Meeting My Abuser In The Mirror

This piece by Dawn Clancy originally appeared on The Establishment, an independent multimedia site founded and run by women.

Content Warning: descriptions of child abuse.

My mother had a thing for serrated steak knives.

When she was sober, those knives, unlike the silver ones with the dull edge she’d use to spread soft butter on toast or yellow mustard on white bread, were used to slice through the salt and pepper steak she’d make for Joe, my stepdad. But when she was drunk, those serrated knives became weapons.

As a kid, out of concern for both my safety and hers, I studied my mother’s every drunken move. I knew what a warm beer on a Tuesday afternoon meant. I could gauge exactly how drunk she’d become by whether or not she used the banister or the wall to navigate the stairs. And I knew that once her speech turned heavy and slow, and her eyes disappeared behind thin, sharp slits, that it was time to measure my every thought and gesture.

There was one night I remember being in the kitchen with my mother when she grabbed a serrated knife from the drawer. Initially I didn’t panic because my naive 6-year-old brain was convinced there had to be a steak nearby. But when she turned to me and aimed the silver tip of the knife at my forehead, a panic that made my entire body feel hollow set in. She screamed, “You little bitch, I’m going to fuckin kill you;” all I could think was, run.

As mom lunged forward I spun around, nearly crashing into the dining room table in the next room. I ran through the living room, past the coffee table covered in Budweiser cans and gray flakes of cigarette ash. I glanced back over my shoulder and mom was right behind me. The serrated knife jutting out of her right hand like a sixth finger, she spit through her teeth, “You runnin from me you little bitch?” Without answering, I turned to climb the stairs to my bedroom; as I did my eyes swelled with tears, turning the cream and brown carpet beneath me into a puddle. Once inside my room, I slammed and locked the door. I pressed my belly into the floor and lined my eyes up with the thin gap between the tip of the carpet and the base of the door. I held my breath and waited to see if she followed. I could hear her trying to find her balance at the bottom of the stairs. In between a series of thick moans and thuds she screamed, “You fuckin biiiiitch.” As she moved away from the stairs and back to the kitchen her voice got smaller, and as it did, I slowly peeled myself up off the floor.

The hollow that had filled my body just minutes before was replaced with an energy that cut my breath short. I lifted my right hand and as hard as I could, I slammed the base of my palm against the side of my head over and over again until my skin went numb.

“You little bitch,” I mouthed as I buried my face in my hands, sobbing.

After I was taken away from my mother, when I was 8, I went to live with my dad. But even with a 30-minute drive between us, she was still alive and drunk as ever in my dreams. Every night for months, I’d wake up screaming, my sheets soaked in sweat. My dad said he’d find me on my back, both fists punching wildly at the air. He told me it looked like I was trying to run away from something or someone. I don’t remember these dreams, but I recall being afraid to fall asleep at night.

At 16, I tried to trick myself into believing she was dead, but even visualizing her body and bones dissolving under a mound of brown dirt couldn’t silence her voice in my head. She haunted everything.

Even visualizing her body and bones dissolving under a mound of brown dirt couldn’t silence her voice in my head.

My favorite color back then was red. I remember once buying a bottle of Revlon nail polish. I sat cross-legged on my bedroom floor, my left palm resting on my right knee, my fingers spread wide. Starting with my thumb, I brushed each nail with a heavy glob of red. And in between each finger and stroke, my mother’s voice appeared. “You’re nuthin but a two-bit whore,” she moaned. When some of the red polish slid off my middle finger and stained my fingertip, she growled, “You think you’re better than everybody, don’t you?” And when a drop of the sticky polish slid off the brush and melted into the creme rug beneath my knee, she shouted, “Look what you did you dumb shit. Who’s gonna want you now?”

I jumped up from the floor and ran into the bathroom. I turned the water on full blast and washed and picked my nails clean of every drop of red. Looking back now, I realize it wasn’t the nail polish that I was trying to scrub myself clean of.

