A poem about learning to love myself

My garage door is old, and ugly, dented, and scratched,

marred beyond repair

Most people probably would just replace it with a shiny, perfect new one,

But I choose to do something else,

I’m going to paint it and see what happens.


My poor old garage door, so dented and scratched, so scarred

As I paint it, I realise it’s a perfect metaphor for me

Showing its age, significantly damaged by another,

And behind that door lies an enormous mess

Not of my making, left for me to clean.


As I lay down the coats of paint

Her beauty returns, slowly with each stroke

I can see what she could be

But I can still see what she has been,

Deeply dented and scarred through no fault of her own.


One coat, and I have to ask myself

Is this a joke, this door is old, this door is damaged and ugly

No amount of make up is going to hide all those dents – get a new one, fool –

And all that age – everyone will still see,

And that mess is still behind that door.


But I persevere, I lovingly stroke on the second coat,

Slowly and evenly, applying new color

and bringing out new life in that old door,

and I swear, it’s smiling at me, and it’s saying

thank you, it took you long enough.


And stepping back to inspect my work,

I realise that impossible mess that lies just behind this door

The one that I did not make, there are things of interest in there

And it is mine to own, mine to clean,

And it’s not as impossible as I thought.


She’s beautiful yet, I find, admiring her top to bottom, side to side,

I see her potential shine through again,

I realise that there is even beauty, in those dents and scars,

Indeed, to me, those unrepaired freshly painted scars are the most interesting thing about her,

They are what I appreciate most, what make her beauty unique.


She is old, she hides dark and shameful secrets,

But she is still fully functional, she still does all I need her to do,

She is still capable of beauty, of sharing a smile, a little fragment of joy,

Look what I can still do, she says to the world,

And most of the world smiles back, and doesn’t even see the dents and scars.

Poetry – Am I the Monster

I have just recently been officially divorced from a man who I believe – based on my combination of education, years of experience of him, research, and observation – is a passive aggressive covert narcissist. He has 4 of the 9 criteria for a diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder. 5 are required, so he is subclinical, but that does not change the fact of his abuse. He is not my first trip to this particular rodeo, and not even close to the worst one. That honor belongs to my father, who had 6 of 9 criteria, and qualified for an NPD diagnosis, followed by a relationship that was mostly off, but occasionally on, with a malignant narcissist (he met all 9/9 for NPD, and also 7/7 for antisocial personality disorder, ASPD).


One thing abusers love to do, narcissistic or not, is gaslight. This comes in many forms, and it is not always intentional. Some people gaslight “by accident,” because they need to bend reality to conform to their view of themselves. My family were gaslighters, but not successful because I was an odd child who had an odd response to their gaslighting. Instead of letting them “inside my head,” as the expression goes, even as a young kid, I chose to control my emotional reactions and focus instead of facts and details of events. As a result, I have crystal clear memories of their behavior and specific, particularly egregious incidents -and those are borne out by contemporaneous writings, and on one occasion, even photographs. In short, really obvious, overt gaslighting does not work well on me.


But it does work, kinda. My now ex husband turns out to have been a gifted gaslighter. Where others have failed, he succeeded in making me wonder – to this day – whether his perspective is right, and I am the monster. Of course he would probably tell you he doesn’t think I am a monster – but I have texts to support the examples of his behavior that I share in the “poem” I am about to put on here. To this day, I feel the need to go take narcissist checklists, and I am constantly asking if I am the monster, even though the healthy part of me knows that his behavior was the instigator, he treated me terribly, in a way healthy, normal people would not accept, and this self-doubt is a byproduct of his somewhat successful gaslighting. As long as I did not talk to him about things, just kept my head down, did my job, took care of our child, paid for everything, did all the chores with no help or support, paid to replace things he damaged or destroyed, sometimes over and over (I have spent $700 on brooms – not because I love brooms, or buy designer brooms – because he has destroyed that many to make temporary tools that do not work well), and did not attempt to raise any concerns about our relationship or circumstances, it was pretty clear to me what was going on. But if I tried to talk to him about anything, all of a sudden, i was this horrible, passive aggressive, bitchy woman, and my perspective seemed totally wrong and disturbed. My perspective was this:  chores should be shared 50/50, bills should be shared at least equitably (when he could be bothered to work, he made more than I did, but paid less than 1/3 of the cost of living at the most, there were times he paid nothing, and years where he paid $400 a month towards his own cost of living, nothing for our child , this was justified in his mind, and he blamed me for overspending against his wishes), child rearing should be a team activity, and adult men with no disabilities should work and support their own selves, as well as their children. I went through hell with my job as a lawyer, working at times as many as 80 hours a week while also taking care of our child (she was at work with me, and with me when I came home and brought the work with me to do at night), and I would come home to filth and messes, damage to my house, unfinished projects that created dangerous conditions for our child and others (some persist to this day because I cannot afford to have them repaired and he says they are my problem), him tearing me down for not being a “good woman,” which meant not doing the chores well, not preparing all the meals, and not seducing him at least 3 days a week. If I tried to stand up for myself, he would attack me and the person he described sounded like a total monster. It made me question my perspective, so I just did not want to talk to him at all about anything. He would make promises to do more, but never deliver, just more blaming and shaming and projecting.


