Join the chorus: Teri’s story

Join the chorus: Teri’s story July 28, 2011

A few days ago, I invited my readers to help me speak out against abuse. To be a choir of voices  for the voiceless (if you would like to be a voice, read my post “Join the chorus” for more information).

Teri J responded to my post and gave me permission to share her story of emotional and mental abuse. I hope you’ll take time to read her story below, and afterward check out her blogs:

I am a victim of emotional abuse. 

I must describe my childhood because it is where the wounds began that affected the rest of my life and which caused the fears and struggles that I battled. It also describes my relationship with God, and how it began and progressed. I think the story of my childhood is sort of like an illusion that tricks the eyes because if I look at it from one angle, it appears to be one way, but if I look at it from another angle, it appears a totally different way. Looking at it a third angle, changes it yet again. So in telling the story of my childhood, I have to tell it from several different perspectives: from the way I thought my childhood was, from the way it really was, and from the perspective of my spiritual walk. This is complicated and difficult because one touched and affected the other, and I don’t know how to tell it in any sort of logical order.

One perspective of my childhood would make it appear golden. I was the fifth of six children. My brother was the oldest and then there were five girls. I loved my family deeply. I loved God, I longed to be good, and I had a strong desire to obey. I could be counted on to do tasks without complaint. I was a very good student, and graduated from high school with honors. At church I always did my lessons, always memorized the verses, and was said to be wise and very responsible. I began teaching my own Sunday school full-time when I was in 9th grade. I was asked to be the head of the primary department at church when I was a senior in high school–but declined because I didn’t think I was mature enough. I was captain of our church Bible quiz team, and usually president of the youth group. I was highly praised at home and at church.

Another perspective is not so rosy. I feel now as if I was blinded to the problems and dysfunctions in my family. I didn’t really recognized what was happening until later in my life. I didn’t see that my Mom compared children, favoring some over others. I wasn’t consciously aware that love in the family was based on performance and meeting expectations or that the children who weren’t compliant were unaccepted and unloved. I was unaware of the half-truths and deceptions that my parents used that caused conflict and broken relationships between siblings. I didn’t know that my Mom had never loved two of my sisters. 

My perspective of my family completely changed when I got engaged to be married when I was 27 years old. At first, my Mom praised my fiance, but it wasn’t long before she began to criticize him and me, and to place unreasonable demands on me. I believe she began to see my fiance as a rival, and fear she was losing her control over me. I had called her every day on the phone (often more), but she wanted me to visit. Everything I did was wrong. She began to lie about me to others. When I asked her for help planning my wedding, she said she couldn’t help me and to just get a wedding planner book. When I tried to tell her about my wedding plans, it was obvious she didn’t want to hear. However, she told my finance’s family that I refused to tell her my plans or let her help. She accused me of not deserving to wear of white wedding gown (I did). She said that I was the “boldiest and brassiest bride” she had ever known, so determined that this was MY day, and I would enjoy it. In reality, I have always been quiet, polite, and obedient. My Mom gave me so much grief that my fiance and I weren’t sure my family would attend our wedding so we finally decided on a small immediate family only ceremony. My Mom wore black to my wedding. My pastor said that in all his 30 years of being a minister, he’d never encountered a family like mine. 

The difficulties continued even after I was married. I cannot describe all the mind-twisting abuse we have suffered. My Mom told me that I was “a daughter from Hell. The worst daughter a mother could have.” She told lies about me to other family members, turning most of them against me. She twisted, interpreted, and “rewrote” things that happened, making lies seem like truth. She told others in the family that I hung up on her when I didn’t, and that we were only “nice” because we wanted other people to think we were nice. She got mad because I mailed her a card from work instead of the local post office, got upset because I was in our apartment building’s basement laundry room and didn’t know she had come to visit, condemned us for putting our TV where we did in our apartment, and criticized my husband and me for going to town festivals the first summer we were married. “Life isn’t all fun and games, you know,” she said. Sometimes, trying to deal with her, has made me feel crazy.  

