Have I been emotionally abused? If so, how do I begin to recover?
July 7, 2016 11:57 AM   Subscribe

I've admitted my father may be kind of a monster. Is he really, or is it me?

My father, hereafter known as Jim, has been a generous soul to me (I'm 53) and my brothers over the years, at least in some respects. When we were kids he outfitted us with hockey and skiing equipment. He was our Little League coach. We did camping and Boy Scouts and fishing trips.

Over it all, however, hung a cloud. He was quick with the fist and belt, and called us each innumerable times as kids a "dumb shit" (he continues to do this sometimes). When I was 11 or 12, I stole box of gumballs from a store on a dare and got caught. The owner made me ride home, tell my parents, and have them call him. When I got home, Jim (I have decided to never call him "Dad" again) said, "Well, I guess we'll just wait for the paddy wagon." I remember him saying that like it was last week. I don't remember what my punishment was, but that was the day I lost every shred of self esteem I had. I think I was a particularly fragile kid emotionally already, and the "you dumb shits" combined with my new criminal identity really hollowed me out. From then on I felt I wasn't welcome in my friends' houses; I thought their parents knew what I'd done and wouldn't trust me not to steal stuff.

While my brothers have gone on to have more or less successful relationships and families, I have never been able to maintain a relationship for more than six months. I've never married, never had kids, despite wanting both more than anything. It's hard to believe somebody else likes you when you hate yourself, of course.

I just took a trip to visit Jim and my mom in Florida (stupidly in June/July, yes), hoping that he would be nice to me. (Jim is not just a dick to me; he is almost universally regarded as somewhat of a douchebag by all of my extended family--cousins, aunts, friends. There are a few people he does not seem to treat badly. He bonds with one of my brother's wives over football (he was a high school and college football jock), and she is treated like a queen, never a harsh word.

What does he do? He has almost no patience. He likes to plan things out to within an inch of their lives, and if everybody doesn't follow lockstep, or if the plan falls apart in the slightest way, he lashes out by belittling and blaming others. He is constantly critical. If he is not criticizing one of us or an absent family member, you can be sure he is calling some other driver an idiot for doing the same kinds of things he does all the time himself. He literally criticized my mother six times before breakfast two days ago; I was counting, she was trying to make breakfast while he read the paper. We went to eat at Cracker Barrel (his favorite place) for breakfast yesterday. We were on our way to do something, so we had a schedule, but plenty of time. He was ready to order almost immediately, and when the waitress asked, he told her we were all ready. I was not ready; the menu is huge, and I was just trying to find goddam eggs, home fries, and bacon. The waitress asked if I needed a minute; I started to say yes but Jim cut me off, saying how much of a hurry we were in. I had to order pancakes, first thing that came to mind, though I'd had pancakes the two days before. I only ate a little and starved the rest of the morning. My consolation was that I wanted to eat lunch in Little Havana; I had a Nicaraguan place picked out. By that point Jim was getting anxious to be getting home, even though we had plenty of time, so he made us eat at McDonalds. (Probably for the better actually, since it is very awkward to go with Jim into a restaurant filled with brown people who don't speak English.) Later, he pulled up to a gas pump in the full sun, didn't give us a chance to roll our windows down (my child nieces were in the backseat with me, because at least they love me), turned the engine off, and closed his door. The temperature immediately soared, so I opened my door. When Jim and my mother got back in, Jim said, "Who the hell has their door open?" I told him I did and why, and was accused of trying to start trouble. It's little thing after little thing like this, and they all add up; he rarely considers anybody's else's feelings or comfort.

I tried to talk to my mother about it last night. She say "You won't believe it, but between the two of us he is the more loving one." (My mom unfailingly asks how everybody is and treats everybody with the utmost respect and kindness.) She defends him and claims I am being unreasonable--"You don't know how much he loves you!" She implied I was ungrateful for the "three months' planning" he put into my visit. What did he do? He booked a four-hour fishing trip near his home and made some salsa. I tried to point out that all the fun trips in the world are pointless when he comes along and ruins every bit of fun. This morning Jim told me what a nightmare it is to travel with my aunt because she likes to talk; the irony was too much to bear. I'd travel with my aunt, who is tons of fun, for a thousand years before I took another trip with Jim.