The thing was, some of what he said was sort of true. I did become cold and “frigid.” I recoiled at his touch. Sex with him was a repulsive prospect for me. I did not want to be with him. I have since learned that emotionally withdrawing and shutting down is a coping mechanism I picked up from living with my abusive family of origin, where my father berated me at least weekly for some character flaw, misdeed, or failure, and where all of them would invade, tease, and mock me if I expressed sadness, frustration, or any other normal emotion. If I happened to have a moment of happiness or joy, they would collectively find ways to shut that down; that happened enough times that I learned to fear the feeling of being happy or joyful. Instead, I learned that there was safety in being numb, in denying myself emotions. I also learned that my anger scared them off, and it is, to this day, my most well-developed, nuanced, and readily expressed emotion. When I slip into my active C-PTSD state and go into that protective cocoon, rage and anger are the only emotions that do get out easily. But that is also a state that only emerges when I am in an active combat situation, i.e. in the midst of an abusive environment. That means, really, that he was the monster, because I would not have fallen back into that place if he had been decent and kind.


This “poem” is raw and unedited, and a work in progress. I am not good at metaphorical poetry, and it needs work, but it expresses that reality, and maybe is relatable for other people who have been gaslit by a passive aggressive covert narcissist.


Am I the Monster?


Am I the Monster?

You moved in the week we met, you had your own neglected place

I let you

Am I the monster?


In the first month, you demanded my cats move out

I did what you wanted

Am I the monster?


You wanted space in my cramped apartment

So you took over my daughter’s bedroom

I supported you

Maybe I am the monster


You refused to pay any share of the cost of living

It was my apartment, my name on all the bills

I chose to buy the food you ate

Am I the monster?


We moved into the house my parents helped us buy

You still refused to pay your cost of living, my parents helped, so you were entitled

I was pregnant, working full time, you were unemployed by choice

Am I the monster?


Working 60 hours a week, six months pregnant

You had no job, I looked for a second one to do at night

You said if I took a second job, you would leave me

Am I the monster?


The day she was born, you made me late to her induction

Time to leave, I had to wait for you to eat, you were starving after not working all day

You said I had a bad attitude and pregnancy made me a bitch

Am I the monster?


Through the years, I worked, I did the chores,

Paid the bills, took care of our child, and all your needs,

You did as you pleased, reminded me regularly of all my flaws

Am I the monster?


I became cold, withdrawn, unemotional, unable to be intimate

Did not want you to touch me

You told me I was a bad woman, threw things at the walls and raised your voice

Am I the monster?


Screwing up my courage, I asked for financial input from you

I asked for chores to be shared, you to help with parenting

Projects to be finished, messes I did not make to be cleaned

Am I the monster?


You said I am a cold fish, frigid, incapable of love

Lazy, selfish, manipulative, and passive aggressive, fat, old, unattractive, let myself go

All I wanted was help around the house and with the bills

Am I the monster?


I asked you to share the burdens, do some chores

Help with our child, pay some of the bills, support the family

You said I have never been a team player

Am I the monster?


It’s been ten years

I cannot feel, I have no joy, quit all my pastimes, all I do is care for a child and work

Surrounded by a messy home, undone projects, and broken dreams

Was I the monster?


I asked you to leave, many times, you refused

You say I am a bad woman, cold, selfish, manipulative,

Not a team player, your favorite refrain,

I am not so sure I am the monster.


Finally I find my voice

I tell you to leave

You say I never loved you, and I do not love you now, and now I am sure

You are the monster.



Chapter 1 – False Start, Symptom, Not Cause

Back then, when I did not know what I know now, I thought I knew exactly when things went sideways. It was before I understood that my childhood had not been normal, my family culture had not been just dysfunctional, it was abusive, and I seemed to have paid the highest toll. But back then, when things started to go really wrong, so wrong that it became impossible to ignore my problems or push them aside as “quirks” and “eccentricities,” my context was my family was normal, I was the problem, I was all wrong. But where did that idea come from, that idea of my extreme wrongness, the idea that I was irretrievably defective. Neurochemical imbalance, said psychiatry. Take pills, they will make you better. They did not.

Here is the story of where I thought for years that my life went off the rails. I know now that this event was just another symptom of a much more complex, deeply-rooted problem, but at the time of this occurrence, that understanding was decades away. I was a bad seed, defective to my core, worthless and unlovable, and the abortion was nothing but evidence that affirmed these beliefs.

If that was not the beginning of my struggle, one might ask, why start with this story? Because in some senses, it was the beginning of something. It was an irretrievable turn in my life that set me on the path that led here, that led to the discoveries and enlightenment along the way. I doubt I ever would have understood the truth about my family culture if I had not gotten pregnant in my first year as a legal adult, if my father had not done what he did to “remedy” it. That experience was the first rough shove towards understanding why I believed I was worthless and unlovable, it was the catalyst that led me to examine my life further back, and to question events in my life that would follow afterwards, and to see the broader implications in my own story, and its potential relevance to others. It was the first life experience that suggested to me that I might have something relevant to share about childhood abuse, and its consequences, and the terrible price that we, as individuals, and as a society, pay when it continues unchecked.

