The wind whispering, the night sky filled with stars, and the sound of being alone. In Hagerstown, Maryland, these three things were hard to come by. They were especially difficult to enjoy as the sounds of my latest arguments with my stepmother echoed in my ear. Her constant criticism affected me greatly, and being outside subsided my insecurities she’d placed in my head. I would feel complete as I gazed out into the night, at least for a little while.
My stepmother has been in my life since I was five years old. Fast-forward to fifteen years later, and the emotional abuse begins to take a toll. I always wondered what I specifically did to make her hate me so much. I was in high school, itching to get out of a redneck town and finally coming to the realization that her behavior towards me wasn’t normal or acceptable. I began to wonder: was it because I was too much like my mother? My stepmother constantly complained that I was just like my mom. In my stepmother’s words, I was spoiled and stupid. “No common sense,” she always told me. I would do anything and everything to try and please her and she was extremely aware of the control she had over me. After the years of manipulations and games, I began to feel like a maid or a servant. I would clean the house top-to-bottom, I would make sure, if she cooked that she did not have to wash a single dish, and I took care of the dogs without complaint. Although my two stepsisters didn’t get the evil gene from their mother, I felt like my life was a bit like Cinderella; except I didn’t get great shoes and I got pumpkin all over my dress. Instead of being able to talk to mice to relieve my woes, I escaped to the outdoors.
We have a huge yard; about three acres. Our lawn seemed to run on for miles, and if I got to the edge of it, then I couldn’t see my house, or think about the fights that happened inside of it. Out of sight, out of mind. My father was so painfully unaware of the emotional abuse, and I was too afraid to speak about it; afraid of the consequences. I felt like sometimes if I ran fast enough, then I wouldn’t hear the mean things she’d said to me echoing in my mind.
“You can’t take selfies; your nose is too big.”
“You can’t wear that outfit, that was made for skinny girls.”
I could go out during the day and:
- See the colors of the leaves in the fall
- Lay on the green grass in the summer
- Climb the trees and get higher and higher, just to get farther away from the ground, and from reality.
When I got to the top, everything seemed so small. I would look around and see perfection in the environment that I didn’t know in my own life. Having to climb down was the hardest part, because I would stay in the trees for hours and read, or watch the birds and the squirrels. I never wanted to leave my calm oasis. Since we lived next to a farm I could also look at the horses and the cows. The farm had a lake at one side of it, and if I was lucky enough to be released from my prison for a long-enough time, I would walk to the lake and listen to the water.
Going out during the day was about escaping the bellowing of my stepmother and replacing it with the roaring of the winds; to try and make sense of my family problems with the sounds and sights of nature. Going outside at night was purely about pleasure. There is something about the night sky that makes me feel so small, but so big all at the same time. I could gaze into the night sky and see the beautiful stars and know that my problems weren’t as big as they seem. But I could also look at the stars and thank whoever allowed me to be there. Whoever allowed me to witness the miracles of the night sky.
Thanks to the rural town that I was trapped in, at night the sky was never affected by bright, city lights or skyscrapers. It was the type of night sky that took your breath away and forced your neck to stay outstretched, despite the nagging pains that came with looking up. If the grass wasn’t too dewy, I would lay down on my back and stare for hours, it seemed. I would make a wish every night, begging for a new life or a chance to get away. I fell in love with the environment in a way that made me get through my personal issues. I always thought, if all of this is possible, then my problems can’t be so bad. If an entire ecosystem can exist around me, then I can get through my stepmother’s rage for a little longer.
The smells of the outdoors helped me forget the fights. The colors that charged at me from every angle made me think that I could eventually escape one day. I would think to myself every night while looking at my stars, “star light, star bright, here is the wish that I wish tonight.” All I wanted to do was escape, and I finally did. Now, I look to the environment, not as a relief, but as an enjoyment. I view the wonders of the world with hope in my heart, and not a care in the world, thankful that it was there for me in my time of desperate need. If I’d never had the option of distracting myself with the environment, I know my stepmother’s cruelty would’ve broken me. Without an outdoors to escape and enjoy, there was no hope for a better life for me.
"No one can make you feel inferior without your consent."
The above quote helped me understand and allow myself to realize that the only true opinion that matters is your own. Once I began to comprehend that I wasn’t being treated the way I should’ve been, it wasn’t possible to ever go back to the way things were.
Learning to become a stronger person wasn’t easy. Yes, nature aided me in my therapies, but I had to stand up for myself and recognize the red flags in my own life. It’s so easy to see your escape route when you’re looking at the maze as a whole, because when you’re in it, it’s hard to discover the right path to the exit. When you grow up in a particular environment, it’s extremely difficult to understand whether or not there is toxicity in your life.
I began writing about these memories as a way to cathartically let go of some pieces of my past. Then I thought, maybe this story could help someone in a situation similar to my own who hasn’t yet recognized the warning signs. I encourage anyone who is too afraid to say some things out loud, to write them down and publish them, because it will not only help yourself, but possibly others too.