I was in seventh grade when I found out my mom was going to prison for the first time. I got called down to the principal’s office thinking I’d done something wrong, but it was my mom who had done something wrong. That thought process is a pretty good example of my relationship with her and the trauma I still deal with as a result. I still remember how bad my hands were shaking when they told me she was going to prison, and that I’d be moving to Utah to live with my dad.   

This is a very personal story about my relationship with my mom and how my life and family dynamic were born. Not only that, but also how a lot of my issues were born as a response to the trauma surrounding this story. Through it all, I love my mom and believe that everyone has both good and bad qualities. However, there’s still a lot I’ve learned about coping with a family member who has hurt me. Hopefully you can use some of these tools if you have been hurt by a  family member as well. It’s definitely not easy, but sharing our stories and working to heal can help take away the power it has over us.

My Story

I’ve always struggled with how to tell this story, but it’s not something I’m ashamed of like I used to be. As a scared seventh grader, I lied and told people my mom was away at school in order to avoid telling anyone my mom was in prison. Brené Brown talks about how owning your story takes away the power it has over you, and I really do believe that. The reason why I struggle to tell this story is because it’s emotionally taxing. It’s also sensitive for a lot of the people involved and affected by it. There are also a lot of details I’m unsure about, and details I don’t want to share because they are a part of someone else’s story. But, here goes!

One of my little sisters, Erica, had leukemia when she was 3-years-old. The hospital that was treating her in New Jersey told us she only had a few months to live. As a Hail Mary to save my sister, my mom took her to Mexico for treatment. It actually worked, and she went into remission. She’s doing well to this day and recently had a baby boy. However, the hospital bills were expensive.  So one night my mom put everything in a storage unit and drove us out to Idaho. This is where a lot of the story started.

My mom had connections to the Montana Militia and began writing and cashing bad checks from them. If I remember correctly, she lied and said some of them were angel donors for my sister. Because she crossed state lines to cash them, it was a felony. My mom validated these actions by saying she did all of this for my sister and her treatment. Regardless, my mom went to prison, which is where my little brother was born. My stepdad, Rick, picked him up and took him back to Idaho where he was raising the rest of my siblings. I know I’ve said it a million times, but my stepdad is such an amazing man.

Meanwhile, I was living in Utah with my dad and stepmom from 7th to 9th grade. Once my mom got out of prison, a judge ruled that I was able to live with her, so I moved to Idaho to live with my mom, stepdad, and four of my siblings. Things were okay, until my mom and stepdad got divorced at the end of my senior year of high school. The two of them were in the middle of custody battles after the divorce. This is when things got bad again.

First, my mom took money from investors to start a nonprofit. The nonprofit never happened, and investors never got their money back. Second, my mom stole my identity to write about $30,000 in bad checks. Which was easy to do, since I look a lot like her.  When I found out, I was a junior in college. I had just gotten home from track practice, and was served papers to testify against my mom or get into legal trouble myself. Honestly, if it weren’t for my track coach and some really amazing professors at the College of Idaho, I would have dropped out because of the turmoil it caused in my life. I was so stressed, had just met my future husband who was trying to give me advice on what to do, and had a no-contact order with my mom.

I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had just taken my mom away from my brothers and sisters who needed her.

My mom accepted a plea deal and pled guilty to bouncing two checks which resulted in three years in prison for each check. At the sentencing, the judge told my mom that they made the agreement because of me, so that I didn’t feel like I had sent my mother to prison for six years. However, that’s exactly how I felt. I’m sure it was hard on my mom to go back to prison, but it was damaging for the rest of us as well. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had just taken my mom away from my brothers and sisters who needed her.

I know I didn’t have a choice but to testify, but we all know that emotions don’t often listen to logic. While she was in prison I wrote her letters, paid her bills, and even sent her a little TV to watch in prison. Meanwhile, I had Lincoln and got married. She wasn’t there for any of that, and the guilt was overwhelming.

Before my mom’s parole hearing, I was living in Pittsburgh where my husband at the time was going to grad school. I had been training for a marathon for months when I found out my mom’s parole hearing was scheduled for the day before the race. I wanted so badly to complete my marathon that I had trained so hard for. But I knew that if I missed her parole hearing and she wasn’t granted parole, I would never be able to get through the guilt. So I flew to her hearing, testified for her, got back on a red-eye flight, and landed at 2 a.m. when the race started at 6 a.m. that day. I ran the marathon and qualified for Boston. My mom’s parole was denied.

When my mom got out of prison years later, I flew to Idaho to pick her up. I remember really thinking my mom was going to change and be there for my brothers and sisters. However, that’s not what happened. I think she probably felt a lot of guilt herself for the time she spent away from all of her kids. I got about 10 of the good years from my mom, but my siblings didn’t get that. And so, she put up a wall between her and her family. Instead of spending time with us, she went to California. While she was there she got involved with things like Occupy Wall Street to try to make a difference in the world.

