My Monster, My Mother and Me: Trauma’s Impact on Chronic Illness
WARNING: This article delves into abuse in its many forms. People who’ve experienced trauma, especially those who’ve been abused, may have a hard time with this content. As for young readers, I suggest they read this when a trusted adult is available to discuss these issues further. That’s crucial to ensuring they’re able to fully understand and address such a serious topic. Finally, I hope anyone reading this will reach out for assistance if this is upsetting and/or triggering.
Before I begin, I must also admit something. While I’ve been a patient advocate for over a decade, openly discussing what it’s like to live with chronic illness and pain, I made a conscious choice not to discuss my childhood before now. It’s not because I feel that what happened to me is irrelevant to my overall health. Honestly, it’s because I’ve seen how things can change when people find out you have a past like mine. It can color the way they see and even treat you.
People have already judged me because I am chronically ill and am in pain as a result. I’m not a liar or an attention-seeker, nor am I crazy. I’d never fake an illness to obtain any substance either. Still, I lost far too many of the people closest to me merely because I was ill. Being abandoned by loved ones is devastating for any reason, but it hurts much more when you’ve done nothing wrong. I didn’t want to lose anyone else because my past was just as hard for them to take as my being ill had been.
Another reason I hesitated to discuss this sooner is the fact that science is now tying trauma to illness. There’s more emphasis on ACEs – Adverse Childhood Experiences. In the right hands, understanding a patient’s early trauma can be a powerful part of their healthcare. It provides doctors with the means to assist patients, reducing the chances they’ll end up with a serious, life-altering illness or help those who are already ill have better outcomes. Disease prevention is especially successful if ACEs are uncovered early on. However, there’s a major downside. That same ACE Questionnaire is now a staple of pain management programs. It’s used to assess the likelihood of addiction in people with chronic and intractable pain. I’m concerned that instead of helping people, in this environment, the data may prevent patients from certain types of treatment, specifically prescription pain medication. For many, this is a life sustaining aspect of their care, one of many tools that have given people their lives back. Denying anyone a treatment option that’s been successful to them for any length of time is criminal! This has to be said.
Addiction is an all too serious problem, believe me, I know. Many people drink to excess or abuse drugs as a means of escape. For others, ACEs or not, that’s just not who they are. Fortunately, I had early coping skills that I instinctively used to deal with what I was going through. I also had an excellent role model in my life, one who allowed me to escape abuse in the healthiest of ways. My grandmother, who’s now 90, taught me valuable skills: cooking, baking, gardening, sewing and the importance of being healthy. In short, my gran is my hero.
My childhood wasn’t what any child deserves. That’s true. As a result, I scored 9 out of 10 on this inventory; 10 if you consider jail/prison the same thing. My health has been seriously impacted by my family. Dealing with the past head-on has made a huge difference in the present. After leaving both my parents behind for good a few years ago, I’ve been able to have an even more “normal” life. My point: ACEs definitely do matter, but they don’t an addict make!
It’s time we stopped judging people whose lives we don’t completely understand. Don’t you think? The #MeToo Movement changed things in a big way, allowing people to open up like they never have before. The bigger work is to just be there for each other through whatever challenges we may face. If there was ever a time to just believe in, support and help each other, that time is now. Each of us needs that, no matter our differences.
So if you’re a friend or family member of someone who lives with chronic illness and/or who has suffered trauma, please understand what that person wants most from you: For you to say you still care about them just as you did before they dropped their bombshell(s); that you understand what they’ve gone through/continue to go through can be impossibly hard; but above all, that you BELIEVE them. That’s it, pretty simple.
It’s my greatest hope that after reading this, people will be open-minded, realizing that the majority of us have lived through some degree of trauma. The damage done doesn’t magically go away when traumatic events end. I continue carrying some of what happened with me. That’s what trauma does. While there’s no doubt I’ve been deeply impacted by my childhood, it does not define me. It doesn’t define any of us. We are so much more than our scars.
Growing up on a tree-lined street in Orange County, California sounds pretty idyllic to most. My childhood may have looked pretty great from the outside, but inside my home was a different story. A sadistic savage lived there. To blend in with normal people, he wore a shroud of self-deprecating humor and Southern charm, fooling most around him. Everything about that thing seemed just like everybody else, providing you didn’t get too long a look.
When I was five, I realized things in my home weren’t normal. That year, a family moved into the vacant place across the cul-de-sac. The next day, the new girl, Kirsten, was playing on her porch. She invited me over. Then Mrs. Lindt came outside and said she’d hoped her daughter would find a new friend, and there I was. Kirsten’s dad followed minutes later with lemonade. Although he explained that he needed to start dinner, Mr. Lindt wanted to know how I liked living here. In a voice barely above a whisper, I said it was alright. He smiled. Kirsten’s parents weren’t at all scary, and they actually listened when I spoke to them. Spending just a short time with them, I felt the difference. Their lives weren’t filled with uncertainty at every turn. Instead, their house seemed to be filled with love. Kirsten’s parents were so nice that my shyness melted away. Talking and laughing with them was natural, so easy.
