It turns out, I was the one that I feared would find out what I’d done. The dam holding back the truth about my childhood from me finally cracked completely, and I had a mental breakdown at the age of 38.
I entered therapy, but I told my parents that I was working on losing weight. I was horrified they would find out the real reason.
Starting in November, 2004, my therapist and I first worked on addressing my eating disorder, and I began to slim down.
On Thanksgiving Day, my stepdad noticed the changes and made comments about my body in that same low, breathless voice he’d used when I was a child, and I started having PTSD flashbacks on the spot. He and I were playing ping-pong in my parent’s garage, and I was swinging the paddle, but I was disassociating, watching the scene below me from the ceiling.
When I told my therapist about it, he helped me set the first boundary I’d ever had with my stepfather by writing in letter:
Because of our history of you abusing me, I am requesting that you stop commenting on my body. If you continue to comment on my body, I will remind you once to be careful. After that, I will remove myself from your presence.
That was Christmas Eve, 2004. The fact that I Express-Mailed this boundary request to my stepfather, then I was crazy enough to go to my parents’ house to celebrate Christmas, is a story for another time— (…go ahead and laugh... I do! What timing, right?)—but that simple request is all it took to cause my stepfather to (reminiscent of that day in 1980) hide in their bedroom.
The difference this time was, there was no back-and-forth. My mother and other family members would not speak to me. My husband, daughters, and I stayed for about two hours, then went home. At that time, my children, who were all in high school, had no idea what was going on. They just knew that something was wrong.
A few months later, my husband tried to talk to my mother; tried to tell her that I’d had a mental breakdown because of everything I was remembering: “Beth’s having a really hard time with this.”
My mother told him, “This entire thing is her problem.”
It broke his heart, and he wept when he recalled the conversation to me. He could not believe this was the same person he’d known for years.
My mom gave up on being a grandmother to my kids. I don’t know what she tells her friends about her children and grandchildren. Even though my stepfather died a few years ago, my mother still refuses to acknowledge the truth. She told a family member that she refuses to “bash” her husband, my perpetrator.
It’s not that I wanted to “bash” him to her. I wanted her to know the full extent of what he did to me. I wanted her to acknowledge reality. I wanted her to know how worthless I felt when she didn’t do anything to take care of me when I made an outcry to her.
She wasn’t willing to hear it then, and she’s still not. People sometimes preach to me about respecting my mother, or they try to tell me to forgive her. It’s not about forgiveness. It’s about refusing to ever go back to living a life where I have to lie to myself in order to survive. So, I have no mother.
It took six years in therapy to learn to manage the myriad of disorders I have as a result of what I endured at my stepfather’s hands, and the deliberate indifference practiced by my mother.
I was suicidal the first year or so of therapy. I thought the grief would destroy me. I suffered through PTSD flashbacks so severe that I ended up in the emergency room, my body wracked with spasms when I remembered being sodomized.
Over many, many hard-won months, then years, of healing, the fog of pain lifted as my therapist reparented me. My husband, daughters, and I grew even stronger in our love for one another. We were made whole by living in the Light of Truth, even when getting to “whole” was an excruciating journey for all of us.
My husband and therapist’s tough determination and love, coupled with the fierce love I have for my children that kept me tethered to Earth, are why I survived the journey to recovery.
I know that I’m one of the lucky ones. Not everyone makes it. My therapist told me, near the conclusion of our work together, that he never thought I’d give my stepfather the letter that set the first boundary with him. The one that sent the figurative sidewalks rolling up and a curtain of darkness descending on me.
My therapist said, “It’s the bravest thing I’ve ever seen anyone do.” And he also told me that for a long time, he had feared that the PTSD was going to take me out.
On August 10, 2010—the day of my last therapy session, I knew without a doubt that I had emerged from a six year “gestation” period to become the person I am today.
I am so very, very unlike the broken child I was that day in May, 1980. I barely resemble the terrified woman-child who entered therapy on November 4, 2004, and I am surely unrecognizable as the broken soul in early 2005 who had to white-knuckle it past every bridge column I approached in my car, because I knew I would slam my car full-speed into it if I did not picture my children in my mind constantly.
At some point, I no longer cared why my mother refuses to recognize the depth of damage that occurred on her watch. I was, and am, so surrounded by people who love me unconditionally and accept me as I am, that I no longer need the answer to the question that Anna Cardwell is likely asking herself right about now:
“Why don’t I matter enough to my mother to be protected?”
I extend to Anna peace and love. I am pulling for her to have the strength to make the journey to “whole”, and that she be loved—truly, truly loved—by those who would never cast her aside as her mother has.
Steady on, Anna.
You can read the previous two parts here:
Beth Fehlbaum is the author of the Kirkus- Star Reviewed Big Fat Disaster; Courage in Patience; and Hope in Patience. Hope in Patience was named a 2011 YALSA Quick Pick for Reluctant Readers. Truth in Patience, which rounds out The Patience Trilogy, is as yet unpublished. Following the dissolution of the publishers of Courage in Patience and Hope in Patience, Beth regained the rights to the novels, and she seeks to place the entire Trilogy with a new publisher.
Beth has a following in the young adult literature world and also among survivors of sexual abuse because of her work with victims' advocacy groups. She has been the keynote speaker at the National Crime Victims' Week Commemoration Ceremony at the Hall of State in Dallas, Texas and a presenter for Greater Texas Community Partners, where she addressed a group of social workers and foster children on the subject of “Hope.”
Beth is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, like Ashley in The Patience Trilogy, and the day-to-day manager of an eating disorder much like Colby's in Big Fat Disaster. These life experiences give her a unique perspective, and she writes her characters' stories in a way meant to inspire hope.