An abusive childhood left me sick and depressed — This is how I finally found peace and health

An abusive childhood left me sick and depressed — This is how I finally found peace and health
Barbara as a teenager in 1978.

As young as age 3, I clearly remember thinking that things were just not right with my mom. She was often unable to think over things as rationally as I was—a small child—and her behavior was unpredictable. I feared her, but had no way of explaining it to anyone.

I only knew that sometimes Mom was very nice, happy, and energetic, cooking and cleaning and singing. But she could quickly turn to being mean and vicious. There were also times when she was very subdued, moving slowly and being distant, as if I wasn’t even there. I learned to be very quiet most of the time, and not bother her unnecessarily.

Isolated on a small farm in Missouri, we had few visitors and rarely went out. My father was often busy farming or driving a truck, so my mother, my younger brother, and I were usually by ourselves.

Because my mom was so volatile, I often chose to spend time with my dad when he was around. He could also be harsh and unfeeling, however.

For example, one day, as we were all leaving home on some errand, one of my kittens tried to jump up into the truck with us. My mother inadvertently slammed its head in the door, killing it. As I cried, my father made my mother hand it to him; he threw it out the window into the cornfield as we drove past, saying to me, “If you don’t stop that, I’ll throw you out there, too!”

Some memories I have of those years lead me to believe life was nearly unbearable, at least at times. On four separate occasions between ages 3 and 5 I tried to commit suicide, although no one else really knew that’s what I was doing—except maybe my mother.

Once, I put myself in harm’s way while on the tractor with my dad; he rescued me before anything bad happened. Another time I ate an entire bottle of baby aspirin. I knew that they would kill me because my mother had said they would. When she found the empty bottle and I admitted that I had taken them all, she gave me a funny look and asked me why. I knew I couldn’t tell her, so I just said I didn’t know. She assured me I would be okay, and I was.

Another time, as I was swallowing several coins, she caught me before I tried the biggest ones—the ones that might’ve actually choked me. Finally, I went into the cornfield one day and stayed there because I believed that if I did, I would die there. I waited to die but nothing happened, so I eventually came back out.

Because my plans for suicide were unfruitful, I became convinced that there was no escape for me—except to grow up. So I made that my goal, even as I fell into despair.

 Barbara with her father in 1965.
Barbara with her father in 1965.

Adolescence Brings More Turmoil

When I was almost 6, my mother divorced my father, not long after giving birth to twin boys. She often said my dad abused her, though I don’t remember that actually happening.

For the next couple of years we lived a harrowing existence, moving several times and shuffling back and forth to our grandmother’s. Once, we were without any electricity or gas in the dead of winter. Loud parties were common at our house, and often I couldn’t go to sleep until the wee hours of the morning. I remember my mother putting malt liquor into my baby brothers’ bottles to make them go to sleep so she and her “guests” could play cards undisturbed. I would frequently wake up to a mess with cigarette butts and beer bottles everywhere, and often little or no food to eat.

When I was eight years old, my mother found another husband—a young Vietnam war vet and an aspiring alcoholic who was willing to take care of her and her children. Our first home with him was quite far from where we had lived before, and we were not close to any of our relatives.

I soon began to see how our life would be: payday meant hot dogs, chips, and pop (as well as cigarettes and beer); Mondays often started with no milk for breakfast.

For the first few weeks of that first winter I had no coat to wear, even though I had to walk a long way to school. We barely had enough food, and I often ate little or nothing, possibly unconsciously thinking I could kill myself this way. Family members often mentioned how thin I was.

My mother had made it quite clear to us that she was in charge of all relationships her children had with anyone—especially family. She would often tell us bad things about family members, berating them to the point that we would feel complicit, so that whenever we were around them, we would feel uncomfortably guilty at best, and believing it all at worst.

This way, none of us would feel like we could talk about her bad behavior with anyone in the family. She made us believe that no one would believe us if we did, so we dared not say anything to anyone. It was a pretty successful method of control for many years.

I was able to see my father fairly regularly during this time, although he had remarried as well and had taken on a stepchild. It was tormenting for me to go to his comfortable home—a place where beds were commonplace, as were sheets and towels and clean underwear and socks—all the necessities I often didn’t have. Food was never lacking, and there were even toys.

