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Question #122: Should I move away from my abusive family?

Hi Captain Awkward,

I am a 21-year-old college student about to begin my last year of school. My family is a bit nuts. My 22-year-old brother, diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder at an early age, receives money from the government monthly and has never worked. My dad is in his 60s and also receives money from the government for bipolar disorder. This leaves me and my mom, who works full time and allows us to live above the poverty line.

 She is also an emotionally unstable alcoholic who frequently stays up the entire night drinking, banging on the door of whoever has angered her that night, screaming and cursing at them for hours and hours. And it doesn’t take much to anger her–one errant comment is enough to land someone in her bad graces.

My mom and dad hate each other, but my mom has trouble supporting both of us without my dad’s check and I think my dad gets lonely without us. Her pattern is to ask him to come live with us, and then if he says something stupid or something goes wrong–and something is always going wrong–she gets drunk and blames him for it. Cue hours of drunken screaming. She kicks him out of the house often, and my dad says every time is the last, but he always comes back.

I am not immune to this treatment either, and when we’ve gotten into bad fights before she’s slapped me (very rarely), locked me out of the house, taken away or broken my things, etc etc. When she’s sober and not irate about anything we get along okay, and I’m happy to be living with my family. This is most of the time, fortunately. But when something sets her off it becomes an endless nightmare.

Recently everything’s been pretty stable, but just this week her mom died, and her drunken hysteria has never been worse. I want to get out but I only work a few hours a week when I’m in school, and I make barely above minimum wage–certainly not enough to rent or share an apartment.  I also don’t own my own car and my parents oftentimes help me with transportation. (I do pay a small amount of rent monthly, and have loaned them thousands of dollars from my college savings, so I contribute somewhat.)

I also feel like moving would rock the boat and perhaps spur her into doing something more crazy. I don’t think she would be above finding out where I live and driving there to bang on my doors and windows and scream at me. (She has done this before with my dad.) I am trying to sympathize with her during this difficult time, but it is hard to do when she makes my life and my dad’s life hell.

My mom vacillates between wanting me to live with them even after I graduate and wanting me to move out of the house now. Whenever she gets pissed at me she demands that I move out. For my part I don’t know whether it’s better just tough it out with my family, or to face a whole new set of worries and hardships by trying to move out now.

I feel like this is affecting my relationship with my boyfriend, who tries to be supportive when these things happen but often doesn’t know what to say or do. We have been together for almost a year and a half, but he has 2 years left in college, he goes to school an hour away from my school, and he can’t afford to live with me either.

I know in the past you’ve given advice about creating boundaries, but I’m afraid that any attempt on my part to do this will only result in my mom getting angrier and escalating the conflict. Please help!

Signed,

Craziness Making Me Crazy

Hello, CMMC!

This is a letter from Future-You. Captain Awkward received your Distress Call and has allowed me to use her WayBack Machine to tell you what happened to us after we decided to move the hell out of our house.

Here’s what we did:

  • We went to the counseling center at our school and started talking to someone there about life at home.  The counselor helped us put together a plan for the future.
  • We put all of our college money in a totally different bank and stopped lending it to our parents.
  • We met with a financial aid counselor at the school and worked up a package of loans, grants, and scholarships that would allow us to live away from home for the final year of school. The prospect of going into all that debt was scary, but it was worth getting out of the house while we still had the support resources of a university at our backs.
  • We also had the option of toughing it out for this final year, squirreling away as much money as possible, and moving to a faraway city the second after graduation. If you choose this option for us, it will still work out in the end, however, you must stop paying “rent” now and put that money in the savings account that they cannot access.  If they ask you for rent, say you’ll pay it when they return the money they borrowed from your college fund (or tell them they should count that money against the amount of rent you owe them). Expect some screaming from Mom, but remember – she’ll scream no matter what. It’s nothing we can’t handle.
  • Do not tell them of our plan to move out of the house until we are actually out of the house, in our new (safe) place. Consider not telling them address and renting a post office box for the mail.

