"I'm so sorry, Mom," I cried. These words frequently echoed off my lips, resounding in a deafening silence from my mother. Most kids in my generation feared being grounded, losing privileges, or some form of physical beating, but I would have preferred those over what my mom typically had in store for me. I would have understood being sentenced to sit silently in my room. That was a punishment that most, if not all, kids went through. I would have understood not being allowed to watch TV or to use the computer, for those were good things that I, in my bad behavior, didn't deserve. And even a spanking with the wooden spoon...I'm not justifying physical violence or abuse, but at least these consequences would have been more typical of the average kid in the 90s.
"Mom, I'm sorry!" Now I was screaming it. Yelling, whining, tears pouring down my face. She looks at me silently, her eyes gazing at me, judging me. What was she thinking? Was she comparing me to my other siblings, how much better they were than me? Was she regretting having children, especially her first one, who was giving her so much grief at the moment? The truth is, I still don't know what was going through her mind. Perhaps it was nothing. All I knew was that this was what I deserved for my insubordination. My mother's brand of punishment was silence. Her withholding of words and affection was the price you paid for messing up, and it was so much worse to me than a slap across the butt.
See, when you hit your kid, whether it's politically correct or not, there is an emotion attached to it. Sometimes, it is done in anger and frustration, with yelling and tears. Other times, it is done with the quiet solace of disappointment, a "this hurts me more than it hurts you" attitude. These feelings were something that I could attach myself to and use to justify what was going on. But with silence you were left to wonder, and my imagination ran wild.
I was plagued by crippling social anxiety and depression in my 20s. Going to the gym became painful because I felt like all eyes were on me (even though I wasn't anything special to look at). If I made a mistake at work or thought I upset a friend from church, even if it was a minor infraction, insignificant in the grand scheme of things, instead of apologizing and moving forward, I would become riddled with panic. I would begin wondering what that person was thinking, how stupid they must think I am, and estimating when their anger would explode at me. It didn't matter how many times things ended up being OK. My brain could not compute. Fear of silence had been drilled into me at a young age, and the source of the problem was always me, myself, and I.
At least, that's what I thought. The truth was that there were times when I had no idea what the problem was.
"Hi, Mom," I would call as I entered the front door, home from school. I could have been 7, 12, 16 years old, it doesn't matter; the story plays out the same way at any age. Sometimes, I would be greeted a simple "hello" and a question about how my day was—a normal social interaction between a mother and her child. Other times, it would be abrupt.
"Hello," she would say, followed by silence. No smile on her face, no joy in her eyes. Something was bothering her. She was in a mood. What could it be? She never elaborated upon anything (if there was even anything to be elaborated upon). Eventually, I came to the conclusion that the common denominator in all my interactions with her was me.
Anxiety and fear become my default setting, and self-hate and loathing became my opinion of myself. "What's wrong?" I would ask her. "Did I do something?" I would badger her, relentlessly seeking out the reason for her misery.
"Nothing," was always her reply, but a person isn't simply unhappy for no reason, are they? No. It must be me.
When I screwed up as a kid and teenager, and I did that a lot—at least, I feel that I did—I finally had a reason for her silence and anger. But that didn't make it any better. I know knew the "why," but I still didn't have the "how." I lacked any knowledge of how to fix the situation or any ideology of how long it would typically last. Apologies and good deeds that I laid before my mother's feet as an offering fell upon deaf ears. I would be ignored, cast out, a pariah in my own house.
Sometimes, the silent treatment would simply last for a day, and the following morning my mother would greet me with her "normal" demeanor. Other times, it would last for days or weeks. My father worked a lot. He claims he wasn't around to see it. I think he feared losing my mother's love just like us kids did. Either way, he claimed to be either blind to it or just used to it, and his advice to me on how to deal with it was just that: "Deal with it. That's how your mother is. Either accept her quirks or don't continue a relationship with her."
I ended up doing the second one. I still don't know if it was the right choice. I hurt my parents a lot, but it was the only form of self-preservation I had. I found myself experiencing the pitfalls of an abusive relationship. I wasn't being treated like a fellow human, and the worst part was that I blamed myself for the whole thing. I made excuses for my mom's behavior. I would have panic attacks when anyone interacted with me in even a slightly negative way. I don't use the word "abuse" lightly, and I know there are so many people out there who had it worse than me. I had clothes, food, a good education. But I lacked emotional stability and a nurturing home. I was seeking true love without any strings or liabilities attached.
I recently met with my dad to try and work things out, to try and get some sort of reconciliation and relationship with my parents moving forward. I tried to appease to his sense of reason and get him to at least understand what I was saying. Mental illness, including depression and alcoholism, ran in his family. And he'd spent decades around my mom. Maybe he'd understand.
"You weren't abused," he said. "You had a good home and we did the best we could. That's just how your mother can be. Moody, emotional, and critical. If you were abused, and I don't think you were, it was only a little."
A little abused. That's me. Emotionally worn-down and seeking love and acceptance that I didn't get when I was growing up. I have to remind myself daily that I am an adult entitled to my opinions and feelings. That I have self-worth and am seen as valuable to others. And, most importantly, everyone's feelings of moodiness and judgement are not, despite how I feel, because of me.
These are some ramblings about my childhood. Abuse isn't always loud and bold. It can be quiet, silently neglectful of the things a person needs most. Today I am on medication. I am in therapy. I have a loving wife, two beautiful children, and a good career. But I was damaged by a behavior that seems harmless and quirky. Now I am moving forward.
I am an adult, entitled to my opinions and feelings.
I have self-worth and am seen as valuable to others.
I am not the source of everyone's moodiness and judgment.
I was a little abused, but won't be anymore.