I did a thing. A big thing. I wrote a letter to my father. I post it here, with names changed for the sake of anonymity and my children’s genders randomized. I haven’t confronted my father in any way in many, many years. Instead, I have focused all of my available energy on my own healing process. Then, one morning, I woke up and experienced the bone deep knowing that it was time. I mailed the letter two days before his birthday and as I drove away from the mail box, I played the song No Remorse.
I realize you probably weren’t expecting to hear from me but I’ve been thinking about writing to you for a long while. I have so much to say to you but have never felt like I could find the grace to say any of it without screaming at you or falling apart. Those two emotions, rage and fear, have torn me in two so many times throughout my life. Up until now, I’ve never had the strength to hold them both in their purest forms and force them to speak at my command.
If you’re still reading, I’ll say this: I’m not writing this letter for your sake; I’m writing it for mine. So read it or toss it in the fire. I don’t care. I need to speak my truth and send it out into the world and maybe once I have, my heart will know a little peace.
Where to start? You weren’t the worst dad ever; I have friends whose fathers didn’t give two shits about them, friends whose fathers sold them to other adults for money. I’ll give you this, I do believe you cared about me but I’m not sure that’s better. You cared and still couldn’t fight whatever darkness was in you that drove you try and destroy me. Maybe you weren’t trying, but you weren’t trying hard enough not to cause harm. The fact that I know you cared almost makes it worse. How confused I must have been as a child. How warped and twisted my mind and heart became because you were both father and a monster who erupted in rage when he drank and stalked the house at night and physically invaded his daughters’ small bodies. I’m only grateful that we each, Sharon & I, had our own ways of walling off the nights from our lives lived during waking hours.
The most essential thing I have to say is this: What you did to me, the incest & alcoholic rages & inappropriate comments when I was a teen & the gaslighting & physically dragging me into your car to go to Apo and Papa’s (something my therapist considers an incident of kidnapping, btw), all of those things together left me believing I was broken. I left home at 17 and it’s only now, at almost 48, that I am beginning to believe that I was never completely broken, just an innocent who was victimized in ways that caused me to adapt by compartmentalizing & dissassociating. Research on trauma now clearly proves that when a young person is abused, especially by a parent, the nervous system and brain develop very differently than when there is no abuse present in the home. The amygdala, the fight/flight/freeze part of the brain, grows larger and is more active, causing ongoing symptoms of distress such as panic, terror, social anxiety and agoraphobia. The hippocampus, the part of the brain that deals with memories and emotions, is often smaller in abuse survivors. This reduces verbal memory and can cause dissociative symptoms. Research also shows that sexual abuse survivors, especially females, are more likely to have temporal lobe epilepsy than non-sexual abuse survivors. And guess what? I developed seizers around the age of 19 and have been on disability for my epilepsy for the past 8 years. I can’t work. I’m often not able to finish simple tasks for my kids, like putting dinner or the table or tucking them into bed, because I have seizures so frequently. Research shows a positive correlation between incest and chronic illnesses of all sorts. It’s thought that the stress on the body and nervous system negatively impact the physical body. Along with epilepsy, I also have fibromyalgia, which causes widespread pain and fatigue. Many abuse survivors, especially female bodied survivors have fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue syndrome.
For the longest time, even after Sharon and I talked about the abuse for the first time, I just thought I was a crazy. That’s why I acted out and engaged in dangerous behaviors as a teenager and young adult. Now, after 18 years of therapy and trauma work, I realize I was never crazy; I was overwhelmed with confusing feelings and an overactive nervous system, I was an easy mark for other predators (and there were several), and I didn’t have the skills to manage what I was experiencing because I was often so overstimulated I had to shut off the connection between body and mind.
It’s been layer after layer after layer of work to dig through all of this and it’s hard, exhausting work. The good news is, I’m starting to learn how to live with the mess you created. I’ve been working with a therapist who specializes in trauma and I’m navigating life so much better than I ever have. And I most definitely take the credit for the shifts happening in my life.
What haunts me most is how pervasive the effects of the abuse are. There is no way I could catalogue all the ways in which I, and those close to me, have been impacted. No one in my life goes unaffected. 14 years ago I married a wonderful, kind man and felt safe for the first time in my life. So safe, in fact, that I started to have a lot of complex PTSD symptoms. I did my best to manage them but didn’t have the tools and skills so they ran rampant. Eventually, he became exhausted from trying to support me and hoping I’d get better. We grew apart and a year ago I told him our marriage was over because it was no longer serving either of us or our children.