Then Mr. Lindt asked, “What about your parents? What do they do?” My reality snapped back into focus. His question made me nervous, so I told a big fat fib. “I was hatched from an egg,” I said. He immediately started to chuckle. “Oh, you’re a funny girl, Heather. That’s a good one!” he said. Then Mr. Lindt excused himself, saying he’d better get back to the kitchen before two hungry ladies got upset with him.
When I got home, I was overcome by sadness. Even early on, somehow I knew I was living a lie. Eyeing the two houses that stood across from each other, Kirsten’s looked a lot like mine. Yet the two of us lived in different worlds. My parents weren’t my favorite topic for good reason. They were chaos personified.
Mom was quite the escape artist. She often turned inward, doing whatever made her momentarily happy while forgetting about the responsibilities she had. That’s when her two small children were left to their own devices. Mom was the “stand by your man” type. She loved my father far too much to ever want to walk away. As devastating as it is to face what I now know to be true, she wordlessly went along with whatever he wanted, was complicit in his every act. Mastering make-believe served her well most of the time. She’d stuff every emotion down until inevitably, they’d boil over. When her temper flared, it could be terrifying. She sometimes took her feelings out on me, but it was worse when Mom erupted at my father. When she pushed beyond the limits of what pretending would allow, Mom threw things at him, but only when he was quite drunk.
Deliberately dancing right up to the edge the way she did seemed crazy to me. Yet when the despicable things my father did added up, Mom became as volatile as a pressure cooker about to blow. Hurling heavy leaded glass ashtrays close to his head seemed to soothe her more than anything else. After a deafening crash, shards of glass splintered across the living room. Each time was more unnerving. Knowing that her aim wasn’t great, I worried she’d eventually kill him. Maybe she hoped for such an “accident,” I’m not sure. Even if it provided my mother an emotional release, it didn’t seem worth the risk. Afterward, she’d inevitably grab the broom and dustpan, then cry while cleaning up another of her messes.
While Mom could be a mixed bag, my father was more monster than man. Although he hid his heartlessness from most, his family regularly saw the ugliness that was the man behind the mask. Long before I was able to reconcile the full extent of things, I knew my father to be a bad man. He smoked like a chimney, up to 4 packs a day. Cigarette smoke permeated every inch of the house, including invading all of our lungs, even after my little brother, Matt, was diagnosed with asthma. My father also drank whenever he wasn’t working. At first, liquor amplified his contemptible qualities. Over time, he became a sloshed psychopath. Fists flew indiscriminately, even in public a few times. His family saw the worst of it, however.
My father’s sense of humor was appallingly dark, as was most everything about him. In “the right company,” he told and retold bigoted stories. One of his favorites: what he believed to be a legendary firing. He’d asked for a raise. When his Asian boss said no, he screamed “you f*cking [censored slur—I can’t write that]” to his face, and was let go on the spot. As he told his twisted tales, a snide snicker accompanied them. My father wasn’t just proud of his actions; it was clear that he saw himself as superior to those least like him. Things like this made me realize that the right path, where I wanted to walk, was as far from him as possible.
As if abject racism weren’t enough, he was cold and cruel for fun, toying with people merely because he could. The man had a knack for knowing exactly which vile words would destroy any target. Out of nowhere he’d tear into strangers, saying terrible things about them. Some were said loudly enough to be heard, yet soft enough to pretend he didn’t realize his words wounded them. Other times, he was content just to have an audience as he attacked people. Either way, I detested every moment of it.
Then there’s the way he objectified those he saw as his for the taking, whether women or young girls. I wasn’t privy to most of that, but from a distance he’d stare at his latest victim while saying repulsive things about her. Worse things were said about her body. He spoke this way with friends; those who lived at the same sub-human level where he resided. He even shared these things with my baby brother sometimes. It began when Matt was just a boy, but I didn’t know about it until we were older. It was clear my father saw anyone outside his gender as lesser than, Mom most of all. His marriage had no real meaning to him. Chasing women was also routine.
Looking back, I know my father lacked the moral compass meant to guide him. It was more than a lack of character or principles though. His savagery knew no bounds, even when children or animals were involved.
