Saturday, December 15, 2012

I'm not afraid of my father anymore

This post was a long time coming. And if you've watched the news in the last 24 hours, you'll understand why I finally picked today to write it. Back to your regularly scheduled un-hoarding tomorrow.

This post is about violence and the importance of mental health care. There is not much about hoarding here and nothing about decluttering. I would say that if this upsets you, don't continue reading. But in fact, if you feel that way, I want you to continue reading. Actor Patrick Stewart has seen violence first-hand and made the point better than I ever could:

"People will not talk about it. Victims will not talk about it. Those who are perpetrators of the violence will not seek help...but the only reason that I am striking my match is that hopefully by illustrating what it has been like to be in an environment of such violence, that it can pass, and that one can survive it...and lead a life with out violence...Darkness is the friend of repression and cruelty...Only by talking about these experiences can one help to expose them."


For a while I've mulled over the question of "What happens when my mother finds my blog?" because I'd be a fool to think that she'll never find it. It won't destroy her, but she'll be extremely upset by it. And I don't think that's a bad thing.

When I struggled most with my eating disorder, I wish someone had exposed me, instead of 10 years passing before I finally was too miserable to keep going. I wish someone had upset me, I wish someone had taken me by the shoulders and screamed "you don't have to live like this!!" I wish someone had told me that there was help, and that I could get it. The worst moments of my eating disorder made me feel like there was a demon in my head, controlling me. It is scary to live in your own head when you have mental health problems. And that makes it scary for the people around you. Mental health interventions can save life and limb. I've seen it first hand.

Growing up, my parents fought a lot. My father was prone to rages, particularly road rage. When I was six someone cut him off in traffic. He lost it. Tailgated the guy until we passed the police station and he tore into the building in an absolute rage with me in tow, screaming and flailing at the police officers to do something. One of the police officers took him away into another room while a lady police officer picked me up and carried me around to try to calm me down. Because by that point I was bawling from fear of my father. My father didn't give damn about me. A police officer I'd never met cared more about me in that moment than he did. When we finally got home, my mother told me to brush it off.

Fast forward ten years and my father's rages had worsened. I woke up many Saturdays and Sundays of my teenage years because my parents were screaming at each other in the kitchen downstairs. But by 16 I'd gotten pretty sick of it. One Sunday I walked into the kitchen, went about my business, and in the process of avoiding my father I knocked a coffee cup off the counter. He lost it. I tried to keep going about my business, turning to get something from the freezer. But as I reached in, my father slammed the door on my hand. Now, remember that my parents are hoarders and that the freezer was overly full. Something sharp cut my hand open. I stood in the kitchen watching blood drip onto the floor. My father at this point had now grabbed the keys to the car and was running out of the house, blaming everything on my mother and swearing he was going to divorce her, as was his MO. My mother chased after him, determined to get him back. I needed stitches but I never got them because she was too busy chasing after him and was too afraid to admit what happened. I had to go to school the next morning with my hand bandaged up in an ace bandage, and the truth bandaged up in a lie about slipping with a knife while cooking. When my mother finally came back (my father re-appeared later), her only response was, "he didn't mean it." I still have the scar on the palm of my right hand.

Not the one my father wielded though it looked the same.
Ironic how it was supposed to prevent crime instead
of being the instrument of it.
But left unchecked my father's rages became dangerous to people outside of our family. Two weeks after I graduated from college my family was going to the movies. My father was driving because my mother was too afraid to drive with him in the car. Someone cut my father off in traffic and as expected he broke into a rage. At the next stoplight he stopped the car, grabbed the "club" that he kept in it because he was paranoid that someone was going to steal the car, and ran over to the door of the guy who cut him off. He brandished this piece of 1/2" thick steel  as though he were going to break this other guy's window and then attack him. In the middle of four lanes of traffic I bolted out of the car. And I ran. Because I was now absolutely certain that my father was capable of murder. He had put a potentially lethal weapon in his hands and had lost control to the point that he was willing to use it against another human being. And in that moment I realized that one day, if I wasn't careful, the one who would end up dead would be me. So I ran.

I ran two miles to the house of a friend whose mom was a lawyer. I wanted a restraining order against my father.  She did an excellent job of concealing any shock she felt, saying only, "I knew your dad had problems. But I never knew it was this bad." It was a very telling statement.

She told me that unfortunately the particulars of the law meant that I couldn't get one, since I wasn't the one he tried to get at. However, I could try to get him prosecuted on assault charges. Even though he didn't make contact with anyone, "assault" is apparently considered just the intent to injure.

