(Trigger Warning: Personal Experiences Discussed)
Families. What makes a family? What does it mean to be a family? What does it mean to be emotionally supportive? At what point do you say that you have had enough? At which point do you have to walk away for your own protection?
These are loaded questions and not something that can be easily answered. These are questions that I have been grappling with lately. Well, to be honest, I have been grappling with these questions for some time now.
What brought me to this place, a place where I am finding I am at a loss as to how to even address these questions? It first started when I realized I had been in emotionally abusive situation for some time and it had been coming from several directions. One direction had been from my husband who was crumbling from a lifetime of untreated mental illness. The situation he was in is not an excuse for his behavior, but it is a fact that his refusal to acknowledge that he was mentally ill contributed greatly to his inevitable decline and eventual self-destructive behavior. He had to lose everything and stay there for a while before he realized what was really important to him, me and our two children. The ordeal that led up to a three year nightmare eventually had a happy ending. He finally got help and eventually came home. He moved back in five months ago.
We are a family again. During that three year-long nightmare, I questioned if he really was part of the family anymore. He didn’t want to be, or it appeared that he didn’t want to be, but he was still genetically connected to our children and we had 15 years of marriage together. You also don’t have to be genetically linked to be family. Was he still considered family? In the end, the answer to that question was a resounding “Yes!” Surprisingly, our bond survived all that destruction that had taken place over those three years. The love was still there.
In many other cases, the situation is so bad that there is no more love, only abuse and pain. I don’t know why I held on to hope that my ex-husband would eventually have an epiphany and would find his way home. You could say we got lucky, but there was more to it than that. We are determined to make this work. We are taking the necessary steps with family counseling and working on our communication skills. We are still going through the healing process, still figuring our roles as a family of four. It is going to take time, but we are on a positive path to recovery.
My daughter asked recently what love was. I told her love is when you don’t give up on someone. For us, this statement is true. I never gave up on the man that I married even when he had given up on himself. Please understand, not giving up on someone is not the same as walking away. I had to walk away and give the man I loved the time and space he needed to figure things out. You can’t help someone who doesn’t want to be helped. Sometimes you have to walk away. In our case, it worked out. Unfortunately, much of the time it does not. You have to move on; otherwise an emotionally abusive situation could potentially destroy you.
I wrote more about emotional abuse —> Invisible Scars – A Tale of Emotional Abuse
I am facing the question of walking away again. I had to put up a healthy boundary in regards to three family members in my life. This occurred almost a year ago. I had to do this for my own mental wellbeing, for my own protection. I have Complex-PTSD and last June I had the worst trigger I have ever had apart from a medical trauma that led to my diagnosis of PTSD in the first place twelve years ago. I know they didn’t mean to cause me such harm, but it was through their lack of understanding that led me to being is so much pain. I couldn’t stop the flashbacks. I was back in that hell again. I could hardly function for days. It was a horrid experience. You can find more about that experience here —> The Volcano is Awake
For more information on my experience with Complex-PTSD —> The Hell that is Spring
When I tried to explain to these families members what had happened and why I had to have the healthy boundary, I was met with “I thought you were over this.” and “I am so angry at you right now!” and “Don’t you care how your sister feels? You hurt her feelings.” Ya, it wasn’t pleasant. I was so full of guilt and pain, but it didn’t seem to matter to this person. They just dumped more guilt and pain on to me. These comments were made by one person out of the three. One of the others hasn’t communicated with me for a year now and the third is keeping a respectful distance.
It hurts to even discuss this. How can person get mad at another for having an excruciating panic attack that lasted for days? How can a person who claims that they have unconditional love for another end up throwing guilt on to them during their most vulnerable moments? I was told that I was wrong to feel the way I did. A person has no right to tell another how they are supposed to feel. I don’t understand it. I don’t understand the behavior and this has been happening to me for as long as I can remember.
This week I was told I had a fevered brain by this same person. When I asked for clarification, I did not receive any. I have been told I am full of anger, hatred, and disdain. I have been told that my words are full of vitriol and that there is a disconnect between what I write and how I perceive it. I don’t understand where this is coming from. I am not full of anger or hatred or disdain. What I do feel is sadness, frustration, and fear.
