Today I read a memoir piece in my writing workshop that wasn’t about living with depression (surprise!). It was about – undoubtedly a likely contributor to my depression – my father and growing up in his scary, drunken shadow. It was yet another example of my life the shit show. Continue reading
(Sorry this is a bit stream of consciousness. I wrote it in response to replies to the last post about my ambivalence about my father’s impending death.)
If you knew me better, if you knew yourself better, you would not have hurt me.
I don’t feel angry; I mostly feel sorry for my dad. I think about how unhealthy his own formative relationships must have been to produce the man that he is. Something about his upbringing or culture or early experiences or who knows what helped create the person he became, an angry and cruel person who repressed his feelings. Of course, once he was an adult, he had a choice. He could continue down the path he was on or he could change. He stayed mired in his own unhappiness, and like a sickness, let it infect others.
I say this because I truly believe that people who are hurting end up hurting other people. You cannot inflict emotional damage on others, especially loved ones, without carrying a lot of damage on the inside, without being wounded yourself. So I think how unhappy my father must have been and how unhappy he must continue to be, and I feel sorry for him.
I don’t know what hurt he carried from his childhood, but I do know what hurt he carries now. One of his children abandoned him and another child, my father abandoned. (For a parent, that’s some heavy shit to carry with you.) When my older brother became a teenager, he decided, ‘No more. I won’t be treated like this by a person who is supposed to love, protect, and support me.’ From that day forward, my brother stopped having anything to do with our father. For years my father’s letters to my brother went unanswered. Birthday checks went uncashed. Eventually my father stopped making an effort. Whatever relationship the two had, it ended a long time ago and would not be resurrected.
Before that happened, my father abandoned my half-brother. Back in 1972, my father’s girlfriend gave birth to a son. My father lived with them for almost a year after the baby was born, and then he walked out. He turned away and never ever looked back, erasing every tangible reminder of that child. It was as if my half-brother vanished, although it was my father who’d disappeared.
If you knew me better, if you knew yourself better, you would not have hurt me.
When you don’t address your own pain, I think one of three things happens, and none of them is good. Some of us bury our feelings. We hide behind alcohol or food or sex or anything that makes us feel better. This provides a temporary reprieve, but eventually the uncomfortable feelings return. Others of us blame the victim for our own failings. We say things like, “I wouldn’t have been so cruel if you had just been more obedient” or “I wouldn’t have cheated if you had been more attentive.” And still others of us delude ourselves by reconstructing history. We remember things as we wish they had been and not as it actually was. We put ourselves in the best possible light, preserving our pride and our ego. In whatever way we process our pain, if it isn’t dealt with, it doesn’t go away. No amount of pushing it away, blaming it on someone else, or reinventing it will clear the air. No, it festers and grows and ultimately wreaks havoc.
If you knew me better, if you knew yourself better, you would not have hurt me.
I thought about writing all this down and sending it to my dad before he passes, one final voicing of my unresolved issues that relate to him. But, honestly, at this point I have no interest in hurting him, and I know that’s what my words would do. They would scratch off the scab of a wound that has never healed, because my father has never dealt with his own suffering. He never admitted that he is flawed. He never admitted that he made mistakes. He never admitted that he is imperfect, human, like the rest of us. My writing this (again) to him won’t change him. I think that ship has sailed.
So, instead of sharing this with him, I’m sharing it with you all. I am bearing witness that pain begets pain and until we confront that pain it remains. My father will go to his grave with that on his conscience. He knows it in his heart of hearts. It’s sad but it’s his choice. He chose not to know me or any of his children better. He chose not to know himself better, and in doing so, he chose hurt all of us.
My father is dying. Literally. Several years ago he was diagnosed with hepatitis and diabetes, and the latter is killing him. He has lost sight in one eye and his vision in the other eye is worsening. He gets dialysis treatment several times a week. He is dying, and I’m not sure how I feel about that.
Twenty-five years ago, when I was first getting married, my dad was offended by my marriage for two reasons. One, I was pregnant (meaning I’d had sex outside of marriage) and two, I’d asked my brother, and not my father, to walk me down the aisle. It didn’t matter that I was in love and marrying the father of my baby. It didn’t matter that I was in college, and going to finish on time. All that mattered was that I had screwed up and had hurt him
When his dissatisfaction with my life choices was made known, by my stepmother as my dad has never been one to communicate feelings, I decided to say what I needed to say to my father. I wanted to enter the next stage of my life without the baggage of our relationship weighing on me, without any of his added guilt, which I felt was entirely misplaced and unfair.
I wrote him a letter in which I pointed out the nature of our relationship as I saw it. Here was a man who had been verbally and psychologically abusive to me, to my brother, and to our mother (in the few years they were together). Here was a man who was an angry, mean alcoholic throughout my youth. Here was a man who refused to pay child support, despite being taken to court, in an effort to get back at my mother for leaving him (and taking his children with her). Here was a man who had two biological sons, one divorced himself of the father-son relationship by choice, and the other was abandoned by my father a year after being born. I wrote all this to my father and asked him why.