At the airport this afternoon, Jim said to me, "Sorry you didn't have a good time," in a tone that implied it was my fault. I just hugged my mom and nieces tight and told them how much I loved them and ran for the plane, waiting for the guilt to wash over me. I told my mom a couple of days that I am never coming back as long as Jim is alive. Every time I visit I come away with PTSD. Yet his death used to be my greatest fear; how could I bear that? Now I'm not sure what my reaction might be.

I have spent probably $20k on therapy over the years, and it hasn't helped a lick. I'd love to be able to feel comfortable letting somebody love me. It's probably too late to have my own kid (and I fear that I may become Jim and pass it along), but I'd at least like to get married.

How best can I begin to work my way there?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (32 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
You could start by breaking off contact with this guy. Why hang out with such a terrible man? If you want contact with your Mom, then arrange it so you two can get together without Jim.

There was a lot of "He made us," and "He caused me to.." in this. I would also try to get to a point where you can realize that you're a 53-year-old man and the only way that someone can make you do anything (except by force) is if you let them.
posted by xingcat at 12:14 PM on July 7, 2016 [45 favorites]

You sound a lot like my brother. My father was shitty and abusive, and for most of his childhood, my brother got the brunt of it. My brother is close to your age now, has severe depression, and has felt like he has never had a normal life because of his childhood. For what its worth, my brother has also completely cut off both of our parents from his life.

One of the nice things about being an adult is that you don’t have to have ANY relationship with your parents if you don’t want to. You don’t have to visit them, and if you do, you can actually physically leave (and not come back) when somebody is treating you in a way that makes you feel belittled.

I know that cutting off parents is not enough to heal old childhood wounds, and that shitty childhood experiences affect different people and personalities in such deep entrenched ways. I think a lot of the healing work comes from identifying these core beliefs about self that you learn from your parents in your early life, and finding ways to work through them, and realize that they’re not true (so much easier said than done).

I’m trying (slowly) to work some through some similar issues right now. At the moment, I’m working on just labelling when I have a shitty thought about myself and just noticing that it’s happening, ie. “I am having a thought right now that I am unlovable.” I’m also trying to notice how that thought is affecting my body (tight stomach? Clenched jaw? Making fists? Etc.) Simply realizing that what I’m thinking is just a thought, is helping me anyway let go of some of these negative thought cycles that I often get stuck in.
posted by twill at 12:17 PM on July 7, 2016 [5 favorites]

You don't need to categorize anything as abuse in order to create and enforce boundaries for yourself. Doesn't matter if he's a living saint, if you don't want to have a relationship with him, you don't have to.
posted by greta simone at 12:18 PM on July 7, 2016 [25 favorites]

Have you seen, elsewhere on this site, the poop milkshake analogy? If I give you a delicious milkshake, how much poop are you okay with also having in it? A spoonful? Or maybe none?

You don't have to give people shit credit for any reason. The shit is reason enough. You are an adult and it makes you (and other people!) miserable to be around him, that is enough.

And your mom has invented a reality in which she sees it and has decided it is okay. She's great with you eating shit. That's how much your mom cares for you - which she probably does to some degree, but she's getting something that's more important than how he treats you, so she's made her choice.

In the future choose to only see her - if she will even make that possible - without him. And if she won't, maybe you can find a way to have a relationship with her by phone and email or skype or whatever.
posted by Lyn Never at 12:19 PM on July 7, 2016 [21 favorites]

And you're having so much of a hard time allowing yourself to be an adult with choices that you may have to consider trying therapy on more radical terms, as in taking this post in with you and saying "this thing, this thing is the tip of a huge iceberg and I need to be specifically directed to work on this and not you sitting back wish-washing about whatever it is I decide to talk about today, which is helpful for a lot of people and safer-feeling but I need to crack my safety protocols now." I suspect you may have been handled a little vaguely in past therapeutic relationships.