As those things tend to do, this story began with a boy, a tall, handsome boy with dark brown hair, blue eyes, and broad shoulders. We met by chance one night when a friend and I took a wrong turn looking for her friend’s apartment. We had sneaked into the biergarten at the university, and were already mildly drunk. We stumbled into a fraternity where she happened to know a guy, and we went into his room with him and a few of his friends and had more drinks. On our way to his room, she and I noticed a really cute boy in sweats and a t-shirt talking on the phone in the hallway. We giggled to each other and talked about how hot he was in German (we met in German class and were both fluent as we had both lived in Germany for a year) on our way into the friend’s room. Some time later, Susan and I found ourselves in the hallway, sitting on the couch next to the cute guy, who was still on the phone, chattering away in German, laughing and being silly, and shamelessly coming on to him. His name was Mark, and he invited us into his room. I do not remember most of the details of that night because I had far too much to drink and my memory is impaired, but there are images and bits and pieces. What started out as a flirtatious, sensual threesome probably quickly turned into a twosome, because at some point, I was alone with Mark, and Susan was knocking on the door, asking if I was alright. I certainly thought I was, and she left. I woke the next morning, hungover, in a daze, likely still somewhat drunk, lying beside a tall, handsome, muscular young man. I could scarcely believe a guy that good-looking would have wanted anything to do with me, and figured that was the one night, I would be doing my walk of shame back to Susan’s dorm, showering, and calling my parents to come get me (I still did not drive). But he also woke up, smiled at me, and said he wanted to walk me back to Susan’s dorm room. It was January, and relatively cold, and as we walked across campus, our breath forming mist in the cold morning air, he held my hand, and I looked up at him, relishing the extended time with this Adonis who also seemed so sweet, gentlemanly, and kind. My heart was racing, and I found it hard to breathe, as one often does at the first whispers of infatuation. I felt shy, but nevertheless managed to have a conversation with him the whole way back to Susan’s room. Once we arrived there and were waiting for Susan to come let me in, he asked if he could see me again. I could not believe it, this handsome guy wanted to see me again? I wondered why someone like that would want anything more to do with me, small, ugly little boring mouse that I believed I was – I had already been surprised he was willing to be seen in public with me, but that he would want to see me again, I had never imagined that would be possible. Of course I said yes, and we made a plan for that very evening. When I told Susan, she was thrilled for me, and we chattered about it until my mother arrived to take me home.

After our first real date, we became inseparable. We spent every moment we could together – I often slept at his fraternity. My father knew this, and it enraged him, but he pretended to believe the cover stories that I was staying at friends’ apartments and dorm rooms, or studying late in the Honors College, and did not make as big an issue of my new boyfriend as I had expected he would, considering his attitude towards me, and his belief that he had a right to control my sexuality. There was one occasion when Mark and I had been fairly intensively exploring each other’s bodies in my parents’ basement – we thought we were alone – and my sister had caught us, and rushed upstairs to tattle to our parents, but by the time they got downstairs, we were sitting sedately side by side on the couch, watching TV. My father ordered Mark to go home, and when I made a move to leave with him, he told me I was staying. I was 19, but I obeyed. I always obeyed my father’s direct orders because I was terrified of him – at that point in time, my acts of rebellion were small and strictly covert.

When Spring Break came that year, my parents had a plan to go to San Diego with my sister, my exchange sister from Germany, and me. The thought of being separated from Mark was unbearable, being trapped in a car with my family for a week did not make the trip with them more appealing, and Mark wanted me to go to Marin County to meet his parents. Somehow, I convinced my father to allow me to go with Mark instead, and we had our first trip away together. Mark’s father, sister, and step-mother did not seem to like me much, but I was so in love with him by then that it did not bother me as much as it maybe should have. He and I spent the nights in Marin County out under the stars on the deck of their hot tub, naked, reveling in each other’s bodies, careless and heedless to consequences. We spent the daytimes exploring the City, visiting Mill Valley, touring around in Mark’s car, admiring the views that overlooked the Bay, talking, arguing, kissing, touching.

We spent a few days with his mother in Monterrey also. His mother was still fairly young, I believe only 36 or 37, at the time. Her behavior was manic generally, and towards Mark, it was also very odd. She would caress his face, hold his hands a little too long, talk about how handsome and sexy he was, and grab his butt. He would leave me alone at her apartment to spend time with her and her boyfriend or friend (I never did quite understand the relationship between Suzette and her man friend), be gone for hours, and come back acting manic and smelling of alcohol, and he would lash out at me when I dared to complain about how long I had been left alone in the apartment – there was no cable, nothing on TV, and I had not brought any books. Being alone there, not knowing where he was or why he was gone for hours when he said he’d only be gone “a few minutes,” was agony for me. It was about that time that our relationship began to crack. On the last night in Monterrey, my parents, sister, and Sibylle were passing through Monterrey, and we had arranged for them to call so that we could all have dinner together with Mark and his mother. Mark’s mother was extremely talkative, the type of high-pressured, fast-paced talking one might associated with cocaine or meth use, or with bipolar disorder and a manic cycle. But when she got on the phone with my father, she became dead silent, answering only in monosyllables. It struck me as very strange, until she rang off and turned to me, shuddered dramatically, and said, “I do not like that man.” I will never forget those words. It turns out my boyfriend’s manic mother had a better sense of character from a two minute phone call than I had after 19 years of exposure. She attributed his coldness to being a Gemini, and declared that she hated Geminis in general, but when informed I also was a Gemini, she said it was just the men she did not like, but the awkwardness of her statement lingered between us. The dinner was predictably equally awkward and strained.

