The fear stays with me
Shelter-in-place left children vulnerable to abusers
By Rebecca Robison
I still hear her, now and then.
Creeping up the brown staircase, leaning on each individual stair. The wood creaking beneath her weight, slowly, steadily.
My heart rate increases. My breathing becomes shallow. My eyes fixate on the closed door as I clench my pillow. Then my entire body paralyzes as I wait for her to enter. It feels like, at any moment, she will break down the door and unleash her fury.
But the door doesn’t open. It never does. Not anymore, at least. Not since I was younger.
One thing being quarantined has taught me is that no matter how much I try to bury my past, it will always come back to haunt me.
To my chagrin, ignoring it is impossible. The only path to overcoming is facing the demons from yesteryear, from a childhood marked by trauma. The journey is not so glamorous.
Writer Jeanne McElvaney states, “Dissociated trauma memories don’t reveal themselves like ordinary memories. Like pieces of a puzzle, they escape the primitive part of our brain where the trauma has been stored without words.”
During these past months, my trauma has escaped from the deep crevices of my brain.
My story must begin with a disclaimer. It is absolutely not pleasurable to read. It is disturbing, troubling, appalling. It will make your skin crawl, and your blood will boil. This certainly is not easy to write. As the memories slowly flood back into my mind, the revealing of them gets increasingly embarrassing.
But I do so anyway because there is a message hidden among the chaos. And when I consider that, sadly, COVID-19 prompting emergency shutdowns and shelter-in-place orders across the country, has created more opportunities for child abuse. One of the concerning components of the pandemic setting, including schools being closed, was mandated reporters no longer be around children.
Teachers are one of the primary reporters of suspected child abuse and they were removed from their positions to see the signs. In California, reports of child abuse dropped 28 percent from April to August in 2020, per the California Department of Social Services. Pennsylvania has seen a 50% decrease in calls to its child abuse reporting hotline, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services.
The presumption is that many children are suffering in silence, trapped in the shadow of their abuser.
The world is a scary place, full of scary people. My dad knew this to be true. He just didn’t expect one of those “scary” individuals to be Regina, a mother of three who reached out to him in 2005 through the then-popular social networking website MySpace.
Regina isn’t her real name, but an alias for my abuser. While I’m certainly not keen on protecting the identity of individuals who have harmed others, I decided to change it simply because she is no stranger to making threats.
In 2007, the relationship between my father and Regina blossomed into something more than just online friends. I remember my dad started seeming more outgoing, happier and altogether relaxed.
“I was working the graveyard shift from 5 p.m. ‘til 5:30 a.m., then getting home and getting you to school, your brother to either school or work,’’ my dad told me when we reflected on what happened 15 years ago. “I was working weekends and holidays, and I was pretty much brain dead.
“She set up a scenario that was perfect.”
Moving in with Regina made a lot of sense at the time. My parents had divorced in 2005. My dad was taking care of me and my brother in a small two-bedroom apartment in San José. I typically slept on the living room couch, although sometimes I would take my father’s bed when he went off to work. The apartment was so compact that I would often hear my brother playing his Nintendo DS through closed doors, late at night.
We were living paycheck to paycheck. Barely keeping afloat. Even as a young child, I could tell that my father was under massive amounts of stress. It was evident by the way he had carried himself: shoulders slouched and eyes heavy with exhaustion. When he slept, his snores roared through the apartment, as though he had not gotten rest in weeks.
Regina, on the other hand, had a house in Livermore, a town vastly different and much more beautiful than our neck of the woods. She lived directly across from Livermore High School and not far from an elementary and middle school. She mentioned to my father that if he moved with her, she would take care of all the cooking, cleaning and getting me to school. All he would have to worry about was working. It was almost perfect.
I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t looking forward to moving.
Regina and I were relatively close before we moved in with her. My mother and I were close as well, but she had been going through personal problems which led me to live with my dad the majority of the time.
Regina and I would bake cookies, go on trips to the beach and do various fun activities. I would even sleep over at her house. She had three children and they all treated me like I was their little sister.