You might also look for someone who specializes and is trained in DBT, which is probably not an approach you've experienced in the past. It's very skills-oriented, which will put some tools in your toolbox for creating and maintaining boundaries and feeling good about it.
posted by Lyn Never at 12:25 PM on July 7, 2016 [18 favorites]

Your dad is a dick. If "quick with the fist and belt" means what I think it means, he may also have been physically abusive. But whether or not he is or was technically "abusive" isn't really relevant as far as I'm concerned: you have presented enough information here for me to conclude, clearly, that your father is a tremendous asshole who makes you feel horrible.

Cut him off. You are not under any obligation to continue to speak with him.
posted by breakin' the law at 12:35 PM on July 7, 2016 [6 favorites]

You don't have to keep visiting this man.

If you do visit this man, you don't have to do what he tells you to do. "No, Jim, I actually do need a minute to find what I'm looking for."

If you do do what he tells you to do, you still don't have to let him talk to you the way he does. "Jim, I won't be yelled at. If you speak to me that way again, I'm leaving." And then do.

If you have trouble imagining drawing the line on your own behalf, consider your nieces, who are being exposed to a horrible model of masculinity that may well affect their own ability to find loving partners in the future.

Speaking of your nieces, they love you. You are a lovable person. There's no way a random Internet stranger can possibly do meaningful work to help you accept that, but let me add just a tiny pebble to the pile that says you are worthwhile.
posted by praemunire at 12:35 PM on July 7, 2016 [28 favorites]

Childhood abuse survivor here. You could try getting an intake appointment with a therapist that specializes in PTSD, trauma, and childhood abuse and tell him/her your story. See what they recommend. I know that I only had a marginal response from therapy until I really got honest about what happened to me as a child and was willing to go through the very deep and painful work to move through it. Best to you.
posted by strelitzia at 12:39 PM on July 7, 2016 [9 favorites]

Oh, and stay away from people (anybody but especially your father) that you feel like shit around.
posted by strelitzia at 12:42 PM on July 7, 2016 [5 favorites]

I've never married, never had kids, despite wanting both more than anything.

Why? A lot of men just go into relationships expecting women to handle all their emotions for them (emotional labor). Do you feel like getting married would make you feel better? I think it's the other way -- happy people can partner up and be happy, but marrying someone won't solve any of your problems. You must make a fulfilling life first, and you can, but only if you start doing something different.
posted by flimflam at 12:50 PM on July 7, 2016 [9 favorites]

The day I realized my parents are assholes was one of the best days of my life. I didn't cut contact with them, or confront them about it. (Though I did have a period of no-contact with my dad during my early 20s and did plenty of "I HATE YOU AND WISH I WAS NEVER BORN" histrionics as a teenager.) They're just... dicks.

Examples that are similar to your own:

The time I spent a ton of money to fly cross-country to spend a long weekend with my mom, and she barely spoke to me the entire time. The time I called my dad to tell him I got engaged, and he was like "... OK..."

They both contributed to the death of my self-esteem as a child, in ways similar to yours. (My dad: "You'll grow up to be a pizza delivery driver if you get a B in math," My mom: a constant stream of body dysmorphia.) They both were garbage parents who did everything in the book that you're not supposed to do lest it fuck up your kid. Shit on all my hopes and dreams. Never attended a single school play I was in, even as I was applying to highly regarded university theatre programs. Into my 30s they constantly undercut me and make me feel unworthy of love.

I could never count on anything they ever said, which means TO THIS DAY I can't trust people. Just this morning I was fretting over my partner being someplace with a thing at a specific time, just knowing he wouldn't be. Despite the fact that he always is. Because he loves me and gives a fuck and is reliable. 35 years and it doesn't occur to me that when someone who loves you says they'll be there at 7:30, they will be there at 7:30.

Maybe I should cut them out of my life. I guess in a lot of ways, I have. I live across the country. We see each other roughly once a year. I don't join in for minor holidays, birthday parties, family trips, etc. (And anytime I do, I regret it.) I'm not sure that my only advice to you would be "eh, they're dicks, get over it." But, yeah. I just own the fact that we're not close, they are the main source of my personal problems, and I CANNOT RELY ON THEM FOR ANYTHING EVER NO MATTER WHAT. So I just know this. Axiomatically. It's not worth worrying about or wishing it could be different. This is what is. The sky is blue. I have brown hair. My parents are assholes.
posted by Sara C. at 1:06 PM on July 7, 2016 [25 favorites]

I'm so sorry you were bullied by Jim as a child and that he continues to treat you poorly now. That is unacceptable behavior on his part, full stop.