So, we took advantage of the school’s free counseling for students, and the counselor there helped us realize a few things. Here’s some of the stuff we learned once we got out of the house and into therapy:

  • Our mom is a deeply angry and dysfunctional person who will behave however she behaves – the yelling, the kicking-out, the calling back – no matter how other people act or don’t act.  It’s a complete fiction that other people (like Dad, or us) do stuff to somehow “set her off,” and that if we did different stuff she would behave differently.  Her behavior is totally out of our hands.
  • Mom needs an audience.  The cycle of “go away – no, come back!” will always involve a “come back!”  Otherwise, who will listen to her screaming?
  • We can’t save our Dad or Brother. They are adults.  They would leave if they really wanted to.
  • If you set a boundary, and the other person has a violent reaction to it, you did not “make them” have that reaction.  You said what you needed. They chose how they reacted.  Say this over and over again:  “I can’t control what other people do, I can only take care of myself.”
  • It’s amazing how much homework we get done when no one is screaming at us and when we get enough sleep for a change!  We’re kind of great at this whole school thing.
  • Things with our boyfriend got much less tense once we reached out to the school for support.
  • Thinking of our family will always make us sad. We will never have a normal relationship or the comfort and support that other people get from their families. We will always grieve for that.

I know you are scared.  Mom is the Devil You Know, and when you see yourself the warped mirrors of her eyes it’s hard to imagine anything else.  What if the outside world is even worse?  If she catches you trying to climb out the window, she will try to convince you that you can’t handle it. Or she’ll have some kind of crisis and “need” your help. Or she’ll tell you that you can’t leave your Dad and brother and enlist them to help her guilt you into staying. She will say anything to make you stay – remember, you’re her audience!

It’s a trap.  Do you see the part where it’s a trap?

Listen:  In the future, there is a small, quiet room that is just yours, where you are safe and you are free. In that room your shoulders will finally start to come down from around your ears.  Nobody can come into that room unless you let them.  In that clean quiet place, you will work and you will study.  You will love and you will heal.  I know this is true because I am there with you.  We are there together because you saved us.  You saved us because you were brave and because you never stopped believing in that room.

See you there,

Your Future Self

P.S. Maybe it looks like this.
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About JenniferP

Chicago filmmaker, teacher, and blogger.

37 comments on “Question #122: Should I move away from my abusive family?

  1. Good grief. That last paragraph actually made me cry. Please, CMMC, I hope this Future Self turns out to be true for you.

  2. I know this life. And I now have the life I should have grown up with. Your parents are broken people. Unbroken parents want the best for you. Unbroken parents don’t want you to stay in hell because they want the company. Your dad chooses to be there. You don’t have to.

    I hope you are able to get out and be free. Your future self has some great advice.

  3. Yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes this this this this this this this this
    This toxic life will only slowly poison CMMC – escape, grieve, protect, and live!
    You can do it and The Captain’s Way Back machine speaks truth.

    PS it sounds like mom has borderline personality disorder. If anyone can send CMMC some resources to leave on a chair for the family when CMMC moves out, that would be a mercy for everyone involved in that life.

  4. Oh my god, yes. I have been there. Stuck behind a great big wall of no-money-no-rent-no-real-job-no-support-I-guess-I-have-to-stay. There were always other options out there, but I’d think of those other options and my mind would say, “No, I can’t do that.” Not, “it would be hard” or “I wouldn’t like it” or “I would prefer not” but “you *can’t.*” That’s what your mind does when you stay with abusive people too long — it starts abusing you when they’re not around, to make everything consistent and normal and easier.

    My “I can’t” started out with “I can’t because I’ll be homeless”, which is pretty reasonable, but after a few more years of being beaten down, I ended with, “I can’t because my CDs” or “I can’t because it’s my night to cook dinner,” or “I can’t because the house is really dirty.” And those seemed as equally reasonable as “I can’t be homeless” had seemed years earlier. There’s no assurance that by the time you *can* leave, your Future You will have morphed into Future You Who Has Internalized A Few More Years of Abuse And Is Way More Scared Of Everything Than Zie Used To Be.

