Saturday, July 12, 2008

Feeling Trapped

Dear Andrew,

Thank you for taking time to read this, as I am terrified and confused about my state of being. My closest peers know what I’m going through and I’ve received their input, but I don't know what to think about my situation and I’m so terrified.

I am 23 years old and I am still living with my single mother. Ever since I could remember, the slightest thing would set her off: If I asked her a question she didn't like, if I offered an opinion that was unlike hers, or if I talked too much while she was watching something. My earliest memories are of her screaming at me. When I was four, she started dating this man who was not very nice to me and insisted on nicknaming me "Little Bitch." I would not say he was physically abusive, but he was a real hot head and got mad as quickly as my mother. He impregnated her and they had my brother and stayed together while they both fought physically and verbally.

When they broke up my mother started physically abusing me and didn't stop until I threatened to call the cops on her this year. She always said I’d be "screwing truckers at 15" and I wasn't going to amount to anything. I tried calling child services on her, but it only made her mad and the rest of my family mad. I didn't know what to do.

Now, I’m 23, I’m trying to save a car, but my money is all in her possession, she screams at me for everything, even dragging my feet, and sometimes she'll be so nice and then she'll set off into criticizing me for not going to college (she refused to fill out Financial Aid forms, so I cannot afford it), and calls me a loser. She barges into my personal life, tells me who to date, who to hang out with, and she gets really suspicious if someone she doesn't like calls me.

I don't know what to do and I’m at my wits end. I don't know how to make it stop.

Please answer my query, because I don't know what else to do.

Signed, Feeling Trapped

Dear Feeling Trapped,

Yours is a classic case of a victim who feels she has no options. You have been dependent on your mother for a place to live, for her approval (which you often fail to receive), for the necessities of life. You have fallen into a trap of feeling like you have no options. This is similar to the mindset so often reported by abused wives – they feel they have nowhere to go, that they are powerless to create a better situation for themselves.

Simply put, in your case this is not true.

Let’s look at the positive side of your balance sheet. You are earning an income - I assume this because you say you are trying to save your money. You are an adult (although I’m not sure you have realized this yet), so you are capable of managing life’s logistics on your own.

I’ll stop the list right there, because that is all you need to extract yourself from this situation. Here’s what I recommend:

First, demand your money from your mother. I don’t mean ask for it, and then accept her initial refusal to give it to you. I mean DEMAND IT! Tell her she is going to give it to you, and right now thank you very much, and keep on telling her until she gives in, no matter how long it takes and no matter how much unpleasantness she spews your way in the meantime. Win. Don’t quit until you do. Use whatever leverage you need to, but win this one battle.

Now you have accomplished three things:

1) You have shown your mother that you are not a child anymore. You have started to redefine the relationship between the two of you so you have more of a standing, as befits the adult you are;

2) You have grown the beginnings of a backbone, which will make you feel better about yourself; and

3) You have your money.

With this accomplished, next give yourself a 7-day goal (with a 30-day, absolute, no-excuses deadline) to find another place to live. Talk to girlfriends who could use a roommate. Look at apartments. Read the paper and look for ads for boarders, rooms for rent. Make a plan and find a way, because you absolutely cannot alter the life-long patterns between you and your mother while you are living together.

Once you are out, now you need to start a program to help yourself recover from all the negative messages that have been drummed into your head for so many years.

Check out a free therapist through a local clinic, because you will almost certainly need help identifying all those messages and then discovering the alternative truth about life and about yourself.

Consider limiting the amount of contact you have with your mother for a while. Your progress will be more difficult if every time you take two steps forward she then works hard to drag you three steps back.

Finally, I suggest you read Dismaying Story #56: Divorcing Your Toxic Parents. This will help you understand you are not alone and will point you to other relevant resources.

I find it so sad that you have had to endure such a difficult and clearly abusive situation for so long. The only sadder thing would be if you continued when there is no need to do so.

You can do this! Make up your mind to get your own life, and then go make it happen.

Good luck!


