How My Family Is Learning To Heal After 25 Years Of Abuse

watercolor illustration of adult and child
PHOTO: AGSANDREW / GETTY IMAGES

It’s not quite been two years since the last time I spoke to him. He is out of my life, but remains a ghost in my head. His rage still haunts the channels of my childhood home, leaving angry memories and open wounds on the walls. 

We still have fights in the kitchen, my mum and sibling and I. We hurt each other as if he’s still here, poisoning us.

The Man of the house. That’s what he wanted to be. The Man.

Congrats to him; he’s finally The Man. The man who ruined our f*cking lives.

Our house is underwater. It was built by my great-grandfather, who hoped it would stay in our family. Did he ever imagine the way it would look with its halls flooded with debt? What would he have said about the broken sink, leaking toilet, and loose sockets that we can’t afford to fix?

The Man wanted dominion over his kingdom — the place I was trapped in for most of my life. He wanted the respect associated with being The Man Who Fixed Everything without actually fixing anything. 

In reality, his true talent was breaking things: Trust. Self-esteem. Silence.

Jem Zero / Vocally

Not quite two years later, my family still grieves. The financial scars are, comparatively, the least of our concerns: We still lie awake at night, hearts beating, Xanax clattering in its bottle, eyes closed, trying to find just one hour of sleep. The real "monster under the bed" is psychological, and it’s not just under the bed, either: It’s in the cracks of our skulls, dry skin and abusive language, binge-eating and chronic fatigue, a shelf full of bipolar medication. It tastes like, “You want some steak?” I’ve been a vegetarian for two years. “You always f*cking liked steak before!”

My mum and I fight — not often, mind you. I love my mother more than anyone in the world, but we’ve both had our panels warped by The Man’s behavior. The frustration is mutual: my tantrums, her lost confidence, areas where we don’t fit quite perfectly anymore because he tried to twist us into compliance like a screwdriver scraping against a screw with the wrong head shape.

With my sibling, it’s even worse. Once I turned six and he decided he hated me, The Man began pitting us against each other, using Sibling as a tool to drive a wedge between myself and the rest of the world. By openly loving my sibling more than me, he fostered both my desperation for approval and my internal resentment of Sibling for being my superior. 

Then came my perpetual desire to annoy and berate Sibling, and their perpetual desire to annoy me until I lashed out, and then beg for The Man’s help to get me in trouble. Two decades have gone by since that cycle started, and we still haven’t fully broken it.

I have to hope that we’ll get there. I have to hope that one day my mum will sleep through the night without medication. I’m trying to learn that yelling is not the answer.

Suddenly I need to share space with Mum on this mental health journey, and let me tell you: I feel awful that it's difficult for me.

Before now, I’ve always been the mentally ill one. Sibling was the sick one, and I was the one with a mind like a minefield, opinions like blow-darts and a constitution as thin as an eggshell. “She always pretends like she’s not affected by anything,” The Man would yell, “but she’s a liar! She does care.” Mum, faced with all this chaos, had no choice but to be the strong one — except now, she isn’t. 

I’m having a hard time dealing with that. It’s selfish, of course, to want to hold monopoly on mental illness within the family. Sibling is also having breakdowns, losing themselves in the computer and shutting down instead of taking initiative. 

But for the first time in my life I have to be the adult, and I don’t have the option of shutting down and being cared for, being a wreck and knowing I don’t have to bear the brunt of the weight. Suddenly I need to share space with Mum on this mental health journey, and let me tell you: I feel awful that it's difficult for me.

Jem Zero / Vocally

We share therapy sessions, mum and I. We try to figure out how to be a family again.

At times, it’s almost like we’ve switched sides, mum and I: I now make Sibling’s doctor’s appointments, spearhead cleaning projects, and talk my mum through accepting my impulsive decisions. After spending so long trying to get over my fears, I don’t know how to make room for hers.

The three of us tiptoe through social interactions, freezing up when the questions hit too close to the wrong spots: Where did your father grow up? Don’t you want your dad to walk you down the aisle when you get married? Why didn’t you just obey? Have you forgiven him? Don’t you still love him? Why didn’t you press charges?

Why didn’t you leave sooner?

There’s shame in it, being abused. Being abused as an entire family, left with our stomachs in our throats like the rollercoaster never stopped plummeting.

There’s resentment. I resent my sibling for not denouncing him. I resent the ignorance of well-meaning people who use words like "forgiveness" and "repentance" and have no idea how much they burn. I resent the extended family members who don’t get it. We resent ourselves for not doing more with all the things we never had.

My family has a fight in the kitchen. It ends with us talking about our feelings, processing triggers, and coming to a solution. This used to be foreign to us, but now I notice it happening more. Sibling and I have meltdowns and throw things, and then cry, and then apologize, and then talk about it.

Talk about it and actually change things.

For the first time since my family’s birth — my birth — things change. They evolve into better things. We clean the gutters that The Man said he’d get around to, and trim the vines climbing up the house. We reorganize, talk about our credit scores, and pay bills that The Man refused to address. We express love for each other without weeping.

I work on listening to Mum. I try not to roll my eyes, because why would any stable person roll their eyes at the feelings of their most important person? I apologize. We all apologize.

After I quit my job, deciding that I’m going back to school, I’m in a deep depression. I can’t do any of the things I hoped I’d do creatively in the month I have between the end of my employment and the beginning of my classes. What I do end up doing is cooking. I make food for Mum and Sibling, and we make food together. She whips up gluten-free versions of beloved recipes so my allergy-ridden self isn’t left out at Christmas.

Eventually, I plug in my tablet again. Eventually, I start writing new things. Eventually, I’m able to breathe without pain.

Jem Zero / Vocally

Our credit scores are up! We buy new (used) cars, and work on Sibling’s resume. We make plans to clean and organize the house, then sleep too much. Sibling fails one of their classes.

The Man goes to jail and will probably be there for life. We’re very, very tired.

Here is how a family heals after being abused for twenty-five years: We find the broken pieces, like Mahjong tiles stolen by the cat, scattered around our house. We set them on side tables and forget about them, and rediscover them later while cleaning. We touch them so often that eventually the edges wear down and stop cutting our fingers. Instead of trying to put them back together, we dump everything into the fire and hope to forge the remains into something worth looking at.

“I’m going to sell my wedding ring,” Mum says after the divorce is final.

Sibling needs to focus more on their classes. Mum thinks about getting a second job. I write, and draw, and market, and save, and spend too much, and apologize, and pay off credit cards again and again.

We take our medication, get put on new medication, and we wake up each morning and manage to get out of bed, even when it hurts.

I love my family more than anything, and would quite possibly die without them. I realize while making breakfast for everyone that I’m not dying. We’re not dying.

Soon, I’ll start going back to the gym and doing more physical therapy exercises. Soon, Sibling will get caught up on homework. Soon, Mum will sleep without worrying about bills. Soon, the fights in the kitchen will dwindle to a normal, manageable amount.

Jem Zero / Vocally

The vines on the house grow back, tall and full, climbing off the roof like they’re crawling into the sky, reaching for the sun.

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