THIS

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

Menu
May-June 2016

Fly Away Little Bird

Nadia Alam left her abusive home four years ago, but it was far from easy. Why we need more support— and awareness—for children and adults who are struggling to leave emotionally destructive families

Nadia Alam

Screen Shot 2017-03-02 at 1.10.12 PM

Illustration by Jori van der Linde

For a long time, no one understood why I hated my mother. After all, pop culture, Hallmark, and general wisdom tend to all agree that a daughter shares her deepest secrets with her mother. With her, I was supposed to feel safe, comforted, supported, and so deeply loved.

I can’t ever remember feeling that way about my mother.

I know it wasn’t always like that. From age four to 12, our family shuttled between cities, moving from Gaborone in Botswana, to New York City, then to Dallas all before settling in Toronto. It was me, my mother and father, and my two sisters. During that time, we often lived in crammed apartments, but mostly we were happy to be in each other’s company—at least it was nothing like the round-the-clock terror I would come to experience. I remember simple, joyful moments like watching chameleons change colour, playing skip rope, or singing at the top of my lungs to Celine Dion songs with my older sister, Asha, and younger sister, Tarana.

My family decided to settle in Canada in 1997 because our family’s visitor’s visa expired and we felt Canada had more relaxed restrictions. Once in Toronto, Ammu, my mother, developed a closeness to me, but spurned Asha. For reasons neither I or my sisters understood, Ammu invested in attacking and creating stories about Asha, who was 16, and her “relations with several men.” She used me to get information about Asha’s day-to-day activities. As a kid, I didn’t realize what was happening—at first. I gamely informed on my sister, telling my mother Asha visited with male friends after school, not realizing that what seemed normal to me was ammunition for my mother.

Asha figured it out before I did. She also realized something else, too. “Don’t you notice,” she asked me, “that every time you tell Ammu something, you’re suddenly not allowed to go out and play with all the other kids?” I did notice. I had also started to notice that she twisted my words and embellished what I told her. One time she told my father, who I call Papa, that Asha couldn’t visit her best friend, who lived on the eighth floor of our building, because “a lot of bachelors lived there”—a fabricated story presented as fact. Asha had been regularly visiting this friend, without issue, for years. My mother cut it off on a whim. Oftentimes, it felt like she was manipulating us because she enjoyed it—she was like Regina George from Mean Girls. We had no idea what would trigger her or when.

Once Ammu lost control of me as an informant, our home went on immediate lockdown. It was a confusing, depressing time. I couldn’t understand why my mother was out to get me and my sisters. Under orders, I’d come home straight after school to clean the house and do my homework. Unlike other kids I grew up with, I wasn’t allowed to linger after class, play outside, go to friends’ birthday parties, or attend sleepovers. I had no freedom.

I often overheard Ammu on the phone telling her relatives in Bangladesh that “I got stuck with these daughters that don’t do anything to help me.” I would cry to my friends at school, confessing my mom’s lies, manipulation, and suffocating control. Even then, I knew my peers found it all unbelievable—it was so far removed from their own lives—but I didn’t know what else to do. I felt heavily misunderstood, and by my early teens, I became angry.

At school, I earned a reputation as a rude girl. I wasn’t a bully, and I wasn’t popular, but I was aggressive. It was a ripple effect and the stone drop was my home life. My parents argued often and violently, my mom’s own anger spilling over. One time, as they fought, my uncle, who happened to be at the house that day, noticed me crying. Trying to resolve their fight, he brought me into the room, still crying, and said to them, “Look at what you’re doing to your daughter.” They were baffled and asked me: “Why are you crying?” As they dismissed me, I dismissed everyone around me.

I grew to hate myself. Both of my parents constantly told me that I was incapable of being smart. My hair was too curly. My butt was too big. My nose was too big. I was chubby. I saw myself as both ugly and invisible. Aside from the abuse, my parents ignored me. I hated them. As a Muslim family, my mother forced me to do my daily prayers—even as I grappled with my religious beliefs. I would sit on my mat and pray to this supposed God to get me the hell out of there. If he was real, I hated him too.

And yet, I wanted to love my parents. I yearned to figure out a way to control Ammu, so that I could turn her into a good mother, just as she yearned to control me.

