Mad libs of abuse

Abuse is a funny sort of thing. I mean not funny “ha ha”, but more like funny “oh”.

I met a great person in a trauma survivors group. As a youth, she was beat up by her mother. A lot. The more she cried, the harder she’d get hit. So she learned not to cry. She learned to avoid looking weak at all costs. She couldn’t hide the scars on her body. So she added her own markings to her body- tattoos, piercings. But still, she could not cry. She learned that it was okay to show her scars on her body but she would never look weak or cry.

Now me on the other hand, my mother would push until I cried and then she would leave. The fight was never over until I cried. But if I ever showed my scars/pain in public, she would attack me even harder. So I learned to make sure things always looked ‘normal’ but I knew that it was okay to cry.

Let me try to write this like a mad lib:

My mother attacked me when I ______ (acted weak/ acted strong).
When I cried she would ______ (hit harder/ back off).
So I learned to survive by acting _______ (strong/ weak).
She wanted the public to think that I was ______ (weak/ strong).
She thought that my _____ (visible scars/ emotional numbness) was evidence that I was ______ (that I was weak/ that I was strong). She was wrong.

My mother created a narrative of me and adjusted her actions to fit it.

My mother thought that scars and bruises would show that I was weak. I will show her that my scars make me strong and tough. I will own my scars – not her.

My mother thought that hiding emotional reactions would show that i was strong. I will show her that hiding emotional reactions is weak. I will own my emotional reactions – not her.

Let’s add another option to our mad lib:

My mother attacked me when I ______ (acted weak/ acted strong/ never).
When I cried she would ______ (hit harder/ back off/ hug me).
So I learned to survive by acting _______ (strong/ weak/ authentically).
She wanted the public to think that I was ______ (weak/ strong/ me).
She thought that my _____ (visible scars/ emotional numbness/ being) was evidence that I was ______ (that I was weak/ that I was strong/ loved).
She was _____ (wrong/so wrong/ kind).
My _______ (scars/ emotional numbness/ feeling of being loved) make me _______ (strong/ weak/ free).


Fruma Sarah

I dreamed about my mom again last night. She was chasing me. I screamed at her in the lobby of a theatre and pulled her hair. She screamed. Then I screamed. Then I ran away. Terrified.

I woke up feeling scared and unsettled. This was the second night in a row. Like I’m being haunted by the ghost of my mother. (except she’s alive).

I’m scared to go to sleep tonight. I feel like she’s there, in my dreams, waiting for me to drop my guard and fall asleep. Then she’ll pounce. She’s angry that I’m writing about her. Her anger still makes me very scared.

I don’t feel safe.

Safety is the first non-tangible thing a baby needs to feel in order to relax her survival instincts and allow her brain to give attention to developing into a complete person. Without safety, the baby is consumed by fear. We are wired that way. When fear leads the way, all thoughts are obviously focused on creating safety. When the fear gets out of the way, her brain is able to focus on thoughts, words, people, feelings. Life.

Fear has been leading the way in my brain for as long as I can remember. Anxiety is just another word for FEAR. I feel anxious = I am afraid. When the fear gets out of the way I can think. I can breath. I can be creative. I can be alive.

Long ago I learned that people are unpredictable, dangerous and will emotionally hurt you if you let them. At a young age, I developed two key coping mechanisms to assuage the fear. I either dissociated around others or found reasons to be alone. But the pain of being alone for too long also made me dissociate. I dissociated into depression and also into hypomania. In other words, I could only really feel safe when I hid my mind from my brain.

“There are times when the mind is dealt such a blow it hides itself in insanity. While this may not seem beneficial, it is. There are times when reality is nothing but pain, and to escape that pain the mind must leave reality behind.” ― Patrick Rothfuss

This strategy seemed to sort of work for me. It allowed me periods of time where I could be creative, intellectual and engage with others in what felt like an authentic way.

But… becoming a parent changes everything. When I became a mother, my fear for my baby’s safety was more powerful than my fear for my own. It led the way. I just couldn’t let myself fall into insanity and dissociate. I had to build for her a feeling of safety and predictability to ease her fears.

I assumed her fears were enormous like mine. I thought that safety was a very perilous thing that could be broken with ease. I had to focus all my energy on preventing my daughter from feeling always afraid like I was.

To create this safety for my daughter, I never put her down. I never let anyone hold her. I didn’t want her to think that she wasn’t seen. I wanted her to know that I would be there. That she didn’t owe me anything. She didn’t have to laugh and perform for me to keep me interested and engaged.

Like any new mother, I put my own fears onto my daughter. The problem was… I just have so so many fears.

