Wednesday, June 5th, 2013

Ask Polly: I'm Afraid To Leave My Abusive Parents' House

Dear Polly,

My birthday is coming up in a couple of days and I'm turning 25. Ever since I was young, 25 was the big year. The year I thought you become an adult, have your life figured out and making your way through an impressive list of accomplishment. Life hasn't shaken out for me in that way.

I come from an abusive family. When I was younger, I chalked it up to cultural differences. My parents are conservative and traditional minded parents. They favor boys more. I am a girl. So when my brother was born, 9 years after me, I became no longer worthy of love. I stopped receiving any gifts, having my birthday acknowledged or being shown any form of affection. By the time my brother was born, they had stopped hitting me because they just couldn't care enough.

I left for college as soon as I could. But I suffered through some unpleasant medical conditions and untreated depression and anxiety. I had to come home before I could graduate. I then promptly left for a year of service in AmeriCorps, but having no money, I had to come home. I've been living here for two years. My anxiety has never been worse. There are days when I'm too scared to use the escalator. Depression shadows my life completely. It is a battle of wills to get up in the morning. I don't have insurance.

My parents have become increasingly irrational. I go to community college and work part time to save money to leave. My mom calls me lazy. My dad has now threatened to kick me out. My brother (whom I've always supported) calls me a bitch. When I talk to them, they won't even respond back to me. They have started demanding my entire savings. They are unable to save. They won't save and they want me to bail them out.

It's taken me two years to finally have the courage to leave. I have a plan. But I'm too scared to leave. Without a BA, I know my chances of getting a good paying job is limited. I have a good job here doing what I like (working with young adults with special needs). When I move, I won't have a car (meaning, I can't work in the same field). I worry about unemployment.

But the real fear is that I'm not good enough to deserve a good life, to be surrounded by people who like and care about me. I've grown up believing that I'm a monster who destroys everything good in life. I waiver moving the 'move-out' date sooner. Because I'm just so scared.

I know what to do. I know I need to move and I should move sooner. How do I get over this fear? How do I feel worthy of some goodness in life?


Scared to Leave

Dear Scared To Leave,

You will get over your fear and feel worthy of goodness in life when you get out of your parents' place for good. My guess is that you returned home not just for pragmatic reasons, but because you have some compulsion to right the wrongs of the past. Some part of you believes that your parents will come around and start treating you with affection and consideration, the way they treat your brother. Even if this isn't your conscious intention, it's acting on you. You are simply waiting around for their love. You may not think that's what you're doing, but there you are, in the belly of the beast, seemingly unable to move. You are waiting. You might as well be lying down in the middle of the railroad tracks.

You are not safe at home. The world outside is much safer than you think. Your parents are not going to love you the way you want them to. They don't even want you there.

That has nothing to do with you. I want you to start repeating these things to yourself: My parents don't want me here, because they are sick. It has nothing to do with me. I remind them of how sick they are. I am a good person. I am worthy of goodness and love.

You say you had untreated depression and anxiety. Did you ever treat it? Your fear of escalators leads me to believe that it remains untreated. Until you treat your anxiety, you're going to see the world through a very scary lens, and you're going to feel helpless to change anything. You need to fix that lens first, and then you'll find it easier to move forward with your plan.

Find a therapist immediately—I'm sure there are cheap services available through your former college—and commit to seeing that person regularly. You also need to get a referral to a psychiatrist who might prescribe something to help you get a handle on your anxiety, particularly during this transition between living with your family and living on your own. Don't skip this part, I don't care if you have to chip into your savings a little bit to do it. Once you move out, you can reassess your financial picture and make a long-term plan, but right now you need some emergency help to get you out of the state you're in.

Do you have to get a new job, or could you move to a place in town and keep your job and keep going to school, so you could get your BA? Are you sure you can't get a job doing what you love in a different town? Keep working on your plan until it feels less scary and more full of promise and happiness. Make sure you honor who you are and what you enjoy (i.e. working with young people). Because you feel unworthy, you'll be tempted to deny yourself the things you want the most, so watch out for that impulse.

Try to minimize your interaction with your parents. Tell them you're moving out soon. Be polite and don't tangle with them or get into arguments. Make the exit strategy the center of your sustenance. Stop returning to the source of your pain, hoping that it will magically transform into something better. It won't.