Even though I wanted to leave my house, it seemed impossible. For Muslim Bengalis, it simply isn’t culturally acceptable. My parents, like some (but certainly not all) members of the Bangladeshi community, don’t believe in young, single, and unmarried girls living on their own—a belief that was drilled into me. By the time I’d turned 20, a young woman living independently was something I’d only seen on TV or in the movies. None of my friends had moved out and most couldn’t understand my urgent desire to leave. Mental abuse wasn’t on their radar, and my curiosity about leaving home was seen as a potentially dramatic decision. I didn’t take the leap because I believed that I couldn’t. The cultural mentality was too strong and my mom’s abuse was too scarring—a powerful mix.

It was also incredibly isolating. It felt like everybody believed I should tolerate the mental abuse and neglect. Many people suggested or outright advised that I forgive my mother regardless of the pain she continued to cause. I was told she was the only mother I had and that I was lucky to have one. I felt like I couldn’t go to anyone for help. I was a very angry bird trapped in a cage I thought I didn’t have the key to.

Then, in my early 20s, I finally got the break I needed. In 2010, Ammu and my younger sister, Tarana, moved to Bangladesh. She had been hanging around with the wrong crowd after school, smoking, and had tried to run away from home twice. Trapping her there was my parents’ solution. And selfishly, I was reaping the rewards of their departure. My mom was gone.

Without her there, I became unexpectedly close with my dad, a man I didn’t really know or understand. We shared our fears and traumas of my mother. Before then, she’d forced me to wear the hijab, despite my misgivings. While I didn’t feel connected to her Muslim faith, I recognized that wearing the hijab was a choice that symbolized a devotion to Islam. I felt like a liar donning something that represents something so meaningful. Now I finally could take it off., since I never wanted to wear it to begin with. I also dropped out of university to go to college instead. I grew into myself at a rapid pace, feeling at ease in my home situation for the first time since we arrived to Toronto.

It all disappeared the next year. My father received an offer to work in Nigeria and Asha decided to experience living and working in Bangladesh. The only person that wanted to stay was me. Tarana and Ammu were to return; I wasn’t allowed to stay home alone. My fall back into depression was sudden. Now that I knew I could have a better life, I didn’t want to go back to an abusive one—one that didn’t even feel like my life at all. I was withdrawn and quiet.

When Asha and my father came back the next year, my rebellion began full swing. I became committed to leaving my house—even if I didn’t see how I could. There was no one to guide me in the Bengali community. I didn’t know where to look for help and I felt trapped in my own anger. And I felt so alone. But I was determined to leave.

In November 2011, I hit my limit. I was in my room and Ammu was in the hallway, badgering me from a distance, recounting an old, favourite story of hers about a personal wrong. Exhausted, I finally stood up for myself and told her that she could keep talking but that I would not listen, not this time. My cell phone rang, then, and I reached to answer it. She realized I meant it. In a flash, she sprung at me, raging. Before I could even register what was happening, she was choking me. Asha heard, then came running in and grabbed her away from me and out of my room, locking the door behind her.

***

Later, when I told people I ran away from home, they wouldn’t really understand. “How could a 23-year-old run away from home? Don’t you mean you moved out?” I explain; sometimes they understand and sometimes they don’t. I realize that many of those who ask these questions don’t understand the cultural pressure I faced, or my parents’ mentality—both of which decree a woman living alone is unacceptable. They’re confused because, by the time I moved out, I had a well-paying job. I could move into an apartment and wasn’t forced into homelessness. To add to it all, my older sister came with me. From the outside looking in, my story didn’t seem traumatizing enough.

While my mother could be violent, she was predominately an emotional and mental abuser. This seems to be difficult for people to understand or even believe—something I find not only offensive, but appalling. In the years I’ve spent living alone and sharing my story, I’ve discovered that mental or verbal abuse by parents towards their blood-related children isn’t treated as seriously as spousal or partner abuse. As a society, we’re more concerned with possible parental physical and sexual abuse. It has to seem outrageous for us to acknowledge it hurts. Take, for instance, the ads that appeared in Toronto’s subway system earlier this year for Covenant House, a long-standing youth shelter in the city. One, in the style of a cross-stitch hanging, reads, “Home, shut up or I’ll knock your teeth out, home.” It’s powerful and important. But, I wonder, how do you convey the nuances of emotional abuse on a subway ad? Why does someone have to have scars or be raped or even dead for abused children and teens to receive care?