At first, I had no idea what was happening. I begged my Mom not to make me choose between my husband and her because I loved them both. I tried to compromise without giving her total control over my husband and me. For 20 years I’ve struggled with how to love her, how to reconcile with her. When I am direct and tell her I love her and want to reconcile with her, she pours out rage on me at the terrible failure I am as a daughter. When I step back from the abuse, she sends me sweet birthday cards, which for many years has confused me, making me renew my efforts to reconcile because “maybe she is just wounded and doesn’t know how to love.” I was told by one sister that my Mom has said that all my efforts are “a mere drop in a tea cup” and that she will never, ever forgive me. When I called my Mom in May 2010 to tell her I love her, she raged at me, criticized my husband for saying something stupid 20 years ago, and insulted him terribly, raging that he had brainwashed me. When I told her, “Don’t you dare talk about my husband that way,” she repeated over and over again with great rage, “Oh I dare, I dare, I dare, oh, I dare…” until I finally said, “Then it’s over”–and at that time I really did hang up as she continued, “I dare, oh I dare, I dare, I dare…..” At that time, I decided that for my sanity, I needed to separate from the abuse and have nothing to do with my family.

I think the most difficult, painful, and lonely thing about emotional abuse is that when you try to tell others, they don’t believe you. Decades ago, rape victims were silent about what happened to them because if they reported the rape and their case went to court, they were put on trial more than the rapists, as if somehow they deserved the rape. At one time, women who were physically abused by their husbands were told that they needed to be better wives–that they must have done something to cause their husbands to abuse them. I don’t think that many, these days, would advise an abuse victim to stay with their abuser. People are now aware that physical abuse is not the victim’s fault, and that the abuse tends to become more violent if a victim stays. However, there is a form of abuse that few recognize: emotional (or psychological) abuse.

With emotional abuse, there are no bruises to point to, no broken bones to prove it happened. The abusers can be so manipulative and deceptive, and appear so loving and charismatic, that people–even the victim herself (or himself)==find it hard to believe that abuse is happening. People often make excuses for the abuser: she is probably just wounded. He doesn’t know how to love. I’m sure she really loves you. They advise the victim to love her abuser more or forgive more, and in doing so add to the guilt and shame that the abusers are already inflicting on his or her victim. When victims try to share their story, they appear petty, unforgiving, bitter. They aren’t believed so they end up being silent, struggling and suffering alone.

You want a picture of emotional abuse? Read the book T is for Trespass by Sue Grafton or watch the movie Tangled. In T is for Tresspass, the nurse is an emotional abuser, appearing good while she is abusing her patient. Kelsey, the main chararacter, shows what it’s like for those trying to deal with emotional abusers. In the movie Tangled, Repunzel’s fake mother sounds very loving, but she is actually controlling Repunzel with guilt and shame so she can use her for her own purposes. How could Repunzel be so terrible as to disobey her dear mother who just wants to do what is best for her??? Repunzel’s struggle between joy at her newfound freedom when she escaped from the tower, and guilt over being such an awful daughter describes my struggle to be free quite well.

A victim of emotional abuse has to fight very hard battles to be free of emotional abuse. She has to seek truth in her life–about others’ dysfunctions and her own–and keep hold of it. As I began to recognize dysfunction, I realized that I didn’t know who I was, I didn’t know what I liked/disliked, I struggled to make decisions of my own, and I had no personal boundaries in place. I also felt guilt over the problems with my family, and have thought, “If only I had done this or that…we wouldn’t have had these problems.” I have wondered (and sometimes still wonder) if it’s my fault, if I’m the monster they describe me as. Over the years, I have been growing step by step into healing and freedom. I have come a long way, so I know who I am, I like who I am, I know what I like and dislike, and I don’t have a such a need to gain others’ approval. I continue to fight to overcome the effects of dysfunction in my life. Part of my fighting has been to finally make the decision to separate from my family–or most of them–as long as they remain abusive. This has been an anguishing decision for me. When I have contact with my family, even indirectly, I have to fight again to overcome fear, guilt, feelings of suffocation. I then reread information about emotional abuse to remind myself that I am not crazy, I’m not making this up, it’s REAL.

The book, In Sheep’s Clothing – Dealing With Manipulative People, has been very helpful to me in understanding my family. The author seems to be very accurately describing my Mom/family. Here is a link to an excerpt from the book, as well as links to sites about emotional abuse.