Go get some books at the library about surviving an abusive home. When I tell you you're a good person, you probably think, "But you don't understand how messed up I am." Being messed up isn't a crime, and it isn't that rare, either. You don't have to be abused to be messed up. Anyone who didn't get the love they needed when they were younger and couldn't stop compulsively trying to get it as they grew older fits into the same messed up category. We are still good people, not damaged and unworthy. And once we exit abusive or neglectful settings, our entire concept of ourselves can shift dramatically.

You're on a new path now, and your life is going to be amazing. Get up off the railroad tracks and you'll realize that you're not about to die. You're just beginning to live. In a few years you'll look back and say, "25. That was a big year. That was the year I changed everything."


Dearest Polly,

I will try (and probably fail) to keep this short. I have issues with my job (boo hoo, who doesn't?). I hate to be the person that complains about their awful boss, but my boss truly is awful. He's said many times he isn't good at being a manager, and boy is he right! It's gotten to the point now that I'm pretty sure he simply hates me and is purposefully trying to make me miserable so I'll quit. If I were under different circumstances, I would, but as it stands now, I'm working abroad and will be transferred back to my home country in a couple of months. Suck it up you say? I've been sucking it up for almost two years. I was 100% ready to leave but didn't because I met someone wonderful and amazing and worth putting up with a rotten boss for. I have no regret or resentment for staying as long as I have, but I'm sick of the emotional roller coaster I've been on.

Some weeks I feel great and confident about my job, then something will happen, my boss will undercut me, and I'll feel stupid and useless again. When I try my best, he will come in and change everything that I've done because his way is right, and only he knows what he's doing. Though he tries to tell other people in the company we work independently, it's flagrantly untrue since we need to review everything with him (a few people do see this, and aren't happy about it, since it makes him the bottleneck and he's already burdened with other work). Nothing I do is good enough. Recently, he's simply been ignoring my emails with questions and updates. I know he doesn't read anything I send him. But when a project that he cared deeply about was a bit delayed (not directly my fault, I was waiting on a reply from someone else that came late), he was furious. He made me feel so shitty and pretty much threatened to fire me for not updating him and making the project move along faster (I cannot *force* people to respond to my emails!).

He's said in the past that my colleagues and I are "stupid," will often belittle us by saying we are "nothings" and "losers," pretending these are cute terms of endearment. He's often racist but thinks he's funny (racist about other people in general, and directly at what he perceives my heritage to be). I'm supposed to just laugh this all off. On rare occasions, I'll receive a dollop of praise, or an acknowledgement that I have worked very hard. It feels nice, but usually it's tempered by "but you still have so many other things to improve." It's worth adding that out of the nine people hired for this position through the years (myself included), three have been fired for "not getting" what we do, one is about to be let go, and one just was hired, so she hasn't had the chance to prove herself yet.

So it's gone, up and down, ruining my self-confidence and making me feel like I will never understand what I'm supposed to be doing at my job. Which, I should mention, isn't anywhere near brain surgery. If you've ever watched Bill Hicks, he equates what I do to Satan's work.

Is it just me, you may ask. I have a coworker who is great, but has worked with my boss in the past, so they have a very different relationship. He doesn't understand my problems. I have another colleague who works with my boss less than I do, but is also plagued with self-doubt (and tends to be not very confident anyway). We commiserate sometimes, but I mostly feel alone and that I can't confide in anyone. There is one high-ranking person in the company I have considered approaching, but I am not sure what will happen by complaining. My boss isn't going to get fired, and I am afraid he'll know I'm the one who tattled. My boyfriend is tired of hearing me complain about it. I feel somewhat powerless to do anything because almost everyone else in the company thinks my boss is God and the work I do is trivial and mechanical (it's anything but). All they see is the final result, not the hours of late nights I've poured into it, nor the gallons of tears I've shed from feeling so stupid, and they don't feel the deep sick feeling in my stomach that I feel when I hear his voice.

