How Much Is Too Much Abuse?


I’ve known for a long time that I grew up in a dysfunctional home, but it was only recently that I decided to fully accept that I was abused. Accepting it meant that I was willing to take that knowledge out of the dusty back corners of my mind where I had been storing it, and finally put it on display for others to see. It’s like discovering you inherited one of those (Margaret) Keane “Big Eyes” paintings that you know is considered valuable, but to you it’s some worn out, tacky/ freaky tchochke that directly contrasts with your contemporary tastes. I know for my own healing, I need to expose it, but I don’t know where to put it.

I had been minimizing it for so long, I really don’t know how “big” it is. I vacillate  between thinking I’m over it and ready to move on, and then I am blindsided with a debilitating memory or emotional flashback. I get restless and I want to go back to my usual way of coping, which is to push it away and keep myself too busy to think. But instead, I am learning to sit with it, to look at it, to feel it. It feels shitty. This new strategy feels foreign to me. How much is “too much”? Am I wallowing? What’s the healthy way to acknowledge the reality of my past?

I need to determine for myself what’s enough and what’s too much. It’s hard to gauge, because I was told from a formative age to “get over it,” and “you’re being dramatic,” and “that didn’t happen.” Then when I go back and analyze the events, I realize that, yes, it did happen, it was pretty fucking dramatic, and no, I am not over it.  I had a normal response to a traumatic event, and then I pushed it away. I repeated that pattern over, and over, and over, because it was how I survived my childhood.

Sometimes when I uncover a memory or really look at what happened,  I marvel that I am alive at all. I don’t think I should be, statistically speaking. When I divulge a few details to friends for the first time, the typical response I get is shock over how I turned out so normal and well-adjusted. Right now, “Big Eyes” is out on my mantelpiece,  staring back at me. I don’t feel well-adjusted. I feel raw. I feel hurt. I feel permanently damaged. I hate looking at it.

Yet, the longer I look, other thoughts come. One big, obvious one that I hope to dwell on is, “Look how far you’ve come.” Another is, “Yes, that happened, and you survived.” Better yet is, “Not only did you survive, you stopped the pattern.” Best of all, “Look at the love and life in your family today. You made it.”

I wish I could live there permanently, in the thoughts that remind me more of heaven than of hell. But today, I need to embrace where I am. I am in all of these places simultaneously, because they are all valid, and they are all me.

Too Smart to Get Caught

When I was growing up, I was taught that abuse was something that happened to disadvantaged people. Uneducated people. Trashy people. People who, because of their social status, “didn’t know any better.” If a woman was hit by her husband, it was too bad that she was too dumb to be with him to begin with. If a child was beaten, it was also too bad, but we all know how kids can be annoying. When I was a kid, physical abuse was the only kind of abuse I ever heard about. Sexual abuse was too taboo to mention. Emotional abuse simply didn’t exist.

My parents were reasonably well educated. They had professional careers. We lived in the suburbs. Therefore, in their minds, it was impossible for them to be abusive. After all, we had a roof over our heads and we were not starving or bleeding. Usually. My parents had created all sorts of complex ways to barricade themselves from the truth of their own behavior. They were (and still are) incapable of understanding that abuse comes in many forms.

Enough had happened by the time I was a toddler for me to be removed permanently from my parents, and for them to go to jail. Yet, there was no possible way for anyone to intervene.

Over the last thirty years or so, we’ve come a long way, collectively, in recognizing various forms of sexual and emotional abuse, and its long-term, insidious effects. It’s always been widely acknowledged that a calm, supportive, loving home environment is the best kind, but in my family, there was a major disconnect. We were supposed to be “normal” because we were middle class. Was irrational yelling normal? Were drunken rages normal? Were silent grudges normal? Was it normal for a young child’s daily routine to be to get herself off to school, come home to an empty house, and spend the rest of the day alone in her room? Was it normal for a teenager to be reluctant to have her friends spend the night because her father would walk around naked in front of them? Was it normal to have a mother who passive-aggressively talked her children about wanting to leave, but made vague excuses, like, “Well, he’s handy around the house…”

The facade had its cracks at home, but even so, my parents tried their best to maintain it. More important, however, was for them to maintain it at all costs in public. My mother was especially skilled at putting on a good face. She was professional. Her persona was friendly. She had a casual laugh. She would make comments about whatever her children’s most recent accomplishments were. Her mask was on at all times. She had fully convinced herself that she was a good person, dammit. It is because of her enormous denial that kept all those secrets in place that made her so much more complicated to deal with.

