Quite a few young readers have written to me, asking for advice about a variety of domestic problems, and wanting to know how and when they should break away from their home. The problems range from the actions of overbearing or even brutal parents, to a fundamental lack of communication with others in the home, or simply the desire to be free.
A number of these readers are living in countries where the prevailing culture is so strict in the controls exerted over young people (and some not so young) that if they try to break away from parental or wider familial authority, there’s a significant danger that they could come to physical harm.
Whether the young readers who write to me are in such rigid cultural environments or in more liberal environments, the desire to break free is the same, and the sense of being trapped is equally sincere. So, I’ll try to give some advice here in this essay, while acknowledging that every case is unique, and there simply aren’t any blanket solutions that can be thrown over all of the problems.
Okay, I’m going to divide the cases that have come to me in emails from young readers into three groups:
1) The kids who are being violently abused, sexually or physically, and want to break free;
2) The kids who aren’t being abused, but who would be violently abused if they were to try to break free; and
3) The kids who aren’t being abused, and are in basically caring families, but who feel an urgent, almost desperate need to break away.
I’m going to start with the toughest cases, the first group, but before I do, I want to lay down a few basic rules. These aren’t rules in the sense of laws or restrictions: these are rules meant to keep you safe, and happy.
Rule Number 1: Stay Alive
Don’t do anything crazy enough to get yourself killed. Don’t put yourself at risk. Don’t aggravate a bad situation, and make it worse, if that can result in you getting hurt. So long as you’re alive, freedom is always possible. So long as you’re not injured, you can enjoy your freedom when you finally attain it.
Rule Number 2: Broaden Your Base of Support
Don’t isolate yourself, and don’t let your situation isolate you from others. Search for others (family members, neighbours, school teachers, cops, youth workers, friends) who can be on your side. Explain your situation to them, and make them understand why you’re so desperate to break away. You’re always more vulnerable when you’re isolated from others. You’re always safer when you broaden your base of support to include other people, who understand your situation.
Don’t succumb to the temptation to drown your sorrows or worries or fears in alcohol or drugs. A lot of kids in stressful situations get pulled into drugs or drinking binges, as a way of temporarily forgetting the stress. It’s a mistake. The thing you want is your freedom. If the situation changes for the worse, and you need to break free, you need to be fit, and to have all your senses operating at maximum potential. And if your situation changes for the better, and you have a chance to be free, you won’t be able to enjoy your freedom or make the most benefit from it, if you’re messed up on drink or drugs. You need to be fit and clear, so that you can react with the maximum of your power if things get worse or better.
Rule Number 4: Make Plans
If you’re feeling a desperate need to break free, don’t just sit around complaining or worrying about it. Start to think about what you could do if you were free. Start to find answers to the following questions: Where would I live, if I were free? How would I pay for things? How much would it cost me? If I were to share a place with someone, who would that be? How would I cook meals? What would I do if I got sick? Who would be my doctor? Who would be my dentist? Are there some government or charity support schemes that could help me? Would I be working, or could I stay at school? Searching for answers to these questions will give you a plan. It will also give you a more realistic understanding of what breaking free means, and make you more prepared for freedom, if you win it. You’ll never convince anyone that you’re ready for the freedom you so desperately want, if you don’t have a plan.
Rule Number 5: Stay Free
Don’t let yourself get trapped in a relationship that isn’t completely about loving someone, and being loved in return. It’s very common for young people who feel a desperate need to break away from their family situation to form a relationship with someone – a boyfriend, or girlfriend – that’s not really about love at all: it’s more about sharing the feeling of wanting to be free. The freedom you want so desperately is a precious thing – in fact, the exercise of free will at our human level of consciousness is the most precious commodity in the knowable universe. Take time. Get to know yourself and the world around you. Enjoy the freedom you’re fighting for. And when you give your heart to someone else, make sure that you’ve learned enough about yourself to know exactly what you’re giving away, and what you’re asking for in return.
Rule Number 6: Don’t Break the Law
This is the last of the general rules, but it’s a very important one, because young people who break away from their family are in the highest risk group to commit crimes, and to go to prison. I’ve spent a lot of time in prison. It’s always harder for the youngest prisoners. If you break away, then make sure you break away from the statistic that says you’ll commit a crime and go to prison in your first year away from home. If you truly break free, you’ll break out of that stereotype, and give yourself the best chance you can. So, don’t give the law an excuse to say you were too young to break free. Don’t break the law. Stay free, healthy, fit, clear-minded, strong, and happy.
