What I’m really thinking: coming from an abusive home

The assurance of a supportive family is not a guarantee

“The worst thing that could happen is that you’d have to move back in with your parents,” one of my friends said recently, when I was worrying about my career after college. I’ve been thinking about this a lot, as moving back in with my parents really would be one of the worst things to happen to me. My mother is emotionally abusive towards myself and the rest of the family, and this makes living at home a nightmare.

I am writing this in the hope of uncovering the issue of emotional abuse and ending the stigma around those who speak up about it. Even within my own extended family, people have told me in the past not to speak about my experiences, and some of my close friends do not know anything about this part of my life.

I can only speak of my own experience, as emotional abuse can take many forms. Abuse is defined as attempting to control someone; emotionally and physically being two of the ways it is enacted. It often not only means controlling someone’s actions but also their own self-esteem. In my case, my mother still treats me as if I am a young child; her tone with me is always patronising and scolding. Nothing I do is ever good enough for her, and she tells me this, unprompted. She sees nothing but negativity in my life. She rarely praises me and never comforts me emotionally or physically, which is particularly hard when I need it. She genuinely supports Trump and her abuse towards me is often sexist, homophobic, and racialised, which is particularly hurtful as a queer person of colour.

She treats my father, a man of colour, similarly but worse. Since she is his boss and he has no formal qualifications to his name, he is unable to leave their relationship as he worries he would be unable to get a job without her. She never pays him wages, and even after work, he stays up late at night to continue working. It’s heartbreaking to see. She treated my sibling the same way as me, but thankfully they now study abroad and are far happier there.

Growing up, my father rarely stood up for us, as he would be shouted down quicker than we would. I remember many times when I was a teenager and my sibling, my father and I would all hide quietly in a room upstairs, trying to avoid my mother as she arrived home in a temper. It’s hard because although I love my father and think he has done his best, I do wish he could have protected me and my sibling more. But he was and is more trapped than the rest of us, so I try not to hold this against him. I hope one day, when I am financially stable enough, I will be able to support him to move out and find a new job. That is, however, far in the future.

Over the years, repression and depression, which are directly linked to this relationship, have managed to bury a lot of our worst interactions. You can get so used to something that it all seems normal, until you step away and see that it’s not. I remember going to friends’ houses for dinner growing up and often being astounded and confused by how calm and loving they seemed.

One of the worst moments from our relationship was when I was sexually harassed at school by a staff member. I reported it and my mother refused to believe my story. She took the side of the perpetrator. That was really hard, as I realised that if something like that happened again in the future, she wouldn’t believe me – she would trust a white man she didn’t know at all over her own child. It was a time when I really needed comfort and support, and she gave me nothing.

Another time was when I attempted to come out to her, not because I wanted to, but because a queer magazine was publishing an article I wrote and I was terrified she would find out, so I decided to avoid that by telling her directly. She became extremely angry and told me she knew me better than myself. Again, this was a time when I hoped to be supported and comforted, but was met with rejection. I wasn’t surprised by her reaction, but I was still disappointed. We haven’t talked about it since and I doubt we ever will.

Going to college gave me an escape from the cycle of abuse I experienced at home. For the first time, I lived away permanently from my parents and could be as independent as I knew I could be. When I lived in Halls, my Irish flatmates would visit their families every weekend, often travelling hours to reach home. Although I my family home was closest to Halls, I never went home and was all the happier for it. Often this would come up in conversations as another weekend went by with me staying in Dublin. I never knew what to say beyond “I don’t get on with my family,” this being the simplest answer. I could tell this wasn’t answer enough, but it’s difficult to know how much to disclose to people. I don’t want pity or to become gossip. I just want to be listened to and accepted, but it’s hard when speaking about abuse still holds stigma today, especially when it’s linked to one’s family.

There was one time in Halls when I forgot to text my mother that I got home at night, something which she still demands I do to this day. My phone had died and I’d ended up staying at a friend’s house. My mother, in a rage, drove to Halls and demanded security let her into my room to see if I was there. This was definitely a breach of my privacy, but she was so angry they let her into my room. Of course, I wasn’t there, but my flatmates were and she proceeded to question them on my whereabouts. They didn’t know, as I hadn’t expected to not get back. When I finally turned on my phone later that morning I had messages from them worried about me. I still remember how concerned I felt for my flatmates, who had to deal with her appearing in the flat like that, and scared because I knew she was going to be so angry at me.

The next time I saw my mother face-to-face was horrible, but I was thankful that I could still live at Halls. When I returned to Halls, I told security that letting her in was inappropriate, to which they only responded with: “Well, she was really not leaving until we let her in.” I was saddened by this – even in my safe haven she could still bully her way in. Now I don’t give her my address as I genuinely worry she could break in in order to intrude on my life and those of others.

Particularly in Irish society, family is seen to be so important that for anyone to speak badly of theirs is seen to be disrespectful and ungrateful. I really hope that soon this perception will change. One can never know someone else’s history or relationships, and to assume that your own experiences are like everyone else’s is unfair and untrue. I am grateful to my parents for many things they have done in my life – providing me with a good education, working hard to pay the bills, and often financially supporting me. As my mother said recently, however, “I’ve got you everything you could need!” There are things money can’t buy, and genuine love is  one of them.

Coming from this background still affects me today. I find it hard to open up to people or make close friendships, as I worry people will hurt me like she has. I can’t help but feel that, as a mother is the person who should love you no matter what, and having experienced rejection from her all my life, it makes me doubtful of people. I’m getting better at overcoming this, though, and have found a wider family in friendships, which I appreciate every day.

With the housing and accommodation crisis making the city so unlivable, I have yet to find a place to live for the year. I have been looking solidly since May, and still cannot find a single room within my budget. The current situation in the city and country at large is appalling. It signals to me that I will have to emigrate once I graduate, as I cannot afford to live here. Thankfully, I have a chance at emigrating, when so many others do not and are left to become homeless. The recent waves of protest and occupation will hopefully bring change.

I am also terrified of finishing college – as my friend said, moving back home looms as a possibility if I can’t make a career. I hope to work in the arts, where pay is unstable and often insufficient to support a living. This fear doesn’t help creative work, or any work at all. I can only hope to work hard and plan well for my future so as to never be tied to my mother, financially or otherwise, again.

Hopefully this article has shed some more light on the subject. If there’s one thing you take away from this, I hope it’s to try to accept different family dynamics, even if you may not understand them. No one wants to have negative relationships with their families, so trust people if they do open up. More than likely they are sharing their story because they feel comfortable with you, and by listening to them you’re helping them heal.