A few weeks ago I surprised myself by opening up and writing here about a visit home to Ohio for a brother’s wedding. I wrote about the struggle I feel in what seems to me as fractured family relationships. It was surprising and liberating and frightening and brought me to considering if I could begin to discuss here in this very public forum about other deeply personal struggles I currently face. Namely, the ongoing internal emotional tug-of-war I feel around my father.
It wasn’t an immediate decision, but one I considered for several weeks, going back and forth, praying and weighing and reaching out for counsel on the possibility of “going there.”
My father is a hard worker, a Christian man who has been married to my mother for more than fifty years. He isn’t an alcoholic, he has never been long without a job, and always rises up to a position of leadership wherever he works. He’s intelligent, funny, creative, fit and healthy. I always had a roof over my head, food in my belly and clothes on my back. We were never rich though sometimes it seemed painfully lean, but I don’t ever remember going hungry. Sure, as a kid I did feel deprived at times for not having the “trendy” foods. The high-end cereals or Oreo’s or whatever it was that was actually a cool new brand, etc. There were times where we ate a lot of potatoes and drank a lot of iced tea because they were cheap. Today those fried potatoes are one of my favorite comfort foods.
In my brain it feels like I have spent an inordinate amount of ongoing energy justifying all the things my dad is in a good way and saying all the bad things he isn’t – always feeling like I can’t say the things he isn’t in a bad way or to say the things he is in a bad way. Like I don’t feel okay to come out and say my dad displays narcissistic traits in his lack of interest in my life, particularly in matters it would be normal or expected for a father to be involved or concerned. For example, a friend was sharing how her father or brother have helped her examine a new apartment at times in the past, and about the benefit of having a male perspective of someone who loves us and is looking out for our safety and well-being.
Suddenly I remembered the first time I went to get an apartment on my own at 21. I had previously lived with others out of state and in Christian programs, but this was my first time getting a place on my own. I asked my father to come with me to help me in the process. He blew me off in a way that left me feeling like I was deficient or needy to ask for his help on finding my first apartment. It’s one of those things where it isn’t a right or wrong answer, but as I continue to live, I realize, it was a perfectly normal and good thing for me to want my father to help me look at apartments. It was normal for me to feel hesitant about this new process. I realize that it is appropriate for fathers to be concerned and involved in helping their children make good, wise decisions, especially in significant areas of life.
It’s only been a couple years that I’ve begun to be honest about the difficulty of my dad’s seemingly non-stop criticism. It’s only been a handful of years that I’ve begun to tell much anyone about my dad’s unpredictable rage that could explode without warning and how frightening that could be. It’s still incredibly hard to say that I had to stop letting him know when I was in the ER because once he struck me after the doctors walked out of the curtained area. I was sobbing in pain and I guess he thought that striking me would somehow set me straight like some messed up 1940’s movie machismo thing. It still brings me to tears every time I have to fill out an emergency contact form and put in the name of a pastor, because my dad isn’t safe.
I realize I still have never told any of my brothers that just four years ago while recovering from sinus surgery at my parents home, my father became so enraged over a completely made up issue, that I literally had to fight him off of me as he tried to physically assault me. I was seated as he came at me, and I had to plant my foot on his chest to stop him. And then he tried to come at me again, even after that. It has been a difficult and painful discovery to realize the times my father is most likely to become physically violent with me are the times I am emotionally and physically compromised and weak. To discover that the times I most need a father to protect me, that something sick and twisted happens so that the father who should protect actually becomes the violator who attacks.
Who wants to say these things about their father? Who wants these things to be true? Especially when the occasions are rare and only witnessed by immediate family members, if anyone at all. Who wouldn’t want to deny these things rather than go through the painful process of trying to make sense of a person who is a father, but is so blatantly flawed and imperfect? Who wouldn’t want to deny those feeling and stuff the reality and change the story, especially when so many, particularly in the Christian church, will discourage the discussion, when so many in the church itself will help to perpetrate the false facade of familial bliss when it is a lie, rather than go through the messy, difficult ordeal of confronting error?
