mom had made about my father made me bristle. The man Mom was referring to wasn’t my father; in fact, I wasn’t even sure who my biological father really was. This man, my stepfather, was someone Mom had met while waitressing. After a whirlwind romance, they were married and I was told to call him Dad. I had never felt comfortable around my stepdad. I didn’t know him well; he had just appeared out of the blue one day. While he hadn’t put his hands on me yet, he never argued with Mom or stopped her from hitting me all the time. For this reason, I didn’t trust my stepfather and never would.

I spent the rest of the afternoon in my bedroom. As the minutes and hours ticked away, the pit in my stomach grew and grew. Something was wrong. Mom was never this calm. Or maybe something was right, and I was getting a fresh start like Mrs. Beamish had said. Maybe everything was going to be OK.

Finally I heard my stepdad’s blue drywall truck pull up in front of the apartment building. My entire body started trembling. The room seemed to close in on me, and I lay down on the bed with my eyes squeezed shut. Then I heard my mother’s voice.

“Sarah, come out and eat dinner. Your father is home.”

I opened the door to my room and walked into the tiny apartment dining room where my mother and stepdad were waiting. Tonight we were having stuffed green peppers, my favorite meal in the entire world! Maybe this day was going to end up OK! Why would Mom go to the effort of making my favorite dinner if I was in trouble? I sat down happily in my seat at the table and began to dig into my first green pepper.

“So I heard you had a bad day today, Sarah,” my stepdad said.

“I hit Michael, and I have a detention tomorrow morning,” I replied matter-of-factly, thinking that all was forgiven and I could dare to be a bit bold.

My mom and stepdad looked at each other and continued to eat. The meal continued in silence. The silence lasted until the dishes were done and I was sitting in front of the television.

Then my stepdad said in a quiet voice, “Sarah, go into our bedroom.”

I got up from my seat in the living room and went back to Mom’s bedroom, which was pretty stark. The bed was neatly made, and there was a dresser on the far wall with a large mirror. When you sat on the bed, you could see yourself perfectly in the mirror, so I sat on the bed and watched myself bounce up and down in the mirror until my stepdad entered the room.

“Take your pants off, Sarah,” he said, and he started to undo the belt on his work pants.

I immediately curled up into a ball and started crying. “What are you going to do to me?” I cried out.

“SHUT UP AND DO AS YOUR FATHER ASKS!” Mom bellowed from the kitchen.

With tears streaming down my face, I slowly unbuttoned my pants, took them off, and laid them on the floor. “Pull your underwear down,” my stepdad instructed. I did so and then sat down on the bed, completely naked from the waist down and humiliated and scared at the same time.

“Turn over” was the next calm instruction from my stepdad. Confused, I remained seated and turned my back to him on the bed. “No, face down,” he said.

I buried my face in my mother’s pillow, smelling the faint scent of her perfume and shampoo. Then I turned my head and looked at myself in the mirror on the dresser. I couldn’t see my stepfather, but I heard the belt snap in his hands.

“CRACK!” My naked rear end was immediately on fire. The hard leather belt had come cracking down on me with such force that I thought something had broken in my body. I screamed out in pain, and Mom came running into the room and put her hand over my mouth.

My stepdad raised the belt again. I could see the reflection of his hand in the mirror as it started to come down, and I squirmed and fought my mother’s hand holding me down. Snot started dripping out of my nose. Mom took her hand away in disgust and smacked me on the side of the head before she wiped her hand on my shirt.

“CRACK!” The belt came down again. Now my rear end felt like it was bleeding. I had wiggled too much, and that belt strike had hit me not only on the behind, but also across the backs of my legs. The pain was almost too much to bear. Mom resumed her grip on my mouth.

“A detention, huh? This will teach you to get a detention, you little loser!”

“CRACK, CRACK, CRACK!” After three more strikes with the belt, my stepdad left the room. Mom got up and followed him, leaving me motionless and shaking on the bed. I didn’t dare cry out or leave the room; my survival instincts said to just lie there and hope it was over.

Soon my mom and stepdad reentered their bedroom with two cold, wet washcloths. “Jesus Christ, we left marks,” my stepdad said to my mom. I remained motionless as they almost lovingly covered the welts on my rear end and legs with the cold rags.

Eventually one of them told me to go to bed; then, finally, I was out of that room and away from them. My emotions were running wild; I didn’t know up from down or left from right. Lying on my stomach, I sobbed into my pillow. My legs were on fire and my rear end was numb. I felt betrayed. The night, which I had thought was going to be good, had turned into another night of terror.

I gritted my teeth and bit down on my pillow to avoid screaming out in anger. Then my mind went to Rebecca and how happy she must be at that moment with her family. She was probably getting presents and hugs and kisses while I lay on the bed covered in welts.

“Why does it have to be me?” I sobbed. “What did I do to deserve this?” Then I remembered. “I got a detention.” Immediately I felt deep remorse for hitting Michael. I had made him hurt like I was hurting now. I understood why I’d gotten in trouble and wanted nothing more than to run to Michael’s house and apologize for being so mean.

As I drifted off to sleep, I imagined that the next day was my birthday. I imagined waking up to a French toast and hot cocoa breakfast, and Mom dressing me up and combing my hair. I imagined a room full of friends and family, all there for me, happy for me, and loving me.

“Happy Birthday, Rebecca,” I said quietly. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

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