Trigger Warning: Sexual Abuse.
My mother married a monster. Not the sinister big bad wolf kind who can barely conceal his true form under dainty presences. No, we were not fortunate enough to see the big teeth—all the better to eat us with—peeking out from behind some thin disguise. He was the kind of monster that charms his way into your heart, makes himself comfortable in your life and waits for you to love him. And then, only then, when you feel safest and happiest, when it’s way too late to run, he destroys you.
There are so many points in this story, where if I could travel back in time, I would scream at my mother to run from the man who scarred me forever. But the only access I have to my past is the dark memories and the terrifying nightmares that still wake me up at night with sweat and tears pouring down my face. I cannot go back, only forward. But going forward doesn’t mean I’ve forgotten. I don’t think I ever will.
My mother met my step-father when I was six years old. He was a businessman from the U.K. who was visiting our island home and staying at the hotel she worked at. A friend of hers set them up, though my mother blew him off the first time. But with some persistence he persuaded her to go out with him. They began a whirlwind romance unlike any love affair I had ever seen my mother in. Her other boyfriends were men I saw her kiss goodbye through car windows, and she was always home at night to sleep beside me in the bed we shared.
But this one was different. This romance included separations from my mother as she jetted off to England with him. Then he began to visit more often. Then came the sleepovers which meant a sleepover of sorts for me—I spent many nights in my aunt’s bed. He called my grandmother “Mom” and she cooked for him. My aunt and cousins took to him.
I wish I could say I had that special intuition children have for people with ill-intentions, but I was enamoured too. He brought me chocolates and had real conversations with me. He encouraged my intelligence and my curiosity. And two years after he’d met my mother, he gave me what I wanted most—a sibling. A sweet, docile, curly-headed baby boy that I loved and adored. I instantly forgave him for not being the sister I originally hoped for. And I forgave my step-father for keeping my real father and my mother from rekindling. To me, he was the next best thing.
A year after my brother was born, my stepfather married my mother. Shortly after that, a baby sister was added to the happy family and tickets were bought and bags were packed for the great U.S. of A. I have always been a weepy person and many tears were shed in that airport as I said goodbye to my family and my best friend. My father, who had lost full custody to my mother years before, added a stern warning to his goodbye that confused me at the time but sends a chill down my back every time I recall it now. He said, “Don’t let him touch you.”
We settled in Florida, and things were as sunny as the Southern weather for a while. But cracks in the mask began to show through. I received many stern lectures on good and acceptable behaviour. And then the “spankings” came. For leaving the front door unlocked. For refusing to kill a cockroach that had set up residence in my bedroom closet. For allowing a swarm of hornets to nest in a pair of shoes I’d left on the balcony too long. I reasoned for a long time after that the spankings were not too harsh, nor undeserved. But I was beginning to see a side of my stepfather that had never reared its head back home. With an ocean between us and the rest of my family, he became a disciplinarian.
It was as if the further he got from our island, the more he let go of his pretences. We moved to Canada, rather unexpectedly due to immigration issues, just shy of a year after arriving in Florida. My mother, largely pregnant with my youngest sister was a picture of misery. She hadn’t wanted a fourth child and the cold weather disagreed with her. But we were stuck and so we stayed. We rented a tiny house, all my stepfather could afford with his new minimum wage job. I was homeschooled for a year because immigration restricted me from enrolling in school.
While I was learning English and Math and History, I was getting a few extra-curricular lessons as well. I learned about poverty and food banks and hunger. I learned what it looks like when a largely pregnant woman gets into a terrifying yelling match with an angry husband and how it felt to cower helplessly in a corner. I learned that small spaces and foetal positions were comforting for me. And I learned about masturbation from my stepfather. At 12 years old. I don’t recall asking for that lesson, but it was delivered anyway. What I do remember is feeling incredibly uncomfortable about it. But like the warning from my father, I brushed that away too.
In fact, I brushed my father way. My father, a devoutly religious man, had been sending me reading material and Bibles. He wrote me long letters encouraging me to keep my faith. I was 12. I wasn’t interested. And my stepfather encouraged me to tell my father exactly that. I remember the hurt and surprise in my father’s voice. It didn’t bother me then. But it strikes me now as one more inch of distance my stepfather was creating.
With every move, he got bolder. When we moved from the small house to an apartment building, he began visiting me at night. I slept in the upper bunk of a bunkbed, right above my siblings, and he would climb into my bed at night. It seemed innocent, because he hadn’t touched me. He’d just lay beside, the big spoon to my little one.
