Before I started grade school, my dad was the stay-at-home parent. I was an only child, so we spent all day together while my mom was at work. He doted on me and taught me to cook, exercise, and enjoy music and films. I followed him everywhere, wearing his clothes and wanting to be just like him when I grew up.
But when I was 6 and my parents got divorced, things changed. My dad moved out, so I only saw him a few times a week. My dad has a history of depression, alcoholism, and drug use, which he tried to keep under control during my childhood. Although he went off the wagon a few times, these instances were so rare I don’t remember them.
After the divorce, it was hard for him to control his issues. He became manipulative, aggressive, and mean. His moods were fickle, and when he didn’t get his way, he exploded like an insolent child.
Our relationship quickly changed. He would scream at me, disappear for months at a time, and then reappear as though nothing had happened. In turn, I vacillated between making excuses for him, as my mother often did, and feeling extremely hurt and angry. These cycles with my dad left me feeling small and out of control.
“You’re a Bad Daughter”
One time when I was 7, my dad and I were on our way to my mom’s house. I was walking beside him, my small hand wrapped around his one finger. The air was tense, and I hung onto him with a scared feeling in the pit of my stomach. He said he was mad at me because I forgot to call him the day before. “You don’t care about me,” he said. “You’re a bad daughter.”
His anger was pulsating, surging out of him. I could feel the heat of his skin, the sharpness of his movements. I saw the tightness of his jaw. His voice grew louder, echoing through the streets.
“You don’t love me, do you? All I do is love you and this is how you repay me?”
“That’s not true.” The words came out small, stuck halfway down my throat, barely even a whisper. Besides, I was protesting in vain; he was no longer paying attention to me. He let go of my hand.
“This is so f-cking stupid. You are just like your mom.” He was yelling at the open space in front of us. “You know what, man? I don’t care. Do whatever you want, I don’t f-cking care anymore!”
I began to cry, and an overwhelming sense of dread filled my chest. I felt like he had taken all the air out of me. It was terrifying to be next to him as he yelled at me.
When we finally reached my mom’s house, he had cooled down. He hugged me and apologized for making me cry. He shrugged off his actions nonchalantly. But I was still scared and couldn’t shrug off his words as easily as he did.
Taught to Always Be the One to Apologize
A few days later my mom walked into my bedroom while I was playing with my dollhouse. I had told her about the fight with my dad. She was smiling, trying to win me over, and then she stopped in front of me, waiting for me to look up. I didn’t.
“Mimi,” she said, calling me by her pet name. “Why haven’t you spoken to your dad since you last saw him?”
I shrugged, still playing with the doll in my hand, before saying, “He was mean.” My mom sighed, expecting this answer. She bent down and affectionately petted my hair.
“You know he didn’t mean it. Come on, call him. Why don’t you apologize to him?”
“Apologize? I didn’t do anything wrong.”
“I know, I know. But just say it to please him. You know how he is. Be the bigger person, you’re smarter than him.” I stopped playing to look at my mom. “Maybe next time, don’t argue back with him—”
“But he started it!”
“Yes, I know. But next time he yells, just ignore it. You stay silent, and he’ll calm down on his own.”
My mom later told me that she taught me to apologize first because she wanted to protect the relationship I had with my dad. She said she had done the same thing many times when they were still married. But at the time, I couldn’t understand it. I thought letting my dad win every fight made us look weak, like pushovers. I wanted to prove to him that I wasn’t my mom, that he couldn’t manipulate me the way he did to her, and that he couldn’t just say whatever he wanted.
My Dad’s Guilt Trips
Over the years, my dad and I constantly fought. If he said something mean or manipulative—like if he yelled at me for taking my mom’s side or if he snapped at me during a mood swing—my coping strategy was to ignore his calls to take a mental break from him. During these episodes, my mom would urge me to call and forgive him. Sometimes I gave in, but most times I didn’t.
When I was 9, after a period of time when I had been ignoring his calls, my dad told me he had thought about killing himself because of my absence. His voice wavered as he said this. And although he wasn’t angry, only sad and honest, I could feel the bitter undertones. He told me that I meant everything to him, and that he couldn’t live without me. So when I treated him “badly” it led him into downward spirals.
I was overwhelmed with guilt and sadness. I felt a tremendous amount of responsibility for my dad’s life. I felt sorry for him because I knew he’d been through a lot, like being physically and emotionally abused by his father, who was also an addict. But I was also angry that he relied on me to fix him, so I talked and talked, trying to tell him that I was just a kid and he wasn’t being fair. He didn’t listen.
As I grew into young adulthood, my dad and I fell into a pattern of alternating between a few good times and many painful times. When things were good, he was the best version of himself, discussing politics and movies with me, asking me about my life with genuine interest, buying me things. He told me often how much he loved me.
But when things were bad, I felt like my dad was dropping me, leaving me tumbling down onto concrete. The drops came without warning, but soon I learned to anticipate the fall, even when things were good. I found myself thinking about three, six, or eight weeks ahead of me while sitting right in front of him. Would he still be nice to me then? I wondered how long the good times would last.
Even though he lived a couple of miles away, he missed several birthdays, holidays, and important milestones like my middle school graduation. One time, we went eight consecutive months without talking.
Because of our arguments, he missed the equivalent of several years of my life.
Family Reunion at Graduation
Before my high school graduation, I hadn’t spoken to my dad in five months, since he exploded at me during Christmas for not seeming adequately “enthusiastic” to see him. I ignored his next few calls, and since he didn’t make any other effort to see me, we didn’t see each other.
The day before my graduation in June, he called me again. I decided to pick up this time. He blamed me, again, for my response to his provocations, but he also asked for the location of the graduation venue. I could tell he really wanted to come; and deep down inside, I wanted him to be there too. I wasn’t sure if I was going to see him in the audience when I went to get my diploma. I felt so stupid, so tiny, for getting my hopes up again.
But he was there, and when he hugged me, suddenly, I forgot about all the awful things he said to me. He told me how beautiful and smart I was. How he was proud of me. I felt whole, hearing him say these things. Suddenly, I knew that putting up with him was worth having him there at important moments in my life.
Healing Myself by Forgiving Him
I think a part of me is still that little seven-year-old girl who idolizes her dad. I think I will always carry her with me because she sees the best in him, even when he behaves badly and doesn’t deserve her sympathy.
But it has been earth-shattering to recognize that my dad is emotionally abusive to me. Much of my perception of myself has been built on my dad’s loud, echoing declarations of love. I’ve spent my life listening to his advice on school and my future, believing in myself because he has, and even taking on his hobbies and interests.
Coming to terms with the fact that my sense of self is built on someone who refuses to acknowledge the hurt he causes me leaves me feeling lost: Why do I seek love and validation from a person who constantly lets me down? What does this say about me?
But after graduation, I knew that despite our rocky and somewhat codependent relationship, it was still possible for my dad and me to have some loving times. To change the narrative of our dynamic, I am trying to forgive my dad and understand his issues: not for his sake, but for mine. I no longer want to see myself as a product of his actions, whether good or bad, or as a recipient of his hurt. So I’ll embark on the path of healing, even if it takes me the rest of my life to find it.
If you ever have thoughts of suicide or need someone to talk to, call the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline by dialing the numbers 9-8-8.