Julie Nelson learned at an early age to keep her younger siblings quietly entertained whenever their parents locked them up in the basement of their derelict Kansas City home. Her mother and stepfather didn’t want to hear a word from them while they were getting high on cocaine and methamphetamine upstairs—whether their parents left them any food was “a maybe thing.” Usually it was just Nelson and her two siblings in the basement, but sometimes other neighborhood kids would get trapped down there, too, if their parents were joining the party upstairs.
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Nelson’s stepfather was a drug dealer who kept freezers full of coke in the house. Once, when she was about five, a group of dealers stormed through the front door, brandishing guns and looking for money they were owed. Her stepfather was out, so they lined up Nelson, her mother, and her sister on the couch, threatening to kill them if her stepfather didn’t come home soon. “We sat there,” she says, “completely silent, not moving, not crying,” until her stepfather returned and promised to pay back the money he owed.
An intensely violent man, Nelson’s stepfather threatened to kill her mother on numerous occasions. He hated Nelson, too, she says. He would “go into the closet and pray in tongues, then yank me around by my hair and my neck, yelling, ‘Get out of her, Devil!'” His taste for fire-and-brimstone religion didn’t seem to clash with his drug dealing, or violence, but it did seem to give him an excuse, almost as if he was trying “to justify” forcing himself on Nelson while her mother was out of the house or high and passed out: Until Nelson (not her real name—she asked not to be identified) reached high school, and her mother finally took out a restraining order, he also abused Nelson sexually.
Her mother and stepfather didn’t want to hear a word from them while they were getting high on cocaine and methamphetamines.
A straight-A student in elementary school, by the time she reached high school, Nelson was almost failing out. Her anxiety steadily increased, she says. “From the time I was really small, I was terrified of everyone.” To make sure no teachers or classmates ever detected how dangerous her stepfather was—”the threat [from him] was: ‘You don’t talk,'” Nelson says—she kept mostly to herself. But when her stepfather finally left the house for good and Nelson no longer had to clench against his actual physical presence, it “kind of broke a dam.” Her fear flooded her. Her anxiety became so overpowering she often couldn’t get out of bed. Once, when she did make it into school, she slit her wrist in a girls’ bathroom: her first suicide attempt. “I thought I was evil and hated everything about myself,” she says.
Growing up under near constant threat left Nelson, now a 32-year-old mother of two living in Colorado, with severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). For years, flashbacks, nightmares, and extreme anxiety over any perceived flaw (childhood abuse often leads to crippling self-criticism in adulthood) plagued her daily. She slept sitting upright in bed and had “panic attacks like nobody’s business.” She went on to attempt suicide again—”honestly, I don’t know how many times.” At one point, her weight dropped to 78 pounds. “It wasn’t that I wasn’t eating,” she explains; rather, her normally 120-pound petite body was so “torn up by trauma” that she couldn’t digest food properly.
Nelson found little to no relief in the panoply of treatments various doctors prescribed. Plagued by a constant feeling of being “a wrong thing, a woman who shouldn’t exist in the world,” she depended on her husband, a man she’d met when both were in kindergarten, to defend her from the world: to answer the phone or door (the storming of her childhood home had stayed with her), to order her food in restaurants (“I was completely sure that I was unworthy of being in that restaurant, even if it was just McDonald’s”), to help her flee when she happened to spot a guy in a grungy baseball cap who even remotely resembled her stepfather. “I didn’t go anywhere by myself. I was afraid of everything and everyone,” she says.