Maybe she thought that’s what we wanted. But it’s not. We just wanted her to call us, or to remember our birthdays. We didn’t want her to save the world, we just wanted her to be there. Talking about this brings up a lot of feelings of abandonment, but it was hard not to have her. I definitely tear up talking about this. And so our mom was never around throughout our childhood, and continued not to be around into our adulthood.

Today

A couple of years ago, I Googled her name to see if I could find anything about her whereabouts. What I found was that she had committed involuntary manslaughter by hitting a construction worker with her car, which had resulted in his death. She fled from the scene and disappeared. In May of last year, I got an email from a woman in Australia who said my mom had scammed her out of a lot of money by saying she was a peace ambassador. So I know she’s alive and not in jail, but otherwise that’s about it.

It’s hard to know that your mom is alive out there but doesn’t really care about you enough to reach out. As terrible as it sounds, (and I really don’t mean this in a disrespectful way to anyone who has lost a parent) there were times where I thought it would have been easier if she had died. Maybe then I wouldn’t feel so abandoned by her. Maybe then I wouldn’t feel like I wasn’t good enough.

As a result of my trauma, I pushed people away, I made bad decisions, and I didn’t trust that anyone would actually be there for me. I am so thankful for my stepdad, who was the only parental figure I had who never left me, even when I wasn’t very nice to him. To this day, even when we argue he tells me he loves me. He checks on me when I’m having a hard time. He’s my rock and I’m so thankful for him.

To this day, I have no idea where my mom is. The best we can guess is that she may still be in Australia.    

How I’ve Learned to Cope

Therapy has really been an important piece in my journey through coping with my mom and how she’s hurt me. I’ve learned that we all have stuff. I have baggage when entering a new relationship, but so does everyone else. It’s important to be brave enough to work through these problems for yourself and your own happiness. However, we all get there in our own way.

I also have issues in overcompensating in hopes that I’ll be loved. I tend to overachieve to gain attention and love instead of trusting that people will love me for who I am. Some people have dad issues, but I have mom issues. I’m so scared that I’ll go to prison or turn out like my mom. Though she has some great qualities that I was able to see, she also has some bad qualities that I’m so afraid of inheriting. In a lot of ways, it’s understanding how our trauma affects us.

My therapist talks about understanding ourselves as though we are Russian stacking dolls, with a bunch of tiny versions inside one large version that everyone else sees. However, sometimes the smallest doll or the middle doll is in the driver’s seat, even though the world sees the doll that’s on the outside. Sometimes it’s the seventh grade Natalie who is running the show, other times it’s the 19-year-old Natalie. We tend to box up the trauma from our younger selves. But until you address that trauma, it’s really hard to change the behavior that results from it.

In order to cope with my trauma I did EMDR therapy, which has been so instrumental in my process to cope. My therapist has encouraged me to have compassion for my mom, which was initially extremely difficult and brought up a lot of resentment I have for her. For all of these years I always thought it was me that she didn’t love. I thought there was something wrong with us that made her not want us anymore. But it’s not us, it’s her.

For all of these years I always thought it was me that she didn’t love.

My therapist encouraged me to think of my mom as if she were blind. She was so blind that she wasn’t able to see her kids in a way that she should. It didn’t matter who we were or how great we were, she lacked the ability to love us like a mother should. This has been such a helpful way for me to realize that her leaving us wasn’t my fault, and that her own baggage made it impossible for her to see us.

In my therapy sessions, we worked on my childhood trauma by talking to my younger self. My therapist had me bring some comforting people into my mind. This included my stepdad, a nurturing figure, and the adult version of myself to tell the small Natalie that she was safe and that we’d never leave her. We surrounded her with love, broke down any of my internal barriers, and promised to be with her forever. My therapist told me that any romantic relationship I get into may or may not be forever, but that the little girl inside of me will be a part of me forever. So I need to heal all of my past wounds so that I can be more whole for any relationships I enter in the future.

I am still a work in progress, but coping has involved a lot of honest conversations with myself, therapy sessions, and the understanding that my mom’s actions don’t mean I’m not good enough. Still, some days are easier than others. Just remember, your trauma may still be affecting you, even if it was years ago. That was definitely the case for me, and addressing that trauma has made a huge difference.

Give Yourself Grace

Telling my story may have given me a vulnerability hangover, but I think it’s important that I share my story with all of you. It means so much that you’ve read all of this. I hope you’ve found something in my story that can help you if you have a family member who has hurt you. Remember to give yourself grace when you screw up, and to apologize to the people you may hurt in the process. I try to remember not to hold myself to any unrealistic standards of perfection and not to beat myself up. Try to do the same for yourself.

I appreciate you all more than you know. Thanks so much for listening to my story.

xo Natalie

P.S. This story is also on my podcast if you’d like to give it a listen