I didn’t know that there is a “thing” in psychology called “minimizing.” Minimizing the impact of unhealthy emotional relationships and the damage done. I didn’t know that my constant rationalization of, “It wasn’t that bad,” was a denial strategy that kept me from dealing with the bad that it was. I didn’t know that it is normal for children to struggle to speak against their parents even when their parents have behaved in destructive ways. Writing this I am continually going back and forth in my mind and emotions – writing about some of the bad and still feeling like I need to explain over and over how he isn’t that bad, it wasn’t that bad, and of course mostly I wasn’t believed on the rare occasions that I mustered the courage to dare to try to speak out about things I could not make sense of. And within the family we still don’t much talk about the things that went on or that go on. Openness and communication is so unnatural for us.
My father’s rage was carefully curtailed primarily for all except the family. Sure, he did punch that teacher in high school, but, sheesh, that was high school, and yes, there were those jobs he lost because he went off on the boss, but well, that wasn’t that often. And yes, just this last visit, I heard his simmering rage as he railed about practices at his current job, even as he talked about how God answered his prayer in providing this job. It’s very confusing even now to separate who he is and who he isn’t.
I now know too that the inconsistency of the anger had its own negative impact of never knowing for sure what was going to set dad off. Because the truth is there was no certain rhyme or reason to what set him off. Certainly we all learned unspoken rules of this or that to definitely not do, and we never disagreed or crossed him on anything, but, so many times, when it happened, nothing we did or didn’t do could have, would have prevented it.
And it wasn’t always physical, it was actually more often NOT physical. He has one of those deep, booming voices that, I don’t know, makes me think of the scripture that say the devil roars like a lion to freeze his prey, and there was something that would seize and freeze inside of me at his bellow. It took a long time to not allow his roar to intimidate me. I can definitely look at some instances in my life with men who challenged me and I would literally STEP INTO their “roar,” would literally step closer to them when they got loud, or rose up to confront me because that little girl in me was saying – No More! I will not back down and cower in fear of you, no matter what you try to do to me.
As a teenager and twenty something in trying to justify my father’s behavior I rationalized that he worked long hours many days a week and that he was probably tired and challenged by ongoing financial struggles and so that was probably why he had such a short fuse. I have always been making excuses to myself about things he has done and not done.
I am only on the beginning of understanding that I have been doing this because it’s been too painful and confusing to understand that although he isn’t an alcoholic or a drug addict or chronically physically abusive, because he helped me with my rent and bought me a plane ticket, or has helped all of his kids and grand kids financially, because he is so willing to help people do unpleasant chores like moving, because of so many of the better aspects of him, because he isn’t a complete and total terrible monster, it has been terrible and confusing to sort out the hurtful behaviors, the rejection, the lack of interest, the lack of love I have felt from him all my life. Still I tend to put much more stock in whatever good thing he does do, because I’m always wanting that to be the truth.
I questioned why I would post this here on Jen’s Jesus Journey, but the second I ask, I have my answer. This is about my journey with Jesus. My journey with Jesus to get past the childhood fears and the sense of constant disapproval and lack of affirmation and acceptance from my father. Even if it’s all my misinterpretation as an overly sensitive child, it’s still my journey with Jesus. I didn’t understand how to invite Jesus into the hurt places. I didn’t know that I could turn to the Holy Spirit and Jesus Christ and Daddy God to heal me in the broken, wounded places. I turned to anger, I turned to suicidal ideation, I turned to many unhealthy, unproductive soothing methods. And I am not saying that was anyone’s decision but my own. I am not blaming my parents or family or anything or anybody else for the decisions I made. And I know I am still very much in the healing process. I know that further down the road, I’ll be more calm and less hurt and able to see more clearly.
But here I am. Today. In all my imperfect glory writing about this part of my journey. In this place of not understanding so much, of so clearly knowing I do NOT have it all together, I am sharing this place with you, before I understand, before I have the answer to much of my healing journey.
I do trust that Jesus is the ultimate answer, and is continually healing me, even as I still deal with more emotional pain than I wish I did. I have come a LONG way and as hard as it is to admit, I can say, I still have a long way to go. But I am going, one step at a time, forward, on this journey.
