Q: I’m in Western Cape [Africa]. I need to get my daughter to talk to someone … her boyfriend is an abusive drug user and narcissist. She is scared to death of him. She is 23 and every time I see her she looks worse. She has lost about 15kg [11lb]. She needs to get out but doesn’t know how.
I don’t want law protection. I tried that and every time was such a mess that my daughter refuses to get a protection order or involve the police. I need to get her to talk to someone who has been through the same stuff.
It’s like someone is ripping a piece from me. I know she has to come to realize herself that she must get out but I need to get her into a program or with someone who can help her because she has gone too deep. I have begged his parents to get him help but is abusive toward them as well. -H.
I’m so sorry to hear you’re going through this with your daughter. It can be immensely difficult, frustrating and confusing to be a bystander to abuse, harder yet when it’s your own child who is the victim. I know if one of my daughters was in this situation, I would do whatever it took to try and keep them safe. You’re a good mom.
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It’s important to note that abuse cannot be blamed on drugs or alcohol, but surely his drug abuse is perpetuating the cycle of abuse and making it even worse. Do you know if he is forcing her to use drugs? If so, this would be another way he is trying to control her and cloud her judgement so she stays.
Her weight loss could be a symptom of the stress she’s under, or something more sinister like food control—see “Forbidden Food” for one survivor’s story of escaping that tactic.
But let’s not panic yet—from what you wrote, it sounds like your daughter is still allowed to see you and talk to you, which means she has you as her lifeline. This can’t be said for all survivors. Many abusers will isolate their victims and cut them off from any sort of support system, including friends and family. They may not allow them to have access to a cell phone, the internet or hold a job. Some even restrict them from ever leaving the house alone.
You say your daughter is scared to death of her boyfriend but continues to stay with him. This probably seems incredulous to us outsiders not currently being abused. “Just run away!”, we want to scream—or maybe doscream—at loved ones being abused. But the reasons survivors stay are complex and often, staying or going back after leaving is a means of immediate survival. It is sometimes safer for survivors to placate an abuser than to defy them and try to leave. Only a survivor knows when the best time is to leave an abusive partner, and there is a distinct possibility this abuser has threatened your daughter if she leaves. He may even be threatening to harm her family, friends or pets. Leaving is notoriously the most dangerous time for a survivor.
Abusers are also cunning individuals that may gaslight victims into believing what’s going on isn’t nearly as bad as reality would denote. Abusers can convince victims that the abuse is the survivor’s fault and will stop if the survivor changes his or her behavior. There are all sorts of twisted mind tricks that abusers use to try and convince the survivor to stay with them, to give them a glimpse of hope that things will improve or to diminish a survivor’s self-worth so much that the survivor begins to believe the abuser is the only person who would ever love them, even if that love comes with violence. These are just some of the reasons it’s hard for survivors to extricate themselves from abusers.
Law enforcement’s job should be to protect people from dangerous, threatening and violent abusers, but unfortunately, it’s not always that simple. If police don’t receive adequate training in domestic violence, they may respond to domestic violence calls and miss red flags at that indicate a high lethality risk, or might name the survivor as an perpetrator when the survivor was actually fighting back in self-defense.
In minority survivor communities—Black, immigrantor LGBTQ groups, to name a few—there is a general sense of mistrust of the police that may prevent them from relying on police for help. On top of that, calling the police can sometimes put a survivor in more danger as the abuser can retaliate after the police leave or after the abuser is released from jail. As tough as it is, it should be your daughter’s choice whether or not to call police—she knows what will keep her safe and what will put her in more danger—unless you witness the abuse directly or know your daughter’s life is in immediate danger, in which case you shouldn’t hesitate to call for help.
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Your instincts to connect your daughter with a program or individual that knows and understands the complicated facets of abuse are spot on. While this site, domesticshelters.org, has a searchable database of shelters in the U.S. and Canada, I found these resources for you in South Africa:
- Powa (People Opposing Women Abuse), 011 642 435
- LifeLine South Africa, 0800-150-150
- Childline, 08000 55 555
I would encourage you to reach out to one of them for help locally. You can make the initial call and ask for the advice on next steps, but in order to talk to your daughter about leaving the abuser, they will need to speak with her directly. To do this, perhaps you can arrange a time when you and your daughter can be alone. If that’s not possible, consider suggesting to your daughter that she calls one of these organizations when she is by herself, from a phone that the abuser is not monitoring. This could be at her place of employment, a friend’s house, her doctor’s office or a public library.
With over 500 articles on our site detailing the many facets of abuse, as well as the aftermath of trauma and the healing needed to move on, sharing articles with your daughter when you’re alone and together (send them to her with caution as long as you know the abuser is not monitoring her devices), could help her better understand that what she’s experiencing is not her fault, that she’s not alone and that escape is possible. You may also find our video, “I Know Someone Who Is Being Abused, Now What?" helpful.
The most important thing, H., is to simply be there for your daughter. I know it may seem unbearable to wait for your daughter to leave him, but your nonjudgmental support and unwavering love could be the very things that bolster her courage to find a way to leave soon. The key is to be there for her without making yourself an enemy, thus preventing her from being able to see and talk to you. Be her refuge and her safe place. But make sure you are also keeping yourself safe. If the abuser starts to threaten, stalk or otherwise direct his abuse toward you, you may need to pull back, even just temporarily, or consider an order of protection. And practice self-care—called secondary trauma, burnout or compassion fatigue, you need to set some boundaries in order to continue being the amazing mom you are.
Good luck, and please keep us updated.
Ask Amanda is meant to offer helpful resources and information about domestic violence. If in crisis, please reach out to your nearest domestic violence shelter for the guidance of a trained advocate.
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