THE FIRST GROUP
Okay, enough of the rules. Now it’s time to talk about the kids in the First Group, which are the toughest cases: kids who are being sexually or physically abused.
Each time I write back to a young person, who has emailed me about this kind of problem, I respond with the same advice. It goes like this:
The First Thing
The first thing to be absolutely clear about is that it’s not your fault. It’s never your fault. If someone is beating you or abusing you sexually, they’re completely to blame.
And you’ve got to get away. You simply can’t stay in an environment where you’re being abused or beaten. This is the absolute bottom line. There’s no excuse for what abusive and violent people are doing to you. There’s no excuse, and there’s absolutely no reason why you should put up with it for a second longer. As soon as you can do it safely, you’ve got to get away, and put yourself in the hands of a legal system that can protect you.
Now, given that it’s never your fault and you’ve got to get away from people who are abusing or beating you, here are some general points of advice:
1) Be damn careful. The adults who force young people to have sex, or who beat them up, are very dangerous people. The bottom line is that you have to get away from people like this, and if you’re strong enough, you have to make sure they get punished by the courts for it (so that they can’t do it to anyone else like you), but they must not know what you’re thinking or planning. Be careful.
2) Get help, as soon as you can. A lot of young people in these horribly violent situations are scared to talk to anyone about it. Don’t be. The whole world of sane, healthy people (and that’s most of us) are sickened by sexual predators and violent bullies, and we have a powerful instinct to help. That’s how healthy human beings react: we want to help and nurture young people, not beat them up or force sex on them. So, just about anyone you talk to about this (teachers, neighbours, professional people like cops and social workers, doctors, and so on) will be on your side immediately, and will want to protect you.
The very best people to talk to about this are the professionals, who’ve dealt with situations like yours lots of times before. They know exactly what to do, and they can also provide you with protection. These professional people are cops, social workers and doctors. But others, such as teachers and neighbours, will also help you. The bottom line is that if it’s at all possible, you’ve got to reach out to someone, and get this out in the open.
CAUTION: When you’re reaching out for help, be careful about putting your trust into strangers you might “meet” online in chat rooms and so on. Some people trawl through the net looking for young, vulnerable young people in trouble or distress, and they are very good at manipulating kids. In general, put your trust in professionals, as mentioned above, or people you know well – not in strangers online.
3) Make a Plan. Like in Rule Number 4, above, if you just can’t reach out to someone for help, and you decide that you’ve got to escape, you’ve got to have a plan. You’ve got to think things through, and have a pretty clear idea about where you’re going to go, and what you’re going to do. It’s no good just jumping out of a window, if you’ve got no idea what to do next: you’ll get caught by the adult who’s abusing you, or you’ll get yourself arrested. So, plan and think and have a clear idea about where you’ll go and what you’ll do.
These are the general pieces of advice that I can give. Every case is unique, and different rules apply, but these general pieces of advice should fit as wide a group of circumstances as possible. Above all, keep the first piece of advice locked in your mind and your heart: Be Careful!
CAUTION: Don’t trust anyone who’s close to the person abusing you with your confidences about what’s going on, because that person might go ahead and tell the abuser – and then you’ll be worse off, and your chances to contact a genuine professional might be less.
Be careful! Your life is a precious thing. YOU are a precious thing, trapped in a bad situation, but you can be free, and your life can change into the bright, exciting, happy journey that it should be. So, guard your life well, and be careful!
THE SECOND GROUP
Young people in the Second Group have sent me a lot of emails, and they always tear at my heart, just like the kids in the first group. These are kids who live within very strict cultures. Sometimes, they’re girls who aren’t even allowed to leave the house. Sometimes, they’re boys who are being compelled in every aspect of their life: where to go to school, what to wear, what to eat, whom to marry, and so on.
The bottom line is that for the most part, the kids in this situation who write to me are telling me that they love their family members, and they feel loved in return. But the culture is so strict that the kids feel like they’re choking to death.
These kids feel a desperate need to break away from their families, but they fear that if they were to do it, their families might turn against them – even violently – or that they would cause a great deal of pain to their family members.
As with the first group, the first piece of advice I can offer is to be careful.
The fact that so many kids between the ages of 14 and 17 have written to me, telling me about situations like these, places them at risk. If you’re using a computer to communicate your feelings to someone outside your family, please use password-protection on your computers. I know of one young person who was communicating with friends online, and who suffered terrible violence from family members when they accessed the young person’s computer, and discovered that this young person was trying to escape from the oppressive conditions at home.
