My Childhood Made Me Easy Prey For An Abusive Husband

by Matilda Fairholm
A woman in a grey shirt and a teal turban holding her baby while looking through a window with a wor...
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My sisters and I often reflect on our childhood. In many ways, they were wonderful years. Our family was middle class. Our Dad made enough money, so whilst we were never wealthy, we didn’t miss out either.

Yet we lived differently from our friends. Where other mothers would welcome a spontaneous playdate after school and bring out the milk and cookies, our mother couldn’t cope with a disruption of any sort to our routine. Visits to our place were arranged in advance with ground rules and time limits. When our friends left, it was time to clean and tidy. To restore the order that had been disturbed by the temporary intrusion of a few extra eight-year-old girls.

It’s still the same when the grandkids visit.

Our parents are still together and celebrated their fiftieth anniversary this year. They genuinely seem happy and still enjoy each other’s company. But we know that our dad is a living saint. Our mother is a kind, loving woman who adores her family. She is also highly anxious and has battled Obsessive Compulsive Disorder all her adult life. She lives a life wrapped in cotton wool, cotton wool that her husband and daughters have unwittingly surrounded her with by tiptoeing around her all our lives.

Our mum couldn’t cope with the mess, disruption, or noise. As we got older, her need to control our home environment intensified. The impact on my friendships was devastating. The years that should have been filled with new freedoms and carefree summer days at the beach felt more akin to tightrope walking. There was no just popping into our place. In fact, I did my best to discourage my friends from calling in at all.

Before long, I only had a handful of friends and became the target of relentless bullying.

Despite being a high achieving student, I dropped out of school when I was 17 to escape the daily torments. Within a year, I met my first husband, a man that would gradually coerce and control me to a point where I became a fragile empty shell of a woman. A woman who, to the outside world, seemed to have it all together, but inside was screaming, fighting for her life.

The oldest daughter.

Even before I reached my early teens, I recall constantly worrying about my mother. She was always highly strung. I remember her taking Serapax when I was in my early teens. No doubt, she was addicted to them.

She believed we were in constant danger and often lectured us (as the oldest, me in particular) about the risks of drinking, teenage relationships, and drugs. When AIDS burst into the media in the early eighties, she became convinced that one of us would catch it. I lived in constant fear that I would put a foot wrong, make a poor decision, and that I would push my mother over the edge.

I believed that my mother was always on the edge of a complete breakdown that would take her away from us.

I didn’t feel loved by her.

She did love me. I know that. But I didn’t feel it. I never felt mothered by her. I felt like the adult in the relationship.

More times than I can remember, I was responsible for checking that the stove was off, the front door was locked, that she hadn’t left the iron on.

The list was endless.

I started doing the same things. In high school, I was called in to see the school counselor because the ladies in the office had alerted them to my regular panicked requests to use the phone to call home. After all, I was convinced I had left my curling iron on, and the house would burn down.

When I got drunk at a disco, and humiliated myself by throwing up everywhere — when I was labeled frigid and dumped by my boyfriend because I wouldn’t go all the way — the last person I could talk to was my mother.

I got used to processing my pain alone.

I couldn’t wait to leave home.

My mother was constantly on edge, and by proxy, so was I. I could not wait to move out of the home but had no confidence that I could make it on my own. I was desperate for someone to love me, yet I didn’t believe that I was worthy of love.

All I knew was that I was sick of living under my mother’s conditions, navigating her triggers, avoiding her anxious meltdowns. I was desperate for someone to take me away.

By the time I left home at twenty to move in with my future husband, I was already an expert at walking on eggshells.

We accept what we are taught to accept.

Five years after escaping the prison of long-term domestic abuse, I’m still recovering. I look back and ponder why I accepted the treatment that I did. I try to pinpoint those early warning signs to identify when things started to shift.

To be honest, I think it was date number one. Right from the beginning, I stepped back and let him make the decisions, decide what we did, where we went, who we associated with.

Before I knew it, I was making myself less so that he could be more. All of my dreams were thrown out the window. Who needs to travel, to write, or to marvel?

After all, somebody loves me, what more could I need?

For reasons I can’t explain, I willingly made my world small to accommodate him. What followed was more than twenty years of gradually increasing abusive treatment, motivated by his insidious need to control every aspect of my life.

I willingly sacrificed my own life to avoid the consequences of putting a foot wrong.

Just like I did with my mother.

She was abusive too.

My mum did all she could to control our lives. Unlike my ex-husband, who did it out of deep insecurity and selfish arrogance, my mother did it unknowingly out of fear.

Fear that something terrible would happen to us.

The motivation may be innocent, but the consequences are the same. Once you learn to surrender control of your decision-making, beliefs, values, and life to another person, it is a long and difficult road to reclaim your autonomy.

I still love her.

She is a loving mother with mental health issues that she has never fully addressed. For a long time, I resented her for that. Now that I have journeyed through my own difficult experience of motherhood, I somewhat understand her. I do forgive her.

Accepting poor treatment cost me a huge chunk of my life. I’m still working on forgiving myself.

This piece first appeared on Medium.