Bird Set Free: Avia’s Story

Content warning: Victim blaming, child abuse, body shaming, and religious shaming of mental illness

Editorial note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Avia” is a pseudonym. 

There are a few incidents in my life that pushed me to leave home.

Clipped wings, I was a broken thing

When I was nineteen years old, I fell into a deep depression. Every day was hell. I struggled to get out of bed in the morning, and I lost interest in my hobbies. I was always an avid reader and writer, and I dropped those hobbies for hours of trying to convince myself that I needed to stay alive. I might not get into heaven if I killed myself, and anyway, there must be some sin I didn’t know of keeping me in the depression.

I wrote down dozens of Bible verses and posted them all over my bedroom walls. I slept with a Bible under my pillow. I kept scraps of paper with Bible verses on them in my pocket. I would whisper scripture to myself when the depression was so bad that I wasn’t sure if I could keep myself from walking into oncoming traffic.

My parents were convinced it was an attack from satan. When I had anxiety attacks, my parents prayed over me. When that didn’t work, I threw out books, CD’s, and clothes that I thought might be upsetting god. When I would lie in bed and cry, my mom told me I was “letting satan win”, and that I just needed to stop thinking about it, and it would go away.

I begged god, every night, to take the depression away from me. Nothing helped. I didn’t know what I was doing wrong. How was I displeasing god when I was trying to straighten up my life and do what he wanted? I had repented of every sin I could possibly remember.

I suffered through that depressive episode for nearly a year.

I finally stopped asking god to help me, and I started helping myself. I cleared my thoughts and “spoke life” (we all remember that song by Tobymac, right?) into myself, something I’d never done before, and it was powerful. I gathered all my strength and pulled myself out of that hole. The depression lessened and I was able to function again.

Had a voice, had a voice but I could not sing
You would wind me down
I struggled on the ground

When I told my therapist about this time in my life, she was horrified. I now know depression is not an “attack from satan”, but an imbalance of chemicals in the brain. I can also see that year as the onset of my bipolar disorder.
Because my parents shun all modern medicine, especially psychiatry, I didn’t see a psychiatrist until after I escaped. I had no idea that the things I was experiencing were real, and valid. I was constantly told by my parents, especially my mother, that I just didn’t have enough faith in god. If I had enough faith in god, he would take my depression away.

That was my parent’s approach to mental illness. Today I credit my strong will, the will my parents did all they could to break, for keeping me alive.

The second incident was a year or so before I left home. I wish I could pinpoint exactly when this happened, but my childhood and teen years are blurry. I remember it was a sunny, warm afternoon, and my mom called me into my parent’s bedroom. My mom was on her laptop, excitedly pointing to the screen. “Look at this! This sounds just like my mother!” She said, scooting over so I could sit on the bed. I sat down and looked at the screen as my mom continued to talk. It was a list of traits of a narcissistic mother. As my mom read the traits aloud, my heart sank and I started to feel sick. The traits my mother was attributing to my grandmother are traits she had herself. Some of the traits made my heart beat faster.

Does your mother act jealous of you? Does your mother compete with you?

My mom was very strict about how I dressed. She bought me my first real pair of jeans when I was seventeen or eighteen. I had been forbidden to wear jeans or any dress or skirt above the knee since I was a toddler. When my mom went on a diet and lost a large amount of weight, suddenly we were allowed to wear pants, because my mom wanted to wear pants to show off her weight loss. She realized she would look bad if she didn’t let her daughters wear pants as well, so jean dresses and patterned skirts were out, and pants were in.

The jeans my mom bought me were tight hip huggers. I remember trying them on and looking at myself in the mirror. My mom constantly cut down my appearance, but looking at myself in ‘normal’ clothes and not the baggy, oversized skirts and dresses my mom forced me to wear opened my eyes. There was nothing wrong with me. I wasn’t fat. I wasn’t “up and down with no shape” like my mom told me I was. All my life my mom told me I was nothing special, and she was even surprised when men would catcall me on the street. “What’s special about you? I’m still young and pretty.” She’d pout.

From then on, wearing pants or anything even hinting at form fitting, was sure to be a battle with my mother. She would wear cleavage baring shirts and I would cry foul. “It’s ok for me, I’m married!” She’d tell me.