So—what the fuck do I do here? I *know* the answer is to just deal with it for another few months, and quit once I am safely at home. I have a little bit of money saved up so I think I can afford to be jobless for a month or two. But these are going to be the longest two months of my life. I have battled severe chronic depression my whole life, and being at this job just makes me so fucking SAD. My work isn't helping anyone (except me, to live a comfortable lifestyle), so I wish I could just be more blase about this evil little man. But goodness, how he can make me feel like I'm worse than the shit on the bottom of his shoe!

Can I change myself? My behavior? What can I do to make it through these months (and do you think it's possible for me to actually stay at this job without jumping out of the window?)

Thanks Polly.

Too Sad for a Clever Name


Your boss is a serious dick. That's obvious. It doesn't really matter if other people can see it or not. The only relevant point is that he treats you like shit. For whatever reason, he's the flavor of fuckwad that really savors abusing and ignoring and dismissing and berating someone like you. Did you read the first letter? His dickishness has nothing to do with you. This guy basically wants you gone, even though you do a great job. You make him uncomfortable. He's not going to make you feel good about your work. He wants you to feel ashamed, because he's ashamed of himself. You are a reminder of just how twisted up he is inside, that's all. It's not your fault.

That said, he's also become a symbol for you, of rejection, of withdrawn love, of parental dismissiveness, of abuse, of evil in the world. I don't know how he figures into your emotional past and your psyche, but you keep going back to this sore place and wanting to change it, heal it, make yourself stronger, make him see what a dick he is. This problem has ballooned out of proportion for you, because it signifies work that you still have to do on yourself. That doesn't mean it's all your fault; it's not your fault. But right now, you're using this abuse as a way to work through something from your past. You're returning, somewhat compulsively, to the scene of the crime. Instead of keeping your head down and doing what you do and laughing off this bastard's weak tricks, you're in turmoil over him.

So, while he is a terrible fucking boss and probably a shitty person to boot, the compulsive side of this needs to be explored. You are pouring all of your energy into this problem. That means that your next boss might be pretty ok, but you might still get touchy and weird and needy about how he or she treats you. In order to avoid that, you should explore, in detail, what damage and issues are being kicked up by this guy. The more you can look at those things, and be honest with yourself about behavioral patterns that might not function that well in the workplace, the better off you'll be.

As an example: These emails he doesn't read. You should probably stop sending him detailed emails, huh? Instead of wasting your energy? I was in the habit of sending long emails to a boss of mine at a former job, because I didn't know how to say what I needed to say while taking into account how busy he was. But then I'd feel annoyed when he didn't read my emails closely. I was being naïve, and he was trying to point that out by ignoring me ("ignore" is the "fuck off" of the modern workplace). Let's face it: Offices are not normal. We are expected to speak in clichés and small talk and jargon, to be enthusiastic and never ambivalent, to go with the flow and question nothing. That said, though, let's be practical about this: Until you're making detached, cool judgments about the most appropriate and efficient ways to behave at work, you're going to feel angry and defensive and hurt by things that are as simple and superficial as communication style.

You can learn more about this at your next job, because you won't have a complete dick for a boss, so you'll be far less confused about what's happening around you. That's the problem with dicks: They're confusing. They make us question ourselves for things that aren't our faults, and they make us refuse to take responsibility for things that are our faults.

I would ride it out for two months and then quit. Power down emotionally at work, but look closely at what this guy symbolizes for you. Enlist a therapist or a very close friend to discuss it. Tell your boyfriend you want to talk about the problem constructively, not just complain, but you need him to be patient and help you with that. Look for work before you leave the job. Investigate getting transferred to a different boss or department, ideally without laying any blame. Yes, you could complain to a higher up, but that's risky and could backfire. You need an exit strategy, though, so you feel less panicked when two months is up.

These two months will pass by quickly, once you have a plan. And when you're finally free, promise yourself that you won't settle for a shitty situation again. Life is too short to spend any time around repugnant, disrespectful losers. Plenty of people simply refuse to work for assholes. Become one of them.


Is your boss ALSO an asshole? Write to Polly and find out!

Heather Havrilesky (aka Polly Esther) is The Awl's existential advice columnist. She's also a regular contributor to The New York Times Magazine, and is the author of the memoir Disaster Preparedness (Riverhead 2011). She blogs here about scratchy pants, personality disorders, and aged cheeses.
Clown photo by Amy van der Hiel. Scary baby photo "dawnzy58."