My father’s alcoholism and erratic behavior was harder to mask as he got older, but that actually was a huge relief to me. It meant that some other people actually saw that something was off. After many years when the alcoholism was finally admitted, it quickly became the excuse for everything. The alcohol made him do it. He didn’t remember because of the alcohol. Even so, admitting that something was at fault was a step toward chipping away the facade.

My husband worked for a time in the medical division of a county jail, where I occasionally volunteered. As a writer, it was a wonderful opportunity for me to interact with a population of people I wouldn’t normally have access to. I thought I might interview some criminal masterminds, as expected from watching too many TV procedurals. Perhaps I was picturing some exchange with Hannibal Lector. Instead, I did mundane tasks, like comb the lice out of a pregnant inmate’s hair. Of course, as any hairdresser knows, it’s a good way to get to know people. What I discovered was that there were a number of humble, kind- hearted people behind bars. They made mistakes and freely admitted it. They were sincerely sorry for their actions. Some simply needed their meds. Others simply needed counseling. Many of them got caught simply because they were not smart enough not to. As a child of people who were too smart to get caught,  I found this deeply refreshing.


The Story of What Happened

I run into people looking for a sound bite length version of what happened to me. Here it is. I was abused. That’s it.

For some, that’s not enough information. They want to know the juicy details. They want me to tell them a story. They are looking for some shocking piece of information that they can visualize immediately and succinctly. They want the cliche of the mom hitting the kid over the head with a frying pan.

I get it. I am a storyteller by trade. I have written about abuse in narrative form, directly and indirectly. There are all sorts of interesting character choices and metaphors to work with in storytelling. But storytelling is not real life.

There is a saying that the difference between story and real life is that a story has to make sense. Stories have a beginning, middle, and an end. What I want to write about here often makes no sense and often has no end.

I did not experience one major traumatic event, but thousands of events over a long period of time. It’s bad material for a succinct story. It’s complicated and unwieldy, with way too much backstory.

Some people want “the story” because they are looking to discredit the experience. They want to decide for themselves if it was abusive or not. I’ve learned it’s better not to engage with such people. I don’t need other people to validate whether it happened. People who have experienced abuse, or at least have empathy for those who have, understand that underneath the minimalism, the story is all there. I’ve learned that my desire to be understood stems directly from those people in my life who refuse to understand, no matter how much information is given to them.

We have radar, we victims of abuse. We know which friends have said something about it, directly or indirectly, in our news feeds. We know who is receptive. We know who is not. For those who are listening, the whole story will be revealed.

A Proud Victim

It’s time to reclaim the word “victim.” It’s time to reclaim it because we are told it’s something we shouldn’t be. Victims make people nervous, as if we had leprosy or see-through leggings. People don’t like victims, and they are quick to point that out to anyone who suggests they might be one. Victims are weak. They are at fault. They have a certain mentality that is bad and wrong.

A victim is a person harmed, injured, or killed as a result of a crime, accident, or other event. Being a victim is a statement of fact, not a worldview to be criticized. Why would saying “this happened to me” be cause for others to shame, belittle, or deny?

Being an actual victim is different from a victim mentality. Yet, even though they are not the same, let’s take a moment here to address why people who have a victim mentality are so despised. A victim mentality is when one’s perspective has become skewed and feels powerless. But here’s the thing. If someone feels powerless for any reason, wouldn’t a healthy person wish to empower and encourage them?  I believe that many who suffer from a victim mentality are suffering from the effects of emotional abuse. They can’t “just snap out of it.” Victim shaming blocks their ability to heal.