To address your question about whether or not you were emotionally abused: It is your decision about what to call your experiences, but for reference, I had a very similar childhood and refer to it as emotional abuse. I struggled with labeling my experiences for a long time, because I felt like I did not meet some imaginary bar for being a "real" abuse survivor. Ironically, I think being abused made me feel chronically inadequate to the point of not believing I was abused enough to call myself an abuse survivor.

For me, it was helpful to realize that standard definitions of emotional abuse emphasize the outcome as well as the behavior:

"Emotional abuse of a child is commonly defined as a pattern of behavior by parents or caregivers that can seriously interfere with a child’s cognitive, emotional, psychological, or social development"

Even if you're not entirely sure what happened or whether what happened qualifies as abuse, if you would characterize it as a pattern and if you feel that it interfered with your development, it falls under this definition.

As for recovery, something in your post stood out to me:
When I got home, Jim (I have decided to never call him "Dad" again) said, "Well, I guess we'll just wait for the paddy wagon." I remember him saying that like it was last week.

Part of addressing emotional abuse from my childhood was identifying memories that felt frozen in time as potential symptoms of PTSD and chronic trauma. I second the recommendations to look for therapists who specifically address those issues. I would also recommend "Trauma and Recovery" by Judith Herman and "The Body Keeps the Score" by Bessel van der Kolk, with the strong disclaimer that they are both difficult reads that are best done under the guidance of a therapist skilled in addressing childhood trauma. Those books were helpful for me, but also made me relive a lot of awful stuff that probably would have been less awful with the support of a good therapist.
posted by guybrush_threepwood at 1:11 PM on July 7, 2016 [13 favorites]

Is he really, or is it me?

Honestly, some of both. You do sound overly sensitive but that doesn't matter. If having someone in your life is bad for you, remove them from your life.

I don't think he's a monster, I think he's a product of his times (we now know the harm that hitting children does but it was commonly done for millennia) and probably his own treatment as a child. His comment after the shoplifting sounds like a typical parental expression of disappointment in a child or an attempt at scaring your straight. But again, right or wrong, it doesn't matter. If you come away feeling traumatized by seeing him, just don't see him. If you want to try to resolve some of your feelings about him before he passes away, perhaps letter writing would be a better option, but work through it with your therapist.
posted by Candleman at 1:15 PM on July 7, 2016 [6 favorites]

I'm so sorry. Your family sounds so much like mine. My dad (coincidentally, Jim), also emotionally abused us growing up through narcissistic temper tantrums when things didn't go his way, calling us stupid, dominating everything, criticizing everything and everyone. Like you, I've carried lasting wounds and have yet to marry or have a successful relationship. I haven't tried therapy, though. I'm considering it. I'll be watching this thread.

My own Jim is on medication now and is a little easier to handle. Your Jim is a lot more difficult to fathom. I agree with your assessment - don't go see your Jim any more. See if your mom can come visit you alone. Stay in touch with your brothers. Especially stay in close contact with your nieces and nephews. Don't cut off your entire family because of Jim, although he'll try to make you. If you do go back to the area to see the rest of your family, stay in a hotel and see them on YOUR terms. Rent a car and leave when things get bad. The worst part of traveling to see my folks in the bad old days was being trapped in my Jim's terms, on his schedule, in his car, with him calling all the shots. Allow yourself an exit route, and see if that makes it any easier to handle.

Best of luck to you! Feel free to memail.
posted by jhope71 at 1:19 PM on July 7, 2016 [3 favorites]

My father is emotionally abusive and I can understand how hard it is for you to deal with this. My dad could be really loving and kind but also very abusive, he had anger problems and was critical of everybody and if we didn't do exactly what he wanted he would explode -- hit us, call us ungrateful, stupid, hateful, spoiled, etc. Just because it's the little stuff on a daily basis doesn't mean it's meaningless...it puts you on edge, it makes you feel like you can't make mistakes. You don't have to call it abuse but, my father was a lot like yours, and I see it as abuse because he put his feelings above mine no matter what the situation, because he tore me down emotionally, and because he used insults and criticism and violence to show me what he wanted from a child.