31 Comments / Post A Comment

@Scared to Leave, you mentioned that you don't have insurance, and a lot of people don't know that there's an untraditional way for you to get really affordable counseling. Planned Parenthood has counselors, generally in the last year of getting their degrees, and they are happy to treat people seeking psychological help. I thought those counselors only dealt with issues regarding sexual abuse, and that is not the case. When I didn't have insurance, I only paid $20 every other visit, and I went on a weekly basis. Best of luck to you, and getting out of your soul-numbing situation.

Bunburying (#81,872)

If you live anywhere near a university, you may also be able to get counseling on campus by people in the last year of their psych degrees, generally for a sliding scale rate. The quality of the treatment is variable, but that's true of graduated therapists too, so.

This letter makes me terrifically sad. Why do such people have children? Why do they exist at all?

Morbo (#1,288)

So assume her parents are evil people on her word.

Maybe they are dealing with untreated depression/mental issues of their own?

Judith Slutler (#244,521)

@Morbo I finally registered for The Awl just to point this out to you: Depression and other mental issues are not an excuse to hit people, ignore their birthdays, demand their savings, call them worthless, or threaten to kick them out. Especially not in a parent / child relationship.

I have depression and I sincerely hope the day never comes when I use it as an excuse for mistreating other people. I don't even use it as an excuse for leaving the kitchen in a mess for my roommates to clean up, or dumping all my anxiety talk on my boyfriend. Because we don't get to treat other people that way. It's not about them being either evil or sick. It's about the fact that the way they treat the LW is 100% unacceptable in any context.

Morbo (#1,288)

@Judith Slutler
Point to me where I said their behavior was OK. However, we are are just reading one side of the story.

This letter reminds me of something my sister, with her mental illness, would write. She caused my parents a lot of grief by claiming things like this, that were just untrue. She blamed them for her lack of success in life on multiple fronts. This, despite them paying for her education, her car. When they refused to pay for her apartment after she got out of school, she moved back home, and made a lot of claims like what I see up in that letter.

greatbleuheron (#244,534)

@Morbo I also finally registered for The Awl to respond to you. Yes, it's always possible that someone saying they've had a bad experience is nuts, and nobody has actually mistreated them. But I have to say that's not the impression I get from reading the first letter, not by a long shot. If this young woman was mentally ill, she'd be saying her parents are assholes and generally spewing rage. Instead, the LW can hardly work her way out of the feeling that she deserves the treatment they're giving her. That, to me, is the sign of an abused person who hasn't yet worked toward a healthier understanding of her abusers.

kim_krypto (#238,255)

@Morbo Also, mentally ill people's perceptions of situations are their right to have, just as yours is. The LW's understanding of her parents as harmful and abusive means that they are harmful and abusive FOR HER. Thus, leaving would be a good idea for her, whatever their take on the situation is.

LLCoolMe (#244,566)

I am LW1. I am sorry to hear that your sister caused your family so much grief. Like someone else said, mental illness is no excuse to treat people poorly.
Having said that, I hope it doesn't cloud your judgement on people who have mental health issues. Often, I find people either explode onto others or implode on themselves. You sister may be the kind of person who explodes onto others. I, obviously, can't make that judgement.
I will strongly caution you though not to go around dismissing other people's story just because it is similar to your sister. Had I been younger, more damaged, in a more vulnerable place, all I would hear is your words. All I would take away is your doubt. "Maybe I am the problem?" "Maybe I am the one treating them poorly?"

I am not unsympathetic to my parents own mental issues. In fact, I am very well aware of it. Like I mention before, there are those that explode and some that implode. My parents explode. My mom has spent most of her life with untreated depression. When I was 4, I asked my mom if she could live anywhere, where would she live. She told me she wanted to die and live in a cemetery. As a 4 year old that worship her mom, can you imagine how hard it was for me to hear? By 6 or 7, that has escalated into my mom telling me she was dying soon and it was all my fault for either being a bad child or just plain not good enough (either in looks, weight, aptitude, personality, etc.)

