In Her Shadow: The Aftermath of My Childhood— My Story of PTSD

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By: Goldie Young

“You have PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder),” my therapist told me one day.

“No I don’t,” I replied, rolling my eyes.

“You do.”  My therapist insisted.

I had been diagnosed with all kinds of things in the past, but never PTSD.  When I thought of PTSD, I thought of war veterans and survivors of sexual abuse.  But I wasn’t a veteran, haven’t seen a gun in my life, and was never raped.  When I was a child, I had a home, I had a bed to sleep in every night, I had food to eat, I had clothing to wear.  My mother made sure to take me to the doctor when I was sick and even treat my flat feet with special inserts.  She got me braces so my teeth were not crooked, and she encouraged me to do well in school.  When I look at pictures of my childhood, I am always smiling.  How could it be that I have PTSD?

On the surface, my childhood was all good.  But underneath, it was a nightmare.  To this day, very frequently, I wake up sweating from the same exact dream:  I am in my mother’s apartment in Queens with my children, with no money, and nowhere to go, so I am stuck there.  The fear that I feel being in my mother’s custody is so powerful that I wake up crying.  I look around my bedroom and say to myself: You are fine.  You are home.  You are not in your mother’s shadow.  She will not control you.  You are free.  Goldie, you are free.

I have to repeat this to myself many times before I am able to fall back asleep.  The relief I feel that it was only a dream is incredible.  But the scars and the memory still hurt. 

Let me tell you how I really grew up.  My mother ensured my parent’s divorce by cheating on my father with multiple men.  I was left in her complete custody when she made the bimonthly visits to my father impossible by creating crazy rules and saying insane things.  So, I was in her care all the time.  Because she loved her freedom and her traveling, she often dumped my brother and me on relatives for weeks at a time.  I remember one time, I got lice on one of these extended stays at my cousin’s house, and I was too embarrassed to tell her.  The lice was so bad that there was blood on my pillow.  I wouldn’t use the bathroom at my cousin’s because I was scared someone would walk in on me.  It was a fear my mother had instilled in me by breaking the bathroom lock in every apartment we had ever lived in, and actually walking in on me as she pleased, while I was trying to shower or use the bathroom.  It was just one way for her to be in full control of me.  Not giving me my privacy was her forte.

My mother loved her summer vacations too, so she shipped us off to Camp Sussex.  Camp Sussex was a camp for the poor and was sponsored by the government.  Here, I was put into bunks with children of drug dealers and gun owners.  These children were tough.  As soon as they saw my light skin and innocent face, they knew who to pick on.  I was beat up and bullied there.  I lived in fear.  But I was too scared to tell my mother, because I knew she would freak out without helping me.  I didn’t want to feel even worse than I already did.

When I turned 13, I got my period for the first time.  I was completely shocked.  Why was there so much blood everywhere?  Sitting on the toilet, with tears in my eyes, I called for my mother.  She came over, took some toilet paper, rolled it up 5 times over, and said to put it in my underwear.  We could not afford pads.  Then my body started to develop.  My clothing started looking tight.  I didn’t even have the words to be able to ask my mother to get me a bra.  I was too embarrassed of what was happening to me.  She never did get me a bra.  So when she was not home, I went into her underwear drawer, pulled one out and put it on.  It was way too big on me, but it was something.  When I turned 15 and my chest got really big, my friend told me about a lingerie store in Boro Park.  We made the trip together, and the ladies there fitted me for a bra.  I was mortified by the whole experience.  I was alone.  I used my babysitting money to pay for it.               

I started to become a religious Jew at the same time I became a teenager, and my mother felt like she was losing the tight control she had on me.  All of a sudden, I was not her little puppet anymore, and she could not tell me what to do.  We started to fight over everything.  She wasn’t working at the time, and we received welfare since we were immigrants, so she was always at home.  I was not allowed to receive letters or speak on the phone without her listening in.  I wanted to keep in touch with some friends who had inspired me to become frum, but my mother sensed what was up and intercepted any moves in that direction.

“I don’t allow you to become religious.  Period.” she said.

I tried to hide my newfound faith.  I strategically planned my davening when she was putting my brother on the school bus in the morning.  If she caught me davening, she would rip the siddur out of my hands and throw it on the floor.  Or worse: not give it back to me at all.

“You’re getting brainwashed by a cult!”  she would scream.

When I wanted to keep Shabbos, I pretended I was too tired to do my usual reading before bed and went to sleep without turning on the lamp on my nightstand.  She quickly caught on to this trick.  She rushed over to me and sat on my bed.  With my eyes closed, I tried not to move. 

“I know you’re awake,” she hissed.  My eyes opened.  I looked at her, defiantly.

She then turned on my bedside lamp, took a book, and threw it on my chest.

“Read, like you usually do.”

I lay there not moving.

“I said—read!” she said louder.

I slowly took the book and opened it to the chapter I was up to.

She left.

I looked around me and wondered what it would take for me to be frum in her clutches.  She was always there, she knew what to look out for, she knew what I wanted.