So, as I said above, be careful about giving your trust to people when you communicate online. There are a lot of scary people out there in Cyberland, and they’re looking for you – young people under great stress at home – so that they can take advantage of you. Save your trust for people you actually know, or for the professionals who can help you.
The kids in this second group need someone to confide in. This is very important, and the kinds of people you can confide in are as follows:
1) Professionals: Maybe a teacher, or even the school principal or school nurse. For most kids in very strict environments, the school is the only place where they can get a few minutes without being watched by the family. And most schools will have dealt with your situation before, and they’ll have a protocol or standard procedure, for helping you.
CAUTION If you’re in a very strict school, which is part of the same very strict cultural environment that’s making you desperate to break away, be very careful when you select a teacher to talk to. Some teachers in these cultural environments feel more loyalty to parents that they do to the kids they teach. Some teachers will immediately call your parents, report everything you said, and make your situation worse – even dangerously worse.
So, pick the teacher or school nurse you talk to very carefully. Make sure she or he is a person who has some sympathy for students, and has an open mind.
2) A cop: don’t be afraid of the cops. Lots of young people have very negative experiences with cops, but there are lots of good cops out there. Some of my friends who are cops are among the most caring, brave and compassionate people I know. Generally speaking, you can talk to a cop about your situation at home, but it should be a cop who is in the welfare branch of the police department: someone who deals with Domestic & Family Issues. You can ask any cop to put you in touch with such a person, or you can ask at the information desk of your local police department. Just be polite, honest, and explain that you’re afraid, and that you need help.
3) City Council Officers: most city councils have officers who specialize in difficult family situations, and who can offer help and advice. With Government cutbacks occurring across the world, the first things that get cut in tighter budgets are usually these services that exist to help kids in trouble at home. Still, it’s worth checking to see if there’s a city council officer who can help in your area. And don’t be afraid to contact them: they’re in that job to help you.
4) Friends: You can get bad advice from friends, and you should be careful about following any advice friends might give you, but sometimes friends give good advice as well, and the simple fact of talking to friends can give you a measure of protection. If your friend, or some of your friends, know how bad your situation is, they can get a message to authorities if something goes wrong, or if something happens to you. get your friends in the loop, talk to them about your situation, but make sure that they don’t talk to anyone who might report these conversations to your parents or family members.
Finally, for those who are in such strict home cultural environments that they can’t even get to a police station, or get to talk to any other kind of professional – for those kids who live in fear that their loving family might become dangerously violent if they try to break away from them – the bottom line is to stay alive, and stay safe.
Your situation will improve, as you get older, because you’ll get more freedom to move around, and more freedom to act.
I know this is discouraging advice – it just sounds like: “Lie back and take it, and do whatever your family says,” – but I’m only saying this because I’m very worried about kids who live in extremely strict cultural environments, and who feel a desperate need to break away from their families. I know of cases where kids have run away from home, and have been hunted by their family members and then killed. I know of kids who’ve run away from home with a boyfriend or girlfriend they love, and who’ve both been killed by family members. I know of kids who’ve run away – or have even just talked about running away – and who’ve been locked up, in much worse circumstances than they had before, by their family members.
The kids who’ve written to me from such extremely strict cultural environments will know exactly what I’m talking about. This is a situation of life and death for those kids, and if they get caught breaking away, they can be brutally punished or even killed or for it.
That’s why I can’t advise you to break away, or take the chance to escape. I don’t know all of the details about your situations, and I don’t know your families. You’re writing to me, I think, because I successfully escaped from prison, and you want me to give you advice about hoe you can escape from your prison.
But I’m so worried about the potential danger to you that I have to advise you to be careful, and sometimes just to wait – even for years – until you get more power and freedom to act.
I was an adult when I escaped from prison. And I’d been tortured twice by prison guards in that prison. I had the sense that if I didn’t escape, the guards would kill me, the next time they took me to the torture section of the prison. Then, when I decided to escape, I planned every move of the escape every day for 6 months, until I was ready to make the break with the best chance to stay free.
You’re not adults. You’re kids, and that means you have a lot less resources available to you, if you try to break away. Your families will have a lot more power to track you down, and bring you back home. And if the cultural environment in which you live is extremely strict, your family won’t be severely punished if they do something violent, or worse, to you when they catch you.
So, the bottom line is that the older you get, the more power you’ll have, and the more freedom to move and to act. Sometimes, waiting for years until you get the right moment to break away is the right tactic. Always remember, so long as you live, the dream of freedom you have in your heart lives inside you. Your life is precious, and tremendously important. Don’t take risks with it. Be careful, protect yourself, and be patient as you wait for your best chance.