I am the type to implode on myself. No parents were harmed in my the process.

ragazza (#241,456)

"Offices are not normal. We are expected to speak in clichés and small talk and jargon, to be enthusiastic and never ambivalent, to go with the flow and question nothing." This, THIS, is why I hate working in an office. If only I could figure out a way to not do it while also paying my mortgage.

commanderbanana (#167,624)

LW#1, you also need to take steps to protect your assets. Get a safety deposit box where you can keep your checks, important documents, etc. If your parents have any access to your bank accounts or could get access, move your money now. Stop getting paper bills at your house (get them sent to a PO Box). The sentence about them demanding her savings sent off huge klaxon warning sounds. Depression and anxiety aside (and I say this as a person with very severe clinical depression and an anxiety disorder) you must, must take steps to protect yourself. You may also want to look into finding someone who can advocate for you, either through guidance services at your school or through a counselor.

ALKD (#244,546)

@commanderbanana I registered specifically to echo this comment! Protect the money you have. Do not keep checkbooks at your house. Do not ever leave your wallet unattended. Do not give your parents a way to access your money in any way. Move out as soon as you can, but understand that protecting your assets will be just as important after you move out as it was before. I have two friends whose mothers stole from them after they moved out (one to fund a gambling addiction and one to fund a drug addiction). If your parents feel desperate enough to get money, they may not have any qualms trying to get into your bank account after you move out. It's surprisingly easy for parents to do. Keep an eye on your credit score. Another friend of mine discovered his mom used his info to take a credit card out in his name, and charged it to its limit but never paid it off. He had to sue her for identity theft and it was a long, painful process.

LLCoolMe (#244,566)


I am LW1. Thanks for the advice. My parents don't have access to my accounts. But they do often go through my paper bank statements, etc. I am making plans to leave soon (less than 2 months) so I don't see the need for a P.O. box.

My parents will ask for money. I usually give it to them. My parents don't know how to save. As a consequence, I am a saver.

For all that is bad with them, my parents wouldn't steal from me. I don't know how to say that any less naively.

kim_krypto (#238,255)

I have to deeply, deeply disagree with a key part of Polly's advice to LW#1.


Abusers often scale up the abuse if they are aware their victim is leaving or planning to leave. That this abuse is verbal/emotional rather than physical doesn't mean it won't also escalate in the same way. I think for the LW's own mental health and safety it is best to make as many plans in secret as possible. Other than that one piece, I think this advice is great.

@kim_krypto I logged to say exactly this. DEFINITELY DO NOT TELL THEM YOU'RE LEAVING. Make your plans in secret, and LEAVE WHEN NOBODY IS HOME.

Even if the situtation doesn't escalate into physical danger, there's another reason not telling them would be a good idea. Your family says they don't want you there, but it's entirely possible that they do because you are the target of their hatred, and if they didn't have you they would lose that outlet. They might actually "need" you, and may try to undermine your moving out in any way they can.

My boyfriend went through this when he left his abusive ex wife, who exhibited a lot of the same behaviors toward him as your family does toward you. She didn't find out he was moving out until he was loading up the truck (somebody tipped her off and she came home from work early).

Getting yourself away from them is the first and most important step toward getting healthy. Leave in secret, and BREAK OFF ALL CONTACT WITH THEM. Please be careful.

kim_krypto (#238,255)

@fondue with cheddar YES! That too. Please, Polly, can you change your advice to reflect this? I would generally not ask this of an advice columnist, but every abuse resource I know of counsels victims to keep their exit plans VERY secret.

@kim_krypto Yeah, it's the most important rule of leaving an abuser.

@kim_krypto I went through the same thing when I finally, permanently left my mother's house when I was 21. Her rage was irrational and terrifying, but I left anyway.

kim_krypto (#238,255)

@Better to Eat You With Well done, you! That must have been incredibly hard. I'm so glad you're free of her.

r&rkd (#1,719)

@fondue with cheddar
What happened when she caught him with the truck?? The one time I had to do this (moving out on a landlord, as it happened) I did not get caught.

@Better to Eat You With Congrats! I'm so glad you got out of there.

@r&rkd Mostly she just spouted a bunch of hateful shit and tried to intimidate him, but she did prevent him from getting some of his stuff (it's been two years since he left and she still hasn't given him things she was ordered to in the divorce). Because they were outdoors she couldn't do anything physical (unfortunately she was smart enough to do that behind closed doors), but she did grab him hard by the back of the neck as he was walking away from her. Nothing that left a visible mark that he could show the police, of course.

