10 years ago, my mom passed away in an ambulance on the way to the hospital.
Mom was one of those people who you couldn’t help but love because she had so much love and compassion for others. She had a faith that I can only aspire to. If you needed someone to pray for you, she’s the one you’d ask. Her sense of humor was something else, and her laugh was positively infectious. She was a strong woman, and had a stubborn streak that seems to be rather genetic. Mom was also in an abusive relationship.
I came across a book in this past year: Healing From Hidden Abuse by Shannon Thomas. I picked it up because it’s one of the rare resources I’ve found written by a Christian that deals with the aftermath of psychological abuse. I had to keep putting the book down and walking away because things the author mentioned were exactly the sort of things I saw play out in my mom’s relationship. I’d feel sick to my stomach and wonder, “How could I not see this for what it was before now?”
I was one of those foolish people who used to say things like, “Why don’t they just leave?” or, “Why don’t they just cut ties with them?” when hearing about someone in an abusive relationship. It’s funny the things that you get used to, the things you can explain away, and the behavior you make excuses for when you’re in the middle of it. The irony is, while I was judging all of those people who insisted on maintaining a relationship with someone who was mistreating them horribly, I couldn’t see the truth of my mom’s relationship, or the abusive one I spent decades in. Actually, it wasn’t until after the abuser cut ties with me a few years back that I started to see things clearly.
When someone asked me, “Why didn’t you, your mom, or your sister say anything?” I struggled to explain. The short answer is: I didn’t realize that there was anything wrong with what was going on. When you grow up in a certain environment, you just think it’s normal. But it’s more complicated than that. I was afraid to say anything because I’d been conditioned to be afraid of saying anything. I felt too embarrassed and ashamed to speak up. I believed that it was my fault — that it wasn’t really abuse, and so I felt guilty for being upset and angry about it. I know that all of this sounds crazy from the perspective of normal, healthy relationships, but psychological abuse is insidious. The stuff you end up believing is crazy, and on some level you know it’s crazy, but you can’t shake that deep belief that all of those lies are true.
So why write about any of this? I can’t change what my mom went through. I can’t change what I went through. Why say anything?
First, because I want to tell people that sometimes the person being abused does not fit any of the stereotypes. Sometimes it’s the strong, independent, outgoing person who’s being abused. We don’t know what goes on behind closed doors, and those closed doors are in every neighborhood and demographic. Sometimes the abuser is the person who’s in some sort of church leadership position. The kind of person who fills in when the pastor is on vacation and leads Bible studies. We don’t know what goes on behind closed doors. Appearances can be very deceiving, and abusers can be very good at projecting a good front. The scary part is how good they are at getting the people they are abusing to help them put up a good front. We can’t assume because everything looks OK on the outside, that everything is OK.
Second, because telling our stories is a powerful thing. I’ve heard some truly awful stories, but sometimes those stories had remarkable things that came after all of the awful. Stories where people not only survived the abuse and survived getting out of the relationship, but stories of people who are healthier, stronger, and have a deeper faith than ever. It can take a really, really long time — many years — but there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. Those stories give me something to hold onto, something to look forward to.
I can’t change Mom’s story or my own and edit out the ugly parts, much as I might wish to. What I can do, is hold tight to my faith just like she did. By the grace of God, I’m going to get to the other side of this, even if it takes years.
Note: If you’re in an abusive relationship, or are dealing with the aftermath of one, please take care of yourself and stay safe. If you need to make arrangements for your own safety, or seek professional help for your mental and physical health, then please do get the help that you need.