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  • Teri,

    Thank you!

    The abuse you suffered at the hands of you mother is just like the abuse I suffered at the hands of my wife (ex). She manipulated things such that she would try to make our counselors think I was psychotic as well as the abusive one. Behind my back she actively tried to get people to turn against me. And to me she would always push on my childhood fears and tell me no one really wanted me around, that everyone was really afraid of me. She would tell them false tales of how abused she was.

    I had decided for whatever reasons that I wanted to be free of feeling, like Spock when I was maybe 8 years old. Simon and Garfunkel’s song I am A Rock resonated with me when I was 8. I wanted apathy, in its fullest sense. I turned off emotion, closed the door and took refuge in intellect.

    So, here was I emotionally stunted for decades getting into a relationship. I knew I needed to open the door to the emotions and learn to deal with them. My wife insisted upon it. Yet, whenever I tried to express any emotion it set her into a rage. No feeling for me was allowed,yet she threatened divorce if I didn’t feel. Nothing was ever enough, and not just too little it was always wrong and not good enough.

    It wasn’t always like that. It began in late November of the year we were married. Then I realized that each year before at this same time she had been on antidepressants. So, noticing the change in behavior I asked if she might be experiencing some seasonal depression. I was accused of abusing her for expressing concern. Months later she berated me for not saying something if I had thought she was suffering depression or other emotional issue. That got labeled abuse too.

    When we finally separated she began telling everyone at church how abusive I was. No one there, people I had known years before she came around, no longer talk to me. People I thought were friends have fled like rats from a sinking ship. Even since the annulment she still tries to ruin anything I try to do, and friendship, job, church, or relationship I begin.

    It wasn’t until a couple months into the separation when a friend told me that I had been emotionally abuse that I could even begin to realize that is what had been happening. In a Celebrate Recovery men’s group I learned that there are other men who have suffered similarly and like me were afraid and ashamed to say something, to admit it.

    Again Thank you!

    • A winter’s day, in a deep and dark december…

  • This sounds a lot like my mother and me. Her absolute denial of the evil things she said made it impossible for me to discuss it with her. She just claimed she had no memory of them. I started to beleave I was crazy. Luckily I lived half a world away from her so I was able to detach and think about it and not really beleave what she was saying. It was my parents that kept me anchored to my depression long after everything else in my life had become positive. I did not get my confidence and optimism back until they changed. I don’t know why they stopped being displeased with me but they did and now we get along fine but I am scared of them still and measure carefully what I tell them. I keep my guard up incase they become displeased with me again.

    Emotionally abusive parents are the hardest to detach yourself from because you are right, no one has sympathy for the grown child being belittled and irrationally being blamed and lied about.

  • Y’know, I did my whole [creative] master’s thesis where I was examining my mom’s history and her relationship with her mom in an effort to make sense of why (and I do know it’s not something she does intentionally–she’s got some serious scars) she can say she’s proud of me in one breath (she never stops bragging about me, and she also never gets the stories right because she NEVER LISTENS TO THE WHOLE DANGED STORY) and then belittle me in the next. Her “abuse” (again… I use the term loosely, because I know it’s nowhere near this extent, and I also know her intentions are to encourage me to do better, but her methods suck) is directly a result of the fact that her mom more or less despised her and mistreated her. She tries to make life better, but of course, she takes things to the extreme, and her inferiority complex leads her to put others down so she doesn’t feel so bad about herself.

    It’s really hard when it’s your parents and you know they do honestly love you; in my case, she’s just so damaged from childhood that it’s spilled over into how she treated me (and still does). I’ve really struggled with this knowledge now for years. I love that woman. She adopted me before her only daughter (my real mom) died from cancer and has truly tried to give me the best in everything, but the words she uses so undermine her intentions. I’ve got perfectionistic, paranoid neuroses out the wazoo, and what sucks about it is that she can’t hear herself and how she sounds. If she heard someone else say the same thing she says, she’d call them out, but she doesn’t see it in herself. Still, after looking at and writing about our family history, even when I start to lose it, I do understand her better.