My father’s new wife was very sweet to me and taught me to sew and helped me to stop wetting the bed. Even my father seemed changed, as if his behavior before had somehow been more of a reflection of my mother’s. Needless to say, after spending any amount of time there, I loathed to go “home.”

 Barbara in 1971.
Barbara in 1971.

Sinking Further Into Despair

One day I asked my stepmother if I could come and live with them; she said I would have to ask my mother. I finally got up the courage, thinking it would be logical, since my mom and step-dad were having such a hard time taking care of all of us anyway. When I asked my mother, however, I saw something immediately come over her—it was frightening. I knew that I had made a serious miscalculation.

I think it was at that point that she began to plot how to destroy my relationship with my dad and stepmother without anyone suspecting her. She had always been able to put on a front for anyone she needed to manipulate. She never showed her true colors to anyone she thought might be able to harm her. She was always nice on the outside to my father and his wife, and always seemed very caring of them when they were around.

Not long after I had asked her about living with them, a weekend came that I was to go to stay with my dad. He always came to get me, but this time my mother decided she would drop me off instead. When we got there, he had already left to go and get me, but my mother refused to wait for him to return. When we got back home, he had already gone back to his house. She said, “Oh well, guess you can go next time.”

I knew when I looked at her what she had done; I knew that this was my punishment. Those weekends at my dad’s kept me from the worst of the despair. They were my escape from her craziness and she knew it. She had shown me who was in control once again. I started to cry.

My stepfather tried to comfort me, but she told him I was just being a spoiled brat. Something happened to me at that moment. It was like something broke between us and I finally started to see her more clearly. I realized that her jealousy was in full control of her. She had decided that I couldn’t be allowed to be happy, unless it was with her.

Sometime after that incident she got up one day and said she’d had a bad dream and we needed to go see my dad and his wife right away. We quickly drove there. She went inside to talk to them and wouldn’t let us hear what it was about. Later she told me she had dreamed that he was going to be in a bad car accident.

Throughout their marriage, my mother often cursed my father after an argument, saying things like “your tractor won’t start now” or similar threats, as if she were a witch or could predict the future. He would often call her a witch if these things came true and she was able to convince him that she could see the future and punish him through her curses.

So when my father heard about her dream, he was greatly affected by it. He didn’t know that I had asked to come live with them or that my mother would be thinking about that. He was so convinced that he went and drew up a will, even taking my brother and me along and telling us not to forget in case he died.

I can’t say for certain why he had a car accident later that year and died, but I know my mother was a master manipulator and it’s possible she was so convincing that he had an accident just because he believed it was going to happen. All I know for sure is that when I said I wanted to live with him, she was infuriated. She was determined to make sure that never happened, no matter what it took.

After my dad’s death, I lost hope. I felt that I had lost the one thing that helped me to stay sane, the one thing I had to look forward to.

 Barbara as a teenager in 1978.
Barbara as a teenager in 1978.

Another Tragedy Leads to Promiscuity/Substance Abuse

During the years after my father’s death, my mother began taking me, and sometimes my brothers, with her so she could “visit” people. We were left in the car, often for hours, sometimes in extreme heat.

I suspect that she either went to these places to steal prescription drugs or to do “other” things that would allow her to get drugs or money. Looking back, I believe she had acquired an addiction to painkillers and/or other drugs to self-medicate and hide the symptoms of manic-depression and possibly schizophrenia. These mental illnesses are what I believe I began to see as a child.

In my teens, I became more social, although I rarely had more than one friend at a time. I couldn’t deal with people being jealous due to my experience with my mother’s strong jealousy, so I often let others treat me badly instead of just letting go of relationships. During this time, my mother began confiding in me. I realize now that this was another step in her manipulation, but at the time it made me feel special.

For instance, when I was 13, she told me how she was having an affair with the principal at my school. I was old enough to know that this wasn’t right—and that her telling her 13-year-old daughter wasn’t right, either. I also knew that I couldn’t tell anyone, and she knew it, too. And so she made me complicit in her affair. I didn’t realize it at the time, at least not consciously, but secrets can be a special tool of a manipulator. Wracked with guilt, my relationship with my stepfather, with whom I had become closer, slowly began to disintegrate.

She manipulated all of us in other ways as well. She often deliberately tried to create animosity between my siblings and me so that she could use those things later on to keep us from being as close as we would’ve been otherwise—basically creating a lack of trust. I suspect it was to make it easier for her to protect herself in case one or more of us had an issue with her.