THE THIRD GROUP
The kids in the Third Group are kids who aren’t beaten, sexually molested or threatened at home, and who wouldn’t face a posse of violent family members if they tried to break away. Kids in this group live in nice homes, have caring families – or at least, families who don’t abuse or threaten them – and have a good standard of health and education. But, for whatever reason (and there are lots of reasons), they feel like they’re choking to death in the family home, and they’re desperate to break away.
Adults I talk to are surprised by how many emails like this I receive from kids. They think kids in this situation should be happy, and should “count their blessings” instead of “complaining.”
Emails from kids in this group typically run like this:
“Dear Shantaram, I’m writing to you because I don’t know what to do. I’m going crazy, where I live, and nobody understands what’s happening to me. My family don’t understand me at all. Not a bit. We argue all the time about stupid stuff. It’s my fault a lot of the time but I just can’t help it. I’m so unhappy. Nobody is hitting me or doing bad stuff to me, but it’s like I’m from another planet because my family just don’t get it. At XXXXX-High, my school, I’ve got one friend, but I don’t really relate to the other kids there, either. Is it something in me that’s the problem? What should I do? I want to run away but I don’t know how to do it. Can you help me?”
There are variations, of course, but most of the emails are like this one, which I received from a kid in the USA [Certain details were changed, because they might’ve pointed to the identity of the person who wrote the email].
Okay, so here is some general advice. Always remember: my word isn’t ever the last word on any subject, and my advice isn’t something you should take as written in stone. There are lots of people with far more experience than I have, and you’ll no doubt get better advice from them. But since so many of you have written to me, I think I’ve got to reply, as best I can. So, my advice is no substitute for real, professional advice from professionals who deal with your situation every day, but for what it’s worth, here it goes:
1) Don’t underestimate the power of love.
The fact is, there’s a better than even chance that the people closest to you in your life – your family – love you, and would do plenty to help you, if they only understood what it is they should be doing for you.
I received an email from a man in Italy, who was pretty tough on his son. He didn’t beat him or threaten him, but he laid down some pretty tough rules in the house, and he grounded his son if he ever broke the rules. Without realizing it, the man had created an environment that was so claustrophobic for his son that the boy eventually ran away from home. The man wrote to tell me that his son had fallen in with a group of street kids, and that he’d been stabbed during a fight over something unimportant on the street, and that the boy had died. The man wrote to tell me that he cried for his son every day, and wished that he could have those years back, so he could change the way he was with his son.
This is one of many, many examples that people send to me, taken from their own lives, and it shows that underneath all of the rules and resentment in the house, that man loved his son, and had no idea that he was stressing the boy out so much that he would drive him out of the home.
So, there’s a good chance that if you find a way to talk to your family about your problem, they’ll respond with love, and through love they’ll find a way to fix the problem.
The way to open up the subject, in my opinion, is to talk about a story like the one I mentioned, or a story like that but from your own school or from someone you know, and to tell your parents: “I don’t want that to happen to me. I don’t want that to happen to you, either.”
Then, just talk through the things that are stressing you out. In the long run – even if you have some arguments or fights along the way – talking things through is the best way to find a solution to the things that are making you want to break away.
2) Confide in Someone.
In my experience, it’s always better for you to have someone with you, when you try to open up a dialogue with your family about the things that are stressing you out. That person will act as a brake on your parents’ inclination to get angry, and can help to keep things going, if you or your parents get stuck on a certain point.
The person you select should be someone that your parents, or your Mother or Father separately, respects. That could be an uncle or aunt, a teacher, a neighbour, or someone from a sports club, like a coach, for example. You should respectfully ask that person if she or he is prepared to listen to you, while you talk about a problem. If they are prepared to do that, you should explain, as best you can, what it is that’s stressing you out about your home situation.
Then, if that person agrees, you should ask that person to come to your home, and to give you support while you talk to your parents.
Breaking this subject to your parents can be difficult, and you should try to be as kind with them as you can. Try to see it from their point of view for a while: you’ll see that if you suddenly turn up at the door with some other person, wanting to talk about all the stuff your parents do that drives you nuts, your parents will probably resent it, and start the whole thing off with a negative attitude.
So, my advice is to sit your folks down and tell them the story of the man who’s son ran away and was stabbed in the street fight, or some other related story from your own school or neighbourhood, and tell them that you really need to talk to them, because (as I wrote above): “I don’t want that to happen to me, and I don’t want that to happen to you, either, because I know how sad you’d be if something happened to me.”