When I’d throw on pants and a t-shirt for a lazy day or for work, she’d ask me if I had a hot date, or accuse me of being indecent around my step-dad and brothers. The fact that my mother was worried that my step-dad and brothers would see me in a sexual manner is creepy as fuck, and very telling.

That’s a different story for a different time though.

So lost, the line had been crossed
Had a voice, had a voice but I could not talk
You held me down
I struggle to fly now

Does your mother lack empathy for your feelings? Does your mother act like the world should revolve around her?  Is your mother controlling, acting like a victim or martyr?

The number one person in my parent’s household is my mother. Once I hit puberty, my step-dad (my mom married him when I was three) stopped parenting me, and really any of the kids, and faded into the background. The house was run the way my mom wanted, and she ruled with an iron fist. It wasn’t just my feelings that didn’t matter, anyone who wasn’t my mother didn’t matter either. That went for all my siblings and my step-dad. My mother was ruthless towards my step-dad. She has a sharp tongue, and had no problem fighting with my step-dad in front of us kids.

It was at my mother’s insistence that our family started following the biblical feasts, covering our heads (which my mom did off and on, depending on whether or not she wanted her hairstyle to show.), and shunning anyone who didn’t believe as we did. I was a self-righteous teenager, because I was convinced we were doing it the right way, and every other Christian was following the bible half-heartedly.

What my mom wanted, my mom got. If I had something that she liked, she took it from me. If my mom wanted to sleep all day and leave me and my younger sister with the hungry, crying babies, that’s the way it was. If anyone questioned our mother, there was hell to pay. We’d endure hours of her screaming and ranting about how we were all ungrateful brats who didn’t deserve all her or her hard work.

Any time my mom would send me a text, letting me know she was on her way home, it was a scramble to make sure the house was spotless for when she arrived. Doing what she wanted, when she wanted it, was the only option we had. I would have done anything I could to avoid her wrath. If mom wanted her feet massaged for hours, her feet were massaged for hours. One of my younger brothers protested too much one time, and my mother gave him a bloody nose. She blamed him for angering her.

For my entire teen years, my entire life was taking care of my family. I wasn’t taught to drive or given a bank account, despite my pleadings. I had maybe two friends, but I wasn’t allowed to go places often. I had to beg my parents to let me go anywhere, even as an adult. I couldn’t even go outside without telling my mom where I was going. Up until I left my curfew was 10pm. I did most of the cleaning and most of the cooking. My younger brothers, also teenagers, were never forced to help. Any time I complained about doing all the housework, I was chastised for being ungrateful and disobedient towards my parents and god.

But there’s a scream inside that we all try to hide
We hold on so tight, we cannot deny
Eats us alive, oh it eats us alive

In the couple years before I left, I was growing more and more resentful and I stopped doing what my mom wanted. I stopped being available to watch my siblings all the time. I isolated myself from my mother. I stopped helping with schooling. Not that the kids were schooled even close to properly anyway—my mom was constantly pregnant and unable to keep up with the school work. Currently, my parents have a total of 13 children. Schooling even half of those by yourself is not feasible. Without my help, it became impossible.

Of course, that meant serious consequences for me. My mom would go on hours long tirades about how I was a horrible daughter, I was such a bad influence on her kids and she should just kick me out, I was never going to be anything without her, etc. She wouldn’t stop until I was crying, and then she’d quiet down and tell me she was just doing this for my own good. Sometimes the yelling would culminate into physical violence, where she would push or hit me and dare me to hit her back. I never hit back, not once.

Yes, there’s a scream inside that we all try to hide
We hold on so tight, but I don’t wanna die, no

I was newly twenty-two in the beginning of 2014, and I knew something had to change. I couldn’t stay at home anymore. Remaining under my mom’s tyranny meant I would have a mental breakdown and kill myself. I lost a lot of weight. I started cutting again, something I hadn’t done since I was a teenager. I stopped talking to my mother. She used anything I told her against me anyway. She would bring up things I did as a toddler (“you were such a bad child! You smeared jelly on my couch when you were two years old!) to prove that I was a bad person. Her moods fluctuated wildly, from calling me her “special girl”, to flying into a rage and pouring hot coffee on me.