But, my father never responded to my letter. It didn’t encourage him to ask for forgiveness or explain himself or do whatever one might do in this kind of situation. He didn’t even acknowledge it. Of course, by then he had found Jesus, so maybe my dad confessed his sins to God and didn’t feel the need to justify himself to his flesh and blood daughter. The one who had called his attention to her pain and sorrow, the direct results of his behavior. The one who had her own emotional baggage and shit to deal with because of his bad parenting.
Since that time, my father and I have had a distant relationship, which is fine by me. I don’t feel angry toward him although sometimes I feel a twinge of pity.
We are in contact via email and letters (although it is my stepmother who writes me actually) discussing things in generalities. The boys are fine. We went to Rome for vacation. Every 2 years or so we have a meal together. Ninety minutes of physical proximity and then I don’t see him again until the year after next, if I decide to contact him and make it happen.
I decided when I sent the letter, back in 1989, that I was done trying to make the relationship more than what it was or ever would be. Without his participation in fixing it there was only so much I could do or was even willing to do. I was done. I accepted that we would never have a relationship beyond that of acquaintances, but I was an adult and it was time to stop letting his shitty parenting be an excuse for my own shortcomings and flaws.
Easier said than done. Like everything with family and dysfunction and emotions, releasing this kind of past, filled with torment, is easier said than done.
So, my father is dying. And instead of feeling nothing or feeling relief, I feel a pit in my stomach. It makes me a bit anxious and sick. I keep wondering, ‘Why couldn’t he be human enough, especially after 45 years, to own up to his mistakes?’ I don’t know, and I doubt I ever will. All I know is that soon he will be dead and I will still have unanswered questions haunting me, this parenting legacy to deal with.
Depression is insidious. It eased its way into my life a little at a time, so that I never really recognized it until it had become part of who I am.
Depression first gained its foothold when I was a little girl. My Daddy was a mean drunk, and he was drunk a lot.
At the time, I’m not even sure I knew what it meant to be intoxicated, but I associated it with Daddy’s loss of control and my cowering and crying. As a 6 year old, I didn’t know what to say or do with my feelings, so I learned to hold in my fear, to bury it somewhere deep inside me.
Whether he was drunk or not, Daddy was like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In one minute, he was belittling my brother mercilessly and in the next minute, he was doting on me. I was confused, because I loved my brother. He wasn’t any different than me. But I didn’t speak up, because I wanted Daddy’s love and not his fury. I swallowed my pain, and depression took up a little more space in my head.
When I was a teenager, a parade of older men – a stranger to whom I gave directions at the park, the housekeeper’s husband, and a relative – trapped me. They pawed at me or spoke to me in ways that they shouldn’t have, ways that frightened me. I felt shame, but I knew to keep this hidden. Depression got a little stronger.
By the time I was married with two children, I could recognize the unpleasant feelings – disappointment that I got pregnant at 19, resentment that I put my education plans on hold, loneliness and mental and physical exhaustion because my husband worked nights and weekends while I finished school and worked during the day and took care of babies during the night. I could recognize the emotions that didn’t feel good, but I only knew to make them go away. So I started to drink, and I drank to be numb. I drank to forget. I drank to ignore.
By the time my marriage was disintegrating, depression was my habit of mind. It wove its tentacles in and out of me until eventually it became my second skin. It embedded itself so deeply in my psyche that I could only hear its messages. They played on an endless loop, night and day. “You’re worthless. You’re unlovable. You will never be happy.”
Noticing my withdrawal, friends asked me, “What’s so terrible? You’re life is great.” But the cloak of depression was so thick these words meant nothing to me. I was indoctrinated, like the victim of a cult. All I felt was the overwhelming weight of despair, and all I heard was the endless loop of negative thoughts.
At some point, I felt myself sinking into an abyss from which even I knew there was a point of no return. I went to a psychiatrist, seeking help.
I remember telling her, “I’m sad all the time. I drink because I don’t know what else to do to make the hurting stop. I don’t have any tools to deal with this. Please help me. Please give me tools.”
She scoffed and told me that I had a drinking problem, not depression. She denied my emotions, just as I always had. She and my depression were united in their plot against me.
Still, each week I went back, filling out the same check sheet, supplying the same answers.
Do you feel hopeless? yes
Do you have trouble sleeping or do you sleep too much? I don’t sleep
Have you lost your appetite or can you not stop eating? I don’t eat
Do you have negative thoughts? yes
Do you have thoughts of hurting yourself? yes
Weeks went by and nothing changed. I started to think about driving my car off a bridge, getting in bathtub and slitting my wrists. But, every day, I got up and went through the motions, because all I knew was how to put on a front, how to look okay for the outside world while quietly suffocating on my own trauma.
