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When You’re the Abuser
Opening up kept me from turning into my mother

I was raised fast. I was pretty smart as a kid and my mother expected my twin sister and me to take on adult responsibilities quite young. For example, my sister and I began changing each other’s diapers at 2 years old because my mom said she was “sick of doing it.” She’d tell us how our grandmother made her do the laundry and dishes for her family of five by the time she was 5 years old. I guess she believed that because she’d been forced to grow up too quickly, her children should too.

I was raised sexist by my mother. My mom believed men should support and protect women; in fact she refused to work even after my father died.

My mother was also a racist. She declared, especially when she was drunk, the usual brainless list of anti-black stereotypes. She was also against me dating, so when she found out from my sister that I had been secretly dating Mike, a black boy, for two years, she didn’t respond well.

The racial slurs she’d say were so ridiculously extreme that I didn’t believe her. Yet they seeped into the back of my mind, even as it mortified me to hear her sound so ignorant. She screamed that I was going to have ugly n-gger babies, that Mike was going to leave me the second he got bored, and that everyone would ostracize us. When she finally got to know him, she added that I would have to support him because he would never go anywhere.

This seeped in too. He did seem unmotivated to me. By 16 years old I had a life goal already, because my mom raised me to be an adult so quickly. I wanted to go to college to become a psychologist. Why didn’t Mike have a goal? He didn’t really try hard in school, though he got decent grades, and that upset me more. Despite this, I continued to date him for another year and even got engaged to him.

There were things I loved about him. We’d read to each other and we’d talk for hours. We were best friends before we started dating and that helped us grow closer. One of the things I enjoyed the most was when we’d sing together. He inspired my love of R&B and soul music. He couldn’t sing very well, but he liked the way I sang. He’d take me to and from my modeling classes. He made me feel special sometimes.

He also helped me and my family, painting our apartment when we had to move and helping me do laundry and the dishes. Yet almost daily my mother would drunkenly scream to me about how he was a “spineless n-gger” and how he’d never take care of me or be faithful to me.

Sometimes my mom would yell these things at him, or he’d overhear my mother yelling at me or my sister, and he’d just sit there and take it with a quietly blank face. It made me want to scream because it reminded me of myself just taking my mom’s ranting. I wanted him to be stronger. He was an outsider and a male; as my mom would say, “Grow a f-cking backbone.”

The only thing he’d do when she yelled her abuse was to hug me later and tell me not to listen to her, but I wanted him to stand up for me. It didn’t occur to me that I had unrealistic expectations for a 16-year-old boy.

Becoming Her

As our relationship went on, I became increasingly dissatisfied with and distrustful of Mike. I’d scream about some comment a girl left on his Facebook page, accusing him of cheating, even though deep down I knew he hadn’t. He wouldn’t defend himself or yell back, and that diminished my respect for him. He wouldn’t stand up for his woman or to his woman.

I began to worry that if my mother was reacting so badly, how would the rest of the world react? When we’d hold hands in the street, black and white people would stare. Mike’s friends would laugh at him, asking why he was dating a white girl. I became more and more insecure about our relationship and more frustrated with his lack of ambition. Was he worth having strangers ridicule me? Was he “good enough” for me? How could I count on a man who let everyone walk all over him?

In my confusion, I began verbally abusing him when he messed up. I’d grown up with the same abuse from my mother, so I felt that he should understand that my screaming rants were just isolated events, that I was angry only in the moment and that it didn’t mean I hated him.

I didn’t consider that what I was saying was verbal abuse. (But when I calmed down I’d hate the way I said it.) I was frustrated with him, but I stayed with him because I believed love meant being with and caring for someone despite their flaws.

Sometimes I’d scream at him until he cried, and I felt nothing. And though I’m ashamed to admit it, I hit him on three separate occasions. It was never more than one solid smack on the cheek. He’d wait for me to calm down and just act like nothing happened. I’ve never stopped hating myself for hitting him. After the third time, I said to myself, “No more.” I saw my mother in me, and it scared me. I never hit him again.

image by YC-Art Dept

But I kept screaming at him, and he told me his friends thought I was abusive. When I heard this, I got angry. They had no idea what abuse was! What I did was nowhere near as bad as my mother. My mom once screamed in my sister’s face and literally bit her nose on purpose, in anger.

Was I an Abuser?

How could they call me abusive? They were never there when I yelled; they assumed I was worse than I actually was. They had no right to judge me. These were the thoughts that went through my head as I screamed at Mike for telling his friends that I was abusing him. I accused him of not telling them when I was being good to him, like paying for his cell phone, picking and washing his afro, and helping him cleanse his acne-riddled skin almost every weekend. Popping his zits took hours—now that’s a labor of love. And here he was, bad-mouthing me to his friends.

But then I yelled at Mike one time in front of my mother. That night, when she was giving her normal racist rant, she added that I was f-cking him up. That was the real shocker. My mother, the racist who didn’t support my relationship with Mike, was shaming me for verbally abusing him. I felt terrible. Even my twin sister had accused me of abusing him, but to have my mother, an adult who didn’t even want us to be together, accuse me was a game-changer.

I already hated myself because my mother called my sister and me evil, slutty, and worthless when she was drunk (though she’d praise me when she was sober). Now I felt even worse. Here Mike was, helping my family and me when he could, with his own self-esteem issues and troubled family situation, and I was tearing him down and making him feel like the smallest, most worthless ant.

The Only Way to Stop

I tried, for several months after that, to treat Mike right. I tried to be extra kind, sympathetic, and patient toward him. But no matter how much I tried, my frustration would make me lash out. He said he understood why I lashed out, but I thought he let me get away with far too much.

I knew he didn’t deserve my abuse, yet I couldn’t seem to stop myself. I wanted him to be happy. I realized I had to break our engagement.

This also allowed me to punish myself. About six months before we broke up, my mother had abandoned us, and my sister and I had gone into foster care. By breaking up with him, I would be depriving myself of one of the last people who actually cared about my well-being. I felt like I deserved that. I threw up and cried the whole time I was telling him I was ending it.

Then I had no boyfriend, no mother, and I lost most of my social support by lashing out at other people. I became even more isolated and hated myself. I tried to commit suicide three times in one month. I cut myself when I felt angry to avoid hurting other people instead. I was punishing myself for being angry.

I eventually went into therapy for my depression. Talking helped me come to terms with what I had done and let me stop beating myself up. I still feel awful about how I treated Mike, but I realized that beating myself up won’t change what happened. I learned through therapy that I don’t have to punish myself to not repeat my mistakes.

Instead, I thought about the long line of abusers my mother came from and realized I did not want to join them. I wasn’t happy where I was and I wanted to change something. I realized that understanding myself through therapy, and through my own research into psychology, could help me make better boundaries between myself and other people and keep me from taking my anger out on other people.

I don’t have a lot of patience and I sometimes exhibit mood swings and anger that remind me of my mother. Now, if I get angry at someone, I feel like crap an hour or so later and call them to apologize.

Unfortunately, another thing that my mom inspired was distrust of people. I’ve been taken advantage of by friends and by my mother, so I’m afraid to reveal sensitive information about myself, like when I’m hurt. This makes it difficult to apologize because I have to own up to my feelings and that means being honest with someone about them.

Once someone knows they made you feel a certain way, they can use it to hurt you in the future. That’s frightening. But while there may be bad people out there, there are good ones too. It’s worth being vulnerable.

Nowadays I try not to talk to people while I’m upset. I try to calm down. Once I’m calm, I tell them what I’m thinking and feeling, even if that leaves me vulnerable. I’d rather be honest than keep what I feel locked inside and lash out aggressively later.

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