My blogs reflect my journey through loss, grief, healing, and self-discovery. It is natural to experience anger as you go through a grief cycle and everyone is different when it comes to grief. Working through grief is really a big ball of wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff. Any reflection of anger would have been expressed in my blogs at the time I was experiencing it. As you continue to read through my blogs, you see a definite change. I have changed. This is why I do not understand where these accusations of anger, hatred, and disdain are coming from are coming from.
For more about my journey through grief, click on the following links:
—> Autism, Empathy, and Grief – A Personal Story (Dec 16, 2013)
—> Grieving (Mar 30, 2015)
—> Sadness – Moving Through Grief and Finding Understanding (Aug 22, 2015)
My relationship with this person is not healthy, but this person seems to think that I am at fault for the situation that we are currently in. I suppose in some respect I am at fault. I chose to put up a healthy boundary, but then was accused of pushing the family away. Growing up, I was never taught about healthy boundaries or how to say “no”. I was taught to comply. I had to comply or face the wrath of yelling, crushing disappointment of a parent, or a major guilt trip. I had no defense against guilt being place upon me. I was basically taught to be a co-dependent, which is not healthy at all. I only learned how to overcome my co-dependency these last few years since my diagnosis. I didn’t even know about co-dependency until my marriage failed, and that co-dependency, that extreme feeling of wanting to help people that I have always carried contributed to my marriage failing. I learned how to say “no” as an adult in my 30s. This is why I have been teaching my children the power of “no”. I want them to understand that they can say “no”, too.
This same person said I was “a fairly happy child despite of the problems autism put upon you”. I wasn’t diagnosed with autism until I was 36 years old and I have a real problem with the wording of this comment. Did I struggle growing up? Yes. Did this person try to get me help? No. Was there any discussion about my struggles? Only that I needed to “come out of my shell” or questioned why I wasn’t more like my sister. I was labeled shy and quiet and left to be.
To be clear, autism didn’t put problems upon me. Autism is not some separate entity that squishes people and holds them down. My autism is not separate from me. I am Autistic. The problems I faced growing up were a direct result of me not having the type of supports that I needed to be successful. I had to struggle on my own, because my autism was not recognized. I was a girl, after all, born in the mid-70s and growing up in the 80s and early 90s. There wasn’t a whole lot known about autism then, definitely not Asperger Syndrome, which is what I was originally diagnosed with in late 2011.
Okay, I am starting to rant now, back to the topic of families.
What does it mean to grow up in an emotionally abusive home and not realize it? It took me a long time to accept what my home life was like even though as a child I felt something was off. I didn’t understand what was happening to me, because it was all I knew. How do you know that there is something wrong if a certain environment is all you know? I always had food to eat, clothes to wear, and a roof over my head. I was always told that I was loved, but something wasn’t right and I never understood what it was until after I became a parent. Why didn’t I feel comfortable at home? Why was I always so tense? Why did I spend so much time alone in my room?
Facing the truth of one’s emotional child abuse takes a special kind of courage. But to be an emotionally healthy adult, the truth must be known, so that healing can begin, and the pattern doesn’t repeat.
An emotionally abused child who does not, as an adult, face the truth of their childhood is in great danger of repeating the cycle of emotional abuse with his or her own children.
“As long as [the experience of cruelty] remains hidden behind their idealized picture of a happy childhood, they will have no awareness of it and will therefore be unable to avoid passing it on. It is absolutely urgent that people become aware of the degree to which this disrespect of children is persistently transmitted from one generation to the next, perpetuating destructive behavior.” (Alice Miller, “The Drama of the Gifted Child: The Search for Self”)
Unfortunately, because emotional abuse is often tolerated or because the abusive parents are very secretive in their abuse (hiding their true selves when in public), emotionally abused children will assume that how they were treated at home was natural. They have no frame of reference. And so, the child will develop a skewed sense of what a healthy relationship is.
Emotionally abused children become adults with little or no self-esteem; a deep, pervasive sadness; problems bonding with others; and a tendency towards self-destruction.
For me, I never have had a tendency towards self-destruction, but more towards survival and always feeling that I had to move forward in life. I have to keep going no matter what. I have had quite a bit of trouble with self-esteem and pervasive sadness, though. I also form very strong bonds.
An emotionally abused child usually continues being emotionally abused by the parents long into adulthood. The patterns have already been established since the child’s earliest years. The dynamics of the family have been set into place. Nothing is to drastically change it—unless the child grown up awakens.
