Realizing What Family Means: 6 Ways to Reject Abusive Relatives and Restart Your Life

[Content warning: mentions of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse; blunt discussions about abuse within a family setting.]

So there’s a book from R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps series called Vampire Breath.

In it, two siblings wander into their basement, somehow find a hidden passage, stumble upon a jar labeled “Vampire Breath” (yeah, I dunno), accidentally awaken a vampire, and spend the rest of the story trying to flee him. Because—you know—he’s doing that thing where he’s trying to kill them.

And he very nearly succeeds, too – if it weren’t for those meddling kids finally running back up the stairs into the familiar parts of the house, conveniently knocking into their parents as the vampire continues to give chase.

Plot twist!

The vampire is actually their biological grandfather. Once they realize the mix-up, the vampire laughs, the parents laugh, and the kids continue to feel uneasy. End scene.

“James. Seriously?” you’re asking. “Why the hell are you starting out an article on abuse with a reference to Goosebumps?”

Because it’s a fantastic example of how deeply rooted, short-sighted, and infallibly fallible the cultural concept is that families should stick together no matter what. A ridiculous example for a ridiculous trope.

Essentially, Vampire Breath encompasses two disturbing myths perpetuated throughout American culture: 1) That biologically or legally bound individuals would never hurt one another, and 2) that it’s okay when they do. We recognize it’s happening and yet, we don’t. It’s like a very loud secret.

The fact of the matter is that I used to read this series as a kid. And even when I was suffering at the hands of family members both psychologically and sexually, I nodded my head along to cultural examples such as Mr. Grand-Pire, thinking that it was not only okay that he tried to kill his own two grandchildren, but that it was so easy to sweep under the rug thereafter.

But you know what I eventually learned?

It’s okay not to be okay about how you’re being treated. And it’s okay to take action about not being okay. Regardless of who it is that’s treating you wrong and who it is that won’t listen to you when you talk about it.

You’re a worthy human being who doesn’t deserve to have their blood drained by Grandpa. And if you’re sick of that shit, here’s what you can do about it.

1. Recognize That Their Treatment of You Is Not Okay

Just because you’re blood- or legally bonded to them doesn’t mean it’s okay for them to dump on you. And it’s pretty twisted when they (and others) believe otherwise.

Abuse is abuse is abuse.

But when abuse is done at the hands of a family member, people suddenly have a way of turning the behavior on its head. Cuffs and slaps are Father’s way of toughening you up for the world. Possession and manipulation only mean Mumsy wants to make sure you never get hurt. Pappy’s incest is you misinterpreting his ways of showing how much he loves you.

These excuses – paired with the ongoing poppycockery of unseverable familial bonds – can make a person wonder if they really are just making it all up in their head.

How can you tell if a family member’s treatment of you is abuse? The way to find out is quite simple: Imagine your situation being exactly as it is, but with your abuser being a non-family member.

Imagine they’re your significant other, your friend, your co-worker. Or, hey, even a complete stranger. Switch the face of your abuser and see if the abuse suddenly rings clearer to you.

And if that doesn’t work for you, ask yourself this: When they treated you a certain way, did it make you uncomfortable? Did it hurt emotionally or physically? Did you want it to stop? If you asked them to stop or refrain from doing it in the future, did they respect your request?

In its most basic sense, abuse is when something damaging is done to you without your consent. The person behind those actions doesn’t change that fact.

2. If Safety Permits, Be Upfront to Other Family Members

And stand your ground.

It can be very difficult to speak up about familial abuse because 1) abuse in general is still kept very hush-hush, and 2) family members are believed to do no wrong to their kin.

But it’s important to speak up about your abuse to other family members if you feel they could be in your corner.

Being backed by fellow family members can not only bring you comfort, but can help stop the abuser from abusing you. Not unlike using a snake’s own venom in order to cure a person who’s been bitten, having other family members rally against an abusive family member can severely weaken the abuser’s power.

3. Take the Opinions of Others with a Grain of Salt

Unfortunately, family members can just as well side with your abuser or attempt to provide a quick-fix mediation because—hey—you’re all family, and families should never fight.

This is nothing more than an attempt to sweep the problem under the rug. Don’t settle for it. Ever.

If fellow family members (or your friends or your companions) don’t side with you, it’s best to ignore their views.

The fact of the matter is that they’re saying what they’re saying either because 1) they don’t actually understand the situation, or 2) they don’t want to.

It’s hard to come to terms with, but what they’re doing is siding with your abuser. They’re choosing them over you.

These are not people you deserve to have in your life.

In the end, give priority to those who have been there as opposed to those who have not. I’m sure many of you with loving, legal families are now going, “But that’s not faaaaaair! Our opinions should be just as valid!”

But see, all you have is an opinion. You don’t have experience. And believe me, this is a situation where experience matters immensely.

Connect with people who have experienced a variation of what you have, and you’ll soon start to feel less alone.

4. Know When It’s Time to Distance Yourself

Removing yourself from your abuser tends to be a messy business.

Family members choose sides, lines are drawn, and you essentially may be blamed for being the one who started it all. (This is another great example of why you should distance yourself from certain family members: They conveniently forget that the abuser—you know—abused you.)

When do you know if it’s a good time to take a hiatus or cut off contact permanently? Some may argue that it depends on how much you’ve tried to change the situation for the better, how much energy you’ve put into giving your abuser chances for reprieve.

But that’s bullshit.

In the end, it’s not essential or important for you to first attempt to make amends with your abuser before you’ve decided to wash your hands of them. Would you have made (or had been expected to make) so many tireless efforts for a stranger who mugged you in an alley?

If you want to know whether or not you need to remove yourself from your abuser (and those backing your abuser), permanently or otherwise, you need to ask yourself just one thing: Are you freaking tired of being in this situation?

Then go. You owe nothing to nobody – especially staying in an dangerous situation.

5. Practice Self-Care

To quote my boyfriend, who is a fellow survivor of bloodline abuse: “Keep yo’ shit together until you can get out.”

I daresay I agree with him. Familial abuse is like non-familial abuse squared, in the sense that everything is put on you even more. It’s your responsibility to rectify the situation. It’s your responsibility to keep the family from falling apart. It’s your responsibility to put life back to “the way it was before” (even though it never was that way because—you know—the abuse).

And within all of this focus on you, nobody is focusing on your well-being.

I’m pretty sure that’s the definition of irony.

So keep tabs on yourself, know when you’re getting burnt out, and do nice things for yourself in order to preserve the balance.

6. Never Forget the Difference Between ‘family’ and (Capital F) ‘Family’

Never forget that family isn’t what happens to be tossed your way by a couple of sex cells and cruel, cruel fate, but is made up of the individuals who treat you compassionately and humanely.

It’s full of the people who, when they hear you’ve been abused, will hug you and love you and make sure you’re going to be okay.

You’re in control of who is in your Family. That’s why it has a capital F.

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If you’re looking for further help on leaving and/or dealing with abusive relatives, consider the following resources:

James St. James is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. He isn’t particularly fond of his name, but he has to admit it makes him easier to remember. When he’s not busy scaring cis gender people with his trans gender agenda, he likes to play SEGA and eat candy.