It was weird, yes, but it was a better alternative than the hour long lectures and the brutal “spankings” I got for any little breach of his long list of rules. It was better than him reading my emails and interrogating me about boys. It was better than the time he tried to kick me out and slapped me across the face for swearing at school. (To this day, I still don’t know how he found that out.) There were days I would go to school yawning from exhaustion because I’d been up listening to him lecture me for hours. There were times I couldn’t sit properly in class because my ass was swollen, the shape of the belt marking my butt cheeks. So when he crawled into my bed, it was a relief. I had done nothing wrong that day. I would go elsewhere, zone out, pretend it wasn’t me he was cuddled up behind.
It only got worse when we moved again and I got my own bedroom. There were no siblings who might wake up and question why their dad was in my bed. His new job meant that he’d come in at late hours when my mother was already fast asleep at the other end of the hall in their bedroom. He’d come home, and come to my room first. He’d get into my bed. Big spoon. He’d put his hand through the bottom of my night shirt, between my breasts. Hand on my shoulder. I could feel him, his heat, his body pressed up against me. Hands wandering. Me silent. I became an expert at disassociating. At zoning out. At pretending anyone else was in that bed but me.
The lectures continued, though the beatings stopped. Just hours and hours of demoralizing lectures reminding me of every rule I’d ever broken, every way I’d ever failed. I lost count of the ways I could get in trouble. There were more than anyone could reasonably be expected to keep track of. I am a born perfectionist and a chronic people pleaser. His displeasure with me was unbearable.
He was terrifying when he raged. I was reamed out in Walmart because my t-shirt bared my midriff when I reached up for an item above me. I was screamed at in a strip mall parking lot while my siblings cried and my mother watched in shocked silence. I heard him punch a hole in my mother’s closet door after an argument that started with me. Because when he was angry with me, he was angry with everyone. My siblings got it. My mother got it. The house would be so tense, it felt like we were always on the verge of explosion. And I was a lit match.
So when he came to my bedroom at night, I learned to do more than fall quiet and go elsewhere in my mind. I became someone else. I never resisted. I played along. Though I was starting to hate him, I said “I love you too” when he told me he loved me. And a part of me did. The sooner I relaxed and pretended I’d fallen asleep, the sooner he’d leave me alone. As long as I played along, there were no fights. Everybody got to be happy.
He took this as a good sign. He began taking me out to dinners, buying me gifts and calling me his girlfriend. He told me in another universe, he would marry me. A weekend road trip and a night in a hotel included an ironic lecture on the danger of alcohol and men taking advantage of women. If my mother left the house, he took full advantage, putting his hands in places they never belonged. A 10 o’clock pick up from church youth night would end up in a 12 o’clock arrival at home because he’d stop to buy me pizza. And after the pizza, he’d stop to find a dark parking lot where he could touch me and I could pretend to be someone else, someone who liked it. I am terrified of dark parking lots. I am ashamed of what happened to me on those late nights, in the cramped confines of a car. I am haunted by who I became and what my alter ego allowed, what I learned to welcome as the better alternative.
Because the second I slipped, the moment I wasn’t affectionate or loving enough, it was war in our house. The same old yelling matches and the same old unbearable tension. I once asked him if he could stop calling me his girlfriend, and he actually sulked like a child before the anger fired up in his eyes. I retracted my request very quickly. It was a long time before he forgave me for that.
So I learned to keep playing along. And the less I resisted, the more I became that other person. A person who would try to control when and how I was abused by initiating it. My therapist tells me it was a coping mechanism, but I’m still not able to forgive myself. Because the more I did that, the more the real me suffered. I cringed internally when he called me his girlfriend and told me he was in love with me. But I never showed my discomfort. I cried myself to sleep at night after he left my room.
The more this went on, the further apart my mother and I drifted. He was distant from her. They fought often. Our home became a house divided. He against her. She against me. I wanted to tell her, but I didn’t know how. How do you say, “Hey mom, your husband is abusing me and treats me like his mistress”? There’s no prescribed opener for that conversation. So I’d sit beside her during episodes of Law and Order, silent when the story centered on incest and molestation, half convinced those things weren’t the same as what was happening to me anyway.
It was a Sunday morning the day it all started crumbling down. It was just few days shy of my nineteenth birthday and we were getting ready for church. I was making pasta for the lunch we’d eat when we got home, and instead of putting the empty box in the recycling bin, I forgot it on the counter. He came downstairs in a fury because after I’d used the bathroom, I’d forgotten to wiggle the lever that flushed the toilet to stop the water from running in the toilet and when he spotted the pasta box his anger turned up a notch. He started in on another one of his lectures about how irresponsible I was and how I never listened. And as he talked and talked and talked, I felt my own anger boiling up inside me. When the words came out of my mouth, I almost didn’t believe it was me who had said them.
