mama's girl“As my sufferings mounted I soon realized that there were two ways in which I could respond to my situation — either to react with bitterness or seek to transform the suffering into a creative force. I decided to follow the latter course.” 
― Martin Luther King Jr.

I was probably about 8 or 9 when I realized that my mother was not like everyone else’s.  Despite her outward efforts to appear like a typical, loving mother, inside there was a broken circuit.  Neurons were not firing the right way.  Her brain was off.  You would never know to meet her.  She was so charming – all smiles and laughter.  She was effusive and energetic.  Everyone enjoyed her company and found her fun and engaging.  She strategically hid her disease.  She kept it tucked away for only the most special to witness and experience.  She wore her costume every day and, over time, as it began to wear around the edges, her true self would peek through.  She worked awfully hard to keep her cloak on for as long as she could but soon she would combust, flames burning around her and her protective garment would melt away and she would be the mother I knew.  The mother I understood.  The mother I loved.

It was a warm, sunny day as she sat in her plastic-strapped lawn chair in our postage stamp of a yard.  For the 1970’s, in Queens, we had a substantial chunk of ground to call our backyard but it was all concrete and chain link fence.  My father attempted to bring his Italian heritage to our land, grooming lovely flowers and plants but they were just window dressing to hide the ugly poured ground that encompassed our brick row house.  It was Mother’s Day and Spring was in full bloom.  I am not sure if my father was still with us at this point but, without question, my mother was the center of my life.  She was the sun, the earth, the moon, the stars, the planets, the galaxy.  I worshipped her.  I needed her.  I craved her love and approval.  And, yet, I knew, deep in my core, that I would never receive it.  But, like any overachiever, I set out to do whatever necessary to try to succeed.

Our house was one block off of the main boulevard in our town.  The street was riddled with all of my favorite haunts – the little novelty store where I bought my Hello Kitty trinkets, the candy store where I attempted to shoplift a grocery bag full of Barbie dolls when I was in kindergarten, Woolworth’s, the upscale stationery store where I would wander in to test out all of the fancy Cross pens.  My father used to carry a slim gold Cross pen in his shirt pocket or in his jacket and I coveted it, knowing I would be ridiculed if I dared to touch it.  Often, I would find it lying on the table and would scribble notes on scrap paper, feeling the sleek instrument in my small chubby hands.  During the summers, I would wander from store to store, window shopping, or looking for items to buy with my small savings that came from loose change I would find or random slips of cash from my father when he had been drinking and felt guilty about his disregard for me.  It was so easy for him to forget about me.  I came at the end of a long line of kids for him. He had his daughter and son from his first marriage – the ones he abandoned when he found out my mother was pregnant as a result of their illicit affair in the 1950’s.  He started a new family with his young mistress and sired my sister and then his precious son.  I was a late addition to the party.  A requirement for my mother after she suffered through stillborn twins the year before my birth.  I was a salve for her wounds.  A sacrifice to numb her pain.  She always told me how much I was wanted.  I was the chosen child while my sister was the accident.

I’m not sure how I understood this but it was always quite clear to me that my role was to please my mother and try to make her happy.  I was the ideal candidate – it was as if they bred me to absorb her pain and cleanse her soul.  I was open and welcoming, willing to endure anything she would throw my way.  I bravely stood before her as she screamed and yelled at me, calling me names, beating me with belts, spatulas – anything that would serve as a conduit allowing her internal demons to seep out and brand themselves into my skin.  She needed to transfer her torment and I was her sweet, sacrificial lamb.  I protected her fiercely, devotedly sat at her feet, ready and willing to accept whatever small treats she would toss my way.  I worked hard in school to make her proud, I towed the line, rarely talked back, kept myself entertained.  During the cold months, when it was just her and me in the house, we would sit for hours on the weekends playing Gin Rummy at our small kitchen table.  Later we would move on to Milles Bourne and I treasured these times.  She was peaceful, we were together – just the two of us in our cocoon.  I basked in her sunlight.  I was warmed by her attention.  I took my role seriously and I was determined to serve her well.  These moments gave me hope for success.  They made me believe I had a shot.