In both of these cases, why would anyone offer anything less than an empathetic response?  Feelings of inferiority or worthlessness are human. They are not just dealt to the weak. Victim shaming is so pervasive in our culture. Those who have strong negative reactions to victims are either aggressively trying to conceal their own pain, have personality disorders, or sometimes both.

Let’s call it out when we see it. Those who belittle victims of any kind are abusers.

The Empath – Narcissist Connection

I feel the feelings of those around me. I always have. If someone scrapes their knee, a tingle will shoot up my leg. I get headaches around anxious people. I get knots in my stomach around angry people. I completely short circuit around liars. I know what people are feeling, whether they are in the room or a thousand miles away. I am an empath.

I used to make a living at it, years ago. I put myself through college as a professional psychic. I could tell others where they had been emotionally, and where they were going. I had lots of repeat clientele. People feel validated when they know someone understands what they are feeling. My spidey-sense has been helpful in steering me toward kind, compassionate people, and away from jerks. It is a part of who I am, and I value being tuned in to others. The very best parts of me can be attributed to the fact that I feel and care deeply for others.

However, there is a dark side to feeling so much. It is difficult to turn it off. Toxic personalities are literally toxic to me- they make me physically ill. Also, it’s common for empaths to be groomed by narcissists. Narcissists can’t/don’t/won’t own their negative feelings, like guilt, shame, or remorse, so they push it on to the kind of people who absorb it for them. I was groomed since birth to absorb the toxic feelings of my narcissist parents. I am an overachiever at this. I recently realized that I was still holding on to guilt because when I was a baby, my cries made them angry. In my family, I wasn’t allowed to have needs or feelings of my own because I was supposed to be tending to theirs.

With all my sensitivities, you’d think I’d choose a career path in social work, nursing, or human rights, where these skills are valued and appreciated.  Just kidding. I work in Hollywood. The only place with more malignant narcissists is Capitol Hill, but Hollywood narcissists know they are prettier. I am a sheep among wolves.

You’d think with all this awareness I could spot the patterns sooner. I often do, but then there are some people with whom I fall into an empath-narcissist pattern because it happens slowly over time. At first I have good boundaries, but over time things shift, and I feel myself taking on the emotional responsibility of the relationship. I’ve learned to step back and let go, for the sake of my health. Even so, I feel like a fool when I pull back and the relationship dies because the other person puts nothing into it. When an empath is no longer useful to the narcissist, she will be discarded.

Thankfully, I married a fellow empath. We’ve been playing a goofy game ever since we got married, where I will unexpectedly jump up and run off. My husband has to be quick to catch me. We play this at home and in public, at parties, and “serious” venues. Our kids get involved, chasing Mommy in circles through the living room, dining room, and kitchen. It’s a little thing we do between us which, I’ve found, has been tremendously beneficial for my psychological health. When I run away, he chases after me. He will drop everything to go after me. He will catch me and gently guide me back to where we were. It’s fun and silly, and it makes us laugh, but most of all, it makes me feel safe. It makes me feel wanted. As someone who grew up wholly unnoticed, it makes me feel seen.
Sometimes, it really is all in the thrill of the chase.

Missing Attachment

I am the mother of three young children, and it inevitably comes up in small talk on playgrounds and Sunday school, or wherever moms congregate. “Do your folks live nearby to help out with the kids?” I usually deflect with a comment about my in-laws, who live out of state. I throw in a reassuring word about how much we miss them, which is true. They are normal grandparents who love and care for their children and grandchildren. Sometimes that will be enough to satisfy the person and I can change the subject quickly. Other times, I brace myself for the next question. “And where are your parents?”

The in-law deflection bought me time to consider how much to share. If they are a total stranger, I usually say something vague, like, “Oh, they’re not around.” It’s awkward enough for most people to stop asking, but the obnoxious ones will persist. If I’m feeling bold, I might continue. “They’re mentally unstable, and I don’t feel safe around them.” After a few “Yeah, that sucks” nods, they usually walk away or change the subject. I wish I could say that they are dead, but I can’t bring myself to lie.