LLCoolMe (#244,566)

@fondue with cheddar

I am LW1.

The way my parents treat me is directly connected to how their lives are at the moment. If things are good for them, they treat me indifferently. When things are bad, they treat me with malicious intent to permanently damage. I am their punching bag.

I want to tell you that I'm not ready to cut ties yet. That I would be losing so much, you couldn't possibly understand. I sound like a sound bite from an abuse victim pamphlet.

I waiver on not if I am going to tell them, but when. A day or so beforehand, a week, maybe a month…. Naively, I do hold out hope that maybe one day, I will be good enough for them. It is such a terribly silly and stupid internal battle I have.

jelm (#244,620)

@LLCoolMe I moved away from my abusive mother, and at one point cut ties with her completely (and without notice) for a couple of years, not even telling her where in the world I was living. You might not feel ready to cut ties, but it made such a difference for me to completely remove myself from that terrible situation. It also changed the dynamic of my relationship with my mother once I was ready to talk to her again — it turned out, for me, to be a good way to reset boundaries between us, and she has been more careful since about how she speaks to me and treats me.

I just need to say (#244,532)

LW#1 – First, I'm so sorry. You need to get out of there. Second, you can make it on your own. I had almost no financial help from my family when I went to college, but managed to get my degree with student loans (they were even enough to cover my rent!) I did work part time, but a lot of people do while in school. So get some student loans, and go back to school! At 25, I don't think you have to claim their income, so you can probably get a really good amount of funding. Maybe go to a school that is not in the same city as your family! Cut those ties! In the mean time, do you have a friend or a nice family member you can stay with while you try to get on your feet? Basically, get out, get out now. And good luck to you. And you deserve way, way more.

LLCoolMe (#244,566)

@I just need to say

I am LW1. Thank you!

Illokym (#244,533)

LW 1, untreated anxiety and depression makes the world so big and hard and scary. I hope you will be able to screw up your courage and look for options. You can find services for free or on a sliding scale through a referral from your community college, or planned parenthood, or through calling a hotline. You can also talk to someone for free and/or receive services through a house of worship (if that's your thing) or a women's shelter.

What you need more than anything right now is a sympathetic ear and someone who can help you come up with a plan. To that end, I really recommend contacting a women's shelter. They can help you make a plan to get out and stay out and give you great guidance on the pitfalls you will encounter along the way. And don't talk yourself out of calling for help because you don't "qualify" — you don't have to be suicidal for a suicide prevention hotline to be of help to you. And you are an abused woman- the counselors at a shelter will give you guidance to help you find a safe space to figure yourself out.

LLCoolMe (#244,566)


I am LW1. Thank you for your sympathetic ear. I do see the world as a dangerous and scary place, a place I have no right to be in. Not everyone can understand what it's like to live in that world.

faceifer (#240,686)

LW#2 – I SO SO SO SO SOOOO feel you. Most of your letter legitimately made me wonder if you might be in my former position. But oh I seriously know just exactly how you feel! You are very lucky that the days are numbered. Embrace that light at the end of the tunnel. It will only get better once you're done. Do your best not to bring it with you to future jobs. 3 years later I am constantly reminding myself that my current boss is a NORMAL person, and I don't have to feel or act the same crazy way with him. You're so close to being out of there, I think letting it go is probably the biggest obstacle ahead of you. Actually, Polly said pretty much everything I would say. Hang in there, it will be better!

Jaya Bedi@twitter (#244,562)

LW #1, I am so so sorry for you, and I just want you to know that I'm keeping you in my thoughts. You're in a very similar position to a very good friend of mine, and it is a gargantuan struggle. Good luck with everything.

Hrajg21u (#244,578)

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Skate to get away (#252,131)

I don't know how to post my story so I'm going to comment. I have been living with my grandma for the past 9 years after my mother died. She is abusive and unreasonable I can't talk to her and she likes to throw things I'm not 18 yet so I can't legally leave. Even when I am 18 I'll be too afraid to leave my brother with her and my uncles What can I do? Please help me.

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