When she was a newborn, I developed a new coping mechanism. I contained my fear by creating and following highly rigid routines. I found safety within my routines. I thought my daughter needed them to feel safe too.

I didn’t address the fear- I just replaced my frequent dissociation with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). (I’m brilliant.)

It’s time to address the fear.

These routines aren’t working anymore. They don’t make me feel good. They make me feel trapped. They have been suffocating me. So, I started dissociating a lot. This doesn’t feel good either. It’s not helping build relationships with those I love.

I need to figure out how to empower myself to conquer the fear – to find safety within myself. I need to trust that I can keep my mind inside my body.

My new therapist said that she will help me find that safety within myself. She will help me strengthen the other parts of my brain that have been pushed aside while fear led the charge. It’s called ‘integration therapy’.

There’s a very scared little girl inside of me and it’s time for her to stop running the show.



She forgot how to be alive

My mom’s closest friend died this week. I knew her well (as well as I knew anyone in those days) and our families were very close.

I feel sad. I haven’t felt sad about a death in a very long time. Five years ago, my grandfather died at age 90. I didn’t cry. A year later, my great aunt who I knew very well died at age 88. No tears from me.  Other people I knew have died too. I didn’t lose any sleep. (I was even a little jealous at times).

But my wise husband says that feeling sad is a good sign. He says that emotions are healthy and it’s human to be upset when somebody dies. I’m not so keen on this particular emotion.

The last time that I saw Faye was about 3 years ago. It was the week after my first manic episode. We were at my nephew’s Bar Mitzvah and I noticed that there was something off. The first thing I noticed was that she was wearing sturdy old lady shoes, not fancy pumps like she usually wore.

Then I looked at her more closely. She was sitting in the synagogue stooped over and her brow was furled. Like she was confused. Like she was focusing so hard to figure something out that she couldn’t sit up straight or cross her legs. Then, she started quietly asking me the names of people in our family.

She was diagnosed with some sort of dementia. She was 60 years old. Seeing Faye that day was particularly upsetting for me. (of course this is all about me).

I haven’t seen her since- but my sister tells me that it wasn’t just her memory that slipped away- it was her personality. She didn’t just forget who we were, she forgot who she was.

Apparently, in the three years since I saw her, while I was struggling to get control of my mind, Faye’s mind completely escaped her. She became confused. She stopped talking. Eventually she forgot how to walk. She couldn’t feed herself. A few weeks ago she forgot how to swallow. Her body basically forgot how to live. And so she forgot how to breathe and died.

I feel sad for her. And also for her family and for my mom. But mostly I feel sad for her.

I have an understanding of what it is like to lose yourself- to lose control of your mind. I understand how it feels to struggle with a simple daily task like pouring a glass of orange juice. To know that you used to be able to do this. And then, to eventually lose even the memory of ever being able to pour the juice.  And one day, you fail to understand that juice can even be poured. It’s terrifying to feel your mind slipping away. You can feel it.

Once, I also forgot how to be alive. I hope that I don’t forget again.

This wasn’t the same as my grandfather’s gradual loss of strength and independence after his 80th birthday. This was a sharp decline. A snowball barreling down the hill picking up a young (ish) woman and robbing her quickly of everything she ever was.

I feel sad for Faye. She must have been really scared. She watched herself drown.

Also, I sent an email to my mom today. Because… I don’t know why. Because I wanted to be kind.

Hi Mom,

I’m so sad to hear about Faye.
I’m very sorry for your loss.
I wish that I could be there to give you a hug. But I can’t.
I love you very much.
Lyla.drawing of woman's face made out of flowers

There is no more running away

I pedaled quickly
The crisp autumn wind on my face
The wet leaves falling to the ground like a gentle rain
Creating a carpet of yellow petals under my thin tires
I tried to see the beauty
But I couldn’t catch my breath.
I couldn’t get away.

Once, I pedaled to my freedom
I pedaled away from the pain
Away from the witch that hounded me, away from the prison walls.
But now I can’t get away.
I will never be able to get away.

I can’t outrun the demons that haunt me now –
I can’t outrun them,

Because they have no legs;
The demons are in my head.
They are here to stay.

On my bike,
In my life,
I am alone with them.
There is no more running away.

We stopped checking for monsters under our bed when we realized they were inside of us.

Good grief

In my younger days, I kept some Charlie Brown comic books stashed in the bathroom. I loved the bathroom. It was the only door in the house that had a lock on it. I also liked the Charlie Brown books. I could identify with Charlie Brown’s depression…

There’s a running gag where Lucy holds the football for Charlie Brown and then pulls it away as he kicks. The worst part is that she acts as though she did nothing wrong and keeps convincing him to trust her again.