    Teri, thank you for your story–my heart aches for you in the way your mother has exposed her true character; and Sarah, thank you for posting this story. It’s a good reminder for me to be on guard when my mom attacks, and it also helps remind me that, unlike Teri’s story, my mom’s acting out of a weird sense of love and insecurity, and that above all, she needs love, patience, and for me to maintain boundaries so my efforts to please her don’t end up stunting my own maturation.

  • TJ

    Niki, it could very well be that your situation is different than mine, but I want to say that at one time, I told myself that my Mom loved me and just wanted to do what is best for me. Until last year, I told myself that she was wounded from a difficult childhood, and maybe she loved me as much as she is able. I also had people tell me that my Mom probably really loves me, but she is where she is, and I ought to love and forgive her more, and to do whatever it takes to keep the relationship going. They didn’t understand that for 20 years I had loved her, understood her, asked her to forgive me for anything I had done to hurt her, tried to reconcile with her, and did everything I could short of giving her total control of my life.

    I do think we need to understand that everyone has dysfunctions and wounds, and we need to be patient with the faults of others because we all have faults. But there is a line that can be crossed. It’s NOT love to want try to get total control over another person’s life. It’s not love to not respect other’s boundaries. It’s NOT love to guilt and shame someone to get them to do what you want them to do. It’s NOT love to lie or twist the truth. It’s NOT love to insult and rage at another person who makes choices that are different than yours.

    When two people have a difference of opinion or a conflict, there are several options:

    1. One person can influence/convince the other to change his mind. A person presents facts supporting his argument, and the other says, “Oh, you were right! I change my mind!”

    2. Both people can hold to their opinions, and they agree to disagree. For example, you might not like how I decorate my house, but it’s my house so you accept that I can decorate it the way I want. Or I hate Chinese food, but I accept that you like it. Or even, you disagree with homeschooling, but accept that it’s my choice.

    3. The problem comes in when there’s a difference of opinion or belief, we can’t change each other’s minds, and one refuses to agree to disagree, but tries to FORCE the other–through anger, guilt, shame, manipulation, intimidation, or hitting, or threat of violence to submit. That is abuse.

    Sometimes, as in the case of my Mom, the abuse was very subtle. I had no idea of the level of control my Mom had over me. After I got married, I wanted to teach myself to sew. I stood in a Joanne Fabrics store desperately wishing that my Mom was there to tell me what pattern to choose, what type of material to buy, what color to buy…and I realized that I had no idea who I was, what I like or disliked, or how to make a decision. My Mom “sweetly” took away my choices by manipulating me with guilt and shame. I only saw her angry, manipulative side when I went against her wishes by getting married. She liked my fiance very much until he became a rival.

    No one is perfect, of course, and we all love imperfectly. However, if you (or anyone) are feeling a sense of suffocation in a relationship, or if you are suspecting something is wrong in a relationship, I’d go to the links that I shared about emotional abuse, and consider whether you are in an abusive relationship. One of those sites ( shared the following basic rights that all people have:

    The right to good will from the other.
    The right to emotional support.
    The right to be heard by the other and to be responded to with courtesy.
    The right to have your own view, even if your partner [or parent] has a different view.
    The right to have your feelings and experience acknowledged as real.
    The right to receive a sincere apology for any jokes you may find offensive.
    The right to clear and informative answers to questions that concern what is legitimately your business.
    The right to live free from accusation and blame.
    The right to live free from criticism and judgment.
    The right to have your work and your interests spoken of with respect.
    The right to encouragement.
    The right to live free from emotional and physical threat.
    The right to live free from angry outbursts and rage.
    The right to be called by no name that devalues you.
    The right to be respectfully asked rather than ordered.

  • TJ

    The same article that I mentioned above says: “Emotional abuse is like brain washing in that it systematically wears away at the victim’s self-confidence, sense of self-worth, trust in their own perceptions, and self-concept. Whether it is done by constant berating and belittling, by intimidation, or under the guise of “guidance,” “teaching,” or “advice,” the results are similar. Eventually, the recipient of the abuse loses all sense of self and remnants of personal value. Emotional abuse cuts to the very core of a person, creating scars that may be far deeper and more lasting than physical ones.”

    • Ah, yes, I definitely experienced that in my abusive relationship. Even after 5 years, I’m still trying to rebuild the sense of self-worth that my exboyfriend obliterated.