I’m having a family issue I’m not even sure how to approach. I don’t know if this is a legitimate problem, just me overreacting, or a combination thereof, but I’d appreciate any advice you and your wonderful commentariat might have to offer.
Right now, I’m a twenty-year-old college student living at home for the summer. I move onto campus in two months, and I have plans to never live at home again. This is because of a myriad number of issues I have with members of my family, and I’ve come to realize that the only healthy exposure I can stand is obligatory holiday gatherings. For now, though, I’m stuck.
The incident that triggered this letter happened earlier tonight during a visit with my grandparents (who are saints and removed from the cycle of abuse). My mother and younger sister have this game they like to play where they insult me and make an endless string of jokes at my expense. Anything is fair game: My work ethic, my intelligence, my looks, my major, etc. The goal is to see how quickly they can get me to cry, which is quite easy to do because I’m an emotional person who cries at the extreme of any emotion. When I inevitably get upset, they tell me to lighten up and that if I didn’t react, they wouldn’t try to goad me. Please tell me I’m not the only one who feels that this is worlds of victim blaming?
My adopted, physically abusive father played the same game before he left us. There was a point where my mother became upset when I told her a story of him playing the same game, unbeknownst to her, when I was five or six years old. I try to remember that she is a victim of abuse, too, but I can’t excuse her for much longer. I’ve tried confronting her, but I always back down because she’s fond of threatening to kick siblings (my brother specifically) out of the house. She has never used this threat against me personally, but I know that the moment I accuse her of hypocrisy, she’ll whip it out.
Realistically, I could probably go to my grandparents for at least a little while. If pressed, I feel that I could ask for their help. I only have two months left, so part of me wonders if I should just suck it up and endure. Another part of me wonders if I’m overreacting, if I’m really just being overly sensitive, especially since I should be used to this by now.
I’m writing so soon after the latest incident because I want to preserve my feelings of anger and sadness before I cool down and rationalize to myself that it’s not that bad, you big baby. I’ve done this so many times after their games that I’m afraid of losing the nerve to write to you later. I find that it’s easier to talk myself down from my emotions rather than do anything about them. I feel immobilized by this need to not rock the boat or create confrontation when I could just slide under the radar. I already feel ridiculous about this – because sticks and stones? – but it’s bothered me so much so many times, that I’d rather be told that I’m overreacting and go from there than just cry and feel shitty about myself.
If there are any words of wisdom you can offer, I would really appreciate them.
At the end of a short fuse
:GIANT SIRENS, WARNING BELLS, AND KLAXONS OF UNPLEASANTNESS:
Legitimate problem! Legitimate problem!
That is not an okay game!
The fact that you are questioning whether you should even bring this up as a problem is a giant red waving flag. The fact that you are not “used to this by now” is a sign of your mental HEALTH and RESILIENCE and PERCEPTIVENESS and ability to take care of yourself. Crying and getting emotional is a TOTALLY NORMAL, CORRECT reaction to what they are cruelly doing and saying to you.
“Abusers are experts at convincing you that your own experiences are not real and that your own instincts can’t be trusted. If you could trust your own instincts and experiences, then you might have to do something, like, move across the country, get a bunch of therapy, and tell your family to suck your balls. So the abuser is very invested in making sure you don’t find out or name what’s happening to you. “That wasn’t abuse! If that was abuse, then I would be an abuser, and since we both know that I’m a good person and not an abuser, you can’t have really been abused, so you better work on some other explanation for what just happened. Let me suggest some:
- You were overreacting
- You are exaggerating
- You are being a drama queen
- You are making that up for attention
- That’s not what happened
- You’re just crying wolf
- You’re playing the victim
- You’re too sensitive
- I’m strict because I care about you.
- You better not be airing our family’s dirty laundry in public.
- If you would just ____, I wouldn’t have to ______.”
Let me help you name what’s happening to you. It’s verbal abuse. Your mom may never admit that’s what she’s doing, you may never get an apology, and naming it may be more trouble than it’s worth right this second until you are out of the house and on you’re own. That’s one to sort out in therapy. But you can use the a-word with us and with yourself and with safe people, without question.
I’m sure you’re correct in what you remember and your dad did abuse your mom. Many (but not all) people who abuse others have been abused themselves in some way. This is why knowing the reason for something doesn’t always help you deal with it. Your mom (and brothers and sisters, who also grew up in this environment) have been abused. They are now abusing you. That abusive behavior is affecting you like any plain old soul-killing abuse. The effect it has on you isn’t counteracted by the fact that your abusers have experienced abuse themselves. Maybe some day in the far future knowing that will help you put stuff into perspective, but you don’t have to forgive and justify right now. The reason only counts if you say “Mom, you’re treating me just like I used to see Dad treat you, and that’s fucking scary and wrong, and I need you to stop playing this ‘game’ forever now.” Saying that out loud to her has risks attached for you, and only you know whether those are worth running.
Nobody gets up in the morning and says “I need to get milk, lightbulbs, AA batteries, cat litter, and oh yeah, tell my kids what worthless pieces of shit they are. Better yet, I’ll suck the younger one into helping me abuse the older one- she’ll do it because she’s afraid of being on the receiving end.” Sometimes abuse is deliberate and calculated, and sometimes it’s a reaction borne of pain and fear and habit. It’s not for you to have to decide and diagnose what’s “really” going on. Just get yourself away from it to a safe place where you can process it and heal and worry about the rest later.
- Ask your grandparents if you can stay with them for a bit. You can decide how much of the reason you want to tell them. “Things are tense at home.” “I need a change of scene.” Just get away from the toxic environment.
- If you can’t go to your grandparents right away (or stay away the whole time), be out of the house as much as possible. Work all the shifts at a part-time job. Volunteer. Take up biking and being at the library. Find the most time-consuming leave early and come back late activities you can and do all of them. Seek out people who like you and treat you well and spend as much time with them as possible.
- Keep a journal where you write down things that are good about yourself. Try to write (or say in the mirror, Stuart Smalley style) 10 good things/achievements/better qualities about yourself every morning and every night. You need antidotes to the poison.
- When your mom and sister start in on The Game, try saying “This game is not funny, and I don’t want to play it anymore.” Then get up and leave the room if you can. If you’re not at home, make sure you keep a cell phone, cash for a taxi, the numbers of a few trusted friends you can call for a ride. “This is stupid, I’m going to (friend’s) house.”
- In a really stressful situation, it will feel better if you can say something back instead of just silently taking it and crying, even if all you can come up with is “That really hurts my feelings.” Repeat it back in a monotone after everything they say.
- I think it comes from the comments in this thread. Start mentally inserting “You think” before or after (however it grammatically makes sense) every mean thing they say to you. These aren’t facts they’re listing.
- Start seeing a therapist or counselor through the school the very first week you get back to school if you can’t set it up before then.
- Check out a book called “Will I Ever Be Good Enough?”, by Dr. Karyl McBride. She writes about surviving abuse by narcissistic mothers. That diagnosis or categorization may or may not apply to your mom at all (we here can’t possibly know if it does), but the book might feel very healing for you to read and give you some help in realizing what’s going on is not your fault and some steps for protecting yourself and dealing with your mom and sister going forward.
- Start making plans to meet your future self in that small, quiet room. Take care of yourself first and foremost.
I am so very sorry you are dealing with this. This is a big fat bowl of Not Okay and I am horrified on your behalf. You are very smart to ask these questions and look for a way to take care of yourself.