‘A Bird Trapped in a Golden Cage’: Amid the Pandemic, One Student’s Story of Abuse During Quarantine

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Editor’s Note: The essay addresses issues of domestic abuse that readers may find disturbing. The 74 has agreed to protect the author’s identity for reasons of safety.

For as long as I can remember, I was a bird trapped in a golden cage. On the outside, my world was a glittering array of debate trophies, academic titles, college scholarships and a picture-perfect family.

But no one knew the fractured portrait that was my abusive household.

One of my earliest memories: I’m 5 years old, attending a birthday party for the daughter of a family friend. I made the mistake of playing dolls in the house rather than staying outside per my father’s orders. He dragged me back home, screaming the whole way and, as punishment, locked me in my bedroom with the lights off. I was so scared that I tried talking to imaginary friends for comfort, but my dad heard and yelled at me to “shut up and be quiet.”

I have other memories: sleepless nights of screaming, hiding in closets, broken board games, muffled sobs, being chased up the stairs and dodging swings to the head.

With domestic abuse skyrocketing due to COVID-19, I was shocked to learn that very little has been written about the actual lived experience of children and young people facing this trauma during the pandemic. As of this year, 1 in 4 women in the U.S. and 1 in 7 children have reported being victims of domestic abuse.

I recently decided that the only way to pierce the silence on this issue is to speak up.

This is my story.

I am 18 years old, and I just started my first year of college. I have high-functioning autism. For 10 years, I have suffered from chronic depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.

COVID-19 stripped me of my support system. When quarantine began in March, I was no longer able to go to school or travel out of state for speech and debate competitions. My school’s program was a safe haven, where for occasional weekends, I could escape my parents’ abuse and simply be good enough.

The lockdown meant I would be stuck at home with my parents. My mother is an essential worker, so the majority of my days were spent inside with my dad, who retired in 2016. I already had deep issues with my father, and having him as my main source of social interaction didn’t help.

In essence, my home life was a ticking time bomb.

Still, part of me hoped this would be an opportunity to heal old wounds and get to know my father better without angering him. This meant listening to my mother.

For months, she’d been trying to fix my chronic depression with a grab bag of homeopathic doctors she found online. Since middle school, I’ve suffered with the condition as a result of various traumas and lack of proper treatment.

My mother doesn’t believe in antidepressants and thinks that therapy alone will cure my woes. My father, on the other hand, reacts to the slightest breakdown or hard moment by threatening to send me to a mental hospital and pile me up with hardcore antidepressants.

I learned it was better to keep my mouth shut and take whatever pills my mother gave me. This time, she ordered a package of vitamins and “natural amino acids,” complete with an appointment with an online “therapist.” The therapist was pushy, and the explanation for the “emergency pill procedure” should I have an “adverse” reaction didn’t sit well.

Halfway through the appointment, I hung up.

Immediately, I turned to research, a coping mechanism built out of my passion for speech and debate. I showed my mother that she’d sent me to a fraudulent, non-FDA-approved company.

Despite my increasingly desperate pleas, she refused to listen. My dad began yelling, demanding that I never raise my voice to a parent.

For the first time in 17 years, I spoke back. I told him I didn’t understand how I was expected to act civilly when he had never shown me an ounce of civility all the time he had raised me. I recounted instances of abuse — being locked in dark rooms, threats of violence, drunken rages.

I asked him why he did it, why he tormented me for years and why I had convinced myself I was a disgrace to him. His answer: I deserved it.

I spiraled into a panic attack, which my father mocked. It felt akin to an out-of-body experience. For so long, my mother had told me that my father couldn’t apologize to me because he was “ridden with guilt.” But I now told myself that was all a lie. My suffering, the years of self-doubt and loneliness, was all my fault.

I don’t remember much besides running. I ran out the back door and through my neighborhood. Uber wasn’t readily available due to the pandemic, so I hid behind a tree while my mother called for me and I prayed my ride would arrive before she found me. Eventually, the car came and took me to a friend’s house.

When I got there, I immediately collapsed in the arms of my friends, wailing loudly in the driveway. My support group knew what I was going through. A month or two prior, we had created a safety plan. Should any of our parents trigger a crisis, we agreed to call someone in the group and hide out at their house for a couple of days, weeks if necessary.