My cousin, Dylan, got a glimpse of who his favorite uncle really was when he came to visit one summer. He’d never been to California before. So when he begged to join our grandmother on a week-long stay with us, my aunt and uncle caved. Somehow Nana Lottie never saw my father as anything but her perfect angel of a son. So her being in our home never concerned me. Dylan was a different story. Despite being nearly as tall as most adults, he was still just a kid. I didn’t want him to be subjected to the viciousness I’d become all too acquainted with. Never knowing what my father might do meant anything was possible. A week was way too long a time to expect him to play nice.
On the day Dylan arrived, he witnessed my father’s cold-blooded brutality as he furiously flung a sweet, unsuspecting dog against a wall. My brother, Matt, and I looked on in horror as he hurled our furry new friend in the direction of the door. The poor little guy screeched as he hit the tile, scrambling outside as fast as he could. My cousin was devastated. As he headed after the dog, Dylan shouted “You did that on purpose!” His voice shuddered as he spoke. My father insisted that it’d jumped from his arms – unwilling to admit he’d done anything wrong, same as always.
The day before as Matt and I approached the soccer field of our nearby elementary school, a tan fluffball had bounded toward us, tail at full wag. We realized nobody was around. Matty decided our little lost pal should be called Taffy, at least temporarily. Not knowing how long he’d been alone, we headed to the closest drinking fountain, figuring Taffy must be thirsty. As Matt turned it on, I prepped to catch water in my cupped hands for him. Instead, Taffy leapt up, putting his paws on either side of the wide basin, gratefully lapping up water. To my surprise, he even joined Matt on the tall, twisty slide. That dog enjoyed the playground as if he went to school there too!
By nightfall, no one had come looking for “Taffy, The Wonder Dog” – his full name as far as Matty was concerned. We worried about him staying at the school on his own, just off a busy street. Back-to-back Little League games the next day also meant cars filling the parking area beyond the soccer field and the school’s regular lot too. I reminded my brother that Taffy wasn’t exactly safer with us. Matt insisted we sneak him home for the night, believing it’d be fine this once. The next day, we planned to pepper the area with “Dog Found” signs.
Back home, our harsh home life dashed the high hopes we’d had. Again. Our plot had been uncovered, and poor Taffy paid the price. Whenever I think about him, I inevitably well up with tears. I hope Taffy was truly taken to the pound like our father said when he drove off with the dog. I can’t bear to think that instead of getting a chance to find his family, that sweet, smart boy might’ve met some ungodly fate. The incident didn’t just scar poor Dylan. It also forever colored an otherwise happy memory for my brother and I. When I asked Matt what he thought the next day, even he felt that Taffy was taken away because we loved him too much. He was probably right. Our father never liked anybody getting between him and his son. After all, Matt was the one person he seemed to sort of like.
This was one of many things that traumatized my early years. Without realizing it, I was transforming from an average kid into a tiny soldier in a war nobody knew was being waged. It wasn’t what I wanted. Yet I found myself foregoing time with friends in favor of keeping watch more and more. I knew Mom and Matt weren’t strong enough, so I felt that I had to protect them. In truth, I wasn’t nearly as strong as I believed. Unable to cope with how bad things actually got, my brain began zapping select incidents from my conscious mind. Many things proved to be too much. I just didn’t know it at the time.
Even good things seemed too easily twisted. One morning, Mom announced that Matt and I could each have anything we wanted under $20. The money was a gift from our grandparents for getting good grades. My brother immediately shouted out the toy he wanted. I took time to think on it. Sure, there were plenty of cool things I wanted too. Instead, that afternoon, I told Mom I wanted a lock for my bedroom door. She said I was just being silly, that I should pick something I actually wanted.
I said, “That’s what I need, Mom.”
My words hit her like a punch in the gut. Mom’s face said, “Oh no. You see how bad things are, don’t you?”
I didn’t know what to say to make it better. Then Matt chimed in: “Me too! I want one, just like Heather.”
Mom laughed. “No… you don’t want a lock,” she said. “You’ll be disappointed. You want that toy, don’t you?”
Matt looked at me as if to say, “Do I want that toy, or not?” I glanced at Mom. Realizing she’d gone back to making dinner, I looked at Matt and shook my head NO.
He sighed, then stared at the ground. I moved in close and whispered, “I’ll let you have one of my toys, ok?” Matty started jumping up and down excitedly as 5-year-olds do, yelling: “We want locks! We want locks!”
At seven, I knew my brother needed that lock as much as I did, even if Mom pretended it wasn’t true.
Not long after the locks were installed, I sat alone in my room one evening, door locked from the inside. My bedroom became a safe haven. I went there to write in my diary or draw. Before it was given the name, the coping mechanism I relied on most was narrative therapy.
However, this time was anything but therapeutic. I was worried. For once, it wasn’t because of something going on outside my door. I stared at my notebook, knowing the rough sketch before me had been drawn by my hand. It was obviously a representation of my father. Still, I could not recall creating it. Nor could I understand what it meant. I’d been in my room for 30 minutes or more, but that time was just blank. My grim ghoulish drawing haunted me for years.