By this point my mother had found me. I told her that my intention was to prosecute. She burst into tears and begged me not to. I gave her another choice: divorce him, or get him evaluated and treated by a psychiatrist. Or I was never coming back to that house again. She couldn't decide. She went home and brought me a duffle bag of clothes.

I lived out of that bag for the entire rest of the summer, sleeping on friends' floors until I finally was able to get a job and housing at the college I'd just graduated from. My boss later described me as "begging" for a job, my desperation obvious.

By the end of the summer my mother was begging me to return home. My father now had a diagnosis and was being treated with psychiatric medication. Unfortunately it was prescribed by our general practitioner, because he refused to see a psychiatrist. He also wasn't doing any type of talk therapy, which concerned me because there's strong research evidence people with serious mental health issues do better when they have medication and talk therapy together than with either treatment alone. But my housing at the college was ending and I had spent away all of my college earnings on crap. I had no money and I had to return to my parents' home.

It was strange the next time I saw him nearly fly into a rage. Something trivial happened that was a typical trigger for him. I started to see him stiffen up as usual. But then I saw something very strange in his eyes. It was like he knew something was supposed to happen next, like he was supposed to do something next. But he didn't know what it was. There was no rage at the end of this.  I was safe.

This is NOT to say that medication fixes everything. I did see rages again from my father, including one bad enough during a visit to my place in DC that I kicked him out and sent him and my mother packing back to Philadelphia on the next train. I issued another ultimatum at that point: they both needed to start seeing a psychologist in addition to the medication. I wasn't putting up with this anymore now that I was on my own.

Three years later, my father is a completely different person. He's obviously committed himself to therapy at this point and even admitted that it probably saved his life. And I believe that. And I thoroughly believe that it may have saved mine. I'm not afraid of him anymore. I'm also not stupid enough to believe that that part of him isn't still deep inside somewhere, and that for my own safety I still need to be mindful of my father's behavior.

My father never laid a hand on my mother. And perhaps that's why my mother still sticks her head into the sand. "It's not abuse because he didn't mean it."

No, mom, it is.

Many times we are afraid to speak out when we know someone is violent or has violent tendencies. We cannot afford to do this. Because when these people are left to continue their behavior their behavior only gets worse. If someone had forced my father into treatment, I probably wouldn't be showing you this.
Amazing how a cut so small could bleed so much.
So much of the violence in our society could be stopped or prevented with adequate mental health care. And with a culture that encouraged people to get help for their mental health problems. Because it is a nightmare living in a mind with a mental health problem. My father must have been miserable for those 60 years of his life. My mother I'm sure is still miserable. 

So speak out. Get help for those you know suffer with mental illnesses. For the people who have intensely erratic and dangerous behavior. Because more people than you know depend on it. 

Thank you, Dad, for getting help. I'm so very proud of you. 

Mom, I know you hoard because of what we endured together.  I know how miserable this feels. Please get help. Please. 

As for me, I'm a lot better than I was. I've even come to realize that being forced out of the house right after college opened an opportunity for me. You see, the job that I begged for was at my college library. I had never wanted to be a librarian but my boss very quickly saw that I enjoyed the work I was doing and that I was good at it. For the entire second half of the summer, every day she would say, "are you sure you don't want to be a librarian?" And what do you know, by the end of the summer I had applied to library school. Which led to an internship at a medical library, which then led to a fellowship at a bigger medical library, which led me to my permanent job in DC and the wonderful life I have here. You may not be faithful, and that's fine. But for me this was definitely a time when God may have closed a door, but he opened up a window for me. 


  1. It's funny, I was filling in a survey today, and one of the questions asked something like 'what do you think are the biggest problems facing people like you in society today?' And the responses I picked were something like 'mental health problems' and 'lack of self esteem'- because I realised that I thought that what is going on in someone's mind is much more important than their external circumstances. (Some of the other possible responses were 'lack of jobs' and so on). I know a few people (women) who had suffered from domestic violence- and they seem so strong and outgoing that I was (probably naively) quite surprised. It just goes to show that you never know exactly what happens behind closed doors, and that the more mental health problems and the violence that can go with them (although obviously not always!) get discussed, the better.

    1. absolutely. And thank you for participating in the conversation. It can be just as hard for people to respond to comments about these issues as it is for some of us to talk about them. We all have to be willing to talk and to work the problem. Thank you for being someone who is!

  2. This hit so close to home for me! I too grew up with a rage-filled father, well one fueled by PTSD. He had an abusive, alcoholic mother and never knew his biological dad who died when he was very young. Added to his painful childhood, he was a soldier in Desert Storm. Traumatic childhood+horrors of war= mental clusterf*ck. When he'd get mad, you knew by what we called the "crazy eyes". My family still makes fun of me when he yelled and me, and I huddled in a corner screaming, "Please don't kill me!" So now I get to live with that trauma AND for feeling stupid for being traumatized by such instances. Ugh.

