Pets In An Abusive Family System: Facing Down My Parents Legacy

When I was 19, my mother continuously fed my brother’s dog Una very unhealthy table scraps despite his asking her not to.  Una would sometimes throw up afterwards, but she wouldn’t really apologize, just be sorry that she was caught doing it.  I can see that my mother didn’t respect the boundaries of children or of animals.  She saw them as “playthings” that she could do whatever she wanted to, and didn’t care about what they, or the parents/guardians felt.  It reminds me of how my grandmother would try to feed us frozen bean burritos that contained lard, despite the fact that our parents decided to raise us vegetarian and we wanted to stay that way.  A total sign of disrespect, and she knew it was wrong because she attempted to hide it and would yell at us if we tried to read the ingredients.  My mother later complained about how much it hurt her feelings when my brother refused to let Una stay with her because he knew she would misfeed.  She cried about having this dog taken away from her, despite the fact that she had given away or otherwise gotten rid of every dog I had as a child regardless of my feelings.

To my mother, only her feelings mattered, not my brother’s at having his boundaries crossed, or those of the poor dog who had very sensitive weight problems and would suffer from being treated as a trash can to inhale whatever excess food was in the house.  Ironically, when I was seven years old I was eating an afternoon snack and innocently offered our dog at the time a pickle.  But when my mother walked through the door with her work-rage in tow, she screamed “what is this pickle doing on the floor,” and then “DOGS DON’T EAT PICKLES!”  How was I supposed to know that, especially when my mother did give the dog all sorts of table scraps?  But it is really sad that in my childhood I often learned things for the first time by being screamed at and treated like I was “so stupid” for not already knowing them.   But over a decade later this same person who screamed at me about dogs “not eating pickles” was feeding stale breakfast cereal and canned peas to a dog who she begged to foster while my brother was away but refused to actually buy dog food for.

When my brother did let his dog stay alone with my parents for a month, I recall one night I heard them repeating stock phrases they yelled at all of our dogs, like “you go lay down!” and groaning that “she’s been distracting me from the TV all night long…”  Soon una relieved herself in the house, and my father rubbed her nose in it, hit her, and locked her in the basement as a result.  That is abusive, traumatic, and very counterproductive for house-training.  My parents had no interest in what might be wrong with the dog, and therefore they were shocked when the next morning, she had swelling all over her body, apparently caused by multiple bee or wasp stings the previous day.  She had been trying to get their attention and help because of her medical needs, but all she received in response was abuse, a scenario familiar to many abused children.

The next day, my mother meekly said “I don’t think that was really her last night,” as if the dog was the one who behaved badly and not herself.  Of the five dogs we had at various times while I was growing up, none of them lasted very long.  Inevitably my brother and I were blamed for things not working out, with my mother claiming that we didn’t take care of the dogs or look after them.  And she would say derisively that “we never had any good dogs.”  But they were not “bad dogs” anymore then I was a “bad, irresponsible stupid kid.”  The starting point of everything was her abusive, negligent behavior which defined the environment we lived in and what we had to respond to.  She even said once, “I guess you need to adopt a dog who has been beaten a lot by the previous owner to get anything good.”  A truly disgusting and ignorant sentiment, since the dogs we had were just responding to her violence and cruelty.

When my last dog ran away at 14, I was really sad and worried.  But my mother wasn’t, she was glad it was gone and made loud threats on the phone to other people about how she would kill us if we tried to look for her (though of course I did.)  Months later while my sister was visiting I became upset when I saw a dog who looked exactly like her. In response my sister exploded at me with my mother’s second-hand complaints, saying “You never brought her into your room or played with her at all!”  and then “How long do you think they keep dogs at an animal shelter?  Like a week, so if you really wanted her back, you would have called.”  I did not deserve this shaming, condescending attack, I did take the dog into my room often and sincerely wanted her around.   But the dog insisted on sleeping in the living room, and I couldn’t change that, nor was I a fully responsible and empowered adult capable of fully taking care of a dog when my parents were against it.