A few minutes later, she came back.  My book was back on the night table, and I was staring up at the ceiling, wondering how I was going to fall asleep with the light on.

“Turn the light off,” she commanded.

“No,” I said fearfully.

“Turn it off,” she repeated.

“No,” I said, even quieter than before.

She took my hand and placed my finger on the light switch.  I tried to wiggle out of her grasp, but she was bigger and stronger.  After some struggle, she physically forced me to turn the light off.

“That’s the way it should be.  You are not going to keep Shabbos in my home.  Good night,” she walked out of the room and slammed the door.  I stared into the darkness, with tears silently streaming down my face.  That was just the beginning.

We continued like this for a while.  She forced me to take showers on Shabbos—I turned on the cold water and stood at the edge of the tub, waiting just enough time for her to think that I had taken a shower.  She forced me to eat her food—I would throw it into the garbage can when she went to walk my brother to his bus stop.  She would inspect the garbage and make me eat her food anyway.

She beat me.  She believed in capital punishment for misbehaving children.  I only got hit on my bottom when I was young, but as I got older and stronger, it turned into scratches and black and blue marks all over my body.  One time, I wanted to go to my friend’s for a Shabbos meal, and she said, in order for me to go, I had to open the refrigerator door.  In other words, turn on the light on Shabbos.  When I refused, she dragged me to the fridge, ripped the Shabbos robe I was wearing, and scratched me up so bad, I was bleeding.  Lying in heap in front of the refrigerator, I fought the tears that stung my eyes.  I was in so much pain.  I bolted for the door, but she was faster.  She took a broom and blocked the door.  Whenever I tried to grab the broom out of her hands, she shoved me away with it.  I really wanted to go to my friend’s house.  I didn’t know what was better—was it ok to open the fridge, but then be able to spend the rest of Shabbos in a frum home, observing all the mitzvahs?  I went to change my ripped robe and opened the fridge.  Satisfied, she let me go.

When I got to my friend’s house, they saw the blood and asked what happened.  I remember taking pictures of the scratches Motzei Shabbos, just in case I had to go to court and accuse my mother of abusing me.

When I was 16, my willpower was stronger, and I was almost as tall as my mother.  I came home one day and refused to eat her non-kosher meat soup.  She began to freak out.  She screamed at me to eat it.  She took the spoon, grabbed me by the hair, and forced the spoon with the meat into my mouth.  “Eat it, eat it!”  she screamed.  The chair I was sitting on fell backwards, and suddenly I was on the floor with her on top of me, thrusting the meat into my mouth.  She was able to get it in.

“Now chew it,” she commanded.

I got up unsteadily, hurting from the fall, and spit the meat out onto the floor.  Then I ran to my room and huddled there in fear of her coming after me.  There was nowhere to hide–not even in the bathroom, since it had no lock.

When I turned 18, I got my passport and left to seminary.  She knew she was powerless.  There was no blocking the door, because according to the law, I was an adult.  I knew then, that there was no going back.  Sitting on the plane to Eretz Yisroel, all I could do was cry.  I was free.  I was never going back.  But in my mind, I was still a prisoner.  That’s when the PTSD started.  I had grown up with so much fear that I was unable to let go of it.  My brain was programmed to be afraid of being hit, or being violated.  I was a scared, scarred person.

When I came back from seminary, I had no money.  I got a job in Boro Park, teaching, and found a room for $300 a month.  Supper was included, so it was a good deal.  But I wanted to finish college, and in order to do so, I needed $1300.  I had no one to turn to for that much money, so I called my mother.  She said she would give it to me, but first, I had to sign a contract.

I came to her apartment in Queens and sat across from her at the table.  The contract was sitting in front of me, all written up, with a place to put my signature on the bottom.  I began to read it.  I will be my mother’s best friend.  I will tell my mother everything.  I will call my mother every day…the list went on and on, and the more I read, the sicker I began to feel.  I felt like the noose around me was tightening with each sentence that I read.  I was a 20 year old woman, and I was as scared as a child.  I signed the contract, and she gave me a check.  I was able to graduate and go on to get my masters.  I went into $40,000 of debt, because I never kept my word from the original contract, and she refused to give me a penny more. 

It has been many years since I signed that contract and was obligated to my mother.  I broke free, I made my own money, I got married, and I never asked for anything, ever again.  For awhile, I cut her out of my life completely, but then I seem to develop memory loss and get in touch with her, just to be hurt all over again. 

No child deserves to be hurt like this.  No child deserves to be violated in this way.  No child deserves to be abandoned for weeks at a time.  No child deserves to be ignored, silenced, and beaten into submission.  I will suffer for the rest of my life, and although my trauma is not as remarkable as some more obvious forms, it is still trauma, and I will forever have ghosts of my past following me around.  Yes, I do have PTSD.  Yes, I am a survivor of my childhood.  I hope to be a voice for the voiceless, and a lesson for those in control. 

 
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Goldie Young

is a teacher, author, mother, and wife. She lives in New York with her husband and 3 beautiful children.

Rochel Lazar