On the drive back to Oregon, Mark and I argued a lot. We had very different views on politics and society, and that was a frequent source of conflict between us, but we argued about other things as well, including Mark’s mother, and his family’s reception of me. I felt tired and sick, but thought it was just from riding in the car. Mark got a speeding ticket right as we got back into town, and blamed it on me, first because I had not told him about the cop (I did not see him), and then because I had got him so riled up and angry that he had not paid attention to his speed (he sped the whole drive back), and then because I did not “bother” to do any of the driving, and I should have been the one driving (I did not know how, and did not have a licence at the time). We spent a few days apart after Spring Break, but eventually, cooled off and resumed our pattern of being inseparable, very physical, and arguing a lot when we were not rolling around naked in his bed, or in his car, or wherever else we could be alone for a few minutes. Despite the arguing and conflict, despite the differences in beliefs and of temperament that continued to reveal themselves, despite having had a huge row about an envelope I had found in his bedroom containing many women’s underpants (he was keeping mementos from all the girls he had bedded, but who had not stuck around), I was still madly in love with him, and thought I could see a real future with him.

However, the consequences of our sexual recklessness in the Bay Area was beginning to manifest, in the form of “car sickness” that would not go away. When my cycle did not make its usual, reliable appearance, I knew. Back then, however, one had to wait two weeks after the missed period to test for pregnancy, and that waiting period was torture. I did not tell anyone my fear, I tried to stifle my nausea and hide my fatigue and other symptoms. My breasts ached, but despite the pain and sick feeling, I continued to let Mark touch my breasts and have sex as much as before, even though I felt very ill. After the two weeks had finally gone by for the missed period, I turned in a jar of fresh urine to a local gynecologist’s office, and waited all day for the phone call telling me the results, although I knew. I was pregnant, I did not need the doctor to tell me. But the call came while I was at work. I isolated myself in an office alone, received the expected news, and wept alone in the office.

I took a week alone with the news, digesting it, processing how a future would look with my baby. I was sure it was a boy, and I began knitting him little booties, a sweater, and a blanket whenever I was alone. I had not met him, but I knew I would love my son. During class when I was not fighting off nausea, I was distracted by imagining myself sitting in class with the other students, my round pregnant belly squeezed into the desk space I front of me. I never once considered not having the baby. I would imagine us together, what our life might be like, sometimes with Mark, sometimes on our own. I imagined how it would be to hold him for the first time, and watch him grow, and when we were alone, I would talk to him. There was no doubt in my mind in spite of not being ready to be a parent – I was a very young 19 – I wanted the baby, and I would do the best I could for him, I would get myself ready no matter what happened. Although I loved Mark back then, that love was volatile and unstable. This one was different. It made me feel strong, grounded, and real. I was scared, but I felt something akin to confidence for the first time in my life.

Mark was not the first person I told. I told my high school friend, Kirstin. I also told her that I did not want an abortion, that I was morally opposed to abortion, and I wanted to keep the baby. She was probably skeptical of the situation because she and her boyfriend had already made clear they disliked “Muck” and thought I should get away from him as soon as possible, although outwardly she was supportive.  The first trimester symptoms quickly escalated, however, and it became impossible to hide my condition from Mark. I was getting up in the middle of my lectures to go vomit, missing classes because I was in the bathroom throwing up, or was just too tired to get up and make it to class, and when I did make it to class, I was not able to pay attention because I was preoccupied with my new reality and was further distracted by having constantly to suppress my need to run from the room to throw up. It wasn’t long before Mark realised I had missed a period, and was also holding my hair for me as I threw up in the bushes on the way back from our classes to his room. After a few days digesting the news on my own, I told him.

His reaction was calm at first. He asked if I wanted an abortion, I told him no, that it was a violation of my moral code. He said he understood, and that he guessed we had better let my parents know. For the time being, he was being understanding, sympathetic, and supportive. However, that did not last long. He spoke to his older friend, who told him I was trying to trap him, and to his mother, herself a teen mother when she had Mark, and she told him that I would ruin his life and to make me get rid of it. Mark quickly came to agree with them, and would berate me and demand I get an abortion every time I saw him. Mark informed me that he and his friend, whose name I no longer remember, had decided to take a year off school to take a yacht around the world, living like bachelors, and he was not going to be there for the baby and me. He told me that I was a horrible monster, his mother and father both hated me, and he knew I was trying to trap him in marriage (note it was not the 1950s). He even suggested perhaps the baby was not his. I still loved him, even after this first taste of the real Mark, but I no longer trusted him and felt very isolated and scared about the future. After about a week of Mark’s regular tirades against me, we decided to tell my mother first because that conversation would be easier.

