Alcoholism and Abuse at Home, Now Depression and PTSD?

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Reader’s Question

For some time now, everything seems to have been falling apart. My father left when I was four and my mother remarried a few years later to my stepfather. My stepfather had an alcohol problem: every time he drank, he verbally and physically abused my mother, even after my mother became pregnant with his child. We left my stepfather on many occasions because of the abuse, but my mother always went back to him. This happened until I was about nine or ten years old, when we finally moved out and found a new home.

After we got settled, my mother encouraged me to contact my grandmother (the mother of my biological father) because she thought it would be good for me to get to know my biological father’s family. I started spending every school break at my grandmother’s apartment. Things were okay at her place, except she was military-like. She always told me I needed to be more manly, more organized, and have more integrity. She also talked a lot about my mother, saying it was my mother’s fault that my father left the marriage.

This year feels like my last one. I have gotten really into pornography and my grades have fallen, so I am now only a mediocre student. I am lazy, not motivated, I don’t believe in anything, and I hate the way I am now. I am really angry toward my stepfather and grandmother (my father’s mother) and often have fantasies about killing them. I feel so alone, so different. I can’t seem to relate to anything or anybody. My mother is always upset with me and tells me what a big loser and screw-up I am, that I’m a retard, and that she has invested money and time in me for nothing because I’m no good at anything and am just a lazy slacker.

This makes me feel really sad because she’s right. I feel like I have not accomplished anything in life.

Psychologist’s Reply

First let me say I am very sorry to hear about your unfortunate childhood circumstances and all you have had to endure. It sounds like you come from an extremely dysfunctional family that was also abusive. Not only did you have to tolerate your stepfather’s alcoholism, but you repeatedly witnessed him abusing your mother. Your paternal grandmother was extremely critical of you and unfairly told you how you needed to be more “manly.” Your grandmother has also assumed an unhealthy stance by blaming your mother for your parents’ divorce. Furthermore, it sounds like your own mother has been extremely critical of you, telling you that you are a “big loser” and a “screw-up.” No wonder you feel like you are struggling today!

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I hear you saying that you feel badly about yourself, are extremely angry, and have trouble connecting with others. These sorts of issues are not uncommon in adults who survive dysfunctional or abusive childhoods. Adolescent and adult survivors of dysfunctional families often have low self-esteem, have trouble expressing or regulating their emotions, and have problems forming healthy relationships. They might also turn to addictions or addictive behaviors as a means of coping with stress and difficult feelings, and they often suffer from anxiety and depression. It sounds like you are struggling with these issues, and I am certainly glad that you have decided to reach out to a psychologist in this online forum; this suggests that there is a part of you that wants to connect with others and you retain at least some hope that you can feel better (which you can!).

My concern for you is that you sound extremely depressed. You describe having very low self-esteem, indicate feeling unmotivated generally, and say you feel alone and different. It sounds like you may be isolating yourself with pornography as well. My internal “alarm bells” sounded when I read your statement, “This year feels like my last one,” as this suggests you may be thinking about ending your life. If this is the case, I encourage you to seek help from a qualified professional as soon as possible. Alternatively, maybe you made this statement to emphasize how you see your future as limited, that you cannot possibly imagine securing a job or career, finding a mate, living in a home, etc.

This sense of having a foreshortened future is a cardinal feature of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and — given your history — it is possible that you may be suffering from PTSD or corresponding symptoms. I might also add that I am a bit concerned about your fantasies of killing your stepfather and grandmother. Known in psychological terms as “homicidal ideation” (thinking about homicide), your fantasies may simply be your way of dealing with all the anger you have and may serve as a form of escape from your emotional pain. However, if you believe you might act on these fantasies, it is crucial that you find a therapist who can help you find alternative means of coping with your anger.

While clearly you are suffering emotionally, please recognize there are some positive points to consider. One piece of good news is you have reached out to this website, suggesting you want help and realize that there are others out there who would like to help you. This suggests that you have not completely lost hope and, despite your abuse background, you still have some ability to trust others. Furthermore, please recognize the strengths that you seem to have. Although you may view your falling grades are a sign of failure, remind yourself that you are in school and are at least achieving “mediocre” (your words) grades. I am not sure what you mean by “mediocre,” but the fact that you still continue to achieve in school despite your family circumstances most likely speaks to your resiliency. I encourage you to reach out to a therapist who can work with you to regain a sense of well-being and belongingness, and who can help you heal from the pain that keeps you feeling stuck and alienated from others. Please know there is hope in finding a trusting therapist who can help you recover from the traumatic effects of your family and childhood.

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