The real truth is my mother just didn’t like the dog, the same as she disliked most people in general, including her own kids.   But my mother felt a strong need to blame all of her feelings on other people, she could never just own them and be honest, there was always a fake story attached to try and “explain” all of her extreme responses when it was really just her own psychosis.   When I took a shower at 4am once it woke her up, and she continuously insisted it was because “you knocked every shampoo bottle off the shelves while you were in there!”  My mother had to make me into a caricature; a comical, stupid person instead of admitting that the sound of my taking a normal shower without knocking anything over was enough to wake her up because she was an extremely light sleeper.  I had to tiptoe through the house for my entire childhood on account of her condition, but it was always framed as my fault when she woke up, and she never tried ear plugs or therapy.  Years later she claimed this nice gold/black dog was “ugly” and thus worthy of her dislike.

My current dog, a very happy smart and beautiful creature showed up on our doorstep one night, and we adopted him.  I admit that despite his sweet and charming personality, I was at first very hesitant with him.  All of those shaming accusations from my mother that I was too incompetent and indifferent to ever care for a dog, that I was responsible for their departure came back to haunt me.  But I soon fell in love and found that none of that was true.  It’s a part of my nature to be caring to others, a trait that my mother exploited even though she frequently complained I didn’t do enough for her.  And without the drama and confinement of my abusive family, I’ve taken excellent care of him even when he’s had very complex medical issues.  I never yell at or hit him, I understand his needs, and use his loving attachment to me to coax him out of anything I don’t want him to do.  And I feed him very healthy and biologically appropriate food that isn’t full of chemicals and by-products.  He looks to me for safe, gentle guidance and love, and that is what I give him.

My parents were the ones who couldn’t take care of children or animals, and they shouldn’t have had custody of either.  I am very sorry that animals were mistreated in our house, but I was a powerless child and could do little to change that.  It is my parents who treated the dogs badly, it was my mother who neglected her pet birds causing their death, and who severely abused her own children, creating a horrible atmosphere for anyone to live in.  It was not me, and not my fault; I did my best as a child in that house.  Today I have full control of the situation, and I choose to be very receptive and kind to my dog even though we never sought him out.  He came into our lives and enriched it, and I’m very grateful for that.  I would never leave him or any potential children I may once have with any of my relatives.  There are covert, overt, subtle and obvious risks for abuse, and I will never abandon myself or someone I love to their un-care again.

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About proudlysensitive

Gay male survivor of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse.
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7 Responses to Pets In An Abusive Family System: Facing Down My Parents Legacy

  1. CHope says:

    Hey Caden,

    I read this over the weekend and it just reminded me of how abusive people make everyone around them miserable.

    Your mom and dad took everything that should have been loving, kind and enjoyable in your childhood and twisted it into something hurtful, disgusting or angry. That’s perversion just as much as the sexual abuse and pisses me off just as much. You seriously had no escaping from the psychopaths.

    I love their conviction about being vegetarians. That’s something else. They want to get on a soap box about a passion or lifestyle then they turn around and intentionally harm people they should have helped instead. That reminds me of the strong Pentecostal fervency my Christian parents had. Yeah, kids have lice year after year, but you got to go to Church. You can’t even buy clothes, pads, shampoo or shoes for your daughters, and stupidly make make more babies, but bless God, don’t forget to tithe to your local church and support televangelists with your love offerings!

    Should you have children someday, I know you’re going to be a kind parent. I hope we stick around each other long enough for me to get read about it.

    • Thanks C-Hope, it’s good to hear from you. And that is a good way of putting it, very little-nothing in my childhood went untainted by my parents misery and abuse, and that was an intentional thing on my mother’s part.

      My parents belief in vegetarianism was contradictory and shallow. In my early childhood they started eating all kinds of seafood anyway so they aren’t vegetarian anymore, and they abused and disrespected me when I decided to go the other way and become vegan as a teen for my health. My father was also a harry krishna who preached about karma all the time but apparently raping your kids doesn’t create bad karma? (maybe I’ll write a whole entry about that someday.) I can relate to the sort of sick hypocrisy that you describe. But deep down my parents really just believed in abusing people at their leisure and everything else was a facade.

      take care and I’m sure we will stick around to see what happens,
      -Caden.