Some adults experience a jolt, a sudden flash of memory, that is triggered by an event, a song, a movie scene, anything, really. Others remain asleep until the abusive parents become abusive grandparents—continuing the cycle of emotional abuse to the adult survivor’s children. Others will just reach the point where they cannot take it anymore; enough is enough.
And the abused child-turned-adult awakens, slowly realizing that not everything is as it has seemed. Everything is different now.
Taking the red pill regarding your emotionally abusive childhood leads to a very difficult path—but the important thing is that it is a path. You no longer remain stuck, wondering about the pervasive depression or sorrow.
I started fighting back after my children were born. Something inside insisted that I had to raise my children differently than the way I was raised. They were going to get the emotional support I never got. I was going to be their advocate, because I never had one. I have been a parent now for fifteen years. I tolerated much of my parents’ behavior over the years. I tried to ignore it, tried to make excuses, tried to tell myself that it was just how they were and I had to accept it. The finally straw came last June when I was slammed with the trigger. There was absolutely no emotional support provided. I was dying all over again and absolutely no shit was given. Enough was enough. I feel the most disabled when I am with my parents. I am also always on guard. I can’t relax. There is something wrong, something very wrong, but whenever I have tried to discuss the matter I get nowhere.
Here I am again, asking those questions about family. They are my parents. There is a genetic link. The love is still there, but this time it is different. There seems to be no sense of responsibility on the part of my parents. No sense that there is something wrong with the situation. Maybe I am being naive, but I want to make it right. I want to feel safe with my family members. My sister has kept a respectful distance, but she doesn’t feel there is a problem. She makes the same excuses I once did. She also seems to have trouble seeing me as disabled. I am her big sister. I am not supposed to be disabled, or at least that is the impression I get. She seems to want her idea of how the family is supposed to be to be true. She did express some understanding of why I couldn’t talk on the phone, because many weeks after my trigger occurred she miscarried at 14 weeks. She found herself not able to talk on the phone either. I really appreciate it that my sister contacted me to let me know what had happened. I was able to give her words of comfort which she in turn greatly appreciated.
Families can make amends, it takes time, but healing can happen if both parties are willing to work with each other. The healing might not look like the way you want it to or go as fast as you want it to. It most likely will never be like it once was, but the important part to remember is that you don’t give up on each other. You might have to walk away, but you don’t give up.
As for my situation with my parents, at this point in time I need to keep my healthy boundary up for my own protection.
“Adult children who have never spiritually and emotionally separated from their parents often need time away. They have spent their whole lives embracing and keeping and have been afraid to refrain from embracing and to throw away from of their outgrown ways of relating. They need to spend some time building boundaries against the old ways and creating new ways of relating that for a while may feel alienating to their parents.” (“Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No and Take Control of Your Life”, pg. 38)
Here are some suggestions from For Adult Survivors of Emotional Child Abuse that will help you to begin your path to healing:
- Seek professional help from someone who understands emotional child abuse.
- Create some distance between you and your abusive parent.
You will find it difficult to put your new thoughts in perspective if you are still immersed into your parents’ lives. So, you need to create some space. Let them know that you need time to think about things. In some cases, adult children will find healing, and they will eventually find new ways of communicating with their parents that is healthy.
- Don’t give up! Stay awake, stay vigilant.
- Take your time.
- Educate yourself about emotional child abuse.
You’ll be going through myriad emotions, so you should read to better understand how healing is a process and will not happen overnight. You can find a starter’s recommended readings here. In the book “Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No and Take Control of Your Life” by Dr. Henry Cloud and John Townsend, the clinical psychologists discuss the severe impact of being raised without boundaries and its affects into adulthood. Also, look at the various sites here for information about emotional child abuse and healing.
- Be patient and loving with yourself.
- Surround yourself with good, supportive friends.
- Understand you may lose friends and family members—but let them go.
- Keep a journal.
- Be mindful of your relationships.
- Pray or meditate.
- Let yourself receive love.
- Accept change.
- Find a creative outlet.
- Don’t give up.
Don’t give up. Don’t quit. Rest, sure. Take a little time to just lose yourself in music or TV or books for a little while… then continue on. DON’T QUIT. Don’t stop on your path to healing. Sometimes, the sorrow will be biting and cold—but don’t quit.
Know you are worthy of love, of respect, of kindness, of happiness, of dignity.
Know you matter.
Know that your life does make a difference.
**All quotes are from For Adult Survivors of Emotional Child Abuse.