Trigger warning: child abuse
“Happy Birthday,” read the subject line. I clicked on the email. The same two words were repeated in the body. “Happy Birthday.” Nothing else. It stung more than if there had been no email.
It’s been six years since I spoke to my mama. Every September, I remember.
I love my mama. Every time I think of her, which continues to be often, I send her love and wish her peace. I truly hope she finds peace. I also believe that she loves me and that she has always done her very best. My mama has an undiagnosed and untreated range of mental illnesses. Her actions are steeped in trauma and wounding. And she has been unwilling to ask for or to receive help.
She was young, 21, when she had me. Crazily in love with a short, cocky Italian fuckboy, she wanted to have his baby. So she did. He didn’t care. He told her so. She did it anyway.
One of my earliest memories is toddling in line while a soft, round Spanish woman ladled milky porridge into bowls and asking for mas azucar (more sugar). She laughed at me with sweetness and warmth and gave me more. I must have been around 18 months. We were living in Tenerife on the Canary Islands and I spent the evening hours in night-care while my mama sold roses to the tourists and my papa sold weed.
My next earliest memory is in a small apartment in Salzburg, Austria, my birthplace. I want my mama to play with my big, blue ‘80s-style rotary dial telephone with me. But she’s crying. She’s always crying. She doesn’t have time for me because she’s too sad.
Looking back, I realize that she most likely had anxiety and depression for as long as I remember. She was always stressed, anxious, worried, crying. I imagine she didn’t have enough support or help and she was scared.
When I was six, she married a man 25 years her senior. I think she married him for safety and security. He verbally and emotionally abused me for the entirety of their eight-year marriage. In all the classic ways: constant insults and attempts to humiliate me, frequently yelling and screaming at me, blaming me and making me feel guilty for everything, acting nice in front of others but then saying the most hateful things to me as soon as their backs were turned.
She did nothing to stop it. “I did it to protect you!” she said. Silence is compliance, I say. During that time, she bore two more children and suffered a mental breakdown I’m not sure she ever truly recovered from.
I forgave her. She was doing the best she could. Plus, she’s my mama.
But then I recognized something else.
The abuse didn’t stop. It just changed hands. There were erratic mood swings and strange, inconsistent behavior. There were days where she was so loving and kind. She really wanted to be a good mother. There were days where hate and anger poured out of her—she would palpably vibrate with it. It was like something evil possessed her.
When I was with her, my world was so confusing. She didn’t make any sense. I never knew what mood I would find her in or how she would react to the simplest things. Any question might set off a day of hostility or violent words for no clear reason. I had to tiptoe around her and her ever-changing moods, never safe, always with a constant sense of threat.
I accepted it all. It was all I knew. I thought it was normal. It took me years to unlearn the persistent tension in my body from the sounds of voices yelling, car doors closing with a bang, hard angry footsteps, or any footsteps, walking towards my room.
I stayed with friends and family often and then left home as soon as possible. The first time I was 16. But I kept coming back.
Like an addict seeking that next hit, I returned over and over again, thinking that if only I was good enough, if only I loved her enough, if only I could do what she wanted, maybe I could help her. If I was better, things would be better. Maybe we could have the kind of relationship I had always wanted.
Across the next 17 years, I came back and tried to heal our relationship many times. The last time was 6 years ago.
It was 2014. I was in the first year of my business and struggling financially as I invested all of myself into making this infantile dream real. I had grown so much, I thought. If I stayed centered in my heart and open and loved her through all her ups and downs, maybe things would change.
We had a few ignorantly blissful days to begin with. The magic three days, I called them. It was always good for up to three days. And then it was not.
I tried to stay open. I wanted to be good. I had forgiven her so many times already. I just wanted to love her. But as the days and weeks passed and violent, aggressive words sprayed out of her mouth, I shut down. My heart hardened. I stopped speaking openly. I never reacted. I just became silent, as I always did. It was not safe. Silence is my sanctuary.
A long time ago, I learned a very effective coping mechanism: forgetfulness. I can’t remember everything that happened. I wrote all the stories in my journal. So I would remember. But I burned that journal, as I always have with my others. What I do remember are tiny snippets.
I remember standing in the kitchen, leaning on one leg with my left hand on my left hip. She suddenly turned and screamed at me that my stance was an attack on her. I remember being bewildered and sad and turning away.
I remember her creeping past my door listening to my telephone conversations and then bitterly accusing me of calling her a bitch to my friends on my phone calls. I never spoke of her to my friends. I was too embarrassed to tell them about her. She must have misheard me.
I remember her neighbours looking at me with pity when they learned that I was her daughter. I wondered what they said or knew about her.
I remember sometimes watching her scream at me for unexplained reasons and seeing something that looked like the ugly skull of a demon extending out of her face as she poured her rage out at me. I don’t know if it was real or if it was a way that my subconscious tried to make sense of something that didn’t.
And then one day, I gave up.
After three days of helping her landscape her garden, she screamed at me when I didn’t help her cut down branches from some trees that belonged to the local council land appending her lawn.
“No matter what you say or do, I will always love you,” I said. “But you can’t treat me like this.” She muttered something violently with hostility on her face. I turned, packed my bag, and left. That was six years ago in September. We haven’t spoken since.
I promised myself that that was the last time. I couldn’t keep repeating the pattern. It was insanity to keep trying. I had to stop. I had to let go.
It took me two years to grieve the end of my relationship with my mama and countless hours across a wide range of modalities to heal. I had to learn how to reparent myself. I had to learn how to have healthy boundaries. I had to learn to feel safe.
When I first started going to therapy in my early 20s while studying for my psychology degree, the therapist told me that sometimes people have children to try and meet their own needs for love and make that child responsible for their sense of meaning and purpose. I never forgot that statement.
Every year she sends me an email for my birthday. “Happy birthday,” it reads. Nothing else.