To the Student Stuck in a Toxic Home during the Pandemic

A number of friends and mental health professionals helped me with this post. You know who you are. Thank you.

To the student for whom school is a safer place, but now you’re stuck at home in a toxic environment during the pandemic,

I see you. You’re not invisible. In fact, a lot of people see you and are thinking about you. I can’t tell you how many of my friends and colleagues have brought you up in the past few months, and expressed worry for what you’re going through. Hang in there.

When schools started sending students home in March and April, I thought of you immediately. I waited with you to see if schools might open again in a few weeks, but of course that didn’t happen. I waited with you hoping this country would get its shit together and start prioritizing realistic approaches to containing the pandemic, so that you’d be able to go back to school in the fall. And now it’s clear that many of you won’t be able to do that. It’s also possible that those of you who can go back won’t be able to stay there for long, though I continue to hope it won’t play out that way. I, and a lot of people, wish you didn’t have this uncertainty pressing down on you right now.

Hang in there!

Here are some tools from my own PTSD toolbox that might help. Some are more immediately helpful, some are stopgaps and temporary coping mechanisms. Some might spark ideas for you:

When possible, create distance from the toxicity. In my own experience, sometimes the smallest amount of distance can help. If you can safely go for a walk now and then, do it. If there’s a physical spot where you can be alone sometimes, find it. If you can spend time online with friends, or even socially-distanced time outside, do it. Are you caring for siblings in some way? Is there some way in which you’ve been placed in the position of caring for your own parents? If so, that’s a lot. If you ever have the opportunity to take some time to care for no one but yourself, I hope you won’t begrudge yourself that. You deserve care as much as anyone else.

For some of you, maybe there’s even some other home where you could live (if only temporarily), like the house of a safe relative or family friend. Have you considered whether that might be the case for you? Give it some serious thought. This is important, though: Before making any major decisions or drastic changes, talk it through with a trusted adult. If you don’t have a trusted adult, talk it through with a youth crisis line (see below). Your safety is the most important thing, and setting off an internal family drama may not be worth it and may even be dangerous. Also, you don’t want to move yourself into a situation that’s just as harmful, or even more so. This leads me to the next step.

Reach out to people who can support you. This might be friends, other family members, teachers, therapists or counselors, anyone in your life who actually sees and cares who you are and what you need when they look at you. Reaching out to trustworthy supports might give you a place to vent some steam and get some validation, and it might also lead to some practical help. Don’t be afraid to consider professional organizations and helplines too. The first two organizations below are geared to helping kids and teens in danger of physical and sexual violence, but according to my professional source, they’d likely help if the threat is emotional too. The third organization is open to helping with any kind of crisis:

Safe Place
Here’s a link to find a Safe Place site near you.
Or, to use TXT 4 HELP, text the word “safe” and your current location (city/state/zip) to 4HELP (44357). Within seconds, you will receive a message with the closest Safe Place site and phone number for the local youth agency. You will also have the option to text interactively with a professional for more help.

SafeHouse Center
They have a National HelpLine, available 24/7, at 734-995-5444 (English and Spanish). Advocates and volunteers can answer questions, give support, and provide information and referrals.

Crisis Text Line
Text HOME to 741741 from anywhere in the United States, anytime. Crisis Text Line is there for any crisis. A live, trained Crisis Counselor receives the text and responds, all from their secure online platform. In the UK, text HOME to 85258. In Ireland, text HOME to 50808.

Note that while these are (inter)national organizations, there are a lot of local organizations as well. Do a little poking around and see what might be available to you, or ask someone you trust to do so.

Journal. This one definitely isn’t for everyone, but if it’s something you can do safely and if it appeals to you, give writing a try. It can be immensely clarifying — and can help with plans and goals — to write what you’re going through and how it feels. I have a journal now, and years of journals stashed somewhere or other, and I’ll probably never look at them again… I don’t know that I’ve ever once gone back to look at something I’ve journaled. But I 100% know it helps me feel understood while I’m doing it, which is what matters.

Do creative projects. Again, this one isn’t for everyone, but my larger point is this: If you can find an outlet for your distress, and most especially, a way to express it, so that there can be some way you’re telling the truth of your experience to the world rather than bottling it up — it can help. It can allow you to take back your ownership of yourself and your experience, and it can give you power against the lies to which other people are subjecting you. I would venture to say that everything I write is some version of this. (But you don’t have to write a book! I also knit, sew, draw, do collage, take pictures, or even get pleasure out of arranging items symbolically in my house. You get to decide what creativity is, and what helps you feel better!)

Find an anthem. This is also in the category of self-expression and connection. Find artists who seem to get what you’re going through, and spend time with them. (Of course it doesn’t have to be musicians. A book, or a character in a TV show, can do the same thing!) Some of my anthems over the years: “Girl” by Tori Amos. “Oh Father” by Madonna (the link opens a YouTube video).  “No More Drama” by Mary J. Blige. “Cold As It Gets” by Patty Griffin.

Trust your sense of things — while having compassion for your self-doubt.
If you live in a toxic home, there’s a good chance that the toxicity around you includes other people’s denial of the fact that it’s a toxic home. Trust your own unhappiness, anxiety, avoidance, self-loathing, fear. Trust your sense that all is not okay. This self-trust can be challenging no matter what kind of abuse you’re experiencing — but I want to give a special shout-out to people experiencing emotional abuse. It can be especially hard to believe your environment is toxic if the damage is “merely” emotional. In fact, it can be hard to metabolize a word like “abuse” when the abuse is “merely” emotional. Surely no one’s abusing me? Surely this is just regular life, not abuse?

It’s okay if that word doesn’t feel right to you. You get to decide what words apply. But trust the panicked feeling you have, the one that’s driving you to want to escape. Trust your gut. Something is wrong, whatever you want to call it. A person in your situation deserves help and relief, just like anyone else.

At the same time, this is important: Depending on your situation, you may not be able to do much with your gut realizations at the moment. And if there’s not a lot you can do to fix your situation right now, there might be limits to how helpful it is to realize how bad your situation is. So, also have compassion for the ways you end up doubting yourself. It’s normal and okay to doubt yourself; it’s not a weakness. Your self-doubt may even be a temporary survival mechanism, working hard to keep you safe and get you through this, which is important. Your self-trust, in the meantime, will outlive this situation and be a source of healing someday.

If you can, hold onto your sense of humor. This might not be possible, depending on your situation. But if it is, it can be another release. Example: I once went through a stretch of time during which I had relentlessly recurring dreams that I was moving to a new home that wasn’t emotionally safe for me. When I say relentlessly recurring, I mean that I had some version of this dream every single night for three months. Every single night for three months. Except for one night! One night during this stretch, I had a dream that I was moving to a new home and it was perfect. It had an elegant dining room, fancy staircases, a lounge — it was noticeably bigger and fancier than any of the other homes in any of the other dreams I’d had — and I belonged there, I could be myself there, I was emotionally safe there. I was so, so happy. So were all the other people who apparently lived in this home, because it seem to be sort of like… a gigantic, perfect hotel? It wasn’t until I woke up from this dream that I recognized this “hotel.” We were on the Titanic.

I’m sorry, but that’s hilarious. Thank you, unconscious, for cracking me up. If there’s anything right now that cracks you up… Hold onto it.

Hang on. Someday you’ll be able to build your own life. You will. For now, whenever you can, do get whatever help you can. You deserve it.

I hope something on this list is helpful. If nothing else, remember that I, and so many other people, are thinking about you and pulling for you. There are even people who’ve dedicated their lives to looking out for you; reach out to them. We know there’s light at the end of your tunnel, so hang in there. You’re not invisible. We see you!