The Burden of Being Mom’s “Little Hero”
A story about how I discovered it’s not a child’s job to save their mother
I don’t think it was until I was in my twenties that I realized a mother’s role is to protect her children and help them prepare for finding their place in the world. There is a woman who I called “mom” for most of my life, but as I got older and my perspective expanded, it increasingly tied my stomach in knots to refer to her by that word.
My mother is someone I always felt obligated to protect and constantly monitor. Protect because of her naiveté and tendency toward confusion, and monitor because virtually every interaction with her felt like walking into a minefield. My experiences with my family taught me to be wary of people who tell me they “love” me. What they’d call their “love” for me was so painful and damaging that, in my adulthood, I still tend toward being withdrawn and shielded in my relationships.
It’s the opposite of anything I ever wanted.
The thing that has propelled me forward my entire life has been my desire to overcome the examples my parents set for me so that I could one day be free. But I find myself haunted by lingering shadows of their abuses that are so insidious they’re virtually invisible when I look for them.
When I was a child, I wanted nothing more than to make my mom happy. My father left us for the last time when I was six, and being that my mother was still deeply tangled in the religious cult he had introduced her to, we weren’t in a great position to be abandoned.
The cult forbade celebrating holidays or associating with any “non-believers”—even if they were family. So my mother had long since stopped associating with anyone who wasn’t a Jehovah’s Witness, and participation in the lives of her siblings and their families had become sporadic. All we had to turn to were other troubled and confused Jehovah’s Witnesses.
The people around me believed that the world was going to end at any minute. Whenever the wind would kick up suddenly or the sky would darken with heavy clouds, I genuinely believed that the end of the world was starting. My mind would frantically race as I tried to assess how good I’d been lately and if it was enough for god to consider sparing me.
We bounced around a lot when my father first left, staying briefly with one group of people I’d never met before, then moving on to another stranger’s home. The pattern repeated several times because my mother would witness these people mistreating me. She also told me that the strange people were spying on us and reporting details back to my father.
Despite all of these confusing changes, there was a brief period a few years after my father left that I remember being happy. My mother and I lived alone in a small apartment, and my father wasn’t around beating her up anymore. Even though we had to depend on other Jehovah’s Witnesses for help with food and rent, I thought we were doing pretty well.
But this period ended as quickly as it began. I was about to learn how destructive a single choice can be.
And the award for Best Actor goes to…
In the congregation my mother had us attending, there was a man named Richard. The other Jehovah’s Witnesses regarded him as an upstanding member of their community, and for whatever reason, he went out of his way to befriend me.
I was about nine ears old. Richard would pick me up from home while my mother was at work and take me to the arcade. My mother and I had no money, so the quarters always came from Richard. Our friendship went on for a few weeks, and then one day I watched through the kitchen window as my mom walked Richard to his truck. When they got to his truck, they started kissing.
They began dating, but Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t date like most people. After they’d only been on about three dates, the elders in our congregation started pressuring my mother into marrying Richard. They said her choice was to marry him or end their relationship.
I remember crying at the rehearsal the night before their wedding. Richard’s behavior had subtly started to change before their wedding, and while I was too young to really put my finger on what was happening, I was afraid of what I saw.
In tears, I pleaded with her not to marry this man. I no longer trusted him, and I believed he was up to something. She listened to me, but said that everyone was expecting her to marry him and she couldn’t disappoint them.
I have a photo album that my mother made for me. In it, a series of pages are tied together, and there’s an apology at the beginning. Inside these pages are photos from their wedding.
She didn’t know what she was getting us into at the time, but as they say, hindsight is 20/20. Throughout the photo album are many notes from my mother, describing her husband. They’re like the commentary in a movie where the narrator gives insights because they know what’s going to happen.
The look in her eyes at their wedding really weighs on me. It’s the troubled sadness I don’t remember seeing before then, but that I’d become very familiar with.
There’s also a photo of me where I can't tell if the photographer just captured an awkward pose or a candid moment, but it really captures how I felt back then. I felt powerless and removed—like I was just watching an avalanche of events happen around me, and no one seemed to notice what was going on with me.
My mother told me many years later that as soon as they left the reception for their honeymoon, the man she’d known vanished as if a light switch had been flipped. As they began their honeymoon, it started becoming apparent that Richard had gone to great lengths to give an impression of himself that wasn’t true.
When they were getting to know each other, he had made a point of giving the appearance of financial stability. He had a new truck that he used in the business he owned, which appeared to be very successful. He’d shower money on her and me, and she saw him as someone who would take care of us. That's the main reason she married him.
