Email: Feeling Trapped

An email from a reader: please read and share –

  • have you been in a similar situation, if so, what was your experience?
  • what you would suggest to the letter writer’s friend?

Hi Everyone,

I have been reading this blog since a long time and would like to share something. Today, a very old  friend called me and after talking to her, I felt that it would help her immensely if you guys gave some feedback on her situation. I have told her my views but I think after she sees it from the point of view of objective strangers , it will give her a better perspective. I plan to show her the post and comments on it .

She and I go a long way back, we are both in our late twenties now, we became friends when we were maybe 5. She is a past of most of my childhood memories and I feel very sibling like about her. We both come from dysfunctional homes, in many aspects our situation was identical. I, however, was lucky enough to escape while still in my teens while she stayed on. She stays with her parents and her younger sister. While her mom has always been very warm and welcoming to me, I could sense the abnormal atmosphere of her house even as a child. Her dad always seemed absent, even when he was there, he seemed sullen and silent, usually preferring to ignore the kids altogether.

After her sister was born, it seemed like her parents blatantly favoured her sister. As a result her sister was very spoilt and often rude to my friend. Her parents never admonished her sister, no matter how much she misbehaved. As we grew up, we couldn’t meet much, but when ever we did my friend would tell me stuff about not being happy at home, feeling neglected and ignored. The things she told me confirmed that my perception of her circumstances had been accurate. She has had bad luck in relationships which I feel atleast partly has to do with her situation at home. I have tried explaining that to her. If you experience an emotionally abusive situation at home, you internalise it and patterns repeat in your future relationships. That it what happened to me, for which I had to attend regular therapy  after I left home and have strongly advised her the same.

Her main problem at present is that she lives at home and feels that she is constantly disrespected and mocked, and has no mental peace. She has a demanding job and is also preparing for exams to do higher studies. Her schedule is gruelling as it is and when you add to it the unpleasantness at home, it is a recipe for depression. She has virtually no autonomy or privacy at home and many a times she has called me and told me she feels trapped in her situation. She feels like she can neither continue living there nor move out. Her parents and her sister are financially dependent on her. She feels duty bound to live with them and support them. This makes it almost impossible for her to save for future.

She talked to her parents about her financial worries, telling them that she needs to save, especially since she will need the funds to pay for her course, after she clears the exam. They brushed her worries aside. Another time she told me that she had mentioned it to her parents that she was unhappy at home and was considering moving out. Instead of asking her what was wrong, they sneered at her and told her once she moves out she will realise that she can’t  make it on her own.

To me the most disturbing part is that they don’t even her even voice her concerns. As if not letting her voice her unhappiness will make it go away. I find it outrageous that they don’t show any concern or interest in her problems. All they do is belittle her and tell her she is wrong, even without having heard her out. I can see how its affecting her. I can sense her frustration, helplessness and utter loneliness. Just yesterday she sent me a text late at night saying she feels so alone, in spite of living with people who supposedly love her, she feels that she has no one she can really talk to. I know, how toxic this can be. I told her of my own experience and according to me the situation cannot improve unless she moves out.

The last straw was today when she called me and told me about yet another  such instance which had made her stay in a hotel for the night. I reiterated my advice of moving out. My point of view is that, she doesn’t owe them anything. Of course, she should care for her parents but they have a reciprocal duty to respect her as a person. It is possible to find a mid way, where she supports them to an extent but doesn’t sacrifice her autonomy. This need not to be an all or nothing situation as her folks are making it out to be. As in , either stay at home and let things be as they are or move out and be accused of abandoning them. It is supremely unfair for them to make her feel guilty for wanting to leave an abusive atmosphere.

After all moving out does not necessarily mean she is abandoning them. They are seriously guilty tripping her and making her feel bad for even considering living independently. She is nearly thirty and it is perfectly natural for her to want to be independent.  Its one thing to care for them but another if it comes at the cost of her own sanity and career. I think she should move out and contribute a little less at home so she can save for her higher studies, especially as they refuse to give her any account of the expenditure, or even discuss her worries. Plus, there is this constant tension and criticism hurled at her. I was in a similar situation at home and it made me nearly suicidal. I am concerned that she might go the same way. I request you to post this as soon as possible and the readers to please post their assessment of the situation. I want her to have someone else’s opinion other than mine.

