A Second Chance at Living


First Memories

I am two or three years old in the apartment on Johnson Street. I am supposed to be sleeping, but I am scared. I keep thinking of the book my mom read me before she kissed me goodnight and left the room. It was Snow White, and I am terrified of the talking mirror and wicked queen. I cry out for my mom. Instead, my father throws open the door, which I beg to be left open each night, and he is suddenly at my bedside—a large imposing shadow.

He screams at me to shut the fuck up and go to sleep. I tell him I am scared of Snow White.

He takes my book off my nightstand, and with his strong, burly hands tears it to pieces right in front of me. I am frozen in my bed, terrified under the covers, cuddled up with my security blanket and stuffed lamb. I know I should be quiet, but I can’t swallow the sobs. Book confetti rains on the floor as he continues to scream at me. Then he hits me because I am still crying, but I am still so scared of the queen and his rage that it doesn’t even hurt. I squeeze my eyes shut until he goes away. I have no idea if my mom was home or not, but she never came to rescue me.

Searching for Happiness

My childhood memories are scattered, like a small series of vignettes from a movie. Most are bad; some are good. I was an abused child. I still have a hard time writing that out and admitting it. Was it really so bad? the voice in my head taunts. You had food and a house and clothes. Get it together. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps.

But I can’t. I have spent thirty-nine years trying to get it together. After high school, I went to college at a nearby state school and moved away. I had a short, failed marriage in my early twenties and birthed my first two kids before I graduated from college. By the time I was twenty-six in 2003, I was divorced with a one-year-old and a three-year-old, impoverished, living behind a head shop and porn store in Madison. After that, I spent the next seven or eight years in constant turmoil. Drinking. Drinking and pills. Drinking and cocaine. Drinking and promiscuous sex, a lot of it. I slept with my coworkers, the husband of my best friend, the guy who fixed my computer at the repair joint. I was fun, and I was funny. People loved me. They were drawn to my outgoing personality and sense of adventure. I always had a story.

I wasn’t happy, though—not at all. It was a façade, courtesy of drugs and alcohol. I went to therapy several times searching for happiness. One of two things always happened: either I conned the therapist into thinking I was fine and didn’t need any more help, or the therapist would become overwhelmed with all of my issues and would tell me I needed pharmaceuticals, which (at the time) were given out like pencils to schoolchildren. So I would take their pills, and I would drink. And so it continued, a cycle of numbed feelings and substances and a revolving door of boyfriends and friends with benefits. I had only one rule: no booze, pills, or men when the kids were with me. I held to that rule—not even a Xanax passed my lips if the children were at my house.

Breaking the Cycle

Mothering when my children were young was challenging. I didn’t know how to be a parent. I knew I didn’t want to be like my dad, but I didn’t know how not to be. Every time one of the children would act up, my first reaction would be to scream and spank. With one exception—which unfortunately both kids remember—I was able to fight through the urge to hit them, to pummel their tiny bodies into submission. But being gentle and kind was not my first reaction.

I took a job with Headstart, and I learned techniques from the teachers I worked with for how to make children comply without physical force or screaming. I didn’t realize at the time that I was breaking the cycle of abuse. It was only because I knew better that I did better.

I wasn’t perfect, though. When my oldest daughter was four, my mother and I attended her open house at preschool. All the children had drawn pictures of their families, and the drawings were displayed on the wall of the classroom for all to see. My daughter made two: one depicted her family at her dad’s house, and one was her and her brother and me. My mother and I stared at her drawing of me. My face was a crude circle with eyes, a nose, and a huge, disproportional, angry-looking open mouth. I asked her about it, and she said I was yelling because I always yelled. It is funny now, but it wasn’t then.

I took the drawing as constructive criticism on my parenting skills, and it was a big reality check. I set up Headstart workshops on positive parenting methods, and I discretely took the handouts from the workshops and used them myself at home. I took advantage of trainings and seminars offered on gentle parenting, communication, and brain development.

Looking back on it now, I am impressed by how well I did with the kids when they were small. I was a single parent, living in poverty. One of my children has special needs and was globally developmentally delayed. I had very little support, but I was determined to be a good mom. I don’t give myself enough credit for that. How many times did I take the kids to the library, or free community events? I remember countless Saturday mornings spent at McDonald's Playland. I could only afford one order of hotcakes and sausage for the kids to share, but they got to play and have fun. I remember reading an endless pile of picture books, sticky art projects done on our hand-me-down kitchen table, and a plethora of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches made with love and low-income peanut butter.

Time to Go Home

I am nine and had just spent the night at my friend’s house. We had a fantastic time. I love her family, and I feel like a different person when I am there. I am not worried or scared about anything. I can laugh loudly, we can stay up late, and if we need to get a drink of water or a snack after bedtime, no one yells. Meals are full of lively conversation—not the awkward silence I'm used to because my dad is in his never-ending bad mood. I don’t want to go home, but eventually, it is time.