But in the weeks following their marriage, we learned that he was in the process of filing for bankruptcy. Then a string of events—evictions, utilities being turned off, not having food in the house, moving from city to city every few months—began and then became normal.
When they got back from their honeymoon and we were all living together is also when Richard’s really bizarre behavior began to show itself.
One of Richard’s first tools of cruelty was what I later learned is known as “gas lighting.” It started when my and my mother’s possessions—like our house keys or eyeglasses—would suddenly go missing. We’d look and look and look for them with increasing anxiety, knowing we had left them in a certain location. Then mysteriously the item would reappear when we weren’t looking, exactly where we had left it. We both felt like we were losing our minds. Because we’d never encountered anything like this, it took us a while to realize it was Richard.
There are several places throughout the album where my mother manipulated photos to show how she sees the man she’s married to.
It was around this time that she got pregnant.
I think the pregnancy solidified Richard’s sense that he’d really trapped my mother. His subtle weirdness quickly escalated to other forms of psychological and physical violence. Without provocation or warning, Richard would start screaming and cursing so wildly that he’d lose his voice. It was a common experience for me to be in my bedroom with the inescapable sound of them fighting, and then jumping as the walls shook with a loud smash and the sound of breaking glass. Richard was fond of dramatic displays, like picking up their dresser and throwing it across the room.
Still, Richard was very skilled at mimicking normal behavior when he wanted to, and my mother frequently felt compelled to present to others as if everything was alright. Knowing what I do about his cruelty and their hatred for each other, it’s surreal seeing photos of them sitting with my aunts and uncles, looking happy together.
My little brother
I was twelve-years-old when my little brother was born, and it wasn’t long after this that my mom told me she was going to kill him and herself.
Given that I was only twelve, I didn’t have any advice for her or ideas for other options. I had no idea that what she was confiding in me was inappropriate, or that the way she had taught me to take care of her was unhealthy. So I started devising plans to help end her and my baby brother’s lives.
I remember laying in bed at night staring up at my ceiling. I did this a lot because I loved searching for little animals or faces in its popcorn pattern, but this time I was also trying to devise a plan to help them escape peacefully and be free.
“Poison? Should it be poison? No, that would hurt. Can I suffocate them in their sleep? Or, would… I don’t know what to do.”
I then tried to imagine what going to prison would be like. I knew there was no way I’d get away with doing this for my mom, so it was a necessary part of being her little hero.
There’s a photo of me from this time period where my mother wrote “my little hero!” underneath it. My belief—that it was my duty to save her—didn’t originate in my imagination; it had been taught to me.
The weight of my mother’s despair, her telling me of her plans to kill herself and my little brother, and the insane violence and gas lighting I was witnessing . . . it all became too much. In my confusion and frustration, I started to act out in ways that angered my mother. Her disapproval of my behavior got to the point where she couldn’t hit me hard enough to feel satisfied. She tried, but told me that hitting me so hard was hurting her hand. So she asked my older brother for help.
Back then he was working as a fire extinguisher technician, and as such, had a lot of equipment on hand. He gave her one of his replacement rubber hoses.
I have no memory of what I said that set her off that time, but I can very clearly remember her storming out of my room and disappearing into the living room. A moment later she came barreling around the corner carrying something I quickly recognized as a hose.
There was no way to get away from her in that tiny room, and I immediately knew what she was intending to do. I backed up into my open closet door, curled up into a ball, and tried to protect myself as she beat me with the hose.
I wish I could look back at that period as a time when things were at their worst, but everything got much worse after this. Time couldn’t pass fast enough while I waited to grow up and gain some control over my own life. But time did pass, and eventually I grew up enough to move away.
There were years where she didn’t know where I was. Years where we didn’t speak. And during the times when we were speaking, we had countless discussions where we made plans for her to escape her husband.
When I was in my mid-twenties, she contacted me and my older brother and cryptically asked us to meet her for dinner because she had news to share. I remember talking to Jeremy beforehand and how we both thought we might finally be hearing our mother say she was leaving her husband.
I remember sitting down at the table, expecting to hear her lay out a plan and ask for our help to make it happen, but all she had to share was that she’d legally discarded Richard’s last name and replaced it with her maiden name.
An ending begins
When I was about to turn 30 and living in Oregon, she started reaching out to me again for help. She had long since left the Jehovah’s Witness cult she was part of for nearly three decades, but she never left her husband. She was desperate to leave, but was still almost entirely isolated from anyone else.