If I feel like I need to give a softer reply, I will tell them that, after years of trying to be in their lives and make things work, it didn’t. I wish them well, but they are not in my life any more. I don’t really like this answer, because, although it is true, it offers a fluffy version of the effects of abuse in my life. And I can’t stand fluff.

I have grown used to the sting I feel when I hear sweeping comments about a parent’s “unconditional love,” because it references a club that everyone belonged to except me. As a mother, I now understand what it feels like to love my children unconditionally, but I do not know what it’s like to receive that kind of love.

Addiction and mental illness contribute to my parents’ abusive behavior, but maybe the bigger reason is that they are also jerks. I know many people with all kinds of addictions and diagnoses who are actually nice people. Many are capable of being humble and self-aware, struggling to love their friends and family in spite of their illness. It’s difficult to determine whether nature or nurture is the cause of my parent’s abusive behavior. Probably both. Perhaps there was a time where they were “sane” but the series of choices they made in life contributed to the cognitive dissonance. In my family history, addiction, mental illness, and abuse go back for generations. They’ve always stood together, so it is hard to say which came first.

On my good days, I am relieved because I said no to the abuse. I can acknowledge that the decision to protect myself and my children took a lot of courage. I am grateful because my kids are happy, healthy, and safe. On my bad days, I feel the burden of guilt and shame for having to cut them off. Even though there is no realistic, safe way to include them in my life, I have absorbed the blame for the situation. After all, I made the choice to put a boundary between them and their grandchildren.

I’ve analyzed it enough to know that the misplaced blame is a symptom of the very abuse I experienced and escaped, but on my bad days, it doesn’t make the feeling of burden go away. I am sad that they do not get the privilege of seeing their grandchildren. Their grandchildren are amazing little humans full of love and joy. I get to see every day what they are missing, and I ache for them. I doubt my parents would be capable of appreciating my kids as complex individuals with their own personalities and ideas because they are incapable of seeing me that way. However, the guilt is hard to shake. I ask myself often if there isn’t a way to make it work, but unfortunately their particular type of abusive behavior makes it impossible. I have more work to do in this area. I wish it were as simple as letting go of the burdens, but there are whole thought patterns that keep those thoughts snugly in place. But I am slowly improving, shifting, and sorting what’s mine and what’s not.

The Burden of Achievement

My go-to method of coping with abuse is to achieve. School, and eventually work, were my escape. They were the places I got positive reinforcement for doing a good job, and I was always eager to please. At home, if I did a good job, it would either go unnoticed or there would suddenly be some alternate criteria that meant I failed. To escape at home, I read. I was less likely to be a target if I made myself invisible with a book.

In Kindergarten, I read at a fourth grade level. I was told many years later by my mother. She added that she made sure to play down my aptitude so as to not upset my older brother who struggled to read. My mother had a way of shutting me down and enabling my brother. I was expected to do well in school, but my parents never asked me about what I was studying or bothered to look at my homework. It never occurred to either of us that they could, and maybe should, engage me intellectually, or at all. They expected me to be totally independent, which was fine by me, because depending on them for anything lead to disappointment.

In my junior year of high school I figured out that I had enough credits to graduate early, if I took some additional classes at the local community college. It meant a total of nine classes, in addition to a pile of activities I was involved in at school, but I was motivated to leave home as soon as possible. The added bonus was that it kept me so busy, I was rarely home anyway. With great relief, I left for college two months after my seventeenth birthday. I drove myself two thousand miles away to start my own life. At school, I watched my new roommate say goodbye to her tearful, sweet mother, who had driven her to school and helped her get settled into our dorm. I had already been emotionally living on my own for so many years that I had forgotten that having an emotional attachment to a parent was normal.

