Every Mother’s Day, my mom asks if I’ve wished her a Happy Mother’s Day, and every year, I do so begrudgingly. During my last semester of college, I called my best friend’s mom to wish her a Happy Mother’s Day. And then she said something I will never forget: “You are so wonderful, Katie! I am so proud of you.” I remember my chest feeling heavy all of a sudden and not being able to see my book through the tears. Here I was wishing someone else’s mom a Happy Mother’s Day, hearing words that should’ve come from my own mother, but never did.
At the core of any form of abuse is a desire to control. Having experienced both physical and emotional abuse, the latter is significantly more painful, which is funny because I cannot feel the wounds, but I know they are there. I ignore them because I am forced to do so until they fester into PTSD and a mood disorder NOS (not otherwise specified). That’s not the worst, though. The worst is my underlying hope for reconciliation because, despite the abuse, a sliver of me still wants to make her proud because she is my mom. However, I’m only reminded repeatedly that whatever I do is not good enough and I’ll just have to preemptively accept her disappointment. The reality that this person is my mom feels like someone has slammed my body against the wall, but only the outside has recovered. The inside—me—is left empty, and I am merely existing. The reality is that this person is not safe for me; she is my mom, but not really. Biologically, yes. Emotionally, no.
After 10 years, I’ve finally been able to identify the source of this omnipresent loneliness. It is a longing for motherly love, a love that I’ve accepted will be unknown to me in my lifetime—the kind where a little kid runs home crying after being bullied at school and his mommy scoops him up in her arms, wipes away his tears and makes him his favorite meal. The kind where a daughter leaves home for the first time and calls her mom because she misses her. The kind where your mom is a source of comfort and reminds you that you are not alone in this world and that someone loves you.
I’ve realized that when you have experienced trauma, there is a profound need to be heard, which I initially mistook as my past imposing on my present. I now know that it is a nagging attempt to regain control of my voice, a voice that my family worked to silence for over 10 years. In the end, the need to be heard was what pushed me to finally seek professional help—and what rescued me.
Enduring abuse doesn’t make you strong. It eats at you over time until you are a shell of whoever you used to be, because your strength doesn’t come from saying “yes.” Your strength comes from listening to yourself—from having boundaries and enforcing them. Your strength comes from using your voice and saying “no,” and when that happens, healing begins.
It is a discombobulated mess of a process. There is no packaged solution or “6 steps for how to rebuild your sense of self,” because you have to find it first. I learned that when people care about you, they will show you through their actions. And if they don’t, it’s okay to let people go. I learned to not answer my mom’s calls, because her words still wound me through the phone; to not make eye contact in person and keep my answers short and monotonous, so that my feelings go undetected, especially the hurt I feel. I’ve also realized that healing involves unlearning—unlearning the thoughts that are so deeply ingrained, they’ve become habits; thoughts that tell me to second-guess myself and say I’m not competent enough, that I’ve failed before I even had a chance to try.
Where there was pain, I found my strength. Most days, I am okay. I tell people I’ve overcome the abuse, the trauma, the sexual abuse. I tell them I’ve let go. I tell them that I’m an “open book” and will talk about my past in an attempt to destigmatize these topics—to tell them that I’ve moved on, that I’m not defined by my past, that I’m okay. It may be a part of me, but it doesn’t define who I am. And today, I am strong. Today, I am self-confident and can speak up for myself. Today, I know that I have a voice and can use it to make a difference. Today, I respect myself and my boundaries. Today, I am not who I was yesterday.
Author: Katie Han
Author Bio: Katie actively works to support trauma survivors within the Asian community through volunteer work and freelance writing. She graduated from NYU with a B.A. in psychology before going into retail merchandising.
Link to social media: Instagram @katemahay