My Father – Part 1

On one hand, I don’t want to be another girl who is overly focused on her complicated relationship with her father. How trite, you know? But on the other, my father was and still is a complicated man. I believe he genuinely loved my sisters and me. In terms of positive childhood memories, they all revolve around our time together. My father, at the apple orchard with his three girls. My father, wrangling us at the zoo. My father, dressing us all alike in denim and pearls for a family portrait. (In my mother and step-father’s house, you could not find a single picture of any of us on the walls. But dad’s tiny apartment was, at least comparatively, like a shrine to his children.) There was a part of him that wanted to give us the life he never had. Another part of him, the one that terrified us all, replicated and remodeled his own experiences.

My father, sitting in a fancy restaurant with his daughters. My father, dragging one of us around the kitchen by our hair. My father, washing the dishes and asking me about my day. My father, telling me that I’m a disgusting, fat bitch. Whenever it was time to “go to dad’s,” I didn’t know which of my father’s faces would greet me at the door.

When my dad was just a little boy, he walked into his living room and discovered his mother hanging from the ceiling fan.

How does someone recover from that?

Because my dad was the youngest of six children, his own father decided to send him to live with an aunt and uncle to relieve some of the burden of caring for a big Catholic family. From what my dad told me, his uncle would hit him with his cane when he acted out, and both relatives incessantly criticized him. Of course, a little boy whose witnessed his own mother’s suicide is not going to be well adjusted without intervention. Even less so when handed-off to people lacking empathy or kindness. At that point in time, therapy was not especially mainstream. He never had the option to get true help.

I can’t imagine what it was like to be my father, removed from his family, trying to fall asleep in an unfamiliar home, his thoughts turned towards a mental still of his mother hanging lifelessly before him. But I can imagine living in a place that scares me, being criticized and beaten over slights both imagined and real. I can do that because of him – because it’s unfortunately true that people who live traumatic lives sometimes reenact that trauma on others.

I am my scars.

So much of my life feels like a secret. How much time, I wonder, have I wasted, filing away my memories, trying to put them into places where they can be forgotten? How many times have I closed myself off to others because the real answer is off-putting? Because I’m afraid of how people will respond – afraid of being rejected for honesty, the way I had been as a child, by some of the people closest to me? As an adult, I live in the space between truth and social acceptability. And the result is total isolation. A lonely reality, shaped by a multitude of traumas that I’ve tried to abandon and forget.

The worst part about surviving awful things is that you always carry them with you, even if you can forget or forgive. Other people do not understand that they’re seeing the scars left behind when you can’t maintain eye contact, or when you flinch during a hug. Sometimes the scars are mistaken for being socially awkward. Cold. Boring. For me, the truth is that I’m just afraid. I’m a dog that’s been kicked most of its life and I’m terrified that you’re going to kick me too. I protect myself with silence and half-truths. I say, “I’m okay” when I’m not. I don’t share stories of my childhood. To prevent rejection, I cut people out of my life before they can say that they’re done with me. That I’m not good, or weird, or something worse.

It’s been a slow process, but I am getting help for my issues – I’m trying to learn that this shit is not my fault. For me, it’s been difficult to realize I need help undoing the trauma. Despite feeling like I can’t share most of my life with others out of feeling grotesquely different, I spent a lot of my time growing up being told that my feelings were misplaced, selfish, wrong. “I brought you into this world, and I can take you out of it,” my mother would say, not always jokingly. She would complain that I had unreasonable expectations. She would say that it was not wrong to tell me that I was responsible for myself at fifteen. When I was in college for my first degree, I remember coming back home for the winter break and trying to discuss that I thought I needed help dealing with the fact that I was socially delayed. (Being in college, around people whose parents visited them and called them, who could recount so many happy stories – that was the first time I started to realize my life wasn’t typical. I could also see that I was not making friends, because I was so scared to even talk to people.) My mother denied I had problems. For whatever reason, it then seemed like a good idea to tell her about the time I tried to kill myself.

I was fourteen and didn’t have a single friend. I was bullied terribly by boys in my school for being overweight and socially awkward. A few months before, I had a falling out with my father (one of many), which resulted in him harassing me over the phone about being an ungrateful bitch (for what, I don’t know) and a stupid, fat cunt. He had come to the house my mother and step-father owned after I hung up on him. When I tried hiding behind my step-father, because I knew my father was going to beat me, my step-dad moved aside so that my father could slap me hard across the face. He’s your father, I’m sorry. At this point, I couldn’t deal with experiencing another day in my life – I had no one I could trust, and school was just another place where I was abused. So one night I overdosed on Tylenol and ibuprofen. I vomited for hours and literally passed out several times, but my mother and step-father didn’t check up on me and weren’t concerned by the symptoms I exhibited. Even the ringing in my ears. I was still not dead, and tried doing the same thing the next day when I stayed home from school. I was unsuccessful again, most likely due to the fact that I didn’t understand that Tylenol and ibuprofen were different drugs and didn’t have the additive effect I expected. My attempt resulted in a lot of vomiting and sleep.

I told my mom about overdosing because I felt so friendless and alone. I told her that I was disappointed that I was able to do that without anyone noticing I was trying to kill myself. That no one even thought to take me to a hospital. That I had real issues, and have had them for awhile. My mother simply said, “I don’t remember what you’re talking about. And I’m not responsible for you.”

I learned so many things from my parents. My mother and her husband taught me that I am alone. If I think I have problems, I am probably just making them up or being childish. My social ineptitude is my own doing. That it’s funny when I don’t want my own family members to hug me. My father taught me how to be afraid. He taught me I was worthless. He instructed me on how to hate my body. To not trust kindness, because it’s always fleeting. Together, my parents taught me that I will always be rejected by the ones I love.

The part of me that realizes these are the lessons taught by parents who abuse and neglect their children cannot mollify the part of me that still hurts. I’ve managed to become a productive adult and can hide behind my so-called successes, but I still (rightfully) see a damaged person in everything. I have friends (but no close relationships). I have (rocky) monogamous relationships with men (and use sex to obtain validation when I’m single). I’m extremely talented when it comes to school (but feel like an impostor, because how could I be talented?). After being at a new job for a couple weeks, my bosses are always happy that they picked me over other candidates (until I implode a year later, and abruptly quit). I powerlift and really value health (but will binge eat and puke in times of stress – yes, I’m bulimic).

I’m a functional mess. A woman born from a girl’s trauma.

This is ultimately an attempt to tell the truth. To be honest about myself, so that the words I speak don’t always seem like such lies. And the truth is that I am often not okay. I shouldn’t need to expect “okay” from myself after the kind of life I’ve had. But in writing this truth, I also see it’s not my fault. I don’t deserve to feel so much contempt for myself over the fact that I am not perfect. That I can’t recover on my own. That I’ve developed bad coping skills.

There’s more hope in the truth than there is in my lies of omission. If I can see there’s a problem that needs to be resolved, if I can voice that I am just barely getting by, then it’s easier to accept that I deserve help.