When You’re Stuck in the Mental Health System and an Abusive Family

One way in which the biomedical model of mental health failed me was the way doctors never seemed to care that I was under incredible stress at home. I grew up never knowing when screaming would break out, when I’d be punched, kicked, or hit, or even once, have to see my two-year-old sister injured so severely by my mom that an ambulance had to be called. Years of seeing doctors and therapists, starting at age 14 when I had, what I believe to be, a very understandable reaction to the constant violence and chaos, and none of the doctors wanted to talk to me about what was going on at home. And why should they? The biomedical model says that a person displaying the group of symptoms that I displayed is bipolar. Bipolar is something internal, faulty wiring in the brain. Why should they have cared about what was happening in my family? With the biomedical model there is no reason to look at a patient’s living situation or social/familial environment. It’s a chemical imbalance. Take a pill and go be quiet.

I saw many doctors over a period of years, across two states (because we moved when I was in high school). There were no doctors who took what I said seriously. Their only concern was prescribing me drugs. Because that is what they’d been taught, in medical school, by their fellow doctors, in all of the research and studies: ALL sources corrupted by funding from the pharmaceutical industry. For all I know, some of the doctors I saw could have been actively receiving funding from one or more pharmaceutical companies. But even if the influence was not that direct, the influence is pervasive, insidious. The doctors who were on the board for the DSM 5 received funding directly from pharma for their research. The DSM is the most important tool for diagnosing and treating patients. There is no reason the pharmaceutical industry should have monetary influence in that process. But they do and they also influence the education of doctors, research, and academic papers. Patient treatment from diagnosis to treatment plan is determined by the pharmaceutical industry. So we don’t need to surprise Pikachu that drugs are over-prescribed to the point that patients are drugged into symptoms they do not have, to the point that the patient’s actual problems are ignored, even if those problems are toxic family and abuse.

This is an advice post for past me, and everyone who is currently living in the situation that I was in as a teenager and young adult.

If you have been labeled mentally ill for responding in an understandable (albeit socially unacceptable way) to years of physical or emotional abuse, and now your abusive family wields your diagnoses against you, this post is for you. If everyone else in your family screams and is hysterical and violent, yet the second you do it, everyone calms down and stares at you like you’re a lunatic, this post is for you.

First thing, you HAVE to get out

You can love your family and also recognize that they are keeping you sick.

For me, when I started getting my life together, there was a noticeable increase in conflict in my house. Lots of screaming in my face, shoving and hitting me. I would be the only person who was calm and still my family would be screaming at me that I was having a bipolar meltdown. I stood there shaking while my grandfather turned beet red and screamed in my face, when I tried to walk away and disengage, he tried to hit me, my grandmother got involved. He shoved her. She hit the floor. He dragged her out of the room. Both of them blamed this on me. All I did was stand there and then try to walk away.

A psych diagnoses is a weapon to be used against you.

This is why in the process of getting out, you have to be very careful about how you react.

Don’t engage, but be careful about how you do this

If you’ve spent years taking the bait and shouting back at them out of fear or righteous anger, then suddenly coming to your senses is going to upset them. By going so crazy, you became the scapegoat for the toxicity in the family. Now professionals are involved. Maybe police have been involved over the years. That was okay, because the focus was on you and what a problem you are. You can’t just calm the hell down now. They need you to be crazy. If you aren’t, they might have to take a look at themselves and they can’t stand the idea of doing that.

When they see you getting better and making plans to move out, they’ll try to goad you into exploding like you always have. You can’t explode, but you also can’t exactly take the high road. At least, you can’t do it in a way that makes it clear you’re taking the high road.

I’ll give you an example. After I’d made a lot of progress, hadn’t been hospitalized in over a year, had a full-time job where I was making decent money, and had recently been accepted as a transfer student to a good university in the next state over (I went to community college ages 18-22). My younger sister had come for a visit and we were taking the bus to a nearby city to spend the day. My grandmother offered to drive us. My grandparents were in the front seat; my sister and I were in the back.

When we were maybe half a mile from the house, my grandmother turned to me and said, “You don’t have your purse, Jen?”

And I said, “No, I don’t need it. I have cash in my pocket.”

My grandmother said, “Don’t you need your ID to get the bus?”

And I exclaimed, “Oh crud, you’re right! I’m an idiot.”

And my grandfather hit the dashboard and yelled at the top of his lungs, “YES. YOU ARE!”

As my grandmother turned the car around, I was very quiet for long moment, and then I said, “Why would you say that? Why are you being so nasty when I already admitted I made a mistake.”

I kept my voice level and calm.

