A Schizophrenic Mother and an Abusive Father

By “Stephanie”

As told to Cliff Williams

Edited by Cliff Williams from a recorded and transcribed conversation with Stephanie on January 17, 2024. She was in her early fifties when we talked. “Stephanie” is a pseudonym.

Feeling Like Two Persons

Stephanie thinks of herself as having two separate parts. “When I filled out my college application, I wrote an essay with the title, ‘What do you get when you cross a schizophrenic mother with an alcoholic, abusive father?’ In it I described how I felt like a split person. I still feel that way. 

“On the one hand, I have horrific scars from childhood traumas. I have painful and debilitating memories of them. Sometimes I feel very insecure and am a people pleaser at the expense of my own needs. On the other hand, I attended a highly regarded university. I was nationally ranked in tennis and saxophone. I have my own business now and can work at home, travel, and set my own hours. I have a beautiful family with four wonderful kids. 

“The overarching theme of my life is that I don’t have just one piece in it, but two. However, I do not let the bad piece define me. I am not simply the Stephanie who got pregnant by her dad at fifteen and got an abortion. I am so much more than that.”

Before My Dad Left

Stephanie’s parents divorced when she was young. “My mom and dad had my two brothers and then me. They divorced when I was about four because my dad was an alcoholic and wasn’t showing up. I remember him drinking a lot. I also remember him hitting my mom and using wire hangers and duct tape to tie up my brothers, who were sometimes a little wild. We lived with my mom after the divorce, and my dad was not in the picture.”

While My Dad Was Away

Stephanie’s father stayed out of the picture for a couple of years until Stephanie was in first grade. “He had gotten remarried, and his new wife said that he should have a relationship with us kids. So we did the visit-dad-on-Sundays thing.

“During the next two years, I noticed that my mom was doing things that were not normal. I knew they weren’t normal because I saw how my friends’ moms acted when I visited them. Before supper my mom made me and my brothers wash our hands, dip them in bleach, wash our hands again, and then do another bleach dip. When I went to one of my friend’s house, I saw that they didn’t use bleach before eating. I asked my friend about it, and she said that washing your hands with soap and water was fine.

“My mom was a hypochondriac. Anytime there was any little thing wrong with me, it was doctor visits and tests. So I grew up hiding sicknesses because my mom totally overreacted and I didn’t like missing school because of that.

“As more of these little instances happened, I came to believe that what she was doing was not right. When I was in the third grade, she got hospitalized.

“One day I got sick at school, and the school couldn’t contact my mom. I said, ‘You can’t get hold of her because she’s in the hospital.’ That, of course, caught their attention: ‘Why are those kids home alone?’ They were going to call DCWS, the Department of Child Welfare Services, but I said, ‘Wait. Call my dad.’

“That was a turning point, because that’s when my dad got temporary custody of us kids. Then he went for full custody. My mom didn’t go to the custody hearing. So in the middle of third grade, I and my two brothers started living with my dad.

“Later, I felt that I deserved the bad things that subsequently happened to me, because I was the one who said, ‘You can call my dad,’ when I was sick at school. 

Living with My Dad

In the new household, there were six children—two young daughters of the woman Stephanie’s father had married, Stephanie and her two brothers, and a girl her dad and the woman had together. “I kind of liked the situation, because I had a mom who wasn’t schizophrenic. I was important to her, and we ended up having a close bond. I absolutely loved having younger sisters. One of them had Down Syndrome, and she loved on me. And I loved the child my dad and stepmom had.

“Unfortunately, my dad didn’t stop drinking. And when he drank, he got abusive. 

“One time we were having barbecue ribs and mashed potatoes, and my dad smacked me in the face for some reason. I cried, not because the smack hurt, but because my potatoes got bloody from the bloody nose I got from being smacked. So I couldn’t eat them, and there weren’t any more, because we didn’t have a lot of food.

