What advice would help this family?
May 5, 2012 10:10 PM   Subscribe

What can I do to help my mother and siblings cope with an abusive parent?

My mother is significantly older and in poor health sometimes. My father, who is a leader in their church, has a severe hoarding issue that has made their house hazardous for their health for many years. He refuses to clean the cat boxes for months at a time. There are piles of junk all over the house that have not been touched for years, collecting grime that they have to breathe in. Even though they can afford it, he refuses to buy and install an appliance she uses daily in a convenient place, so she has to carry large loads up and down stairs on a daily basis.

He has always been controlling. But when he made a decision to ground my sibling from something they absolutely live for, she moved out, with my sibling, to stay with me. He was more surprised than anything -- he really did not know she was this upset about the house and his grounding my sibling.

She did have the help and support of the women from her church for the move, and was amazed at the peace and quiet and cleanliness they could enjoy when they were away from the house and him. She was so happy and proud of herself as she made plans for living independently.

She made it for a very short time, before giving in to his agreeable behavior and promises, and moving back in with him. They went to counseling a few times shortly after she moved back in, but he played the part of the good husband/father. They stopped going because the counselor had personal problems come up.

She called me tonight to tell me how he is still controlling every aspect of their lives. Every worthless, minor, every day decision is "his way or the highway." She says she can't take it much longer, because he is driving her out by his behavior, but she needs financial support to put my sibling through school.

She says he doesn't see the need for seeing a counselor again. I suggested going to someone in their network of churches, but she thinks that would be awkward. I said I didn't doubt that it would cause her to feel that way, but suggested a local church counselor who has known our family for many years, who I had talked to, and was very supportive.

My heart hurts. I don't want her to put up with this just so he will put the other sibling through college. She said she would be willing to go back to work when she can't take it anymore and moves out, but she is not physically able to work in her field enough to support her and my siblings. But she did talk about this possibility, and that she definitely wants to get an apartment instead of intruding on my space this time, which will require her to work.

I can't stand listening to what my siblings are going through, and I can not do any more than watch and tell her to please seek counseling for her own sanity. I am afraid to move because I want to spend as much time with her as I can, and they all need someone to talk to about what is going on at home. At times the siblings are extremely angry at being grounded for no legitimate reason, and I remind them they will be getting to escape the house for college soon enough. For the youngest, that is a while off and they are miserable. The other has told me they don't care if they have to put off college and find a job, just so they all can have peace, but he really wants to go this college.

As a sidenote, they are Christian, but not evangelical. He is obsessed with religiosity, that to his own mind, allows him to be the authority that dictates how they should live. This is why counseling did not work that time, and this is why he says he does not think he needs more counseling. Their church is not down with this kind of behavior. Speaking from personal experience, he is a skillful liar.

I can help address the practical things, like cleaning, when I can. I told her to ask someone from church to help install the appliance she needs upstairs. But for putting up with pointless aggravation and filth on a daily basis for the sake of her children, I have no words. What else can I say or do, besides telling her that counseling, for herself only if he still refuses, can really help?

posted by anonymous to Human Relations (5 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I'm sorry you are going through this. Would your mom go see a lawyer with you? A lawyer might be able to outline how, with a separation agreement, your dad would still be obligated to pay for college. It might also help her understand what her finances would look like. If she is hesitant to leave (it sounded like she might be seeking your help in doing so), you can point out that a separation does not end a marriage, but provides breathing room.

I am sure others will have other ideas, but I was thinking a lawyer might at least be able to help her understand her options.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 10:17 PM on May 5, 2012 [8 favorites]

It sounds to me like your mother is asking you to help her move out. She doesn't want counseling, because she has seen life "on the outside" of this relationship, and she wants it again. Please help her and your siblings find somewhere healthy and happy to live, away from your father. I am not suggesting that they divorce, simply that they deserve to live somewhere clean, and away from controlling behaviour that makes them miserable.
posted by Joh at 11:20 PM on May 5, 2012 [9 favorites]

Seconding, help your mother set up an appointment with a lawyer. If your parents separate, your father will still have an obligation to support your sibs and probably your mother. from the stories that I've heard, if he doesn't pay according to a court order, your mother's lawyer can arrange to garnish his wages and/or send him to jail. IANAL so I may be wrong but it is certainly worth it to help her find out where she really stands.

also, you might call your local shelter for battered women - while your mother is not battered, your father's behavior probably qualifies as emotional abuse and your mother might be able to get personal counseling and other services that could help her decide what to do.
posted by metahawk at 12:48 AM on May 6, 2012 [3 favorites]

Talking to a counselor for domestic abuse survivors is an excellent idea. I won't get too far into the theory of it all -- and I don't know your father, so I don't want to offer any judgments -- but you describe incidents that figure in the model of abusive behaviors known as the Power and Control Wheel.
posted by virago at 4:28 PM on May 6, 2012

Whoops -- I meant to add to that before I posted:

I volunteered on a crisis line for abuse victims, and one resource that we used a lot was "Keeping The Faith: Guidance For Christian Women Facing Abuse," by the Rev. Marie Fortune, a United Church of Christ (Congregationalist) minister. I've mentioned this book in other threads about domestic abuse. A lot of women in the area where I volunteered are church-goers, who sometimes are reluctant to contact a crisis line or shelter for fear that they will be misunderstood because of their beliefs.

"Keeping the Faith" lets an abused woman know that the threat to the marriage/relationship lies not in her seeking support, but in her partner's bringing abuse into the family's life. You can read some excerpts from the book here. (The man who posted them speaks out against domestic abuse as someone who grew up in a household where he, his three siblings, and their mother were all physically and emotionally abused.)

You say your mom is "significantly older" and in poor health, and you describe a situation that is not good for her physical health (mobility impaired by piles of junk; having to carry large loads up and down the stairs; dirty air).

Assuming that you live in the U.S., you might want to think about contacting your area's Agency on Aging, which works "to ensure that needed resources are available to older Americans." You can do a search here to find eldercare services in your city or state.

Re: hoarding in specific: This woman, Barbara Allen, sounds like her family background is similar to yours: 'Nice child' can't rescue hoarder dad
You hope you weren’t related to these people, that perhaps you and your siblings were, as her blog and book are titled, “Nice Children Stolen From Car’’ by a man whose disease, obsession, addiction, call it what you want, meant the broken possessions were the most important things in his life, and your mother did what she had to do to allow him to keep amassing things and keep prying eyes away.
I'm at work, so I have to wrap this up, but here's a link to Barbara Allen's blog and to the Children of Hoarders website. Both of these might lead to more resources or at least suggest approaches you might take to your heartbreaking family situation. I wish you well.
posted by virago at 5:06 PM on May 6, 2012

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