By Joshua Boyles
The first time I remember being punished in a way that even I knew was too much, I was five. I had gone home with a boy from school, thinking I had permission because my mom had spoken to his dad. Well, because she hadn’t spoken to his mother, I didn’t have permission. It’s an easy mistake to make for a first grader, I think. By the time she found me that afternoon, after what had been a nice day, I was thrown into a car, taken home and beaten until my backside was covered in bruises. I do not, as an adult, understand how a person can hit a child in such a way as to inflict that type of mark. I say this because the cries of a child being punished in such a way rattle you. They are panicked cries of pain and fear. The panicked cries that tell you: “You’ve gone too far.”
I wish the memories of my childhood weren’t the flashbulb memories of trauma and abuse. I was raised by a single mother. I know there were times of joy and laughter, but what I remember most is always being afraid of her wrath. There was a presence of alcohol, sometimes and excess, and the daily smoking of marijuana. You would think that with the amount of pot she consumed she would have been calmer, but she was not.
Spankings are always a horrible experience for a child, and not all of mine were to the level of abuse like the one when I was five. If I had to guess, I would honestly say they weren’t that bad. Ironically, I am also I believer in spanking as a punishment for children. However, it was once I was a teenager aged 13 that I finally stood up and said the fatal word that ignited decades of mental and physical abuse. That word was no. Around this age was when the abuse took off. Her drinking was the heaviest it has ever been in my 38 years. She was unhappy. She was single. We lived alone. And the only thing she could take her angst out on, was me. She saw me as the reason she had never been married. She saw me as this burden that prevented her from having fun. I was the reason she was tied down.
I am not assuming these things. She told me. Many times. She told me when she would get angry. She would give me the opportunity to be included in school functions, like theatre. But, to show me how fortunate I was, she would threaten to take them away from me almost every day when she picked me up from rehearsal. She would verbally attack me on Friday, and take me shopping on Sunday to tell me that she loved me. She would offer emotional support through a stressful period or event, and then withdraw it and tell me I was lucky she never aborted me. This continued in various forms from that age of 13 until I was 32.
I always believed that if I could just be a better son that she wouldn’t do these things. If I could only manage her rage and keep her happy she wouldn’t be so angry towards me. I was her emotional punching bag that she lashed out at because I was the only one closest enough to her, the only one bound to her in some unseen way. I was her greatest burden in her raging hour, and her greatest joy in the aftermath. Needless to say, this hot and cold treatment and its association with the word love still give me issues with that word today.
At the age of 32, through a serious of tumultuous events, she offered to come retrieve me for a Thanksgiving weekend at her house. She lived in the suburbs of Atlanta, and I lived in the city. In the 20 short minutes we were in the car together, she began to bark orders at me, informing me who in the family I was allowed to speak to and who I wasn’t. You see, the interesting part of about this relationship she and I had was that she was always angry at everyone else, too. She and I tended to get along when she was mad at someone else. When her anger was focused on someone else, she didn’t notice the perpetual flaws she saw in my character and actions. It was the only time I felt safe, all the while knowing that the next storm was raging toward me next.
This November 22nd I stood up for my right to speak to a member of my own family. She berated me telling me how ungrateful I was and how I was only keeping a relationship with his person as an affront to her. Seeing that this family holiday weekend was a huge mistake, I demanded to be taken home. The remainder of the ride was horrible. The mother of the other family member was in the back seat. She was calling her a whore and a slut, and talking about how worthless she was. I, in my stubbornness, stood up for her. She wasn’t there to defend herself, but I was and I could.
Now, when she had picked me up she had loaned me an old artificial Christmas tree she had. She had decided not to use it that year. As I’ve mentioned before, her normal behaviour is to give me something, tell me how grateful I should be to have it and as punishment for displeasing her, she takes it away. This is normal. I said no more. When we arrived back at my house she insisted on the tree being returned to her. I told her no, that I would gladly return it to her after Christmas but that she was not going to ruin my Thanksgiving AND my Christmas. As I should have known this would, it ignited a hurricane.
She refused to give me back my bag, which was in the back of her vehicle until I returned the tree. I refused, so she refused. Finally, in a definite act of defiance and aggression, I put the car in park and grabbed the keys out of the ignition. The reason for this is that every time I would try and get out of the car, she would start to move it. I was afraid she would run me over. I’ve learned that anything is possible when she’s in a rage. I pulled the keys out of the ignition and walked to the back of the automobile to open the rear hatch. She comes up from behind me, tries to grab the key out of my hand with one hand, as she wraps an arm around my neck with the other and throws me to the ground on my concrete driveway. Once I was back to my feet she attacked with her favorite move, and began to choke me with her hands in an attempt to subdue me. She’s always been surprisingly strong for a woman of 5’7”. And though I’m 6’2” tall, she took me to the floor.