“My dad was very controlling with the food we did have. One thing we did was to can pickles. I was starving one day and went down to the basement and was eating pickles when my dad came home, which I was not expecting. I dropped the jar of pickles. It broke. My dad came downstairs, grabbed me, duct taped me to a metal post in the basement, then left. I had glass in my bare feet, plus pickle juice on them.

“My dad was gone overnight. Because I was sweaty and small, I was able to wriggle out of the duct tape. I used the duct tape to get the glass out of my feet. Then I cleaned the mess up so that you couldn’t smell the pickles. When my dad came back, he acted as though nothing had happened.

“Another time, he hit my stepmom. My older brothers weren’t around, just the sister with Down Syndrome. She got upset. I was ten or eleven and petite for my age, but I stood in front of my stepmom and said, ‘You can’t hit her. You gotta stop.’ I don’t know what I expected, but, of course, I got hit too.

“Then two days later a very traumatic thing happened. I woke up and my stepmom was gone. She had taken my three sisters with her. I didn’t care about my brothers because they were jerks and were misbehaving. But my sisters were an important part of my life and a source of stability. So I was very upset. And I was mad that my stepmom had not taken me.”


When Stephanie was fifteen and a sophomore in high school, her father raped her. “I got pregnant and had an abortion. I had a lot of guilt about that, but I dealt with being pregnant the same way I dealt with everything else that was going on: ‘What do I need to do to survive?”

“My dad had beat me countless times, and I had gotten through that. He gave us kids marijuana and had done other things before he raped me. My main reaction to being raped and becoming pregnant was, ‘Is this going to stop me?’ My answer was, ‘No.’ I had overcome everything else so far and was not going to let this last thing keep me from going to college. That was my ticket out of the house.

“I was number one in my high school class. I was state ranked on the saxophone. I knew I had an opportunity to go to college. Plus, I knew, even then, that genetically there could be issues with the child. I felt as though I was at a fork in the road: ‘This is going to make me or break me.’ The pregnancy was one more thing in a long list of things I had to overcome. That is how I looked at it.

“It’s not that being pregnant didn’t matter, but I had to focus on getting food and other basic needs. I needed to know where I was eating and whose friend’s house I could sleep at for the weekend.

“School became a safe haven. I always got positive attention at school, because I did well in it. I was active in every club and sport possible. I had a teacher who gave me free music lessons. He said, ‘If you practice, I won’t charge.’ He’s the one who got me into a highly selective university.”

Repressed Memories

After Stephanie graduated from the university, she became a teacher, got married, and had children. “When my daughter got to fifteen, I started having weird memories, which I learned were flashbacks. At first I thought, ‘Why am I having these dreams about myself when I was a child?’ I talked to one of my brothers, and he said, ‘Those weren’t dreams. They really happened.’

“I went to therapy for two years. There I learned that if you’re in a safe environment, it’s natural for painful memories to surface. I was married to a very nice person who was a good provider. We had four great kids. That’s when everything in my childhood started to come out.

“I dealt with that by doing competitive running, including marathons, which got my mind off the painful memories for a time. I did yoga twice a week. I worked hard. And I got great satisfaction from knowing that I gave my kids an idyllic childhood. They had everything they needed to succeed, because my husband and I were upper middle class. If our children wanted to do a sport, they could do it. We did vacations. I was able to do everything with them that I never got to do as a child. Knowing that I had broken the cycle of terrible abuse was very rewarding. Focusing on that was a big thing for me when the memories started spilling out. 

“The flashbacks were foggy at first. But then they came into focus when they came back again. Every time I had a flashback, I wrote it down, and my therapist and I went over it. 

“The hardest thing about the flashbacks was regret at not having done more to protect myself from what my dad did to me. When he first got custody of us, when I was nine, I remember him having an erection when I was sitting on his lap. I didn’t understand what that was at the time—what nine year old does? And then there were times he unzipped my pajamas. I was mad about that because they covered my feet and were cozy and warm. I tried to protect myself once, but big things happened as a result.

