Trigger warning: This post discusses childhood abuse
I was abused as a child by a very unwell and very toxic mother. The abuse was so horrific and the effects have been so long-lasting that I was diagnosed, decades later, with CPTSD—basically PTSD that occurs from long-term trauma (as opposed to a single event). I’m still in therapy to overcome what happened to me in the past, and while I’ve definitely made progress, I still have a very long way to go.
My mother isn’t even alive anymore, but her legacy of torment will last much longer than her earthly self, and the wounds she caused still ache and sting. Nowadays, I can talk pretty openly about what I went through, what I’m still going through, and there aren’t many people in my life who don’t know about the abuse I lived through as a child.
But when I was a kid, no one knew.
Teachers in my state are mandatory reporters, required to alert the authorities if they suspect abuse or neglect, yet none of mine ever did. No church members made calls to protect me, no parents of my friends expressed any concern for my well-being. Not because they failed me, not because they didn’t care, but because they didn’t know.
I never showed up with bruises on my body. No one could see the squalor I lived in or the empty cupboards I couldn’t eat from. My teachers weren’t there when sex was happening all around me. Falling asleep at my desk made me look lazy, not uncared for.
Looking back as an adult, I know why no one stepped in to advocate for me, and I hold no grudges toward those who didn’t know. I was talkative, outgoing, involved. My grades were (mostly) stellar, I participated in extracurricular activities, I won awards and even held an elected class office. Eventually, anyway.
As an elementary student, the abuse I survived didn’t come with bruises.
It came with manipulation, neglect, and parentification. I didn’t have black eyes, I had a stolen doctor’s pad, a talent for lying, a mistrust of everyone, and nights spent all alone. I didn’t have to dress to cover scars, I had to move to avoid eviction, move to avoid being in the bed while people were having sex, move to keep the roaches from crawling into my backpack. I didn’t have mystery injuries, I had frequent “illnesses,” fake doctors’ notes that were supposed to excuse my many absences because no one woke up to take me to school.
I didn’t flinch when someone yelled, I recoiled when they offered kindness because I didn’t know how to maintain a relationship with someone who wasn’t pounding me with hurtful words. I didn’t shrink into the corner because I was afraid of others, I threw myself into the crowd because I was so desperately lonely. I befriended the librarian, the lunch ladies, the women in the front office not because I was nerdy, but because I was needy—I needed steady adults in my life, and neglect has a funny way of maturing you pretty quickly so that you really can’t relate to kids your age.
Once I became a teenager and a little more independent, I found every opportunity to avoid home—after-school clubs, academic competitions, band, choir, theater, student government. I even volunteered to raise the flag every morning and fold it up every afternoon. I was walking the halls of my school well into the dark hours of evening so I wouldn’t have to walk in the dark doors of my home.
From the outside, I looked engaged and grounded. On the inside, I was abused and haunted.
At school, I consistently made the honor roll not because I had support and involvement at home, but because I thrived on and craved the validation I received from my teachers when I did well. I engaged in class because I was excited to have someone to talk to. I graduated with honors and scholarships not because I had helpful, invested parents at home, but because I did everything I could to leave that home.
Not every abused child is bruised.
Sometimes they’re more mature than their peers because they’re raising themselves. Sometimes they’re talkative because they’re often quite lonely. Sometimes they befriend adults, visit with the custodians, and have conversations with the mother of the child whose birthday party they’re at because they so desperately need an involved grown-up to see them.
Not every abused child will try to disappear into the quiet corners—sometimes they’re right in front of you, laughing with you, perfectly visible but completely unseen. Abuse doesn’t always leave a mark, but it will always cause a wound.