On this Mother’s Day when I was about 8 or 9, I saved all my loose change and gathered some dollar bills together so I could find the perfect present for my mother.  I loved buying gifts.  The ritual of searching for the perfect item, wrapping it in beautiful packaging and topping it with a bow was a joyous process.  I would hunt for the absolute perfect card and, in my youthful voice, using my limited vocabulary, I would share my love, my affection, my gratitude for the recipient.  “Love always and forever and ever” was my sign off.  I rarely actually said the words “I love you” nor did I hear them much but skirted around them using variations to express my eternal adoration.

For this gift, I spent hours wandering from store to store on Bell Blvd., searching for something that would be perfect.  The gift that would elicit a wide-eyed smile, ensuring that she felt the transfer of my love as she unwrapped my token.  My mother, a master artisan in bullshit, seemed to fail miserably when it came to masking her feelings in front of her children.  If she was dissatisfied with her gift, there would be no questioning it.  I never had to wonder if I was successful in my mission.  Her face would tell me everything I needed to know.  When I found the small jewelry box, with all its little drawers and secret compartments to hold her various baubles that lay strewn around her top dresser drawer, I knew I had discovered my bounty.  This was sure to make her day.  It would serve a purpose and showed that I was thoughtful.  It was not a meaningless bottle of perfume (which she would have certainly enjoyed) and it was more substantial than a potholder crafted in school or a mail holder built from stapled white paper plates.  This cost a good deal of money and was meant to hold her precious gems that my father regularly presented to her in exchange for her forgiveness after a drunken debacle or a bloody fight.

When she opened up the package, I knew I had hit my mark.  Her smile built slowly as she unwrapped the box and her eyes lit up as she inspected the jewelry box.  She exclaimed with joy how much she loved it and offered the gratuitous “You didn’t have to buy me this!”  I looked at my mother, sincerely and confidently, and said “Yes I did.”  She patiently stared back at me, awaiting my next words.  “If I didn’t, you would have been mad at me.”  I remember the moment like it was yesterday but I have long since lost any memory of what followed.  I have no idea how she reacted.  There is no recollection of surprise, dismay, disregard.  I spoke my words and, regardless of what followed, I knew that I spoke my truth and it was evident that I was now a participant in this game with her.

Years later, when I was a young adult in college, my mother would send me hate mail.  I would open my mailbox at school and find long white envelopes addressed only to “Palazzo” followed by my address.  The words were written in her trademark cursive.  Big, bold lettering, all curvy and bodacious.  Often, my friend Joe would be standing with me as I reached in to pull out the letters and he would steel himself for what he knew was coming.  My back would straighten up and I could feel the tension growing in the pit of my stomach.  There would be no letter of support, no check to provide me with some spending money, no lovely words to transmit her pride in my being the first and only of her children to attend a university.  When the seal was broken on the envelope, what emanated from under the flap was anger, hatred, venom.  Words intended to threaten me, shame me, to level the playing field because I decided to shut down the games.  I decided that I was no longer a willing participant.  I dared to abandon my role as her healer.  The rules of engagement had changed, without her permission, without her approval.  The letters came regularly – sometimes daily, sometimes weekly.  If it were today, it would be a daily onslaught of emails to remind me what a monster I was.  It would be a regular diatribe to continue the transference of her pain and she would have to be relentless about it because she would never have the satisfaction to ensure that I was suffering in her place.  She would never know how I received her hateful messages.  She would never have a glimpse into my soul to know if I had simply shut her out or if I was crippled by her venom.  If her child, her miracle, her required offspring was collapsing under the weight of her torture.  She was vigilant because she never got her answer.

Her words were first painful and then they became absurd.  It was the same message over and over.  For four years, I anxiously checked my mail, fearing and then dreading the attacks.  But, after a while, I became numb.  They were part of my life.  Just as my role as her salvation became normal and acceptable as a child, I knew that this was what she needed to do.  I hated it.  I resented her for it.  I prayed for her to stop and then I simply stopped caring.  I shut down.  If her goal was to get my attention, I became unwilling to bite.  If her intent was to hurt me, I found painkillers to dull the ache.  If her intention was to use me as her human punching bag to release all of her frustration and sadness, she was going to be disappointed because she had long ago knocked the stuffing out of me and I no longer had the solidity to withstand her blows.  I was done.  She kept writing those letters and later emails until months before she succumbed to lung cancer at the age of 82.  And, to me, they just became items to move into my junk mail.  They were tossed away or tucked into a special storage cabinet I built inside myself.  A place where all of that sickness, all of that sadness, all of that abuse could be locked away forever.