Multiple nights we sprawled out in the living room, our blankets and pillows littering the carpeted floor. We watched movies, like “The Chronicles of Narnia” or played video games. Many hours were spent on “Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare.”
It wasn’t long after my dad and I officially moved in that things started to seem off. Regina and my father had quickly eloped, and a couple of months after our first Christmas together, our seemingly happy home was disturbed.
“One time sticks out to me,” my dad said, “but I am sure there were others before this — when she accused you of letting the sister missionaries into the house.”
Which was a lie.
Young Rebecca Robinson.
Regina thought I let missionaries from the local Mormon church into the house without consulting a parent first, which would have been an issue if that actually happened.
When we moved in, Regina came down with a number of illnesses, including multiple heart attacks and seizures. She once slipped into a coma due to sepsis. From time to time, she suffered from carbon dioxide poisoning, which made her lash out in peculiar ways.
All of us thought early on her strange actions were a result of her various health conditions.
“She was acting crazy and accusing everyone of things that just didn’t happen,” my dad said, “I thought at the time it was just because she was sick.”
When I was around the age of 9, I was in San José one weekend visiting my mother. My mom bought me this beautiful pink tutu-like skirt with golden stars scattered all over. I couldn’t wait to wear it to school and show my fourth-grade friends. At Jackson Elementary, a group of popular kids in my grade always wore the coolest clothes. I just wanted to show off my skirt and, theoretically, make them envious.
When I came back to my father’s house, Regina noticed the new skirt and forbade me from wearing it.
She took the skirt and stashed it inside a drawer in her room. Me being a defiant kid, I found it and took it back, secretly wearing it to school. My plan was simple: wear black leggings out of the house, slip the skirt on when I got to school, then slip it off before Regina came to pick me up at the end of the day.
It was a perfect plan. Except I forgot to take it off. When she arrived, she saw the skirt, started yelling at me and I was then grounded. My beautiful skirt, this time, was stashed in the trash.
I knew at the time this had nothing to do with me. Regina was jealous of my mom. I was convinced. Regina had made it clear I was to call her “mom” because in her mind she acted more like a parent towards me than my real mother. It was uncomfortable at first but, eventually, I grew used to it.
But once, for reasons I don’t even remember, I started calling her Regina again. She didn’t like that. I still remember sitting on the baby blue steps of the front porch, looking up to her as she stood over me, her eyes welling with tears. She told me she was hurt. I was mad at her, so mad I wasn’t calling her mom.
I felt bad about hurting her and agreed to keep calling her mom. I did too, until she and my dad split.
Regina’s resentment of my mother flared up again when I was 12. I was at Target with my mom when I spotted a pair of wedge sandals. I had never worn heels or wedges before, but I was absolutely infatuated with these shoes. My mom noticed and bought them for me. I was so excited to have my first pair of “heels.”
The excitement lasted all the way until I got home. Regina was nothing short of furious. She made me put on the sandals and walk in them across the room. As I did so, she let me know I looked like a whore, a slut and a hooker all rolled into one. By the time I made it to the other side of the room, the shame had me in tears.
Again, I was yelled at, grounded and the shoes were thrown in the trash. I rarely wear heels now because of that trauma.
In the current state of the world, it’s easy for parents to lash out at children due to the overwhelming stress some may be feeling. People are losing jobs, family members are ending up in the hospital and some are struggling to pay their bills.
Peter Hartman, a psychology professor at Las Positas College weighed in on this topic, stating, “The age of Covid has brought new and terrible stresses to many. Losses of jobs, homes and any sense of normalcy, along with losses of social outlets, losses of people to the virus, dealing with the unknown, all create massive stress and fear. Stress and fear lead to anger and anger can lead to violence.”
All of this was just the preface. The emotional abuse was but a precursor. Our lives, my life,was about to get heavier.
On Oct. 27, 2014, Regina’s oldest son was killed in a freak accident involving a big rig tire smashing into the front windshield of the car he was in. He wasn’t just a stepbrother, he was my big brother, and I was his little sister. He was someone I turned to during these hard times, someone who would listen and give advice. He knew exactly what I was going through as he was going through it himself.