    Now being a parent, I realized that I have my dad's temper. It's like there's a switch that turns on, and all empathy is thrown out the window. I've told The Hubs my fears about how it's affecting our boys (our oldest flinches if I make sudden movements towards him...he's 4.5). I don't want them to go through what I wen through, but at the same point, I can't stop it--my brain just changes in those moments. It scares the crap out of me, to see what I could be capable of. I'd LOVE to see a therapist about it, but the reality is that therapy is expensive. If you'd ever like to privately share what meds your dad is on, I'd be more than happy to hear what it is because I'm getting desperate. And I completely agree that CBT is ESSENTIAL along with medication. One of these days, hopefully it will be my turn...and hopefully won't be too late.

    I commend you SO much for standing up to your parents. Your strength is something to emulate :)

    1. Oh yes. I know that"crazy eyes" look.
      I'm so impressed that you've been able to at least recognize your dad's behaviors in you and you're trying to get help. I was surprised how much my father's family doctor was able to do for him for much less money than the psychiatrists, so that could be a more affordable place for you to start.

      And I understand the fear of your own behavior. I think one of the things in the back of my mind that keeps me from having kids is that fear that I'll turn into my father.

      We'll get through this! Do give your GP a call. There's a lot they can help with. The doc might even be willing to do a phone call for free. With this kind of thing many of them are willing to work things out financially to get you the help you need. We all want you here, alive, and happy!

  3. I am so impressed with your bravery... both in writing this post and in how you've dealt with your father's violence.

    I, too was raised by parents who would periodically "snap." Fortunately they were never really physically violent with me (well - I guess some of my mother's behavior when I was young could be considered as such, but I soon got big enough to outrun her.) But I can remember my father throwing a television set across the room, and picking my puppy up by its collar and throwing her into a wall - I figured it was only a matter of time until it was me. But my parents divorced when I was five, and his rages ended - or at least I didn't witness them anymore.

    Somehow, I've been able to forgive my father, as he has at least tried to deal with his emotions. My mother, on the other hand... well, her rages were more of the psychological torture variety - and not something she will ever own up to, so we basically don't have a relationship anymore.

    The thing is, both of my parents were raised in abusive situations. They're both children of alcoholics, and for whatever reason, it just wasn't something either was willing to really deal with. Perhaps it's generational, I dunno. But one thing I do know is that I'm eternally grateful for the counseling center at the university I attended. My therapist there really saved my life - of course, it's sort of like an onion, and I don't really think I'll ever be "done" with this process of sorting through my crazy childhood.

    I think in the end learning to face ourselves is the biggest challenge that we all face.

  4. thanks for sharing your story - that is a hard thing to do.

  5. I want to echo what others have said, and thank you for being brave in sharing your story. I also wanted to say that I felt some similarities to my time with my father. Growing up, I was always scared of him. He never physically abused me, but emotionally, it was a different story. Even now if I think my husband is going to get upset about something (and he is the complete opposite of my father) I feel myself shrinking down inside, getting ready for the big 'boom.' We had our biggest blow up the day of my college graduation, because my now-husband, (who I was marrying one week later), dared to show up for the awards brunch. My dad didn't bother to come to my graduation after that, and even now, nearly 20 years later, I just pretend that day never happened.

    Fast forward many years, and my dad became severely depressed because of an illness he was going through. He started taking Prozac, eventually that particular illness/pain got better, and as a pleasant side effect, my father became an almost completely different man. He would still have blowups but so much less than before.

    After we were able to start communicating again, I found out a lot of about my father's childhood that I didn't know. I knew he lost his father at age 10, and didn't have any siblings of course, but didn't realize the neglect he felt from my grandmother. (She came from a mean, neglectful family herself...) I also learned that some people express depression with anger. Most likely my father had been suffering from worsening depression for most of his adult life, and it was just 'by chance' that he started taking an antidepressant.

    I am so glad my relationship with my father was better the last few years of his life. I would never say there was a 'happy ending' because although the way you grow up is not how you have to live your adult life, it certainly shapes your views and responses to situations. I am not at all bothered to admit that myself, my two younger sisters, and my mother all take a mild antidepressant. For me, it was necessary to control generalized anxiety, due in part I am sure to how I grew up. I am so thankful that the rage that seems to be prevalent in my paternal side of the family has hopefully ended, at least in our branch of the family.


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