How Emotional Abuse From My Childhood Makes It Hard to 'Take Up Space' Now
In the household I grew up in, I learned love wasn’t freely given, it was hard won.
I was first made aware of the space I took up in this world when I was told I was an “accident” baby, a baby who caused a marriage that later ended in divorce. The words, “You were an accident” came out of my mother’s mouth so frequently, it continued to echo around in my brain until somewhere along the way, it changed to mistake, mistake, mistake.
And without realizing it, I undertook the lifelong task of becoming a child my mother would want to have.
I remember one year, writing to my mother in a Mother’s Day card that I knew she didn’t want to be a mom when she got pregnant with me, but I thanked her for loving me anyway. When I wrote it, I desperately wanted her to deny the fact that she hadn’t wanted to be a mother — or at least say that she didn’t regret it now because she wanted me. I was perhaps more disappointed than I should have been when she said it was the most thoughtful card I had ever written to her.
When I was in junior high, I was so excited when we moved houses because my sister and I were going to have our own rooms. But soon after, if things got messy, our mother was quick to remind us that the spaces we called our bedrooms were not actually ours, but were her property on “loan” to us. Things needed to be clean (though she wasn’t a particularly clean person herself) because as she indicated with a loud voice and pointed finger, we lived on her floor, within her walls and in her space.
Chores were a primary area where she asserted control. She wanted us to be the kind of children who knew what she wanted and would do it before being asked. When we failed to read her mind and complete the chore she wanted done, she would inform us this was how she knew we didn’t really love her. It was in this way that she brought me to heel, seeming to know that dangling her love as a reward would make me work harder to attain it — because it was at this time, I thought it was still in the realm of possibility to receive it.
In conversations, she would talk about herself exclusively. If a conversation were like a room, she would expand to fill it and leave me crouching in a figurative corner, folding into myself to make space for her. I lived my life constantly tiptoeing around my mother. I thought if I pressed ever so lightly upon the earth, she wouldn’t notice the space I was taking up by existing. Though I craved permanence, it always felt like I had a transitory, “rented” spot in her life. She made me feel I was lucky she stuck around at all.
My life continued in this way, and what I now understand was emotional abuse would teeter on the edge of physical abuse at times. It was after experiencing a great disappointment in my life when I first felt the crushing weight of depression settle on me as I prepared to exit high school. Rather than tiptoeing through life any longer, I began to hope I could make myself so small I might disappear entirely.
And I tried.
When I attempted suicide, it felt like I was trying to give back the space I had taken up in this world.
In my subsequent recovery throughout college, finally away from the household I had grown up in, I started to see glimpses of a future I might have. I decided I wanted my experience to “matter,” so I threw myself into mental health advocacy. Over the next few years in college, I spoke about my experiences often, ran a mental health organization and led a support group for people struggling with mental illness. What I didn’t realize then was I was still trying to minimize the space I took up in the world — just in a different way this time.
To me, it felt like if I could help people, it would negate — or at least neutralize — the space I took up. In my mind, I though if I poured out enough of myself, I would succeed in adding to the world rather than detracting from it by existing. In my way, I was paying rent in a life I wasn’t really supposed to be in.
But even when I was paying actual rent in an apartment I shared with four other girls in college, I was a ghost of a roommate. I didn’t feel entitled to the share of the apartment I was paying for, and felt the lives of my roommates would be improved if I was never around. I remember one of my roommates expressing that she missed me because she never saw me, and I was taken aback. I had always assumed in my relationships there was an unspoken agreement that my role was to grant others more space by making mine negligible. When she said it, I didn’t really believe her — though I know now she really did mean it. She wanted to be around me.
Taking up space is still a huge issue for me. I apologize far too frequently, shame myself for making mistakes and have real trouble with accepting help. Though I desperately want to leave behind the emotional scars of my childhood and adolescence, I realized I haven’t yet been able to shake my core belief that I am fundamentally unlovable. My depression clings to the belief that if the woman who was biologically predisposed to love me unconditionally didn’t, then why would anyone else?
Though I know in my rational mind the things I believe about myself are untrue, I am still working on convincing my heart. For now, I will try to remind myself that I exist, I matter and I deserve to take up space in this world.
If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.
If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.
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Thinkstock photo via Grandfailure.