The Cut on Tuesdays
When Hannah Combs was a kid, her mother Teresa convinced the entire town of Urbana, Ohio, that Hannah had cancer. Teresa shaved her daughter’s head, dressed her in baggy clothes to make her look sickly and weak, and sent Hannah to a counselor to talk about the possibility of her impending death. The close-knit community rallied around her, holding spaghetti dinners and “Hat for Hannah” events. By the time Teresa’s deception was uncovered, in late 2002, she had scammed the community out of thousands of dollars to help pay Hannah’s non-existent medical bills.
As it turns out, Hannah wasn’t a cancer victim; she was a victim of Munchausen syndrome by proxy, a rare yet oft-dramatized condition in which a caregiver, generally a mother, fabricates or induces illness in someone they are looking after. Teresa ultimately went to jail for six-and-a-half years. On the podcast this week, we’re telling the story of how Teresa’s deception was ultimately uncovered, and witnessing as Hannah reunites with the women who saved her. But we also wanted to talk to Hannah about what it’s like being an adult survivor of Munchausen by proxy, because so little is known about its lasting effects. “We often lack follow-up data about patients,” says Dr. Marc Feldman, an expert in Munchausen syndrome and Munchausen by proxy. “The outcomes tend to be pretty poor. Hannah has done a really good job again establishing the support network and finally moving on.”
Below, Hannah describes what it’s like to be a survivor of Munchausen by proxy in an era where the disorder is all over pop culture, and the ways she has tried to move beyond her traumatic childhood.
During the time that my mom told everyone I had cancer, I looked like a sick kid. My mom would dress me in things that were two times too big to make me look even smaller than I was. I had really dark circles under my eyes. And I always had to wear a medical mask, and I had shaved hair that would come back in patches. My mom had shaved my head one night when I was asleep, telling me that it would fall out anyway from the chemotherapy. I looked pathetic; looking at me you knew something was wrong. After my hair started to grow back, I developed a very serious attachment to my hair. I didn’t cut it from the age of 7 to 10 or 11. For a while, I felt like if I cut it, it would never come back.
I found out I wasn’t sick after the police came to our house. My dad told me: “Mommy tricked all of us into thinking that you were sick. So a lot of people are upset with her and she’s going to be in trouble.” Soon after, they took me into foster care. I clung onto my dad and I was crying and begging them not to take me.
I definitely have a really big issue with trust. In high school, I would avoid the doctor when I was in pain because I was afraid that maybe I was just making it up in my head. I was just so afraid that if I went to the doctor and they said “there’s nothing wrong with you,” they would think I was acting like my mom.
There was a while where I had trouble figuring out what was real from my childhood and what I had just been told. My mom created this story of a home health-care nurse that would come and give me chemotherapy at home. She would tell me that the nurse, who she called Beth, was coming to give me chemo in the morning. Then she would give me a small blue pill, which I found out later was a sleeping pill. When I woke up the next day, she would say Beth had already left and I had slept through the appointment.
Beth wasn’t actually a real person. And yet still I can sit here and picture a person in my head — I can tell you she was younger and she had short brown hair and that she wore typical nurse scrubs. It’s kind of like how we all know Santa Claus really isn’t real but we could tell you what he looks like based off being told so many times. It kind of made me feel crazy. It was a lot of chaos in my head for a while. I started to think: Well how much of what I do remember is real? As I got older I went on Google and printed pages upon pages of everything that had been written about me.
For so long I felt like I was the only person in the entire world who’d been through something like this. I really suffered with feeling like I was alone. And then I came into contact with Dr. Marc Feldman on Facebook – he’s a Munchausen expert who consulted on my case when I was little. He opened things up a lot for me. He made me realize it wasn’t something I did that caused my mom’s behavior. It gave me an explanation that I could use when people asked me about it. I also spent a lot of time online reading about other cases and realizing how severe so many of them were. It made me feel lucky.
Seeing it in pop culture has been weird, but it’s also kind of a relief to have things I can relate to. I was sitting home one day and a girl I went to high school with sent me the trailer to The Act and she was like: Is this about you? At first was really hard to watch. It made me feel guilty. I always had felt some sort of like pity for myself, but it made me realize it could have been so much worse.
I’d definitely like to meet Gypsy [Gypsy Rose Blanchard, a Munchausen by proxy survivor whose story is the inspiration for The Act] or talk to her. I relate to her. Your mom is your caregiver, and that was the only life she’d ever known. Even though her mom put her through something so terrible and torturous and wrong, at the end of the day that’s still your mother and that’s still the woman that gave birth to you and that connection will never be severed.
I still see my mom sometimes. She got out of jail a few years ago, and now we see each other in passing. We’ll be driving and she’ll be coming down one side of the street and I’ll be coming down the other. Or I’ll be in the grocery store and I’ll see her walk past down the same lane and I’ll just like turn my cart around and go the other way. I don’t even recognize her at this point. She’s just like a stranger.
My husband and I are expecting our first son this summer. I was terrified to be a mom, because I never had one. I would think: What is a mom? Is there a definition? What are the specific things I’m supposed to do? But I feel like every woman deals with that. Now I just remind myself that I’m not going to be perfect — nobody is perfect — but the only thing I want for my son is for him to always know that I love him.
When I saw my son on the ultrasound — it was like instantly in that moment I was so in love. It wasn’t like anything I’ve ever felt before. It has made me think about my own mom. Why didn’t she feel that way? At what point did she stop having that connection? Was there ever a connection?
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