I couldn’t take the emotional and physical abuse anymore. I was worried that the next time my mother grew angry and beat my siblings with plumbing tube (my parents were avid followers of Michael and Debi Pearl), I would snap and beat her with it. Their screams haunt me. Dressing my siblings and seeing the purple bruises on their bottoms and legs was killing me inside.

February or March of 2014, my mom and I got into yet another argument. I’m never going to claim that I was the best daughter there ever was. But for a good part of my life, I did everything and anything I could to please my mother. I completely believe everything she told me, and blamed all our issues on myself—she definitely did. If I could just be a better daughter, she would stop getting so angry at me.

I didn’t sneak out, do drugs, curse, or even bad mouth my mother to my friends. I was a good daughter. I did the best I could.

During this argument, I fired back with my own insults. I was tired of her using me as her punching bag when anything went wrong. If she had an argument with my step-dad, she would make my life hell for days. Something as simple as me putting on makeup would set her off. I was done. I was going to stick up for myself finally.

My mom cornered me in my room, got in my face, and started pushing me. She kept telling me she could see how angry I was, and I should just hit her. I told her to back off, and if she didn’t, I was going to call the police. She laughed. “What are you going to tell them?” I looked my mother straight in the eyes and said, “Oh, there are lots of things I could tell them.”

Her face grew pale, and she backed off. I closed my bedroom door and sat on the floor. I ate my lunch through my tears, and for the first time in my life, I told a friend what was going on at home.

I need to tell you something. I typed up to a friend on my ancient laptop.
what? She replied.
My mom hits me sometimes.

I met a guy through a co worker a couple weeks later. I was working at a greenhouse about a mile away from my parent’s farm, and one of the girls there took a liking to me. I had talked to guys online before—without my parent’s knowledge of course. They never would have approved, and my mom was notorious for reading my private conversations and even my diaries. This guy was different. I genuinely liked him and I even made up excuses to spend time with him. The first time I met him was at a coffee shop in town.

My parents knew something was up, especially my mom. I had become so distant from her, and she noticed. My mom wasn’t in control, and that wasn’t going to stand. She decided she was going to kick me out, and got my step-dad on her side. They sat me down one night after I got home from “visiting a friend” (I had been with my boyfriend), and told me that I was rebellious (not wanting to be at home constantly, not being a second mother, wanting a job, driving license, bank account, and more freedom), and they didn’t want me influencing their other children. My mom looked so smug and happy sitting next to my step-dad. I think she thought I would leave, realize life was horrible and that I couldn’t make it, and come crawling back to her. I was working a part time job at the time and I a little under $200 to my name. My parents knew this, but they were willing to risk me being homeless to “teach me a lesson.”

I was sitting on my bed messaging my boyfriend on FB a little bit after, when my mom came in. She had such a disgusted look on her face.

“I just wish you’d leave now.” She said. “I can’t stand seeing you here.”

And I don’t care if I sing off key
I find myself in my melodies
I sing for love, I sing for me
I shout it out like a bird set free

The next day while my mom napped, I packed a backpack with some clothes, my money, and a toothbrush. I nervously kissed some of my siblings good-bye, and asked my only local friend (a girl my mom hated and nearly banned from the house) to drive me to my boyfriend’s house.

Within a week, my mom was threatening to call the police to bring me back home. It didn’t matter that I was twenty-two and the cops wouldn’t have done a thing. My mother saw me as a child, and she thought everyone else did too. So in her mind, of course the cops would agree with her.

But I was free. Life wasn’t smooth sailing after that, of course not. My mom started a smear campaign, and I lost. Friends and family members stopped talking to me. The most ridiculous lies she told got back to me in the most surprising ways. I had to be careful who I trusted and talked to.

I stopped surviving and started living, and I’ve been on a quest to find out who I am. I was told so long who I was by my mother and religion, but that wasn’t who I really was. It was who I had to be to survive.

I was diagnosed with PTSD, anxiety, and Bipolar Disorder, and working through those in therapy has been exhausting and sad. Sometimes tearing open wounds means more struggle, but in the end I’d rather have a bone broken and reset then hobble through life on a crooked leg.

