The Art of Letting Go: Part I

Warning: This article contains information about physical and emotional abuse that some readers may find upsetting.

This past summer, I accepted that two important figures in my life were toxic and, for the sake of my mental health, I finally let them go. I haven't spoken to my mother since July and my 'best friend', S*, since August.

It hasn't been easy. I still think about them most days. I loved S like a brother and I stayed in contact with my mum for the sake of my siblings. But, I wanted to share my story in the hope that it will help others come to terms with letting go of toxic people and handle their trauma healthily.

I’ll start by talking about my mother and give you an idea of why it was so important to get the courage to distance myself. As a child, my parents** would smack me, shout in my face and restrain my entire body in their arms so tightly that it caused me to panic and hyperventilate. This early trauma caused 'behavioural problems' in nursery and primary school, because even though “you don’t hit people!” was screamed into my little face, I never had any other model at home.

Eventually, my parents divorced and my mother stopped hitting me for a while, however the arguments continued frequently. My step-dad - someone I looked up to as a much healthier father figure - was killed by a careless driver when I was 13. Roughly a year later, my mum started drinking to deal with her bereavement.

Although this was incredibly selfish considering she had three young children in the house, I’m not angry at her for the drinking. I’ve read a lot about addiction and, although I'm not happy with how she dealt with his death, I try to be understanding. What I don’t understand, and am often frustrated by, is why she abused me every time she got drunk. Why me, when my siblings were always safe?

Growing up, I did 'normal teenage things' like staying with friends and not telling my mother where I was, however it was never through carelessness or immaturity. Everything I did was for my own physical safety. I sofa-surfed during my GCSEs so I didn’t have to risk being beaten at home.

My mum would cry on the phone to the student liaison officer at my school, telling her that I’d ran away and she was worried about me. When I tried to tell her that my mum was abusing me, she said she'd met my mother before and that I was lying. She threatened to call the police if I didn’t go home. Even those in charge of student wellbeing turned their back on me.

Apart from the few friends that housed me, I had nobody. But how could I report my mother to the police when she'd never lay a finger on my siblings and nobody believed me? I didn’t want my 5-year-old sister, who'd already lost her father, to lose her mum too.

But, I knew other mums who didn’t drink heavily and snap at everything their child said or did. Other parents were proud of their children’s achievements, supporting them and guiding them through life. They bragged about how amazing their children were. Why was I known as a brat and a trouble-maker to everyone who knew my mother when I tried hard at school, did extra-curricular activities, had well-behaved friends and did normal things like play The Sims 2 and download pop-punk on the weekends?

These are common questions that abuse survivors often ask themselves and I will probably never know the answers. One thing I’ve found though is that I never blamed myself for what my mother did, which is something I want to instill in anybody who needs this advice and encouragement. Abuse is NEVER the victim/survivor’s fault! Knowing this kept me strong when I was facing this battle alone at 15 years old.

I’d tried cutting contact with my mum before this summer, often going months at a time without speaking to her. It’s complicated though because I've always wanted to be involved enough to know how my siblings were doing at school or if our mum had suddenly turned on them too.

I’m able to keep in contact with my now 12-year-old sister now she has a mobile phone, but every conversation we have is cut short by my mother trying to talk to me about adult topics through her. I’ve explained to her why it's so inappropriate for our mum to do that and I’m hoping she'll stop allowing herself to be used. She’s getting older now and is more aware of certain things, but I want to protect her for as long as possible. I want her to have the ‘normal’ childhood I never did. She shouldn't know what it feels like to be terrified of a drunk parent, but she does because of my mum’s behaviour.

Summer 2018 was the catalyst for finally cutting off contact with my mother when she told me “You make everybody’s lives miserable” and that she dreaded me visiting because all it did was cause arguments. It made me question whether I really did make everybody’s lives miserable and whether I deserved to be here anymore. I questioned whether I deserved the love of my long-term partner and no longer believed I could bring any good into this world.  

My mother kicked my partner and I out at 9pm that night and my partner’s dad had to make an 18-mile journey late at night so we had somewhere to stay. I spent the next three days struggling to eat or sleep and crying, barely moving from the bed. Recovery from trauma come in all shapes and sizes, but this was a first for me. Being immobilised by my mother’s abuse was alien to me, I’ve always been such a vocal activist for survivors of abuse. She’d finally broken my spirit and, when I pulled myself together after those three days, I vowed that she would never make me feel like that again. Like a phoenix, I rose again and found the strength and courage to finally cut her off.

I feel a bit lost sometimes but it isn't a bad feeling. I’ve just realised that I was so used to arguments, insults, the silent treatment and hearing the thud of slaps and punches, that I’d forgotten what the ability to breathe without causing another argument felt like. I've been so used to having so much time taken up by emotionally draining and traumatic experiences and then taking more time to recover, I sometimes don't know what to do with all the extra time I now have.

My partner and I have since returned to Manchester and we’re very happy. I’ve been a lot stronger since returning to university and alongside making sure I’m eating and sleeping properly, I’ve thrown myself into my work— both academically and in journalism. I can't recommend enough the importance of having a healthy and productive point of focus as part of recovery. Not only has it helped me improve my grades in just two months, but it's also given me a drive I should have instilled in myself since childhood.

I am my own parent cheering myself on at Sports Day. I am my own warm hug and kiss on the forehead when I fall. I’m still not very good at telling myself to go to bed when it’s late at night and all I want to do is watch Doctor Who, but that’ll come eventually. What I’m trying to say is don’t be afraid to be your own advocate, but equally, never be afraid to ask for support when you need it. Love and support come in all shapes and sizes and my partner and friends have been angels for this.

I’d also like to thank my partner’s family for giving me a model of what a loving family is supposed to look like. I can grow as a partner and a person because of the love you share with each other. Being around such a loving and supportive family has shown me what I can achieve and it'll mean my future children will have a better upbringing than I did.

*Names have been changed to protect the identities of the people discussed within this article.

**My parents include my father, although I haven’t spoken to him properly in a few years because living away from him has made it easier to distance myself. The trauma surrounding my father is something I want to address with him personally.