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unravelling teenage memories + manipulation
I don’t generally do trigger warnings on my writing. I simply share what’s true for me. This one is a lot, tho. You might want to grab a cup and get comfy.
This is long. You’ll see a few footnotes, which indicate where I’ve got more details to explain, but don’t want to derail the flow of main story.
This post is about some of my lived experiences, long forgotten, that irrevocably shaped my life and my path as a mother. It’s also a story about finding the courage to forge a new path.
I offer up this raw story to be received as medicine, to be transmuted by sharing with the collective.
Usually, when I talk about my journey of faith, I keep it brief and stick to the facts:
Raised without religion
Tried to become Catholic around 15
Realized I was Pagan around 23
The true story has much more complexity and detail - and honestly, before I started to write this piece, I had not fully allowed myself to acknowledge the trauma or abuse that went along with my journey.
For years, I’ve maintained that my relationship with my father was strained and challenging. However, I had blocked out a lot of the complexities of my relationship with my mom - and a lot of the insane things that happened in my family when I was a teen.
My mama doted on me excessively when I was young, and passed away while I was deep in “babyland” with my own kiddos, too busy and overwhelmed to really process much.
My mom was indeed oppressed, but she was also a master manipulator - to the point that I didn’t really remember how or why I went thru RCIA classes to convert to Catholicism as a teen.
Kind of a big life event to not remember, huh?
I started thinking about it again when I heard Inelia Benz sharing about how to call back our power from rituals and agreements that we no longer wish to submit to (such as baptism) - and it all came flooding back to me, finally.
My mama’s been in the spirit realm for 12 years, now. I’m no longer so raw from the grief of losing her. My anger from my teen years has also mellowed considerably.
She was human, dealing with her humanity, and trying her fiercest to love and protect me the best way she knew how.
My easy self-assuredness that I was fine without religion started to falter when I became a teenager, and all my mother’s deepest fears were triggered.
If you know about Human Design, it’s worth noting that I’m a Projector, as was my mother. She was deeply conditioned in the not-self, and two major themes of that were shame and fear around intimacy and sexuality, and perpetual religious (Catholic) guilt … so these themes, in turn, conditioned me.
Years prior, for example - I learned not to talk about boyfriends under any circumstance.
When I was in Kindergarten, I told my mother how my friend at school liked to chase this one boy around the playground, because she wanted to kiss him!
I just thought it was funny, and said it as an offhand comment - but my mother was deeply disturbed by this idea. I can’t remember the details of what happened, but I remember being worried I wouldn’t be allowed to remain friends with this girl after seeing my mother’s reaction.
My parents would pry into every tiny aspect of my social life for years to come - so I learned that it was best if I could keep the details of those two worlds as separate from each other as possible.
School life became a compartment, and home was the first, separate compartment.
Apparently, my mother had a rule that I wasn’t allowed to date until I was 16 - but I had never been informed of any such rule until I was 13(?) and announced that I was “going out” with someone (ah, 90’s slang).
She was shocked, insinuated that something was wrong with me for even being interested in boys yet - and demanded we break up immediately.
I was just as shocked, and argued my point like any teenager would. What was the big deal? “Going out” at our age really just meant, we talked on the phone sometimes.
I was seldom allowed to have friends over. I can count on one hand the number of friends’ houses I was allowed to go to, over my entire childhood.
No school functions, no parties, no clubs, no sports, no sleepovers, no extracurriculars.
Then we moved to the country, and soon after, my grandparents moved in.
EVILNESS … UNSEEN
Soon, my mother was grieving for her mother’s death, and caring for her father - who was lost to dementia and did not know who we were.
She started listening to Catholic mass on TV, as well as her psychics - and anything I was interested in was deemed “evilness”.
My mom could turn any conversation into a lecture on “eternal spiritual beings” - which wasn’t helpful when I wanted practical advice on how to deal with bullies or stand up for myself.
Once, in a fit of emotion, my mother took away all my Nine Inch Nails CDs and smashed them to pieces while I was screaming and begging her not to.