I don't hate him but it was really hard for me to come to terms with knowing that someone who has given me everything I have, has also hurt me a great deal. I fear his death a lot too, I think because I still have a lot of guilt that I have not changed him or have not been able to just "get over it" and love him the way he wants me too. Sometimes I still think that if I just sucked it up and did what he wanted we could have a good relationship.

But any reasonable person would not expect you to go back to a relationship that has harmed you, expecting the other person will change substantially. He could change, but he very well may not.

My dad went through a lot of trauma and I think his behavior stems from a lack of control in his life and insecurity about himself. He needs to be in control and is deeply insecure when he loses it -- resulting in anger, indignation, shame and violence. I don't think that justifies what he does, it just feels like a more real explanation that "he's an abuser and a bad bad man!"

My mother also would defend him because of his past, and ask us to forgive him every time he did something wrong. Knowing all of this helped me tell myself that he was a human with good qualities but whose emotional relationships seemed to hurt a lot of people around him. I could tell myself that he craved love but has a very limited view of the forms it could take. And that even though we both love each other, he wants me to be someone and act a way that doesn't represent me. In the end I did realize that if I didn't create some distance I would get sucked into his bullshit and keep letting him get into my head.

I have three older siblings and we all deal with this relationship differently. I tend to be closest to my mother to support her, and still see my dad regularly. One of my sisters is very distant from the both of them but turns up for family events. At one time or another, all of us are frustrated or there's a lot of crying or tongue-biting. So I'm not sure there's a right way to do it. It sounds like, though, that he might have affected your ability to love yourself and see why you are worth loving because his voice is always there.

Not everyone is capable of change; my dad did change somewhat when he realized people he loved would turn away from him because of how he treats them. But he can still be a painful person to live with. So if you are worried about feeling crappy for cutting him off, I don't think you should be. You deserve to be around people who are nourishing, and if he is not that, he is not really trying to have a relationship with you. It may also pull his head out of his ass - or not. If you do want to keep in contact with him, tell yourself that cutting him off now doesn't have to be permanent. Don't go into it with expectations. Maybe you will be able to build yourself up, feel safer and stronger, and then interact with him to a limited degree down the road.
posted by mmmleaf at 1:27 PM on July 7, 2016 [4 favorites]

Is he really, or is it me?

One of the earlier replies points out that in the end, whether he was textbook-abusive or not doesn't necessarily matter. What does matter is that he was an asshole to you and he makes you feel bad when you are around him. That in an of itself is pleeeeeenty to say "You know what? I'm not going to see Jim anymore. He's not a nice person and I don't need that shit." My husband's father sounds a lot like yours, and falls in this fine line between "dick, or all-out abusive?" If it weren't for the fact that our son genuinely loves his grandparents, my husband would have written him off ages ago regardless of what side of the line he's on. Why? Because he's a pain the ass and all the years of shitty behavior towards his own kid took a toll. We ration grandpa-time, as much to protect our son from his moodiness as to preserve my husband's sanity. Small doses means he doesn't end up getting cranky and scolding a 4 yr old for normal behavior, and my husband doesn't strangle him.

But here's the thing...I agree that he is likely a product of his time in terms of parenting, but that kind of old school, hardass approach doesn't work with all kids. I'd say it barely works at all, but some children might have the type of personality that helps them weather the storm. You sound like you might have been a more sensitive child. And this dynamic between the hardass and the sensitive has killed many father/son relationships over time.

I think that at this stage, you would benefit from finding some tools to help you cope. Cutting him off might be an answer, but what if doing so also cuts you off from other people you love and love you? You can stand up to him. You can enforce boundaries. But if you haven't learned how along the way, a therapist would be a big help. And I say this gently, but even if you do manage to avoid him completely, I think you might benefit from finding these tools anyway. They will serve you well.

Best of luck. You can do this.
posted by DrGirlfriend at 1:32 PM on July 7, 2016 [6 favorites]

He was quick with the fist and belt, and called us each innumerable times as kids a "dumb shit" (he continues to do this sometimes).