Then, if your parents are prepared to talk to you about the situation, you can ask them if they’d let the other person (your uncle, aunt, teacher, coach, etc) to be present when you talk about it, because you feel scared to do it all alone. If they agree, set up a time and place (anywhere that you can be private), and start the dialogue.
3) Stay Clear-headed and Fit. Having a problem in your family home – the place that should be your refuge; the place that should be the safest place on earth for you – is bad enough. If you start taking pain-killers or drinking alcohol or getting into other drugs, you’ll have another problem to deal with, and that’s the exact opposite of what you need to do. You need to minimize your problems, not add to them. Believe me: I know from long experience that drugs and booze don’t help anyone except the people who sell them. The rest of us just add new problems on top of the old problem, and then we’ve got even more stress to face, plus we’re weaker on drugs and booze than we are when we’re fit and healthy.
If you’ve got a serious problem in your home – serious enough to make you desperate to break away – you’ve got to use all of your mind and all your fitness to give yourself the best chance of dealing with the problem.
4) Time Is On Your Side. It’s a damn hard thing to do, I know, when you’re young and time seems to run so slowly, but try to remember that you’ve got a huge amount of time ahead of you. The thing that seems such a crisis this year, can fade away to nothing next year. The stress that’s driving you crazy this month, can be something you can hardly remember at all in six months’ time.
They say that time heals all wounds. I’m not sure that’s completely true, and I know people who’ve never really healed from some terrible trauma or frightening experience, no matter how much time passes. I volunteered in a Torture Survivor’s Group for a while. I met people who’d been tortured in Chile, Guatemala, North Korea, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Iraq, among other places. Some of them were trying to get on with their lives, but others were still suffering terribly, and couldn’t hold down a job or lead a happy life, even though they were safe.
So, time might not heal all wounds, but time is kind of like a telescope, and when we let enough time pass, and we look back at things that were stressing us a lot back then, time makes them seem like something you can see through a telescope: small, and distant, and not very clear at all. The phrase to keep in your mind is this: This, Too, Shall Pass. No matter what it is, the thing that’s stressing you at home will pass, if you give it enough time. And hey: you’re young. Time is exactly what you’re rich in.
5) Never Sell Yourself Short. You’ve got a lot going for you.
You’re beautiful, for a start. You might not think that. You might be carrying a little extra weight, or you might be real skinny, or you might have messy skin, or be no good at sports, or whatever. But the fact is, you’re beautiful. Youth – the thing you have; the thing you are – is beautiful. Trust me: youth is always a beautiful thing, and that beauty is inside you, just because you’re young, and no-one can take it away from you.
The world is yours. The world is a young world – younger than it has ever been in all of human history. For most of history, young people were to be “seen, and not heard” by the adults who dominated the world. Since the 1950s, the world has moved toward the young as never before. Everything, from commerce to culture, from fashion to sports, and from politics to Hollywood is moving toward youth and the young. It’s your world, more than it ever was before, and all you’ve got to do is reach out and take part in it.
And you’re strong. You’re young, so you’ve got stamina and energy. You’ve got fitness and health on your side. If you keep yourself healthy and fit, there’s no limit to what you can achieve. The simple fact is, the most energy, endurance and power you’ll ever have is right there, in your hands, right now.
You’re beautiful, and you’re strong, and the world is yours. Don’t ever give up on yourself, and don’t ever sell yourself short. You have time, and you have the power to make a difference in your own life, and in the world around you. Don’t ever give up.
So, that’s the general advice, for the three groups of kids who write emails to me, asking me for help.
In the simplest terms, if I had to sum it all up in a couple of lines, I’d say this:
Be careful. Your life is a precious thing. You’re a precious thing: the whole of our human evolutionary history went into the making of you. Don’t take risks with your safety, and whatever you do, put your own life and safety as the first priority.
If you can do it safely, without compromising your security, ask for help. If it’s at all possible, without compromising your security, make it a professional person that you ask for help.
Be patient, and know that time is on your side, not on the side of those who are stressing you out.
Be strong. We’re all braver than we know, until Fate tests us, and you’ve got so much going for you: youth, beauty, fitness, strength, stamina, and a world that’s yours.
And if you’re not in a situation where you’re being abused or beaten, never give up on love. If there’s even a small chance that you can communicate creatively with your family, try to trust in their love for you. If that works, it’ll always be the best and safest way for you to improve your situation – and to improve theirs, as well.