Long before I was able to accept the depths of my father’s depravity, little glimpses bled through the thin veil that preserved my sanity. I’d immediately torn the picture from my notebook. Then I ripped it to pieces and discarded the bits of beast in a trashcan down the block. Yet there was no escaping it. That frightening image was burnt into my memory. I kept wondering, “What was that? What did it mean?” For the first time, I consciously saw my monster, even if the reason I’d drawn it was immediately erased. My drawing momentarily betrayed a secret my mind was intent on keeping: That my father was far worse than even I could comprehend.
While some people caught tiny glimpses of his unconscionably cruel side, his most merciless acts occurred away from prying eyes. My father often played “divide and conquer” with my brother and me. He kept us from playing together. We were easier to attack that way.
He’d also take whatever he wanted from my mother whenever he chose to. It didn’t matter what she wanted. He didn’t even care if his children were present. When that happened, Matt and I both froze. We knew the repercussions would be worse if we tried to walk away.
When he was blind drunk, we were all in grave danger. Often I bore the brunt, stepping into his path as he ran after my fleeing mother or brother. We all hid bruises and scrapes from the wars he waged over perceived misdeeds… the remote he couldn’t find, the lighter he’d kicked under the couch while in a stupor, anything really. His viciousness was like a bomb, only needing a simple excuse to go off. He saw his family as both property and prey.
Stone cold sobriety didn’t make him any less vicious. His favorite sport seemed to be verbally assaulting me. The objective: to illicit fear. He’d catch me innocently watching cartoons and whisper “whore” and other awful names as he walked by. My father seemed to delight in it all the more when Mom was mere feet away. On those days, he’d take several passes. Each time, through gritted teeth, he attacked with words I rarely grasped. The context was enough to send the message: he wanted to break me. I caught on early enough that I refused to engage. After a minute or two, I’d get up and walk to my room, feigning ignorance the whole way. Once I’d closed the door, tears streaming down my face, I vowed: He might make me cry, but he’ll never see my tears.
Looking back, I think he saw these dehumanizing attacks as an effective silencer. My father believed he was keeping me quiet about the darkest of his deeds. In reality, it was his sadistic streak that forced me into surveillance mode. Knowing he could and would harm anyone at any time meant nowhere was safe, especially not in the still silence as we slept. As I slumbered, somehow I was still always on alert. My senses were razor sharp, noting every pre-sunrise sound. Even when our German Shepherd lapped water out of the dish under my window, I knew it. If I had to, I’d take the necessary steps to stop him from hurting them, no matter the hour.
Many nights, I overheard horrible things going on in the room my parents shared across the hall. Somehow, I knew most of these incidents had to be ignored. “Please stop, you’re hurting me!” said in a whisper wasn’t enough for me to act. So I just kept hoping it wouldn’t get worse. On those nights, I curled into a ball in the corner furthest from my door, silently sobbing into a pillow. She’d get slammed against furniture, sometimes hit, and other times God only knows what was being done to her. I couldn’t stop any of that. Somehow I reflexively knew where the line was, and that I could only intervene when it mattered. Otherwise, I’d only be making it worse for her and all of us. I told myself night after night: If Mom needs me, I’ll know.
When she finally did, I was terrified. My heart thumped in my chest, knowing this was the worst it’d ever been. She was sobbing and begging him to leave her alone, first quietly, then louder and louder. He just kept getting more angry, more violent. By that point, I was pacing in front of their doors: the one to their bedroom, and the other to the adjoining bathroom. I tried to decide what to do. Finally, I reached out and soundlessly grabbed the bathroom doorknob.
As I was about to slowly open the door, I heard him hit her hard. My mother was knocked to the ground with a loud thud. I twisted the knob, thanking God it was unlocked. As I opened the bathroom door slightly, I wasn’t prepared for what I saw. My mother lay before me on the cold tile, stunned by how badly he’d hurt her. She moved finally, moaning as she turned toward me, curling into a ball. That’s when I saw that she was bleeding profusely from her nose. She didn’t seem to see me. That’s how bad it was.
In that moment, the fear just left me. I squeezed into the bathroom and stepped over her, then peered into the darkness at my father. Having already turned out the light, he was just about to lay down to go to sleep. I said in a calm yet determined voice: “Get out of here now or I’ll kill you myself.”
He looked shocked, but didn’t say a word. Then I watched my father open the bedroom door and walk out of it. I just stared coldly at him as he left. My father had to know that I meant what I said, even if I was just ten years old. I watched as he slowly walked down the hall, and turned to head toward the front door. He must’ve decided he didn’t have to listen to me, because he headed back in my direction instead. I just kept glaring at him as he approached me in the hall. I was standing in his way, and had no intention of moving. It didn’t matter what happened next, I’d decided he wasn’t getting near Mom again.