Her parents drop me off at my house. My mother opens the door, smiles a fake smile and waves at my friend’s parents who are sitting in their car, waiting for me to safely get inside. The door isn’t even closed behind her when she says, "Things aren’t very good around here." I hear a crash. I hear my dad yelling and screaming. It is coming from my bedroom.

I walk up the stairs, dreading what I am about to see. My dad sits in the middle of my bedroom floor. Everything is destroyed. My drawers are overturned, shelves are wiped out, and toys and books and games are thrown into the center of the room in a huge pile. Pages in books are ripped; so are things I’ve written. He sees me and screams about how my room wasn’t cleaned before I left for the sleepover and how I am a fucking disgusting and filthy pig. He is sweaty, and his eyes bulge out of his head. Then he kicks me, but I am so scared by his rage that it doesn’t even hurt. I turn and look for my mother, but she never even came upstairs.

Triggering Panic

I met my current husband in 2010, and we had quite the whirlwind romance. By late 2011, we were married with a new baby girl, and the blending of our family was complete. The baby was my fresh start. I still call her my "second chance baby." I had to give up drinking and substances to have her. I had wanted a third child so bad. But after she was born, I still didn’t feel happy. I was thirty-four years old and still anxious and depressed and pissed off all the time.

Then in November 2012, my intoxicated and unarmed cousin was shot and killed by a cop with a history of bad judgment and excessive force. I lost family and friends over this incident, as people tried to defend the police department and villainize my cousin. It triggered something inside of me, although I didn’t yet know what it was. At the time of his death, I was cleaning banks part-time, after hours. One of the banks was just blocks from where he was killed. When I had to disarm the bank, I would shake and sweat, and my mouth would go dry. I envisioned putting in the wrong code, triggering a call to the police, and having them come and shoot me—a mom with a part-time job as a janitor wearing yoga pants and a ponytail with a mop in her hand—over a simple misunderstanding, the way my cousin had been killed.

The panic was so bad I had to quit my job. Then, it became so bad I couldn’t drive in his old neighborhood. When my husband and I were offered a chance to move out of our apartment in Madison and relocate to Janesville, we didn’t hesitate.

Finding Help

We moved into our dream house, and I landed a great job. I moved up in the company I worked for. Still, I wasn’t happy. I couldn’t even see a cop getting coffee at the gas station without sobbing and shaking. I yelled at my kids and at my husband constantly. I suffered terrible, debilitating panic attacks almost daily. I would suck it up all day at work, then come home and turn to a pile of shit. My family got the worst of me every day. I stopped sleeping. I would fall asleep late and then wake up at two or three o'clock in the morning and stay up until it was time to go to work.

I knew I was out of control and needed help. I assumed I had depression and anxiety, both of which I had been diagnosed with in the past. I searched online for therapists in our area and found a group of them who practiced together in one big office. I had to choose one in the group, so I picked Liz—a kind-looking, middle-aged lady with a background in AODA (Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse) and trauma. I didn’t think I had a problem with either, but my parents were addicts. I figured she’d understand me, and I wouldn’t be able to trick her into thinking I was okay the way I had other therapists. I was right . . . but I was wrong, too.

Shortly after I started seeing Liz regularly, she told me she felt like I had Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) caused by childhood abuse. I had secretly wondered if I had that and was familiar with the disorder because of my job. Once we started really diving into my issues and my past, there was no doubt that I indeed do have PTSD. And while I originally downplayed my drinking (it wasn’t a big deal; don’t a lot of people go out on the weekends?!) and drug use (it was only social and I was never addicted to anything), Liz has showed me, over time, how I depended on substances—even legal substances that were prescribed to me—so I could be what I thought was a fun and funny person who didn’t feel any pain.

And so, I began to work. I learned anger management techniques. I practiced direct communication. I learned how to "be kind to oneself." I set goals with her and achieved them, although sometimes it took months. I practiced self-care. I learned how to say no. I started to believe that I am in charge of my own life.

Discovering Strength

I am thirty-seven years old, and I have been in therapy with Liz for over a year already. When my mom and dad learn I am in therapy again, they literally laugh about it and think it is a big joke. One weekend, they ask me to come over to pick up a television set and some other things since they are retiring and selling their house. When my husband, youngest daughter, and I show up, my mom is out running errands. My PTSD hypervigilance, which I call “Spidey Sense," alerts me immediately that my dad is in a foul mood. I can tell just by his body language and his voice.

