I couldn’t put my finger on why I was upset. It was just another phone call to soothe my mother’s nerves. But, my father had answered. His tone was upbeat, and he shared that he was excited about buying a new bicycle. He is 74, and is in better shape and spirit than most people twenty years younger. He tells me he has signed up for a 10-mile bike trek and sightseeing adventure along the Gulf Coast. It’s just his voice—there is something pleading in it. He is trying.
Over a lifetime of calls with him, the effort has been lacking. The calls ranged from the normal quick calls back and forth when I lived at home, apprising him or my mother of my whereabouts, to violent, angry calls, filling me in on all of my flaws, lashing out at the latest disappointment he had been dealt in life, courtesy of me, his youngest daughter. There really was no in between, except perhaps, for the years that he wouldn’t come to the phone if I called, even if I pleaded. Sometimes he would answer, and knowing it was me, he would pick up the phone without a word and slam it on the nearest table our counter. He would call to my mother, saying “It’s her,” in a tone that let me know he couldn’t muster the energy to say my name.
This latest version of our calls is harder to understand. While we don’t talk about anything that happened over the years, there is something there in his voice, asking me to connect. Is this his version of an apology? My emotional response is one I recognize—guilt. I feel guilty for not giving more, for not just coming out and telling him I hear this in his voice, that it’s all ok. I am angry and confused that I somehow still feel guilty, that the repetition of the calls over the years has left me this way. No matter what our calls were about over the years, I ended up hanging up the phone and feeling awful. More often than not, I ended up sobbing. I don’t know how to react or feel any other way. After I talk to my father, my knee- jerk reaction is to examine what I am doing wrong, what is wrong with me.
That has never been a challenge.
That has never been a challenge.
The voice I hear in my head is his. Second-guessing every single decision I make in life, constantly putting myself down, thinking the worst. I have to battle to hear the faint whisper of my own voice, trying in vain to protect me. Years of therapy finally helped me adjust the volume so that on my best days, I hear my own voice clearly. But try as I might, I can’t mute his completely. It will always be an echo, or a drumbeat, and at times it still thunders so loud that it takes all of my energy to drown it out.
To keep myself from becoming lost yet again in guilt and worry, I make myself remember everything over the years that has gotten me to this point. I cannot connect any deeper with him because of all of those things--very real things--that my mother and father both choose to place in their world of denial. Drudging all of that up is necessary, but it takes its own toll. Being raised in a family that chooses to not only deny the truth, but bury and forget it altogether, can make you feel the need to return again and again to your memories, to ensure that you, too, don’t get lost and buried.
There’s a nagging tug in hearing his voice age and my mother’s become more frail. I watch as friends lose their parents and I debate in my head if I am doing what I should. I stare down a rabbit hole that I have fallen into many times, too deeply—worrying more about my mother’s or father’s happiness than my own. I stare long and hard, and make myself back away. It is not a simple decision, it is a battle. I think it will always be.
Even though it is hard, I have kept communication with them. Most of this I have done for my mother, who needs the connection with me. I love her, and I know that nothing that has happened was intentional on either of their parts. My mother did not set out to marry an alcoholic, unfaithful man. My father did not set out to be a bad husband or father. But they both made choices that impacted my life and theirs. Those choices paved the way for a very painful life for me, and incredibly poor self-esteem. Each time I go through these feelings of guilt, I have to connect to a particular memory to remind me why I have to keep my distance and take care of myself.
The one this week that helped was fairly recent, back in 2009, when I was living in Charlotte and working for a women’s magazine. I had just gotten back on my feet after a really horrible time with deep depression, that had me still shaky at times. My mother and father were driving through town, back to their home in Florida. Charlotte was merely going to be a pit stop, to see me. My father’s birthday was coming up, so I had put together a gift for him, trying hard to do something nice. It took me hours just to pick the wrapping paper. We were to meet for breakfast, near my office, so I could go into work right after.
I got there early, not wanting to disappoint anyone. Soon after I arrived, my father called my cell phone, obviously angry, demanding directions. His anger, as always, panicked me, and I scrambled to think of street names and exits off the interstate. He wasn’t clearly explaining where he was, and was cursing –every other word was “fuck” or “shit”. I was sitting at a table in an Einstein’s Bagel’s restaurant, breathing heavily, trying to calm my father down, and figure out where he was and how to get him to my location. After ten minutes of back and forth, he angrily growled that I “didn’t know fucking anything, and had ruined every fucking thing…just like always”. The line went dead. I hadn’t looked up from my table during the call, and realized that people were staring. I was still breathing hard, and somehow didn’t realize I was crying. A woman next to me reached over from her table and put her hand on my arm. As is my usual response, I apologized. She looked me square in the eyes and said, “Please stop. Stop apologizing.” I just shook my head, for a minute back to being five years old and in my father’s shadow. “I could hear every word he was saying,” she continued, “stop. You aren’t the one in the wrong.”
I managed to thank her and then got into my car and fell to pieces. Somehow, I was able to walk into my office 30 minutes later and no one was the wiser. I have had a lifetime of experience in covering my emotions.
This, in comparison to many other incidents with my father, was minor. This was nothing but words. I remember telling myself that on that morning, over and over. Nothing but words, nothing but words. But words have meaning. I believed he meant it when he said I ruined every fucking thing—always. Hearing things like that your whole life makes an impact. I still have to remind myself—daily—that I am not someone who ruins things. I am someone of worth.
It took me 38 years to begin to speak out loud and really begin to tackle my depression and the reality behind it. I slipped during the process and barely regained my footing. More than anything during all of the therapy, the tears, the hard conversations, and reliving things too painful to endure once--much less countless times in my therapists office--the thing I gained that is most valuable is the realization that I had to save myself. Actions I was taking, that I thought were the choices that made me a good person--a good daughter, were actually weighing me down more and more, and eventually pulling me under. The people around me, who were supposed to love me unconditionally, who I should have been able to rely on no matter what, were actually helping me drown.
I almost did drown. It was a very close call.
There are moments today when I feel the weight, I feel the water rushing over me. After a lifetime of fighting this, of battling constantly to feel better about myself, to hear and trust MY voice, I sometimes feel exhausted. I want to just settle in and let it all go. Just let the water take me.
Then I remember how far I have come, and that once I saved myself not too many years ago, I came out of the water, gasping and barely alive, but I made it. I survived. It was a long, hard fight, but I did it. So many beautiful things came after—that wouldn’t have unless I had freed myself to allow them.
Unfortunately, guilt still lingers and my heart still questions things. I have to go through this process—even after a simple 5 minute phone call-- to remind myself what it takes to be free, and how much I can invest before it’s too much. It’s still a hard long process, but it is worth it.
I am worth it.