“Ok! I heard you. Why do you always have to go on like that? I heard you the first time!”
He paused for a split second and shocked silence echoed between us before he began another angry rant. The argument went back and forth for a while. I could hear my mother and siblings walking around upstairs, unbothered by what was just another argument between him and me. And then it happened. Just as my mother was coming down the stairs, I stepped towards him, and he shoved me with both hands into the wall behind me. My mother sprung to action, stepping between us. It was the first time I’d ever seen her get in his face on my behalf. My mother, who had become a shell of herself under his angry tyranny, was showing her fire again.
In the face of her resistance, he marched upstairs and the house fell quiet. And for weeks, it went on like that. My birthday came and went and he didn’t acknowledge me. School started and when I asked him for money to buy books, he scoffed. He refused to eat with us. He’d come home and go to bed. And I was ok with that because it meant he wasn’t talking to me. He wasn’t visiting me at night. He wasn’t touching me.
And then late one night, I found him downstairs sitting in the living room and he beckoned me over to him. He sat me on his lap and I felt my heart begin to pound. He told me he missed me and he was hurt. He said he was sorry about the fight. He told me he wanted to go back to the way things were—“things” of course being his nightly visits to my room, my pretending. I fought for composure, to resist the urge to flinch. I just nodded so he’d let me go.
The very next morning after he’d left for work, I called my mother’s best friend, a woman I loved and trusted. I told her I needed to see her right away. She agreed to meet me later that morning in a coffee shop near her house. We ordered tea and sat down like all the other normal patrons. And then I brought our normalcy to a screeching halt when I told her my stepfather had been abusing me for seven years, how my mother didn’t know, and how I couldn’t keep pretending anymore. I told her that pretending was killing me.
I watched the tears fill her eyes. A man she knew and trusted around her daughters, a man she thought was taking care of her best friend’s daughter, a man who was respected in their church, was an abuser. She agreed to be the one to tell my mother. So I went to school, a ghost of myself, and wept during my lectures. My mother called me to tell me she knew and that she was sorry. I told her I wasn’t going to press charges but that I had to leave. Two days later, I moved in with my mom’s best friend and her family. And that’s where I cracked.
It was as if the burden of pretending was lifted and whatever was holding my broken pieces together gave way. I fell into a deep depression. I was a chronic insomniac. I lost ten pounds in a matter of weeks. I was so anxious that if I saw a vehicle that looked like his, I had to go home. I began to drop out of classes because I was forgetting to do the work. I was shattered and lost. I’d sit in my therapist’s office and stare at the wall behind her head, hearing only half of what she’d said.
After three months, I moved back home. He was gone, living in a motel somewhere. My mother had rearranged all the furniture in my bedroom and changed the bedding. I spent Christmas with her and my siblings. I started to eat and sleep again, to see my friends. I met the man who is now my fiancé. I started to move forward, to feel normal. When she told me he was asking to move back in, I decided I would move out. I didn’t tell her how angry I was that she was even considering it. I made the decision for her and moved in with fiancé.
For years, I swallowed back my anger at my mother for staying with him, at my stepfather for giving me a reason to be angry at her. I sat at Christmas dinners and passed turkey and avoided eye contact. I played with my siblings and pretended their father hadn’t ruined me. I pretended, because I was really fucking good at it. I held two opposing emotions towards my mother, my siblings, myself, because I was really fucking good at that too. And I coped. Because that’s what I was expected to do.
Until pretending got too hard. Earlier this year, I had three breakdowns at work. I was having panic attacks every week and crying uncontrollably. I took time off work and went to see my family doctor. I was diagnosed with clinical depression, generalized anxiety disorder and PTSD. I began seeing a counsellor regularly who encouraged me to talk to my mother, and I did.
After 5 years, I told her all the things I was angry at her for. I told her how I would never forgive my stepfather, how I would never sit at another dinner table with him. I demanded an explanation for why she stayed. And when she told me it was because she needed him financially, I realized there were two victims here, not one. He had stripped her of her autonomy, her ability to take care of her children. He made her dependent on him so that even when he did the unthinkable, she couldn’t leave. He snuffed out her fire. I am still angry that she stays, but I forgive her, because I know what it is to pretend because it makes life easier, because it is the lesser of two evils. I hate that I understand, but I do.
I am learning to forgive me too. I am learning to let go of the feelings of guilt and shame; of all the parts of my abuse that I accepted responsibility for. It was not my fault. I did what I had to do to survive. And while I don’t yet fully believe those words, I’m working giving myself that forgiveness. I cannot go back, only forward. Forgiving me is the only way I can do that.