As longer-time readers know, I don’t have a relationship with my father due to emotional abuse during my childhood.
But last year, I heard through the grapevine that he nearly died. Or rather that he didn’t feel well but took forever to admit he had to go to the hospital. When he finally did go, they checked his blood sugar — he has Type 2 Diabetes now, apparently — and said by all rights he should’ve been in a coma if not actually dead.
It’s a strange thing to hear.
On the one hand, I know I’ll never get closure from him. But for some reason there’s a big emotional difference between “Never going to get closure because he’s textbook Narcissistic Personality Disorder.” and “Really never going to get closure because he’s dead.”
And as his health continues to decline in a number of ways, it’s entirely possible that he will die before long. Although I suspect he’ll manage the same thing his father did: hang on for years while telling anyone who’ll listen how he’s wasting away.
So given that this might be my last chance, I’ve been toying for months with the idea of sending him a letter. Not because I think he’ll read all of it, let alone repent, but instead because there’s such a thing as getting closure on just your end.
I wrote the letter back in July and have read it to Mom and to my therapist. It produced a small sense of catharsis, but not enough.
Even so, I haven’t been able to pull the trigger on actually mailing it yet. So my therapist and I decided maybe I could test the waters with posting it here, then deciding whether I need to actually drop a printed-out version in the mail.
The letter is long, but hopefully some of you wade through it. To briefly toot my own horn, I’m actually pretty proud of the writing in it.
And with that, here we go:
I’m sure you’re surprised to hear from me. I’m not even sure whether this will ultimately be sent. But if you’re reading this, I guess I went through with it. Though I doubt you’ll read through the whole thing.
I’ve heard about your bad health, and for the past year I’ve debated whether it’s a good idea to write. But I keep coming back to the fact that I need you to understand one very basic thing:
You broke me.
To be fair, Mom played a role — both with her own issues and in supporting your narrative that I was the one at fault. But after a lot of therapy, some discussions and myriad apologies from her, I’ve gotten past it and forgiven her.
But you… you I don’t forgive.
Because as you read this, I feel certain you’re already explaining to yourself how wrong I am. How I’m misremembering, misinterpreting. Or perhaps you’ve already put the letter down.
The thing is, even if we were to agree that no one’s memory is perfect — that I might get some details wrong — there are things that cannot be argued. Like the physical manifestation of years of your losing your temper and raising your voice at me and Mom.
To this day — 16 years since we last exchanged emails and 22 years (aka half my life) since I’ve seen you — if a main raises his voice at me, my heart starts racing, my body shakes and, more often than not, tears leak out.
I say “leak” because I am not crying. I’m not scared or sad. The tears, the whole nervous system response, are Pavlovian. And you, sir, are Pavlov.
Of course, my inability to forgive you might not even matter to you. After all, you never even apologized for your behavior, let alone asked for forgiveness.
Not when — after you raised your voice and… 7? 8? year old me for not saying hello and only asking if I had gotten any mail (so exciting for a young child) — I told you that I’d said hello three times but you’d been busy ranting to Mom about the people at work you were sure hated you and wished you’d quit.
Not at any point after [your brother’s} wedding when 10- or 11-year-old me was too shy to dance with the groom, and you dragged me aside and furiously told me that I was “ruining the whole wedding.”
Not after the restaurant incident when I was around 9 or 10. My slight moping at not having wanted to be there at all had turned to tears when the waiter got my order wrong. I heard, “This is bullshit!” and I momentarily thought you were agreeing with me and felt lighter. But then I turned around, and you were five inches from my face and made it clear you were blaming me.
(And I want to be very clear that I’m not exaggerating how close you were. In fact, five inches be a little generous. You were close enough that your face filled my entire vision. I remember being startled by how blue your eyes were. As if your fury had made them incandescent.)
You didn’t even apologize the day before I got my wisdom teeth out. You blew up at the restaurant because you thought, I “looked miserable” and decided that was a slight on spending time with you. You insisted we leave immediately. Thankfully we hadn’t ordered yet.
Later that evening, you came in and sat on my bed, saying, “You know you have to spend time with your family eventually.” And when I explained that I had actually felt terrible before leaving the house, but had gone along anyway so as not to make you feel like I was avoiding you, your response was… nothing.
You didn’t say sorry or use a non-apology like “Well, this was obviously a misunderstanding.” You just made some vague comment about time with family being important. Completely failing to address that you’d exploded at me for trying to do just that.
Nope, you never apologized. Not once. I promise you, I’d have remembered if you had.
As a result — you never admitting any wrong and Mom often toeing the line — I grew up accepting your version of reality: That I was the problem.
That if I could just show you enough love, enough happiness to be around you, then you wouldn’t lose your temper and raise your voice or go into icy silences. And since you often decided Mom was siding with me, she also had to take on your fury or ominous, angry silences.
So this meant that each Sunday we did this dance — and it happened nearly every time we went out — I was at fault. I was the cause of pain to two people who took care of and loved me.
Each time on the drive home, I’d swear to myself that I’d be better. That I’d just try to love you more, be happy to be around you. And each time, I failed, and I hated myself a little more.
Do you know that I literally thought of/described myself as a bad daughter?