Thanks for reading.

Lony (thats my preferred pseudonym for this post)

Recognizing Emotional Abuse

Guest Post by wordssetmefreee

The last post and some recent emails brought up the subject of abuse within families.  I’m glad that the email writer moved out.  She is able to analyze her situation quite rationally, which indicates that she got out in time.  Although the majority of these emails tend to come from women, men can also be victims of abuse.  One recent email from an American woman detailed how her Indian boyfriend was being emotionally blackmailed by his parents.  Many commenters advised her to stop dating him because he needed to gain control of his own life before entering into a relationship.  In my own extended family, my cousin, who I grew up with chose to not get married.  After delaying his parents’ attempts to get him married for a few years, he finally came out in the open and declared he doesn’t ever want to get married.  He is an only child and  has been subjected to emotional blackmail (such as daily threats of illness and suicide, hysteria, self-starvation) from his parents.  Five years since he announced his decision, they are still around, but I do see that he is worn down, tired, and stressed most of the time.  He was a happy, fun loving child, always following me around (I’m eight years older to him) asking me to play hide and seek with him.  It bothers me when I see him become a hollow version of himself.

Emotional abuse is a potent method of damaging someone’s psyche, especially a person’s sense of self worth and dignity.  It is potent because it often goes unrecognized.  Its incognito status allows people to inflict substantial damage on victims – as much as that through visible forms of abuse such as aggression and violence.

Socially sanctioned forms of abuse are the hardest to recognize.  In many cultures, parents have unlimited authority over their children.  Any situation where authority goes unchecked is a fertile environment for abuse.  Another culturally sanctioned form of abuse occurs with other authority figures such as teachers, boarding school staff, clerics and law enforcement officers.  This is not to say that all parents, teachers, clerics and police are abusive; but if their authority is not subject to checks and balances, there is potential for abuse, and support when it does occur.

It is important to note that in the case of parents, spouses, and intimate partners, they may not always be aware that they are turning abusive.  Although it is difficult to empathize with the abuser, he/she could also be caught up in a destructive cycle that cannot be voluntarily broken, without professional help, and distancing from the victim.

In the Indian context, parental abuse often goes unrecognized because there is an entire network of constructs, rules and operations that have been built around it.  Recognizing parental abuse threatens so many existing power structures that cultural walls have been built around it to safeguard the unquestioned authority of parents.  Accusing one’s parents of the smallest wrongs is tantamount to treason.  There is so much fear and guilt surrounding this discussion that many sons and daughters don’t dare to broach their parent’s fallibility.  Any attempt at doing so is often accompanied with tremendous guilt and self-reproach on the victim’s part.

However, problems, especially when they are deep-rooted, cannot be pretended away.  It is important for us to recognize abuse.  People are often shocked at the word ‘abuse’ when it is used in the context of their loved ones.  Ironically, it is loved ones who are the most likely to inflict abuse – their increased proximity to the victim and their sense of entitlement, and in some cases, co-dependence make intimate relationships more prone to abuse than relationships that are one step removed.

Who can inflict emotional abuse?

– Spouses/partners

– Parents on their minor children

– Parents on their adult children

– Adult children on their aging parents

– Relatives on children in the family

– Siblings

– Bullies at schools, colleges, and in cyber space

– Police on people in their custody

– Teachers and school authorities on children

– Managers on their reports

What forms does emotional abuse take?