My grandfather lost it, screaming stuff at me like “You stop it! you never know when to stop. Look at what you do to this family!”

I kept going. I said, “Why are you hysterically screaming? This is not a proportional reaction.” Again, I kept my voice low and calm. I had been reading a lot of self-help and books about healthy communication. I had started to really understand that I wasn’t the problem.

My grandmother joined in the screaming. They both shouted at me that I never knew when to quit. That I was too emotional. That nobody could have any peace with me around. They both hit the dashboard and shouted for the next ten minutes. I didn’t say anything. Neither did my sister. My youngest sister is the most timid of the three of us. I wonder if it’s because she received the worst of the violence. My mom burned her arm so badly on the kiln when she was two. My mom threw a set of keys at her face and cut her eye open. She needed stitches. When she was only a toddler, my mom picked her up and threw her as hard as she could into a wall. The wall broke. The drywall crumbled just as her toddler body crumbled into a limp little shaking ball on the floor. Years later, sitting in the backseat of the car with me, she was sixteen and she was still the mousiest most timid thing. She held her hands in tight fists in her lap and looked at the floor until my grandparents stopped screaming.

Calling them out directly didn’t work.

The next thing I tried was not engaging at all. Trying to walk away from conflicts would also cause escalation.

You have to gauge your family yourself and figure out how not to engage as you plan your escape. But what I figured out is this: if they can tell you are taking the high road, if they can tell you have figured them out, they will feel threatened and they will escalate.

What usually worked in my case was to nod and say okay very meekly and look afraid, even though it was humiliating. I mean, look, I always was afraid. I always flinched and shook when my grandfather got in my space, towering over me, and acting like he was gonna hit me. But since the age of 14, since the day I snapped and attacked him, I’d always looked him angrily in the eye and screamed back at him. I shook and flinched and my heart raced, but I looked him in the eye and screamed back at him all the same. I think I did this because for all of my life keeping my head and trying to “be good” didn’t work. Matching anger with anger and violence with violence was a new strategy. Not that it worked out very well for me. It ended with a slew of psych diagnoses and a revolving door pattern of in-patient hospitalizations. I guess…like I know how martyr-y this is gonna sound and I already hate myself for it, but fuck it, let me find a brightside here: At least with all the adults focused on me and my outbursts, my sisters weren’t hurt as much as they might have been. When I was fifteen, I started getting into fist fights with my mom when she tried to hurt my youngest sister. We were pretty evenly matched. After a couple of these, she stopped losing her shit on my sister. So, hopefully I did something. Both my sisters hate me now, but they both have their own side of this whole thing.

In short, if you have to nod and swallow your pride, do it: It’s worth it. Getting away from them is worth it.

Tell Them As Little As Possible

I told my grandparents everything about my plans to get an apartment at first. Every time I made progress on my plan to achieve independence, they found something to criticize or get upset about. It went like this, my grandfather would fly off the handle and once he got upset, she’d get upset too.

They’d spent years sporadically threatening to throw me out of the house. Now I had a good paying job and I had money saved up, and they would find any reason to scream at me that I couldn’t live on my own. Working almost forty hours a week and taking three courses at community college, while volunteering for hospice, and my grandparents would see me awake at midnight and scream at me that any 22-year-old who didn’t go to bed at a decent hour couldn’t live on their own. Everything was my illness, my sickness, I was too too sick to be on my own.

I stopped talking to them about my plans.

An uncle of mine had died in an unfortunate accident several years prior to this and my aunt had been engaged in a lengthy lawsuit ever since. The lawsuit was unexpectedly settled and my aunt decided to split everything up between the family, instead of keeping it all. She would have been completely entitled to keep it all had she chosen to do that. She lost her husband. But that’s not what she did. I received a lump payout of $10,000 with another $5,000 to be paid to me ten months later. My sisters received the same.

I put that money in a savings account and amped up my apartment search. I realize that I was very lucky and a lot of people in an abusive living situation will not have such a large amount of money given to them out of nowhere. Work as hard as you can and save as much money as you can. Do not let your family know how much you have saved.

From the moment that money was wired to me, my grandfather was on me to sign the money over to him. He tried to get me to give him power of attorney too. He would yell at me, shove me, back me up against the counter and jab his finger in my face, and the whole time berate me to sign those papers.

I knew that I couldn’t. But I also couldn’t fight him.

This was tricky.

Sometimes I said no. Sometimes I hemmed and hawed. Other times I pretended I was late for work.

He forged my signature once. The papers were sitting right out on his desk. He’d signed it for me. I ripped them up and barricaded myself in my room, waiting for the fall out.

If you are in. situation similar to mine, be prepared for this sort of escalation. Legal escalation.