I honestly do write about this not just for me, because this scares me more than you can know, but because I know I am not alone. I know I am not the only person who has struggled to understand the way we were hurt because our fathers or mothers or families were NOT so obviously dysfunctional. I get the difficulty of having a family that “presents well” and trying to come to terms with the duality of having people show themselves to be one way before the outside world and so very different when no one else is witness. We all have levels of comfort with our public persona and private persona, but with some people it’s the flippin’ Grand Canyon gap between who they show the world and who they are at home. And I have learned that is its own recipe for crazy-making.
I am on a journey where I’m pursuing openness and authenticity. I am on a pursuit to ever close the gap between that public and private persona of who I am so that I am one in who I present to the world, and who I present in the secret place to the One True God. I am on a path to continued and greater healing.
Christ Jesus is a reflection of the goodness of the pure, perfect nature of God the Father. I have to look to make sure that I am not letting the disappointments from my earthly father keep me from holding a good and right and true expectation of my Father God. I go ever deeper into greater experiences of a tender Papa, who is consistent, who is consistently good to negate and deny the lies that would lead me to ever believe or accept that Abba God is temperamental or wavering. I am on a journey to continue to deny the lie that would whisper Daddy God is like my earthly daddy, who acts good and looks good until you REALLY get to know him and then watch out ’cause he’s gonna let loose on you and you won’t know why and you can’t question why.
James 1:17 Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.
Malachi 3:16 For I the Lord do not change; therefor you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed.
Romans 8:28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.
My Father God is big enough that he will allow me to question, my Father God is secure enough in himself that he isn’t weakened or distressed by my questions or my lack of trust or my uncertainty. My Papa God isn’t scared by my issues, He isn’t frightened when I am weak, He doesn’t turn away when I am frail and in need. He shows up bigger in my distress. Father God isn’t punishing me out of some insufficiency within himself. When Daddy God needs to discipline me it will always be first and foremost for MY benefit! And it will also benefit others, because God the Father doesn’t discipline arbitrarily or whimsically. Daddy God doesn’t have bad moods or bad days or bad seasons.
I know there will be people that will disagree with my decision to share this. I’ve already met many of you. Those who told me it was unkind to tell anyone anything not uplifting about my father, who insinuated that to even seek help was at its very essence dishonoring to my father. I don’t agree. I am not trying to shame my father. I have apologized to my father for ways I feel I was not good to him and I have asked my father to go to counseling with me, but he refused, saying it was a private matter. If he had ever genuinely owned his behavior and changed then I think it could have stayed a private matter. Now, I have to move on with my life, and now my journey of healing will at different points be public because sick things like to stay secret. Sick, unhealthy behaviors love to hide and call it forgiveness. I certainly understand that love covers a multitude of sins, but light reveals the darkness.
I am forging ahead to stop lying first and foremost to myself. It is not easy to do this and I am not doing it as retaliation or punishment to try to get back or to try to hurt my dad. But sadly, I don’t see him changed. I just see that most of us keep a distance and limit our time with him. I still feel that his behavior is not true, is not genuine, is not good. I can no longer press pause on my story in an effort to cover the way his anger and perfectionist demands affect me.
For me, I have allowed the enemy too much power in how I respond to my father and I’m on a process to dismantle that lie. Trying to hide and cover the trouble and the struggle of this relationship and trying to pretend it’s normal and healthy has caused it to grow into something much bigger than it really is and for a lot of years it made me sick. Literally and internally sick. It’s not all on my father, not at all, but the denying, the lying, the hiding on my side has made me sick. It’s led me to so many inappropriate conclusions that get me twisted.
I have learned through Celebrate Recovery that when we speak out about the things that have bound us, we drastically reduce the power they hold on us. I know I have for too long given too much power to a weak, mortal man. I have given him the power to hurt me. He is not that powerful a man, and I am working through figuring that out.
So, here I am stepping into the discomfort, stepping into the roar to say no more. I will not cower in fear and call it kindness, call it Christian. I will not say wrong is right and up is down. I will honor my father and mother for the good and the right that they have done and continue to do, but I can no longer compromise my story to spare their discomfort and dysfunction and claim that is godly.