Charlie Brown comic strip of the football prank.

My brother sent me a very long email on Sunday (mother’s day – of course). Apparently he’s beginning to suspect that there may actually be something wrong with our mother. (shocking!) He wrote me to tell me that he’s finally read the book that I gave him over a year ago (Understanding the Borderline Mother) and he’s taking the first steps on his journey to finding himself…baby steps.

I guess I’m happy for him but I’m not really sure why he felt the need to tell me about this. Does he want a gold star? Shall I buy him a cake?

It’s not like I’ve been sitting at home waiting for his call. He ignored me and shamed me when I actually needed him so I figured out my own way. I built my own family. I’d love it if he’d invite my kids to play with their cousins, but that’s pretty much all I’m waiting for.

He wrote, “I am sorry it has taken me this long to get here, but I am here to talk with you, on your terms, whenever you are ready.”

Here we go, Charlie Brown. I'll hold the ball, and you come running up and kick it...

The email itself was benign. Just as benign as Lucy offering to play football. But I’ve been invited to this game and I knew what was coming next.

I tried to put it aside and even managed to make pancakes for breakfast (#momoftheyear). But later in the day, the emotions from his message caught up with me and, in the middle of my mother’s day dinner, in the bathroom of the sushi restaurant, I couldn’t hold back the tears. Big ugly heartbroken tears.

I wasn’t sure exactly how or when the burn was going to come. But I knew it would sting. I knew that he’s been speaking to my sisters and it made me question the security of my boundaries. Have I shared too much? Is my openness going to be used against me?

I needed to understand what he wanted. Why he sent that and what he was planning next.

That evening, I called him. He didn’t answer, which is fine. Then, an hour later (9pm), I get this text:

“Just saw that I missed your call. I do want to talk but I am exhausted and done for the night. Can we try for some time later this week?

Charlie Brown saying Oh no, not again while Lucy holds a football

Then I cried more. Why the fuck did he get to randomly interrupt my nice Sunday to make me cry? And worst of all, when I reached out to him for some answers, something to soothe my fears (that he caused), why does he get to just back out and be “done for the night”? Of course he’s not going to understand how hurtful his subtle rejection is.

Charlie Brown falls as Lucy pulls the football away

The next day… I woke up with red eyes (from crying myself to sleep) and a big black dog of depression laying on me. My husband and I worked together to push him off and get me into work. (My husband never gets to be “done for the night” either.) It was a huge accomplishment that I managed to get into work, not eat a box of cookies, and stay there for the entire day. I tried, but couldn’t get any work done.

No word from my brother.

I was getting more and more worried that my brother was going to violate my boundaries with my parents in a misguided effort to help our family reunite. I had to make sure he knew not to do this.

So I phoned him right after my work day. He answered and before saying hello, he told me what a busy day he had at work and how he still had more work to do that evening.  “Could we do this some other time this week?” …sure…rejection #2…but I had something I needed to say now.

So I told him in a vague way that my personal life and struggles are not his to share with anyone else. He told me “of course, I wouldn’t talk about you with anyone.” I’m not sure if I feel completely reassured but at least I made my wishes clear.

Then, we had this conversation:

Brother: I emailed you because I would absolutely love to please speak with you more whenever you are ready.
Me: Ok. We can talk a bit now.
Brother: I’m just so busy from work today.
Me: Should we get dinner on Thursday night?
Brother: I’m…uh…. I’m not sure if I have something that night.
Me: Ok. Or another night.
Brother: Yes. Whenever you are ready, I’m here to talk.
Me: Ok. Let me know if you are good for Thursday.
Brother: I don’t think Thursday will work.
Me: [waiting for him to propose another day… or suggest getting back to me with availability.]
Brother: But I’d really love to speak with you. Whenever you are ready.


Either be there for me or don’t. I don’t care anymore! Just leave me out of your decision making process.

What is with these people and interrupting my barely stable life to pledge their love and support, beg me to see them and then renege on their offer as soon as I show interest?

Charlie Brown football gag where the whole gang is trying to trick him.

Dear people who deserted me when I needed them most: if you’d like to see me, invite me to see you. I’ll probably say yes. If you’d like to feel like you are helping me, I don’t need your emotional support anymore. You can send cash or cheques. Otherwise, please stop inviting me to play football…and shove your guilt up your ass. Thank you very much.

comic of Charlie Brown football gag where Lucy makes him feel guilty and then tricks him again.