When people hear the word “abuse,” oftentimes what comes to mind is physical abuse because it leaves physical evidence. And oftentimes, the narrative of physical abuse is portrayed between people in a relationship or a young child being hit by a bigger, stronger parent.
What is not talked about is the abuse between an parent and their older, adult child, especially when it’s emotional and psychological abuse. Emotional abuse is recognized by Utah’s courts under the general definition of abuse, but by nature, it’s difficult to identify since it will never leave a physical mark.
Instead, it will leave mental scars in the forms of gaslighting, threats, breaking items in front of the victim, humiliation, belittling and deflecting the blame for the abuse onto the victim. This subtlety can make it hard to identify it until the victim is past the age of 18 and is therefore no longer a child in the eyes of the courts.
I didn’t recognize it until I was 21, and my father burst into my room. I didn’t recognize it until he grabbed my dog by the collar and hurled him across the room, knocking over my chair I used to store laundry. I didn’t recognize it until I drove to school in tears, holding it together until a complete stranger asked me, “Are you okay?” and then breaking down because I was not okay.
It was only at the point where I talked to someone and asked the question, “Is my dad abusive?” that reality started to fall into place because, “You already know the answer.”
And indeed, I already knew the answer. I remembered being quiet when my dad was angry. I remembered trying to be happy when he was stressed so he wouldn’t turn his anger on me.
I remembered being 17 and trying to be helpful, only to make a mistake and hear him say, “For someone so smart, you are so f**king stupid.”
I remembered feeling like I could open up to him, only to be given a week to move everything out of his house, find insurance and a phone plan. All I wanted to do was to tell him how I felt, to reconcile, and I was kicked from my home.
My father never hit me, but my heart still raced when he loomed over me, his face red and voice raised, saying I needed to shape up or else.
“Or else.” It’s such a subtle threat. If I didn’t listen, what else would he have done? Would he strike me? Or would it be a reasonable punishment, like grounding? Ultimately, it didn’t matter. I thought that so long as I was a good daughter and did my work, I didn’t have to be scared.
When he “disciplined” my brothers, I stayed in my room, ignoring the angry voice of my father yelling at my silent brothers who could only sit there and take it. It didn’t matter; it wasn’t me. I did well in school, making the honor roll, and I worked hard so there wouldn’t be a reason to yell at me.
I thought I did everything right, yet when I mentioned how anxious I was to come home or leave home to do something, he told me to leave. He said that there was nothing keeping me there. He said I was the abuser for taking everything he had done for me and throwing it in his face. And then he left, leaving me alone to my thoughts.
Despite everything he said, I felt relief. Ultimately, I had made the decision to leave. I would live with my mom, leaving behind my dog, my brothers, and my step-siblings to be, not to mention the feeling of a home I had lived in for six years, the things keeping me there.
But I would also be leaving behind the anxiety that kept me up until 11, that caused me to grind my teeth at night so badly they ached in the morning, that stopped all my vivid and colorful dreams at night. I would be leaving behind the anxiety that I didn’t do enough before I left the house and he would be angry when I returned.
There are some things I learned about emotional abuse, such as the duality of the person doing the abuse. He said he did it out of love. And I believe him. For 21 years, he’s been a good father, giving me advice, letting me cry into his chest and helping me with my car. And he wasn’t angry all the time, just sometimes, and during those times, my brothers and I learned to stay away.
For a long time, those good moments overwhelmed the bad. We had adventures together, we hung out together as just the two of us, and we bonded over video games together. I definitely know he loves me and I love him.
Therein lies the thing about emotional abuse. A person can love you, and they will still hurt you. A person can love you, and they will make you feel worthless. A person can love you, and they will still abuse you. You may not have a single physical mark on you, but the words they said will burn into mind, twisting your perceptions of yourself and making you doubt who you are.
And because of all of that, when you, the victim of their abuse, learns this, you’re left with this problem of reconciling your idea of the person and who they can be and the horrible reality of what they did to you. You will be so confused, especially at the beginning. You will have no idea what to do, what to think.
There will be triggers. When someone raises their voice, you will flinch, fight or flight will kick in, and you will have to remind yourself that you are safe.
But know that you’re not alone.
Others may not be in the exact same situation as you, but they will be in similar ones. For me, it was a father; for you, a mother; for someone else, a spouse, but it doesn’t matter. What matters is that relationships should not be based on fear. You should not have to feel afraid to speak your mind, to leave the house, to make mistakes, to be a human being in all your flawed glory.
You don’t have to leave if you don’t want to or if you can’t, but there are people who can help. The National Domestic Abuse Hotline will help, online or over the phone. Weber State University give its students free counseling sessions with therapists who will listen to you and help you feel like a person again.
Ultimately though, how you recover is up to you. If therapy doesn’t work for you, you don’t have to go. But it’s important to realize that you are a person, not an object of abuse or an outlet of frustration, anger and pain. You, as a person, matter, and you don’t have to live in fear.
Editor’s note: This article was edited to clarify the type of abuse for context.