Sometimes I mourn all that I lost. Not seeing my siblings or being able to talk to them has broken me the most. I confronted my mother about the abuse and lies on New Years 2015, and she immediately cut me off from my siblings. I’ve talked to my mom maybe three or four times since then. I’ve asked her to go to therapy with me every time, and every time she said no or ignored my request. I stopped asking. I stopped responding to her messages and blocked her on social media. My mom isn’t going to change, and I’ve finally come to terms with that. I can’t expect things from her that she cannot give.

The sad thing is that my mom grew up in an abusive household, and she would always tell me that she was determined to not let the cycle continue. This serves as a warning to me. It’s so easy to be blinded by the bad things I’ve experienced and adopt a victim mentality. It’s so easy to think the world/my parents owe me something for what I suffered through. I’ve seen through my mom’s sisters that you CAN break the cycle. You don’t have to be a victim, and you can rise above. It’s slow going, but I’m working towards something good and whole.

Now I fly, hit the high notes
I have a voice, have a voice, hear me roar tonight
You held me down
But I fought back loud..
I’ll shout it out like a bird set free

8 comments

  • I am so sorry. Your mom sounds a lot like mine (although I’m sure I’m old enough to be your mother), but it took me longer to break away than its taken you. Even down to cutting off access to the baby sister I had mostly raised for the first year of her life.

    I have struggled most of my life with complex PTSD, anxiety, and depression. My therapist told me that kids who grow up with a parent who combines both neglect and abuse cause much deeper brokenness in their children than those who “only” abuse – even if the abuse itself is more dramatic.

    I empathize, and I’m so glad you’re making the changes you are. Hang in there. It will be worth it.

  • You did nothing wrong. You were not to blame for the harm done to you. Your mother treated you without respect or decent boundaries. I think you are a brave, strong person to stand up to that and you will only get stronger and happier as you remain free-to-be. Sing your freedom…
    Abuse of children is passed on through generations with the help of sick Christianity, patriarchal abuse that harms both women and children first, as it acts out its Godly bullying.
    I too found much help in therapy, in reading outside the acceptable texts, in learning slowly but surely to love myself as they would never love me. Best wishes!

  • I am so glad you have the example of your aunts. And I hope your sibs can free themselves, too.

    • Her siblings shouldn’t need to free themselves. Child Protective Services should be contacted immediately and repeatedly if they haven’t been already. It is not the responsibility of children to escape abuse, it is the responsibility of the community to step in. That is why in most states, adults are considered mandatory reporters of abuse and can be held legally responsible if they suspect abuse and do not report it to authorities. I’m not sure if adult siblings are included in these laws, but they should be.

  • Your story is very inspirational. Good on you for all good choices you made.

  • Andrew Forlines

    Thank you for sharing your experience.

    It’s important to make a stand.

  • Thank you for being willing to share your story on HA—-no doubt reliving hose terrible times as you recounted the past may be uncomfortable. Do you still see these parents ? Is there any way your aunts and you can rescue the siblings who are yet minors ? She shouldn’t have custody of ANY child, anywhere. Ditto for silent co-abuser stepdad. I always ask, when I read of, or witnessed this peculiar brand of religious child abuse “Where is god in all this ?? Why won’t he step in, to nip these things in the bud /” Ever since I had the great misfortune to step inside an old Apostolic church building at 19, that’s when I first saw Pentecostal baby-beating. Complaing to that old pastor, who said we’d be traitors if we wen’t to any authorities about it. Did it anyway. Before that, baby beating was a “ghetto thing” that still goes on, too frequently….. only now some of us are taking on this nightmare through community activism and intervention. No one thought of intervening where you and your other siblings are concerned….why is that ? And please please, never allow yourself to be guilted into forgiving their actions, which usually involve a forced reconciliation- all that would be on THEIR terms anyway. Forgiveness can take years, and can’t be rushed, but I remember sermons on instant forgiving and reconciling, trusting the other party without any self defenses on YOUR part, of course ! So be good to yourself, and know that healing from abuse needs time. If you and the aunts can manage, please inform the police and CPS about what as done to you, those plumbing tubes, bloody noses. The law enforcement presence will give that woman a much needed wake-up call. A restraining order against this “mom” and stepfather may be needed also. Blessings to you and the kids !

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