This blog was written by a SafeLives Pioneer, for World Mental Health Day 2019. Content note: this blog contains descriptions of domestic abuse and coercive control, and the mental health impacts
I am my father’s pride and joy; the best thing that’s ever happened to him. Whenever he talks about how much he cares for me, he’s moved to tears. He loves giving me surprise birthday presents. He boasts about my achievements to his many friends. He loves me so much that he always sends me two happy birthday messages – one by text, then another posted publicly on Facebook (in his own words, “so everyone else can see it”).
My father is a perpetrator of narcissistic domestic abuse and coercive control, and has been for decades. But the vast majority of harm he’s caused me happened in the first 15 years of my life.
Even though Rosie Duffield’s incredibly powerful speech to parliament last week was about her experiences of intimate partner violence, I related to a lot of it. That alternation between intense affection and abuse, that calculated manipulation, that fear of punishment – it’s all experienced by children too.
When my father demanded that my mum sit motionless and silent, he didn’t have to tell me the same rules applied to me. If I irritated him at all, I knew things would get worse. I took on responsibility for his moods in the same way my mum did. We did everything possible to keep him happy in order to protect each other.
When I did something he approved of – like fawning over his interests while distancing myself from my mum’s, or enthusiastically telling his friends how fantastic he was to help him hide his true self – it would placate him. My mum would have a short break from the worst of his behaviours, and I would be rewarded with love and affection.
When he gaslighted my mum into thinking the abuse was her fault, he gaslighted me too. When we watched him throw my new jacket in the bin, then insist it was actually my mum who had done it, I questioned my own reality. Every time he used his eyes to ‘dog-whistle’, subtly conveying his fury with her, she heard it loud and clear, and so did I. I knew it meant we would be walking on even more eggshells than usual all day, and what would happen at home that evening. When he threw frying pans and plant pots, I might not have been his intended target, but I still had to dodge out of the way.
I never felt safe while he was around. Being in a constant state of fight or flight emotionally and physically exhausted me, but that was how I stayed safe. I played out a dozen scenarios in my head, calculating how I could best minimise the harm he was about to cause. The effects of this hypervigilance are still with me today. I often had days off school with a stomach ache, a common symptom of anxiety in children. As an adult, I’ve taken time off work due to anxiety and the fatigue it causes several times. Even a loud noise can send my brain into overdrive, and living with complex PTSD means I frequently experience emotional flashbacks.
He constantly looked for ways to use me as a weapon against my mum. One of his favourite tactics was making me repeat horrible things to her. I felt immensely guilty about this, and internalised the messages from him that I was a terrible daughter when I didn’t obey him. I was convinced that whether I did it or not, I was a bad person. I remember self-harming when I was only seven years old.
When we left the family home, my father soon found out our new address. He screamed at my mum through the letterbox for what felt like hours, and I vividly remember how terrified I was that he might break the door down or smash a window to get in and hurt us.
Once we moved out, he found new ways of controlling her through me. He regularly did things that put me at risk of harm in some small way – at the time I thought he was just a cool dad, but looking back I can see he did those things as cleverly veiled threats to my mum. Over time, using me as a tool developed into direct abuse. The effects on me of the domestic abuse and direct abuse are all mixed together, but the root cause of both is the same – his entitled, vindictive need to control everything around him to make himself feel superior.
Although I had a childhood, I grew up very quickly. I was depressed, anxious, self-harmed, suicidal, felt helpless and worthless, wet myself for years, had recurring nightmares, always had stomach aches and colds, regularly refused food for days, engaged in dangerous sexual behaviour, had panic attacks when I did something wrong at school, and extreme mood swings at home.
I hope this little window into my life helps people understand that children are victims of domestic abuse just as much as adults are, and the effects on their mental health can be just as long-term, wide-ranging and severe. At 29, I still struggle significantly with my mental health as a result of my father’s abuse. I have low self-worth, persistent negative thought patterns, and still find it difficult to maintain healthy relationships. I have an incredible support network and millions of coping strategies that I’ve been refining my whole life, but I will always carry the impact with me.