Sorry that this post is going up so late. I’ve spent hours writing it. Which reminds me, I’m sorry about the length, too.
I realized I needed to write this after a particularly unpleasant back-and-forth with a customer. Afterward, I realized my heart was beating fast, and I was a little queasy. It’s a familiar feeling.
I don’t talk about my dad on here. He’s not part of my life; I cut him out for my own well-being. But I’ll never be rid of his effects, as evidenced by shakiness and queasiness after just an emailed confrontation.
My father emotionally abused Mom and me. He terrorized us with his anger — both the actual fury and the threat of it. We tiptoed around him, knowing that it was only a matter of time before something set him off.
There must have been times when he was normal, even nice. I have flashes of him smiling and being pleasant. But most of my memories revolve around his anger.
Actually, my most vivid memory of his anger was at a restaurant. After being dragged to a movie I hadn’t wanted to see and to a restaurant with one dish I liked, I probably wasn’t in the best frame of mind.
So the lack of a requested corn on the cob made me tear up. When I explained the problem to my parents, Dad exclaimed that it was bullshit. For a split second, I thought he was agreeing with me. My heart lifted a little, which made it all the more crushing when I discovered he was angry at me.
With his face three inches from mine, he proceeded to explain that I was being a brat and needed to behave. He probably also said I was ruining the day.
He said that a lot. At my uncle’s wedding, when I was too shy to dance with the groom, my dad took me aside and told me I was ruining the whole wedding.
So he probably mentioned ruination, but all I remember being transfixed by how incredibly blue his eyes were. I couldn’t look away.
When he was done, I went into full sobbing mode and ran to the bathroom. (I knew how to navigate the place through tears. We ate there a lot.) Mom came in to get me but apparently took too much time. So Dad decided she was siding with me.
He stormed to the car. When Mom tried to engage him, he snapped that he couldn’t talk to either of us right now. So we sat there absorbing his seething silence. Mom started crying quietly.
That’s when it crystallized: This was all my fault. If I were a better daughter, Dad wouldn’t get so angry, and Mom wouldn’t be put in the middle. The guilt for this pain, including my own, was squarely on my shoulders.
There were, of course, plenty of words later that evening. Words said in a raised voice. Just the one. I don’t remember Mom every shouting back. Mainly she just cried.
His anger wasn’t always at us, though. There was plenty to go around. A lot of people who didn’t show him respect. Sometimes he’d come home ranting that so-and-so had it out for him, everyone there hated him, and they wouldn’t care if he died.
Or the time my orthodontist ran 40 minutes late. He — having had a very bad history with doctors, in the form of an unnecessary kidney removal — hated doctors in general. He sat out in the car. When I finally came out, he said he’d contemplated calling the cops to report a kidnapping.
The thing is, the object of his rage didn’t have to be us. We were still around to absorb it. His anger polluted the air. At those times, it always felt like the air was heavier and harder to breathe. And these episodes just reminded us what was in store the next time we slipped up.
I was 21 when a therapist finally made me understand that I wasn’t the one in the wrong. That a child is under no obligation to love a parent — that love has to be earned. And that , from the sound of it, he failed to earn it at every turn. Apparently, it’s not okay to ask your 12 year old, “Don’t you love me anymore?” Who knew?
In my early 20s, I shut him out — an impressive feat since Mom was still living with him. He felt betrayed by my attitude, though, so that made it easier to keep conversations short.
I did try to reconcile with him in my late 20s. I heard he’d gone into therapy. (He quit after a couple of months.) So I wanted to have a talk — by email, I still cry easily — and go over the way his actions had affected me.
He glossed over most of it, and had completely different accounts of the rest. When I kept trying to get a real dialogue going, he said that if I just wanted to keep rehashing things in the past then there was no point in talking.
For some reason, that wasn’t enough to send me running, so we settled into banal emails. Except that he started sending me job suggestions. Like a math teacher, based on a bit of praise back in high school, or selling some of the brownies I used to make (Mom’s twist on a Betty Crocker recipe), because Mrs. Fields got started at home.
Tim came home to find me crying, hurt and frustrated by my dad’s obliviousness. He told me to stop emailing him. It’s been seven years, and I haven’t regretted it once.
But getting rid of him didn’t get rid of the effects. I still start to tremble and cry if a man raises his voice at me. Even if I’m not scared; even if I’m downright angry. And if a guy is shouting at someone else near me, my heart will beat faster, plus the aforementioned queasiness. And when I’m around any angry person, I still feel like the air is heavier.
I think I’m stuck with those for life, but at least that life is without him.