She also threw away all my band t-shirts one day when I was at school, and bought me a variety of fancy cross pendants to wear, as a weird apology of sorts.
I remember my 14th birthday, because I got dragged out of bed super early to open some gifts that weren’t remotely connected to who I was as a person. A Bible, a “bluebird of happiness” glass statue (this was nice, but my ex kept it), a pink porcelain statue of a girl with angel wings and the number 14.
I remember because they took pictures of me against my will, with yesterday’s eye makeup smudged, and wearing a hideous purple housecoat.
I’m smiling in the pictures - the kind of smile that doesn’t reach your eyes, because it isn’t genuine. It’s a gesture of fawning submission, because you know you can’t escape or protest.
On the surface I’m sure that sounds “ungrateful”. But my mom was interacting with an imaginary, idealized version of me - and she didn’t want to (couldn’t?) see or know me at all.
At the time, she was reading a lot of religious parenting materials by a guy named Dr. James Dobson… a fantastic way to destroy your relationship with your children, in my opinion.
In short - my mom became convinced that the evils of the world were going to get me, and it was her sole job to stand in the way of that happening. Her well-researched approach became paramount, and my father became her enforcer.
One thing my parents agreed on was, me having close friends and talking on the phone was a problem.
My father was a communications guy when he was in the Army, and he now came up with elaborate things like re-wiring the phone connection in the house to include to a shut-off switch somewhere in his room, so that he could decide when I had been on the phone “too much”, and turn off the connection without warning.
He would do this to me almost daily, and for a couple of years, we had endless arguments and pleading negotiations about “phone time” - where I’d bargain for a number of allowed hours, or number of calls per day. At one point they made a list of who I was allowed to talk to and for how many minutes, and when. The agreements were seldom upheld as stated.
My father often told me how all my friends were terrible people who only wanted to use me and didn’t care about me, and that he and my mother were the only people in the world I could ever trust.
My adult self recognizes this extreme over-involvement in and micromanagement of my friendships as the actions of a narcissist, plain and simple.
My mother’s solution to her massive worries about me was to get me some religion.
We talked, she insisted, I argued - and she finally threatened to pull me out of public high school, into a Christian school, where I knew no one and would be even more rigidly controlled than I already was.
As much as I hated school, I was sure I would hate private Christian school even more.
By this time, I had a boyfriend - but he also had a lot of his own problems. Looking back, I think we bonded over the extreme craziness of both of our families. He was a year and a half older than me, and wanted us to get married as soon as I turned 18.
He became fixated on getting my mother’s approval so that we could spend more time together, even communicating with her directly, without me there. With my mom on his side, he was sure they could win over my dad, together.
As a teen, I barely ate- slept a lot - compulsively decorated my room with art and magazine cutouts, and tried my best to act like I wasn’t depressed or suicidal.
At one point, my mother hauled me to therapy, which turned out to be “anger management” - because of how bitterly and often we fought. I discerned that the goal of this outsider was to “fix me” in the opinion of my mother, and not to actually explore what might be going on in my life that caused me to lose control and kick holes into doors.
I learned that I had to wait until I was 18 to escape - and until then, I had to “appear reasonable” and bargain the terms of my submission to avoid control by force.
Eventually, my mother decided on a compromise - I wouldn’t have to attend anger management or the private Christian school if I agreed to attend RCIA classes and officially convert to Catholicism.
The details are foggy - but the way I recall it was, she told us we could only continue to see each other if HE ALSO converted to Catholicism.
I have to pause here to acknowledge the astounding level of manipulation my mother used, not just on me, but on another person’s kid.
I can’t even imagine the mental gymnastics required for this boy of 16(?) to convince his family to let him convert to Catholicism because of a girl.
We got married two years later. In the church.
So, when I say I was raised without religion - really, that was only until I turned 15 and started resisting control.
At that point, I was forced to pick a religion, or else lose everything that felt safe and hopeful about my micromanaged and highly-surveilled social life.
Looking back, I believe my mother was unwell. Even before her mom’s death, she’d been the sole caretaker of all three of my grandparents (yes even sponge baths, round-the-clock care, just on her). When my grandmother passed away, it absolutely unhinged my mom.