That monster stopped right in front of me and said, “This is my damn house.” He wasn’t shouting or trying to attack me as I expected, his voice was low. It was as if for the first time, my father was unnerved by me. I don’t think he ever saw this coming.
“I don’t care,” I said firmly. “Get out. Now.”
For once, he wasn’t sure throttling me would be the best solution. Instead, he tried to shove me out of the way. I pushed back with all that I had, and then jumped on top of him.
I was the one yelling now: “Get out! You can’t be here. Go!”
He was still trying to maneuver toward the bedroom. It surprised me that my father had no intention of going anywhere near the bathroom where Mom was still lying on the floor. She was all I was thinking about as I continued trying to make him leave. His only thoughts seemed to be of getting some sleep.
As my father inched closer to the bedroom door, I was determined to prevent him from getting through it. I had my left arm around his neck so I wouldn’t be easily flung off him. With the other arm, I was hitting his shoulders and back as hard as I could. It wasn’t very hard apparently. I kept him from getting back into the room, but it was a stalemate otherwise. He still wasn’t leaving, even as I continued to hit him, yelling for him to leave.
I hadn’t realized that my little brother had gotten out of bed until I heard him yell: “Go! You have to go!”
Before I knew it, Matt had managed to climb on the mountain I’d been trying to move, attacking right alongside me. The two of us punching and yelling was enough to make our father finally admit defeat.
He said, “Ok, I’ll go. Just get off.”
We both scrambled off and away from him. I stood before my father, staring at him with a fiery fury. It was the strangest thing, but he looked a little afraid of me.
“I’m going to come back tonight,” he said. It didn’t feel like he was telling me how it was going to be, as much as ensuring I’d allow it without any trouble.
I didn’t say anything, but I moved to the side keeping my arm in front of Matt to keep my father from getting too close, unsure whether either of us were safe there. He just walked past both of us. Then Matt and I followed him all the way to the front door.
Immediately after he stepped outside, I threw both the lock and deadbolt. That set him off. From outside, he snarled: “You better not try this again, you little bitch! You’ll be sorry.”
Quietly, but loud enough that I suspect he could hear me I said, “We’ll see.”
Then I shot down the hallway as Matt followed. I had to check on Mom. She was a mess. Although she’d moved and was sitting up against the wall now, she was not fully aware of us. We watched as she kept pulling tissue off the roll and swiping at the pool of blood on the floor. She was crying hard, but not saying anything. We stood there wordlessly watching her. I don’t think either of us knew what to say. Once she’d cleaned up the tile, she stuffed tissue up both her nostrils to finally stop the bleeding. Then Mom held onto the wall as she slowly got up off the floor. She was hurting, that was clear to me.
The magnitude of what happened finally set in for her. It was obvious by the way her demeanor changed. My mother was panic-stricken. She walked quickly to the front door and looked through the peep hole. Next she peered out each of the windows. Trying to figure out if he was really gone or out there in the darkness seemed to amplify her anxiety.
It was nearly 2am. I didn’t think he’d try coming back. Mom was clearly worried that he would. She looked at me, sighed, and slid the chain lock across the door finally. Then she said, “You shouldn’t have done that.”
I wasn’t going to argue. I’d done the right thing and I knew it. She did too, even if she was scared out of her mind.
Mom checked the door and all the windows again. She was working herself up, bad. She started to breathe harder, and was trembling now. Then she collapsed onto the floor a few feet from the door, and started to cry.
“Are you hurt, Mom?” my brother asked.
“It’ll be ok,” was all she could manage.
I was sure her nose was broken, but I didn’t say anything. It only would’ve made her more upset.
She started rocking, saying over and over, “It’ll be ok, it’ll be ok. We’ll be fine.” It was like she was trying to convince herself and us too.
This wasn’t the first time I’d heard my mother say these things. After particularly bad nights, this was her routine after he took off to work in the morning. A stark reality hit me. Nothing had changed. Nothing was going to change.
Mom motioned for us to come over and sit with her. She grabbed us both and held us tightly, as she rocked. Then came the empty promises, right on cue…“It’s going to be better, you’ll see. We’ll be a family again. It’ll all be ok.”
In my head, I believed she was promising to leave him, something I knew she wasn’t prepared to do. I learned years later that my poor brother always thought she meant that we’d find a way to fix things, the four of us. So sadly, he kept waiting and hoping for that to happen. I knew no matter how many times she said it, nothing would change in that house with that man.