Mark and I were not on the same page about the baby, I was walking into those conversations with my parents with no support from the baby’s father. I had not once doubted I wanted to keep the baby, Mark just wanted magic to come and make the whole thing disappear, to push a reset button, so we would not have to confront our consequences at all.  The day we told my mother, we asked to speak to her alone, and went into my parents’ bedroom where we all three sat on the bed. I was still very sick from my changing hormones, had lost a significant amount of weight, and was weak and tired. Mark was the one who told my mother. He simply said, “Nancy, Juliana is pregnant.” My mother immediately burst into tears, but recovered fairly quickly. She announced that we had to tell my father, and that we had to tell him right that moment. She said she did not want to be burdened with this secret because it was too big, and it was not fair to my father to keep it from him. Looking back, knowing what I know, and understanding what I now understand, I believe she thought that my father would force me to do what they wanted, I believe she had my measure, and knew exactly how I would respond to one of my father’s angry, aggressive, menacing interventions. I would comply. I always complied back then.

We all have those moments in life that are particularly salient, and the little details, even down to words people said, how their faces looked, what they were doing before the moment began, what they were wearing, stand out and stick with us. This day was one of those, and I can remember pieces of the conversation after breaking the news to my father with technicolor perfect clarity, as if it is a movie that I can simply play over and over in my mind, whether I want to do so or not. Because of my family’s habit of revising events to suit the portrait they wanted presented to the outside world, a behavior known in psychological circles as gaslighting, as a very young child, I decided that I would always focus on facts and events rather than on my emotions about those events, and I would repeat the series of facts as they occurred in my life to myself over and over in order to hang onto my sense of reality. It has been a trait that has served well over the years, and is probably a good reason why I have not been statistical prey given my high ACE score. It is also somewhat anomalous for my memory to be as strong as it is; many abuse survivors suffer from deficient memory. I am very thankful that I escaped that fate.

We went out to the living room, where my dad was sitting and reading the paper, nursing a cup of cold black Folgers coffee. We sat down, my father on his chair, my mother, Mark, and me across the room on the couch, and we broke the news. I expected an explosion of anger and recrimination, but it did not come. He sat there, silently absorbing. After a few moments, my father asked my mother and Mark to go for a walk. They left. He and I sat across from each other in silence; I was afraid to break the silence lest it unleash a torrent of verbal abuse, so I waited, holding my feelings of terror very close. Eventually, he spoke. The majority of the conversation has become an indelible part of my memory; some things cannot be forgotten, no matter how much we might wish we could. This was one of them.

“Do you know where I was earlier today?” he began.

He was very calm, and that frightened me more than an outburst would have. It did not make sense, and that did not bode well. He had a pattern of exuding a quiet cold rage just before an explosion of nastiness, and given the news I had just shared, I reasonably expected this to be one of those occasions. I also did not understand the relevance of what was likely his latest extramarital fling to my situation. “No….” I trailed off, my voice quiet.

“I was driving around, looking at apartments.” He paused for what I can only assume was dramatic effect. “I’m thinking about leaving your mother.” He was watching my face closely.

I had no idea what to do with this information. I was a 19 year old kid, and emotionally, I was probably closer to 13 or 14 in most ways. I had been controlled, manipulated, and told what to do my entire life by my parents, especially my dad, who mostly frightened me into compliance and placed the fear of God in me should I stray from the path he wanted, even if that path was not particularly clear to me – I was mostly just aware of high expectations of something. Even when the orders were irrational or strange, or I disagreed, I had almost always slavishly obeyed. I had rarely exercised any meaningful independent decision-making, and I was very meek and afraid of most things in the world – if all teens have a rebellious streak, I had yet to discover my own. I was also very dependent on my parents financially, even though I worked. I think most of that dependence stemmed from fear of what might happen if I left the financial safety of my well-to-do family and struck out on my own. The idea that I would fail if I tried to stand on my own had been drummed into me – I was, after all, a failure at all things my entire life, that was my script – I knew this to be so because I had heard it so often from my father, and even my mother when she was backing him up – and I was convinced I would not be able to function without their support. The idea of being a single mom so young, without any support, the idea I would fail my son, was the most terrifying feeling I had ever had at that point. At the same time, where morals were concerned, my world view was quite black and white, it was easy for me to decide what was right, what was wrong, what was good, what was evil. Cheating on a spouse was wrong, that made my mother right. I felt protective of her. Bringing the baby inside me into the world was good, killing him would be an act of the most profound evil. Now, here I sat, across from the man I most feared and disliked in all the world, and he seemed poised to start divulging embarrassing and shameful extramarital secrets to me on the heels of a fairly significant personal revelation of my own, one he had not even touched, one to which he had not reacted, one which presented a literally growing problem. I did not know what to do, or what to say, so I sat very still, and I said nothing and tried to force myself to look at his face.

“You have probably noticed our relationship has had its problems. Things have not improved. I am not happy,” he continued.

I remained silent and motionless, waiting to hear the connection between this information and my pregnancy.

“If things were better, your mother and I could help you, we could adopt the baby and raise it ourselves,” he continued, his voice still eerily calm. In that moment, I began to understand what he was thinking, but I still did not speak. “As it is, I’m afraid if you decide to have this baby, that will be the last straw for your mother and me. Our marriage will not withstand the strain.”

