I had to carry a beeper on me at all times once. I wasn’t a doctor. I was a freshman in college.
My mother needed to know where I was every second of the day. This woman, with her weaponized worry, liked to envision me being stuffed in the trunk of some serial killer’s car or, even worse, having sex in the back of my boyfriend’s car. She thought if I carried a beeper on me and had to respond to her messages anytime she rang, that she could feel less stressed. Not once did she ever consider the stress it gave me, at 18, to be away at college, to have to be on alert for whenever she needed reassurance. Her wellbeing was paramount. Not that she was ever well.
I lost the beeper a few times. I’m prone to that. But I might have just lost it on purpose. So she resorted to calling my dorm room at all hours. I learned to unplug the phone. So she resorted to calling the police to do wellness checks on me. I couldn’t escape her and the ensuing drama always boiled over into screaming matches.
I was a terrible, ungrateful daughter.
Eventually, technology made it so she could buy me a phone. The phone had to be on at all hours…just in case someone died. But, really, I had to answer the phone whenever she or my father called, and most of the times it was to tell my mother how to spell a word she didn’t know or to give her tech support. When I didn’t answer, I’d get these anger-filled rants from my father that were the result of my mother screaming at him incessantly. “Why do we give you a phone if you don’t answer it!”
The reason was simple. I was usually in class. My phone rang so many times in Prof. Schwartzman’s classes over the years that she finally started answering the phone herself to tell my father to stop calling me. No one else had ever stood up for me against them. No one knew how bad my family life was.
Americans become adults at eighteen. I wasn’t allowed to become an adult. Not ever. I wasn’t allowed to choose what university to apply to. Or to move into a house my boyfriend bought for me at 22. Or to pick which law school to attend. Or whether I wanted to get married in the Catholic Church in a wedding dress in Nogales at 24…or at all. My mother hovered over every decision I made and every single one was either hers to make or wrong.
There was no escaping her. And this was before GPS tracking. When I was a little kid left alone at the library to study, I’d eventually have to get into the passenger seat of her car and face hours’ long relentless interrogation for things I couldn’t even have fathomed doing. But somehow my mother could. I was always guilty. It got so that I always felt guilty, even when no one was accusing me of anything. That was just my go to feeling. I felt like I had to prove myself. It led to really bad choices as an adult.
Abuse and surveillance go hand in hand. I saw an ad for a children’s toothbrush that alerts parents via an app whether the child actually brushed all their teeth. It’s meant to give parents peace of mind. But it’s really just another way to condition children to being surveilled and not being believed. And that’s even in homes without mental illness and abuse.
There are all sorts of tracking devices you can purchase now that the subject might never find, let alone all the nanny apps parents can purchase. I thank God for being a kid before that sort of technology became widely available. My mother would have found more ways to make my life a living hell, even with objective evidence to the contrary. She would have invented ways I subverted the technology to still be bad.
Abuse takes many forms. My mother’s flavors were a cross between the mother from Carrie and Mommy Dearest. Anything awful she could envision a person doing, she assumed I’d already done or was about to embark upon. It started so young that I just accepted that I was a villain in my own life story. My dad had to go through it, but he was an adult and he could get away. He was also usually doing something shady. My mom couldn’t control him. So I became the thing she controlled. And to her I was a liar, “just like your father.”
Those seeds were sown so early that I never had a fighting chance. I never really learned to claim autonomy. Getting married meant I had a new master and my parents couldn’t assert dominion over me. But I just fell into the same record groove with him and he was grooved in ways that he couldn’t control either. When I came out of that marriage, I was so weak and so rutterless that I just fell back into my parents’ dominion. I proved them right. I was useless and worthless and I’d fail at everything I’d attempt. And I’d be better off selling everything I owned and giving it to them to “take care of you” for the rest of my life.
Try pulling yourself out of that vortex.
I did. It cost me everything I thought I had at the time. But I did it. Even after my mother cursed me with the final “You’ll kill yourself if you move to NYC and you are my possession” speech too campy and ridiculous to even make it to the big screen.
Even after all that it’s easy for me to feel defeated here somedays. To feel powerless. To want to strike out at anyone when bad things are out of my control. By that I mean doctors who have all the power and no clue what they’re doing. I’m hyper vigilant for anyone who claims to have my best interests at heart.
How do I get past this? I have to learn to trust myself so that I am unshakeable. And for that I need to remind myself of my victories. I need the proof that I am not who my mother told me I was for decades. Every single morning, I wake up with her voice in my head, telling me that I’m a liar and a failure and a shame on her. And then I have to go about my life.
She won’t win. Not the real her. The one she planted in my head and tended to so fiercely that the roots keep coming back whenever I’m the least bit weak.