– humiliating, excessive judging/criticizing, shaming, slandering, ridiculing, being dismissive, labeling, condescending

– controlling, taking away choices (requiring permission for going out, controlling spending, controlling routine choices like dressing, showering, eating), infantalization

– accusing (being overly suspicious, reading into every move), blaming (holding victim responsible for abuser’s problems and happiness)

– unreasonable or impossible demands

– emotional distancing, silent treatment, alienating, emotional abandonment or neglect (withholding affection, love, support, withholding communication and expecting mind reading)

– excessive codependence (treating the other person as an extension of themselves, not respecting boundaries, knowing what is best for you, being constantly needy)

– threats and intimidation (loud voice and aggressive body language meant to induce fear, direct or indirect threats to the other person, her reputation, her children, her parents, her safety)

– emotional blackmail (threats of suicide, ill-health or becoming an alcoholic), hysteria (disproportionately intense reaction to mistakes), and self-injurious behavior or threats on self-harm (cutting oneself, burning oneself)

– baiting (deliberately provoking anger through false accusations, preying upon weaknesses)

– creating no-win scenarios (asking someone to choose between two bad options – “you either starve or you apologize for something you didn’t do”, “you either cut off with your brother or cut off with me”)

Some less common forms of expression

– Symbolic suffering (setting fire to a toy or favorite object) – inflicting suffering on an inanimate object or a small animal meant as a threat or intimidation

– Engulfment – showering excessive and suffocating amounts of attention, constantly checking whereabouts, inducing guilt (when victim enjoys something) and fear, exhibiting pathological jealousy

– Stalking – either physical or via phone/email

– Gas lighting/brainwashing – omitting or twisting information to favor the abuser and make the victim doubt their own memory or understanding of events

– Recruiting – making the other person an accomplice in questionable activities

What It Feels Like

The victim often feels confused, hurt, and frightened.  (I will begin to use the female pronoun but this applies to both men and women.)  She loses confidence and begins to doubt herself.  She may doubt her own opinions and beliefs.  She may even begin to doubt facts and her own memories.  There is a sense of one’s reality slipping away.  This makes the victim feel powerless.  Most of the victim’s energy is focused on “being careful” around the abuser’s moods, trying to “read” his signals, and working hard to earn his approval.  The victim is filled with a feeling of dread; there is always the feeling that something may explode (even when things are going well).  The victim begins to blame herself when things get ugly (“if only I had been more careful, if only I got home earlier, if only I cooked his favorite meal”).  The abuser and victim go through cycles of “good” and bad phases.  During the “good” phase, the abuser regrets his actions, tries to flatter or please the victim, and makes peace.  The peace is invariably temporary and is shattered for the smallest and most unpredictable “reasons”.   Initially, the “good” phases serve the purpose of locking the victim in the destructive relationship; however in later stages, the victim begins to understand the hollowness in the kind gestures, begins to recognize the pattern to the point of being able to predict what is coming next, but is unable to break out of it.

How To Cope

There is only one way to cope with abuse.  And that is by putting physical distance between oneself (victim) and the abuser.  At first, this might mean leaving the room and refusing to engage in abusive interactions.  Eventually, moving out of the abuser’s life is necessary for survival.  Leaving requires 2 things – planning and support.  A practical plan is necessary – where will I live temporarily, how will I earn my living, etc.  The victim also needs the support of another human being – a close friend or relative who will help the victim not give in to her fears and go back to the abuser.

Even after getting away from the abuser, many victims continue to suffer the effects of abuse – they will continue to suffer from a lack of self worth, make harmful or self-destructive choices, become close to people who are another version of their previous abuser, and continue to be unhappy.  Victims need to work with a counselor and take the support of strong, reliable friends/family and work on the process of self-healing.

The abuser can recover only through psychological counseling and doing the hard work of recognizing, understanding, and modifying his own destructive behavior patterns.

Victims of abuse cannot be told or expected to “snap out of it”.  Recognizing and dealing with abuse, and supporting the victim practically and emotionally are the only ways to authentic healing.

The Powers of the Protectors.

Cilla asked in a comment, …what do you think about sheltering children, overprotectiveness to prevent children from going wrong or getting hurt? don’t you think such children end up doing just what their parents feared as if fulfilling some prophecy?… would like to know what is your perspective as a parent and in general…

I feel parents cannot protect the children forever, so once they are adults, it is practical to guide them and trust them and teach them to take care of themselves. Also, I am not sure if the parents always know best.

