The author in the spotlight today is Thushara Kalamsetty. Thushara works as a service desk consultant in New Zealand and is also an upcoming author. Her book is a non-fiction book – part-memoir, part self-help – in which she talks about her childhood experiences in a dysfunctional family and how she became the strong and independent woman she is today.
Shahla Khan (SK): Great to have you with us. Your book sounds highly controversial and intriguing at the same time. I’ll jump right to the questions. What’s your book about?
Thushara Kalamsetty (TK): My book is about my experiences of enduring psychological, emotional and physical abuse at the hands of my stepmother and father, and how I coped with it at different ages.
My book also talks about how damaging it is growing up and living with a mentally-ill parent while getting no support from other adults.
For most of the years during and after (the incident), I subconsciously blamed myself and believed there was something inherently very wrong about me that caused me these problems with my parents, who were otherwise god-like and good to everyone. The extended family and the society we lived in had high regard for and respected my father. In outside circles, they seemed to be normal, kind-hearted and virtuous people.
The book also talks about how Indian culture perpetuates parental abuse, how parental abuse and emotional neglect sets one up for a lifetime of pain associated with one’s dysfunctional behaviours, difficulty in forming relationships (at work and at a personal level) and in trusting, low self-worth, poor self-image, zero confidence, self-harm and self-sabotaging behaviours, PTSD, anxiety, depression – which are just a few among the many mental and psychological conditions. Though I escaped and refused to suffer under my dysfunctional family any longer, the harm they had inflicted had taken its deep roots already, which I realised only after many years into my adult life.
SK: Why have you chosen this subject and what is your experience like, with this subject?
TK: I chose this subject because this has been about more than half of my life, and it is very personal to me. I have lived a certain kind of life, fought certain kinds of struggles – and writing this book is my way of sharing my lessons with the world.
I am 28 years old now, I married recently and hold a full-time job. When I moved to NZ six years ago, I had never imagined of living the life I do now.
Back then, I was very relieved of only one thing – it was that I would not need to live with my dysfunctional family. I continued to suffer from anxiety, depression, PTSD, poor self-image, low self-worth, and self-sabotage for many years after I moved to NZ, and life was a big mess. It was then that I started therapy upon a friend’s advice, and it was the missing ingredient in my life which I found.
With the help of therapy, I started working on my issues one by one – and slowly, as I progressed, I realised where these issues were stemming from. They were all linked to the emotional neglect by my parents and the hell I experienced under my abusive stepmother.
At one point when I could no longer bear the torture, I had to stand up for myself, and I moved out of my father’s home. I am forever grateful to myself for doing that. If I had not done that favour for myself, my life would have been totally different now.
I rescued myself with the help and support of a few friends, relatives, my mother and grandmother who agreed to support me financially and logistically. (I was in the third year of my engineering course)
But it had taken me almost eight years to realise that whatever I was going through at that point had nothing to do with me, but everything to do with my step mother’s jealousy, insecurity, greed and poor morals. I had struggled to identify my pain since I come from an Indian background.
In my culture, parents are equated to gods. Parents can never go wrong, and if one happens to question their parents, they are immediately shamed, called unfaithful and disrespectful and ‘scapegoated’. There is also a lack of awareness among us about what parental abuse is and how to identify it.
Also, there is zero awareness among parents, especially parents from rural settings, on the effects of emotional neglect on the child and what differentiates discipline, love for their future and wellbeing to belittling, constant comparison to others, name-calling, physical punishment.
There are many young children and young adults who face emotional abuse, neglect and physical abuse due to ignorant, unstable yet well-meaning parents. Also, there are many who face physical and psychological abuse due to selfish and jealous step parents.
It’s on us to stand up and fight back and not accept inhuman treatment even if it comes from our own parents. I have come across children, young adults suffering and severely traumatised – and I am hoping I can connect with them and help them get awareness in identifying abuse by sharing my experiences.
SK: What message would you want to give to someone in that position now?
TK: Run for your life.
Run away as far as you can from your abusive parent. I had been fortunate in a way that when I wanted to escape from their hell, my grandmother and mother came forward to support me logistically – but that may not be an option for many of you. You may not have a source of income to start living independently, if you are very young or are still studying.
There can be some options like having a trustable family friend, relative or any friend who can support you financially – at least in the initial stages of moving out, until you can support yourself by working part-time or through other means. I think it’s a great help.
If you are able to financially support yourself, and you are fed up with being treated like a mud worm, but are unable to make a decision to move out from the abuser’s home, because you feel guilty or something stops you from wanting to come out of it, then getting support from a therapist/counsellor/close friends will help you greatly.
There are some NGOs in India from which you can seek help like Childline India and RAHI, but many of these NGOs specialise in areas like child sexual abuse, children rights and education.
If you have access to the internet, reading books and blogs about self-care and survival may be of little help.
The most important thing to know is that you deserve better and you have the strength to deal with this. Of course it’s much easier said than done, but nevertheless, there’s plenty of life ahead of you, and you can change how you live that life. Do not feel ashamed to ask for help. Getting therapy, investing in self-care and taking up minimum wage jobs just to survive are all acceptable and noble.
SK: What are the lesser known things about the main topic?
TK: Child abuse is widespread. According to the Ministry of Women and Child Development in India, children between the ages of 5-12 are at the highest risk of exploitation. The study found that 69% of children reported having faced physical abuse within their family environment. It also says that in 88.6% of the reported cases, parents abused their children.
Another interesting aspect of the study that I find too close to home are the two kinds of emotional abuse: humiliation and comparison.
The report provides a list of frequent activities that become the nature/behaviour pattern of the parents of these abused children. These acts of emotional abuse include harsh criticism, labelling, belittling, name-calling, yelling, humiliation, constant aggression, shaming children with disabilities, exploiting children, denying the feelings and experiences of a child, etc.
SK: What are the struggles or biases you have faced because of this issue you are writing about?
TK: Till date, I struggle with anxiety, PTSD, trust issues, displaced anger, poor self-image and low self-worth. I have difficulty accepting praise, compliments and the fact that I am lovable.
I become restless when things go smoothly in life, and basically, my brain had been disarrayed to the extent that chaos, problems feel natural and peace, love, and happiness overwhelm me.
For many years, I subconsciously picked people who were emotionally absent, manipulative and abusive – people very similar to my parents – because that was only thing that I felt familiar with all through my growing-up and adult years.
I have difficulty expressing myself as I was never appreciated for expressing how I felt or what I think. It’s something I am learning through therapy. I also have great difficulty feeling emotions which I had learned to shut down in my early age, as a way of coping.
Because of my parents’ separation, and my stepmother creating misunderstandings between my father and me, most of the relations have turned sour, and some family members avoid connections with me just to not upset my stepmother.
When I was planning to marry my husband in 2017, my father chose not to participate/attend the wedding stating that I had not invited his wife – and as a result, I had disrespected his family. My father’s side tried to persuade me into talking to my stepmother and father and apologise to them for moving out of their home. Obviously, I was not willing to get abused, shamed and get hurt again, knowingly. As I had expected, my father missed my wedding.
These are just a few of the struggles and biases children (like me) face when their family is dysfunctional.