About five years ago, I did something I was never supposed to do  ―  I got married. Not only had my mother convinced me that I was entirely unlovable  ― I was supposed to be an abortion, after all  ― but growing up, she also flooded my head with the idea that all men were pigs. On my wedding day, in an off-white dress and with a shade of pale pink polish on my nails, I cried hysterically while exchanging vows with my now husband. What no one else besides my therapist knew was that my tears not only reflected the joy I felt in that moment; they also marked the start of a new chapter that I hoped would drive a deep chasm between me and my mother’s legacy.

Somehow this little bitch, despite being unlovable, managed to pull together a life that exceeded the bounds of my mother’s abuse. My marriage and the life I’d create from that point forward, with my husband, would be off limits to my mother and her memory.

But recently, I discovered I’m going to need much more than hope to shake her.

It happened for the first time a couple of weeks ago. It was around 7:30 in the morning, and I had just rolled out of bed. After brushing my teeth, I bellied up to my medicine cabinet mirror while gently rubbing the back of my pointer finger up and down my neck and across both sides of my chin. Like many other women in their late thirties, I was checking for hairs. I found a coarse, stubby black one poking like the tip of a toothpick out from under the right side of my chin. With my left hand, I pulled back the skin, and with a pair of tweezers in my right hand, I played tug-of-war with the hair.

I mindlessly glanced up at my reflection in the mirror  ―  and saw my abuser, my own mother, staring back at me.

I squinted ever so slightly in an effort to fuzz out my reflection. When I did, my eyes disappeared behind thin, sharp slits. I could see her in the skin that had started to sag around the corners of my mouth. As I inhaled, my mother appeared in my collarbones and in the pink, crescent-shaped lines that had settled around the base of my neck. I remembered the night she stumbled out of the house drunk wearing nothing but a long green robe that zipped up the front. She stood in the middle of the lawn, in front of our neighbors and other kids my age, and pulled the robe past her shoulders, exposing both of her breasts. Embarrased, I jumped in and tried to work the robe back up over her body. I remember looking up at her chin; the crescent-shaped lines at the base of her neck were taut, her collarbones rising and falling as she screamed.

Suddenly, I wanted to rip the mirror off the wall and smash it on the floor. Instead, I took a deep breath and steadied myself against the counter. I looked down at the sink and counted the bubbles of water and the hairs my husband left behind after shaving that morning. Once I realized I was safe, I started to cry.

“Please, just leave me alone,” I whispered. “Just leave me the fuck alone.”

As a baby drifting off to sleep, my mother told me she used to lean into my crib and say, “Don’t end up like me, baby girl.” Of course I was too young to remember this, but on some level I believe I heeded the warning. As a result, I’ve spent my life stringing together choices that tempered the anxiety I secretly carried over the possibility of becoming just like my mother. But little did I know that, while I was busy doing, my mother laid dormant in my DNA.

Now that I’m aware of what might happen the next time I look in the mirror, I’m admittedly cautious. The other morning, while pounding out a cardio session on the treadmill, I caught my mother running beside me in the full-length mirror. While driving to the grocery store last Sunday, I glanced into my rear-view and there she was squinting back at me. What I find most curious about each time I see her is my reaction. If there are other people around, mostly random people who don’t even know me or my mother, I worry that they see her too. But when I’m alone the feeling is much darker and more fluid. So far, it’s been difficult to identify, which makes me wonder if I’ll ever be able to completely free myself from my mother. I don’t want to believe it’s impossible, but considering the depth of the trauma I experienced, I’m not so sure.

I’ve spent my life stringing together choices that tempered the anxiety I secretly carried over the possibility of becoming just like my mother.

In the meantime, I’ve considered changing up my look entirely. Recently, I’ve looked into eyebrow tattooing, invested in a super-powered teeth whitening kit, and even had a discussion with my hairdresser about perming my hair. But I know these changes are all superficial, when the real problem is anything but.

In calmer moments, I try to remind myself of all the ways that I’m most definitely not like my mother. How unlike her, I didn’t get pregnant at 16; how I finished high school; how I made my way through college; and how, although I enjoy a good gin and tonic, I’m thankfully far from an alcoholic.

When in doubt, I need to remember that the emerging lines on my face only say so much. I know I’ll never use a steak knife as a weapon against someone I love  ― and ultimately, that may be all I really need to know.

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