The general public sees severing ties with an abusive spouse or partner as an acceptable act. Yet, when I spoke to most people about my decision to sever ties with my abusive parents, the immediate response from friends, and even some mental health practitioners, was to forgive and rebuild with them. What most people failed to realize is that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to rebuilding with abusers of any kind. They also failed to understand the psychological implications of re-establishing a relationship with abusive parents after having cut ties with them: how it can stall a healing process, while further instigating depression, rage, and a slew of other mental health issues.

I’m hoping this will change as more people speak out. I was heartened to see, for instance, that former Edmonton Oiler Patrick O’Sullivan addressed his father’s emotional cruelty and abuse in his new book Breaking Away: A Harrowing True Story of Resilience, Courage and Triumph. Even though his career as an professional hockey player brought him great success, he was always looking over his shoulder in fear after games. “There’s a lot of people that don’t even know it goes on, it’s a very private thing, ‘it’s not my business anyways.’ A lot of people don’t want to know because it puts them in a tough spot. They think they saw something, they’re not sure, they don’t want to know anymore. That’s got to change.” At 31 years old, he has trouble sitting still and sensory triggers can immediately implant a memory of his abusive father.

Over the years, I have met adult victims of parental abuse, and a lot of them share similar experiences to mine. Regardless of heritage, the feelings of loneliness and being misunderstood because of abusive parents, and particularly an abusive mother, are common. We victims have a deep understanding of one another, and I’ve shared more than one high-five with other survivors because we’ve made it to the other side, alive and mentally healthy.

Screen Shot 2017-03-02 at 1.11.10 PMI once asked Asha how many times she thought of calling the Children’s Aid Society in our youth. She admitted, “Many. The only reason I didn’t leave was because I knew I’d get separated from you guys, especially if we went through the foster care system.” She’d sacrificed her own mental wellbeing because she wanted to make sure that Tarana and I weren’t alone with my parents or split up in foster care or shelter systems. If she had called, though, we wouldn’t have been alone. In 2014–2015, the Children’s Aid Society of Toronto worked with more than 21,000 children who called because of physical abuse, sexual abuse, neglect, domestic violence, caregiver capacity, and caregiver-child conflicts. The latter, which is what I experienced in my upbringing, is one of the things children are least likely to call in about, according to the CAS’s 2014–2015 annual report.

As a teen, the only time I ever seriously thought of leaving home was when staff from Covenant House did a presentation at my high school. The information stayed lodged at the back of my brain, but I soon learned how doubly traumatic it can be to live in a house of strangers who come from their own trauma. It scared me enough that I eliminated that option from my mind. If I were to be free, it would to be in safety, not another abusive environment. I wish it had been easier for me to find out more, solid information.

Public education around the solutions and processes of running away from home needs to be more prevalent, louder. Children of abuse grow up in a contradictory and confusing emotional world. Some children also normalize parental abuse until they are exposed to a different relationship dynamic—like when, one day on the subway, I saw a woman and her daughter share stories and giggle with one another for the first time. My mind was blown. I couldn’t even think of being that physically close with my mother. When kids don’t understand that what they are facing is not safe, someone has to be the voice that speaks out for them.

***

Asha decided to leave with me after the choking incident. Together, we moved to an apartment in the west end of Toronto. On an April morning, while my mom was away at work and my dad was living in Guyana for another international gig, my sister and I woke up at 7 a.m. sharp. Nervous, we called our movers to confirm they’d arrive on time. We’d also prepared emails that announced we were officially leaving home. They were crafted months in advance, and sent that evening to my dad and my younger sister.