Like clockwork, when 5:30pm rolled around, my father walked through the door. He shot me a dirty look and stomped down the hall, my mother right behind him. Once they were inside their bedroom, I was on watch yet again. He started yelling after a minute, and she was telling him that it would never happen again. She knows it’s his house… and on and on like that. Taking responsibility for it. Apologizing profusely.
I felt sick. Everything about the way we lived made me feel sick, but this was worse. He already controlled everything he could in every possible way. Mom coped by ignoring it all, opting instead to pretend everything was fine. Matt kept hoping things would get better, just like he’d been told so many times before. Meanwhile, I felt stuck. I detested my secret-filled hellscape. Particularly given my age, I was all too aware of how awful it was living there.
It was warped, the lot of it. It didn’t make sense to me from any angle. My mother could’ve left my father, and should’ve. The three of us could’ve moved in with her parents. Sure, it would’ve been far from ideal living with my grandparents, but they loved us. I knew they’d welcome us in. The problem was that Mom didn’t really want to leave. She was too used to being told what to do, and being punished for doing it even a hair less than perfect. Worse, she loved him. She didn’t know anything else, having married my father two short weeks out of high school.
That one horrific night fundamentally changed me. Despite the fear that he still inspired in all of us, I began to long for the safety we deserved. So I started wishing for the most peaceful end possible to our predicament that I could envision. Even so, my own thoughts scared me. Anytime that man was even a little late getting home, I found myself hoping there’d been an accident, that he’d crashed into a tree and wouldn’t be coming back. Because I knew my father often drove drunk, I found myself hoping he’d hit a tree even if he wasn’t late – that he’d just hit a damned tree and not hurt anyone but himself anymore. It seemed like a fair way for it to end. At the same time, I was disgusted with myself for having dreamt up something so terrible.
Over the next seven years, things became progressively more violent. We were being terrorized far too regularly, and it became too much to bear. Mom told him it was over.
I’d like to say this happened because my mother had finally found her strength, the backbone that he’d all but stolen from her. Unfortunately, that wasn’t it. He’d become such an alcohol-fueled aggressor that he’d embarrassed her in front of friends more than once. So Mom was talked into a restraining order.
Soon after, he tried to come back anyway. Before she was due home from work, my father began by breaking a window at the back of the house. Nobody was home, and because the window wasn’t visible from the street, he thought he’d won. It was too small, so he couldn’t get in after all. By the time I arrived home, I saw the police pulling up. Apparently, when the window strategy had failed, he’d rammed against the front door until it had splintered. Then he triumphantly walked inside.
Thankfully, Mom had seen this as she was nearing the driveway. She’d just gotten home from her new job, the first she’d had since Matt and I were tiny. Instead of pulling in, she headed down the block and called the cops from a neighbor’s house. When he was led away, the look on his face said it all. My father knew she’d been convinced to file the restraining order, so he never thought she’d actually enforce it. When she did, and he spent a few nights in jail, everything changed… exactly the way I thought it would go if she’d ever taken a stand.
The thing nobody seemed to see other than me was that, yet again, my mother was just doing what she had to do. People on our block saw what my father was doing, busting in the front door. Mom had no choice but to call the police. My father had forced her hand by being so publicly volatile, scaring the neighbors.
The craziness I’d lived with for 17 years disappeared overnight. My home was suddenly a much more peaceful place. A few months after my father was forced to leave what he’d always called his damn house, I would learn something I’d repressed for a very long time. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. For the first time in my life, I actually felt safe day to day. Unfortunately for me, I’d learn something devastating about my childhood in a very public place.
In psychology class one afternoon during my senior year of high school, one of my favorite teachers was delving into a difficult topic: molestation. Mr. Thomas had this fatherly quality, yet at the same time he was cool. It was obvious by the way he spoke about him that Mr. Thomas had a close relationship with his son too. To top it off, he was great at his job. His lectures were interesting, probably because psychology was a profession that he enjoyed. My instructor spoke in the gentle way he had, describing the most pervasive form of pedophilia. He said when parents harmed their young children, it inevitably impacted their lives far beyond their formative years.
Without warning, tears began to silently stream down my face. I was shaky, having absolutely no idea what the hell was happening to me. I loved that class, it fascinated me… and yet, I suddenly felt this surge of electricity that said: RUN!
So I did.
Being in the front row at the middle of the room meant my departure wouldn’t go unnoticed. So I stowed my book in my bag, then just bolted. Leaving class wouldn’t cut it. I then headed toward my car. Trying to leave campus would’ve gotten most people caught, but I possessed the only permanent off-campus pass, a perk of being the paper’s editor in chief. I flashed my pass at the gate then sped toward home and my safe haven, my room.