My roommate caught the commotion and came outside. Desperate to not get involved, he just stood there, completely in shock from the spectacle. Thank God, at my insistence, he called the police. When the police arrived she screamed that she needed an HIV test, because since I’m a gay man she was sure she contracted HIV in the struggle to get her keys. She told the police I was a worthless loser and that I had stolen her Christmas Tree. This went back and forth, but in the end the police ordered her to leave and to give me my things. That was the beginning of a series of boundaries that have created the person I am today, but also the relationship I have with her now.
Now, the one thing that made this all tolerable for me, the tree incident, is that there was a local paper in Atlanta that had a section for absurd police reports. Some weeks later a friend sent me a link via email of a small article titled: ‘Thanks for nothing.’ In it, using only our ages and cities of residence as identification, it shared a snapshot of the event. This article didn’t have our name on it, but three different friends, upon reading this, forwarded it to me knowing that it could only be two people. And that was us.
I tell this story in detail because this was a turning point for both our relationship and me. Now I was not a frightened 13 year old boy standing up for himself, I was a 32 year old man telling his primary abuser that enough was enough. For the first time in my entire life, and there have been some pretty violent physical attacks that generally revolve around me being choked, I called the police. I think letting her know that I now considered that an option, though I had threatened to call the police during her rage fits for at least 13 years, I had finally done it. I had finally said NO and called in some back up so she knew I was serious! As a wise friend once told me, No is a complete sentence. We did not speak again for the next several months.
I always caved in. I always called her first. I always apologized for my response to her actions, and never once did I receive an apology for hers. In my mind I was still trying to be the best son I could be. In my limited understanding, trying to approach our relationship with a different version of myself was the only way I could think of to stop the problem. I was correct. That was the solution, but not in the way I thought. I thought that if I could just be what and who she wanted me to be, it would all stop. I was wrong about how I needed to change. The only way to stop the abuse was for me to change the relationship by creating boundaries of what was and was not acceptable. The only problem was, I had no idea how to do that.
Next came a geographic. In 2010 I moved to New York City, and settled in Brooklyn. Once here, I settled into a new career as a full time student. I also threw myself into therapy. I found that talk therapy was a brilliant way to have a neutral voice of reason to help guide me through the trials and tribulations with my mother. However, the boundaries I sought to create with my mother were also boundaries that helped me relate to others. The limitations on what I saw as acceptable interactions and behavior helped created stronger friendships, deeper relationships, and more meaningful communion with others.
Through therapy, meditation, and self acceptance, I was able to see, over time, that the way for me to be the best son I could be was to not let her have an unfiltered access to me and my personal life. Arguably this became easier given the physical distance between us. The greatest advice I was given by a friend who has a similar relationship with her mother, was the day she said: “She’s never going to change. If you want to have her in your life, you need to accept her how she is.” She was right. All this time I thought that if I could just be a better son she would change the way she was towards me. She would be less angry. She would insult me less. She wouldn’t say she loved me while acting like she hated me. The truth was that I had to change me. I had to say what was and wasn’t permissible. What I learned in this process is that I am strong enough to place boundaries, and that the only thing she hates more than anything are when boundaries.
This didn’t go well. She would push and I would stand my ground by taking a step back. It is possible to stand your ground while taking a step back so that the swinging arm no longer hits you in the face. At first the swings grazed my nose. Next, they swooped past my face. And today when those arms swing they aren’t anywhere near me. It’s as though I’m watching it happen from a distance. I had to say no and create a safe sphere around me that stood between her and me. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. Accepting that the way I could be the best son I could be sometimes means that I don’t let her near enough to me to harm me. I don’t let her in my life enough to know personal information that will eventually be used against me at her slightest whim of anger. She no longer owned me or my life or my space. I owned me. I said what was and was not acceptable. I stood on my own two feet and in that standing tall I became more of the man I believe I was always destined to be.
After another disastrous visit in Thanksgiving of 2015, when I bought her to New York for the first time as a Christmas present, to which she left a day early because I ruined her trip by being a bad cook, walking too fast and not showing her how to work the TV properly, I created a new boundary. I told her I felt she owed me an apology for the things she said to me and my partner. I didn’t want the apology for me so much as for him. He was an innocent bystander and I can stand up for him in a way I couldn’t’ stand up for myself for a very long time. When I told her how I felt, she replied: “I will never, never, never, never, never give you an apology for anything I have ever done.” She put the ball back in my court with that statement.
I realized that my part in this situation is to forgive her. I accept that she is doing the best she can. I believe she has always done the best she could with the life she’s lived. However, it is also my right to say that her best was not enough for me. Her best was not enough to show me she loved me without condition or precept. Her love always came with mixed messages followed by more fits of rage and attack. Today I do not allow those actions, those messages, nor those threats to come near me. I stand on my own, and I forgive her. Forgiveness is the only way I can be free of it. I love her, unconditionally. I accept her as she is, completely. The best way I can express my unconditional love is to have space from her and not allow her into my life today. I never knew that the ultimate expression of love is acceptance of her as she is, and acceptance of myself as I am, and acknowledging that I am whole. There is nothing she can give me that I cannot give myself or that I cannot receive from my friends and loved ones. This realization has taken 38 years. All this time the answer has been very simple. The best son I can be and the best way to love her completely is to love myself first.