Grab ‘n Go Version
My dad was incapable of being a great father because he never overcame his own trauma. Instead, he ran from it, quite literally, leaving his first wife and three kids at age 26 to become a marathon runner. For him, the running was a form of penance where the more suffering he subjected himself to, the more balanced the scale would be. He ran barefoot through the city. He ran in subzero temperatures through Minneapolis, returning home often looking like the abominable snowman. He ran his age every year on his December birthday from 30 until he was 50. Unfortunately for him, reconciliation in human relations doesn’t work at a distance, and as a result, he spent most of his adult life either transmitting his still unprocessed trauma to people who would accept it or overcompensating around people who wouldn’t. Avoiding pain is how it is spread and he discovered this reality the hard way.
He wasn’t malicious, just hurting and misguided.
His and I’s relationship was shaped by his mood which, from a very young age, I internalized as my responsibility. I learned that whether he was happy or sad or anything in between, it was my fault. As I grew older I started to desire recognition from him for all the great work I was doing to keep him happy. He withheld, I worked harder. He got angry, I worked harder. By my misguided calculations, I deserved the punishment when I failed, so I should, by the same logic, deserve the recognition when I triumphed. Spoiler: it didn’t play out according to my contrived formula and, hence, my striving escalated well into my adult life.
This strategy was successful in many ways for surviving childhood, but left two lingering programs running on a loop in my head which I would have to unpack later in life:
- I was not important
- I was not good enough
Embarrassingly enough, until well into my thirties, nearly everything I did was designed around earning HIS validation or scorning it; my life was not my own. At some level I understood this was not a healthy dynamic yet was unable to articulate it and, hence, my anger, resentment, and shame for not being myself got buried deep down. My conscious, internal wiring was dominated by this programming.
Until one day not long ago, after dozens of failed attempts over the last decade to clear the air, I finally found the right words at the right moment to say to him. It was as if a 39 year old chasm opened up inside me and an outpouring of deadly truth bombs came busting out, each with father-destroying heat seekers programmed in. My verbal ‘justice’ spewed out for no less than 5 min when, finally, he looked me in the eye and said,
‘I hear you.’
Instantly, I calmed down, sat down, ceased yelling, thanked him for enduring the onslaught, and apologized for being so yelly. I went on to explain that it was simply a long-buried part of me that needed to be voiced, but that it was over now and it was safe for us to resume normal conversations. I was excited about this exchange for many reasons and couldn’t wait to tell my therapist about the break thru:
I had finally received some validation from my father!
The following Saturday, I sat down in Andre’s chair with the whole story laid out, rehearsed, and ready to go. I drew it out in spectacular fashion, hit all the right notes, and delivered the punch line flawlessly. At which point I paused for his feedback as if he were to applaud or something. He looked up from his notepad and uttered a three-word question,
‘And now what?’
I was baffled. He was persistent and noticed I wasn’t following. So he clarified, ‘And what if you went thru all that and he hadn’t said anything? Do you really think the message in your rant was for him, designed just right to get just the right response from him such that it would fix all your problems? I mean what do you think the odds are of that? Isn’t it more likely that the message was, and always has been, to you?’
He continued, ‘Look, you are important, you are good enough, but the problem is that YOU don’t believe it, not that your father doesn’t. Nothing he, I, or anyone else can say will change your beliefs, only you can do that for you.’
I had spent over ten years analyzing my past, in therapy, in rehab, and in various hospitals and institutions, trying to find the key that would free me from my prison, the balm that would heal all the wounds, the medicine that would make it all right.
But now I know my father is not my jailer, I am, my wounds have long ago scared over, leaving powerful reminders of healing lessons, and I never needed medicine for I was never sick.
Maybe none of what Andre was telling me would have made any sense if I hadn’t gone thru the 10-year struggle. Maybe digging thru the past in an effort to find the right keys was a necessary activity to unlock a clearer vision for the future. Maybe it is indeed a requisite requirement of a full rehabilitation to touch all the historical pain points. I guess I will never really know.
All I know for sure is what’s important now, and that it’s all out in front of me.