Once there, I reflexively closed then locked my bedroom door for the first time in forever. I reflected on what had happened in Mr. Thomas’ class. I wondered: Why did this have to happen at school? How many times was I harmed? Where? When? It was overwhelming.
It wasn’t long before my brother got home. Soon after, my boyfriend Jason arrived. When I didn’t come out to see him, Matt yelled down the hallway that I should get my lazy butt up or Jason might leave. I opened my door a few inches and peered out. Neither of them saw me. Matt eventually walked down the hall to figure out what was going on.
“What’s the deal, yo?” he asked.
“Make him leave.” I said firmly.
Matt looked confused. “What? Why?” he asked. A bunch of friends often hung out after school, and Matt knew they’d be there any minute.
“Just do it, Bro,” I said with a sigh.
Matt knew something was off, so he did as I asked. I heard him say, “I dunno, dude, she’s sick or something.”
After Jason left, my brother came back to my room. “Are you ok?” he asked.
“Nooooo, not so much,” I said, looking down at my feet. I was trying to make light of the madness that was going on in my head at that moment. I wasn’t succeeding.
“What’s up? You sick?” Matt asked, sitting down on my bed.
“No, it’s not anything like that…” I trailed off, not knowing how to explain. I ended up telling him exactly what had happened, and how I’d just ran away.
“Whoa,” was all he could muster.
“Yeah,” I said, finally realizing how serious the situation truly was. “Besides, well, you know… I actually just ditched class. I’ve never done that before!”
“No, you didn’t ditch, Heather. Not really,” Matt said. His eyes showed a level of concern I’d rarely seen in him. He wasn’t typically the serious one between the two of us.
“But… what do I even say? How do I go back there?” I asked, tears filling the corners of my eyes.
“If you don’t want to, you probably don’t have to go back to that class. Don’t you have more credits than you need to graduate?” he asked.
“Dropping one class won’t fix this, Matt. I’ve made a giant mess for myself. Everyone knows. Everyone!” I shouted, flopping down on my bed next to him, hiding my face in the pillows.
“F*ck em,” he said.
It was a very Matt answer. Too bad I wasn’t as cavalier about things as he managed to be. The thing is, he meant it. I could tell when I looked up at him. So, I started to cry.
“I think some really bad things happened, Matt. It’s like I can feel it, but I still don’t remember. Do you think anything like that happened? Did anything seem wrong… make you wonder?” I asked. “I hate this!”
“It sucks… but, I don’t know. I don’t remember anything like that. But hey, you’ll be ok, Bro” he said, patting my back. As he stood up, he asked: “Pizza? If you want some, I’m buying.”
“Sure, I guess.” I answered.
He was about to leave the room, when I stopped him. “Matt, wait…”
“I’m not letting any of those idiots in, don’t worry,” he said with a smile.
“Hey! They’re my friends!” I snapped back at him, smiling too.
Somehow, Matty seemed to lighten the mood more and more as time went on. I think that’s who he had to become to manage how difficult it was for him, being in the middle of all that madness. He helped keep me from going off the deep end, with all the pressure of being the only “adult” in the house most of the time too. I became intensely serious once things got bad there, which happened long before my monster departed for good.
Fortunately, the security I finally felt allowed me to begin to address how impossibly hard my early life had really been. Buried pieces of my past have come back to me ever since. They just spill out sometimes. Friends and family who were around back then have helped me make sense of some things. Their memories help me fill in the missing bits of my own.
Occasionally I’m still startled awake because I hear screaming. To my dismay, I quickly realize that the screams were actually coming from me. Night terrors are a difficult part of this. The only difference is, sometimes my vivid dreams are actually memories. Accepting that I’m going to have a terrible nightmare from time to time has made them easier to deal with. Some dreams I remember, others I don’t. Even now, my mind protects me from some of what I experienced. I know it has to, so I’m thankful for that.
Eventually it occurred to me that through it all, I’d been coping by making myself into the polar opposite of my father. I think that’s why my hoping that he’d crash into a tree was so troubling. He hurt people without a second thought. So I’d never harm anyone like he did, not by a long shot. He was a drunk, so I wouldn’t be. In fact, I’d never use any substance to escape reality. He had secrets piled up around him like a fortress, which made them wholly unacceptable to me. Lies were worse. I’d never permit either in my life, whether my own or someone else’s. To me, my father’s biggest offense had always been his callousness. He just didn’t give a damn about anyone but himself. While I knew that I was never like him in that regard, I decided it was important to never lose my kindness, even in the heat of the moment when I was angry. If I say something terrible, I always apologize as soon as possible, trying to make it right. That’s something he never did.