When he died, my whole world shattered. I no longer had hope of escaping, no one to turn to in confidence. I died with him in 2014, in a very real sense. I wasn’t myself anymore. Just a shell.
After his death, Regina became ruthless. One morning I came home early from school because I was sick and she was not pleased to see me. After a few words, Regina claimed her son “would be very disappointed in me” and how she hoped “he will ‘strike down’ on me.”
It was depression that came down on me.
In the ensuing months, Regina talked bad about me to other people, calling me lazy, fat, disgusting — oftentimes with me nearby and loud enough to hear — I sank deeper and deeper into a rut of self-loathing. I never told my dad for fear it would erupt into a gigantic fight between the two.
But it was inevitable he would find out. Regina’s daughter told him how she had been treating me after she had been fighting with her mother. She fled the house after the argument, and out of anger texted my father the confession. He was furious and confronted Regina, who was seated on our living room couch when he got home.
Regina, of course, denied it all. So my dad asked me about it. I’ll never forget this day. I was sitting on the bottom bunk of my bed. I had overheard the conversation between the two and listened to my father’s footsteps as he made his way to my room. His face tensed up, and while he asked me gently, his voice was shaken with anger. I confessed sheepishly, saying it had been happening for a while. My voice was shaking too, but instead with fright.
Regina responded by racing to my room, after hearing me tell the truth. As she made her way to us, she roared, “That’s a lie!”
My dad turned and stood in front of my room, using his 5-foot-8- inch body to block the doorway. I could see her fists balled and the rage in her eyes. My body instantly froze, not knowing what to do. I stared wide-eyed at the scene that played out before me.
Regina tried to move her way around my dad. When she realized she couldn’t, she punched him in the stomach. When he absorbed her blow without moving, she retreated back into the living room.
When she left my room, I sat there shocked, horrified and I started to cry. This wasn’t the first time Regina tried to hurt me, as she had pushed me to the ground a couple of times. But this time, I was truly frightened. Something about the ferocity in her eyes had broken me down and made me fearful for the future.
When she left the room, my dad followed her, yelling. As expected, a huge fight lashed out over the situation, which lasted deep into the night.
The next day, Regina went to the hospital complaining of back problems. She told the nurse they were a result of my father shoving her into my bedroom door. Which was a lie.
But the nurse, doing her job, filled out a police report about the domestic violence allegations. A couple of days later, an officer came to the door asking about the situation. He knew Regina personally. My dad gave his side of the story and let the officer know I witnessed the whole event and would be willing to give an account.
The officer said it was not necessary and left.
Years after the trauma, I saw Regina sitting with a friend inside a local Livermore restaurant. My friends and I were seated just a few tables over, and I didn’t notice her until I heard her voice pierce through the air. I could never forget that voice.
At first, I felt the same terror that I had felt as a child and my body started to freeze. But that slowly extinguished, and I settled down after reminding myself that I am stronger than before.
Regina and her friend left about five minutes after we were seated, and as she walked by our table to leave, I held my head high and averted my eyes.
She didn’t notice me.
After she left, my table’s conversation continued and we ordered. I felt myself slowly slip away and disassociate from the others. Flashbacks interrupted my mind, and I started to reflect on the person I was, versus the person I am now.
“I think there is an obvious shift in how you hold yourself and with your happiness now that you’re free from that environment,” my friend of over a decade, Crissy Boling, said when I asked her to assess the new me. “I remember how anxious and depressed you were when we were kids.”
Sally Garcia, another friend of mine, told me reflecting on the differences in my attitude from many years ago: “I understood that you had severe anxiety and just the thought of some stranger (joining our friend group) would make you very uneasy. Your spirit is on fire now, raging with an energy unlike the child you once were years ago. I hope she feels remorse and guilt for the remainder of her life.”
If there is anything that you take away from this story, it’s to evaluate yourself and others. Abuse can happen to anyone regardless of race, sex, status or age.
Many people were in and out of my childhood home. Not one outside person realized the abuse that was happening behind closed doors (and sometimes, open doors). No one interfered or asked questions.
The only reason I got out was that my dad and Regina eventually divorced. If that weren’t the case, I wouldn’t be writing this article.
I’d be dead.