Then one day, something happened. I was like a pot of rice, simmering on the stovetop. I had clamped the lid down tight, but when the water came to a boil, the steam rose up and spilled over the sides of the pot, leaving a messy residue burned onto the stovetop. So it was with me. A switch was turned, and every negative emotion came rushing out all at once. Every negative thought was magnified a thousand times. In that moment, I realized that I could not live another minute like this. The depression had grown like cancer, eating away whatever was good and healthy in me. It had spread like wildfire, leaving the charred remnants of the woman I was. I had to extract the cancer. I had to stop the fire from spreading. It had to end.
Depression told me, “Just do it and get it over with. Just do it, and get out.” So I swallowed an entire bottle of Klonapin, then lay down and drank 4 beers as fast as I could. I closed my eyes and welcomed the darkness.
Depression is insidious. It eased its way into my life a little at a time, so that I never really recognized it until it almost destroyed me.
My relationship with alcohol started years before I took my first sip of beer as a teenager, before I ever got drunk and threw up, before I blacked out and hid bottles. It started when I was a little girl, and it is etched onto all my memories of being with my daddy. Charming and funny at times I mostly remember daddy being mean and scary. The difference was alcohol.
As the children of divorce, my brother and I lived with our mom but spent every other weekend and all summer with daddy. He drove up from San Antonio on Friday afternoons, collected us at our mom’s house in Austin, and drove us back to San Antonio for our weekend visits. Saturday nights, we went to one of my dad’s siblings’ houses, either to my Aunt Josie’s or to my Uncle Fred’s. The grown-ups, my dad and aunts and uncles, played nickel poker and drank. They let us kids, 7 of us all within 3 years of each other, run around fairly unsupervised. We played the Bay City Rollers or Stevie Wonder on the stereo and choreographed dance routines for our parents to watch. We stayed up late watching movies on TV and drinking Big Red. In the background, our parents joked in Spanish (their first language but not ours). It was family time, and it was great. Until it wasn’t.
Every high has its low, and that was never more apparent than over the course of a Saturday night with daddy. At some point, after a certain number of Pearl beers had been drunk, the whites of daddy’s eyes changed from clear and bright to red and bleary. His jokes and playing around became mean and hurtful.
Around midnight, the poker game ended, and everyone got ready to leave. This is when things quickly fell apart. My brother J and I hugged our aunts and uncles, and walked outside with daddy and our stepmother. J and I stood together, next to the car, while daddy shattered the stillness of the night (it was usually past midnight when we left), arguing with our stepmother about who should drive home. What was to argue about? She didn’t drink, and he was drunk. But this was years before Mothers Against Drunk Driving. There was no such thing as a DUI in those days.
Daddy was intimidating. “I’m not giving you the keys,” he would say. “This is my car, and I’m going to drive it. Now get in.”
Ten years younger with a sense of subservience I never understood, our stepmother was no match for him. Sometimes she cried. “Frank, let me drive. Please. Think about the kids.”
When she mentioned us, my brother and I just kept silent. We eyed the interaction with resignation, because it always ended in the same way. We never said anything to either one of them. Getting involved meant having daddy’s wrath turned on you. We were young but we weren’t stupid.
On the drive home, daddy grew angrier, insulting our stepmother, before finding my brother’s face in the rear view mirror. Seeing my brother turned a switch in daddy. He forgot about my stepmother and turned his attack onto J. Nothing was ever good enough. My brother was never good enough. I tried to close my ears while dad berated J for the length of his hair, his sensitivity, his clothes, or his lack of interest in sports. I wanted to protect my brother, my oldest friend, the boy who stood up for me at school, but, at the same time, I didn’t want to say or do anything, because if daddy was yelling at J, then I was safe. So I said nothing. I did nothing.
Driving back to Austin on Sunday afternoons was always a roll of the dice. Because it was late in the afternoon, and the weekend, daddy typically had already been drinking. He wasn’t drunk when he started the drive, but these were the days of open containers, and naturally he had them with him, so he was drunk by the time we got to New Braunfels or San Marcos, halfway to Austin.
My brother and I sat in the back as the car careened down the interstate, weaving in and out of traffic. I tried to keep my eyes closed, but the horns of eighteen-wheelers blared, and I always looked, fearing we were about to be killed. My brother and I would have felt better sitting next to each other, but we sat glued to the opposite sides of the backseat. If we were closer together, that meant someone would be sitting in the middle seat. Daddy had a habit of reaching back, taking his hands off the wheel and his eyes off the road and pinching whomever he could reach. His hands flew out of nowhere and attacked you.
When we finally got to our mom’s house, where we had our own rooms (unlike my dad’s house where we slept on the couch or a cot or the floor), when we finally got home, after what seemed like an eternity, we stumbled out of the car and raced into the house. We didn’t look back and we didn’t say goodbye.
But fleeing to safety was all for naught. Two weekends later, there we were again, sitting in his car at the end of a weekend of daddy’s drinking, waiting for the long drive home.