Years later, I’d also understand that many of my actions were motivated by my drive to ensure my own safety. Coping comes in many forms. I had always been the one looking out for everyone else. It started with my immediate family, but it didn’t stop there. At a certain point, I realized that much of the time there was nobody looking out for me. I began doubting that anyone would ever make me feel truly safe. Trust can feel impossible when you’ve been seriously harmed by people that are supposed to protect you. If they rob you of the safety they’re meant to provide, how do you regain that?
It’s rough knowing what a long shadow my past truly casts. Sometimes it feels like that shadow is a sign that the monster never completely left. To say I’m fine, that I’ve put the past behind me after all that I’ve been through, well… that would be a lie. Dealing with trauma is most certainly a process. And that’s okay. It’s better than sweeping everything under the rug, because that doesn’t magically make anything better. Thankfully, I’ve been in therapy. I ended up getting a degree in psychology too. Both have been incredibly beneficial.
As hard as it was, it also helped a great deal to confront my parents. That happened when I was in my late 20s. I demanded an apology from my father for what he’d done. When he denied everything, saying I was crazy, I cut all ties with him. Before I left, I made it clear that if he got in touch with me again, I’d go to the authorities with everything I knew. He stayed away for the rest of his life. When I learned that my father died a few years ago, I had to see his grave to know it was true. Seeing the headstone was the closure I needed to be free of my monster for good. I don’t have to look over my shoulder any longer. I’m finally safe.
Things were harder with Mom. I wanted to know why she didn’t leave my father sooner for the sake of her children, so that’s what I asked her. I just couldn’t fathom letting any child be harmed much less my own child, no matter the consequences. I hoped she’d help me understand. Mom said she didn’t know how bad things were, denied knowing anything about that part of my past. So I told her I knew that just wasn’t true. Then I tried to reassured her that I didn’t blame her. I explained that I needed to understand, which was the only reason I was asking. I hoped to hear why in her words. It didn’t matter; I wasn’t going to get an answer.
Everything changed between us after that brief conversation. Apparently, her make believe world was far more fragile than I understood. It’s likely my mother’s feelings of guilt over what happened to me along with a weird sort of envy due to the unwanted attention I got from my father are why our relationship wasn’t ever going to be a healthy one. Throughout my life, my mother vacillated between being kind and cold toward me. Seemingly insignificant differences in our opinions could mean months of being ignored by her.
So when things changed between us, I wasn’t surprised. Sometimes Mom called asking for help with one thing or another. Otherwise, she was mostly distant. I still did everything I could to make things work, even suggesting we go to therapy together. My mother refused. The last time we drifted apart, instead of trying to fix it like I had every other time, I was grateful. It hurt to let go of my mom, but it was for the best. Although I’d often wished her promises that we’d “be a family again” were actually possible, I knew they weren’t.
Families like mine just don’t survive; that’s the truth of it. Trauma wreaks havoc on them until they’re ripped apart. Yet somehow, I wasn’t. I’m still here. Maybe that’s because the story I told all those years ago when asked about my parents, that I was hatched from an egg, was actually my reality in many ways. I never really had parents. More importantly, I’ve always been wholly different from my monster or even my mother.
So only I decided who I’d become. That meant forging my own path. I didn’t need the ACE Questionnaire to know adverse childhood experiences played a part in my becoming chronically ill. I knew in my heart that my past lead to my developing Complex Regional Pain Syndrome Type II. I know from extensive research that what happened in the first 17 years of my life attacked my central nervous system even before I was in a car accident at 19. There’s no question the injury to my neck was bad. Yet it’s a common injury for backseat passengers in cars without rear headrests.
The damage inflicted by early trauma was compounded by both my accident and nearly a decade working long hours in the IT field without the ergonomic safeguards I needed. A Workers Compensation system that’s ill-equipped to treat serious injuries would be my breaking point. It was too much for my body to take. Each factor contributed to my spinal cord injury becoming something far worse. Had it not been for my chaotic childhood, I doubt I would’ve ultimately ended up with CRPS, nor the severe unrelenting pain and autoimmune illness that followed.
Knowing that my childhood is part of why I ended up permanently disabled doesn’t make me feel sorry for myself. My superpower is resilience. What’s important to me now is ensuring I’m as healthy and happy as I always deserved to be. Besides, why dwell on what could’ve been when things are starting to get good? Despite living with Ehlers Danlos Syndrome and CRPS among other diagnoses, I returned to full-time employment (with benefits!) just over a year ago. The last time I worked consistently was in 2004. It’s a major accomplishment, and honestly I can’t wait to see what comes next.
Life with trauma and chronic illness hasn’t been the easiest of roads, yet I’m the healthiest I’ve been in years. Truly! I’ll never stop fighting for the wellness I need in every facet of my life.
Curious about your ACEs score? Visit http://aceresponse.org/img/uploads/file/ace_score_questionnaire.pdf