    Option B is, tomorrow is better. Really, it’s that quick. One day out from under that shit and it’s like a backpack full of lead has been taken off you. And then you approach whatever you had to do to get out — like the years of debt I have — as Future You, who is totally happy and competent with time and patience and naps to spare, instead of Present You who must spend lots of your energy planning for the next round of abuse. Your family has given you an expectation that consequences or difficult things are actually abusive and intolerable things. But they’re not, and Future You will know that. Not every hard thing is as hard as dealing with your abusive family; in fact, pretty much only one thing in the world is as hard as dealing with your abusive family, and you’re doing it right now.

    Also, it’s not for everybody, but you might want to try a local Al-Anon? I never got into it as a lifestyle thing, but sometimes it was nice to go somewhere full of people trying *really hard* not to be dicks, and who talked about the things I could never ever bring up about my home life because SHAAAAAAAAME. Even when I didn’t get anything much out of it, it was still the one place in the city I knew I could go and sit for an hour, and not be bothered, and not have to think or talk or care, and the vibes would still be positive and nobody would yell at me. There’s not that many places you can be angry or upset if you’re living with abusive people so Al-Anon was the place I went to sit and seethe when I was too scared to sit and seethe anywhere else. Also? Everybody else there looked like they’d just escaped from some disaster, all hollow-eyed and scared. I didn’t realize how much I looked like that until I was looking at them. It was sobering, and all the more impetus to GTFO.

    • So well-said, thank you.

      There is no perfect moment where everything will be squared away and easy – there will be enough money, you’ll be able to tell them in a way that they’ll understand and not be mad, there won’t be some crisis or hurdle. If you wait for the “right” moment that will work for everyone, you’ll be waiting a long, long time. The right moment is “the sooner, the better.”

    • I AM “Future You Who Has Internalized A Few More Years of Abuse And Is Way More Scared Of Everything Than Zie Used To Be.” People find me fucking ridiculous to be in my 30′s and still scared of leaving home. (Disclaimer: I don’t live with my mother, but I live within driving distance and am still somewhat enmeshed in crazy, though my situation isn’t remotely this bad.) I am trying to plot a move in a year now, but in your 30′s trying to do this, you gotta do it all alone without the aid of your college and their free counseling and grants and whatnot.

    • I think this reply is very wise. I spent a lot of years in my first marriage staying not only because “where would I go I have no one” (retrospect: this was NEVER true) and “but I love him, and he needs me.” Cue also “he doesn’t mean it,” “I know he loves me but he can’t help it,” and “but when it’s good it’s SO good” (see above, re: retrospection).

      That’s your normal, but it isn’t really normal. You’ve been trying very hard, and **you have not done anything wrong**. Now is the time to direct that ability to work hard toward making yourself safe, and giving yourself a quiet and safe place to be. You can do it.

    • “That’s what your mind does when you stay with abusive people too long — it starts abusing you when they’re not around”

      Thank you for writing this sentence. Now, I’m not one for OMG’s……But. OMG. You just verbalised something I – and I’m sure many people – have needed to see, recognise and absorb in a manageable form. I hope it’s ok that I *heart* and xxx you in the virtual world!

      • That quote about what your brain does when your abusers aren’t around will be with me for a long time, too. Excellently said.

    • Yeah, I second the Al-Anon tip.

      If you’re not comfortable going to Al-Anon (I’m not — the Al-Anon presence in my area sucks), there is a wonderful website out there for friends and family members of alcoholics: http://soberrecovery.com/forums/friends-family-alcoholics/. Get thee to the friends and family of alcoholics forum and share your story. You’ll find gobs of support immediately — AND the people there are more than willing to suggest ideas, even local resources, that might be available to you. Personally, hearing others stories, knowing I’m not alone, and being able to share my own wisdom when I can, is a tangible comfort.

