“No.” I responded.
I didn’t feel the need to explain myself. We had been through this before.
Domestic violence is the scariest reality I’ve ever had to endure. And in my home, it didn’t have any warning signs. It didn’t drink, it didn’t use, it wasn’t triggered by anything specific. It just was. The occasion didn’t matter. It was a cycle that showed up on the Disneyland days, the celebratory days, the school days, the vacations, the camping trips, breakfast, dinner, even en route to see the new Aladdin movie. And when it escalated to its highest point, it was always my name that was called to make it stop.
I explained to my mother that I’ve always dreamed of spending the holidays in New York, and I am not spending my first holiday while living across the Hudson from the city of my dreams somewhere else.
I could hear the hurt in her voice.
I am just learning boundaries. My own, and learning how to respectfully navigate the boundaries of others. When you grow up in a violent home, boundaries are non-existent. And sometimes placing boundaries can be what gets you killed. As a child, I learned to survive and navigate whatever was put in front of me. Whether it was for me or not. Whether it felt good or not. This is how I operated for most of my life, until a few years ago.
I began on a journey with hypnosis. I found it because I wanted to give up tobacco, and after one successful session, I was hooked. I continued going for a range of things. Eventually taking about my childhood trauma. I had been to talk-therapy before, but it never felt like enough. I loved therapy, but when trauma in the home starts as soon as you make your appearance in the world, recalling events consciously is nearly impossible.
The majority of the physical violence in my home was directed at my mother. A physical relief for me, but science shows that children who witness their parents’ abuse feel it the same way as if they were physically experiencing it. I wasn’t ever physically hit, but it *feels* as if I was. My memory recalls the pain.
Even years after the violence had ended, my body was constantly on the alert. And although I mentally, physically, and emotionally rejected physical violence and abuse, I didn’t realize how much I was used to not having my boundaries respected. I was expected to show up to family gatherings, like the holidays or to watch a game or enjoy a Sunday dinner, and accept irrational behavior as if it was okay. And it was hard for me to recognize my discomfort. My body had a predisposition to chaos.
My partner and I met and married a few years ago. Our home and partnership were the safest I have ever felt and it allowed me the support to dive even further into my childhood trauma through hypnosis and other forms of spiritual help. My hypnotherapist explained to me after a session specifically involving identification of feelings, that she had never worked with anyone who physically and psychologically struggled to BE angry. The only way I had ever seen anger be expressed was violent and irrational. Anger IS a necessary emotion especially in terms of survival and I was suppressing my anger in fear that I would turn out like my father.
In preventing myself to feel the anger I had, I wasn’t able to truly heal. It was necessary to suppress anger with my father, but it was now the gateway to my emotional and physical freedom. I had to allow myself to feel the rage I suppressed. I don’t quite have the words to describe it, but I felt it everywhere physically. My neck, my back, my hips, my shoulders, my voice, my hands, my hips. I was in a constant state of inflammation. Like an arm burn, but from my head to my toes. And on top of that everything was tightly gripped, like I was hanging off a cliff and holding on for dear life with each muscle in my body.
I had previously believed much of the pain I was feeling was genetics and an aging body, but after every session, every breakthrough of processing and releasing anger and pain and replacing it with power and love, I began to feel less and less pain physically. My body moved more freely and I felt a weight lifted. It was incredibly powerful and freeing. Each day I was exploring more and more ways to establish power and autonomy over my body and experiences.
The establishment of boundaries can instantly change a relationship. It can make them easier and safer to navigate and even become happier, but It can also trigger an immense kick-back in a relationship, especially with people who have not established their own boundaries. This became the case for my mother and me.
Domestic violence requires survival in whatever means necessary. My mother did her best to keep the violence away from my sisters and me, but there were times that she physically couldn’t hold on without help. When my father went too far, my mom called my name. It's a crazy thing to say, “going too far,” when I know what my mom took on physically and emotionally from him all the time. But sometimes it got to a point where she didn’t know if he would stop and was scared that he would do something that could end her life. So she did the only thing she could and called for help from her oldest daughter. Miraculously, my dad would always calm down when he heard my cries, soon followed by the cries of my sisters who would run after me. I became my mother’s partner in survival. I became the protector of my family.
