“No, This Isn’t Okay Anymore:” How I Finally Set Boundaries With My Abusive Dad

Trigger warning: this piece discusses emotional and physical abuse

by
A photo of a wire fence against a sunset-inline

(Photo: Getty)

The last time my father hit me was seven years ago. I was in my late twenties, living in Vancouver and visiting my family in Alberta. My dad was drinking a little bit, and my sister and I got into a pretty big fight about our extended family. I was upstairs and I could hear my dad telling my mom that he was annoyed with me. My sister ran out of the house after our fight—and then, I heard my dad coming upstairs so I hid in a closet. Eventually, he found me. When my dad was mad at me, he’d often tell me to go kill myself. That day, he told me that when I got back to Vancouver I should jump off a bridge because I’m someone who just causes problems. After repeating that for a good 15 minutes, he took a knife and put it in my hands.

That was it. I started screaming at the top of my lungs because I just couldn’t handle repeatedly being told to kill myself. When I start yelling, he hit me because he thought I was going to get him in trouble with his neighbours. After he punched me in the face three times, I stopped screaming. Then he sat next to me on the bed, petting my head. It was fucking uncomfortable. I wanted to get away from him but after he hit me, I wasn’t about to move. My mom was there too, sitting on the other side of me. She had tried to intervene, tried to pull him off of me when he was hitting me, but it didn’t make a difference.

Growing up, my dad was the person I was closest to in my family

After that episode, my dad didn’t talk to me for three months. I think it’s because he felt shame and guilt. I don’t think my dad’s a bad person. He just hasn’t been taught how to handle his anger.

My dad came from India to Canada when he was in his 20s, and then re-educated himself in computer science. Growing up, he was the person that I was closest to in my family. When I was a kid, he would drive me to school every day, listening to my opinions on what I was being taught or what was happening in the news. When I was older, I didn’t hide much from him. He’d be the one to pick me up at 1 a.m. from a party so I would have a safe ride home.

He didn’t abuse my mom or my younger sister physically (or emotionally, that I’m aware of). It was just me. My sister wasn’t any more obedient than me—she was just a better liar. She would tell my parents she was studying at school for hours instead of saying she was out with friends. She never understood why I told them the truth, especially since that’s what often landed me in trouble.

My parents were pretty liberal compared to my extended family and some of the larger Punjabi community in my hometown. But I still struggled to conform to their expectations of being Indian—being accomplished at school, things like that. And when I didn’t conform, it caused problems.

When I was in grade five, I showed up crying at school one day and said, “I got in trouble with my dad.” My teacher brought me to the school counselor and I really underplayed what had happened. I don’t even remember what the root of the conflict was on that particular day, it was just that the kinds of questions my teacher was asking me made it seem like my dad was bad. I didn’t think my dad was bad. In fact, I thought I was the bad one and blamed myself for the abuse.

I’m just not a good kid. I’m the one that challenged him. I knew that would make him mad. I would never think, He was wrong.

The abuse would happen when I questioned him, asking things like “Why can’t I take band?” or, “Why can’t I go hang out with my friends at the mall?” I was never a rebellious kid by Western standards—I didn’t drink, smoke or do drugs. I just wasn’t willing to listen to someone telling me what to do. I wanted to know why I couldn’t do that thing, because if there was no reasonable explanation, well, then I was going to do what I wanted to do. But questions like these sent my dad into a rage—his violence was an immediate reaction to them.

I only started thinking he was the one who was wrong as a teenager, but I still didn’t seek help, until that very last time he beat me up. I’ve gone to counsellors over the years, but I felt like I was just being talked to as a diagnosis, not a person. Then I tried a life coach and her approach was very different. She helped me discover answers on my own and make me reflect on my life and circumstances in a way that felt transformative. I work with one now who specializes in childhood trauma.