  5. I really wish I had had you to help me when I was going through similar things. I learned the hard way but I eventually got there…it’s great advice.

  6. Best of luck with your decision. I don’t think you can fix this situation, or keep anyone from freaking out if you go.

    I just wanted to add: When you feel like lending your mom money, remember that alcohol is expensive! You don’t want to bankroll the binge drinking. That is NOT okay. Think about how much she spends on booze and whether you want to invest in that, instead of your future. Is that a good use of your funds?

  7. You might be able to get your brother out too. He is an adult, but depending on where he is on the spectrum he may not be aware of his own options. I’m sure he needs safety and structure too. It is out there, but the first step is your own stability, emotional and financial.

    • Sure. But I’m going to say to the Letter Writer don’t worry even a tiny bit about your brother right now. Worry about yourself. You’re not helping anyone until you get yourself firmly out of there. If anyone tries to slow you down by saying “But you can’t leave your brother, what will he do with out you?” say a firm “I can’t worry about that right now” and get yourself gone.

      • Exactly. Getting your brother to come live on your couch after you’ve been living on your own prospering for a year won’t be easy on either of you, but it’s a lot better than creating twice the inertia by trying to get two people out at once, one of whom I would imagine is dependent on some degree of support to continue filing the proper paperwork to get his benefits, etc.

        Also, one thing I see popping up over and over in this thread is people reminding you not to say you “can’t” do certain things. I wholeheartedly agree and would go farther. Forget “can’t” entirely, forever. In planning stages, “can’t” doesn’t exist, because “can’t” isn’t a choice, it’s something that happens to you.

        I won’t even tell you you “can’t” save your parents. I haven’t really accepted that myself yet about my dad. Maybe I could get my dad to stop drinking if I devoted my entire life to it!

        What I have accepted is – it isn’t my job. I have other people – my own family and community who love and respect me – who are my job. I focus on them.

        Oh, and some advice for future you – once you’re out and living this calmer, happier, more prosperous life, you can start to experiment with the idea of expecting people to treat you with respect and telling them – as kindly and calmly as possible – that if they don’t, you don’t want to be around them. You’ve grown up with someone who can’t hear that, so you probably aren’t used to doing it. But it’s going to change your life. Good luck!

        • I think she has to go, first and alone. She can’t help anyone until she’s helped herself, but it can be awesome motivation. Things that you may not truly believe you deserve, because your environment is seriously wrong, you might fight fiercely for a loved one.

          I suspect having her brother live with her would be wrong for a multitude of reasons. As an adult with a pervasive developmental disability, at 22 he may an adult in name only. If he is receiving government financial support, there should be a case manager somewhere with access to other services; governmental or otherwise. Couch surfing may be more than not ideal, but seriously inappropriate. Taking him in, draws more unwanted direct conflict with the family, advocating for a group home, a day program, even some kinds of work programs take him out of harms way potentially.

          She has lots of reasons to get help, get boundaries and a new life. I wish her all the luck in the world. I’m sorry I wasn’t clearer the first time.

          • I agree that taking on the care of her brother, especially if he is neither working nor in school (i.e., he is around 24/7), should not be the LW’s priority. (Oxygen masks, etc.) I just want to chime in and say that the framing “adult in name only” bugs me some, even though I know what you’re getting at; her brother, as an adult with cognitive/social disabilities, may need much more caregiving than an NT adult would. But he’s still an adult, and he’s not her child, even if some of the responsibilities of siblinghood will feel similar in the long run.

            The LW is still quite young, and shouldn’t feel like she has to become a full-time caregiver when she is not in a position to take care of herself. I am in a healthy, stable environment, but I thank my lucky stars every day that my older brother lives in a good group home with other PWD. It is a very healthy environment for him, but it took a long time and a lot of cutting through red tape to get him there. Depending on where the LW lives, helping her brother might be a long haul, and she needs to get herself safe first.

