Trigger warning: child abuse
It’s not news to me that there is a co-dependent dynamic in my family – I had guessed as much, with only a very general idea of what co-dependency means. And now that I am sure, reading about it, learning more, now that I know the name for what I’ve been living as a child and as a teenager, it’s such a relief. It has a name. It has been named. Now it’s tame. Now I’m its master… Really, living in it without knowing anything else, without having a comparison to be able to say, “this isn’t right, what’s going on here?”, that’s living with a wild animal. You try to second-guess its next move but you never know, you’re never safe. You observe and learn about how it behaves and adjust your own behaviour accordingly, make yourself as invisible to it as possible, never ever rock the boat, and think, “okay, I can handle this”. The animal will still get you. From time to time. Always when you least expect it. And as soon as you get the chance, you get out. And you go far, far away from it. No. Not everyone does. I did. The dangerous animal (within the strange animal that is my family) is my father. And we all built our roles around keeping him as calm as possible. Keep the boat afloat. Wave cheerily when other boats pass by. Look nice, talk nice, behave nice. Lose your personality. Lose your feelings. Lose your opinions. Sit straight. Don’t move. Elbows off the table!
We all got hurt, all the time.
And maybe I’m lucky because my parents’ co-dependent relationship was not built around hiding some substance abuse, at least not as far as I know. I don’t think my father is an alcoholic. I can remember most of the times as well, I think, when he meted out physical punishments. No belts and fists, like at some of my friends’ houses.
So what was so destructive about him? He was verbally aggressive, we all got a generous portion of that. I still have to remind myself that, no, I’m not “stupid” – that I heard quite a bit as a child. I try not to say, ever, “oh, how stupid of me”. I am not stupid. Never was. When I got my Master’s degree, I remember saying to my mother, “at least now I can prove that I’m not stupid”… His way of being destructive had a lot to do with the presence of his personality, of his psychological issues. My father made sure we felt small. He felt small, so it was only just that everyone around him should feel small too. And in his family, he could make sure he was in charge when he wasn’t anywhere else, so we were way smaller than him. He is right. Always. You don’t disagree. You know he can’t handle it. So, you learn not to talk to him about anything that’s important to you. You learn to be quiet. You learn the way you have to behave and you learn to accept that there is a “you” that has nothing to do with anything.
I was angry with my father a lot of the time and could never say that – my mother preached over and over again that “your father loves you, he just doesn’t know how to show it sometimes”. But while living with the actual experience of what it’s like to feel your heart sink when you hear your father’s car in the driveway, or for watching your mother live a life like that, I very much wanted things to be different. I wanted a relationship with my father. I wanted to be able to talk to him. I wanted to believe that he’s a good guy despite “the difficult bits”. The word “father” meant something to me, and I thought it must mean something to everyone, including him. It’s painful to let that go. Even now that’s still true. There’s a line in a poem by Padraig O Tuama about “childish needs needing to grow old”. The need to have a father who deserves the name doesn’t go away just because the guy who fathered me didn’t fit that description. And as an adult, I have to learn not to expect anyone else to catch me up on this. The chance is gone. And I grieve the loss of it. And I may always carry the need to have a father because that need never “grew old”.
There were times when it seemed easier, when he seemed more open, when it was possible to be around him and I felt hopeful. I was a teenager by then. I so wanted to trust him. I was told that I should, and I needed to believe that I could, and that it was worth another chance, and another chance when that one didn’t work out. And then we did spend time together, watched a film together, in the downstairs TV room. We were both of us sitting on the sofa, me leaning against him, and I remember how this image in my mind seemed to work – the idea of what it means to have a father. Someone you can lean on, who will hold you, who “has your back”. But that evening ended with my father’s hands on my breast and between my legs, and I didn’t feel anything anymore. And then I hated him, and I was scared to death of him. From that moment on, I avoided being in a room alone with him, avoided being near him if we had to be in the same room, didn’t sleep for fear of not knowing what he does while I sleep.
Why didn’t I tell my mother? – I had learned that I was the one to support her. I had learned that whenever there was an argument around my father, she defended him. I had learned too that the facade mattered more to my parents than what happened behind it. I had learned not to rock the boat – what would happen if I told someone? My mother, or a teacher, or someone in church? All hell would break loose. And it’d be my fault if my parents would get divorced or if my father couldn’t be a deacon anymore in church. My fault. I’d be the one to bring that on the family.
Looking back, I wonder. What would really have happened?
I heard later that my father had abused my sister as well, and that she told my mother in order to protect me. At that time, my mother told my father that she’d get a divorce if it ever happened again. – Would she have gotten one? In my experience my mother’s strength serves my father, no-one else. She tried her best for us, I’m sure she’d tell you that. But I felt I was looking after her as a child and as a teenager. There was no time to be childish or silly or playful. We had to be adults, all three of us, as soon as we could think. Because of my father’s inability to be around children who act the way children do. And because our mother is too fragile in her own psyche to handle the three of us and this man. We knew that. I was angry with him on her behalf. But after all this, after my sister told her about my father abusing her, and after I told her ten years later the same thing, they’re still married. And they seem happier now than they did when I still lived there. My mother has made her choice. I had no support from her whatsoever when I told her what had happened. I understood very clearly then how things really work in my family. And I will not try to “save” anyone in that family anymore.
I made my sister tell our brother about the abuse, so he can protect his daughters.
My sister can protect hers.
I did not go to the police for myself. Maybe I should have. Should I ever hear that he touched my nieces, I will make sure he goes to court for it.
Would my siblings support that? I think it’s still the same. They’d rather let the child carry her suffering alone than let the brokenness of the family become public.
I hope things will get better for me. I need to pray for myself. This is the kind of place where I come from. I don’t want this to be my future too, neither in carrying this around with me nor in repeating co-dependent relationship patterns. There are better things I want to do with my life. But I have to deal with my past, with my story, bit by bit. And I hope health will come.
I’m now connected to several of my cousins via social media. I try to minimise this as much as possible. I wish I had kept that boundary up. I don’t want connection.
Maybe it’s a challenge to myself to be open about who I am – the same way everywhere. Out and proud, opinionated and brave. Let them deal with it. Don’t hide. Don’t let the animal that once threatened me keep me down anymore, from so far away.
I’m different here. I was thanked last week by many of my colleagues for my honesty and for challenging others in conversations, for offering new angles on questions… Life is so different here… And I live here with a vengeance sometimes. Maybe not even often enough.
People who don’t know where I come from find that difficult sometimes, understandably. Why am I so bold about my opinions? I have to be. I have to speak my mind and I have to be heard. And I cannot be invisible anymore. Not ever again. And yes, I do need to learn as well to take a step back sometimes when the need to be heard becomes more important than the actual contribution… I learn. Have patience.
I’m not sure why this is so strongly with me this week. But I need to write about it, I need to describe it all, in detail, and repeatedly. As often as it takes to get it out of my system. I name my story. And I own my life. Nobody else does. This is my story to tell. So I tell it.