abuseMany survivors insist they’re not courageous: ‘If I were courageous I would have stopped the abuse.’ ‘If I were courageous, I wouldn’t be scared’… Most of us have it mixed up. You don’t start with courage and then face fear. You become courageous because you face your fear. ― Laura Davis

I never wanted to admit that I was the victim of abuse. I suppose I always knew it in the back of my head but something about the powerlessness that comes from that type of admission along with the shame attached to it, prevented me from joining the club of survivors. I struggled with the notion of being a victim. That moniker never worked or me. Instead, I labeled myself as strong, as powerful, as having free will. I never considered myself to be weak and incapable of defending myself. How would I ever fall victim to someone else? No, not me.

When I came out of hiding. When I shed my skin and unveiled my truth, I could not help but acknowledge that I had, indeed, been abused. Consistently. Painfully. Extraordinarily. It was outrageous and unacceptable. And, for me, I was born into it. I had no sophistication. No awareness. I never saw it coming. Yet, I was no more unaware or blindsided than a fully grown adult who might find themselves in what they believe to be a loving relationship that ultimately becomes abusive because the abuser has set their sights on prey that offers up love and warmth and acceptance, only to be betrayed and exploited.

As a young girl, I adored my parents. More my mother than my father because he was quickly absent from our lives. His philandering ways were present long before I was born. After all, he and my mother began their relationship while he was married to his first wife and, unbeknownst to her, had landed himself a pregnant mistress. Honesty, loyalty, respect and fidelity were not strong character traits for my father but how could I possibly know that at the tender age of 4 or 5? My mother, on the other hand, was ever-present in my life. I believed that she loved me like all mothers do and every day, before school, I would kiss her goodbye, affectionately expressing my love and adoration for her. I somehow failed to notice her growing inability to offer me unconditional love as I matured, began to think for myself and had more sophistication. I grew suspect of her lack of empathy, compassion or ability to wholeheartedly support my emotional growth but I continued along my flower-lined path worshipping her and aggressively shoving away the negative feelings that were beginning to overtake my mind.

I was nearly 40 years old before I admitted (only to myself) that I was abused. The word would shout out in my head and I would swiftly shut it down, unwilling to entertain the notion. I stifled my feelings, like I had for so many years, masking them with pints of ice cream or cookies or anything I could shove into my mouth, forcing back the words abuse and victim. Sure, my mother hit me but practically every kid in my generation endured the same punishment. It was commonplace. The welts from the belt buckle or the stinging pain from the spatula that she beat me with seemed an appropriate response for when she became frustrated with my behavior. This did not make me a victim. The years of being told “I love you but I do not like you” as a pre-adolescent as I naturally explored my boundaries while hormones began surging through my body were her way of indicating that my behavior was unacceptable and that I needed to change. The emotional torture resulting from finding envelopes in my mailbox in college addressed to “Palazzo,” signifying her disconnection from me, her dehumanization of me, her attempt to annihilate my identity were a just response to my lack of frequent communication. Then, years later, her lashing out at me the day after I helped her to move into a new condo, closer to my home in New Jersey to be closer to my family was simply her right because she was stressed and overwhelmed. Telling me that I forced her into making the worst mistake of her life after I spent months and months, at her request, helping her find a new place, packing her house and supporting her through the sale of her home was simply something she had to do and I had to accept as her loving daughter. It was my job to absorb her pain.

The day when I was down on my kitchen floor, on my knees and 6 months pregnant , and I begged her to stop hurting me and she looked at me with cold, empty eyes telling me how worthless I was, I started cracking. Even though I begged for her forgiveness as she reminded me of all the mistakes and bad choices I had made in my 36 years of life, I looked up at her through tear-stained eyes and pleaded. I knew this was not ok. And yet, I continued to beg her to love me despite the fact that I didn’t believe I was worthy. I still did not look at her as my abuser. I was not the victim. I had disappointed her. I was faulty goods. I could do better.