          • agree with both of y’all. i was sort of coming at it from an assumption that it would be possible for the brother to fairly quickly transition to some other living situation. it’s possible that’s not a reasonable assumption, in which case the couch-surfing scenario is more problematic

      • Put on your own oxygen mask first.

        • That’s just what I was going to write. If you yourself aren’t on stable ground, you can’t help pull somebody else onto it either. Get your own safe space first, then you’ll find all sorts of possibilities will open up.

          Many of us have internalized the idea that we owe our parents lots of things because they gave us life. The thing with a gift is once you’ve been given it, it’s your own to do with as you wish. Otherwise it’s not a gift but a burden.

          • Oh my. So much truth to your second paragraph.

          • “Many of us have internalized the idea that we owe our parents lots of things because they gave us life. The thing with a gift is once you’ve been given it, it’s your own to do with as you wish. Otherwise it’s not a gift but a burden.”

            Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner!

  8. I was stuck in a similar situation, sibling included. My mom and dad used to yell at each other for days, regularly. Once, after I turned 18, my dad thrashed me about for a bit and I just packed up and left. Things really picked up from there and he learned how to treat me like an adult. I did have to be assertive, though, and set boundaries. And my sister, who stayed on, eventually had to learn to do the same thing after it happened to her as well. Things will heal, or if they don’t, they won’t. But this is a situation that you should get out of. The extent of freedom it gives you is just marvellous. The peace and clarity it gives you to examine yourself is really worth it.

    And yes, this may make things more complex, not less, between you and your partner unless you commit to the idea of leaving and the fact that it was the right thing to do. :-)

  9. Lovely and powerful writing, Captain. Please listen to your future self, LW. You can do it.

  10. I had a friend once who had had a tumor in her brain. Apparently, it had probably been there her whole life; she just did not know about it until she was about 22 and had a seizure. She had brain surgery to get rid of the tumor, and as a side effect she got rid of the headache she had had her whole life, too. The thing is, she had not known she had a headache! She just thought that was what heads felt like. Imagine… the first 22 years of your life with a headache!

    You remind me a little of her. Not that you’re sick — but that you are accepting something no one should have to live with because you don’t realize it does not have to be this way. That’s pretty common among people who have grown up in abusive and/or alcoholic homes. “Normal” has never been healthy and happy, so it’s hard to picture a home life where people are just sort of normal-nice to one another all the time. (I’m not talking Leave it to Beaver, but where there’s no yelling, no drama, just people living their lives together in a spirit of kindness and mutual support).

    I know it’s hard to look at your life and say “this is unacceptable,” because it puts pressure on you to take risks to GTFO. It can even make you feel ashamed that you haven’t already gotten out! That’s something a lot of battered spouses can relate to, which can cause a debilitating inertia. You have to forgive yourself for not having fixed your life already, so you can get on with fixing it now.

    OK, so you can’t just walk out today. Make a plan with some deadlines along the way. Talk to school counselors by Thanksgiving. Save $50 a week toward your getting-out apartment fund, no matter what you have to give up to do it…. whatever fits.

    Another weird thing most of us do is that we worry our escape-plan-life will involve some hard times. So we live with a life we know is bad, rather than risk a life that might be bad. Silly, when you look it in the eye. At least if you GTFO there is a chance your life will be better — if not immediately, then down the road (maybe not very far).

    So follow the advice above. Imagine coming home from classes or work to a place of peace — either all your own, or with roommates who don’t knot you up. I sooo see you getting there! And you’re going to be so much happier as soon as you are.

    The thing is, you have to get rid of the tumor, first — and the tumor is your abusive family. I’m not saying you have to cut them out of your life. It sounds like there is love, sometimes, even if it is a kind of messed up love. But there is a HUGE difference between having those people be part of your every day, and having them in controlled doses every now and then when you decide to drop by, knowing you can leave any time.