My teenage years were better in a financial sense, however. My stepfather had a good job and kept his drinking mostly under control; my mother still mismanaged money (probably due to her drug habit), but she also worked off and on. At the age of 14, I began working and often bought my own school clothes and whatever extra things I needed or wanted.

Stability-wise, things had never been better. We lived in the same house for all of my high school years; previously we had lived in about 10 different houses in six different towns over the eight years since the divorce. We also visited my stepfather’s parent’s house nearly every Sunday for dinner, and they treated us just like grandparents should. There were still occasional fights and tension, but overall things were significantly more stable for those years than any I had known thus far.

Then, tragedy struck again. My first boyfriend was shot and killed when I was 15. I became deeply depressed, convinced that I had caused his death indirectly. Because of my father’s and then my boyfriend’s deaths, I began to feel that I was never going to be allowed to have a man’s love. So I used this as an excuse to become promiscuous. I also began to use drugs and alcohol frequently.

During my last year in high school, I became involved in a local church and stopped drinking and using drugs; I still remained somewhat promiscuous, though. I desperately felt the need for some small amount of closeness with another human being, but I also felt that I didn’t deserve a real relationship.

My depression deepened, although on the outside I remained positive and tried not to let it show.

 Barbara with Sarah in 1984.
Barbara with Sarah in 1984.

Marriage and Motherhood

When I graduated, I found a job and an apartment in a nearby town. The job paid really well but it was very dirty, which caused me to have bad acne that left a lot of scarring on my face. As I looked in the mirror daily, my depression subsequently worsened. When someone offered me marijuana, I used it. I also continued to be promiscuous.

Eventually, I ended up hurting my back and had to quit my job. Around the same time, a boy I had met previously came to visit me and convinced me to come with him to his home in another state. His parents agreed to let us live with them. We both got menial labor jobs. My life consisted of working, getting high, sex, and sleeping. My depression worsened over time; my life seemed pointless and unsatisfying. I endured. I survived. That was all.

Eventually, we got married and I got pregnant. My husband joined the Air Force and we moved to his duty station. I found purpose in my daughter, Sarah; I lived for her. I promised myself—and her—that I would give her all the things I had been denied as a child: warmth, comfort, and love.

 Barbara and her daughter, Sarah, at Christmas 1986.
Barbara and her daughter, Sarah, at Christmas 1986.

When she was two years old I went back to school. I did well in school but my marriage was rapidly falling apart. My husband had gotten involved with some harder drugs during this period, and he was often out all night with people I didn’t know. Money disappeared and we fought a lot; he sometimes became violent. I feared for my daughter’s well-being. He was eventually discharged from the Air Force for not passing a drug test. I moved out soon after.

I reluctantly moved back home but didn’t stay there for long. I eventually moved into an apartment and returned to school. I felt a renewed sense of purpose; however, I still struggled with depression and used marijuana and alcohol to deal with it.

Illness, Depression, and Suicidal Thoughts

While attending school full-time, I also worked a part-time job so I had to take my daughter to two different sitters each day. Eventually, all of this took its toll. I began to feel extremely fatigued all the time. After getting a small sunburn on my upper chest, which eventually became a rash that wouldn’t heal, I visited my family doctor and was diagnosed with lupus.

Somehow I managed to finish school and get my degree. I even got hired before I graduated. After working for six months, however, I became increasingly sick, fatigued, and in pain. I had good days but they were few and far between and not predictable. I eventually filed for disability and became even more depressed.

My live-in boyfriend had asked me to marry him during that time, and I said yes. I felt that he had proven his love for me and my daughter by staying with me through such a difficult situation.

To deal with the depression, I started seeing a psychologist, and also began to take some writing classes. Just as I was starting to feel better emotionally, I began having a lot of pain in my feet. My doctor did more tests and determined I also had rheumatoid arthritis.

I spent the next five years being afraid, angry, and often depressed. I thought about suicide more and more as the pain became less tolerable.

Eventually I convinced myself that I couldn’t resort to suicide and that it didn’t matter what my life was like—all that mattered was how I dealt with it. So over the next five years I began to find some inner peace, even as my health steadily deteriorated.

 Barbara circa late 1990s.
Barbara circa late 1990s.

