Taboo issues: Domestic Violence and Mental Health

It took me a while to decide whether I wanted to write this post or not. However, seeing the reactions of the few colleagues that I spoke to regarding the issues that I shared, I felt it was important that I did write about this and share my experience. Perhaps this might help someone out there, facing similar circumstances and not knowing what to do.

The taboo topics that I wish to talk about are domestic violence and mental health issues.

Domestic violence was a part of my entire childhood and as everyone working with children know, this does affect children deeply and most of the effects are lifelong. Each of my siblings and I have been affected differently or maybe I should say, that the outward manifestation for each of us seems to be different. That is a key reason why none of us are close to my father. In recent years, as my father gradually became more feeble health-wise, I would feel sorry for him that none of his children wanted to talk to him or spend time with him. However, I used to feel angry that he had never acknowledged what he had been doing nor apologized to my mother once, for all the severe physical, emotional and verbal abuse that he had subjected her to since they married 52 years ago and up until a decade ago. That is the primary reason why I kept coming back home, despite leaving for studies or work. I felt that it was my responsibility to be my mother’s protector ever since I was a child and that if I were not there at home to stop my father when he did become abusive, she would be more affected emotionally and physically. I have hardly ever spoken of what I went through at home with friends simply because it was difficult for me to do so and also because it was considered a taboo to speak of it. This was also the reason that spurred me to work in the field of addressing gender based violence, when I started my career in the international development sector. With the recent health adversities that both my parents faced that has resulted in my father being moved to a nursing home and my mother, under my care, I suppose my father has had time to reflect on the past. My mother mentioned that he had asked her forgiveness for all the harm he had done her. I also don’t feel any anger towards my father anymore – not because he asked my mother’s forgiveness, as I had been wanting him to all these years, but because seeing both of them in such frailty and helplessness made me realize there was no point to holding onto that anger. The time left with either of them is not much.

The effect that domestic violence has had on my brother though is much more visible and audible, because it brought out mental health issues for which he was diagnosed for, in his 30s. With his doctor’s guidance, my mother had been managing to keep his mental health under balance and he has been working full time, contributing to the family financially and emotionally. His only weak spot all these years had been my father – that is, he could never stand my father’s voice. So if my father were to speak to anyone, and sometimes when not even speaking to anyone, while my brother was at home, my brother would start hearing my father’s voice scold him or make fun of him and he would start scolding my father. With my mother indisposed and unable to continue treating my brother since August, and the fact that both parents were hospitalized at the same time, has aggravated his condition. I really appreciate that with great mental control, he took over the responsibility for my father and visited him each day at the hospital, took care of all my father’s expenses and most importantly, did not scold him at all as his health was weak. This immense control needed to have an outlet and unfortunately, I became the target since I dealt with him each day. My brother started hearing my voice even if I was not in the house and it worsened if I was in the house. As I was very busy with my mother and work, I did not take note of the escalating situation especially as he has always been quite caring of me, since our childhood. So it was a shock to me that on the day after I brought Amma home from her second stint at the hospital, my brother took offence to something I said and started hitting me on the head, as I was working on writing a key project proposal that had to be submitted the following week. Ever since then, he can’t seem to stand the sight of me and continues scolding into the night, without sleeping, as he is constantly hearing my voice shouting in his head apparently making fun of him and calling him incompetent. He has hardly ever been physically violent before and I realized that his mental condition had drastically worsened and needed immediate attention. However, I also knew that I could not stay in the same home as my brother in this situation because I had suddenly become the source aggravating his mental health even though I tried my best to keep to my room, when he was about the house and not talk at all.

I told my mother my decision to move out of our house to a rented apartment and I asked her to come with me, so that I could continue taking care of her. My mother was initially not happy about leaving my brother, as she was concerned that his condition would worsen further without her, but she also recognized that it was unsafe for me to continue remaining in the house and that in her condition, she needed me to take care of her in her current health condition and could not do anything for my brother anyway so she agreed for our move. My brother was happy to hear that I would be moving out and even though he was less happy about my mother moving out as well, he knew he would not be taking care of her had she remained with him. My father and sisters all agreed with my decision. At this point, I would have moved out even if my family was not in agreement but it was much easier to do so with everyone’s agreement. My second sister, with whom my brother is the closest with, mentioned that she has been talking to him about going to a psychiatrist after I leave our house. So I have been busy over the past few weeks, searching for a small apartment which is conducive to my mother’s recovery and which would give me some space to work from home in peaceful surroundings, packing our belongings, organizing the move, and unpacking at our new apartment. It’s been a couple of days since my mother and I moved to our new apartment and I am gradually feeling better. So is my mother, as her health seems to improve without the constant stress at home. She refers to our new apartment as being on planet Mars. I can imagine it feels a bit strange to move to a new place after 18 years of living at one’s own home. She has started walking around the apartment with her rollator. I kept the furniture at the new place to a minimum so that it would be easier for her to move around. She often seems to worry about how my brother is doing but overall, everyone including my brother, seem to be happier. My brother sent me a message today wishing me on my birthday, and saying that he had no issues with me but the issues were psychological based.

That said, I have not allowed myself to delve into how I have been feeling all this time as I knew I needed to keep going and staying strong for my mother and I. Especially when the situation at work suddenly changed as well and added to my stress. I cannot afford to acknowledge that I am upset or sad at this point but need to take one step at a time. Perhaps at some point in the distant future I will reflect and acknowledge what I have gone through within me.

Why did I choose to write about this personal experience? When I returned to office after the few weeks that I had taken time off as well as worked from home, a few close colleagues asked me how I was doing and I tried to put in a few words briefly what I was actually going through. The responses I received was surprising especially from those, who work in the mental health and psycho social support space. One response was why were we leaving my brother behind and that after all we were one family and that I should not let such things interfere with the family unity, another response was that many families bicker, a third and most common response was uncomfortable and awkward silence. I realized that people don’t like to speak about mental health issues or domestic violence and most importantly, it was because they had no idea about what both actually meant for the person going through either. I hope what I have shared gives a glimpse into what it means to have a family member with serious mental health issues or undergo domestic violence. That it is not a matter of the archaic notion of ‘it’s all family and it has to be put up with’ but that people going through both issues need support, the ones that directly face it as well as those who are immediate family members of the affected person(s). And most importantly before attempting to support a family member, one needs to first take steps to ensure one’s own safety and mental health as well.