I have blogged about this here. [link]

Many, many Indian parents believe boys and girls must not interact. I think children who are not allowed to mix might grow up confused. Boys and girls must see each other as individuals and humans, not as different species from Mars or Venus. More than anything if children are treated like they do have minds of their own they are more likely to get used to using them.

It is unfortunate when parents are the only people who do not know what’s happening in their children’s lives. The wish to control and protect becomes a barrier in bonding.

Sometimes ‘such children end up doing just what their parents feared as if fulfilling some prophecy?… because those who have not been allowed to mix may have stereotyped image of  the ‘opposite sex’.

Curiosity also finds an outlet in street sexual harassment.

“Some boys who had never interacted with girls thought if you as much as laughed at their jokes you probably were in love with them. It wasn’t their fault. They had absolutely no concept that girls could have normal conversations with boys, or that girls were just like any other people.

But ‘Why this segregation of young adults?’

Because, …the boys’ parents prefer that boys don’t meet girls who might trap them, and the girls’ parents fear that girls will meet boys who might exploit them.’

In traditional families any wish to marry a girl he likes is seen as being irresponsible.
And always, always the parents know better.
The parents can and do make mistakes while finding ‘suitable matches’  for their children.

If parents always knew better there would be no,

Unhappy marriages,

Bride burning,

Children so busy with tuition and home work that they have no time to play;

Unhappy adults stuck in wrong careers or

Students taking their lives because they only got 90.2%.

Also absolute power is open to misuse. Parents do not always know how to handle the power they have over their children. Intelligent adults forced to save unhappy, abusive and violent marriages; dowry; violent beatings, demand for sex selection; honor killings and sexual abuse prove that.

Should any human have such power over another human?

There is also this thinking that the main purpose of having children is to provide support and care givers for the parents’ old age (generally through male children and their spouses).  Now, can the parents self interest or biases not clash with what the child wants? Isn’t protection likely to be used to control the children here?

Then there are honor killings.

Again in the name of protection or honor, daughters are expected to understand that they can be killed (or made to give up her dreams/career/education/love etc).

Such thinking might have been the reason why a stepfather in Hyderabad chained and beat his 15  year old stepdaughter. Half this nation would say, if any girl disobeys, a father might be forced to chain her and keep her hungry, for her good!

I heard an eight year old  screaming one morning. She was sent to take care of her construction worker sister’s baby. When she tried to run back home her legs and hands were tied with ropes. The older sister said she must obey their parents and help her. I doubt if their parents were doing what was the best for  this little girl – but they had the powers to ‘protect’ them.

Parents in India are known to get their adult children sent to jail for marrying against their wishes. Sometimes they might get errant children and their spouse killed.  Recently  the Supreme Court had to put it in writing that any Indian adult is free to marry or live with anyone of their choice!

I also notice that the children are advised to not be influenced by their peer group, but the parents’ peer group* rules their entire lives!

*(society/relatives/community/biradari/samaj)

Where do they go away?

Just an old man crossing the road, shopping bags in hand, hesitating in front of the car,

Made my eyes fill up.

I wanted to walk with him while he crossed the road

He had to be more than 74.

Men more than 74 do live.

They shop, they walk.

They nag their children.

They call them all the time asking them to Google the new medicine they have been prescribed.

They trust their children more than the specialists.

Or they look for excuses to call them.

They call to ask if their married-and-mother-of-two daughter had got back home safely after her first drive on the highway.

They always have the answers.

They know what to do, when the steering wheel is jammed…

Once he called and mentioned some pain.

When he didn’t sound annoyed when I showed concern, I should have guessed.

But I never thought.

The calls reminded me to be more regular with the gym, not to inherit carelessness.

They force their daughters to get a paper and pen and write down the names of their great grandparents.

