I had the luck of not one, not two, but three abusive parents to handle growing up. Rest assured, all three had a brand of awfulness that was truly their own, but they also had many qualities in common: deflection, minimizing my problems or needs and letting everyone know how much of a martyr they were for raising such an ungrateful daughter. In the past three years I have cut off contact completely with one of them, seen another about twice a year, and call the other about once a month.
There is a book waiting to be written with many more specific stories but wanted to share some to start. There is research confirming that encountering traumatic environments in which the child cannot speak up due to fear is detrimental to that child’s mental health. Little research has been done to discern the difference between non-traditional families because there are so many types (mine being the step-kind) but imagine that threat at three times the force.
As a child, you are usually unaware of the notion that your parents might not know what’s best. Usually, we are much older when we find that they are fallible people, like everyone else. But my parents weren’t just imperfect. They induced isolation and pain into my life. Pain which planted seeds of distrust.
The first time I understood that something wasn’t right I was about eight. It was the moment when my mother flew with me to Russia and then left me with family I didn’t know without saying goodbye. I was told that it was the stress and exhaustion that made her act so rashly, but even then I didn’t buy it. By her own logic, if our dad loved us, he wouldn’t have left the family. If she left, didn’t that mean she didn’t love the family? Or was it specifically just me?
I learned a clearer truth about my father when seven years later I was reintroduced to him. He came to help move me back to the U.S. He explained himself to be the victim in my kidnapping, as he didn’t know until child services called his home to ask where I was. He seemed kind, and he gave me hugs I never received from my mother. Then I moved in with him. I recall him being upset when my stepmother and I would argue. He would drive me back to my sister’s apartment, talking about how unhappy he was in his life, only to call me two days later and tell me that sometimes people get upset, and we just needed to forgive them for that and move on. Yes, even if knives were thrown in our direction.
There were other constant reminders that I had my place and needed to remember exactly where it was. For example, an odd sibling rivalry which was cultivated by the adults around both us. When I needed a laptop for school, my younger half-sister then received a computer twice the cost the next day. When I asked to take a college-level course, I was told I couldn’t because my sister needed to go to summer camp. I was the one responsible to clean the toilets as part of our chores. To this day, I am in tens of thousands of dollars of debt from college, while my younger sibling is having her entire undergraduate degree paid for, as well as her master’s degree.
Yet still, I was living in this situation and didn’t think anything of it. I just assumed I was not working hard enough.
And how confusing were those emotions when I would hear how important I was to the family, only to be screamed at when I got upset that someone had clearly used my toothbrush. How odd was it that if said how someone made fun of me at school, I would be told that I was too nerdy for anyone to like anyway. That it was important I married someone who would take care of me, but when I was crying because my first boyfriend broke up with me, I was told that it was because I should have known to “put out if I wanted to keep him.”
The event that finally pushed me away came when I bought my first car at twenty-three. My stepmother was upset I bought the car when she had specifically told me I don’t need one. So, she didn’t even come close to look at it. Two days later, I received a call to loan the car to my sibling. I politely said “No” –a word I didn’t know was in my vocabulary at the time. Before she could finish screaming into the phone about how ungrateful I was, I had asked her to never speak to me again.
Whether my situation seems unlikely, odd or not a big deal to you, know that the real decision to cut/reduce communication comes not when you’re mistreated. Not when the mistakes are made. Not when we realize our parents are also fallible human beings. They come once those planted seeds become full grown. Seeds of doubt, mistrust, and pain make for rotten, twisted, thorned trees once we’ve reached adulthood.
It’s the moment when, as a twenty-three-year-old woman, with my own home, a stable, bill-paying job and years of therapy obtained, I approached those I loved about my pain. I showed them the tree and offered to chop it down and plant and care for another one together.
The relationship was lost at the same time I realized that I had forgiven them. Because I knew what I would hear next and did not fault them for it. The fault was mine for going to someone broken, asking to be made whole.
Each in their own unique way, and yet, saying the same things, they explained that I was the cause of all of my own suffering. It was because I only wanted to see the bad in them. I was selfish and always needed their attention and they couldn’t keep up with my demands. All three of them, without knowing the other would also found ways to blame each other. They told me about all the awful things I did as a child to earn this treatment. I once called one of them a “pig” and told another that they should have thought about not being able to clothe me before they had me. I was just too bossy and always wanted things my way. I agreed to disagree.
What they didn’t know, is that I had already planted wonderful, bountiful trees with others. Orchards indeed. Other than these three (or so) people, no one who truly loved me, blood-related or not, had ever expressed that I needed to change my ways on account of just being too stupid to speak with, or too selfish or “too” anything else. People who loved me just loved me.
I also went to apologize to others I had hurt along the way, to seek a way to mend relationships I knew I was responsible for breaking. I worked on taking my own advice. Taking the ax and chopping down those thorny trees to plant new ones. With my parents, I learned to establish boundaries. The harder part is holding myself to them since someone who does not care for your feelings will not care to respect a boundary you have set.
Disconnecting from a person who happens to be a parent is not a common topic for discussion, indeed, it is rather taboo. I have found in this instance there are rather dramatic camps of opinions. The first says if you have a toxic parent, you should cut them from your life with no shame. The other camp is positive that forgiveness is the only way to go, and that it’s possible to change others through kindness. The idea that you can change someone whom you wish to have loved you the way you love them has a strong pull, I get it.
You may not yet believe your needs are important enough because the most important people never advised you were, but I am here to tell you, you are. You don’t need to believe me either, I just know it.