Escape From an Emotionally and Verbally Abusive Father
This article depicts the interview and story of Dianna, who grew up in the Middle East and escaped her emotionally and verbally abusive father when she was a young adult by emigrating to the United States. Because her father never acknowledged her pain, and most of her relatives never believed such abuse was possible from her father, Dianna asked me to write and share her story (including a written consent) to increase awareness of verbal abuse and help victims like herself. For the purpose of confidentiality, names, ages, and other identifying details have been altered.
The beginning of her story: Growing up
Dianna grew up as an only child in the Middle East, with an American mother and an Arabic father. Her life was filled with stress and fear from an early age because she had several serious and complicated surgeries. In addition, Dianna experienced the political upheaval in the Middle East, witnessing car bombs, political protests, and sit-ins during her school years. However, in her mind the worst part of her childhood was her father’s behavior. From the age of seven, Dianna felt that something was wrong with the way her father behaved toward her mother and she defended her mother whenever she could, becoming “the little lawyer.”
“I never liked how Dad treated Mom,” Dianna says. “He treated her like she was a child, like his own personal slave, as opposed to a wife, and he never showed her any respect. He ordered Mom around and was not sensitive to her needs. He controlled how often she went out, called her several times a day, and would yell and scold her. He showed more respect to everyone else than my mom.”
At first, her father thought Dianna’s “little lawyer behavior” was cute, but as she got older, he became more and more intolerant of it. Dianna noticed that as she began to have a mind of her own, he grew increasingly irritated by her. The tension in the house got worse and worse, and her father started insulting her. He used to call her “bitch, crazy, spoiled brat, horrible daughter, idiot, whore, slut, stupid…” and many other insults. However, his reactions never made sense to her, so there was no way she could predict what would and what would not upset him.
“Many times he would force me to listen to him yell at me for three hours, accusing me of everything—not being good enough in school, not adoring him enough, not treating him right,” Dianna says. “I had no choice but to listen to him putting me down and making me feel I could not do anything right. He wasted my study time just to hear him yell at me. I always felt like crap and worthless. I was emotionally and mentally exhausted after and could not focus on my study later on. After he let out all of his frustrations on me, he would be happy to have expressed himself the way he wanted, but I felt awful about myself.
“The most confusing thing was any time he treated me like that, a few days later he then would be the nicest person on earth, and that would be the time he spoiled me, and that behavior confused me so much. He would say ‘sorry’ but not mean it, because he did the same thing over and over again.”
Dianna realized that she was being verbally abused
Unbeknownst to Dianna and her mother, they were experiencing emotional and verbal abuse. When Dianna’s mother read Patricia Evans’s book The Verbally Abusive Relationship: How to Recognize It and to Respond, it suddenly dawned on her what was happening. She learned that her husband’s demeaning name calling, criticisms, and attempts to control her were all part of a pattern of abuse. As Evans (1993, p. 26) points out, “The objective of verbal abuse is to destroy your partner [here Dianna and her mother] in three ways: by diminishing her (making her less than she is), ‘thingifying’ her (making a thing out of her), and threatening her.”Dianna’s mother shared her new knowledge with her daughter, expressing the wish to escape from this situation.
“My mom approached me in my last year of high school ... that she wanted to leave my father,” Dianna says. “I knew things were bad at home, and I had been begging her to leave him and divorce him, but she was never ready and [was] afraid to lose me to him [in her country of origin, the father receives custody after a child reaches the age of seven] in court. She told me she would never leave before I was ready to leave. She wanted to leave with me when I was ready. She said two to three more years would not matter to her after all the pain she had been through.”
Dianna went through Patricia Evans’s (2006) verbal abuse checklist and realized that when her father called her names, intimidated her, and yelled at her, he was being abusive. He was also being abusive when he threatened to send her and her mother away to the United States “for good.” “As a child, I always believed him,” Dianna says. “He was my parent. I just sat there but did not respond because I did not know what to say.” She felt that it was wrong for him to say those things, and she thought, My father should not say that to his daughter. That is not normal.