The dynamic in our relationship was still extremely draining for me, but, despite everything from our past, I still wanted to help her. Saving her had been a virtually lifelong project for me, and things had come to such a head with her situation that I thought I might finally be able to fulfill that dream.
After her call, I contacted several friends to ask if they knew of resources I might reach out to—like organizations that helped women escape domestic abuse. This produced a lot of leads that I researched and contacted. I called organizations spanning California (where she was) to Oregon because she expressed interest in moving to Portland with my little brother to be closer to me.
I was getting good information, but it was going to be a difficult process with what little resources we had. Then a real breakthrough occurred. Word of our situation made its way to a wealthy couple who frequently contributed charitably to causes that help abused women. They wanted to help us, and asked to speak with me. We set up time for a phone call, and I had the opportunity to tell them what was going on and what I was trying to accomplish. After hearing my story, they offered to give me $30,000—cash money—to get my mother out of her situation.
I was floored. What had just occurred created a quantum leap from a situation where my mother might have to bounce around in government-sponsored programs (which was understandably very frightening to her), to one where we could do things on our terms. We could find her her own place to live, and she’d be able to have her familiar possessions with her.
I didn’t tell her the news for a few days. I needed time to sleep on this development, process the information, and start hammering out the details if I was going to go forward with this opportunity. I decided I would.
My plan was to fly down to Southern California, and while her husband was away at work, bring a group of people to load up her and my little brother’s lives into a moving truck. Then we’d disappear. I priced apartments in the Portland area, looked at services in Oregon that could help place her in a job, and researched healthcare options that could help cover her medical needs.
I was ready to tell her the news.
I called her one morning and, when she answered, I asked if she was able to talk or if her husband was listening. Using coded language, she indicated that he was there and she couldn’t speak freely. I told her to stop what she was doing, get my younger brother (who was about eighteen by then), and drive someplace where they could speak to me safely. We hung up, and I waited for her to call back.
In my mind, a movie started, one where I saw my mother finally blossoming into the woman I had seen glimpses of throughout my life. The woman who would periodically have moments of beautiful clarity and a keen grasp on what was going on. I saw the possibility of her spending the rest of her life in safety and peace, and I was willing to do whatever it took to help her achieve that.
The phone rang. She and Nathan were parked in her car a few blocks from their home. I asked her to put me on speakerphone. I started laying out what had happened—how we’d been offered a huge sum of money, what I had found out in my research, the part of Oregon where we’d find them a new home, that I would do whatever was necessary to make this work, and that I’d assemble a group of people to move them out and be there for protection in case Richard came home early.
I finished relaying all the news, and then stopped talking. I expected to hear bewildered appreciation and excitement from them. But instead, what I heard was fear—fear and then a refusal to accept this opportunity.
My mother couldn’t bear the thought of moving from the three-bedroom house they were renting into an apartment. She couldn’t bear the thought of taking her eighteen-year-old son away from the few friends he’d made recently. She couldn’t bear the thought of being responsible for her own income and well-being—even if we had enough money to last a year while she got on her feet. Even if I was committed to doing everything I could to make this work.
I was angry. I felt that she’d been lying to me my entire life every time she’d said she desperately wanted a change; that she really wanted out; that what she really needed was just some help and loving kindness from anyone in order to escape a lifetime of abuse and misfortune.
She wasn’t lying when she expressed those things, and really, there was no sense in casting blame on her. Mental illness and a lifetime of abuse and devaluation from others takes a toll. But, this experience changed something inside of me—a door I had left open to her for far too long began to close. This was the last bit of information I needed to know—beyond a shadow of a doubt—that I had done everything I possibly could to help her.
One last visit to say “goodbye”
Things changed between us after that phone call, but we were still in fairly regular contact for the next couple of years. Then one afternoon she called me and told me about wanting to kill herself again—about how she would’ve done it a long, long time ago if she wasn’t so afraid she’d mess it up, survive, and wind up incapacitated and totally at her husband’s mercy.
This wasn’t new, but as it had always been, it was really difficult to hear. Then packages started arriving in the mail, containing some of her prized possessions. A tiny plastic treasure chest that contained all my baby teeth; knickknacks I had given her when I was a little kid; art projects I’d made in kindergarten. I took this as her saying that the end was approaching, and she wanted to be sure these treasures weren’t lost with her.
Adding to this was her decision to do something I knew was really difficult for her. My mother had always been afraid of flying, and had only taken her first plane ride (accompanied by her husband and my little brother) once I’d moved to Portland. But now she was going to take her second flight ever—by herself—to come see me and say goodbye “one last time.”
