It took me thirty years to start calling it abuse.
Even now, I’ll periodically look up the definition of “emotional abuse,” and study it, reading the words over and over, wondering if I have a right to claim my experience that way.
“Emotional child abuse means injuring a child’s self-esteem or emotional well-being,” the definition from the Mayo Clinic reads. “It includes verbal and emotional assault — such as continually belittling or berating a child — as well as isolating, ignoring or rejecting a child.”
All of those things were inflicted on my brother and me by our stepmother. She entered our lives when was I nine and my brother was four. We were good kids, but we were kids—normal kids who made messes, had the occasional meltdown, needed comfort, acted out sometimes. She could not deal with the realities of raising children, and so she lashed out at us.
All. The. Time.
She called us names, mocked us, belittled us. She’d storm out of the house sometimes, leaving for hours or days because of something she claimed one of us did to her. She’d slam doors in our faces—throw dishes, laundry baskets, books, and other everyday items in our direction. She threatened to make us go sleep in the car, go live somewhere else. She mocked our need for cuddles before bed, our everyday childhood fears. She complained about our mother, how she “babied us” and taught us no manners.
And maybe the worst part of it all? My father did not defend us against her. He tried, sometimes. I will give him that. But he was always caught in the middle, trying to please us both. Taking her aside to calm her down, sometimes putting his body between her and us, to shield us from the hate she was spewing (and the possible violence that might come next). Telling us that we really just needed to try to give her a chance. That she was just having a bad time, a bad day, that being a stepmom was just hard. That maybe our behavior really was the problem, and we should do better.
As children, that wasn’t enough, though. It didn’t work. He couldn’t guard us from her. The anger, the yelling, the put-downs, the rage—it never ended. It just kept resurfacing, again and again, in one form or another. Their home was a terrifying place for us to be, and we needed our father—the one who was supposed to love us unconditionally—to protect us.
Eventually, when I was a teen, my mother moved us 2,000 miles away from them. It was harder for us to visit them, and the visits happened less often. But when they happened, things were always the same. Her rage would rear its ugly head again. And again. It continued when I was an adult. It continued even when I brought my husband to visit. It was painful for him to witness her abuse, but it validated for me just how real and awful it actually was.
Even though she was on “better behavior” years later, when I brought my children to visit, it was always there, beneath the surface. And a few awful times, it came crashing out of her, in front of them. Thankfully the rage was never directed at them, only me. But it was a painful reminder.
I developed a panic disorder as a teen, and have battled it on and off since them. It began as an extreme fear of flying, tied directly to a time I had to fly to visit them. I had relapses of the panic attacks many times, on and off over the years, though they didn’t always manifest as a fear of flying. However, the attacks were almost always associated with visiting them—of re-emerging into the abusive, toxic world of their home.
But for many years, I didn’t see that. I just thought I had random fears, a propensity to panic. I don’t believe that my stepmom is the only thing that has made me an anxious person. In many ways, anxiety is just part of who I am. It runs in my family. But I see now that the panic attacks specifically began after the abuse started when I was 10, and were consistently tied very closely to it.
Once I made that correlation, it was a lightbulb moment for me. I realized that I’d had enough, and I couldn’t go on with the relationship the way it was. I was pushing 40. I had three kids, a good husband. And yet, my relationship with my abusive stepmother (and my father, who enabled her) had not changed, and was still a consistent trigger for my panic disorder.
That’s where I am now. Looking up definitions of abuse. Believing it one day, doubting myself the next. I am realizing that is part of the cycle of abuse. The self-doubt that the abuser instills in you. The constant gas-lighting. The urging you to change the narrative so that it looks like you—the victim—were in the wrong, fabricating the abuse the whole time.
You were the psycho. The loser. The attention-seeker. All those things your abuser accused you of being over the years, you still believe on some level are true. And when you believe these things—even just as mere thoughts in your mind—your abuser continues to have the upper hand in your life.
It’s all so fucking horrible.
I am still trying to figure out a way to have a relationship with my stepmom and father—because as awful as she was to us, I still love my dad and I am not sure I feel ready to cut him out of my life completely. But I do know that the relationship cannot go on the way it’s gone on forever. I do not deserve to be constantly put into an abusive and toxic environment, to be treated the way I have been treated for the past thirty years.
Being the victim of emotional abuse is something that will never leave me, and maybe there will always be a part of me that is broken and hurt from it. But I know this: I am not just a victim. I am also a survivor. I am stronger than I know. And if you were emotionally abused like I was, I want you to know that you are too.