I’ve been going through my drafts folder and found this post that I never quite finished. So while the original post referenced is a bit old (though Revanche’s piece is amazing and you should read it), I thought this piece was still worth finishing/publishing.
I belatedly read Revanche’s beautiful, poignant, maddening tale, and two thoughts crossed my mind:
- I’d set him on fire. Seriously. I’d put aside money for an attorney and set him ablaze. (She’s a far better person than I am.)
- Why does this remind me of my dad?
The ultimate question
The tales are very different, but some of the questions sound the same. Often, I hear them in a child’s voice, and they always boil down to one basic theme: “Why didn’t he love me enough?”
- Enough to get over his sense of entitlement
- Enough to get over his (self-fulfilling) paranoia that everyone hated him
- Enough to see that he was hurting the people he purported to love
- Enough to stop blaming us for it and
- Enough to take action to stop tormenting us
See, my dad never laid a hand on me, nor did he denigrate me like a more stereotypical abuser. But he made life miserable. In fact, he polluted it.
Fear and (self-)loathing
He polluted the air with rage so thick it felt hard to breathe around him. I feel like I spent most of my formative years holding my breath, afraid that the smallest puff in the wrong direction would set him off.
I spent years tiptoeing around landmines — only to step on one anyway. Sometimes because I let my guard down, but sometimes because there is simply no pleasing a person who hates himself but can’t take responsibility for it.
He polluted my mind with the belief that all of it was my fault. That I didn’t love him enough. That if I were a better, more doting daughter, this wouldn’t happen. That, in fact, I was the one hurting him.
And he polluted my basic bodily responses so that I still shake when men yell at (or sometimes just near) me. So that I tremble and tears spring to my eyes even when I’m not scared of the man in question.
How I managed
Sometimes I wonder how I survived without losing it completely, without trying to harm myself from the inflicted guilt and shame.
The only answer I can come up with is limited exposure. He worked the afternoon to night shift, so I was generally in bed when he came home, meaning I mainly just saw him on Sundays and Mondays.
So yeah, I truly believe that the only reason I didn’t attempt suicide is that I had him in what was (but never felt like) very measured doses.
If I’d had to spend nights with him five days a week, plus full weekends, I wouldn’t have made it. There’s just no way. A person — let alone an undiagnosed, unmedicated depressive — can only internalize so much blame.
His version of love
The sad thing is that he probably did love me in his own limited way. At the very least, he believed he loved me. It’s just that he also believed he was always the victim, never the villain.
But he didn’t really love me, not in the actual sense. He didn’t prioritize my happiness above his own — which is an especially bad thing when the person will never actually be happy. No, it didn’t matter how distraught I was, how many times I fled the room in tears, the problem was always that I was making him unhappy.
Someone who truly loved me would have wanted to make changes. Because his daughter repeatedly in pain would have distressed him enough to want to fix it.
Working on himself (or not)
He did start therapy once Mom left him (and you can tell someone really cares about your wellbeing when he’ll change only after your pain inconveniences him in a major way). But even then, when he was allegedly working on himself, he still was self-centered and unyielding.
During their separation, he and I reconnected. It’d been five years since I’d initially removed him from my life. We exchanged emails, and in them I tried to explain the various times and ways he had hurt me, tried to make him see why we had issues.
He just defended himself, telling his version of events and refusing to remotely consider mine. After a couple of emails back and forth, he said that if I was just going to rehash the past and not move forward, there was no point to us talking any more. He had lost me for five years, but he was actively willing to lose me again just to avoid taking a hard look at himself.
Realizing his limitations
And as I remember all this, I realize that he simply wasn’t — and probably still isn’t — able to love someone truly and selflessly. Not even a pale shadow of that.
I also realize that for all his arrogance about his various skills — and the recognition and respect he always believed he should get for them — he actually didn’t like himself very much.
But instead of inflicting the pain and self-doubt on himself like a responsible depressive, he turned it outward. That way, his suffering wasn’t his fault, which means he wasn’t the one who needed to change.
My adult brain knows all this. But there’s still this child, tearfully huddled on the bed against her stuffed animals, who occasionally wonders why it couldn’t be otherwise.
Why couldn’t he see beyond his own pain to what he was inflicting on me?
Why couldn’t he love me enough to change — or even want to?
The only answer I’ve found is that he was, deep down, a coward.
He’s scaled mountains, including climbing Kilimanjaro. He was once taken in for some questioning by the KGB (for taking pictures of what turned out to be a secure site). But he was too scared to take the hard look at himself. To do the painful work of self-improvement — or even just work toward basic self-awareness.
And the sad fact is that you can’t teach bravery, not that kind anyway. He’s gone through almost seventy years of life unwilling to consider — truly consider — that the problem isn’t everyone who is or has ever been around him. That the fault lies with him.
To be fair
This isn’t to say we were perfect. Mom had issues when she met him — why else would she have stayed? — and I was unmedicated bipolar plus a teenager, which made me at least intermittently difficult to deal with. And Mom and I were so close that he sometimes felt left out.
But we were also good to him. Desperately good, really, in the hopes of keeping the anger at bay.
And this isn’t to say that we didn’t have happy times. I’m sure we did. But the bad ones obscure almost all of the good memories that I might otherwise recall. Because they were that unpleasant.
For example, I don’t remember a single family dinner that didn’t end with my angering him in some way — usually in my reluctance to be there (gee, I wonder why) — and fleeing to the bathroom crying. And if Mom took too long in the bathroom coaxing me out, she was siding with me. He’d then be furious at both of us and refuse to talk to her on the ride home.
On those occasions, I got to hear her quietly crying in the front seat, while I sat there, soaking in the knowledge that the whole thing was my fault.
I’m sure peaceful dinners must have happened (though when I asked Mom, she confirmed that they were rare), but I can’t recall them. What I can recall is how well I could navigate my way to the restaurants’ bathroom through vision blurred by tears.
Free from Dad (mostly)
I haven’t communicated with my father in nearly 12 years. I get snippets of information about him through family members, but by and large I don’t think about him, let alone talk about him. In fact, almost everyone who knows me at present probably assumes my mom was a single mother, since I never mention my father.
But every so often a memory will creep into my consciousness. Overall, they’ve stopped being as painful. Still, once in a while a sad, trapped child’s emotions will bubble up at some memory or other, and I’ll briefly feel a pang for everything that could have been if he’d just been a little less selfish and afraid.
Alas, you can’t rewrite the past. All you can do is leave the toxic parts of it behind and work on the issues they left you with so that you don’t repeat history yourself.