A Premonition Followed by a Turning Point

Toward the end of the 1990s I began to have symptoms of veins collapsing and breaking throughout my body. I also had symptoms indicative of embolism—sudden localized pains in my chest, abdomen, and head. I often had difficulty breathing. My doctor eventually diagnosed me with vasculitis—this, on top of the lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. I began to think that my life was soon coming to an end.

Around this time I started having some odd dreams—dreams about Chinese people and Chinese characters. I would often wake up with the idea that I should paint three characters in particular, but when I opened my eyes I could no longer see them clearly.

On February 6, 2000, I found a pamphlet at my local library. It had three Chinese characters on the front of it and I knew right then that I needed to look at it carefully. It didn’t say a lot, but it did have some contact information and I anxiously called the number.

The person who answered invited me to join a study group at the local library, where I could learn more about something called Falun Dafa—an ancient Chinese meditation and self-cultivation practice. I went, and from that point on everything in my life changed.

As soon as I started reading Zhuan Falun, the main text of Falun Dafa, it immediately made sense to me. I felt as if a fog had been lifted from my mind and a peace had settled on my heart. I learned that the practice included gentle exercises for strengthening and purifying the body. I began to exercise each morning with a small group of people. I also excitedly read the other teachings of Falun Dafa while discovering more about the practice.

In only about three week’s time, I began to feel very different. I realized one day that I felt well—not just better or good—I felt great! I had energy, my body felt light and comfortable, and I was able to do anything I wanted. In fact, not only did I feel better, I felt better than I had when I got sick in the first place—over a decade earlier.

I stopped smoking cigarettes and marijuana, stopped using caffeine and alcohol, and threw away all of my prescription medications. I then called the Social Security Administration (SSA) and told them that I didn’t want to receive disability payments anymore.

 Barbara Gay performing one of Falun Dafa's meditative exercises in a recent photo.
Barbara Gay performing one of Falun Dafa's meditative exercises in a recent photo.

Miraculous Healing: Finding Inner Peace and a Sense of Purpose

My husband became worried, thinking that the lupus had gone into my brain, and the SSA insisted that I see their resident psychiatrist and physician. Fortunately, all was well. I also saw my rheumatologist and internist and all of my blood work was completely normal within six months of my starting this amazing practice.

I truly felt that I had been given a new lease on life—a second chance to live. Ten years of being in constant pain and suffering had been harder than I could ever explain, and now I was well again. The relief and happiness was indescribable.

Honestly, though, the best thing wasn’t finally being physically able to get a job, or being able to sleep normally again, or even having the capability of doing simple things like stand in line at the grocery store without hurting. The most amazing part was truly how I felt inside.

I began to see how I could deal with all of the different stresses of life in a whole new way, and I felt more at ease in situations that would’ve caused me significant anxiety in the past. I found an inner strength and calm that continued to grow more and more each day. Peace of mind became more than just a vague concept to me.

Over time, I also began to understand better the things that I had endured in my life, the people who had harmed me, and the lessons I had taken from these experiences. For instance, my mother was one of the first people I told about Falun Dafa, and one of the first people I gave a copy of the introductory book, Falun Gong, to. I was able to forgive her for the bad things she had done to me—and others—and although her drug abuse and mental illness have made it impossible to have any kind of relationship with her, I hold no ill feelings toward her anymore.

Over these past 18 years, I’ve encountered many people and circumstances. My life’s path since finding Falun Dafa has had its ups and downs, but with my continued practice, I am no longer weighed down with the burdens of problems I have no control over.

I no longer suffer from any type of depression, anxiety, or mental issues at all. I can deal effectively with anything that I’m faced with—even situations that would have caused me much difficulty in the past. I feel a sense of purpose that I never did before, a confidence that I lacked my entire life, and suicide isn’t something I could ever imagine or contemplate again.

Today, at the age of 55, one of the main lessons I’ve learned through Falun Dafa and the process of improving myself is that there’s only one thing I have control over—me. This simple truth eluded me for the first half of my life, but since discovering it, I enjoy a peace that I never believed possible.

By Barbara Phillips Gay
Editor’s Note:
Falun Dafa is a cultivation practice of mind and body that teaches truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance as a way to improve health and moral character and attain spiritual wisdom.
For more information about the practice, visit All books, exercise music, resources, and instructions are available free of charge.
Barbara Gay Barbara Gay Barbara Gay 994 [email protected]
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