    Feel free to forgive your parents for their failings, and to feel compassion for their misery (even if some of it is their own faults), but understand that they are NEVER going to give you the life you deserve. That’s simply not something they have to offer you. Which means you are going to have to peel them off your legs where they’re clinging like toddlers, and go get it for yourself.

    They may try to make you feel guilty for your success. It happens a lot when one person gets a college education and a decent job and the rest of the family is barely getting by. They may accuse you of thinking you’re better than they are, or constantly hit you up for money saying you “owe” them, etc. Recognize that you absolutely have to take care of yourself first, or they will just drag you down and none of you will “make it.” Sure, that may make them feel better about not making it, but it won’t do a thing for you. With the help of your counselors, you will need to learn to set boundaries. Decide when you are NOT in their presence what you can/want to do for them, and stick to it.

    We’re all rooting for you.

  11. I’m the letter writer. Thank you so, so, so much, Captain, and everyone else who took the time to write a response. The outpouring of encouragement and support has been overwhelming. And so many of you have insight into this! I’m truly grateful. Just to provide an update, I booked an appointment for the counselor next week, and I’m saving up to move within the next few months–by the time I graduate at the latest. My brother will be staying with my mom. He’s very loyal to her and is spared the worst of her rages because of that. In any case I know that she will ensure his needs are met (at least the physical ones).

  12. @LW

    I am glad you are taking these steps! And whenever you worry that you’ll have more problems when you move out than you have right now, come back to this thread and read about your future.
    It’s true what people said: there are few things which are as hard as dealing with your family on a daily basis – so you are very well prepared and get a lot of free resources when you move out!

    If you want to get some more insides on abusive relationships and leaving and healing you can look at all the old articles here: http://www.fugitivus.net/ (If you don’t know it already.)

  13. I work in Student Affairs at a college. The people I work with are generous, kind, intelligent people who care very deeply about the well-being of every student on our campus. If your college is anything like mine then I am confident that you will find a small army of allies who are ready to help you.

  14. Wonderful, wonderful advice. Spot on. And as someone who has also been-there-done-that, I can promise the letter-writer and anyone else in similar situations, NOTHING IN YOUR LIFE will ever be as hard and as painful as being abused by those who should love you. Getting out and finding a new life will be hard, but it will be a different kind of hard, like being born. It will be worth the effort, and you will be surprised at how many good people there are who will help, it may take a while to find them, but they are there.

  15. [...] This is unfair. And horrible. And scary. And so, so fucking lonely. There are a lot of changes coming your way, and not all of them will be good changes, especially at first.  I’m hoping you can ride it out and meet Future You in that small quiet room. [...]

  16. I know you are scared.  Mom is the Devil You Know, and when you see yourself the warped mirrors of her eyes it’s hard to imagine anything else.  What if the outside world is even worse?  If she catches you trying to climb out the window, she will try to convince you that you can’t handle it. Or she’ll have some kind of crisis and “need” your help. Or she’ll tell you that you can’t leave your Dad and brother and enlist them to help her guilt you into staying. She will say anything to make you stay – remember, you’re her audience!

    -I realise this is a dead thread, but I just discovered this blog and have been making my way back through. This paragraph above is beautiful. I very much related to everything the LW said. I am not in the future, in that quiet, clean(ish) room only letting in who I want to. It’s awesome. I hope you get there, or are on they way, it can be done. When I read that paragraph though, I realized I still saw myself through an abusers reflection. It’s hard to forget, so I’m going to keep this paragraph with me and read it till it sinks in. Just make sure once your safe that you don’t carry those toxic images with you. You and I are better than that, musn’t forget.

  17. Hi Kathryn, doing the same thing as you!
    Oh hell yeah. I got out when I was 17, mostly. My younger sister is now nearly 50 and clearly will never ever leave.

  18. [...] I want to see you get to that small, quiet room that’s waiting for Future-You as quickly as possible. So if you’re in a place where you can swing living with roommates or [...]

  19. [...] making plans to meet your future self in that small, quiet room. Take care of yourself first and [...]

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