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Shocked, Shattered, and Unprotected

All I wanted was to be held like a baby - but I was 14

By Catherine KenwellPublished about a year ago 5 min read
Shocked, Shattered, and Unprotected
Photo by Zoe on Unsplash

A hug.

What does a hug mean—love, affection, camaraderie, friendship—joy, perhaps? Or sympathy, comfort, nurture? We don’t often hug people we don’t like or at least care about, do we? A hug expresses care, certainly, at its most simple.

But sometimes hugs are more complicated. And I suppose the hug my heart was yearning for was much more complex. In retrospect, I know it was. With one solitary hug, I hoped to be protected, I needed to be comforted, and the little girl in me sought a stronger feeling she couldn’t articulate. Because that little girl had never had that type of hug before…a hug so fierce and nurturing that it would offer a fortification between me and the rest of the world.

This is more convoluted than having a parent who isn’t emotionally available. There’s no blame involved in comprehending that sometimes parents simply don’t have the skills and experience to provide the nurturing a child in trouble needs. It just is what it is.

I understand all of this.

But I still yearn for that specific hug, the hug that might have saved me 46 years ago.

I was 14 years old, and for most of that year my mom was in the throes of a series of psychotic episodes. She had been hospitalized earlier that summer, but for some reason, my dad brought her home. Perhaps he thought she’d get better in familiar surroundings, but frankly, I’m certain she didn’t find anything in her life familiar at that point. Imagine being her for a moment. Nothing, no touchpoints were familiar, and she was acting out traumatic delusions and internal demons. Damn right. It was searingly painful for all of us.

Somehow, my dad thought I’d be a good-enough substitute caregiver—despite the ongoing notion that doctors couldn’t fix her. Maybe, just maybe a 14-year-old that my mother believed wasn’t even her daughter could do better at psychotic reparation. I’m just going to say we really didn’t know what crazy was back then. And yes, I earned the use of that perhaps pejorative term.

I suppose it’s fortunate, looking back, that I wasn’t allowed to see The Exorcist when it was released three summers before all these events took place. Remember Linda Blair’s character, Regan MacNeil? Do you recall how Regan behaved, not at her goriest or most monstrous, but when she was struggling with the Devil at the outset? When her ‘possession’ was forcing her to fight to remain sane? That, right there, was akin to my mom’s psychotic behavior. If I’d seen that movie, I’d think I was living with Beelzebub himself.

Instead, I was afraid of real life—of what was happening before my eyes and ears. I was terrified that my mom’s demented rage would result in her killing me, or herself, or both of us, and that it would happen so insidiously I wouldn’t see it coming. And it wasn’t like she’d fallen or had a heart attack—I couldn’t run to the neighbors for help. I was helpless. Our entire household was under a cloak of shame and stigma, and there was no way I could break the family vow of secrecy.

So I did the only thing I could think of. I called my father at work. He was upset that I’d called him to the phone, but I begged him to hurry home. And he did. By the time he arrived, I was catatonic. He ran to my parents’ bedroom. My mom was sleeping, or at least she was quiet for the moment. Fighting demons—struggling with that extent of psychosis—must have been exhausting.

My dad was exhausted too. He flung himself into our big armchair, and stared ahead, unseeing. He, too, was frightened, frustrated, and helpless.

I stared at him from across the quiet living room. Just stared, for several moments. I was broken, shattered, and I had no idea what to do next. But I recall how I felt. I don’t believe that feeling will ever be lost, because I can conjure it up in a millisecond of thought.

I wanted to be held like a baby, like a small child, wrapped in cotton wool, protected from everything that could hurt me…

I yearned to be snuggled, to comforted, to be whispered to…

But I was a gangly, awkward 14-year-old. I couldn’t fit onto my dad’s lap. I was not a small child.

Nevertheless, I was desperate: I attempted to clamber into his chair with him, and I begged for comfort. I wanted his big strong arms around me, to shelter me, to appreciate what I’d witnessed, to admit that I was taking on too much.

My dad was as lost as I was. That comfort never came. And our family has never talked about that horrible period. We continued with family life, being brave and funny and eventually affectionate, but we—certainly I—never forgot. I healed and I forgave, and I understand context and situation, but it was never, ever discussed. That was how we treated mental illness in the 1970s.

The. End.

Except that ‘the hug that never came’ turned me in a strange direction. I was left needy, betrayed, and abandoned. When I struck out on my own, I’d welcome almost-strangers to sleep in my bed with me, so that I could feel safe. More than once, I’d invite a male friend to stay over and have to explain what a ‘sleepover’ meant. I just wanted to be held, comforted, and protected so that sleep could carry me away. It was a dangerous game—I didn’t trust others, but I needed them.

Sometimes, when someone close to me tries to zone in for a ‘comfort hug’, I’m wary. My first inkling, my first milli-thought, is apathy. I see weakness and vulnerability. I want to turn the other way. And then I remind myself that it’s human to desire comfort and love, and that vulnerability is not a weakness. Strange, how old scars play mind tricks.

Decades and hundreds of therapy sessions later, I recognize and have befriended that awkward teenager who yearned to be held like a baby. I comfort her. I remind her that she’s safe. Although she was gangly and traumatized, and the hug didn’t come that day, she was loved, nonetheless. Her heart is open, and she is indeed love-able


About the Creator

Catherine Kenwell

I live with a broken brain and PTSD--but that doesn't stop me! I'm an author, artist, and qualified mediator who loves life's detours.

I co-authored NOT CANCELLED: Canadian Kindness in the Face of COVID-19. I also publish horror stories.

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Comments (5)

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  • Joan Gershmanabout a year ago

    Gut wrenching. It must have been so difficult to write, but will be so helpful to those who are struggling today with the mistakes of past secrecy.

  • Babs Iversonabout a year ago

    Superb storytelling!! Emotionally charged😊💕💖💕

  • C.Z.about a year ago

    Wow. Thank you for sharing this part of your life with all of us. Mental illness can be so scary and even more recently it just isn't explained to kids that well.

  • Cathy holmesabout a year ago

    Wow. This is absolutely amazing. Well done.

  • I'm so sorry you had to go through that. 14 is a very young age to have that much on your plate. You were forced to bite more than you could chew. I can imagine how terrified you must have been seeing your mother go through that. I just wish your dad gave you the hug that you needed. I hope you're better now

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