My Treasured Bones: Surviving the Shadow of a Borderline Mother
Wearing a St. John's knit suit in royal blue, Christian Dior makeup and Chanel No. 5 perfume, my mother's Sunday best was a version of Elizabeth Taylor at a Hollywood lunch. She was pretty, but made even more so in contrast to our church congregation. Standing in a group of women, post sermon, my mother at 5' 7" barefoot towered over us in heels bought from her weekly Neiman Marcus visit.
Holding court, she took pleasure in the way the women began to second-guess themselves in her presence; pulling and tugging at their clothes, looking down or away as they smoothed their skirts. Their insecurities, initially so well hidden, began floating to the surface. The more they shrank, the bigger she became.
Ashamed of her, I felt sick to my stomach, wanting desperately to soothe them. Eight years old and powerless to stop her, I vowed I would never make another woman feel the way she did.
I took this vow seriously and from then on tried to be the least threatening person in the room at all times. Becoming a diminished version of myself worked to my advantage in some ways. The more of me I surrendered, the less of a threat I was to my mother because as her daughter, I was the biggest threat of all.
Using shame to manipulate and control me, she called me "slutty" or "homely" depending on her mood. It felt as though she wanted to destroy any joy or comfort I felt in my body, always reinforcing the idea that there was something inherently wrong with me. And when the shame didn't work, when some part of me was unwilling to play along, she used whatever was in her reach to shut me down, reminding me who was always in control.
I learned to hide my body in bigger clothes, let her paint my face with makeup for school dances and she chose my haircut and hair color. Wearing a mask of indifference, I burned with embarrassment at who she was making me. My body ate my words and buried them like treasured bones in between my skin and muscles. The hate and fear I felt lived tightly in my nerves and cells so that it became a part of me, fueling my disconnection. Standing outside myself, I watched as she did her best to break me.
Years went by and I slipped quietly into the shadows of my adulthood, apologizing for taking up too much space or talking too much. Always being careful, careful, careful.
I told myself I did this as a way of protecting other people, making room for them to feel comfortable, bigger, brighter but as time went on, I realized it had become a way of life. Living like this had not only depleted my personal power but had left little possibility for connection with myself and others. The friendships I longed for were wrought with anxiety and discomfort because I believed all women saw me the way she did, as a threat or defective. Even more painful, my reflection had become distorted. Seeing only the image she had taught me to see, I longed to take the mirror and smash it into tiny pieces, using them to cut her out of me once and for all.
I wish it was that easy, but it's not.
Healing is a process and I am aware that I am much farther along than I ever imagined possible. For years, suicide hovered in my consciousness, offering what seemed like a less painful possibility than trying to undo the damage she has done. So when I find myself standing in the women's bathroom at a nice restaurant on my 41st birthday, shrinking in the presence of other women and still living up to the vow I made as a child, frustration and disappointment run through me and it feels like little has changed.
Washing my hands, I can't bring myself to look in the mirror, but instead look down at the birds tattooed on my forearms, daily reminders I have taken my body and soul back. Symbols, not only of survival but the beauty of my life brought forth from some very difficult circumstances and some extremely hard work.