For my mom, we had prepared a printed letter, sealed in an envelope. It took months to edit and keep concise, on the advice of our counsellor at Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic. We’d come to the clinic earlier for help: it had a counsellor dedicated to supporting women that run away from home. We were to hand the letter to Ammu and leave immediately after we gave her the news face-to-face. The letter said that she had pushed us to do this. It indicated that we would be safe and that we would not be in contact with our family for at least three months or until we were ready. It was a memento of closure for us, and a piece of evidence in case of an emergency. The paper trail was important, according to our counsellor, should the police need to be involved in the event that my parents escalated to violence.

We took out the empty boxes we had hid in our closets, taped them and stuffed them quickly. We didn’t have to be that urgent, but we were filled with anxiety. It felt like my mother could come home at any moment. We put our clothes in garbage bags, and the movers took our furniture as we watched our rooms empty in the quickest hour of my life. After leaving our things untouched in our new apartment, we headed back to my parents’ place to get my dad’s car. We picked up our mom from work and told her we were all going to our family friend’s apartment. She was giddy from the surprise.

As I parked in my family friend’s garage, my heart was beating loudly in my chest. I called a cab as soon as we arrived. In the 15 minutes it took for the cab to get there, I told Ammu that we were leaving. It didn’t even feel like I was in my body, but I somehow managed to tell her that when she returned home, we wouldn’t be there, and that our rooms would be empty. We began to gather our things and leave for the door as she grabbed us, begging us to explain more. We said nothing. I was so scared I thought the room was spinning. The family friend told her simply, “Let them go.” The door shut, and we heard her wailing.

As I jabbed the elevator button, I grew so nervous hoping she wouldn’t come out of the door trying to do something. We headed to the elevator and I felt numb. It was a defence mechanism I’d used ever since I was a child, exposed to my parents’ public fights. I remember thinking, “This is it, we’re all alone.” I felt like no one would support us, and I also felt sad that I was cutting ties. I didn’t want them as my parents, but I did want parents. I felt orphaned.

The cab ride back to our new place was silent. I hugged Asha tightly and we listened to a CBC Radio Show talking about abuse. I asked the driver to please change the channel. We met a few friends at a restaurant. We ate a warm meal, even though we didn’t feel hungry. Our phones rang all night, voicemail after voicemail. One was from the family friend asking us to move my dad’s car from their parking spot. Another was from my mother, demanding to know why we did this to her. A third was from my dad in Guyana demanding we go home right now or else he would kill us.

I laid on the bare mattress of the new apartment, scared and crying. I had never felt so alone in my life, and anyone I could call would not understand. I wish I knew at the time how empty their threats were.

I wish my friends understood how hard of a decision it was to cut the umbilical cord, instead of viewing my actions as selfish. I wish more people in my life at that time understood how painful it was to not be understood—or even to just be heard.

***

As I write this, it has been three months since my last visit to my parent’s house. While the process of separating from my parents has been full of up and downs, I am now experiencing adulthood and zero dependency on my parents, and it feels exciting and scary all at once. While I feel mentally, financially, and physically healthier and safe, I am sad that I feel I have to do it alone and without the support of my parents. While I feel stable, it’s still daunting to carve out a self-created stability, in all respects, all by myself.

In Christine Ann Lawson’s Understanding the Borderline Mother, there is a chapter called “Living Backwards.” It focuses on how adult children of parental abuse can move forward by first understanding their mothers and then recreating the self. In many ways, I feel as though I’m 17 years old and experiencing my life, not 27. Sometimes I get mad thinking, “Why did it take this long?” I can confidently (and sadly) say that there are more victims that I can possibly personally speak to who are still affected by their parents’ abuse. It is much rarer to connect with adult children who have moved past their lives as victims into a more stable existence, and that alone is scary.

Overall I feel so much healthier. But it took four years of therapy and seeking out my own education on meditation, self-growth, and self-love. I took initiative because I didn’t want to move through the world in my traumas as so many adults do. I feel proud of the courage I take everyday to do what is safe and healthy for me. For the first time in my life, I am my first and only priority. Unfortunately, there are a lot more people who don’t have this experience because of fear, confusion or the way the world around them misunderstands parental abuse. We must strive for clarity and understanding in a broader context to give a voice to children and youth living in mentally and verbally turbulent homes.

I can only hope that other survivors, like me, actively search for the key that will unlock the cage they are in so they can finally fly to their freedom.

Show Comments