When Rebecca first sought counselling, she was desperately looking for a way to understand the mental condition that her sister had. She wanted to know how to take better care of her sister who is living with major depression initially but subsequently, diagnosed with schizophrenia. Little did she know that her quest would take her into the depths of her childhood trauma, unexpectedly leading her to resolution with her own traumatic past.
The Spiders in the Storeroom
“We have to be strong. We must not cry.” 8-year-old Rebecca would whisper to her sobbing sister, as they cowered under their blankets, after yet another episode of harsh lashing from their mother. “If we cry, we give Mother the satisfaction of thinking that we are cowards. I don’t want her to think we are weak!” Although only 1 year older than her sister, Rebecca was already a strong-minded child, who was trying to find ways to stand up against her abusive mother, and at the same time desperately wanting to protect her timid sister, who like Rebecca, was also a victim of mom’s abuse.
However, in the chaos of the multiple abusive episodes, one particularly traumatic incident etched deep in Rebecca’s memory, till today.
One night, their mother was (yet again) in one of her rageful moods. Never knowing where and what destruction this rage could lead to, Rebecca kept a close watch from the corner of the room. What she saw next haunted her for decades to come. First, she saw her sister being shoved and locked inside a storeroom by both her parents. In a sinister move, just before the storeroom door closed, their mother threw in three spiders, knowing all too well that Rebecca’s soft-spoken sister, was terrified of them. What came next Rebecca will never forget. She heard her sister’s screams for help while banging on the storeroom door, begging to be let out. Tried as she may, to break open the door, her mother would not let her. Totally helpless, Rebecca could only cry and plead until her mother finally relented after what seemed like an eternity.
Such physical abuse continued until Rebecca was 12 years old, but the verbal and emotional abuse persisted well into adulthood. Her sister, being the loving but timid one, unfortunately suffered the brunt of her mother’s abusive rage. Rebecca, however, stayed away from home as much as she could, turning to her friends as a means of distraction.
The Survivor’s Guilt
Almost 20 years later, Rebecca could not accept that her sister had been diagnosed with schizophrenia. Her sister’s dream was to be a teacher and Rebecca believed that she would have been outstanding, if not for the childhood trauma that eventually put a strain on her mental wellbeing.
Rebecca blamed herself for not being able to protect her sister. And now as a caregiver, she always felt she was not doing enough for her sister. Rebecca’s sister prefers to stay alone at home where she felt safer than going out, as she is often paranoid and suspicious of others. However, Rebecca would be constantly worried that her sister may become socially isolated. Amidst her busy work, she would find time to call and chat with her sister for at least 30 minutes every day.
Overcome with “survivor’s guilt”, Rebecca would try her utmost to resolve every problem, whenever her sister called for help. When the situation between them and mom became unbearable, Rebecca decided the best way to protect her sister from further abuse was to buy their own home. So, they bought a flat. Yet after a few years, her sister wanted to move to a sheltered home for her own independence. Once again, Rebecca liaised and arranged all the necessary procedures for her sister. But her sister changes her mind frequently and even decides against her own self. This was incredibly tiring and frustrating for Rebecca as the primary caregiver.
Through her counselling sessions with O’Joy counsellor Germaine, Rebecca was able to work through her “survivor’s guilt” and grief over the loss of a once perfectly healthy sister. Rebecca began to understand that her sister had a lot of repressed fears and emotions that oriented her towards a negative state of mind. The more she tried to push her sister to find a part-time job, the worse her sister became.
Although her sense of guilt served a purpose by compelling Rebecca towards her caregiving duties, she knew very well that she might be putting herself at risk of burnout. Through consistent counselling sessions, Rebecca could explore alternative ways to manage her sister’s anxiety and learn to provide calming assurances, instead of leaping into problem-solving mode.
This mindful approach helped Rebecca realise how her past behaviour might have added stress onto her sister. The new awareness enabled Rebecca to develop a better understanding of her sister’s needs. Germaine also provided psychoeducation on schizophrenia and helpful tips on navigating through complex mental health challenges which Rebecca really appreciated.
The Wounded Abuser
Rebecca resented her mother. She could never understand how anyone could be such an unforgivably bad parent. After decades of abuse, Rebecca and her sister finally decided to move out, in the hopes that their mother would no longer abuse them.
Yet in another fateful twist of events, Rebecca’s mother was suddenly diagnosed with cancer and required urgent, critical hospitalization and round the clock care. Rebecca now had not only become a caregiver to her sister but also to her mother.
