My Recovery Journey: From Trauma and Abuse to Understanding and Forgiveness

By Sarah Ratliff 02/15/19

It’s no surprise to me that even with seven years of therapy I still chose an abusive addict as a partner. What else had I known, growing up the way I did?

Woman with eyes closed, thinking of recovery and forgiveness after trauma
“Adults are going to want to help you," my brother said. "Accept their help. At some point I won’t be able to protect you.” Photo by sean Kong on Unsplash

I always wanted to be a writer. I started writing in the fifth grade and wrote many short stories. I lacked imagination (or maybe it was too vivid, I’m not sure), and so I took my inspiration from stories already written. Most of what I wrote as a child was straight out of Judy Blume books. I couldn’t have picked characters more different from my own family.

In Blume’s books, even the most challenging issues were always solved with a hug and a huge dose of love and encouragement. I would share these stories I “wrote” with my class and not only was it obvious I’d stolen the plots from Blume’s books, but nobody was fooled that my home life resembled these Leave It To Beaver-esque families.

The black and blues on my little body had a way of telling a different story.

A Concerned Teacher

After about the fourth or fifth story, trying to pass off some fictional family as my own, my teacher—who’d taught my two older brothers before me—asked me to stay after class. He asked if everything at home was okay. He knew my brothers were hellions, the products of an abusive father and a drink-at-home mom.

Unlike my brothers, though, I was a good girl. I had never once acted out—until that day. I had learned how to stay out of the way of my father’s explosive trigger hand. I was also a master at avoiding my mother after her third glass of “candy.”

I felt cornered. I had to get out of there.

I looked at my teacher square in the eyes and said, “You have no fucking clue what’s going on in my home. Stay the fuck away from me!” I flipped over a few chairs and desks before I grabbed my knapsack and ran out of his classroom. I was kind of half-crying, half-raging. I had never become unglued before. I was always the one my parents could count on to be polite and obedient, no matter what.

My oldest brother was waiting for me outside school. He noticed I was on the verge of hyperventilating.

“What happened?” Marco* asked.

“Mr. Brendel asked if things were okay at home. I don’t know why he thought that. I have never been anything but what everyone expects me to be. What’s happening??”

“I’ll take care of it,” Marco told me.

And he did. I was never in trouble over the incident, and two days later Mr. Brendel apologized and we never discussed it again. Marco told me grownups weren’t stupid, and they knew things weren’t as peachy at home as they were in my fairytale stories. And then he said something that scared me: “Adults are going to want to help you. Accept their help. At some point I won’t be able to protect you.”

My Brother’s Advice

“What do you mean? You’ll always be here to protect me.” I fought back tears.

“I won’t, Sarah. One day you’ll have to make your own decisions, and all I can do is guide you to make the best ones—for you and nobody else. I’ll be here as long as I can, but the sooner you can be independent, the better. One day you’ll wake up and see how fucked up things are at home. Don’t fear that day. Welcome it and get help.”

I continued as the dutiful little girl living in my bubble and writing stories about people who bore no resemblance to my family. But when I turned 16, I decided I didn’t want to live at home after I graduated. Both my brothers were already out of the house.

I looked into having myself emancipated. I even talked with a lawyer. While my brothers were tired of carrying the weight of responsibility, I was ready to be an adult, living on my own.

My godmother and aunt convinced me to defer college for a year. Instead, they recommended therapy. I was reminded of the conversation I’d had with Marco outside my elementary school years earlier, so I took their advice.

I graduated from high school and got a job in a photocopy shop. I paid for therapy and, by working six days a week, I saved enough for first and last month’s rent and a security deposit on a future apartment.

I moved out of my parents’ house when I was 17, but it wasn’t exactly how I’d planned. I got this bug up my ass to do an intervention on my mother, but I had no idea what I was doing. It blew up in my face with my mother kicking me out of the house. Talk about an epic fail.

But it was the first time I realized how protective of one’s addiction someone can be.

I was estranged from both of my brothers and my parents. It felt right. I was (and still am) eternally grateful to my oldest brother for taking care of me growing up, but he’d started drinking heavily—like our mom. And the other one had graduated to bigger and badder drugs. He discovered cocaine.