Didn't need to read any further. It's not you. Nobody deserves to be treated like that - especially not a child by their parent.
posted by radioamy at 1:51 PM on July 7, 2016 [10 favorites]

I just want to say how sorry I am for what you experienced. The pain just pours through the page. Whether or not someone else would feel exactly the same way as you do (and I think many would), you are who you are. Even if you were a sensitive little boy with a delicate heart, that is the kind of thing that careful parents attend to. That temperament is different than the temperament that can shrug off anything, but it comes with a sensitivity that could also enhance your ability to treat others gently.

Personally, I think your dad sounds abusive. Corporal punishment is illegal in some countries now, much less being quick to dole it out. And the kind of criticism you mention sounds incredibly corrosive. All that takes a long time to recover from. I think recovering might begin with loving yourself enough to not care about objective definitions and instead say "this affects me in XYZ ways, and that matters." Be the one who defends yourself and prevents further exposure to this.

I wouldn't say it's absolutely 100% too late to have children. You could be like David Letterman and Jack Nicholson and have children in your 50s, or you could foster a child. If you really want marriage and maybe also a child, tell this to your therapist and ask that your therapy prioritize getting you to a place where you feel like you deserve it. Just from your post, you sound like someone with a lot of love to give.
posted by salvia at 1:58 PM on July 7, 2016 [7 favorites]

Jim's behavior sounds awful. BUT, here's the good news! The great thing about being an adult is that you can break the pattern that built up over your childhood-- the pattern of Jim behaving in a certain way, and you (the child) having to accept it because you were a child and had no other options. Now, you have many options, and you can choose to exercise them. It will certainly surprise Jim the first time it happens, but you can try any or all of these:

Jim: "You little shit, you're trying to cause trouble."
You: "I prefer you not speak to me like that. I'm going to leave now." [call a cab, walk to bus, drive home in your separate car, etc.]

Jim: "You don't have time to order what you want; we're in a hurry."
You: "Actually, if you're in a hurry, go ahead and order and leave early. I'm going to take the time I need, and I'll meet you home later if you have to be somewhere soon."

Basically, decide what behavior you want from him and let him know. Let him know that if he doesn't behave in a way that respects your boundaries, you will simply do X, Y, Z. (Leave, hang up the phone, take a cab somewhere else, etc.) Then follow through. People tend to be very surprised when the "usual" way of doing things (abusing others) is suddenly not tolerated by others.

YOU get to decide what your boundaries are. Jim may never change, but you get to decide what is and isn't acceptable for YOU to be exposed to. You can decide that it's 0% or 100% of his behavior.

In terms of developing healthy relationships and repairing your self-esteem, it sounds like therapy hasn't helped much. Have you ever considered CBT or Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction? These have good outcomes.

Sorry for your pain. :( I have faith you can overcome this, though!!
posted by enzymatic at 2:03 PM on July 7, 2016 [11 favorites]

Also, I recommend the books Drama of the Gifted Child by Alice Miller and the Dance of Anger by Harriet Lerner. Strength to you!!
posted by enzymatic at 2:04 PM on July 7, 2016 [3 favorites]

I know it can sound a little woo- but I firmly believe that we tend to get 'stuck'at the age of our great hurts, whether from abusive or neglectful parents, grief, loss, ptsd, divorce, or any other hurt... in my case, my dad left when I was 15, so for more years than I want to admit to, I reacted to similar hurts as a 15 year old would. It cost me a lot, and I was finally ready and capable of dealing with it when it was costing me more than holding onto it was benefiting me (Very little benefits, honestly, but it was what I was used to, and it covered the hurt)

Jim will not change, you can not change your past with him. It sounds like he is costing you a lot today.

Do you love yourself? Did you ever build up that self esteem? Or are you still that 12 year old who is a 'criminal' and 'dumb shit'? I think you deserve better. I think you have the strength, and desire, to really dig into that pain, that loss, those unmet needs- and get yourself healthy. 12 year old you could not deal with Jim, but you can now.

It is worth it to live a life free of Jim.
posted by Jacen at 2:21 PM on July 7, 2016 [4 favorites]

You mention PTSD. I found EMDR therapy to be tremendous for my PTSD, onset by abuse. You might want to consider this option. It's very effective and I found it to be much more so than traditional talk therapy.

