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!
Craziness Making Me Crazy
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