And there it was. If my baby was allowed to live, it would ruin my mother’s happiness, and my parents’ marriage, and it would be my fault for not complying, for failing to meet the expectations of something that were always there, nebulous, but pressuring. I could not speak. His meaning was clear, he wanted me to kill my baby as a sacrifice to the sanctity of their marriage; my baby had to die so that their relationship could continue, so that my mother could be “happy.”

“Well? What do you have to say? Are you going to do the right thing?”

At last, I found my voice. “What is the right thing?” It came out in a croak.

“You need to get an abortion.”

The silence roared around me, oppressive, invasive. It permeated me to my very core, and tore me apart. I found that I was not able to break it again, and a tear slipped out of my eye and fell onto my hands, which I had clasped in my lap so tightly that my fingers had turned a blotchy red and white. I wiped the tear off and on my pants, and did not look up at him, struggling to prevent any more tears or emotion from escaping me.

“I will pay for it, of course.” He must have sensed my resistance, because he added a layer to the manipulation, which, looking back, was a rather Machiavellian ploy to ensure the outcome he desired – my baby had to be erased and forgotten. My body had gone cold, my skin tingled, the room was spinning and tilting, my face was numb and hot, and I felt sicker than ever.

“If you decide to keep it, you’ll be on your own,” he continued, still very calm. “Having you around here, pregnant, will be too much stress for your mother and me and our relationship. I also cannot have you living in the house setting that type of example for your sister. You will have to move out. I will not continue to fund your education, so you will have to get a job to support yourself and your baby.”

I continued to sit on the couch, completely still, enveloped in a silent horror, my breathing shallow, feeling dizzy and disoriented. I thought Mark, Mark will surely change his mind, this is his baby, too. He will defend us in the end. He will come around.

As if he were reading my thoughts, my father added, “I hope you are not placing any faith in Mark. That boy is not going to stick around. He doesn’t want this baby any more than you do. If you have it, he will be gone, and you will be alone. I can see it, he already has one foot out the door.”

Looking back on this conversation now, I wish I could transport my current self back to that day. I would rip his face off, knock his smug, hypocritical ass right out of his chair, and give him the confrontation about his behavior and world view that he always sorely needed. That pregnancy, their reaction to it, was a turning point in my life, and it did not turn me in a good direction – I paid for it in some way or another for many years afterwards, and still struggle to accept the decision to obey my parents and not defend my baby and myself – why was I not brave? Despite now having good friends, two beautiful daughters, and a life rhythm that I can tolerate, I still live with sadness and feelings of loss over my first baby. I feel guilt for being so goddamned obedient to the two people who least deserved it of any people I have ever known. And I am still very, very angry, about this abortion, but about all the rest of our history, too. And at the same time, I also realise that at the time, I could not have acted or reacted any differently – I was not aware of the things of which I am now aware, I did not understand the true nature of my familial relationships, as I now do. I was completely at my father’s mercy. The concept of psychological abuse had never entered my mind, I had never heard of it, and he had never struck me other than when I was little (spankings), and one very inappropriate spanking incident on my 14th birthday. But there was no regular pattern of physical or sexual abuse which would have made the truth obvious. My operating paradigm was that my family was normal, and the problem lay entirely with me. I now know that that abortion was not, in fact, the turning point of my life, it was the point that allowed my eventual awareness of the abuse to take seed – without it, I might never have understood the truth. The experience also touches on all that my father, and to a lesser extent, my mother, did – my body, my autonomy, my faith, my financial well-being, my personal life, my education – and in a nutshell, sums up my parents’ diseased, toxic approach to raising children, and the destructive force that it unleashed. Every time my parents had an opportunity to step up and do what was right, be good parents, they chose the exact wrong thing, and the damage left in their wake was far-reaching and permanent. For years and years, I believed that forcing me to have an abortion was the one sin that I most could not forgive, but that is too narrow an understanding of what they did. It is but one of many less egregious examples of the ongoing cycle of psychological abuse and damage that they inflicted in smaller and bigger ways, every day of my life.

Moments after my father had told me that if I had my baby, I would be killing my parents’ marriage, their unhappiness would be entirely my fault, that I would be alone if I did not do what he termed the right thing, and that Mark would most certainly also abandon the baby and me, my mother and Mark returned. Not only had my commitment to having the baby waivered, it had completely dissolved. My father had had his way with me.

“Well?” my mother asked, her voice eager, tense with anxiety and fear.

My father told her that I had agreed that aborting the baby was the best thing for everyone, even though I had barely spoken, and that I would be scheduling the appointment soon. My mother’s relief was unmistakable, as was Mark’s. I knew that day that I would never have any support for the right thing, that I was surrounded and controlled by people who not only did not understand me, they were not remotely interested in my perspective, or my right to choose the path I wanted. No one had asked what I wanted to do; it had never occurred to them, I suppose, that I would disagree with their decisions for my life, or probably even that I had the right to make my own decisions.