However, Zambarakji (2012) points out that although awareness of domestic violence is increasing in the Middle East, and new laws are improving the status and protection of women there, “the fact that many men feel they have the right to beat their wives, the culture of religious interference in private life and the attitude of female submission, are particularly problematic in this part of the world. Only a few countries in the Middle East and North Africa region, such as Jordan and Israel, have comprehensive laws on family violence.” Of course, child abuse does not occur only in the Middle East. In fact, one in ten children are verbally abused or neglected in high-income countries (Gilbert et al., 2009). In 2006, in the United States alone, there was reported emotional abuse of 148,500 children (Sedlak et al., 2010). The actual rate might be even higher because many cases of abuse are not reported to social service agencies.
Many victims of emotional abuse don’t even know they are being abused. Before Dianna read Patricia Evans’s books, she could never put her finger on what was wrong, but now she had words for it. Finally she could make sense of what her father was doing, as well as explain her unhappiness and her suicidal thoughts. At the time, however, Dianna was not ready to leave her friends, relatives, and home for an unknown future and wanted to finish college in her home country.
The cycle of abuse
Dianna’s interaction with her father portrays a typical “cycle of abuse”pattern usually used to describe Battered Person Syndrome but also apparent in child abuse. Although her father was not physically abusive, the cycle of abuse is the same. Lenore E. A. Walker (1979, p. 56) describes the cycle as having three phases: “the tension-building phase; the explosion or acute battering incident; and the calm, loving respite.” During the tension-building phase, the abused person tries to calm down the abuser in order to “prevent his anger from escalating” but might take on responsibility and guilt if she does not succeed. Dianna tried to modify her behavior to please and calm her father and started to question herself.
Phase two in this cycle is the “acute battering state,” dominated by “its uncontrollable nature,” such as when Dianna’s father tried to dominate her with abusive verbal outbursts. In this phase the abuser can become physically violent as well. After an outburst, the abuser usually tries to justify his/her behavior and blames it on events or others—in this case, his wife and his daughter. Even though Dianna was not physically abused, she feels that she was beaten up emotionally. Walker (1979, p. 61) explains, “Anticipation of what might occur causes severe psychological stress for the battered woman: she becomes anxious, depressed, and complains of other psychophysiological symptoms.”
The third phase is the “reconciliation/honeymoon phase,” in which Dianna’s father apologized and gave her presents. He would even claim, “No one will ever love you like I do.” Sometimes, abusers actually feel highly remorseful and even suicidal, but most often they do not seem to be able to change their behavior without outside help. Mother and daughter both were trapped in the cycle of abuse.Dianna was often called a “princess” by friends and relatives because she was showered with gifts and fancy dinners. But each gift symbolized the pain and suffering Dianna had to endure.
The third phase is a period of relative calm, but soon the cycle begins again. As Dianna describes, “The situation at home was a personal war zone. I did not know when [my father] would strike with his words again.” She tried to talk to him, but he showed no signs of listening or changing. “Talking to my father to get him to listen to me was like trying to convince a wall to listen.” There was no way she could rationally communicate with him to avoid the abuse.
As Dianna grew older, the tension developed until the family dynamic was so toxic that she felt constantly stressed and even suicidal. She wondered, What am I doing that is so wrong? I can’t be that bad. She started to contemplate what words to use that would not upset her father, but failed because it was impossible.
Dianna started college
Dianna’s new independence of starting college and moving into dormitory housing was a trigger for her father, raising the tension between them even higher. Dianna says that during her first year of college “he would find something to get mad at me about just before tests,” and he tried to control her by “stalking” her online. He would occasionally call her and yell at her for being online at an hour that he didn’t like and order her to get offline. She was terrified and could not sleep at night after he called. He would sometimes call her five to six times a day and get “really really pissed off” if she didn’t answer every time.
Dianna said her father’s verbal abuse took a mental, emotional, and physical toll on her. She had already been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder (ADD) and had a hard time focusing, but the verbal abuse made it worse. She was scared of her father’s voice and his yelling, and, as she explains, it turned her brain “to mush and foggy.” She lacked energy and willpower to focus, in a way that she describes as feeling different from her usual ADD symptoms. “I take medication for ADD and it helps me to a certain extent, but this was different. No matter what, if my life depended on it, I could not focus.” In addition, she often felt dizzy or exhausted. She had fallen into a depression and found herself withdrawing from her friends more and more. She missed classes and was unable to keep up with her studies. “I felt guilty because I was slacking off,” she admits. And because she did not do well in school, her father ordered her to move back home, though she continued to attend classes. Things just got worse from there.
