Domestic Abuse: I’m Scared and Desperate

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Reader’s Question

I’m scared and desperate.

I am currently being emotionally abused by my sister and my brother-in-law. I’ve had to stay with them because I suddenly lost my rental home. Due to rising rents and being on a disability pension, I’ve found it extremely difficult to find somewhere to live. I help out around the house, including cleaning. I do not interfere in their lives and try to give them space. The tension has risen because it’s been over five months, and the abuse is getting worse.

My sister doesn’t like me in the kitchen. She used to set aside food for me, as I’m vegetarian and they are big meat eaters. Now she won’t cook for me, and I’m too ashamed and embarrassed to go into the kitchen to cook for myself. My brother-in-law has said some pretty nasty things, including name calling. I felt he has given me an emotional kneecapping. He has a controlling personality and shuts down my opinions. He’s a manual worker, a heavy drinker, and smoker, while I have been a professional and eat healthy and exercise.

I am independent and single with no children. I do not have any other friends or family to turn to; you guessed it, I had a physically and emotionally abusive father and a mother who treated me as the scapegoat and hence every other family member does too. I have been unable to find local help. (Women’s centre counselling is booked up, and I’m not a domestic violence case with family; two phone counselling calls were utterly useless.)

I feel like Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire. I’m terrified something bad will happen. I cannot sleep at night racking my brains over what to do. I feel myself regressing, which is dangerous with a controlling brother-in-law around. My sister will not talk to me at all. I need some coping mechanisms. What can I do?

Psychologist’s Reply

What a terrible and urgent situation. The very first thing to do (which I assume you have done already) is to make sure you are on the waiting list at the women’s centre and check every day to see if your place has come up. Beds in those facilities go very fast. Don’t think you’re being too forward to call every day. If it is possible for you to volunteer to help there, then that might serve you in a few ways: you could get out of the house for a while, be with sympathetic company, help others, and be known on a first name basis so they will think of you when a bed becomes available. That’s the first thing.

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Second, It sounds like the family dynamic is pretty stable. Therefore, it won’t serve you to try and reason them out of their anger at you. Perhaps after you do move out you can work on that relationship. While you’re living with them, that does sound like a bridge too far. Unless there is something here that you haven’t described, your energy may be better spent in other directions.

Let them know of your daily progress to move out. If you make one phone call per day to find something, then let them know it. Also let them know that you are open to suggestions. If they have a resource that would serve the purpose, then you will follow up with it. Perhaps they will lighten up a bit if they know you’re trying and they have a means to help that process along. In this way, he would not be shutting down your opinions. Rather, you would be respecting his opinions by letting him know that he’s getting his way as soon as possible.

There are those who would check into a hospital for less reason than this. I am not recommending this now because you (so far) do not meet criteria for hospitalization (danger to self or others). However, when you say you are regressing and you are desperate, then you may not be far from hospital. Urgent care is certainly appropriate now. If they (or your internist) could help with a prescription to help manage this temporary stress, then that might make the situation bearable. If you do wind up in hospital, make use of the social worker there. Social workers are usually on staff for discharge planning. Given the disability you mentioned, she may have resources and connections that you have not. Give urgent care a call and see if you can access a social worker there.

Here in the state of California, we have a toll-free number to reach the point of entry to the mental health care system. The people on the phones are pros at linking people to resources. Make sure to include them in your daily calls.

Finally, don’t let yourself be abused. Although you are a guest in their house, you still have your basic human rights. If you hesitate to call the police on them, even in the midst of an abusive episode, don’t be afraid to call the police on their business line and explain the situation. They too have access to resources that you may not. A call would also put them on notice that there is domestic abuse in the house, and they should be prepared to intervene if they get a call in the middle of the night.

All of this is to say, you are not alone. Our system of care is set up to care for people in the most acute situations. Therefore, folks like you who are scared, desperate, but not in an emergency are given a place on a waiting list rather than an emergency bed. That is very unfortunate, but that is a fact in most systems set up. Be sensitive to yourself and acknowledge when your situation becomes urgent. When first responders see you in a dangerous state, then they are able to put their resources to work.

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