The concert ran late and I knew I was breaking curfew, which spoiled any of the fun I had in the previous hours that night. I carefully tiptoed up to my room hoping that, for a change, my mother had already gone to sleep so my punishment would come in the morning. This wasn’t the best move to make right before leaving for college. But I wasn’t running too late; maybe there was a chance that she would forget about it. Maybe not.
I quietly turned the corner to enter my room, and my jaw dropped in horror as I found all my belongings in a big pile in the middle of the floor. Everything, from pencils to underwear to my computer, was built into a giant mountain. She was wild-eyed and furious, waiting for me to arrive, and like a lion pouncing on its prey she proceeded to yell and scream, reiterating her analysis that I was inherently bad. This sort of dramatic reaction to my disobedience was not unusual, each time leaving me in a state of confusion and shame. But something about the way she said it this day was different. Along with the usual berating of my character and how I would amount to nothing, I heard something different in her voice as her rage subsided. Her eyes, full of fury, now went stone cold with a look of resignation. She carefully said, “I will never trust you. I don’t believe in you anymore. I give up.” As our eyes met in that moment, her cold gaze penetrated the depths of my soul. My inner-fighter voice that usually said, “But I will prove you wrong,” was replaced with final defeat and a laying down of arms. Suddenly overwhelmed by the wave of darkness, my mom and I wept bitterly into the night. I could not hate myself any more in that moment.
An ecosystem of death
I never understood all the complicated dynamics that existed between my mom and me. There was the usual mother-daughter dynamic that so many experience: the mother as the scientist, always examining the daughter specimen and constantly tweaking in order to prime and perfect for marriage and motherhood. I can only imagine her struggle of survival in America as a Korean immigrant, sacrificing her own wants and needs for her children and showing love in the ways that fit her culture but didn’t speak to me growing up in America. But then there seemed to be an extra layer of complication that seeped into our interactions and went above and beyond these other factors. Was it okay that she tore up my favorite outfits in front of me because I wore them too much? Did it seem necessary to tear the ribbon out of my favorite cassette tape because I danced to it? Could it be right to punish me by keeping me home from school and making me hold my hands in the air all day, naked? Even now I struggle with labeling it as abuse or manipulation since this is what I thought love was.
The seed of darkness from that fateful night took root in my soul, and it had a voracious appetite. The darkness fed on shame and self-hatred, so each attempt to shine and smile prettily through hurt and pain was delicious to the darkness. Busying myself with projects and jobs and tasks were delectable treats. Each coping mechanism for survival as a worthless person was a tasty meal for this darkness, and it grew and grew, flirting dangerously with any of the true parts of myself. In turn, the darkness kept me alive in a half-existence by finding more places in my soul for me to bury the pain, all of which led to deeper roots for the darkness itself. It was an ecosystem of death, one I started to feel strangely at home in.