“It was in my junior year of college [that] I came up to my mom and begged her, ‘We need to leave.’ I came up to her because my grades were suffering, I could not focus because of the abuse at home, I [wasn’t] able to be emotionally present for my friends.” Dianna felt bad that making the decision to leave took her so long, and she wished she had been braver and could have left sooner. Yet such a move is hard to make without the support of friends and relatives. Throughout her life, Dianna had received little such support. Most people did not believe Dianna was being verbally abused, because her father wasn’t abusive when others were around. It’s common, unfortunately, for abusers to act one way in private and another way in public.
Preparing to leave the Middle East: The road of estrangement
Dianna’s mother could not just leave the country with her daughter or easily get a divorce, so they had to plan an escape. Her parents would be taking a trip to the United States in a few months to visit family, so Dianna and her mother decided that they would leave her father then and remain in the United States, where their relatives could help them start a new life.
Things were put in motion immediately. Over the next few months, whenever her father left the house for business, Dianna and her mother gathered necessities in boxes and began to bring them to a friend’s house. The friend then shipped the boxes to their relatives in the United States. This took months of careful packing. They were afraid to get caught, so they were trying not to take too many things or make it obvious that household items were missing. Dianna describes this as a very nerve-wracking and scary time in her life.
It was difficult to keep her planned escape a secret from her best friends. However, she needed to say good-bye to all her friends because she did not know when or if she would see them again. She wanted to be with them one last time, so she had a good-bye gathering. On the plane it was difficult for Dianna to hide her sadness over leaving her friends. Yet it was crucial that her father not catch her being emotional, so that he would not suspect what was going on.
Arriving in America
The plan was for one of Dianna’s male relatives to help them with their escape. He greeted the entire family at the airport when they landed and when Dianna saw him waving to them, her heart was racing faster than ever. Their plan was to leave now, in this public place, so her father would not cause a scene. Her relative took her father to the side, whispering to him that his wife and daughter needed a break from him—that they were leaving, and he should not attempt to contact them. Dianna recalls that her father asked, “Do you know what is going on here?” Afraid of how he might react, she lied and said she had no idea. As they walked away from her father, she remembers looking at him and feeling relieved that they had managed to pull off their escape.
Later Dianna explained to her father that she had not been kidnapped. Her father stayed in the United States for a while, and they agreed to family therapy sessions. In these sessions the entire extended family confronted him and told him that his wife and daughter didn’t want to be with him ever again, but he did not listen to them and continued to contact Dianna.
Escape aftermath: PTSD
Now that Dianna and her mother had escaped their stressful environment, they seemed to be safe. One might even think that they could start “normal” lives. However, Dianna’s painful past continued to impact her life.
Dianna tried to continue her college education in America, but she still could not concentrate or focus and had to drop out. According to Dianna, her inability to concentrate constituted the least of her psychological problems. Sometimes when thoughts of her father intruded on her consciousness—for example, when he attempted to contact her, when she talked about him, or when she had nightmares about him—she would literally collapse. She would fall to the ground, still able to hear noises and feel movements around her, but unable to react. She felt frozen and couldn’t move. Dianna calls these moments the scariest times in her life.
Such self-protective behaviors are not unusual for victims of abuse. The effects of verbal abuse can persist even long after the abuse has ended. According to a study (Spertus, Yehuda, Wong, Halligan, & Seremetis, 2003) on the relationship between emotional abuse and psychological and physical symptoms in women, “A history of emotional abuse and neglect was associated with increased anxiety, depression, posttraumatic stress and physical symptoms, as well as lifetime trauma exposure.”
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has historically been associated with soldiers returning from war. Later it was recognized to occur in anyone who had experienced or witnessed overwhelming traumatic situations and as a result felt there was a threat to his or her safety, combined with feelings of fear and helplessness. PTSD symptoms may include a lack of concentration, dissociation, nightmares, flashbacks, heightened startle response, lack of memory, and a reduced ability to function.
