This is a departure from my cancer talk, but I’ve promised to be honest about my journey, and that includes my mental health journey too.
My mother would be positively mortified to know I was publicly talking about this, so in advance – I’m sorry Mom, but silence is the friend of mental illness, and I’m not willing to be friends with it anymore.
I had a traumatic experience a few days ago involving my father that really sent me spiraling for a moment. Had it not been for some close family and friends rallying around me, a good cry while I soaked in my tub and drank wine, and letting me feel all my emotions but having difficult experience and hard work behind me, it could have derailed me. A younger, weaker me absolutely would have been derailed. But this me worked through it without completely losing my mind, although there was plenty of sobbing and temporary falling apart involved.
Let me explain.
I’ve talked before about how it was just me and Mom growing up after she and my dad divorced when I was 4. The reality is their custody situation did not look like most – I never went off for a weekend at Dad’s, or spent my summer vacations with him. When my dad exercised visitation, it was in the form of him visiting me. There was no set schedule or rhyme and reason, which meant there was no consistency. This led to him being more of a literal visitor in my life than a parent. We never developed a true father-daughter bond. I felt like the side note in his life that I was. When Dad was stable and taking care of himself, I saw him more frequently. When he was in the throes of his latest manic episode and/or running from the most recent implosion of his life, I saw him less. The latter was more frequent. The FBI was hunting him down at one point, I kid you not. Dad did nothing half-assed. It was either him in flames, or him on top of the world, with little in between.
I never knew what to expect from him. Sometimes, we had joyful, heartwarming visits. Other times, I cried because I was scared of him and didn’t so much as want to get in the car with him to go to the store because his behavior was so erratic. My mom did her absolute best, but in her efforts to shield me from the uglier parts of him and to not tarnish my image of him, she wasn’t often honest with who he was, leaving me to try and fill in the pieces with my own conclusions.
My mom tried so hard to preserve the image of who my dad was in her mind and my own that she protected him even decades after they divorced. They were in high school when they began dating. She was 19 when they married. She set aside her own education to support him through law school. And, to be fair to her, when my dad is clear headed and stable, he is the wittiest, most brilliant silver tongue you’ll ever meet. He isn’t a complete monster. That’s what makes his refusal to face his demons and take care of himself so heartbreaking. I have seen this side of him in glimpses. He is charming, funny, and incredibly smart. But the other side of him that takes over is cruel, manipulative and seething with an anger that will reach into the depths of your soul to find the most vulnerable piece of yourself and tear it to shreds.
From when I was four to fourteen, Dad bounced in and out of my life as he pleased. Then one day, he was just…gone. He married his third wife and lied to me about it, and when I expressed my anger and disappointment, he decided I wasn’t worth maintaining a relationship with anymore. That means the last time I saw my father was nineteen years ago, but it didn’t end there.
I was fortunate during this time to have a group of men around me who were excellent father figures. My grandfather, my uncle, my cousins’ father, my principal, a friend’s dad and even some of my high school boyfriends’ fathers rallied around me. They showed me that men could be kind, could be reliable and that being a man didn’t mean raised voices and swinging fists. They instilled in me that I was smart, capable, and worthy of love and respect. They reinforced that my father’s rejection didn’t mean I was someone who deserved to be rejected.
Then came my freshman year of college.
Hurricane Katrina had turned my college plans upside down, and I returned home to Baton Rouge. The resulting chaos triggered something in me, something that made me think reaching out to my dad was a good idea. I was convinced that my mom wasn’t telling the whole story, and I thought I could finally get the approval from him I had wanted all along.
It started out fine, but he eventually dragged me down in his quagmire of chaos and loathing. This reunion of misery along with an ex-high school boyfriend I had been particularly devastated by finally cutting all strings was an ugly combination. I convinced myself I was broken, unlovable and unworthy of stability, kindness and respect. I torpedoed friendships, and I stopped caring about my grades. I rejected guys who were caring, brilliant and who pushed me to be more than the surface level, worst version of myself because I felt unworthy in favor of broken shells of boys whose problems were bigger than my own. Date an alcoholic who liked to rage text me when I didn’t respond to him right away and was arrested for a DUI on his way to pick me up? Check. Have a quasi-relationship with a guy who was emotionally abusive and thought nothing of tearing me down with his critiques of me so he could laugh at me crying? Been there, done that, got the t-shirt.
I look back now, and can’t believe that was me. I can’t believe I accepted that behavior, but I did and I’m not proud of it. I had learned all over again that I couldn’t rely on men, and that I couldn’t believe them when they said nice things to me. I had learned that rejection, abandonment and cruelty were the only things I could expect or anticipate, and that everyone would eventually disappoint me or break my heart.
I eventually stopped drinking and partying to distract from my feelings. I dug deep into therapy, plunged myself into yoga and dance, and devoted myself to reading every self-help book imaginable, to working on myself and bringing back out the best version of me. This eventually meant cutting communication with my dad again. I found that even strict boundaries weren’t enough to stop him from hurting me, and that the only contact I could handle was none at all.
When I was diagnosed with cancer, it had been three years since I had last spoken with my dad. In the ER after the doctor left the room, I grabbed Patrick by the collar at one point from my bed and said between sobs, “Do NOT call my dad. Whatever you do, you and Mom better not breathe a word to him.” He was so cruel when my grandparents (his parents) died that I didn’t want to entertain whatever crap he’d spew at me. They honored my wishes, but I had several conversations with my mom and Dr. V on if I had a moral obligation to let him know for his own health. We all decided that he should be monitoring his own health anyway, and that it wasn’t worth the emotional stress it would put me through.
When Mom died last year, it felt like not just losing her, but becoming an orphan. Mom was my only parent I could rely on, with whom I had the connection to my childhood. It was losing her and accepting that I had no parent to call my own anymore, all balled into one.
I had convinced myself that my dad was out there somewhere, blissfully unaware that I had fallen ill and almost died, and that I had lost Mom. But in the voyeuristic way he has hovered over my existence for almost my entire life, I found out last week he knew more than I expected. He didn’t say anything cruel – in fact, it could be argued he said the right things, but in a detached, unemotional way. It wasn’t the way a father comforts his daughter, but the way you offer your sympathies to someone you barely know.
Which, if we’re being honest, mostly describes our relationship, or lack thereof.
Something like this would have sent me completely spiraling years ago. It did in some ways send me right back to that heartbroken toddler all over again. But I didn’t let myself completely fall apart. I picked myself up, reminded myself that I wasn’t any of those things I had once believed, and looked myself in the mirror to verbalize that I can be the best pieces of my dad without being the darkness. I can feel sorrow for him without trying to fix him. I can mourn the father he could have been without allowing myself to be dragged into the unrealistic hope we can have a relationship in this lifetime.
My father has done a lot of bad things, but I don’t believe he is a bad person. Who he is and what he has done doesn’t make me that person. It doesn’t define me or my worth.
If I didn’t believe those truths before, I reminded myself over the last few days I must embrace them now. I have no choice. I have two daughters who rely on my example when they struggle as they have and they will from time to time with their biological mother’s abandonment. When I tell them that her choice to leave doesn’t mean they are unworthy or unwanted, I know it’s true. It can’t be true for them and untrue for me. I can’t encourage them to love themselves endlessly and wholly if I am unwilling to do the same.
Sometimes, I have to be my own mother. Sometimes, I have to remind myself that I am worthy of the same love and acceptance that I give away so freely to others. I cannot ask others to validate me when the only person whose validation matters is my own.