TW: This article discusses abuse.
I used to keep a mental list of all the big bad things that happened in my life. I’d sometimes lay in bed at night and whisper the list to myself like Arya Stark and her list of people to kill: the Hound, Cersei Lannister, Walder Frey… I’d be in stop-and-go traffic ticking off my Bad Things, like a meditation. It seemed important to remember, to keep track. The Bad Things were my foundation, a record of my life to date.
The Bad Things List
The Bad Things list wasn’t about feeling pity for myself and I never shared the list with anyone. I’d come to expect bad things to happen, they were simply a fact of life. All going back to my mom. It’s strange to say, I know, but my mom was one of those Bad Things that happened to me.
My mom was barely 20 when she had me. She married my dad less than a month after her 18th birthday and they moved together out of their small town into the mountains. Eventually, they moved to the top of the mountain, to a cabin on 40 acres where they raised chickens, horses, dogs, cats, apples, Christmas trees, and three children: me and my two younger brothers.
Our home was isolated both by physical location and my mom’s life-long mental illness. Although she wasn’t diagnosed until the latter part of her life, she suffered acutely every day of her life from Borderline Personality Disorder – and her family suffered from her BPD as well. BPD made my mom paranoid, angry, self-centered. She would fly into violent rages at the drop of a hat. She trusted very few people, her children included.
I Didn’t Fight Back
My 6th birthday was the first time I remember her hitting me. That day she was driving along the curvy mountain road between my elementary school and our home when she reached around to the back seat where I was flanked by my brothers’ car seats and slapped me hard across the face. Later that day she made me wear my dirty underwear on my head at the dinner table as further punishment. From that day I tried (unsuccessfully) to be invisible, to not aggravate her. I took total responsibility for her hatred of me: I wasn’t good enough, smart enough, pretty enough, thin enough. I believed her when she said I was dirty. I didn’t fight back when she washed my mouth with soap, grinding the yellow noxious bar of Dial into my braces and pumping green liquid dish soap down the back of my throat.
She laughed at me when I said meekly that my girlfriends seemed to be friends with their moms. She retorted those women were stupid, and then she took me out of school and cut me off from my peers. I was 13. The last time I wore my underwear on my head as punishment at the kitchen table I was 18. That didn’t stop because I finally said, “Enough!” By now I was bigger than her, but I had no idea. No, it only stopped because I moved out to go to college, but the torment continued, just in different, more psychological ways. It was a whole decade later, when I was 28 years old, that I finally found my courage to stand up to her.
Until Finally I Did
The last time I saw my mom she hit me. She threw herself at me and started punching me in the head, only stopping when my brother grabbed her, pinning her arms to her side from behind. I knew she was going to hit me that day. I knew she was mad. But as she came at me, something inside of me finally said, “No!” As she screamed at me, I held my ground, looking straight into her eyes. I had never done anything like this before. It unnerved her. “Fuck you!” she screamed in my face. “No, Mom, fuck YOU,” I screamed. It roared out of me, starting in my belly and bursting from my lips. In my memory, it blew her hair back. I know that I’m only imagining that, but that’s how it felt. I had never, ever said no to her much less cursed at her. I was like a volcano that day: everything that had been hiding inside flowed up and out. She balled up her fists and flew at me, but it didn’t matter. I’d finally had enough.
I went with my family to the hospital that day to seek help for her (she was threatening to kill herself) but after that, I was never in the same room with her again nor did I ever speak to her again. Once the dust settled, my family begged for things to go back the way they were, back to when we all just went along with her abuse, allowing her to dictate whether it was a good day or a bad day, when we all walked on eggshells and internalized every bad thing she said and did to us. We did all these things invisibly behind closed doors on the mountain top for decades, but I simply couldn’t anymore. I started doing research and found other children with Borderline mothers (with remarkably similar stories of abuse). I started speaking up and telling what had been going on in our house all those lonely, scary years. I finally admitted that my mother abused us, me, my brothers, and my dad. I admitted that she was the one who was sick, not me. She said that by telling our story, I was “killing” my father, “killing” my brothers. But I had learned something valuable the day I held my ground and shouted back: it is the truth that saves, and I had that truth within me all along. I opened my mouth and I never shut it again.
No More List
When I was 35, I was diagnosed with Stage III breast cancer. Was the breast cancer one more thing on my Bad Things list? No: the day I stood up to my mom and found my voice I was done putting items on my Bad Things list. I owned my life for the first time ever. That definitely doesn’t mean Bad Things don’t still happen, it just means I no longer internalize them. I no longer wait for them to come, standing by quietly believing that I deserve them, waiting for them to kill me. Cancer may one day kill me, I know. I know I can’t shout and curse my way out of that one. If it does one day get me, it will not be because of anything I did or didn’t do, nor will I believe I deserved it. I will not go quietly.
For 28 years I was silent and invisible. That was 12 years ago now. Since then my courage comes from allowing myself to be seen after so many years of hiding. Now I speak and write and I tell my story so that I may stand tall. I don’t buy the “cancer is a gift” adage nor do I believe that everything happens for a reason. But I do believe I am who I am today because I’ve learned to shine in spite of my many scars.
April Johnson Stearns. Writer; Founder & Editor of Wildfire Community LLC, home of WILDFIRE Magazine, a bi-monthly, thematic place for young fighters and survivors of breast cancer – all stages — to tell their stories. wildfirecommunity.org
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