It was several years later, as I, once again, sobbed to her on the telephone, begging her to stop hurting me, feeling the strikes and blows she so brilliantly issued with her tongue, that my awareness shifted. When I slammed the phone down, hyper-ventilating, sobbing to the point that I thought I would stop breathing, I suspected I might have a problem. When my four year-old son asked why grandma made me cry so much, the lightbulb went off. Thousands of lightbulbs, flashing in my eyes, burning holes in my skin indicated that something was not right. My son, so innocent, so gentle, so sweet and so, so smart and insightful told me what I could not tell myself for nearly 40 years. Grandma was not supposed to make me cry. No she was not but, sadly, it was sport for her. She played games with my mind to entertain herself and used me as her emotional tampon. Her pain was transferred to me in order for her to cope, to survive. While my instinct as a parent was immediately to protect my son when he shared his concerns with me, her instinct was always to protect herself. She never considered her job as a mother to be about making me better or stronger. She was about self-preservation. Sure, you are supposed to put on your own oxygen mask first before assisting your child but, once your mask is securely in place, you do not then sit back in your chair and watch your child suffocate.

I was a victim.

She was the abuser. It was often a quiet battle and sometimes more obvious to those wiser than me but it went on every single day of my life. I endured it for 13,505 days. I lasted 324,120 hours. I tolerated it for 19,447,200 minutes. 20 million minutes of my life were spent being abused. That’s a very bitter pill to swallow. A terrifying admission to make. A shameful recognition. A shattering discovery. I felt weak and broken and not ready or courageous enough to tackle the mountain of recovery.

Admitting that I had a membership to this not-so-elite club was perhaps the most painful moment of my life. It stung far worse than any strike my mother could issue. Suddenly I felt like I had allowed this to continue for so long and I could see with new eyes and a laser-sharp clarity all the damage that I had incurred as a result. I realized quickly that her abuse certainly wasn’t a secret because most of the people in my life knew my mother and knew about her behavior. I told stories of the awful things she had done to me and made jokes over the years of the absurdity of her behavior. But I kept it at arm’s length. Sure, it was part of my story but I strategically removed myself from it. She was the central character and I was simply the narrator. I bore witness with minimal scars. I had survived it. I was all good. I was all good. I was all good…

I was not all good. I was so incredibly broken but I had not allowed myself to open the door to the room where all the pain lived. I masqueraded myself as someone who just had some challenges. I did not wear the badge of abuse victim. I did not honor the power of my truth. I did not respect the pain. I was not ok and could not begin the healing process, could not attempt to repave my road until I accepted that fact.

For years, I have worked on recovering. I have unpeeled the onion, studying the many layers of the trauma of emotional abuse. I began to relearn so many basic aspects of life. I would never get the apology, the acknowledgment or the replacement of what was lost. I had to be courageous, dive into the waves and tumble through the rough seas only to find my way back to the shore. Only I had the power to fix things. There were no carpenters or repairmen I could call on to fix my broken house. I was the only one with the proper set of tools. I could try to bring in some helpers but, ultimately, it was my journey to travel, my pain to heal, my abuse to confront.

I still struggle with the idea of it all. I have long since come to accept my mother for who she was and have begun the process of forgiveness. It is not an overnight fix. You do not heal 20 million minutes of pain in a day, a week, a month or even a year. It is a process, slow and steady. There are detours, setbacks, roadblocks. Often there are new doorways that need to be opened and more layers to unpeel but now I take them on a bit more boldly. I stand up strong and tall with my hands on my hips and say there is no kryptonite that can destroy me. I can take whatever comes my way but I cannot promise that it won’t knock me down sometimes.

I try to remember now that victims of abuse don’t always walk around with black eyes and overt bruises. More often, their pain and scars are on the inside. They mask their trauma – no one wears a suit with a giant V on their chest to properly identify themselves. I try to take the time to look deeper when something seems off. I try to empathize and acknowledge that something might have gone wrong somewhere along the way. They may still be hiding behind the shame, the pain, the fear, the absolute exhaustion of trying to pretend everything is just fine. In the end, though, trauma leaks out of us. It seeps out of our pores and shows up in ways that make no sense to us. Until we are ready to connect the dots and feel the pain, one more time, we often deflect it, redirect it or shove it down but the trauma is strong, mighty and fearless. It will not be stopped. It will not be boxed up. It will not hide out. It will rear its head, however it sees fit.

I am grateful to my son for those words that day. He may never know how his innocent comment, his tender words meant to comfort his mommy as only a small child who adores his mother can offer, affected my life. He may never think of himself as my savior for how can a little boy accomplish such a herculean task. But, heroes come in many shapes and sizes and display themselves in ways that we often miss. I’m just glad that I paid attention that day so many years ago.

I am no longer a victim. I am a survivor. And, I am proud.