It’s been several years since I sat quietly crying in the dark, typing words into a search engine, and finding my first ever online abuse support site. What a shock it was, and what a relief. There was almost a heady component to my ripping open poorly healed wounds, fueled by the belief that somehow knowing consciously would expedite the bigger change I longed for.
There was also the requisite backlash that comes when an unhealthy person starts rocking the leaky boat, especially when it’s more like a generational ship that was probably never seaworthy to start with. As I started to unravel how a once passionate, bursting with life, hope and dreams kind of young woman had turned into me, it seemed natural to look back. Way back.
Yep. There’s the unhealthy marriage of my parents. My father was emotionally and verbally abusive to my mother. He was larger than life, charismatic, a firstborn, mercurial, and could be a lot of fun when we were growing up. It was all about his mood. If he was in a good mood, he might be making pancakes for us, or out would come the board games and a good time was ahead. He liked taking us with him when he worked on weekends, or had short business trips. He worked hard, and his business required at times a sort of brutal physical labor. He didn’t gamble, rarely cussed, rarely drank, and loved his kids. In those ways, he was a good father.
But he was a teaser, and sometimes it really hurt feelings. Funny thing about that, he could dish it out but wasn’t so good with getting it back his direction. Nobody tried much, because we all wanted him in a good mood. When his truck pulled in the driveway, it was like an automatic watch to check his mood. If he was in a bad mood, everyone just kind of scattered. He didn’t come in and yell at anyone of us particularly, it was more…complaining. Resenting a broken door latch and grumbling loudly. Checking the refrigerator, finding something gone bad, resenting and grumbling loudly, usually blaming our mother. Scowling at the dog. Complaining loudly about an electric or phone bill. He was like a big old snarly bear that we all wished would go back in hibernation.
Just plain grumpiness would have been manageable, except sometimes my father and mother would start to argue and fight. If my mother didn’t speak up, if she just took his grumbling, ranting, and blaming, then the storm would pass sooner. That’s what she usually did. My mother had the patience of a saint. That’s a cliche, but in her case, it was true. She was by nature kind, sunny, patient, and giving. She loved her tiny kitchen in our small house, and that’s where she reigned. She had a radio worthy voice that was like smooth starlit velvet, and listening her taught me to love the tunes of the famous Big Band crooners. My Dad could hold a tune, but sounded more like Willie Nelson. She sang as she cooked, washed dishes, scrubbed floors, or did the endless laundry. Except when my father was glaring, and she went quiet. We all did.
My father was intelligent, and didn’t refrain from using his vocabulary when he was worked up about something. We were taught that he was the smart one, although the real truth is that my kind, quiet little mother probably had the greater intelligence. Boxes were applied neatly in my family. My father the smart one, the strong one. Mom was the dependent weaker one. My only brother was the kid that could do no wrong by virtue of his unique appendages, and because he was quiet and flew under the radar; one sister was the good girl helper; another was the quiet, reliable one; another one was the black sheep rebel. The rebel got away with it because she’d gotten Type 1 diabetes as a child and almost died. That meant she got special privileges and much less accountability. I was the Oops at the end. They meant to be done having kids when they finally had my brother. Oops, along came another girl.
Except my father was having a fling with another woman. While my mother was pregnant with me. That made me not only an oops, but an inconvenient and unwanted pregnancy as my mother tried to survive the pain of infidelity. I didn’t know about that growing up, but I felt it deeply. My Mom and I weren’t bonded in the same way as she was with my siblings. It was never acknowledged, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t feel it. Unconsciously, I blamed myself. It meant I felt in some way unlovable and not as worthy of love.
I was the one born with an apology in her mouth, ready to say sorry for anything and any way that I might have troubled or offended someone. I was also the kid that grew into the teenager that stood up to our father. To this day, I abhor a bully, and he bullied my mother. The day came as a teenager when something in me snapped or turned, and as he started yelling at my mother, I got between them and yelled back at him. Just like that.
There was a look of shock from him, and some shock and awe from my mother’s eyes. My father and I yelled toe to toe for awhile, and that time, the storm had to pass over my mother. From that day on, I tried to protect her from being his target. She was never a match for him in an argument. Her way was to withdraw and just go about her business as though she didn’t care. His worst anger was eventually unnerved by that, because no matter how he could diminish her and blame her and sometimes call her terrible names, the truth was that he needed her. It was as though he had a black bottomless hole of some kind of need, and she was the bedrock of safety for him. But need is not love.
Did he love her? My siblings like to say so. They say things like, “Dad loved her in his own way.”
I loved my father. I still love my father, and later in his life, he became a Christian. For some years, he was a hypocritical kind of Christian, the kind that still felt entitled to be hurtful to his wife and yet somehow it wasn’t his fault. Towards the very end, I saw an absolute change in his heart and his behavior. He behaved like the man and father that I’d always wanted him to be, and had a patience and care for my mother.
But by that time, my mother had dementia and my father was close to dying from cancer. I’m thankful that in the big, eternal picture, he finally ‘got it’. He understood, and like the Grinch, his heart seemed to grow. Or maybe it was the work of godly sorrow and true repentance finally having its way with him. In the world of dementia, how much did my Mom know of all this? Only God knows, and both my parents are with Him now.
What I do know is that I look back to understand, not to blame them. After all, they were the product of their parents and upbringing, times and culture as well. Where does the blame stop? I don’t even want to blame my husband, but I do want to understand. I want to know the truth. I’ve always wanted to believe that he loved me… in his own way. But what if love wasn’t there? What if all along, I’m the bedrock of safety for his black hole of need? Not a pretty truth for someone who longs to be passionately loved and enjoyed. Who longs to be wanted. What I do feel that I am is ultimately disposable to him. On a bad day, I feel disposable to life in general.
I know that where and how it started is not how I want my story to end.