Throughout their wildly unsteady journey together, both mother and daughter slowly began to find kindship with one other. While undergoing chemotherapy, Rebecca and her mom had long conversations about her mom’s past. Through her mom’s stories, Rebecca discovered that her mom led a very lonely life where she herself had a very unhappy childhood.
This revelation changed the way Rebecca saw her mother. Instead of just viewing her mother as an abusive tormentor, or as the mother she always wished she had; Rebecca can now see her mother as a woman in suffering. She saw how much pain her mom went through as a child right up till adulthood, and with the help of Germaine (O'Joy counsellor), she developed a healthy perspective that allowed Rebeca to be a compassionate caregiver to her mother.
Rebecca learnt that her mother was forced to marry someone she barely knew at a young age. Her mother then went on to become a homemaker for her entire life. Her hopes and dreams of wanting to be an artist were never realised as she was forced to put her husband and her children first. In addition, her mother could not get any family support and advice from her own parents. In her bitter disappointment, she cut off all ties with everyone she knew. Without consciously knowing, her mother had developed an extremely negative outlook on life and did not know how to manage her stressors. Hence, each time she was triggered by stress or was in a bad state of mind (which was almost daily), she took her rage out on her daughters.
This new understanding between mother and daughter improved their relationship tremendously. Her mother finally had someone who would listen without judgement. She became calmer, more patient and present. Rebecca finally felt she and her mother had reached a place of peace. This is not to say Rebecca no longer remembers the abuse, but with her regular counselling was able to reconsolidate the memory of her traumatic childhood and find true resolution with her past.
After years of battling cancer, Rebecca’s mother passed away peacefully. Just before she passed, she confessed that she wished someone had taught her how to be a good mother and she was sorry for being a “bad” mother. Looking back, Rebecca was glad she had the opportunity to reconcile before her mother passed away.
Becoming the Person You Seek
Rebecca’s initial reason for seeking counselling was to cope with the stress of her caregiving duties towards her sister. She felt frustrated for being the only person in the family shouldering all the caregiving responsibilities to both her mother and sister. Although family is incredibly important to her and she is willing to take on the role of a caregiver, she felt invalidated at times for having to constantly reassure, educate and provide clinical understanding for her family members. Through counselling, Rebecca received feedback and healthily reminders that allowed her to gain the awareness that she is indeed doing the best she can to be a responsible caregiver.
During one of her counselling sessions with Germaine, Rebecca was taken through an exercise to reconnect with her younger 8-year-old self. While revisiting this memory, she recognised that young Rebecca was powerless at that time to protect both herself and her sister. Yet she is no longer that 8-year-old. Now as an adult, she can take care of both herself and her sister. She could provide safety and comfort to her once younger self. Rebecca felt much lighter and calmer after the powerful exercise.
Learning to see things from different perspectives allowed Rebecca to reconsolidate her traumatic childhood memories. She discovered how the trauma affected the way she perceives and relates to the world and people around her, especially towards her family members.
Through her counselling sessions, Rebecca also became aware of her deep-rooted resentment towards her father. For all these years, she blamed him for feigning ignorance at her mother’s abuse and for knowingly not protecting them when they were being abused.
Rebecca gained (and is still in the process of gaining) awareness of who she is and how to self-regulate to meet her own needs. While she had always been looking for an older and wiser person to take care of her, she has grown to be the one whom she had been searching for.
After the lengthy process of coming into terms with her past, Rebecca now works on compassion towards herself and others, strengthening family ties and connections with friends and colleagues.
This is what she says to encourage others with a similar experience,
“Healing our traumatic past through counselling is a journey. While there may not necessarily be one clear destination, this journey aims to empower us as individuals to gain a better understanding of who we truly are and how to develop a kinder, more forgiving relationship with ourselves.”
This story was co-authored by "Rebecca" herself. O'Joy is deeply moved by her transformation and her courage to share such a personal story in order to inspire others with a similar experience. We wish her clarity in her self-healing journey forward.
* The names, photos, and some details in this story have been changed to protect the privacy and confidentiality of the client.
O'Joy provides counselling and support to caregivers like Rebecca, and persons with mental health challenges to help them heal and build mental resilience. By supporting our Beacon program - Counselling for Mental Health, you can help persons like Rebecca and her sister thrive and lead meaningful lives.