Content Warning: eating disorder history, abuse, suicidal threats, sexual assault, anxiety
My mom used to be my best friend. My childhood was filled with golden rays of sunshine slipping through the trees that lined my cul-de-sac as I spent time outside with my neighbors, biking and skating around. But I was the only child with a strict curfew; be home by 5 PM, before sunset. Whenever I went to group outings, I was always the one who sheepishly had to leave first, and it made me not want to even go to them to avoid the goodbyes and hearing everyone’s sympathies that I had to leave so soon.
Sleepovers were rarely allowed, and when they were, I would relish in them, singing cheerfully in my room to my favorite songs while packing a night away bag. Everything was conditional and on my mom’s terms, and I was allowed to do the most when she was in a good mood, which I could rarely predict. She liked having me close by, respected my shyness as a child, and never forced me to enter any clubs whether it was Girl Scouts or sports. I respected it at the time, though, because I was so scared of discomfort and being forced into situations. I sought comfort in this controlling relationship with her, and it wasn’t until I started growing up that my older brother started to resent my mother because he had grown up faster than I had. After all, he was 3 years older than me and started to naturally reflect faster than I did. He would share these private thoughts about her with me during night drives in his car and I quickly became familiar with the feelings of growing up. I suddenly realized that parents aren’t perfect and that they tell you a reality they want you to grow up in, but they aren’t always right.
I never raised my hand or asked questions in class because my mother would sigh and become overwhelmed if I asked her, “What’s for dinner?” at the wrong time. I grew up fearful of authority figures: my friend’s parents when I’d visit their homes, teachers, my future managers and bosses. While I should not credit the anxieties I carry with me these days fully to the single parent who did her best to raise me, I have reached a point in my life where I have been willing to confront myself that this prominent figure in my life can love me while simultaneously being extremely flawed, socializing me to fear the world when I cannot be in control of it.
My first serious relationship, when I was seventeen, was with a boy from the East Coast. It ended up being a long-distance relationship, and at first, I was drawn to him because he quickly shared his unhappiness with the world and his own upbringing with me. I wanted to fill him with so much love and empathy, show him that I will listen to all his sorrows at any time, and do anything to help improve his situation. He would lovebomb me, and I had no resources to identify or understand it while dating him. A year into dating, he ended up cheating on me and initially claimed that the girl he made out with for an hour straight forced him to do it, and that he did not consent. I suddenly had pity for him, sacrificing my own pain from his mistakes to prioritize the consolation of his emotional needs. He threatened to commit suicide if I broke up with him and forced me to soothe him through his guilt of cheating on me. I stayed by his side out of fear of what would happen if I left, and I developed an eating disorder as a way to feel like I was in control of my life. I felt, in all other aspects through this emotionally and verbally abusive relationship, that I lost all control of my autonomy; I had to restrict my diet and obsessively exercise to feel like I was in control of anything. My boyfriend ended up projecting his regret onto me, and he resented me, claiming that I would cheat on him at any chance I got. He controlled me and chose what I wore to classes, so I wouldn’t solicit my body with outfits he deemed were “asking for male attention” and a risk to our already unstable relationship. I wanted to prove my commitment and devotion to him, to prove to him that I suffered immensely by being a victim of infidelity, and I was insulted that he would throw these cheap claims at me. I felt the need to stay with him to prove that I could never imagine being the cause of that pain and grievance voluntarily for anyone important in my life. I was actually committing the most harm to myself by keeping this volatile person in my life for a whole year longer. In hindsight, I realized his abuse directed at me was a direct result of all the guilt and self-loathing he had from cheating on me, and it was not a reflection of who I was at all.
Now I have the knowledge that victims of abuse unconsciously find themselves attracted to individuals who treat them the same way as a previous abuser–in my case my mother. I have suffered from an immense amount of self-doubt, failure to myself that I chose to keep a toxic person in my life for as long as I did, and confusion about how to navigate the rest of my 20s with such uncertainty within myself and the future. Anxiety still and has always affected my daily life, and I still doubt my emotions, struggling to validate my fears without feeling like I am giving in to them. My deepest regret is my first serious relationship, where I allowed myself to tolerate such blatant abuse and control from someone. Unfortunately, there is comfort in the abuse pattern, and it is never the victim’s fault for staying. I now have a healthy relationship with food and exercise, I am in a 3-year relationship with someone who fills me with so much reassurance and unconditional love, and I am working on feeling secure in my decisions as an adult. While healing is not a linear process, I know that I am always growing and learning from my past to forge a brighter future for myself.