PTSD and an Abusive Relationship

While in therapy, I was diagnosed with PTSD and a panic disorder. As my brother promised, just because I pushed all that shit away didn’t mean it never happened. As my mom used to say all the time, “You push it down here, it comes up there,” meaning you can run from something for only so long. I had to deal with the dysfunction I grew up in, and I had to work really hard to keep myself from repeating their mistakes.

Sometimes echoes of that dysfunction showed up in my life despite my best efforts. My boyfriend at the time started using coke and became abusive. How had I chosen someone who was a perverse combination of both my parents? I was trying to figure out a way to leave without him coming for me. With his continued coke use, he was paranoid and controlling. I hadn’t communicated to him or anyone else my intention to leave but somehow, he knew.

I was taking a creative writing class, and the first assignment was to write an essay using five descriptions to portray a person or an event. The professor gave us just one bit of instruction: “Show, don’t tell.” The next time I was in my boyfriend’s car, leaving Manhattan for his place in Brooklyn, I paid close attention.

The tires slicked against the wet pavement; it had rained while we were in the midtown Manhattan movie theatre. Focused on the road in front of him, his left hand was on the steering wheel. He tilted his head slightly to meet the outstretched fingers on his right hand, so he could twist his newly forming dreadlocs. He turned his still tilted head very slowly to look at me. His forehead wrinkled, and his eyes like big beads of brown glass, narrowed. He peered at me from over his wireframe glasses. He said, “Mookie, I have loved you my entire life. Even before I knew you, I loved you. The thought of you no longer being in my life scares me. I can never let that happen. Besides, nobody will ever love you like I do: not your parents and definitely not your brothers.” He didn’t look at me long enough to see my reaction. He was like a dog who sensed fear and he was prepared to act on it. Now, with his eyes back on the road, his voice lacked emotion. “Mookie, I can make life for you as sweet as honey or as bitter as unsweetened cocoa. It’s all in your power.”

After I finished reading my essay aloud, I looked around the classroom. The instructor and other students all had very large eyes. One student said, “Um, Sarah, that scared the shit out of me. You are planning on leaving him, aren’t you?”

I wanted to leave, but I didn’t realize just how serious he was about preventing me from going. As his coke use escalated, he became more violent and things ended very badly. A few years ago, I finally admitted to people how bad things had gotten between us. My very first published piece is a personal essay about the last violent moments we were together. Trigger warning!

It’s no surprise to me that even with seven years of therapy I still chose an abusive addict as a partner. What else had I known growing up the way I did? Both my parents died without any reconciliation between us. My mother, who never stopped drinking and smoked four packs of cigarettes a day, died suddenly of a stroke when I was 27. My father died eight years later of cancer. I never had the chance to reconcile with my mother, so I tried very hard to correct this with my father. But it takes two people, and he wasn’t willing.

Understanding and Forgiveness

Although I hadn’t consciously chosen an addict for a partner, I understand why I did. People have asked me whether I blame my mother, brothers, and my ex-boyfriend. Much as I want to, I can’t. There are many misconceptions about growing up in a home with an addict or an alcoholic, and while it might seem my brothers embody all those misconceptions, I also know for a fact that nobody chooses to become an addict and that many times it’s the result of trying to escape the realities of one’s surroundings. I believe my mother drank because she married a mean and abusive person who prevented her from realizing her dream of being a writer. Given the environment I grew up in and the likelihood of an inherited gene, I could easily have become an alcoholic. Because I had relatives who intervened and I started therapy early on, I believe I was spared and that I must forgive rather than blame. This includes my ex-boyfriend, who saw his father get drunk every Friday night and beat the crap out of his mother.

As I evolved, I became better at taking care of myself and 18 years ago, I married a really wonderful man who is the antithesis of my ex-boyfriend. He’s the only person outside of my therapist who knows my entire story.

I also tried to reconcile with both my brothers. Marco quit drinking 15 years ago, so I thought there was hope. But I quickly discovered he was white-knuckling it. I think he’s still angry about losing his childhood so he could be our full-time caregiver. My other brother quit using cocaine after he overdosed, but he still drinks heavily.

They both know I’ll be here when they’re ready.

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Sarah Ratliff is a corporate America escapee turned eco-organic farmer, writer and activist living in Puerto Rico. Much of her writing focuses on organic farming, addiction and mental health, racial equality, feminism and politics. For more about Sarah, please see her website: Sarah Ratliff or find her on LinkedIn and Facebook.