I’ve told a lot of scary stories. Some are published; some aren’t. But there’s one scary story I’ve never told: mine.
It’s time because it’s been holding me back for thirty years. It keeps me at a distance from others, untrusting, wary, afraid.
It’s easier now for me to say publicly that I’ve been seeing and speaking with my spirit guides since I was little—running the risk that disbelievers will question my mental health while those on the religious right call me evil—than it is to tell this story of my past.
It is the last great block in my healing, the thick quicksand of shame that slows my progress, keeps me from moving forward, and takes a toll on my mental and physical health.
To those who know me, this may or may not come as a surprise. Any relatives who read this may find it difficult to accept, and that’s okay. None of us want to hear less than stellar things about those we love.
It really begins in my early childhood.
I grew up in a chaotic, frequently violent home. My mom’s mood could change from jovial to angry at the drop of a hat, and she’d sometimes go into rages for no discernible reason. My dad liked getting reactions out of me, and intentionally used sexist, racist, homophobic language. He sent me pornographic photos (always exposed males) via email. He repeatedly talked about my body in a sexualized way, through my childhood and well into adulthood. He frequently touched me inappropriately, claiming each time it was an accident. He said he was a “dirty old man” like his father, and he took pride in that.
My mom blamed her moods on me. On what I had or hadn’t done. Nothing was ever good enough. I was never good enough. The gifts I gave her weren’t thoughtful enough, my housecleaning skills didn’t meet her standards, I talked too much, I didn’t call her enough, I was in her way, I’d distanced myself too much. And how dare I be happy when she was feeling sad. Anything she liked that I didn’t was a rejection of her.
And when I reacted the way one would expect a child to react, they told me I was wrong. I was too sensitive and needed to learn to take a joke. I was ungrateful for wanting or needing more than I had, or for desires that were different from theirs. I was a prude for not wanting to be touched or ogled. I was a slut for wanting to experiment with makeup at age sixteen. I was ungrateful for not setting my life aside to be there for them whenever they needed me.
My feelings of hurt or anger were labeled selfish and ungrateful. My mom said I ruined every family gathering and holiday, but I felt completely powerless. I attempted suicide more than once, and my parents ignored it. When Child Protective Services got involved, my parents got me into therapy, but then told me that they’d only pay for it if I told them what I told the therapist.
I later found out the psychiatrist they hired to see me was someone for whom my dad had done work, someone who owed him. And that psychiatrist shared everything with my dad anyway. So much for confidentiality. After a handful of sessions during which the psychiatrist diagnosed me with depression and tried to convince me to take medication, they quit paying, saying they weren’t the problem. I was.
They brought up every time that I’d conflated two similar events (a known and normal trait of human memory) as evidence that my memory couldn’t be trusted. Every detail that I got wrong, every time I remembered events out of order (even when all the events were true), they told me I couldn’t trust what I remembered. I was prone to suggestion. I made things up.
But then, in the early 1990s, they admitted to me the things they’d done. They wouldn’t go so far as to call it “abuse” because to them, that meant broken bones and hospital visits. All I had were memories of welts, bruises, sickening touches, hurtful words, and a broken spirit. They said they did the best they could. They did say they could have done better. And then they shared some horrifying stories that they remembered, times when my mom “snapped” (her word) and went into a violent rage she couldn’t remember later. My dad recalled times when my mom called him at work, telling him to come home immediately, because she was going to kill us. And how my dad came home and wanted to know what my brother and I had done to cause this.
I didn’t feel vindicated. I just felt numb. I wish the story had ended there.
But within a year or so of their confessions, they discovered the False Memory Syndrome Foundation—an organization founded by a guy who was accused of child sexual abuse by his adult daughter. (Those accusations against him were later corroborated by other family members.) It didn’t matter that I had never forgotten any of my memories, that none of them were repressed, or that the only therapy I’d had up to that point was the psychiatrist who’d shared with them everything I’d told him. My parents jumped on the bandwagon and claimed that everything I labeled “abuse” was actually a false memory, implanted by a therapist. They were innocent victims.
Granted, the psychiatrist I saw was unethical, but his only agenda in treating me was getting me medicated, which I consistently refused.
They went one step further: they told all of our relatives and family friends that I was a victim of so-called “false memory syndrome,” that I was sick and not to be believed. They said they had no idea why I maintained this vendetta against them, but they were the victims.
To this day, I don’t know what my relatives think about that. No one’s ever talked about it with me. But the family I knew growing up never talked about the unpleasant stuff. Everyone pretended it didn’t exist. And those who did dare speak about it were shamed. “We don’t air our dirty laundry in public.”
I found a letter that my parents had written to my husband, urging him to have me committed to a psychiatric hospital “for my own good,” and pleading with him to see their side, how much I was hurting them.
My husband witnessed some of the abuse. He read the threatening letters and email, he heard the sexual comments my father made about and to me. He remembers well pulling up to the house to pick me up for a date when I was 17, and hearing my mom screaming at me from inside the house because I had tried to fix a cheap necklace clasp and it broke. He heard similar screaming at me over the phone when my mom would call me.
