My brother texted me recently asking if I had ever gotten in contact with a woman living in the city I had moved back to a few years ago. The woman in question had been friends with my stepmother when I was a child. Her daughter used to babysit my brother and me, and sometimes we would spend the night hanging out at their place. I enjoyed their company well enough but when my brother asked about contacting her, I hesitated to reach out. I eventually decided I wouldn’t. Not because I have a personal problem with that woman or her daughter. But because of her connection to my stepmother, who was emotionally abusive.
Last year, my previous therapist had come to the conclusion my issues with depression and anxiety can be partially attributed to my separation from my biological mother when I was six years old. My dad had to put a restraining order on my mother because she was violent towards him, my stepmother, my brother, and me. I haven’t seen or spoken to her since childhood. My therapist suggested I should try to reconnect with her; however, I expressed my hesitance because of her abuse. My therapist noted that my mother had been a practicing addict when I was younger. She felt there was a possibility that in the twenty or so years since we spoke, my mother could have gotten sober and changed for the better.
The thing is, while I believe society should be more empathetic towards people struggling with addiction, I don’t believe victims of child abuse should have to be among those to extend that sympathy or understanding to their abusers. In the past year, I have re-evaluated many of my relationships. And I took a certain level of satisfaction in cutting out people I had long maintained a connection with, simply because I had felt obligated to due to family history. While there are people in my life I know I need to work on forgiving, there comes a point when some relationships do need to be severed permanently.
Making the decision to block my stepmother on Facebook was an example of having reached this point. After she and my dad divorced when we were children, my brother and I put on a show of missing her and being devastated by the separation. I don’t think we knew that was what we were doing; but at least on my part, demonstrating some grief felt obligatory. When my stepmother’s aforementioned friend asked my brother and me how we felt about the divorce, we claimed to be upset about it. However, when my dad asked if we wanted her back, we told him no.
My brother and I actually kept in contact with my stepmother for a few years after the divorce. It wasn’t until we got older that we started to distance ourselves from her. This came as a result of coming to understand that we had, in fact, been abused. As adults, we had come to reassess the experiences we had as children from a more informed perspective, now truly understanding what constitutes abuse.
We didn’t understand what we had experienced from my step-mother was abuse partially because we compared it to our biological mother’s physical abuse and neglect. So our stepmother’s behavior in comparison seemed like normal parenting. I had grown up believing that I was a bad child because my stepmother would find something to yell at us about, bringing me to tears daily. I thought we deserved her wrath, and that her constant outrage towards us, for every minor thing, was justified.
And because conversations about child abuse and mental health were practically non-existent when I was growing up, no one called my stepmother’s behavior out for what it was. As a result, the abuse was normalized. I even thought it was simply how parents disciplined their kids. Emotional abuse is insidious that way though. There don’t seem to be well-defined laws in place that outline what it is. So when there are no specific societal rules outlawing emotionally abusing minors, it is therefore perceived to be legal, and thus normal and acceptable.
This normalcy and consistency of abuse have had consequences for me. I grew up being bullied at home and at school, which left me feeling as if there was something wrong with me. In conflicts, I always assumed I was the one in the wrong. When I am hurt or angry, I invalidate my own feelings. I tell myself that my feelings are not justified. I am being oversensitive, and I shouldn’t feel the way I do. I am uncomfortable with expressing myself emotionally for fear of being shamed. I don’t handle criticism well because my stepmother’s voice lingers in my head, berating me for every mistake I make.
Yes, my stepmother is only human. She was also recovering from addiction, and it’s possible she was raising my brother and me the only way she knew how. It’s also possible she has grown and changed as a person in the many years since she was an active part of my life. However, the biggest benefit to me being an adult is I can control who I keep in my life and who I don’t. I had no such control of my life as a child; rather, I grew up with a constant feeling of helplessness.
All relationships should be beneficial to everybody involved. Keeping people in my life or maintaining a connection with those who have caused me harm does not benefit me. In the years leading up to me blocking her, I had barely concealed my rage anytime my stepmother spoke to me, and only because I thought I owed her that grace. But I’m tired of feeling like I owe my abusers my time, my energy, and my forgiveness. This is my life; ultimately, I decide who I keep in it. And I do not owe anyone who doesn’t or hasn’t served a positive purpose in my life a single damn thing.
Get The Tempest in your inbox. Read more exclusives like this in our weekly newsletter!