For a bunch of LGBTQ+ and disabled kids, it felt essential to have a plan like this.

For 10 days, I stayed at my friend’s house, receiving occasional calls from my mother and a lone apology text from my father. I didn’t know how to react.

In the days that followed, I ate whatever and slept most of the time, pretending to laugh and get along with my friend’s family, only to cry when I was by myself again.

I would lie in bed, plagued by nightmares of my father, nightmares where I would relive our confrontation and past abuse: threats of physical assault and disownment and a litany of reasons why I was the parasite of the family.

Hunkering down without a home to call your own during a pandemic is a kind of torture. Although I had my friends, I never quite felt at home. My friend’s family was more than welcoming, allowing me as much time as I needed to recover. But I never escaped the emptiness that nagged at me, especially when I saw all of them together as a family.

I felt as if I had no mother or father, and that I’d left my little brother behind, trapped in the situation I’d fled. My brother, further on the autism spectrum than I, is also a victim of abuse. The guilt of leaving him ate me alive. I felt like a physical and financial burden to my friend’s family, an emotional burden to my parents and a spiritual burden to myself.

I needed to face the situation, but the pandemic made it nearly impossible to access mental health support. My therapist had almost no availability. I didn’t know whether to call Child Protective Services or find an abuse shelter; I wasn’t sure they were still open, let alone that they could help me.

You see, my father is a former police officer, and he would always threaten me that if I called Child Protective Services, they would turn me away. Even though a social worker told me in a hospital evaluation that I was a domestic abuse victim, all she could do was send me to the psych ward. Furthermore, my family has money and my mother is a great talker. Add those together and my story of domestic abuse can easily be spun into that of a spoiled child hating her gracious parents.

The days I spent with my friend were safe and secure, but I knew deep down that the situation wouldn’t last. My mom would inevitably talk to my friend’s parents. She would prepare for my return. And she would come take me home.

I returned home after my father agreed to stay at the family’s vacation house several hours away. Still, my mother continued to remind me that this arrangement was my fault and that I’d be expected to see him again.

My parents have never apologized for the abuse. My mom just talks about the “mistakes” they made along the way. Whether it’s gaslighting or just me being in my head, nothing hurts more than hearing my mom say that.

It may sound funny, but sometimes I have a hard time viewing myself as abused. Society tells us that unless you’re severely beaten, you’re not abused, just sensitive or “making things up.” Often, when perpetrators are wealthy and respected, victims doubt their feelings and blame themselves. But if there is anything I want people to take away from reading this, it’s that abuse takes many forms. You are not at fault for what others do to you. No abuse is justified.

Time has passed, and my recovery is gradual. I spent my summer alternating from living with my mom to staying with relatives and friends. It hasn’t been the easiest, but scenarios like these never are. In some ways, I’m thankful. The events that followed the night I ran away pushed me to grow up in ways I didn’t think I could.

I opened a checking account, started driving, got some internships and virtual jobs. I can’t say everything is great, but it is better. I’m much more stable and have a phenomenal therapist I can confide in.

Last week, I started my first year of college, and for the first time in forever, I have hope. Being on campus and taking online classes isn’t as isolating as I feared. Within my first week, I made countless friendships, where I can be myself and not be belittled for what I might say or do. Instead of constantly having to prove myself in order to buy small increments of affection, I can have it just for, well, being me.

I was recruited for my college’s speech team. The fact that I can laugh freely again and feel confident is magical. Yet it all makes me question if any of it is actually real and whether one day it will abruptly come to an end.

Around my third day at school, I broke down crying. Tears flowed as I talked to an old friend of mine — also on the speech team — about my experience. In that moment, I realized the gravity of my pain and trauma. I cried, not out of sadness, but because it felt like it was finally over.

I honestly can’t remember the last time when I was genuinely happy. I’m starting to realize, both through my new friends at college and the old ones who helped me get through this period, that family isn’t something you’re born with. It is something you choose on your own.

“Pandemic Notebook” is an ongoing collection of first-person, student-written articles about what it is like to live through the coronavirus pandemic. Have an idea? Please contact Executive Editor Andrew Brownstein at Andrew@The74million.org.

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