The ones who had to leave Kashmir in a hurry

Of a great grand mother who brought her baking skills and mouth watering recipes with her from there,

For a forever hungry grandson

Who years later, when he has restrictions on his diet,

Would describe to a non-foodie daughter

The huge oven in which she rolled arbi leaves

And stuffed them with …

I have forgotten what the stuffing was,

And now there is no one to tell me.

He had talked of how he had run after the tonga carrying his mother away, at the age of five…

All those December holidays when I had the first choice of New Year diaries and calendars

In exchange of copying all the addresses from the last year’s diaries

I continued to do this all my life;

Later I had to check his hotmail account,

And respond to his emails, response dictated over the phone

I did it out of habit,

I thought it was just a continuation of a chore I had done all my life…

I didn’t notice how I had never before checked his mail, only updated his address books.

I once chatted on MSN Messenger with my siblings pretending to be dad,

Who thought then why he had difficulty writing his own mail?

When he and his walking friend,

Like two little boys, tried making Grilled Fish in their never used microwave,

Me dictating the recipe over the phone

They made an absolute mess, finally eating a home delivered dinner of grilled fish and French fries 🙂

My vegetarian mom disapproved.

but I delighted in and defended his love for food.

He held ice cream eating competitions amongst the grand children.

How do you think of such a person as old?

When I locked the car keys inside the car,

On a hot summer afternoon, in a new city, feeling lost

He showed me how to open the lock with a 6″ scale, on the cell phone.

Once in South Extension a cow had come running, chased by someone.

And I screamed,

Dad came in between, as expected, as taken for granted that he would…

So wasn’t it natural that I never noticed he was aging?

Not even when I opened a Flickr account for him,

And loaded his collection from his young Photography Club days.

He said

You think you will keep me alive like this?

And I laughed, “What  a nautanki-party we are  Papa!”

I was reassuring him, because it’s all a state of mind,

If you think you will live – you will live.

But we read about how we fool ourselves the fastest?

It’s true.

He wanted to talk about his younger years…

He wondered if the way we didn’t know of our great grandparents, maybe my grand children will never hear of  him…

He was thinking of death.

And I told him some grandparents are never forgotten.

I told him what his grand children thought of him, how he was their hero..

I know I was always there,

There when he spoke so often of death.

Of friends no more.

When his sister died, he said she was younger.

He asked if it was going to be his turn next.

He was laughing I thought. I never thought he meant it.

I teased him about how many ice creams he would eat at my daughter’s wedding.

I wasn’t comforting, I believed that.

He called all the time,

He called when friends visited, while I shopped, drove, attended PTAs …

He knew what I cooked each day

And complained about how my mother won’t let him eat forbidden Butter Chicken or Gajar Halwa.

Or he’d call to say, like a naughty child,

How he ate salted, fried cashew nuts he wasn’t supposed to

Delighting in sincere concern!

He who was too proud to tolerate sympathy,

And he who had never any patience with advice,

Would discuss in detail my ideas of how to eat healthy but tasty sweets…

And yet I didn’t see the changes.

His talk of his childhood,

Of his regrets

And his pride,

And the things he gave up to raise us well…

His photography, rowing, athletics, horse riding, dramatics, reading and writing…

And I listed out which of his grandchildren had inherited which,

Especially the youngest who can eat without pause.

No regret there, I know I was always there,

And it was not out of any sense of duty.

So I heard his delighted laughter, at the mention of the youngest grandchild… while loading the washing machine.

I asked for advice while shopping for electronics

I called him when asked to pay a fine (He said throw the money on his face.)

I complained about Indian schools

And discussed Lalu’s Railway Budget and Cricket…

But I never got to say good bye.

Now that he is not there, I can see so much more of him,

In all that is missing.

I got a call from Reliance Communications, asking if I had some problem with the service.

I thought it was a sales call, but then she said,

“You’ve not been using the phone, ma’am.”

 

(This post started as a post about my mom, about how she was coping without dad, in response to Solilo’s beautiful post about senior citizens.)