You’re seven, and you’re playing dolls in your room, but their screams are growing louder and louder. So you turn up the volume on the television- maybe that will do? You’re thirteen and your mother says she fell and bruised her hip while cleaning. She tries to laugh it off, but you’ve seen bruises like that before on her; maybe on yourself too, and you know very well where they came from. You’re sixteen and you ring up a friend to ask if you could sleep over- the noise is getting unbearable- what was that sound? A door slam or did he smash the glass table? Either way, it’s late and you just want to sleep, and for all this to be over.
If you know, you know. And it’s more common than you think. For millions of children, the monster does not live under the bed - it sleeps, and dines and lives in the same house as them; it cooks for them, it picks them up from school, drives them to piano or dance class every Wednesday at 5, and probably uses these arguments to prove he or she was a loving parent.
Although the stigma around it has diminished over the course of the years (and rightfully so!), abuse is still very much a thing, in many households. In fact, the number of cases is increasing, because more and more victims are being encouraged to come forward and report them to the police. Still, you don’t need statistics to get a general understanding of the issue- simply look around you; how many truly healthy families do you know? Where everyone loves each other and lives in harmony, and communication is prioritized? I’ll tell you what- best case scenario, the so-called “harmony” is generated by the fact that the parents don’t speak to each other, as to avoid conflict in front of their kids. It is a sad truth, but by ignoring it or trying to justify it, we are only further encouraging it.
...and not to prioritize a toxic family member over my own comfort and happiness...
This is not a matter of the 21st century; it has been going on for ages. The difference between my grandmother and I, however, is that I am being supported more by society, the media and my peers to walk away from a nasty situation, and not to prioritize a toxic family member over my own comfort and happiness, for the sake of preserving a certain social image.
And yet, with all the awareness that is being raised upon this topic, with all the positive influences and encouragements, it’s still easier said than done. Breaking free from an abusive relationship, especially with someone like your parents, is one of the most challenging things.
As someone who has been there, done that, here are the ways I’ve learnt to cope with it, and how you too can overcome the changes you’ll be going through.
Learning to admit it
In movies and other pieces of media, we mostly see abusers portrayed the same way: cold, heartless people who slam their fists on the table and have violent tendencies in everything they do or say. While that may be sometimes the case, abuse (unfortunately) comes in many shapes and sizes.
From subtle psychological techniques, to straight outright physical violence; or a combination of all- violence is so common, we’ve come to normalize some of its forms. And thus, a big step in breaking free is recognizing the signs of the toxic environment that’s caging you in the first place.
Abusers are masters of deceit. Therefore, no matter how much they’ve hurt you, at the end of the day you might find yourself trying to justify their behavior. “But he said he loved me!”; “But she bought me ice-cream!”. “Okay, he did hit me, but it was only once! Other parents do it to their children all the time…”.
Feeding, caring and providing for a child are not examples of sacrifices or exceptional parenting, but the mere basics. You don’t reward a fish for swimming. Parents often use these types of arguments as proof that they love their kids. If bringing food on the table each day is such a big deal for them, perhaps they should have thought about this when they chose to bring you into this world.
Another frequent tactic is emotional manipulation. Making you feel guilty for something they’ve done is a way of humbling you, and of ensuring that you are always going to seek their help and look up to them as a guide.
They take charge in just about every other way possible...
The reason that parents tend to do this is because they feel helpless. Deep down, they know they’re wrong- after all, isn’t their anger coming from their unprocessed trauma itself?! Helplessness, fear of losing you, their child, and failure to prove and show their love makes them desperate to assert their dominance in whatever way. They’re behind on being in control when it comes protecting you, helping you out, in other words, proper parenting, they take charge in just about every other way possible- shaming, beating and abusing you to show superiority.
It might be hard when the person you’re supposed to love the most, who should have been your greatest companion and the person who is supposed to understand you best, turns out to be the opposite. But the biggest step to take towards freedom is to accept reality as it is. Once you’ve realised who they truly are, your life might be changed forever; because suddenly you have an entire new perspective right in front of you. There is no more room for you trying to find excuses for them, and you will certainly feel a great deal of relief by no longer trying to show them your affection.
After the initial shock of coming to terms with the fact that your parent is an abuser, it is time to slowly part ways.
The main reason why this is so hard, is because it’s like a death, without the funeral. You find yourself avoiding them at all costs, they have nothing good to offer, on the contrary, their presence makes you
tense and miserable, and you want them out of your life for good. But you’ve been so used to them being a part of your day-to-day schedule; maybe you’ve even lived with the hope that they might change one day. And now, suddenly, they mean nothing more to you. You want them out of the picture. It’s weird because to you, they’re almost as if dead; but it happened all so sudden, yet so slowly, and there was no grieving process to help you get over your loss.
But breaking free is essential and you mustn’t back down. Now, it can be done in many ways. If you’re still a child, or teenager, it might be hard, as you’re probably still living together; even as an adult, you might depend on them financially, you might still want to keep contact with the other parent, and so on and forth. What you can do, is set the boundaries clear, for once and for all- make it known to them that you don’t like their behavior and you are against them. Aggressive as it may seem, it does help both you and them to understand their position. Loneliness will kick in- so turn to a family member, teacher or counselor for support. Occupying your mind is the most important thing here, so hang out with friends or engage in activities that will keep you busy and give you a sense of worth and productivity. In other words, just get out of the house as much as possible. Remember, your life has just begun and you have the right to live it properly. Going out is a way of getting a glimpse into life as it should be. One day, you will be able to leave for good and then you will feel freedom in its true form.
The healing process
You’re out, safe and sound, you have your own life and you’ve surrounded yourself with the best people. Now what? Unfortunately, the suffering and trauma will most likely not end once you’ve cut contact with your abuser. It can reappear long after, and manifest itself in the weirdest forms.
In fact, your parents probably got it from their parents too. Growing up in a toxic household can result in deep scars and wounds, that time alone won’t be enough to erase. And no matter how many changes you’ve made into your life, if past trauma still haunts you, you’re not truly free.
Regardless of whether they can be healed or not, you need to be aware of your issues...
It’s important that you recognize the signs, and get help. Talking to friends or those who are close to you is great, but therapy is very much encouraged (and worth it, I promise). Regardless of whether they can be healed or not, you need to be aware of your issues, so as to avoid projecting them further onto your friends, or even children.
For years, abuse and toxicity have been the norm, but now, we must break it, and instead normalize the development of children growing and developing in safe environments and loving households. Our mothers and fathers before us took it on their chins and bore whatever their parents had them put up with, but we must stand up, and break the cycle. We are the change and, time-taking and/or hard as it may be, we must face our problems and seek ways to solve them.