In the weeks that followed that day, my father would ask me daily if I had made the appointment, and he would remind me in subtle ways of the destruction that my child would bring to his marriage (and image). Even after the appointment was made, he continued to harangue me about it, remind me that I was required to go through with it, or else something bad would happen to us all. Meanwhile, Mark barely spoke to me, except to rant about my foot dragging, and that I needed to “get rid of that fucking thing.” He would hold my hair back when I would lean into the bushes to throw up suddenly on the way back from class, and in those moments, he was nice to me, but mostly, he avoided being around me, and he was angry and resentful that my sex drive had all but vanished, and that I did not want to be touched. My mother would stare at me with widened, earnest eyes filled with desperation, and tear up any time we made eye contact. My sister was oblivious to the quiet, secret drama unfolding around her, and was wrapped up in her own small selfish universe, but would continue to flirt with Mark and touch him inappropriately if he happened to be around. He was more receptive to her obvious and aggressive flirtations than he had been before, and he would look at me vengefully as he would playfully flirt-punch back at my sister. No one spoke to me much in those weeks, and even after I told them I had made the appointment for May 1, I continued to get the fear stare from my mother, the near silent treatment from Mark, and the incessant pestering to make the appointment from my father. He would even dangle the money for it in front of me as if it was something I should want, as if he were giving me some sort of present.

My father gave me the promised funds that morning before he left for work. Mark and my mother came with me, probably to babysit and make sure I followed through – I am sure they knew it was not what I wanted to do. Mark refused to go into the office, instead loitering outside in his grey sweatpants, grey t-shirt, and shower shoes, not wanting to be seen in a women’s care clinic, probably, or possibly, with me. When the nurse called me to come back to the procedure room, I rose obediently, mechanically following her down the hallway, ignoring her efforts to talk to me. My mother had invited herself along, and I wondered if she intended to stay in the room, perhaps perform the procedure herself, or maybe have the doctor just remove my reproductive system altogether just to make sure this never happened again. At first, the doctor allowed her to stay. He asked me if I wanted her there, and I nodded, unable to speak for fear of losing the small amount of emotional repression I still had. He studied my face a little longer than seemed necessary, and I suspected he knew that something was off about the situation. Those people had been using every tactic they could think of since the day they had found out about the baby, and the truth is, I was sufficiently broken down that there was no question remaining, my compliance was already sealed. Indeed, it was sealed before I even thought about boys or sex or having babies. I did not know then what I know now, but I was not a normally functioning adult. I was a survivor of a peculiar form of protracted abuse that had no name, that held no place in my world view. I felt deadened and detached, and as if I had no right to be an active agent in my own life; my path had been chosen for me, and all I had to do was follow them around and do as I was told. I had been browbeaten and frightened into this, and there was no turning back now. The doctor quickly told me what the procedure was called, and what it would entail, and asked if I understood. My mother tried to hold my hand, but I pulled mine away and stuck it under my gown. I nodded that I did understand. He looked at me a little too long again, then asked, “Are you sure this is what you want?”

Until that moment, not one single person had expressed any concern at all – not even professional or feigned  – about my wishes, no one had stepped outside his own selfish bubble to find out if forcing me into an abortion was the right decision for me. The truth was, no one had cared what I wanted, they were all too busy thinking about themselves and what they wanted. For my mother, it was protecting that completely artificial, dishonest façade of the perfect modern American family. We were no family, we were a collection of people who had no business being in the same room. We have always been an assortment of mismatched parts, comical at times, repulsive at others, and the chaotic cacophony of subtext we make when forced together is still insufferable. Mark’s only concern was that he did not want to end up on the same path as his parents, and he was probably scared. He was just a kid. My father’s only interest was in continuing to exert his control over my life and my decisions, and maintaining an outward impression of his family that reflected well on him and did not unmask the truth, and that control needed to extend to my physical being and reproductive life. He had exerted that power in other ways before, this was simply the most extreme. He had ideas for how I should live my life, and they definitely did not include early parenthood.

Inside my head, I felt that I was giving a sham consent to be violently raped and beaten, it was madness to think that any potential mother would want to do this, and I knew it was wrong, but my heart had already been broken, it felt as though my baby had already been taken from me, was already dead, and I had been thoroughly brainwashed into believing that if I did not do as ordered, my and my baby’s lives would be miserable – and I would be selfishly destroying singlehandedly my mother’s happiness, costing my father a lot of money (an unforgiveable sin), and taking away my sister’s stability. I had been trying to stifle my emotions for the past few weeks, and the effort had been herculean. When the doctor asked if this abortion was something I wanted, when this complete stranger exhibited what appeared to be the first genuine concern for my wellbeing, more concern than I had seen collectively from my boyfriend or my parents, I was overcome. The tears welled up in my eyes and I held my breath in and nodded.

The doctor turned to my mother, and asked her to leave the room. With one quiet, desperate, pleading glance at me, my mother ran her hand across my cheek, a gesture I have forever after found manipulative and repellant, and she left the room.

“Is this really what you want?” He asked again. “I think you hesitated. Are you making this decision independently, of your own free will?”

