+ Abusive behavior of family members

This is an uncomfortable topic. The goal of this article is to break the silence on the abusive behavior of family members. I consider mentally or physically abusive behavior to be a symptom of an unhealthy mind. I am presenting a case of abuse which had tragic consequences to open the topic for discussion.

Let us examine our unscientific approach towards abusive behavior. Looking back into history, we know that devastating diseases like cholera, smallpox and polio have been brought under control worldwide, not by labeling them as bad but by scientifically investigating their causes and developing effective antidotes. We see daily news articles on how to maintain good physical health by following healthy practices for diet, exercise, sleep and stress. We discuss physical ill health without inhibition. But in stark contrast, we avoid talking about mental health issues. Even when we see the victim’s physical and/or emotional suffering first hand, we stick to the dysfunctional attitude of “Don’t talk about that person’s cruel behavior”. Emotional abuse, domestic violence and other hurtful behaviors drain the self esteem, scar the minds and may even lead to suicide of the victims. Worst of all, the children exposed to such violence are at risk of adopting the hurtful behavior as they grow up, passing on the legacy of abuse to future generations. Such behaviors do not magically disappear by our looking away and being silent.

Are we not proud of the amazing developments achieved in science, technology and healthcare by adopting a fearless, scientific and innovative approach? I wonder what blocks us from dealing with mental health issues in a similar manner. We owe it to ourselves and our children, to break free from the current culture of silence and passivity over abusive behavior in families.

The sad story of my cousin Venkat

The names of the people in this article have been changed. These are my recollections of the events as a 12 year old at that time. Our family and the families of my elder and younger uncles lived under one roof as a joint family. My widowed grandmother did all the actual cooking on wood fire, in a smoke filled low roof kitchen. As per the custom at that time, she cooked strictly after taking her bath with nothing but a white wet cloth wrapped around her. Her three daughter-in-laws took care of the other chores.

My elder uncle Krishna and my aunt Sarala had only one child, a son named Venkat who was six years at that time. My uncle was very kind, soft spoken and religious. He did his morning puja every day, sitting before the puja mandir and offering flowers to the deities. His favorite God was Hanumanji. He passed Visarada exam in Hindi from Banaras Hindu University. Sarala, his wife was skilled and did her chores meticulously. She took good care of her only child Vankat by feeding him timely, flawlessly dressing him up and neatly combing his hair. She was famous for her sharp tongue and short temper. Everyone carefully avoided triggering her anger.

As it happens with some children of that age, Venkat would sometimes fight with another boy and beat him up. Occasionally, the mother of the beaten up boy would visit our house and complain to my aunt. Every time a mother complained, my aunt would instantly fly into a rage and mercilessly beat up her son Venkat, in the presence of everyone. On more than one such occasion, I heard my aunt curse her son with the unspeakable words “You are a curse for me. I wish you were dead putting an end to my misery!”. It was painful to hear a mother say such words to her son. But none of the other elders in the joint family dared to counsel or confront my aunt to discourage such hurtful words and cruel beatings.

When my father changed his job and moved to another town, I met the other two families only on special occasions like marriages. After I moved far away on employment, I came to know about my uncle’s family only through my family.

Venkat did his graduation in Arts and worked as the medical assistant for a local doctor, earning a small salary. He became a drug addict and used injectable drugs. My aunt yielded to his demands for money though she knew he was using it to feed his addiction. My uncle was a helpless spectator with no voice in this serious matter. He died in his sixties, earlier than his younger brothers. Vankat died in his forties, unmarried. My aunt, the sole survivor of the family, adopted a relative adult boy who lost his parents and lived with him in another town, making him the heir to her modest assets. She died in her seventies.

Please review this case with an open mind. Was not Venkat born as innocent as the other children in the joint family? What life experiences compelled him to seek out drugs and get addicted to them unlike the rest of the children? Who was responsible for shaping him in the wrong manner? In my opinion, my aunt’s physical and emotional abuse got etched in the heart of her six year old son. Probably whenever the painful memory of his own mother humiliating him in public, even wishing for his death haunted him, he drowned it in drugs, ultimately leading to his premature death. I think the passivity of my uncle and other adults in the joint family allowed my aunt’s abusive behavior continue unchecked. Had other adults intervened with guts and skill, Venkat might have lived a normal life like the other children in the joint family.

I have known abusive people among parents, grandparents, spouses and children. I invite the readers, especially the mental health professionals to offer their comments and suggestions for resisting and preventing abusive behavior of family members.

Why am I sharing my experience?

I have known competent people from teens to seventies suffer in silence due to abusive behavior of family members. After I read some wonderful books and gained insights, I could deal with such people successfully and also helped a few sufferers. I would like to create awareness about this hush-hush problem. When we share such problems and discuss them openly, we can develop healthy solutions to put an end to the suffering. One golden rule is “You can’t change the behavior of other people. But you can certainly choose YOUR RESPONSE to their behavior.”

People distressed by past or present abusive parental behavior may look into the book “Toxic parents – Overcoming their hurtful legacy and reclaiming your life” By Susan Forward Ph.D. She authored several books on relationships (1).

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(1) Susan Forward Amazon author’s page

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