It can be hard to acknowledge the abusive nature of those you loveRiley Briggs

Content note: this article contains detailed discussion of toxic and abusive relationships

If a family member causes you more pain and stress than you can cope with, it is not selfish of you to let go. Since taking distance from a parent earlier this term, I feel like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders. Making the decision, I knew that my mental health had been suffering and was moving towards crisis point, but I couldn’t decide whether the situation was just not ideal or something I needed to protect myself from.

When someone has been in and out of your life for 18 years, your perception of them is made up of more than shared experiences – it’s also the inbetween times of waiting and expectation, the subsequent disappointment, the lingering memories. Since I was of primary school age, my encounters with my dad were few and far between, usually once a year for a couple of days. This made them special, to the extent that any acknowledgement that our time together had been less than perfect felt like ruining the image I had created of my father. It was unthinkable after having yearned to see him for so long.

The disappointment was pushed to one side, dangerous and scary. I didn’t want to come to any unwelcome realisations, very aware of the fact that this was my one father – I see his traits every time I look in the mirror – and so it felt like there was an obligation to put up with whatever curveballs the relationship hit me with. Anything rare becomes precious.

“Standing up to someone you’re afraid to lose can be the hardest thing you ever have to do”

Now, reaching adulthood, the moments of disappointment have accumulated, finally reaching disillusionment. This manifested itself in emotional exhaustion. I remember clearly the moment this year when I thought, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore – and I don’t have to’. It was a case of proving to myself I could stand up for myself in the face of someone I loved and cared for but who had exhausted my mental health for so long. In all other aspects of my life, I was proud of my growing self-confidence in my studies, in my body and my individuality, but this was an area in which I was still the little girl, fearful to lose the parental love that had been so distant, afraid of outbursts of rage.

Here, I could not find the words to build sentences I had rehearsed over and over. When I first confronted my dad over anything, I was 16 years old, engaged in student politics and a keen debater. On the phone to him, I was shaking, holding my notes so I could remind myself of my resolve. Fear is power, undoubtedly. I knew that my mother had suffered under his emotional abuse for years, and I was painfully aware that she would defend his good intentions regardless – to her daughter, in order to convince me that I could take pride in a father who loved me, but also to herself. It was always easier to recognise the absurdity of this reaction in her than when reflecting on myself, and much easier to expose it. I stick by the motto that, in any relationship, parental, romantic or platonic, if you would be worried about your friend if it were them in your situation, there is probably an issue that needs at least acknowledging.


Mountain View

Talking trauma at Cambridge

Standing up to someone you’re afraid to lose can be the hardest thing you ever have to do. It can be painful, especially when, as in my case, a sullen face and a sincere apology are soon followed by a return to the status quo. The perpetual cycle of working up courage to express unhappiness, pride in finally addressing it followed by a brief spell of apparent good relations, and then finally the realisation that all the same problems had resurfaced – to say the least, it’s exhausting. For me, the only way to break the cycle was to take the leap of faith out. This would be new territory, scary and unexplored, but it felt so completely liberating. It wasn’t that I didn’t love him anymore, it was that I knew I was suffering whilst he was oblivious and that ultimately, now, I had agency. This is the key point that changed everything. As an adult, I was under no obligation to my parent, who had been shy of their own responsibilities during my childhood.

You should not feel guilty about choosing to be healthy and self-confident. These are not privileges but rights that you have to defend for yourself when nobody else will. When a relationship reduces and weakens you, or causes those around you to express concern, you are at liberty to walk away. Clearly, this is easier said than done, and circumstances are never uncomplicated. It took me three series of counselling sessions over 10 years to even reach the point of realisation that I could choose to what extent I wanted to engage with my father. Even if circumstances don’t allow you to break away immediately or fully, and even if you don’t want to, an awareness of your agency is crucial. Your parent should want you to protect yourself – I like to think that, if they really thought about it, they would be proud.

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