Opinion: Verbal Abuse Leaves Wounds That Never Heal

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Dori verbal abuse picture

Verbal abuse leaves scars, too. Illustration by Dori Hartley


When I was little, "abuse" wasn't a commonly used word -- at least, not in the context in which it is used today.

During the free-lovin' late '60s, and the hedonistic early '70s, "abuse" was usually combined with the word "drug" to describe the rock stars of the day, or was a term we heard on the nightly news to discuss how imprisoned soldiers were being mistreated at the hands of the enemy.

On occasion, a child would show up at school with bruises, and, intuitively, everyone knew something unspeakable must have happened at home. Unfortunately, it was so unspeakable that no one ever spoke about it. Back then, the mantras were, "Look the other way," "Don't get involved" and "It's not your business."

For years, even though proof of abuse was glaring at us, we did what the consciousness of the times demanded: We turned our backs and pretended it didn't exist. In fact, we wouldn't even touch it with tongs.

If physical abuse could so easily be denied, verbal abuse had practically zero chance of recognition. Yet, those who have survived the searing lava of intentionally hurtful words might have found themselves preferring a physical beating, because, at least, the pain of the beating would eventually stop. Physical abuse leaves scars, whereas a venomous tongue has the ability to create wounds that never heal.

For my brother and me, the verbal abuse usually started with the "set-up," a series of unrealistic compliments our mother would give us. "You're the most beautiful geniuses in the world." "How did I get such fantastic, superior children?" These words made us feel loved and secure, but, after a while, we recognized the flattery as being part of what we came to know as the "follow-up."

The follow-up was an unending barrage of insults, meant to work on our complete and total mental deterioration. There was no border or boundary our mother wouldn't cross. After all, we were her flesh and blood, which meant, in her mind, we were hers to humiliate, victimize and destroy.

Our body parts were scrutinized. Our choices ridiculed. And, had she been a physically stronger person, I have no doubt her rage would have manifested as something other than verbal annihilation.

As little kids, we learned words so vile and offensive that even a raging devil would shy from their sounds. These were sentences so disgusting I can't write them here -- or anywhere, for that matter. But the message behind the vulgarity was always clear: "You are worthless. The only thing you are good for is to receive my hate."

My dad, though still living with us then, had become introverted and depressed. My mother's mean words had taken a toll on him, as well. He may have wanted to come to our defense, but his efforts were belittled. Eventually, he just stopped trying.

And, so, at the ages of 10 and 5, my younger brother and I knew we had no grown-up to turn to for help.

My mother's shrieking tantrums finally overwhelmed my brother, who, at the age of 15, basically ran away from home. I was stuck there, however, and I did my best to remain loyal to the woman who relentlessly hurt me. For years and years, well into adulthood, I stayed, because that's what you do, right? You never turn your back on family, right?

One day, I asked my mother to apologize, to take some responsibility for what she'd done to my brother and me. I even told her she could lie. "Just fake it, if you can't mean it. Just say you're sorry, Ma. That's all I want in this world."

She refused, stating that she'd never done anything wrong to my brother or me. She denied ever saying nasty things to us, and told me we were both insane. I realized she would never apologize, and, if I continued to press her, I'm sure she would have started in on my ugliness, my weight, my ineptitude, my worthlessness.

I had to accept it: I was never going to get my apology and that had to be good enough for me.

Even after years spent living on my own as an adult, the verbal abuse continued to elevate and, dutifully, I continued to take it. Until, one day, something within me irrevocably changed. My then 4-year-old daughter and I paid my mother a visit. I don't recall the exact details, but something I did sent my mother into an absolute seething spray of histrionics. I believe I was preparing a sandwich in a way that she disapproved of. The words started coming -- LOUDLY.

There was no concern for my daughter's young ears, there was only the bite, the sting and the moment in which she could watch me wriggle in pain. I might have taken it yet again, but she finally pushed it too far, and when I say "too far," I mean, she started in on my daughter.

That was the end. Do what you want to me, but don't you dare even think about working your psychoses on my kid. And, when my mother started giggling like a mad hyena, relentlessly badgering my child with horror-inducing questions: "Do you think Nana should kill herself, honey? Do you want Nana to die? I'll do it! I'll kill myself! Should Nana die, honey? Should Nana kill herself while you watch? Is that what you want, baby? Should Nana kill herself? Huh? Huh? Huh?"

I knew that chain of abuse had to end right then and there.

My mother could never accept that she was causing damage, or that, in the long run, she was destined for isolation. The lonely life she lives today is a result of her past actions. As for our relationship today, it's simple: There is none.

My mother never got treatment and never admitted a single thing was ever wrong. For her, the only thing that was ever wrong was everybody else.

Today, I look at my daughter, and, every day of her life, I see someone precious; someone whose every breath demands respect. She's the greatest thing that's ever happened to me. I listen to her, I honor her and I always choose my words correctly. My language is one of encouragement and support. She's my baby, my everything, and she's an entirely different person than I am.

She's not a continuation of my body, nor is she something I own. She's got her boundaries, her individual ideas and, even when we're in disagreement, I respect her space and her place in the world.

I don't understand how people can be so cruel to a child, or why my mother was so vicious to my brother and me. All I know is that, one day, when my daughter is my age, she will look back at her life and say, "My mother was the nicest and kindest person. She respected me throughout my entire life. She really did love me."

Of this, I can be sure.

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AdviceMama Says:
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.