  2. Megan says:

    Caden, I once came home and this mystery always bothered me, I came home and both of my young gerbils were dead, no reason, no battle wounds, etc, they had just suddenly both dropped dead at the same time, I now realize what really happened, I had gotten sick and not cleaned their cage on time, but my little girl mind could not grasp the reality of what happened, I now believe it was my punishment for not getting to their cage on the right day cause I was sick, so she took them away, I was also not allowed to have more cause I got “too upset” when they died, but they were my friends, I used to make them little ladders and go for walks and get them sticks for their teeth, I had tunnels and ladders I made from twigs and yarn for them to play on, I cleaned their cage once a week without fail, till I got sick…. And my brother and I came home to them both being dead, he was so freaked he bought a carbon monoxide detector to make sure we were safe, the levels were fine, as we didn’t understand how or why they died and our dog was alright and had been inside with them, it all makes sense now. She was home when they died and no one else was and she was very strict about me cleaning the cage, I remember her smiling that day as she watched me clean out their cage for the last time, smiling, she had an appointment with someone to fix something on the house and I was crying outside and that man asked if I was okay cause I was outside crying over an empty cage and she was watching me smiling, and smiled at him and said it was fine just some animals died and not to worry and then walked away, it’s more telling now thru adult eyes….I should have known that wicked guilty smile of hers, it was the smile she had when she had gotten away with something and thought she was clever, like when you trick little kids about Santa and it gives you joy to see the smile on their faces, that was her look so much joy at seeing me cry and be without them, I guess lesson learned, don’t get sick and if you do do not rest or something you love will die.. I believe you and am so sorry for what you endured, you never deserved to be treated that way, you are truly a survivor, thanks for sharing your story!

    • Megan, thanks for sharing, I can relate a lot to the chilling way that your mother treated you, with self-serving lies and cruel games. I’m sorry that she was so cruel and sadistic that she killed your poor gerbils and lied about it just to make you feel bad. My mother was also extremely rigid with me; she allowed herself endless exceptions and excuses, but no matter how sick I was or what happened, I was still expected to do everything perfectly. Being manipulated like that create so much trauma and twisted “lessons” that have to be unlearned. But we do deserve understanding and kind treatment when we don’t feel well, and so do animals.

      take care,
      -Caden.

  3. MJ says:

    I’m glad that you shared this. It’s an example of the power of shared experience. I have never really considered my mother and the issue of pets, but pets have always been a problem between us! My first real pet was a German Shepherd which my mother promptly gave to a family that mistreated her. To get away from the family, the dog jumped out of the back of a pick-up truck on a freeway, and….yeah. The dog and I were very bonded. On the flip side, she bought a purebred terrier breed when I was quite young that bit me quite often, but she did nothing about that. Then, there was the dog given to me on my 6th birthday by one of her friends. As soon as I left for college–13 years later–the dog was given away without my consent or knowledge. And, she euthanized my cat without calling me to get my consent or even telling me she had fallen ill. When I expressed emotional intensity, she flew into a rage. I find the behaviors telling, and I also find the comparison between how a personality disordered mind treats people as well as pets…revealing as well as troubling if not even sinister. I hope that there is some measure of validation for you in your feelings and experiences in knowing that your experiences are not uncommon in that there are others who have grown up with something similar. As I’ve come across people with whom I share experiences, it has helped me understand that my experiences, while awful, were not entirely unique. They can be named. I get comfort from that.

    Shalom…

    • Thank you MJ, I’m glad this provided food for thought, though I’m sorry that your mother also reacted with all of her selfish volatility and maliciousness when it came to your pets growing up. It is so revealing how these people treat animals–poor defenseless creatures, just like we were when we first entered the world, and a lot of the same dynamics do exist there. It does really help to put my experiences out there and find I’m not alone. And I know I make progress too when others share insights from their own stories that allow me to reflect more deeply on parts of my past that I hadn’t seen before, and know it’s definitely not just in my head or something about me that caused my mother and other abusers to react this way.

      thanks for sharing,
      -Caden.

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