From the ages of four to 17, I was psychologically, verbally, and physically abused by my mother. My father and grandparents did nothing to stop her, and none of the other adults in my life seemed to understand the reality of how she was treating me, and child-welfare programs in my city in India were scarce. I felt completely alone, and it was hard for me to hang on to any hope at all.
Maybe you’re also living through abuse and feeling alone and hopeless. If this is the case, please know that you’re strong and brave—you’re a survivor, and no matter how awful your situation may be, you can find help, support, and solace. Even in the worst circumstances, you have options and the power to see yourself through this. Here’s what I’ve learned about creating resources to help you deal with abuse when you feel like they don’t exist anywhere else.
1. Admit to yourself and others that you’re being abused.
Abuse is anything done to you by another person that reduces the quality of your life. It endangers your mental health, wipes out your self-esteem, and can cause depression. Although abuse can be physical and/or sexual in nature, it can also be verbal or psychological, and all of these can cause you very real and valid pain.
For a long time, I didn’t use the word abuse to describe my situation because I didn’t know that it applied to me. My mother’s abuse was predominantly psychological, and corporal punishment (e.g., spanking) was common enough among families in my country to amount to a disciplinary standard. If you talk about your situation seriously, it helps others do the same. Abuse is a word with a lot of power behind it, so harness that power and say it when you tell others what’s being done to you.
2. Report your situation to an authority figure if at all possible.
If there’s anyone who has the ability to exercise control over your abuser, whether that’s a law enforcement officer, a school official, or someone in your family who can remove you from the abuser’s sphere, don’t hesitate to tell that authority figure exactly what’s going on. In the United States, there are governmental programs, nonprofit organizations, counseling hotlines, and other resources that are dedicated solely to helping people in your situation. If you’re outside the U.S., here is a list of global helplines broken down by country, and here is a directory of international women’s organizations.
You might be growing up in a place or culture with few systems in place to protect minors from abuse, like I did. Maybe you don’t have access to a private phone, or you live in a culture where law enforcement is more inclined to side with your abusive guardian or family member than to help you. In this last case, it’s important to proceed with caution. I cannot overstate how crucial it is to completely trust the person you’re reporting your abuser to, because if they tell your abuser about the encounter without taking preventative action against them, your abuser may seek retribution; this sometimes happened when I tried to talk to other adults about my mom. So speak to someone you know will believe you and either has the power to make a change for you or will keep your conversation private. Writing things down beforehand so you know exactly what you’re going to say can help tremendously if you’re nervous about discussing what’s happening to you.
If you’re going to talk to a therapist, counselor, teacher, or doctor, know that they are required by law in many places to report what you told them to law enforcement. This is a good thing—it means a case will be opened against your abuser. Before you talk to any of those people, ask them what they are required to report.
3. Seek support elsewhere.
Abusive people often attempt to isolate their victims from their support networks, so it’s important to get the word out about what’s happening. Tell friends, family members, and other people you trust if you have the emotional ability. If you make others aware of what’s happening to you, there’s a greater chance that they’ll be able to help you, even if it’s just by listening to you and providing you the support you need. There is no shame in this, it’s not your fault or your weakness—if anything, it’s a sign of your strength and your determination to live.
As a teenager, my support network consisted of my close friends. They couldn’t affect my mother’s behavior, but it still helped to confide in them—I found a lot of relief in unburdening myself of these secrets. My friends’ moral support was comforting—it made me feel stronger and less isolated when I’d have to go home every evening and face her.
4. Protect yourself.
Above all else, your main priority should be getting out of this situation alive and in one piece. If you’re being physically abused, your survival strategy needs to adapt to that. If you’re reading this, you have access to the internet, even though it might be infrequent and fleeting, so use your time to look into the resources I linked to above. It wouldn’t hurt to also review some methods of physical defense. And keep your distance as often as you can—if they can’t find you, they can’t hurt you. Avoid being in places where they can corner you, and if you can place a locked door between the two of you, do it. If you’re in a room with them, always know where the exit points are.
5. Find an outlet.
In many cases, abusers limit their victims’ privacy. They can break you down by intruding upon every bit of your life—living without any personal space or belongings was one of the most grueling aspects of my abusive home. A life without privacy can strip you of your personhood. None of my possessions were safe from my mother—she regularly destroyed my music, books, and even my boy-band posters, allowing me only paper and pens. I used them to write my journals, which I stashed in my books at school.
When everything in your life is shadowed by your abuser, it’s important to have at least one thing that’s yours and yours alone, something that they can’t touch. My diary entries were my proof that no matter what my mother took away from me, my interior life was still my own. They saved my sanity. If you can, try to find a creative outlet of your own, be it in writing, making visual art, or whatever else comforts you. If that doesn’t sound like your thing, try going for a run or a long walk when you’re able to. Physical release can help you use your energy in a positive way and give you privacy and emotional space. Your abuser might be able to take everything else away from you, but they can never claim ownership over the part of your mind where your essence lives. Raise your mental walls up as high as you can against your abuser—they are the fortifications that will see you through this period of your life.
6. Remember that this treatment is not your fault.
Guilt is easily one of the most destructive emotions an abused person faces. Abuse often takes place under the guise of punishment, and the person responsible may tell you that you’re being hurt for your own good. This can make you feel like everything you do is wrong, and that you’ll never be good enough to please your abuser. The fact is, though, that you deserve love from the people who are supposed to protect and care for you. You should never have to earn this, especially from someone whose expectations are manufactured specifically to ensure you can’t please them no matter what you do. The cruelty of abusive people comes from flaws inside of them, not inside of you, and it doesn’t mean you are unlovable, or that the abuse is your fault.
For a long time, I thought that if only I had been a better daughter, my mother would have treated me with kindness. Guilt is such a complicated feeling—sometimes you can really love a person who is hurting you, and it’s hard to separate that love from the abuse you’re facing. But you have to put yourself first if a relationship is too harmful or negative to salvage. As I got older, I realized my relationship with my mother was incurably destructive, so rather than continuing to try “fixing” her feelings toward me, which was impossible and not my responsibility, I cut her off when I left home.
7. Focus on the future.
Once you reach the age when you’re legally an adult, there’s no one who’ll have any legal authority over you any longer. If it’s either or both of your parents who are abusive, they could emotionally blackmail you to stay with them, but they have absolutely no legal right to make you stay. And while there might be societal pressures on you to be a “good” daughter to them, you have no legal obligation to keep them in your lives. Hold on to this, and make it the source of your strength.
If it’s possible for you to look for jobs while you’re still in your present situation, do that. Research housing options, too. Going away to college is one of the best ways to escape from an abusive situations at home, so if you have the mental capacity to focus on your schoolwork, put your energies there. If neither college nor job-hunting is an option, make a list of women’s rights organizations and shelters in your city and contact them once you are legally an adult.
It may be hard to be hard to leave. The security of home, even if it’s tenuous, is difficult to let go of, but the day you finally walk out, you will be free. Self-reliance is tough, but it’ll give you your life back, and it’s way better than staying in an abusive household. Finally, every part of you that your abuser tried to erase or oppress will be completely your own, and you will understand that you are worthy of love. The fact that you’re here right now, reading this essay, means that your desire for life and happiness is bigger than the abuse you’re facing. There’s a whole new life that’s waiting for you, and once you take your place in it, no one will be able to hide your inner light from the world again. ♦