Abuse impacts not only our psyche but also our physiology. As I wrote in another article (2012), “during a traumatic event, such as abuse, our logic is turned off and our nervous system automatically goes into a survival-mode (‘fight, flight, or freeze’) response. If we cannot run away or are unable to fight, we go into a freeze state [as Dianna described], unable to move or act.” Peter Levine (2010), a psycho-physiological trauma specialist, explains that this is an animal instinct to feign death so an attacker will lose interest. Additionally, when physical and/or psychological pain becomes too much to tolerate, the mind distances itself from the experience by numbing the body and the psyche, which is called dissociation. During a traumatic event, the nervous system goes into survival mode and sometimes gets stuck in this function. If the nervous system stays in survival mode, stress hormones, such as cortisol, are constantly released, causing an increase in blood pressure and blood sugar, which can in turn reduce immune system and healing functions and also make it difficult to handle any other stressful situation. As a result, when the body is in constant distress, physical and psychological symptoms start to manifest.
It is very important for a person with PTSD to guide the nervous system back to a balanced range of response. This cannot be done through verbal psychotherapy alone. Therefore, Dianna’s choice of seeking out a somatic (body-mind) psychotherapist who specializes in trauma and a biofeedback practitioner who would address both her nervous system and her psychological symptoms was a very good decision.
In the beginning Dianna could not talk about her father or her escape because she would not be able to handle her grief and anger, and her memory would go in and out. Even today, her memories of her experiences with her father “come unexpectedly and leave the same way,” as she puts it. This is confusing and upsetting to her, because she sometimes cannot remember good times, like being with her friends, either. “I look back and I don’t have a past,” she laments. “I know it happened, but I don’t always remember.”
Dianna’s father is very successful in his career and is well liked in his community. It has been difficult for Dianna and others to understand how someone could be so friendly to others but not to his own family. Patricia Evans mentioned to me (personal communication, March 23, 2012) that she feels her 2002 book Controlling People: How to Recognize, Understand and Deal with People who Try to Control has been one of her most important books and explained that abusers project themselves onto their family and partner but not onto others and that is why they seem so pleasant to others.
The fact that Dianna’s father seems so normal—even charismatic, fun, funny, and sweet—to others has made it difficult for Dianna to receive any empathy or understanding as well. In fact, many relatives and friends still try to convince her that she should have more contact with her father and visit him. Over time, she has had to distance herself from certain relatives, and her circle of friends and family has shrunk more and more, making her feel more lonely and isolated than she already felt.
Restraining order: No more relatives, friends, or school
After escaping to the United States, Dianna tried to sever all contact with her father, but she was not successful. Her father kept calling her, emailing her, and sending her packages with no return address, even though she changed her number and email address several times. She found out that he got her contact information by lying to relatives or looking at their cell phones when they were not in the room.
Dianna gets very upset when she talks about her father’s lies. “Oh my God. I have a hard time breathing,” she says. “It is hard to believe what a liar he is. He told everyone in the family that I kept calling him five times but they were intercepted by my mother. I could not believe his lies. They are so painful and as bad as the abuse. Truth is he stole my number from my cousin’s phone, and he called me five times and texted me. He didn’t even ask me in the text if it was okay for him to have my number. He didn’t even ask how I was doing. I had made it clear to my father he needs to leave me alone; when I am ready I contact him. Seeing him call me and text me severely re-traumatized me.”
Each time Dianna heard from her father, her PTSD symptoms became debilitating. His contacting her violated her boundaries, and she would collapse and regress. She could not get out of the house and could not sleep, anticipating the next unexpected contact. Because her father would not listen to her requests to let her initiate contact, Dianna felt it was time to protect her privacy and her health. She hired an attorney, who wrote a letter on Dianna’s behalf asking her father to stop contacting her. Since her father was living overseas, she was not able to actually execute a legal restraining order but wished that she could have. Dianna also wrote her father a letter describing what it was like to live with him—with all the names and horrible things he called her—and how it impacted her. In his response he never acknowledged her pain. He told her that he loved her and that she had been brainwashed by her mother.
Dianna has done a lot of work in therapy and made impressive gains. She has not collapsed or dissociated for a few months now. She is starting to sleep better, getting out of her house more, and making new friends. She is growing more independent and even comes to her therapy sessions by herself (before, she came only with her mother). Small steps are big steps for her. I am very proud of all of the work she has done to be able to share her experiences.
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First published on Psychology Today.