For one wild, fleeting second, I thought about telling the truth, I thought about being selfish and voicing my own feelings, and refusing to murder my child just so my parents could continue to pretend to be happy, my abusive sister could continue to believe the entire world revolved around her and her needs, and my boyfriend could go off to travel around the world with his older man friend, unburdened by the knowledge he had left his child and its young mother behind, alone, fending for themselves. But the glimmer of freedom died before truly bursting forth; the threats, manipulations, and brainwashing had been too effective on my weak will, not to mention the years of psychological abuse that had made me what I was, and I was not a strong enough person to resist, so I dutifully and tearfully said yes, I was sure.

I do not think the doctor believed me. In fact, I am sure he did not. But I had said I would go through with it three times, in front of a nurse witness, and it was done. Legally, he was protected and the procedure could be done.

The procedure was an abomination. I felt as if I was being ripped open by a skewer that could reach all the way into my heart. Every second of it was breathtakingly horrific, from the canulae the doctor inserted to dilate my cervix to the thrusting movements he made as he evacuated the contents of my uterus. I remember watching the tissue collect in a glass container, and imagining I could see my dead son floating around in the debris (that would not have been possible that early in the pregnancy; the foetus would have been too small, but the imaginary image has haunted me since).

When I left the room, pain medication prescription in hand, I pushed past my mother, walked outside and straight up to Mark, and I hissed, “Happy birthday. He’s gone. Dead baby. That’s your present.” Lying on that table, having a life sucked out of me, the bleak seeds of darkness that had lain quietly inside me finally began to explode out of me in a florid display of ugliness. Hatred bled out of me in every direction, and I decided nothing and no one would be safe. I left that place a different person, a person who had taken a life, a person who would make the world pay, and unleash all the nastiness she had kept inside for so long. I now know that was the first glimmer of understanding what my father, and mother, had been doing to me for years. The forced abortion was not where my problems started, where my life went off the rails, it was where I began to realise that my life had never been on the rails to begin with. It was the start of a journey that would last over two decades towards discovering the full breadth and depth of what they truly had done. Back then, though, I thought they had broken me in that moment when my baby was gone, I truly believed that was when I had changed, which I suppose, in a sense, I had. I would look at Mark and my parents, and feel nothing but blinding, consuming hatred. I wanted them to feel what I felt, I wanted their souls to writhe from the pain I was experiencing, I wanted them to feel it ten fold, I wanted them to suffer as my baby had just suffered, to feel the full measure of what they had forced me to do. In short, I wanted them to pay, I wanted to kill them metaphorically, and if the pain of it actually killed them, so much the better. As time went by, I would begin to want to inflict that pain on others I perceived as bad; for a while, I was at risk of becoming a very nasty creature as I would indulge in dark, frightful fantasies within my own mind and engage in destructive behavior (mostly drinking and having sex with strangers).

After the abortion, I had complications. The bleeding would not stop, so after six weeks, the doctor did a repeat procedure, which was awful to experience. After the second procedure, I continued to have pain and bleed excessively, until one day, I haemorrhaged all over the bathroom – I had had a fever for a few days, I was nauseated and in pain, was soaking through two thick menstrual pads each hour, and felt very weak and tired. I had gotten up to go to the bathroom, and when I got there, discovered my nightgown I was wearing was soaked all the way from the waist to the bottom hem, my underwear were completely saturated, and blood was gushing out into the toilet and I had gotten it on the floor. My mother rushed me to the hospital, I was too weak to walk, so I was put in a wheelchair and immediately taken to an examination room. I was falling asleep, and figured maybe I was dying, and thought that would be good. The woman doctor who examined me took my blood pressure, which was under 80/50, gave me a shot of something she said would “perk” me up, and said I likely had an infection from the two D&C procedures, and possibly a perforation explained the bleeding. She gave me a prescription for antibiotics and sure enough, I began to heal physically from the abortion. A large part of me was very disappointed.

During the procedure, I tried to control my emotions and feel nothing, but to this day, even having become a better master of my own emotions now, I am unable to view the memory of this day without a surge of rage and hatred towards those responsible. I cannot look back on those moments philosophically or with equanimity, and I do not know if I can, or should, ever truly forgive anyone for it, including myself. I was weak, I did not stand up for what was right, and I allowed the murder of my own child. I violated my own deeply held beliefs, my own body, and for what? To appease my selfish, dysfunctional, toxic parents? To preserve a family dynamic that left all of us broken, defeated, and worse people that we would have been if we had split apart? Complying meant we were doomed to many more years of pretense and outright lies, forced to play the sham to ourselves and outsiders alike, again and again, at least one of us most unwillingly? The decision to acquiesce to their pathological need to control ultimately has had the effect of perpetuating mental illness and suffering, and it certainly did not make anyone any happier or better. The truth of the matter is, our family was not one that deserved to be saved, and I never should have allowed them to make my baby and my body their sacrificial lamb. My family was a structure that was built of straw and ether, of deceptions big and small, and it should have been blown apart. The truth is, we would in all probability have been much happier and better people if my parents had separated and divorced. Staying together as that poisonous family was one of the worst things for me, and probably, for us all. Of the many things I have had to learn to accept, live with, tolerate, and perhaps even forgive, this one thing remains unforgiven.

As my baby died, a new trait was born – I finally began to feel rebellious and disobedient. Thus I left one other thing in that room; my capacity for blind obedience. That is one loss I cannot mourn.