It did not even end there. But I don’t have the energy to get into all of it.

I got out and I’m okay.

Save your money, make your plans, but be incredibly secretive about it.

Nobody Will Believe You and That Has To Be Okay

It’s been ten years since I escaped my family. I’ve been a known quantity in the indie writing world since 2016. I am so used to not being believed that only this year I started talking about this stuff. I have friends in the writing world that have known me since 2016/2017 and they are just now learning that I have all these emotional issues and I come from such a dysfunctional family.

My extended family, aunts and uncles and cousins who don’t know what my grandparents and mom are like when they aren’t around, they believe I am crazy.

They believe I am an over-dramatic emotional bomb, causing so much trouble for my poor mom and grandparents. My cousins that I grew up spending summers with will not talk to me. Ignored my facebook friend requests. Awkwardly avoid me at family gatherings.

The few times that I snapped and said things like “Anybody would be as crazy as me if they lived the way I do. Papa hits her you know. Papa hits her and screams and throws things and threatens everybody.” Nobody believed me. I’m the crazy one. I make shit up. That’s what they believe. And I’ve always been the type to say when I was pissed off or sad. I’m the type to yell and cry. Around other people, my grandfather is calm and kind. And I was an angry emotional teenager. I didn’t have this facade of an exterior. I wasn’t the perfect well-behaved victim who knew exactly how to act to receive sympathy and help. So I didn’t get any.

If you are in the mental health system, my guess is that you didn’t know how to be the perfect well-behaved victim either.

It’s too late now. You are crazy and nobody will believe you.

So don’t try to make them believe you. Do not defend yourself. Do not bring receipts. Your family will likely escalate talking about how crazy you are to extended family or family friends as you get better and become more independent. The sooner you accept that you will never not be crazy to them, the sooner that you accept that crazy to them means ‘person who can not be believed or sympathized with’ the better you will feel.

Nobody will help you, so YOU have to help you.

Stop Waiting for Love and Acceptance. Your Family Will Not Give it to You

If you’re like me, the more independent you become, the more you start to achieve success as a functioning human being, the more you’ll hope for your family to recognize how far you’ve come.

But this goes back to your success being a threat to them: They will not be proud or give you an atta boy or say “wow, we were really wrong about you.”

It will never happen and the more that you hope for it, the more you open yourself up to further abuse from them.

Here is how I interact with my mom, now that I’ve transitioned from no contact to minimal contact. The second I start to feel anything, I end the conversation.

I feel happy because she’s proud of something I did? End the conversaton.

I feel annoyed because she is picking at me? end the conversation.

I feel longing for some real connection to her? end the conversation.

If I feel anything at all, the conversation is over. this is why I only talk to her every few years and even then, never for more than four or five text messages.

Happy Birthday, Jen!

Thanks, Mom

What are you doing to celebrate?

Going out to dinner with Ernie. How is your bird?

He’s good! I’ll send a picture. Hey! i live in your state now. Dunno if Nan told you. Want to get together soon? I miss my Jen!

I never responded to that last text and didn’t speak for her for another two and half years she sent that.

Do not let yourself hope for that love you never got. They didn’t give it to for 18 years. Why would they give it to you now? Why?

the answer is that they wouldn’t. They won’t. Never.

And that sucks. But you’ll be so much sicker and so much worse if you keep letting that hope make you pathetic around them. You don’t have to keep letting them hurt you forever. You don’t!

Cut them out. Never look back.

Take care of you.

Trust Yourself and Don’t Be Afraid to Make Choices about Your Treatment

Your family isn’t the only group that wants to keep you dependent. The mental health industry does too.

Unfortunately, there is no good alternative to mental health treatment as it currently exists.

I am able to manage without professional help. This may not be the case for everyone. If you think you can manage on your own, try it. Trust yourself. The mental health field is not there for you; it is there for drug company profits.

That being said, medication does work for some patients. If it works for you, I’m so glad. If it doesn’t, you do not have to keep taking it. Come off it safely and with a doctor’s help (if you can find one who will guide you through the process without victimizing you further). But you do NOT have to treat mental illness with drugs. There is a plethora of evidence that psych drugs harm patients and exacerbate symptoms.

If therapy is helpful to you, great.

If it isn’t, stop going.

You can do this. You can become independent. You can be your own person under nobody’s control.

You have a right to true freedom. You should be free from violence, screaming, and chaos. You should be free from the pressure to take drugs that make you worse.

If your family is not allowing you those basic freedoms, then you have to get away from them. Do what you need to. Fight for your life. You ARE fighting for your life.

Good luck. You can do it ❤

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