I also know that my growth into adolescence deeply triggered her, because of horrific sexual trauma in her own past.
She was suddenly scared for me on multiple levels, and her primal brain told her I just needed The Church to create an internal locus of control, so I’d be properly afraid of the same things she feared, to keep me safe by her standards.
So I converted to Catholicism at 16 - gave up my power to the church at the behest of my mother, because I saw no other way to remain safe.
I still fought with my parents a lot. I found school ever more unbearable, and skipped class often - just to ride in the car and be someplace free of surveillance.
They made me carry a cellular phone, which sounds cool for a kid in the late 90’s … but it was a digital leash, and if I didn’t answer on the first ring no matter what, I was in trouble.
I remember using it to call and explain to my mom, from seedy hotel rooms that my boyfriend rented, that I was in a safe place, not drinking or smoking, not too far away - please don’t call the police on me - I’d be back tomorrow. I couldn’t bear to go back home to their incessant questions, demands, shame and manipulation.
Incredibly, I never turned to either drugs or alcohol during these times, because I was already so scared and beaten down that I didn’t believe anything like that could help, and would only make things worse for me if they found out.
I did attempt to take up cigarettes around age 16, but my boyfriend had become well-versed in the mechanisms of control that my parents used - and he wouldn’t allow me to smoke.
I have a clear memory of him grabbing a full pack of Marlboros out of my hand and throwing them in the rainwater-flooded ditch before I could stop him. The point was not, “cigarettes are bad.” That was only a distraction.
The point I got was, “you’re not in charge of your life.”
I don’t remember my birthdays between 15 and 19. I have some pictures, but threw out a lot of them. I don’t remember much about moving out, either the first or second time.
ESCAPE TAKES TIME
I started trying to break up with the person who would become my ex husband when I was 16. I say “trying”, because he refused to accept it.
Almost all our classes in school were the same because he fixed it that way with the guidance counselor. Of course, she asked me if I wanted that too - but he was in the room with me, and he wanted me to agree. How could I say no?
Also, he had a car, and I wasn’t allowed to learn to drive. So I was reliant on him to go anywhere without my mother, including to and from school.
Additionally, he was close with my mother now, who had sympathy for him. They were each “fawn” types who knew how to weaponize niceness.
He threatened suicideif I broke up with him - both when we were teenagers, and again when I left him as an adult.
Once, after hours of harrowing conversation on the phone with him, where I made it clear that we were through - I woke up in the morning to find him asleep on my parents’ couch, waiting for me.
He had gotten off work in the wee hours, and drove to my house to be comforted by my mother, who decided it was appropriate to let him in without consulting me. So, trying to break up with him was even harder than being with him. Nobody told me that was abnormal, creepy-stalker behavior.
I had no safe place to go, no way to get around, and none of my own money. Without a car or license, I was dependent on my parents and my boyfriend to take me anywhere. A fight might break out over anything and I’d spend hours crying or sick in bed from screaming; then they’d refuse to stop needling me until I gave the “appropriate emotional response”.
At the time, I accepted my parents’ judgement of me as flaky and childish - but looking back, I understand what was really going on: My life was so stressful that I could not face commitments of time that required me to act like a normal person, like a job or college classes.
I did work at Walmart for a week or two when I was 17. Before I was pregnant; after I quit school. I don’t remember getting my first paycheck, though.
I didn’t have my own bank account, and probably it was absorbed into buying things for “us”, not me. It wasn’t symbolic, didn’t feel like an achievement for me. Anything I cared about - like earning my own money - was something they could weaponize against me, or take away.
The first time I had money that felt entirely at my own discretion was when I got my half of the tax return after getting divorced.
For years, I’ve blocked out how insane those times were. How much I lived through, and how not-normal it was to be treated like that.
Somewhere in the midst of all this is where my precious firstborn was conceived - after I dropped out of high school at 17.
I knew my parents would not approve of or support me as a single mom. (They proved this point to me later, during my divorce - but I digress.) They demanded we get married immediately. If I tried to leave now, they’d likely side with him against me in court over “father’s rights.”
