By Julie Burton
I had recently begun to mother my 17-year-old daughter Sophie with a suffocating intensity. I’d hover over her shoulder while she checked Facebook, and ask prodding questions. I’d interrogate her when she returned home from social outings, craving every detail.
“Why are you like this?” she asked one evening, her voice, already filled with irritation as she interrupted my line of questioning. “It’s not normal. You…are…smothering… me!” The volume and intensity of her voice escalated, “What happened to you that makes you act like this?”
All of my breath exited my body. My stomach had tied itself into a knot and a goiter-sized lump had developed in my throat. I looked back into her keenly perceptive eyes that darted into me with intense scrutiny.
How could I possibly tell her the truth?
Almost immediately after giving birth to my daughter, I felt the need to protect her from the awfulness buried within me. If I safeguarded her from my secret, she would not follow in my path of self-destruction, and my scars would not become hers. She would have no reason to be ashamed of me, or to view me with pity and disgust. She could think of me as good and pure, worthy of her love and respect.
I promised myself her path would not resemble mine—that I would dedicate every ounce of my being to mothering her in way that would help her become the self-assured person I so desperately had wanted to be and have spent much of my adult life trying to reclaim.
As we sat on the floor of her room, the silence lingering between us, I felt trapped within myself. My daughter must not know the real me…she couldn’t know. Because within the real me was a secret box, and within the box was shame—the shame that accompanied a four-year, life-threatening battle with anorexia, that began 13 years before she was born.
How could I serve as a source of strength and inspiration for my daughter if she knew I had starved myself for nearly two years, was hospitalized twice, thought about killing myself, ran away from home? How could she respect me when, at her age, my self-worth was almost non-existent?
A daughter should not know these things about her mother.
Yet, as Sophie inched closer to turning 17, the memories of my 17-year-old emaciated self became more prevalent and my anxiety sky-rocketed, propelling me to become so overly involved in her life that I literally started to feel her feelings. The boundaries between us became blurred and I could not get enough of her life.
I tried to avert her suspicious gaze by searching for a sign in the Aspen tree standing unwittingly outside her bedroom window. I felt in my core she knew I was damaged goods. And that I had a secret that was intricately linked to my almost obsessive need to be close to her.
Our eyes locked and connected us—mother to daughter, daughter to mother—and at that moment I knew it was time to open the secret box.
My whole body ached as the memories mixed with shame were released from that locked place within. As I closed my eyes, I could hear the distinct click of the automatic lock that triggered every time the door to the adolescent mental health unit closed. The door that kept us “crazies” locked up—purposely removed from the outside world because some of us were “dangerous” to ourselves, or to others. I could smell the too familiar antiseptic hospital aroma that filled my nose for nearly two months; I could feel the scratchy, cold bed sheets on my skin, which perpetuated the continual feelings of loneliness and loss that burned inside my heart. I could hear the steady breathing of my sleeping roommate, whose stories of abuse and abandonment still haunt me to this day.
As I peeled my eyes open again, there she was, my beautiful daughter, her head tilted to the side and her piercing love-filled eyes pulling me out of that sad and lonely place, as she had done, unbeknownst to her, since I first held her in my arms.
Yet in this moment, she was demanding to understand more about that far-away place to which she had determined was a scary place for me.
“Mom, will you please tell me what happened to you?”
Was she ready to hear my story? What would our relationship look and feel like when she learned about my scary, unstable “crazy” past? Would she think differently of me, of herself?
“It’s okay, Mom. I can handle it. Whatever it is.”
I shook my head to dislodge the destructive, shameful demons, the ones that still appear as pop-ups in my brain during times of uncertainty. Her eyes didn’t leave mine as I took a deep breath and began, despite the shakiness in my voice, to painstakingly walk her through my 17-year-old world of anorexia nervosa.
For the next several hours we held each other tight, and through many tears, I tried to provide her with answers to her multitude of questions. I knew I couldn’t make her understand the how’s and why’s of my path toward, through and away from this perplexingly brutal disease. But we could, with the power of our love and trust in each other, examine my hurt, fear, sadness, blame, forgiveness, and journey to healing with honesty and tenderness.
As she nodded her head and opened her eyes even wider, I could see her slowly begin to grasp my answer to her initial question, “Why are you like this?” She now understood how my obsessive hovering, protectiveness and the unclear boundaries between us were directly linked to me bumping up with my past—that looking at her at 17 prompted a cascade of memories of my 17-year-old withered self, and that I felt an overwhelming, fear-based need to protect her so that she would be safe from the demons that kidnapped my spirit at her age. Together, we came to the realization that in raising my daughter, I was healing myself—nurturing not only her, but the child within me, and that in some ways I was trying to re-live my tortured years through her.
Sharing my secret with Sophie did not make me less of a mother to her. It made me human. And the shame that held my secret locked in place for nearly 17 years slowly began to loosen its grip on me.
As I watched the look in her eyes slowly transform from frustration and confusion to empathy and compassion, I knew that my daughter now knew me—The true version of me. The flawed and imperfect me. The broken me.
And yet, she loved me just the same.
Maybe even more.
Julie Burton is a freelance writer and blogger (unscriptedmom.com), a mother of four and a yoga instructor. She lives in Minnetonka, MN, with her husband of 21 years and her children, and is working on a book on self-care for mothers.
Photo by Scott Boruchov