I’ve always kept in touch with my dad no matter what

I’ve been living away from home for ten years, but I’ve always kept in touch with my dad no matter what was going on in our relationship. I could cut myself off from him, but that would also mean cutting myself off from the rest of my family, my mom and my sister, because they are all so close. My mother has never really acknowledged the abuse, other than advising me that I have just move on and let it go. She never let me process it. It’s impacted our relationship—there’s no depth to it. And I never even thought about talking to my sister about what was going on. She’s four and half years younger, and growing up she just seemed like a baby to me. But two years ago, when she was pregnant with her first child, she told me she talked to my dad about it. She told him that if he had ever done what he did to me, they wouldn’t have a relationship. I was shocked. That night, I cried in bed because it was the first time someone in my family had even acknowledged what I had been through.

Even though my parents have hurt me, I don’t feel like their intention is to hurt me. I have a deep respect for them regardless of the shit that I’ve been through. It’s my responsibility to work on my shit, not for me to change them. And while the physical abuse has stopped, the emotional abuse hasn’t.

But my perspective has shifted. My work with my life coach has helped me realize I was living for my dad’s approval all the time. Now, if I don’t get it, I realize it doesn’t mean anything about me. I do my best and if I don’t receive his approval or acceptance, I can’t do anything about that. This has helped set a boundary with my father for the first time in my life.

I finally realized, No, this isn’t okay anymore

A few months ago, my dad and I were talking on the phone, and he was demeaning me about where my life is at—that I wasn’t far enough professionally, that I’m well into my thirties and not married. My initial reaction to that was to apologize, to say, “Yes, you’re right.” When we talked later that week, he blew up again. He said the problem with me is that I’m not the type of person who lets things go. Something clicked in me that day. Something that was just like, No, this is not okay. So I got off the phone, and I didn’t call him back right away to smooth things over as I would usually do.

Exactly a month later, he called me. After we talked for a while, I asked, “Hey, Dad. Did you want to talk about why I haven’t talked to you in a month?” He apprehensively agreed. Then I said, “I appreciate your concern for me, but maybe you could consider a different approach.” He told me to shut up and that he’ll never be sorry for being a concerned parent, but that he is sorry I’m unsuccessful in life, and then he hung up on me.

We didn’t speak for nearly four months—the longest I’ve gone not talking to my father. I didn’t really have the desire to call him. Before this, I would have just picked up the phone. This was the first time I ever called him out on his behaviour, and I was willing and open to talk about it. But he wasn’t. There wasn’t much else for me to do. Something changed in me during that conversation. Finally setting a boundary with my dad meant not actually standing up to him as much as it was standing up for myself. The decision to do this was a culmination of everything else that was going on in my life—my work stress was reaching a breaking point and I took a sick leave shortly after, and I was also having trouble with some key friendships. It was me finally realizing, No, this isn’t okay anymore. A parent can be worried about you, but they don’t have the right to verbally abuse you.

When he finally called me months later, he apologized. He acknowledged his behaviour, but still hasn’t acknowledged the physical abuse. He said, “I’m getting older and what will I do if I don’t have a relationship with my family?” I responded that that can’t be the only reason we have a relationship. We had a good conversation, but this time away has helped me reset how I interact with him. I’m being more cautious now—I don’t think someone changes after one conversation. I talked to him significantly less that I used to. Before this fight, I would call him out of habit. Now, I call him once every two or three weeks.

Looking back, my relationship with my dad has always been about trying to prove to him that I was valuable, that the warmth I bring to the world is meaningful even if I’m not achieving all the milestones he wants for me. I’ve done a lot of work on myself to know my worth—and now I know it doesn’t come from his approval.

Call 911 if you’re in immediate danger from abuse. If you’re in a abusive relationship—or want to help a friend who is—call the Assaulted Women’s Helpline at 1-866-863-0511 for support; crisis counselling is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. For additional, cross-Canada resources, check out this directory from the Ending Violence Association of Canada.

Related:

How to Support a Friend in an Abusive Relationship
“My Ex Stalked Me For 11 Years”
Why Ghosting Is a Form of Self Protection for Women

Filed under:

Sign Up for Our Newsletter

FLARE - Newsletter Signup

Subscribe to FLARE Need to Know for smart, sassy, no-filter takes on everything you're interested in—including style, culture & current events, plus special offers—sent straight to your inbox each day. Sign up here.