Coping with the emotional extreme of hatred and fear distorted my perception of truth, reality, and compassion. I learned to deny instead of take responsibility for my actions. I learned to minimize situations when they concerned other people’s feelings. I learned to exaggerate in order to obtain attention. I became full of resentment and rage against life itself. In my childhood, whenever bouts of normalcy occurred, I spent the entire interval looking for that shadow that lurks just before the next disaster, for I knew it was there, lying in-wait.
When I was in junior high school, I was invited to the junior high school prom by a very popular boy. I was very excited, but also nervous. By this point in life, my mother had divorced her second husband, my younger brother’s father, and was living the life of a single woman without attachments, including her children most of the time. After I told my mother, she wondered why this boy would invite me to the prom. This was just another way for her to chip away at my self-esteem. Narcissists like to be the center of attention. They are constantly finding ways to belittle others so those people would feel inferior, making the narcissist superior in every regard. Then, my mother recited the laundry list of whys that she often gave when any of us requested money or the purchase of pretty-much anything. The standard answer was, “Ask your father.”
My biological father lived in a town about 45 miles from mine. He was remarried and had another son, my other half-brother. My step-mother did not like me nor my older brother and took every opportunity to complain about every penny that my father sent to us. My father sent my mother a check every month, without fail. That was one of the few constants in my life. Calling him to ask for additional money was always painfully difficult because I would have to grovel. The best way I knew how to get the dress was to use flattery, something I had often seen my mother do to get men to give in to her. It made me feel like a fake and phony, just like her. He fell for it every time, but the repercussion was that the next time I visited him, I had to answer a multitude of questions as to why my mother couldn’t afford to make the purchase since he sends her child-support each month. Most of the time it was not worth it, but this was special, so I played the game. I still carry the resentment of being smeared in that sandwich for nearly all of my childhood.
When the $100 check arrived in the mail from my father, I gave it to my mother and asked her when we could plan our shopping spree for the dress. One hundred dollars would buy a very nice dress and shoes to match back in the early 1980s. She took the check and brushed me off as usual. I dreamed of what the dress would look like. Would it be fuchsia or cerise? Maybe midnight blue would be better. I perused 17 Magazine for days and days, often changing my mind on the type of dress I wanted. It was the subject of many of my daydreams. I spent hours talking with friends about the perfect dress and imagining I would be the belle of the ball.
“A girl should be two things: fabulous and classy.”
There were times that I didn’t see my mother for days. When I did, I asked about the dress. She would pick a day, and when that day came, she just didn’t come home. I was quite accustomed to her disappearing act, but this time, the anxiety was almost too much to overcome. What if my mother didn’t come home to take me to get a dress? What if there weren’t any dresses left? Does she still have the money my father sent? Had she spent the money on drinking at bars? What would happen when the popular boy and his mother came to pick me up, with no dress, for the prom? Should I tell him that I cannot go? Make up an excuse? Say I’m sick? There was a death in the family? What will he think? Will he tell others? Will they believe him? Will they laugh at me? Talk about me? Make fun of me at school?
It was Friday, the day before prom. I spent the entire day with my phony mask wearing. All the girls were talking about their dresses at cheerleading practice. When someone asked me about the prom, I would quickly ask them a question about their dress, who they are going with, how they are going to wear their hair. The dress and the prom was all that I could think about as I slowly walked home contemplating what to do. As I approached my house, I didn’t want to go inside. I wanted to keep walking straight into another house that had a different mother, a better mother, a loving mother, a sober mother. I went inside and sat on my bed and cried. A couple of hours later, my mother showed up at the door. I raced down the stairs in hopes that she hadn’t been drinking. She had. I could smell it the moment she walked through the front door. I knew I had to tread lightly as I asked her about the dress, such anticipation in my voice. She looked at me puzzlingly; I could tell she had forgotten. Then she told me to go wait in the car and that she would be there in a few minutes.
I followed her orders like a soldier but with glee in my heart. I wouldn’t have to make any excuses tomorrow. I was getting the dress. A tea-length midnight blue dress with a sweetheart neckline. I would have matching pumps, maybe with rhinestones on the toes. I would be at the prom with Mr. Popular as I danced and had a wonderful time in a beautiful, beautiful dress. My mother came out, very irritated, and got in the car. She started driving, but not in the direction of the mall. She drove to this small shopping center and told me to get out of the car. I looked at the sign on the window of the shop where she had parked. It was a consignment shop. My heart sank.
When we went inside, my mother spoke with the lady at the counter. “I called a few minutes ago about a dress.” The attendant said, “Oh, yes. Let me show you.” My mother followed the lady, and I followed my mother. I had learned long ago not to ask questions. The lady led us to the back of the store and left us there near a tall rack. When I looked closer, I noticed the sad, drab looking dresses. My dream dress couldn’t possibly be among those. I made comments about how they probably didn’t have one for a teenager and the better selection at the mall, but she wasn’t buying any of it. My mother started shuffling through the rack of outdated hand-me-downs and stopped at one. She pulled it out among the other dreary dresses and turned to me. “Go in the fitting room and try this one.” she said, handing it to me.