Best of luck. I'm so sorry you're experiencing this. Take care of yourself. You are worth it.
posted by sockermom at 2:33 PM on July 7, 2016 [4 favorites]

Assigning blame is pointless. He makes you feel like a piece of shit, knows he does it, and doesn't care.

You shouldn't hold out on the dream of making him understand or pay for the pain he has caused you. Just break contact so you don't have to have any new interactions with this person, not out of revenge or as a call for change, but in a loving gesture to yourself and your happiness. You deserve to surround yourself with people who understand you, respect you, and help hold you up.
posted by Foam Pants at 3:15 PM on July 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

I still see my formerly abusive family on occasion. I cope with:

- have an exit route (this goes for my in-laws too, lest you have some fantasy that all families are better than yours) because all of the worst visits and trips with my family is when I cannot escape and am bound to their schedules that manage to be both arbitrary and inflexible.
- have support (I have friends I text when I am around my family or my inlaws, and they reassure me)
- be prepared to leave (I don't always, but I have, and that giving power back to yourself makes a difference)
- role play out what you will do if X happens (one of mine is inappropriate media around children because my dad has no filter and no concept of children and media - so the last time he decided to try and watch a Rob Schneider comedy around the 5-7 year olds I had a script in my head about how to say what I wanted to say)

All in all, yeah this was abuse. You can help yourself though, I promise (she says, as she swans out the door to therapy).
posted by geek anachronism at 3:50 PM on July 7, 2016 [2 favorites]

It's taken me 6 years but I am a grown up now. When I visit my emotional abusive, elderly dad and he says, "Help me pick up that ladder, I'm going up on the roof," I can say, "No thanks, dad. You're not supposed to go on the roof. You can do it if you want, but I'm not helping." And then when he nearly kills himself and comes back into the house, huffing and puffing and collapses in his chair and gives me the evil eye and says, "I'm gonna die. If I die it's all your fault," I can say, "Nope, dad. If you die it will be your fault for insisting on moving the ladder and climbing up to the roof." When my dad's housemate comes home drunk and tries to talk to me, I can say, "I don't want to talk to you now." And when he persists, I can say, "We're good. I'm not angry. I'm just not going to talk to you now." Three things helped me learn about setting appropriate boundaries and limits after a lifetime of being terrorised (but not as badly as you) by my dad: Attending Al-Anon meetings, going to an adult DBT group for 6-month skills training, getting a new therapist who specialised both in DBT and codependence, and having several EMDR sessions. YMMV but I am living proof that people who once hated themselves can learn to love themselves and feel loveable while still protecting themselves from inappropriate behaviour. I know it's hard to imagine but take heart--I was 54 when I started. You can do this. It's not easy but it is transformative to reclaim your life and become the strong and capable adult you want to be instead of the defective child you've always been treated as.
posted by Bella Donna at 4:05 PM on July 7, 2016 [19 favorites]

I have more abusive examples, btw. Just not interested in sharing them. Anyway, good luck OP!
posted by Bella Donna at 4:05 PM on July 7, 2016

Your mom is backing him up over you, which hurts too. You've probably got a whole bunch going on there where you're the main person in the family who is saying "Uh, guys? Is it just me or is dad an asshole?" and everyone else is pretending that he's fine, it's just you while dad destroys things. While they're actively in denial, they have to isolate and shame the person who is trying to tell the truth, and that's leaves you out in the cold from the family who - despite all the abuse - you still love deeply.

It is awful to not be chosen repeatedly, to have your mother protect and choose to lie for your dad's abusive behavior, and to know that in order to be part of your family, you'd have to lie about your own truth.