I responded the way I honestly think a healthy adult would respond: I cut off contact with my parents. (This gave them more fodder for the “our daughter is sick” file.) A couple years later, my brother reached out to me via email. I was wary, but I wanted family so badly. I had my husband, a few friends, but no one else. I wrote back to him, but I was anxious about how much I told him. I tried to keep everything vague. I’d double- and triple-check my email before I sent it, because I couldn’t trust myself either.
I didn’t trust doctors, therapists, anyone who offered something to me, because I was certain they’d want something in return, and whatever they wanted would be debilitatingly painful. I didn’t trust anyone enough to develop friendships, and the isolation fueled the recurring depression and anxiety I’d had since my early teens. I’d try to work, but I would wind up in the hospital with suicidal intentions. I thought everyone else would be better off if I was no longer on the planet—if they even noticed that I was gone.
Throughout all of this, my guides were with me, but I didn’t always choose to listen to them. In the worst of my depression and self-hatred, I had a hard time connecting with them. And to be honest, I questioned if they were real, or if they were part of the delusions that my parents claimed I had. They were never wrong, and they always made me feel better, but maybe they were just the creations of a sick mind.
In 2003, I got into therapy. I’d kept copies of all the emails and letters I’d sent my parents while I was in touch with them, along with their letters to me. I gave them to the therapist. I avoided talking about memories and stuck to my current conversations with my parents, most of which revolved around their parenting advice about my two children, mostly warning me that I’d have spoiled children if I didn’t spank them. The therapist said the letters and emails were one of the most severe cases of gaslighting she’d ever seen.
Eventually, I trusted her enough to tell her about my guides. She was skeptical at first, but asked a lot of questions. (My guides answered some of them.) She took my case to a board review, which included psychologists, psychiatrists, and clergy. They discussed it, considered other diagnoses, and unanimously declared me a “mystic.” They didn’t know how, but they were completely convinced that the entities I talked with were both divine and real.
My therapist heartily encouraged me to work more with my guides. I began to stop doubting their existence. And slowly, I began to trust them.
For years, they talked about how I also needed to trust myself. Taking baby steps, I let go of my self-doubt too. When I posted in a very vague way on my blog about what it was like growing up, and the time CPS came to the house, my brother angrily commented that I was wrong, that none of this happened, that I was lying and hurting everyone. Fortunately for me, I had a witness to the CPS investigation—my best friend in high school, who also witnessed some of the things my parents did and said. But that experience left me too frightened to publicly state anything about what I’d experienced. Until now.
In 2009, my mom died. My dad had died a few years earlier. Going through my mom’s house, I found a file with my name on it. In it, she’d amassed every article she could find on false memories. She also had printed email correspondence with my brother. Back when he’d reached out to me by email, and I’d cautiously started talking with him, he was forwarding my responses to my parents. Between them, they’d discussed this, agreed it was best that I shouldn’t know what they were doing.
This time, instead of feeling like I was wrong or sick, I was angry.
My guides led me to a coach who was able to help me have experiences of trusting myself and trusting others in a safe space. Bit by bit, she helped me see that I could share myself with trusted people, safe people, and be supported. Even loved.
When I was later faced with another betrayal—this time from my (now former) faith community—I chose a different response. I walked away.
I share all this with you now for several reasons. First and foremost, because I need to end the silence. In silence and secrecy about this, there has been shame, and I have nothing to be ashamed of. Instead, I want to walk forward in integrity and authenticity, and that requires honesty and speaking my truth. My guides are 100% behind me in this, and their support has given me the courage and strength to sit down and write this.
Second, I’m sharing this because every time I have wanted to post something about my experience, whether with my guides or about how I grew up, there has been an imposing What will people (especially relatives) think? hanging over my head. It keeps me in a wounded child position. I do not owe anyone my silence in exchange for maintaining their comfort.
Third, I’m sharing this for all of those who want to share their truth, who want to be free from the shame, but can’t yet. Maybe it’s not safe. Maybe they’re not ready. Maybe they still believe the gaslighting, the lies that it’s somehow our own fault, that we’re only speaking up to get attention, that we’re troublemakers or bitter, that we can’t let it go, we’re too sensitive and can’t take a joke, that it’s all in the past and we should forgive and forget.
No. I have forgiven my parents for myself, but to forget is to condone what was done, and what is still being done to others. To forget is to dishonor the past, to say it’s all okay now. It was not, and is not okay.
And as I see now parents and partners of people I know gaslighting them, verbally abusing them and then claiming they’re making it all up, that it’s their depression or anxiety talking, that what they remember are false memories (or fake news), that they’ve blown it all out of proportion, I can keep quiet no longer.
I am not sick or deranged or making it up or trying to get attention or wanting to file a lawsuit. I am claiming my truth and standing in it. I am no longer ashamed. I am free to be who I am, regardless of what others think or say.
And for all those who get me on a deep level, when you’re ready, I’ll be here and we can stand together.