When I was fifteen, my father called me at my mom’s house and asked me to come over. Told me to. It was a seven word conversation and he said six of them. I was familiar with the tone in his voice: the flat sound of disappointment. My dad lived a half block away from my mom – one of his ways to stay close to us, but also indicative of his lack of boundaries – maybe hers too.
I walked to his house, my entire body tingling with fear, my mind racing with what he might say – the unspoken words already causing an almost unbearable physical reaction. I cannot now remember what had precipitated this particular episode. I was in trouble a lot for doing teenage things then. Sneaking out. Getting caught drinking. Ditching school. I wasn’t a bad kid, but I was making bad choices. It could’ve been about one of those choices. But it could’ve been about something else entirely. He had his own weather systems and they were unpredictable and volatile and sometimes the wicked storms just came, without notice.
As I took the last few steps up to his doorway – to the gold door handle (always unlocked and loose) I prepared to start traveling inward, into myself. I had learned this tactic young. When the outside just got too painful, too raw and too much, I could turn my vision inward, create an invisible barrier between me and the rest of the world so that the voices would grow small and hollow; the images blurry and dream-like.
Turns out, this type of disconnection from oneself is a well-known defense mechanism.
Dissociation is when a person loses track of time and/or person, and instead finds another representation of their self in order to continue in the moment. In this manner, a person who dissociates can “disconnect” from the real world for a time, and live in a different world that is not cluttered with thoughts, feelings or memories that are unbearable.
I walked into a quiet house, him sitting in a chair facing me across the long stretch of open space between the front door and the living room. Somber. I sat down. Anxious, light headed, nauseas.
“Laura, you are losing your father.”
I swallowed thick and slow, like so many dry rocks.
I wasn’t losing him because he was sick; I knew he was not sick. I was losing him because I was making shitty choices. Because I was a shitty kid.
I don’t know what else he said after that. With my dad, it was never a two-way conversation but more of a telling. I was beyond terrified of the damage his words could do – they were the truth, always the grittiest, deepest, truth that ran deeper than all the other truths and they could sear me. I did not know how to talk to my dad, I never did. I revered him. Loved him madly. Hated him. Pined for his approval. Drank in his praise. Needed his infrequent laughter. Feared his heaviness, his darkness. Soaked in his dogma – always contrary to everyone else - like gospel, like air.
I was “losing him” and remember nothing else of that day, except that I left feeling that complex, toxic mixture of shame, remorse and relief that it was over. I walked home to my mother’s filled with hatred and angst. I was losing my father. I was a disgusting person. I am a child. I am not a child! This is not unconditional. I am losing my father. He is discarding me. I hate him. I love him. I am wrong.
I am so, so, so wrong.
A lot of people in the rooms say they’d always assumed all their problems were other people’s fault – that they actually could not see their own role in their unhappiness, in conflict, in disappointment. I am the opposite: I’ve always assumed I am to blame, regardless of logic or circumstances that would argue I share responsibility. I will willingly shoulder full responsibility of any situation if that means bypassing the part where I hear what a horrible person I am. I have a visceral reaction to criticism, which is only multiplied by the shame and anxiety of drinking. In the heaviest days, I walked around in a constant sense of panic, unease, fear. I did shitty things when I drank, and I drank to forget both the things I did and the way I felt about them.
This is the cycle.
I’ve only recently started to unravel cause and effect here. It wasn’t until my early thirties that I could even begin to separate my own beliefs from my dad’s, and that shift came in a huge 1,000-pound-hammer-to-the-chest kind of moment, where there was no longer any way to deny his culpability. Children are slow to believe their parents aren’t the truth, because after all, isn’t that the ultimate disappointment? It’s amazing to consider that your first and primary compass in this world is not only imperfect but in many cases, very, very inaccurate. Potentially even harmful. I did not come by this undoing easily, but oh, was it freeing to realize I had autonomy.
I am not my father, my mother, my daughter, my brother, my friends, my lover. I am not what they think of me. They play a part, but they do not decide. They do not have the keys to the belly of the machine – the part that steers and guides and is connected. I do.
So much of this journey forward requires going back. Reframing and rewriting with a softer, wiser lens. The part of me my father threatened to take away could not have been lost…it was never his to begin with.
It's important to say that my relationship with my father has changed quite a lot in the past several years. He’s softened a bit, I’ve grown up and started to take responsibility, but most importantly, I don’t hold myself accountable for his happiness (or unhappiness). And in that, have (started to) learn I am not responsible for anyone’s moods. None of this is personal, as they say.