I understood. She’d told me so many times throughout my life that she wanted to die, and I had no judgment at this point. I don’t believe it’s my place to say it’s “wrong” for someone to choose to end their suffering in this way, and her life was a constant source of misery for her.
So I agreed to help her plan this trip to Portland, but told her it wasn’t a good idea for her to stay with me. My plate was already overflowing as I did my best to navigate very extreme health issues, and she was a very intense and overwhelming presence. I knew that having her stay with me would really strain my ability to be present and in control of my responses toward her.
I found her a nice hotel, rented a car in her name, booked her flights, arranged for her to have transportation from her home to the airport, and made the other necessary arrangements. My plan for this trip was to do everything I could to give her as lovely an experience as possible. I wanted her to feel safe. I wanted her to feel cared for. I wanted her to experience as much beauty as might still be able to get through.
When I picked her up from the airport, it was clear how absolutely broken down she was—how frail and thin she had become emotionally and psychologically. She spent much of the trip crying and telling me how much she wanted to die—how she felt that whatever was left in her was fading away.
The photos I took during this trip are misleading. They’re in places like my favorite restaurant, favorite coffee shops, and the Portland Rose Garden. Places that I loved and wanted her to experience. I would try to make her genuinely smile when we were taking photos by being playful and funny, so many of the photos give the appearance that she was happy. But on either side of the photos, she frequently talked about killing herself and expressed resentment that I was trying to make her laugh and wasn’t spending enough time with her.
If memory serves, she was here for about a week. She would vacillate from anguish, to lashing out at me for not doing more for her, to expressing disgust in me for not spending more time with her, to gratitude for what I had arranged. For as long as I can remember, interacting with my mother has been like playing Russian Roulette. I never knew what was going to come out of the chamber, and the bullet that came out when she arrived in Portland was of the worst variety.
When she left here to return home, I believed there was a good chance I’d be hearing in the near future that she’d killed herself and possibly her husband. I didn’t realize this until much later, but she and I both intended for this to be our final “goodbye.” Either she was not going to be around anymore, or my ability to continue with her had been exhausted.
My communication with her trickled to a stop not long after this trip.
Hug the Universe
On my birthday, a couple of years after the last time I saw my mother, I launched this website. The intention was to share my story, to share insights that’ve helped me survive some very difficult things, and to share some of the characters and silly things I’ve created.
In my inaugural post I explain the intention behind this website and where I’m coming from. In it I mention that “I was born into an extremely abusive family with mentally-ill parents.” That wasn’t meant to be cruel; it’s simply a truth of my life that virtually no one knows. It’s been very difficult knowing how to talk about things like my experiences with my parents, being raised in a religious cult, or the life-altering illness I’ve been struggling with for the past ten years. Mainly because I’ve always been too afraid of retaliation to speak out.
Any time I would try to express my emotions or communicate to my parents the effect they were having on me, they would tell me that what I had seen didn’t happen, or I would be attacked and things would get worse. So I learned early on that it wasn’t safe to let anyone know what was happening to me.
The day after Hug the Universe launched I received an email from my mother:
When I got this, I hadn’t spoken to her in probably two years. I never responded.
A couple months ago I received another email from her, this time pleading with me to let her back into my life. The pattern with her is still a wild vacillation between attacking me and pleading with me to take care of her. There’s a book about Borderline Personality Disorder that’s called I Hate You, Don’t Leave Me whose title brilliantly sums up my experience of having a mother.
It took me thirty-four years to fully separate myself from the family I was born into. I still have sporadic contact with my younger brother, but our mother so profoundly interfered with our relationship as he was growing up that we don’t have the connection that I would want. What he knows about me mostly comes from what she’s told him. Has she told him that I’m a “liar,” or that I’m a “hero”? Since those are the two lenses she’s always seen me through, I imagine it’s a combination of both.
As you can imagine, being “loved” in this way is terribly confusing. It’s left me pretty afraid of that “love” stuff. But it’s also been instrumental in teaching me how things can share names while having nothing in common with each other.
It took me a long time to figure this out, but genuine love is not clinging, restricting, destructive, or harmful. Love is healing, beautiful, expansive, and freeing.
I’ve not experienced much of the latter.
I’ve also learned that someone cannot be truly loved unless they’re truly known, so part of opening myself up to fully healing is not being silent anymore about who I am and where I’ve come from.
Thank you for reading.