Cutting contact to just limited phone calls is a good first step, and then exploring body-based therapy or other short-term stuff with specific outcomes so you can see progress is a good step. Think about fostering or adopting a shelter a pet if your therapist or several of your friends are confident you are up to handling them - helping an animal recover or learn to bond with lots of affection and a good routine is an amazing way to help you learn about love and loving.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 6:07 PM on July 7, 2016 [3 favorites]

Here's what it seems like: you were a fragile kid whose father bullied and picked on and beat and belittled you. You grew up trying desperately to be perfect for him, to follow his plans perfectly, and you never could because A) his plans aren't reasonable, and B) you're not perfect. You thought that if you could be perfect enough for him, he'd stop being awful to you, and when you weren't able to be perfect, you blamed yourself. And when you visit him as an adult, you go right back into that mindset of having to be perfect for him, and blaming yourself when you can't be.

If that's right, then the way toward healing is to begin to believe differently about your role in this. You didn't have agency as a kid. Your father behaved outrageously toward you. It damaged you. Now, as an adult, it is your choice whether and how to have contact with him. It is your right to protect yourself, and to choose what this should mean for you. It might mean no contact. It might mean when you visit your family, you stay in a hotel and only see your parents for scheduled events, like a lunch or dinner, and you give yourself permission to speak up for yourself ("No, I'm not ready yet, I know I'd like eggs, [Server] can you point me to that part of the menu?") and to leave if your father bullies you. It might mean you have phone contact but don't visit. It could mean a bunch of different things. But the key is recognizing that your role as a child was one of powerlessness, and your role as an adult is what you choose.

None of that is to try to shame you for how you've related to Jim as an adult. It's perfectly natural to want and hope for a father who will treat you with kindness, to give him chance after chance to make things right, and to revert to old patterns when you visit family. But those things are bringing you more grief, and I'd encourage you to try something new. I also agree with the suggestions of body-centric therapy, or even starting with something like yoga if you're therapy'ed out right now. Trying to be perfect wreaks havoc on a body, and tends to make us disconnect from our physical needs.
posted by Meg_Murry at 8:52 PM on July 7, 2016 [4 favorites]

So I know you've tried therapy but you asked how to move on and let someone love you. A friend who was in a similar position to you recommended this book as the only thing that really helped her (she was and is in therapy too) and likewise it also really helped me. I was hesitant at first, I don't really like the title, but I read the free preview on amazon and it was compelling enough that I went ahead and bought the book and read it and it was more helpful than any other talking or reading I'd done. So I'm linking it here in case it might help you, too.
posted by Polychrome at 4:03 AM on July 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

I also have spent decades in therapy, and wondered how to label my difficult childhood experiences. In my first interaction with an EMDR therapist, I expressed your same concern: "is what I experienced brutal enough to get the label 'abuse' (and relevant treatment)?"

She countered that everyone's pain and tolerance of pain is different. Everyone she sees doubts that their experience "counts" as abusive. She said it was evidently traumatic to me, and I didn't deserve to suffer. She suggested that we try EMDR, and see what happens.

Four sessions have dramatically changed my perception of my childhood, and helped me move from obsessing over painful memories to being able to observe those interactions as something that happened in the past, and I'm older now and I survived.

I came to EMDR from rave reviews here of the book The Body Keeps the Score. EMDR is fundamentally different from most talking therapy, and I can't recommend it highly enough.
posted by Jesse the K at 5:21 AM on July 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

May I suggest Emotions Anonymous? You would meet people who have similar issues who have overcome to various degrees abusive relationships. There is nothing like a room full of people who can honestly say "I have been there. I know what you have been thru. There is a way out."
The healing power of being with people who have a set of principles that help them navigate these relationships is something you have to experience to believe.

And it is free!
posted by shaarog at 6:29 AM on July 8, 2016

You don't have to visit your dad, you don't have to like him or love him. You can't change him, only how you deal with him. if he makes you feel terrible, DON'T go visit him. that is crazy!!! Mom wants everyone to get along and wants to guilt you into loving him but that is wrong on her part. she should have protected you when you were a helpless child. but now, you are not a child and you are not helpless. take control--look in the mirror and tell yourself you have value and you matter.

Go home, start your life and don't look back. you deserve the best. emotional abuse is so horrible because it eats at your very soul. I am so sorry for what you went thru, and hope that some of the great ideas above will help you in your recovery and help you move on with the life you deserve.
posted by Izzi at 7:01 AM on July 17, 2016

« Older Looking for a kinetic coin bank   |   Splitting royalties between co-authors on Amazon Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.