My parents recently bought a dog, and she doesn’t know us yet. She jumps up, runs around, and barks. My husband is packing the television set into the trunk of our car outside, and my toddler daughter and I are alone in the house with my dad. He yells at the dog, and the dog doesn’t listen. He pulls a wooden backscratcher from a bookshelf next to his chair and hits the dog with it, while screaming obscenities at her. My daughter watches, wide-eyed. She’s never seen anyone put their hands on an animal or a person before.

Immediately, I am in the fight-or-flight response that is so exaggerated for people with PTSD.  I grab her hand, and despite the fact that it is January in Wisconsin, take her outside to the car without putting her coat on, mumbling to my dad that we need to leave. I carry her to the car in her stocking feet and put her in her car seat. I throw her boots and coat on the floor of the backseat. “GET ME OUT OF HERE RIGHT NOW!” I say to my husband, who is standing there in total confusion.

He doesn’t move quickly enough. “PLEASE GET ME THE HELL OUT OF HERE!” I beg him, my voice rising into a crescendo. My dad is standing in the doorway of the house. I look out the window because I don’t want to look at him. I am terrified of his rage. My husband awkwardly shakes my dad’s hand, gets in the car, and we leave. It takes me twenty minutes to be able to tell him what happened. I don’t feel safe until we are miles away, heading back to our little brown house.

Weeks go by. My mom hears from one of my sisters about what happened. She calls and tells me my father feels “real bad” about what happened but says airily, "You know he will never apologize," as if an apology would make it better anyway. I tell her that he is no longer welcome in my home, and I will not be going to their house, and neither will my children. I tell her I still would like to have a relationship with her, but our relationship cannot include him. Somehow, from some place inside me, I draw the strength to do this. It still amazes me. But, as always, she chooses him over me.

A New Family

It’s been two years since I have seen my dad. A few months after the incident at their house, they moved three hours north of where I live. I didn’t help them pack or move or stop by to say goodbye to them or to the house I grew up in.

My mother and I talk once a month, maybe twice, on the phone. I have seen her once in the last two years in person. She sends my youngest child packages with little gifts and cards. When the packages arrive, I have to remind my daughter who her grandparents are. She doesn’t really remember them. My mother was not willing to have a relationship with me (and therefore, my youngest daughter) without my father.  She sneaks behind my back to see my oldest two kids when they are at their dad’s house. I don’t like this, but I accept it. My oldest children have grown up knowing my mom and dad. It is my youngest daughter who will miss out on this. And they will miss out on knowing her, because she is a terrific little girl.

But I don’t regret my decision to end my relationship with my dad. I cannot deal with the drama and negativity he brings to every situation. I have to put myself and my mental health first. I am disappointed, but not surprised, that my mother has not expressed an interest in being part of my life. For a long time, I saw my mother as another one of my dad’s victims. Then, after I became a mother, I was angry at her for not rescuing me because I looked at my children and knew I would never allow anyone to harm them. Now, I feel nothing toward her. It is a silent and tired acceptance of the situation. Apathy, perhaps.

Instead, I focus on my relationship with my mother-in-law, whom I view as my own mom. My father-in-law is more of a father to me than my own dad ever was, and I know I can go to my in-laws for anything and they will just take care of it—no matter what it is, big or small. They love me, and they do not view me as a nuisance. Additionally, I have been blessed with a small but mighty group of friends, whom I lovingly refer to as "fremily."

Living with PTSD

It is very hard for me to talk about having PTSD because it is a mental illness so associated with combat veterans and people who have seen and been through horrible and terrifying things. I don’t often share that I have PTSD—not because of the stigma but because of the perception I have that my own trauma will be scrutinized and judged. Although most people I’ve confided in have been supportive and many of them haven’t even asked what happened in my life to give me this illness, I am still afraid to share. I am afraid people won’t believe me. And worst of all, I am fearful they won’t understand how an abused child can still be traumatized as an adult.

I know others with the same diagnosis have experienced far worse trauma than I have, and it is a conscious effort for me not to downplay the abuse I suffered because I feel guilty. But I know that guilt is part of the disorder, and the rational part of my brain knows trauma cannot be judged. I continue to see Liz (nope, I haven’t tricked her into thinking I’m normal yet!) and work on my issues. Some days are a struggle. I persevere because I am a survivor. I made it a goal a long time ago that I never wanted my kids to be scared of me. Thankfully, after sixteen years of being a mom, it is no longer my first reaction to hit or scream. I take time-outs when I feel angry.

I will always be hardwired differently because I was traumatized, but I refuse to be a victim and let my mental illness stop me from doing things I want to do. That would be letting him win. I take pride that I broke the cycle of abuse. I am far from perfect, but my children are wanted and they are loved. I am blessed to have this beautiful life and a second chance at living.

This post was originally shared on March 7, 2017.

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