Worse that the marriages I’ve had being impacted, are the ways in which my children have been affected. Levi grew up with a mother who would suddenly experience panic for no visible reason and would fall apart emotionally or have a seizure. He experienced low level neglect and felt he had to grow up faster so he could take care of me. That, combined with the fact that his biological father is an alcoholic, has led to a lot of mental health problems and a brief stay in a mental hospital when he were 15. He were hospitalized for chronic depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation. My younger children have grown up with questions about their grandfather, questions for which they are too young to know the answers. They know you did bad things and what they see, even now sometimes, is a mother who loves them fiercely but is sometimes triggered and falls apart because of a sound she hears or a character in a show we’re watching. They’ve seen me, more times than I can count, suddenly go stock still, as though she’s listening for a predator. They’ve watched as the stillness is broken by frantic pacing and words whispered that they can’t quite hear. The pacing frenzy ends once their mother finally regains enough cognitive ability to put her head under the kitchen faucet and turns the cold knob as high as it will go. They’ve waited until the water has drenched her hair and splashed onto the floor and they’ve brought her a towel and waited for her sobbing to stop so she can come back to them. This has happened just before they were supposed to walk out the door for school, as we talked about an upcoming weekend, as dinners waited on the stove. As their mother and the woman experiencing the rush of adrenaline and fear, I want to protect them from the reality that adults are sometimes monsters who do heinous, unspeakable things to children that go on haunting them 30 years after the last act is done. I want to protect them from the darknesses in the world but the darkness haunts me so I cannot keep them from catching glimpses of it. Their takeaway, as far as I can tell? There are bad people in the world. Their mother’s father was a bad person who injured their mother in ways she’s still trying to heal from. My therapist assures me that all three of my children are more empathetic because of the damage they’ve witnessed. That says nothing about you and everything about me and them.
In so many ways, I’m one of the lucky ones. And that has haunted me, as well. How was I somehow able to survive the horrific things done to me when others end up dying at the hands of an abusive partner or because of addiction? I could easily have been one of them. I lived with a man who tried to kill me when I was 21. He stalked me for years afterwards and even followed me to Colorado when I moved here from Texas. I certainly didn’t escape unharmed but I did survive and he died a pathetic death. I’ve struggled with addiction though never been consumed by it. I’ve walked along the edge of madness, part of me wishing I could just waltz into psychosis rather than live with the truth of the damage done to my body, mind and soul. My therapist says part of my survival is probably due to having strong, healthy connections to the earth and nature and having a few close friends who hold me close to their hearts and have supported me through my early abusive relationships and three failed marriages.
There’s something else that’s been the backbone of my ability to survive and learn to live with the effects of the abuse. It’s almost ineffable. If, during the time that I lived in the same house with you, I had been made to always be aware of the ways in which I was being harmed, I probably would not have lived much past 20. But I was smart and creative and I found ways to hide away from the abuse. I adapted. And those very adaptations have also done harm even as they saved me. They protected me long enough to survive until I could begin the work of accepting and learning to live with the traumas I’ve experienced.
I know that you were molested as a kid. Mom didn’t tell me. Everyone in the family knew about it. I didn’t find out about it until I was in my twenties but I was finally told and the person who revealed that secret, shared it because they thought it was connected with the abuse you perpetrated. I do have empathy for the boy you were who was touched without consent and therefore harmed. But it doesn’t explain away what you did to me and Sharon. Lot’s of people are harmed in that way and most choose not to continue that cycle of abuse. When my children were born, and as they grew, I was baffled by the fact that some parents feel compelled to sexually abuse any child. For me, breaking the cycle was about choosing a safe father for my children and healing as much of my own wounds as possible in order to reduce intergenerational trauma. Genetically, my children are predisposed to certain problems because of the traumas I experienced, as well as traumas experienced by you, mom, my grandparents and other direct ancestors. My commitment is to address my traumas head on, learn to live with their effects and to teach my children skills to take care of themselves and make good choices in their lives. And they will have to be mindful as teens and adults that they may be more vulnerable to addiction and to mental health issues like depression and anxiety. It is my hope that by witnessing my devotion to my healing process, my children will choose to be aware of, and honest about, their feelings and experiences. They are growing up learning about the importance of consent in relationships so I believe they will make safe and loving partners and partners. Watching them grow up as sensitive and empathetic people gives me hope that I have put a hefty dent in the cycles of abuse that I was born into.
Finally, forgiveness. I don’t believe forgiveness is essential to the healing/learning to live with the effects of trauma process. I don’t forgive you. I feel that if I were to forgive you, I’d be betraying the child and teen I once was. They didn’t deserve the things you did and said, the terror you inflicted. They deserved safety, consistency, sobriety, and the ability to trust in their parents. I am still angry, sometimes because of specific things you did, but primarily because I have to live with the trauma every day, and so do my children. It’s not up to me to forgive you. If you feel you need that then you need to get used to the fact that you’ll probably never get it. Maybe you can find it in yourself to forgive yourself. That doesn’t concern me. Maybe you’ve compartmentalized all of it, the abuse is hidden in some locked away corner of your mind and you don’t feel there’s anything to forgive. I have no control over that. What I can absolutely control is whether or not I forgive you and, as I’ve already said, I do not.
That’s all I needed to say. It touches on the most important stuff and writing it down and sending it to you in a letter gives me a sense of agency over my voice in the world.