So it turned out that it didn’t matter whether I would have gotten accepted to UT or the women’s university in Denton, or not.
I could never agree to abortion - because I felt undeniably aware that this was a conscious life that had chosen me. Just as surely as I knew, bone-deep, that I would regret ending my own life, I knew I would regret ending my pregnancy. It was not a consideration, period.
Anyway, this baby’s father has a job, and doesn’t hit me! It could be worse. I wasn’t marrying a monster.
I grieved a thousand paths not taken, pushed down my panic with enormous effort, and started trying to become a stoic, logical person - a person who would choose the “reasonable” path … not knowing that inevitably leads to death of one’s heart.
This new being was utterly dependent on me to learn to be a good mother, and I was determined to succeed - and now I wouldn’t feel so alone, maybe.
My mother sobbed when we told her - she felt like she’d failed at “protecting” me, I’m sure. She told my father privately - and he did not look at or speak to me for a few weeks.
I know a lot of people reminisce about their teen years as this peak life experience…but that wasn’t the case for me. As a kid, I couldn’t wait to escape school - but later, school became almost preferable to my home life. High school was my era of darkness and apathy.
In the clarity I’ve gained since, I realize that both my parents struggled a lot with anger, with narcissism, with their own abuse and traumas - as did my ex.
Not that they’re excused from their choices and actions - but on some level, I can’t help but have compassion, underneath my righteous anger.
Not that I’m blameless, either - but certainly, I did the best I knew how to within the abysmal circumstances given. Isn’t that what any of us are doing, in any situation?
Thank you for bearing witness to my stories.
“Spiritual connection and engagement is not built on compliance, it’s the product of love, belonging, and vulnerability.” ~ Brené Brown
As an adult, I found my late mother’s Dr. Dobson book on the shelves at their house. I skimmed through it, looking at things she underlined and highlighted - and then shredded the book into small pieces, saved them, and threw them into our next backyard bonfire. If there was evil to be concerned with, it was the appalling advice in that book.
After I got divorced, my father also used this device to prevent my mother from calling me privately. If we could only communicate via their shared cellular phone, he could surveil our conversations. For almost a year, this went on, and she kept asking him to call the phone company, check the wires, what was going on? He gaslit her and said it was all in her head. Finally, I came to visit her at a time when I knew he wasn’t going to be home - and we searched their bedroom and found the switch, hidden in the inner corner of their windowsill. After proving to my mother how it turned the phone connection on and off - we ripped it out of the wall and left it on his bed. He never said a word about it.
Eventually I made the connection that eating and food is a love language, and it triggers emotional flow. What I thought was an eating disorder as a teen was only partially about controlling my appearance - and mainly about controlling my emotions. If I ate a normal amount of food as a teen, I wouldn’t be able to stop myself from crying frequently.
Another reason I never turned to drugs and alcohol is because of the memory of a past life, in which I overdosed and departed too soon. I think this was in the late 1960’s, as I have always had an uncanny pull towards that time period, and was obsessed with learning about the Woodstock festival from old magazines and news clippings as a small child.
I finally got my driver’s license a couple weeks before I had my first child, in case I needed to drive myself to the birth center.
Threatening suicide is a classic narcissist-technique to control empathetic women and girls, who often feel so genuinely responsible for the other person that they will stay to avoid “blood on their hands”. This ISN’T TRUE, of course - but it took me a long time to realize it. I actually know several adult women who stayed in relationships or marriages for a long time because of this threat. When I was in 9th grade, I knew another boy who threatened suicide to his girlfriend if she left him. She held her ground - and he DID choose suicide. The entire school turned on her, blaming her for his death. I don’t know what happened to her - but I realized then, that I couldn’t leave, either.
Any money I got hold of before age 25 came with strings attached. When I got the tax return, it was my seed-money for a new life. I was 25, pregnant, with two little kids, no job history, and a bit of college. No idea where I was going to live, and zero support system. I applied for every government assistance available, then bought a plane ticket to Germany to see the father of my baby. He proposed to me on top of a castle tower, and the rest is history!