  1. Hi Andrew, it's great to see you back online again, and in fine form too!

    I'll look forward to reading your future posts :)

    Best regards,

  2. The enquirer says "I don't know how to make it stop"

    It's simple - you have to want it to stop enough. If you reach that point you will leave - no matter how difficult or daunting the prospect.

    Please decide to take Andrew's good advice soon - it's the only way. Stay where you are and the scars already suffered will deepen until there'll be no healing them in this lifetime. That is a worse prospect by far then finding the courage to leave...NOW.

  3. This will not be easy. You've been knocked down so often, I suspect you don't have a clear grasp of what your rights are anymore.

    First and foremost, you need to take a good hard look at the situation you're living in and ask yourself if you see any way it could improve if you continue on without any change in status quo. Is she going to get better? Are you going to get stronger? Do you really think she's going to just hand you your money someday and say, "Here. Go buy that car now."
    If the answer is no, then the decision to change the situation and the courage to make it happen is your only answer.

    Maybe this will help:

    1) You have the right to live your life on your own terms. You're twenty-three; you're not a minor. If you leave, you're not running away from home-you're striking out on your own. Sometimes people have the power over us that they do because we accidentally give it away to them in small pieces. Parents, especially powerful parents, can be bad about taking advantage of this offer. You have the right to take back this power.

    2) You have the right to keep your own earnings. If your mother has access to your checking or savings account, then it's time to pick up that next paycheck (or if it's electronically deposited, go to your employer and ask them to change it to a check) and take it to a different bank and open your own checking account. When she screams--and she will--use that as an opportunity to leave. Don't tell her off, don't shove back. Not now. Just leave. If it were me, I wouldn't try to collect my money from her at this time. I'd make sure I felt I was on equal footing. There's time for that later and that's also what lawyers are for.

    3) You have the right to a support system. Someone who can keep reminding you that you have choices, that you don't have to keep living in a situation you're miserable in, that you have value all on your own. Do you have any friends or a coworker or two you can turn to for this? I'd suggest steering away from relatives for now, but you need somebody in your corner.

    You have a number of other rights too (like the right to stand up for yourself), but those first three are huge.

    I wish you the very best with this situation and hope you'll keep Andrew updated.

  4. Andrew, your advice was sound, but left me feeling uneasy. The potential for physical abuse is a clear and present danger, although up to this point the abuse has been mental and emotional. It scares me to think of making "demands" of a person exhibiting this degree of instability.

    I suggest that this young woman rent a post office box, and then begin to covertly squirrel away small (unnoticeable) sums of money, and when she has accumulated enough to open a checking and/or savings account, do so. At this point, she can decide whether to continue to save for a time (to allow her to accumulate the rental and utility deposits she will need) or take the actions you recommend, which, by the way might also result in her becoming suddenly homeless.

    This may take more time, but I feel in my heart that it would be safer.

    Now, once she has "made the break", if her mother still refuses to return money that belongs to "Feeling Trapped", I think she would have some legal recourse, should she choose to pursue it.

  5. Very true for the most part, Andrew. You hit the nail on the head.

    I agreed with Mary Paddock, she spelled it out beautifully too - and Rita made a good point about the money.

    I don't think the young woman can get her money back - or squirrel some it it away unnoticably. The Mom sounds too controlling and whacko.

    Howver, I think she can find a new place to live or a temporary shelter, and then keep the money from her job for herself from there on out.

    Cutting all ties with her Mother would be a good thing for her, a healthy, self-protective thing.

    * Good luck *

  6. Amen to everything you said, Andrew. Might I add that she needs to disengage entirely from her mother for a few months in order to gain her sense of identity? If she continues to check in on Mom and feel like she has to assuage guilt for leaving, she'll never break the cycle. Mom will use that guilt to keep her trapped in an emotional prison.

  7. I am so glad that you are the therapist, instead of me. I can't imagine what someone should do in this situation. Are women's shelters solely for women abused by men? I wonder what they would say if someone wandered in with a complaint the their Mom was abusing them? I think it would be better to hire out as a nanny and live in with another family. I'd do about anything to get out of there and then not look back. (I talk big and I would probably spend my spare time in my room hiding...what a wimp!)