For me, when things got hard, I got busy. I was accustomed to working long hours, and often I was rewarded for them. There were many positive reinforcements to be had for my accomplishments at work and school. No one, except for a small handful of my closest friends, knew about the abuse. Even then, it would take years for me to tell those I was close to about some details. My external persona was to be positive and motivational to others. I was a mentor and a leader. I looked out for others. I excelled in my work. However, over the years, the underlying effects were eating away at me. I worked myself into exhaustion, but nothing I accomplished seemed like it was “enough.” Success felt empty because it had been my only option for survival. It was not a choice, but a compulsion.

I struggled with survivor guilt over what I had achieved. Statistically, I should not have fared as well as I had. Over the years, my brother became debilitated from serious mental illness, and the complications from it haunted me. Our ways of coping were completely unalike, but had been unfairly compared to each other throughout our lives. I had internalized the message that any success on my part would steal his glory.

I was celebrated in my work. I was happily married. My kids were shockingly well-adjusted, amazing little people capable of love and empathy. I had broken the cycle. Still, I felt little satisfaction, because nothing could fill the void, which for me was the love and validation I needed as a child, but never experienced.

Hard work and perseverance gave me opportunities that helped lift me out of my abusive past, but it could not heal me. Sucking it up and pretending I was fine could get me through a day, a week, or even a season, but it could not get me through life. The deep healing I needed could only be accessed by first examining the vast depth of the wound.

The Confusion of Denial

I am a (sometimes overly) considerate and empathetic person, and my natural desire to honor the dignity of others sometimes gets in the way of admitting what happened. I was conditioned to protect my abusers and not myself. I put far too much care into what would happen to their “feelings” if I told the truth.  Writing about abuse is difficult when my abusers continue to deny its existence. I have been accused by my abusers of wanting revenge, while at the same time maintaining that I have no reason to seek it. I don’t want revenge. I want honesty. I want transparency. I want peace.

For my own healing, I need to admit what happened. But “what happened” is not as pertinent as how it felt, and how the effects played into virtually every aspect of my life. I will share some details to give context, but it is not my intent to describe what happened so much as it is to describe how it felt to me, and what the effects were. My hope is that others who have struggled with similar experiences might benefit from my point of view.

Some survivors of child abuse had safe people in their lives who could help them. I did not. Some had a trustworthy parent or guardian who acknowledged the abuse and helped them get the resources they needed to heal. I did not. Some survivors had abusers who were so out of control they could not conceal it. They were caught and held accountable. Mine were not. Abuse of any kind, for any length, is a nightmare. My experience of it was made worse with years of denial.

My parents were high-functioning. They knew how to behave in public. They knew how to cover their tracks. They offered an alternate point of view to themselves and others whenever they could.  They would put me down in little ways to others in order to discredit me. I was, after all, only a kid. If anything had happened, I had probably deserved it. Wasn’t I such a little stinker? They put on a good face to store clerks, neighbors, teachers, friends, and family.  However, none of that changed the fact that I was abused in every way a person can be abused. I was first abused by my parents, but then there were others. I did not escape the pattern set for me until I was an adult and took measures to stop it. Even as an adult, patterns in lesser forms arose, like enduring the narcissist at work who singled me out, or the backstabbing ex-friend who tried to smear me, or the millions of times my throat ached because I wanted to call someone out on their bullshit but didn’t.

My parents did not have close friends to hold them accountable. We visited extended family for only a couple of hours on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter. They did not belong to any kind of group or club. By design, there was no one in their lives who could challenge them. We were isolated.

Most importantly, they deceived themselves into thinking they did no wrong. When questioned, they would alternately deny, minimize, deflect, and blame. Whoever asked the question would then be discredited and shut out. It didn’t matter if I presented them with facts. It didn’t matter if I presented them with my feelings. They wanted no part of either. In their minds, “nothing” happened. They were good parents, and I was ungrateful.

I developed PTSD from the abuse. I have a long history of health issues directly related to the abuse. All the physical effects of the damage are there. Yet, it is the denial and minimization from others that hurts the most. I can accept what happened and deal with it. It is harder to accept that the people who did it deny it and feel no remorse. Harder still, to accept that those people were my own parents.