“One time my dad was passed out on the couch. Besides drinking, he did heroin. I saw his black briefcase where he kept stuff. I opened it and discovered that there was a gun in it. I took the gun, pointed it at him, and pulled the trigger. But it didn’t go off. I pointed it at myself, and it didn’t go off again. I was fifteen and a half, I think. Much later, I wondered what would have happened if the gun had gone off.”

My Mother

Stephanie’s mother was in a home for impaired adults. “I visited her there as an adult. She got to meet my kids, which I was thankful for. It was always a one-way relationship, though. I know it sounds terrible, but I didn’t get anything from her being a mother when I was young. She didn’t talk to me about boys or how to do my hair or anything like that. I feel cheated.

“About ten years ago, my mom traded cigarettes for the medications people in the home had. Then she took all the meds at once. She knew her condition had been worsening, because she was cycling through meds very quickly. When she wasn’t on them, things were very bad. I am sure her reality was so much worse than I can imagine.

“After she died as a result of the overdosing, I found my name and birthday, and all my kids’ birthdays, in her address book five times, under “Stephanie,” my maiden name, my married name. No one else was in her address book that many times. When she was alive, she couldn’t express herself emotionally, couldn’t say she loved me, wasn’t there for me the way a mother could be. But when I saw my name in her address book five times, I knew I was important to her. She had done the best she could in spite of her incapacitating condition.

“I realized then that the harmful things she had done to me were done out of love, unlike the things my dad had done to me. They were done out of selfishness and a desire to control me.

“People have asked me whether I was sad when my mom died. I wasn’t sad that she had died, because I knew she was no longer struggling with pain. But I was sad that I never got the mom I deserved. And she never got to be the mom she wanted to be. It was very obvious to me that in her own way she loved me and my brothers. It probably broke her heart that she couldn’t take care of us. 

“I still have the address book.”

Never Again

“I tried to visit my mom once a year,” Stephanie said, “but I never saw my dad again after I left home. And I never talked to him again. The last time was thirty-five years ago.

“I moved out the day after I graduated from high school. I declared myself financially independent, because he wouldn’t sign the financial aid forms for college. He thought I was too uppity. When he heard that I had graduated from college, I heard, through one of my brothers, that he said I was a conceited, spoiled brat. He did not believe anyone should go to college. When I did my own taxes, he got into trouble, because he was still trying to claim me as a dependent.

“Later, he requested that I be a Facebook friend. I messaged him back, ‘If you have anything to say to me, you can write me a letter and we can go from there.’ I was not going to be his friend. He never wrote me.

“Four months ago, one of my brothers told me that my father was very sick and did I have anything to say to him? I said, ‘Does he have anything to say to me? If he does, I’ll listen to whatever he says.’ 

“I thought, ‘I’m not so insensitive that I will let him die without any contact. He has not spoken to me for over three decades, and he has never met my children. If he wants to do a video call, I am open to that.’ My brother got back to me and said that my father had nothing to say to me. He died two months later. 

“I never found out whether he remembered what he had done to me or whether he felt guilty for it. I always left the door of my heart open for forgiveness. If he had said, ‘I know what I did and I am so sorry,’ I would have been okay with that. I am a little angry that he never wanted to talk to me, even when he was dying. Maybe he was just chicken. But I realize that I could not make him do what I wanted him to do. 

“His death did not affect me. It made no difference in my day-to-day life.

“I talk about all these things matter of factly, as if they don’t matter. In fact, they have had a very damaging impact on me. So I have to separate them off when I describe them.

“I don’t want to say that the little girl who had such appalling things happen to her is dead. In some ways, I feel the same now as I did then. But in other ways I’m a different person now. It’s a mixed thing.

“Though I’ve had a rough life, my four kids have made it beautiful. My daughter is incredibly brilliant and went to college early. My oldest son works at a good place plus spends a lot of time exploring the outdoors. My next son is becoming certified to do welding underwater. My youngest son is in high school figuring out his way. He’s emotionally intelligent. Without my saying anything, he’ll sometimes come over and sit next to me and say, ‘Mom, what’s the matter?’ I am so amazed at it all.” 

© 2024 Cliff Williams


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