From 4 or 5 years old, I took on aspects of my Dad, with my mom and sometimes for my mom. It started there, continued for many violent years, a tumultuous divorce, years of my father stalking my mother, a court battle where I refused to go to my father’s home and was taken out of my mother’s home, more court battles over my sisters, financial abuse, my father doing jail time for stalking additional women, more court cases, and more trauma. Although I was fearful of his violence and what he would potentially do to my mom, *I* wasn’t afraid of my dad, and I wasn’t afraid to take him on for myself or anyone else in my family. I continued to navigate this dynamic as my mom’s protector. We didn’t have a choice, we had to survive.
As it all mellowed, so did the needs for our survival tactics. But because I was in survival mode for so long, I believed it was exactly how I needed to carry on in my family dynamic. We made it through that, so it must be right. But what I was learning each time I dove deep into my trauma healing, and learning about establishing boundaries, is that it wasn’t right.
As I shifted the boundaries, my mother and I struggled. Our communication suffered, we didn’t have as much fun with each other, and we had multiple blow-up fights without resolution. I imagine that I was a lifeline for her, just as she had been for me, and the new boundaries I was establishing felt like I was taking that away.
We decided to go to counseling. Luckily, a therapist we had both seen individually at a domestic violence center many years prior was still practicing and agreed to see us. Our first appointment was pretty easy. It was emotional, but it went better than I think we both anticipated, considering how disconnected we had been over the past 2 years. We left the counseling office and continued to chat and connect. We met with him individually over the next few weeks then came back together for another session.
This session was different. The uneasy energy started in the lobby and it carried into the room. It exploded in a way that was shocking. Anger that had nothing to do with me erupted in that room. Anger that I had for years taken on, protected, navigated alone and felt confused by. There was no more hiding from the fact that it had no connection to me. It was sad. It was validating. It gave me clarity. I was no longer taking on anyone else’s anger.
My mom and I didn’t speak after that session and she didn’t show up for the next one, or the one after that. I went a few more times by myself and still no contact from my mom. My last conversation with our therapist was about my fear of spending the holidays without my family. I knew it was coming. Our therapist shared an anecdote of the first holiday he and his partner had shared away from family doing exactly what they loved. He said it was weird and a little difficult, but they spent it the way they wanted to and it changed how they spent the rest of their holidays. This story made me hopeful.
My mom and I went months without a word. This had never happened before. I was sure that my mom wouldn’t let us go the holiday without speaking and spending it together in some way. Simultaneously, I knew she would. So I made plans. Less than 15 minutes away, I spent Christmas without my mom. I was heartbroken, but also knew that I was advocating for myself, my boundaries, and my well-being. I know I could have shown up at her door, but it would have been at my expense.
The Holidays passed and to my surprise, and as my counselor had suggested, I realized how important it was to prioritize my own needs and wants. How did MY family want to spend the holiday? How did I want to spend MY time? What are MY dreams? what are MY wants? How did I want to see and explore the world? Spending the holidays away from my mom and sisters, although difficult, was ironically the strong boundary I needed to set myself free from my role as family protector.
I grew up learning and understanding that it was my role to protect my family. That role became my identity in a lot of ways. But it was an identity that was developed because of trauma. Stepping away from that identity may have been the hardest part of my healing. I was terrified to let go of it. I didn’t know what I looked like without it. I didn’t know what my family looked like without it. I didn’t know when my mom would call again… I didn’t know IF my mom would call again. But I also knew that there was a woman who loved to sing, dance, write, create, travel, and love on her partner and fur babies that was struggling to do so in that trauma identity.
When I look back and think of that 5-10-13-20-year-old girl that helped protect her family, I feel extremely proud. When I think of the woman who explored therapy and its multiple paths towards healing, who took the time needed with no judgment, who put a stop to generational trauma, who is releasing pain emotionally and physically, who is loving fully and deeply, I feel an even stronger sense of pride.
My relationship with my mother is on the mend. For the first time in a long time, I don’t feel the need to protect her. We have mother-daughter conversations and are learning to navigate and love each other appropriately, healed, and away from abuse. When my mom asked me if I wanted to come home for the holiday this year, I was glad she asked. But I was clear in my choice: that I would be taking on the magic of this holiday with my partner in the city of our dreams.
Jannelle O’Shaughnessy is a curly hair inspiration source and influencer to over 134k people around the world, serving as an educator to people curious about embracing and nurturing their naturally curly hair. In addition to educating her audience on hair care, Jannelle also shares her personal experiences in healing childhood trauma and how nurturing her hair played a role in her healing. To add, she shares how hair connects to global issues, such as mental health, self care, race, and social justice. Away from work, Jannelle is a dog and cat mom, a chai latte enthusiast, and co-explorer of the world with her partner. You can connect with Jannelle on instagram and youtube.