When Your Mom Is Not a Good Mom

They are everywhere on social media, those sentimental memes about mothers. But because I was  abused, to me they read like my worst nightmare:

My mother actually does stalk me. I cut off contact with my mother over ten years ago because I did not feel safe, and because I decided it was more important to protect my child from her manipulative behavior. Whenever I move, she finds my address. She will send cards to my children, acting as if everything were normal. Two of them were born after I cut off contact, yet she knows their names and when they were born. She will not engage directly with me, or address any of the issues, but she will let me know she is there attempting to control me. Recently she sent me an email with “Urgent -Response Needed” in the headline. It was not urgent. It did not need a response. It was an attempt to manipulate me once again. “Hoovering” is the term, borrowed from the vacuum cleaner, whereby a person tries to suck people in to their drama. She does not ever express any remorse over what happened, because to her, the problem never existed. In her eyes, if there was a problem, surely it wasn’t that big a deal, and surely it was my fault.

I spent the first thirty years of my life exhausting every possible way to be a good girl and play nice. I used to think it was my fault that the relationship was dysfunctional. I had been trained since birth to take responsibility for their feelings and behaviors. I was hypervigilant about empathy, yet never once was empathy reciprocated.

Good mothers protect their children. Good mothers are interested in their children as individuals, not just extensions of themselves. Good mothers want to understand. They want to nurture. They want to listen. They want to connect. I did not have a good mother.

For too long I’ve held on to guilt.  If I admit that I did not have a good mother, I would be perceived as ungrateful. A complainer. A victim. I am so used to taking responsibility for the faults of others that my default coping skill is to remain silent. Even now, the worry that I would be perceived as being negative about my mother makes me hesitate.  My motives aren’t  to be mean or get revenge. My motive is simply to tell the truth. My motive is to let go of a burden I’ve carried too long.

My motive is also to start a conversation for those who also see the meme above as a horror movie synopsis. Here is a place you will be heard and understood.


I Have Something To Say

It’s time for me to come out. I wish there were rainbow flags and parades for things like this, because maybe it would make it more fun. When my friends who are gay come out, they get to say, literally, “I’m happy.” But the news I have to share is not happy. In fact, it represents a lifetime of overwhelming grief.

I’ve lived with it for over forty years, but it wasn’t until a few months ago that I could say it out loud: I was physically, emotionally, and sexually abused.

Over the course of my life, I spent countless hours ignoring it, minimizing it, and overcompensating for it, but I carried the truth in a heavy knot in my stomach. The terror, the guilt, and the shame I felt were not even mine. I was conditioned to wear the ragged, cast-off emotions of my abusers. It was not just the instances of abuse themselves, but the systematic piling-on of misplaced burden and blame that cloaked me in silence.

I physically escaped my abusers over ten years ago, but I continued to carry the responsibility of the troubled relationship on my shoulders. At the time, it was easier for me to say that I was “too weak” because of the panic attacks I experienced. I cut them off. I refused to “play nice.” I couldn’t handle them any more. I couldn’t blame them, because I would be perceived as spiteful and vengeful. It was easier to own it because my abusers insisted on blaming me, than to take any responsibility.

I do, in general, believe in living life with a positive outlook. Even though I knew the source of my negative thoughts, a part of me still worried that I was being “too dramatic.” After all, no one likes a whiner, right? Shouldn’t I just keep my mouth shut and focus on gratitude? Maybe it wasn’t that bad. I mean, I survived, right? Other people have had it worse…  As these thoughts went on, I realized that a lack of positivity and gratitude were not the problem. I feared the kind of response I would have received from my abusive past. If I spoke up, my abusers would double down on their denial and threats until I was cowed into submission. I worried that if I went public, others would belittle my pain in the comments section, as if somehow their opinion of my life bore more validity than my own experience.

Admitting my abuse makes me visible. It also makes me a target.

The fear is palpable. The long term effects of abuse have made it very difficult to speak up. But in my healing I came to a place where silence can no longer have the platform.

I have something to say.

I started this blog as a way to keep myself accountable in my own healing and growth as a survivor of abuse. Will you help keep me accountable with your encouragement?

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