For 27 years, my mother was abusive to me. The kind of abusive that felt hard to wrap in an understandable package for people, only possible to explain through a thousand individual stories and with a thousand qualifiers. Does every abusive relationship feel like that from the inside?
“But I know they love me.”
“They’ve had a really hard life.”
“They’re not mentally stable; it’s not their fault.”
“They’ve been much better recently.”
“They’re doing the best they can.”
I didn’t understand it was abuse until a college internship supervisor assigned me a textbook to read. Each chapter was on a different kind of abuse, and they began with bullet-pointed definitions. Every bullet described one of my thousand stories as sexual, verbal, mental, emotional, and spiritual abuse.
But the black and white definitions didn’t leave any room for my qualifying statements. And I wasn’t ready to let them go.
As I understood it, empathy was the one value that could never be wrong, at any time or in any situation.
As I understood it, empathy was the one value that could never be wrong, at any time or in any situation. The Christian church had taught me that empathy was a divine mandate, and the notion cemented itself around the abuse and held me there.
“Love keeps no record of wrongs.” (1 Corinthians 13:5)
After each new trauma, the message from my Christian pastors, mentors, and friends was, “You need to forgive her. Reconcile. Love the people who hurt you.”
The danger of these statements is that they seem so unquestionably good. How could I argue with forgiveness, reconciliation, and love?
One mentor said, “I find it helps to picture the person who hurt you as a little kid.” I couldn’t get angry at a little kid.
Even though I was having multiple panic attacks a day, and I was told that if I didn’t get my heart rate down I would die young — I did what my empathy was prompting me to do. Over and over again. After reeling from a new wound, I’d empathize, place myself back in front of her, and line myself up as an easier target.
“Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” (Matthew 5:39)
The message was outside of the church, too, motivated not by our eternal life but by our very finite one: “One day they’ll be gone, and you don’t want to regret anything. Make things right while you still have the chance.”
Then my counselor said, “You keep saying it wouldn’t cost you a lot. But what if it’s actually costing you everything?”
Abusive people know this message well, and they use it. I was 26 when I last spoke with my mom. She told me she was dying of malignant thyroid cancer. She said if I didn’t make things right with her before she died, I would carry that guilt for the rest of my life. I tried to talk to her about why our relationship was so hard, but she got angry, and hurled words, and stopped listening to me.
My last words to her were, “I love you. I want to be here for you through this.”
She never contacted me after that.
I lived two weeks thinking my worst nightmare was really happening — she would die without our happy ending, and I’d regret it forever. Then I did a five-minute Google search and realized nothing she had said, medically, could be true.
Six months later I found a really good counselor. (Thank God for really good counselors.)
During our first session, I told her I was torn about whether or not to send a Mother’s Day card and flowers. I didn’t want to, but I hated knowing how sad my mom would be that day if I didn’t. I imagined what it would feel like to not be contacted by your daughter on Mother’s Day. I didn’t want to be the cause of that hurt. I empathized.
And it would be so easy for me to do, I thought. Such a simple thing, such a small turn of my neck. That last one stung, but here, here’s my other cheek.
“It wouldn’t cost me a lot, you know, but it would make a big difference to her,” I said to my counselor.
Then my counselor said, “You keep saying it wouldn’t cost you a lot. But what if it’s actually costing you everything? And what if it’s not helping her, or you?”
Tears came more easily than words, and I eased my head into my lap. Finally I heard myself say, “I’m just so tired. So, so, so tired.”
I sounded like a ghost.
For the next year, I ignored the church, the Ted Talks on regrets, and the phone calls from family members telling me to “just let it go.”
I didn’t ignore my anger, hurt, alarm bells, or anxiety.
I started writing the record of wrongs I had never allowed myself to keep, looked at each item, and finally called it wrong. I practiced setting the empathy aside and making decisions based on what made me finally, finally safe.
Empathy is a gorgeous, powerful thing. But I needed to know when to set it aside. I couldn’t practice it and get out at the same time. I needed anger to keep my head clear and to drive my feet forward, step after impossible step. But something remarkable happened when I was finally out of striking distance: I felt real empathy.
False empathy justified my mother’s behavior. Real empathy looked my mother full in the face, made no excuses, and said, You are still human.
In my last counseling session, I made the decision to keep no contact with my mother. I felt the last bit of power she held over me release, and one hundred pounds lift. Safety flooded my body and buoyed me up. I felt so good I didn’t know whether to cry or laugh. Driving home, I did both.
After that moment, I imagined what it was like to be my mother. She must be tired. She must be scared.
Head bowed, eyes closed, I wished her the best. I whispered to God, “Take good care of her.”
And I let her go.
photography by Britney Gill for ON OUR MOON