The first time, I said it to some friends, I couldn’t understand the look they gave me. So puzzled. And what was unclear? I didn’t love you enough, didn’t want to spend time with you enough. Ergo, I was a bad daughter.
When I said almost the same words to my therapist — this time “not a very good daughter” — she dropped two sentences that nearly exploded my brain.
“Children are under no obligation to love their parents. Parents have to earn that love.”
That’s something you didn’t do very frequently. Instead, you mostly demanded it, thought of it as your due. And god help me, I believed you.
Look, I’m not pretending I was always easy. Teens/pre-teens are hard. Teens with undiagnosed Bipolar II Disorder — now very well controlled on meds, thankfully — are definitely a lot.
And since we started to routinely butt heads when I was around 7 or 8, I’ll also say that kids can be a handful/maddening . In fact, they can be obstinate little shits.
So I’m not saying it was always easy to love me or my attitudes. But that isn’t enough to excuse your behavior.
To be clear, I don’t think you were completely unfeeling about our emotions. I absolutely think you cared about us — but it was in your own, very limited by textbook Narcissistic Personality Disorder way.
So in the end you loved us inasmuch as you were capable of loving others.
But you didn’t love us enough to try to break the patterns that were causing so much misery.
Not enough to even to do something as small as change our activity for family. Instead, despite it almost always ending in bad feelings all around, we spent Sundays at the movie theater and then a restaurant.
And since you couldn’t even make small adjustments, therapy was, of course, out of the question.
Because you knew what a therapist would say: You were being emotionally abusive. And in the end, that fate was far worse than routinely reducing your family to tears.
And so you bullied a child. (A teen is still, in many ways, a child.)
Before you argue the word “bullied” I’d ask you to consider our dynamic: I either had to show you the “proper” amount of love (or at least happiness to be around you) or you’d get angry.
How is that not bullying? Shaking a kid down for love is much worse than shaking them down for lunch money.
And if I couldn’t muster up those emotions, I tried so hard to put on a show, to be a good actress and show you want you wanted to see.
But it’s exhausting to both try to act happy and be on constant guard that I’d say or do something (or that you’d just hear/see something) that would make you blow up.
So sometimes the masked slipped.
And when that happened, I think you got angry because you saw a reflection of yourself in my face. The worry, the tension and the weariness — the anywhere-but-here look — all let you see yourself as I did.
That wasn’t a sight you could handle, so you blamed me for not being happier, showing enough love. Not distracting you enough from your own emotional tyranny.
Don’t get me wrong, I think there were times that you knew that your reactions were horrible and unfair. You may even have sometimes loathed yourself because of it.
But not as much as you loathed the idea of taking responsibility rather than deflecting. And certainly not as much as you hated the idea of realizing/accepting that you, not Mom and I, were responsible for your happiness.
Instead, the more you hated yourself, the more we had to convince you that you weren’t this terrible, unlovable person. (And, ironically, if you’d gotten help for your issues, you probably wouldn’t have been.)
You’ve said before that you always knew you’d end up alone, abandoned by those who said they loved you.
But what you astonishingly failed to grasp about that prophecy — besides the very self-fulfilling nature of it — is that we didn’t abandon you. We simply saved ourselves. We chose our sanity. Our happiness.
Time and time again, you chose yourself over our well-being. Yet you considered us faithless when Mom and I finally did the same for ourselves.
And ya wanna know the real bitch of it all?
It worked. We got away from you and actually got to be happy. You… never will be.
It look me a lot of therapy, but I’m pretty happy with who I am. And I have people in my life who don’t demand obeisance before giving me care and support.
And Mom? [DF] treats her like a goddess (and she feels/does the same for him). They genuinely love each other. She found someone who actually treats her the way she deserves, someone she doesn’t have to tiptoe around. So she’s finally actually happy.
But you… You refuse to accept the unacceptableness of your actions and reactions. And you sure as hell refuse to do the work to get better.
So you spend your life demanding that the people in it convince you that you’re a good person, that your life is a happy one.
And that keeps you someone to be endured, not loved.
Tell yourself otherwise if you like. Maybe the current people in your life are better actors that Mom and I ever were. Maybe they’ll be able to make you believe it. But everyone — including you — will know it’s a pantomime to pacify you.
And for those reasons — that you’ve spent your life too afraid to see yourself as you are, let alone do the necessary work to be better, the fact you’ll likely die without having learned to actually like yourself — I offer my pity. That’s a miserable fate.
But while I pity you, I don’t forgive you. I can’t.
Because sometimes at night, I get a flash of kid-me in post-Dad-blowup position. She’s lying on her bed, face pressed into her stuffed animals — both to muffle the crying and because it’s as close to being held and comforted as she thinks she deserves.
I see the scene from the outside, but I remember viscerally what she’s feeling. It’s a sense of devastation. It’s a sense of being utterly bereft. Bereft that she’s such a terrible daughter and causes so much pain. Bereft that she can’t make herself be better. But most of all, bereft because she’s certain that she’ll never get away from you.
That little girl is a mere sliver of present-day me, but she’s in there, her pain frozen in time — a fossil of my formative years.
You don’t deserve her forgiveness, so you damn sure don’t get mine.
If you’ve actually read this far, thank you. However, please understand that I don’t want a reply. Anything you send will be returned unopened. I refuse to give you even a single iota more of the space in my head.