“Um, I don’t really like this one very much. It was not what I had in mind.” I explained.
“I don’t care. Try it on.” She gritted her teeth and gave me the look that said she would smack me in the face if I did not comply. So I did.
In the fitting room, I took a closer look at this dress. It was a white cotton eyelet dress with an empire waist and a large ruffle at the hem. I would have loved the dress if I were Elizabeth Bennett, but I wasn’t. I was a 14-year-old girl in the early 80’s. We loved color and fluff, full skirts and sweetheart necklines. All the girls talked about how their dresses were tea-length dresses, not full-length. As I put on the dress, I could feel a lump in my throat. I prayed it would not fit. Of course, it did.
My mother opened the door as I was slipping my arm into the elastic band of the sleeve. “That works perfectly.” she said, which meant that this was the dress I would have to wear.
“But I don’t really like it. I want a blue dress that’s tea-length.” I said quietly.
“I don’t care. Those dresses look trashy, and you’re not going to the prom looking like a tramp.” she clenched her teeth and dug her fingernails into my skin of my arm, something she often did to me. The sharp, piercing pain made me wince.
“Ouch. That hurts.” I cried.
“I wanted it to.” she gloated as she scowled, teeth still clenched.
“This dress looks old-fashioned. I want a dress like the other girls, one that is-” I felt a hot stinging twinge across my face as I realized she slapped me before I could finish my sentence.
“This is the dress you are getting,” Her hand concatenated my wrist as she pulled me close to her, our faces almost touching, “and I don’t want to hear another word about it, you fucking bitch. You are the most ungrateful, selfish bitch I have ever known, and I wish you had never been born.” Her breath reeked of alcohol. It made me want to vomit.
I took the dress off and slipped back into my clothes. She grabbed it and took it to the counter as I was tying up the laces of my sneakers. I had to think of a way to get out to going to the prom. I would pretend I was sick in the morning, and if she were home, she could call his mother. That was my plan. I walked up to the counter as she was paying for the dress. It was $10. That left $90 for shoes.
I tried to hide my tears from the lady who worked there, but she saw me. Our eyes locked. I decided to go sit in the car until my mother came out. When she did, I asked her about shoes and the rest of the money. That was also a mistake because she clutched the steering wheel and yelled obscenities for about a half hour before she started the car. She only started the car to drive away because the clerk came to the door of the store and was staring at us. I knew she has spent the money and didn’t have any to buy me shoes. She told me I could wear some that I already had.
I heard more obscenities, more name calling, more insults on the ride home, and still more once we reached the house. They were the type you could barely fathom a mother saying to her child. “All you and your son-of-a-bitch brothers want from me is money, you useless piece of shit!” This was one of the comments she made that day. I wanted to yell back, “No, Mother! We want love. We want affection. We want you to cook us a meal, to read us a book, to play a game with us, to tuck us in and kiss us goodnight. We want you to TALK to us. We want you to make us feel like we matter to you.” And besides, the money for the dress had come from my father, but only a small percentage was actually spent on the dress. How do you rationalize with an irrational person, though?
To this day I will never forget the embarrassment of wearing that ugly white eyelet dress. Of course, my mother made me go that night so she could brag at work about the rich parents of the popular boy who asked me to the prom. She also made me look like a clown because her narcissism had convinced her that I couldn’t apply make-up and style my hair. Only she could. To the prom, I wore embarrassment and shame. I wore the fact that my mother cared more about drinking and getting attention from married men at a bar than she did about giving attention to her own children at home. I wore the deep-seated hatred that I bore for my mother, for all the beatings, for all the name calling, for all the loneliness, for all the humiliation and perturbation that I endured.
As I pontificate this and other incidences of abuse garnered by my mother, the woman who bore me, I understand clearly that if I am to recover from its effects, looking within myself is essential to my self-preservation. Even though I have experienced such trauma in the formative years of my life, it is my continued reaction to it that is causing me such turmoil today. Even though I have escaped my mother and her abuse in the physical sense, I have not escaped the rage, insecurity, guilt, turmoil, and fear that I felt back then. In fact, I am suffocating in my own bleak and dejected thoughts at this very moment.
Being aware of the abuse and its effects does not cure everything. If I just could no longer feel, I would be happy, because for me, feeling meant “feeling the pain.” The repression of all other feelings beside rage, insecurity, guilt, turmoil, and fear have made me come to think of the peacefulness I craved as a child as an emotional death. Everything else was a mask.
For abused children as adults, our damaged and devastated trust must be nurtured so that in time, we will learn to feel safe enough to go through the healing process. My life simply cannot be the result of the cruelty I endured at the hands of the adults whom God entrusted to care for me.