What My Abusive Father Taught Me About Living
I grew up believing that screaming cleaned up spilled milk. I learned to think of myself as inferior and not worth it. I learned that I was never going to be good enough so trying wasn’t worth it the effort.
These are terrible lessons to learn as a child. Lessons that stick with you and shape how you interact with the world around you. It affects all your relationships.
I lived under a cloud of negativity and rage that I couldn’t escape for close to 32 years of my life. The desire to have a father kept me closer than was healthy. Well meaning and well intentioned family tried offering guidance, advising I would have regrets later in life if I completely removed him from my life. (The most freeing event was when I finally was strong enough and severed those ties on my own. More about that later…)
My father was quick to take credit for my successes and scream at me for my failures. Better yet, he would often father from afar. I asked my mother once, “how could dad tell me how to pitch if he isn’t even at the game?” The silence in her response was all I needed.
In addition to having a difficult childhood I had to learn how to live life with a mental illness. My diagnosis alone is difficult enough for most people to have to manage, however, when I shared with my father about my diagnosis he said “why didn’t you tell me you had problems? It explains a lot about our relationship.”
Today, I am able to look back and laugh at this response. It used to irritate and frustrate me. He would not have been abusive had he known of my diagnosis? I was given a diagnosis, I would have never picked it, and I was blamed for it. It is the equivalent of getting blamed for your height, hair or eye color.
I want to take a moment now to thank and applaud my father. I want to give him credit where credit is due.
I wake up every day of my life and make sure I don’t treat any one the way my father treated me. I never deserved it. No one ever deserves it.
I am a better father because of his anti role model approach to fathering. When given the choice of staying at work or being present for my kids, I always pick present. Of course there are times when I have to work. During those times I make sure my kids know how much I love them and that I would rather be spending the day with them over working.
When my kids misbehave (as kids do), I breathe and center myself. My childhood will not be an excuse for my children enduring anything I endured. When I look back, screaming never fixed anything.
I have also learned not to lean on my diagnosis as an excuse for my behavior. I am not my symptoms and I am not going to allow my diagnosis to influence or change my relationship with my children. While my children will certainly learn that I have certain struggles and issues I have to deal with (as everyone does), they are not going to be blamed for any of them. I wake up every day trying to give my children the best version of myself I can. That is one of the greatest gifts I can offer my children and myself and one that was never given to me by my father.
I am also extremely grateful for all the times I was screamed at, chased out of restaurants and attacked. I am grateful because I am able to take these experiences, label them as just that, experiences, and move forward from them. I can’t say that I appreciated them during the experience, however, I will say that looking back they are ideal expressions of what doesn’t work. I have learned that no amount of anger or frustration with the past will change the past. Not only can I not change my childhood, I have also learned that I can’t change the past. Period. I never would have thought growing up through screaming and outbursts would have taught my that those emotions can’t undo the past.
My relationships are better today because of my childhood. I am able to be present and attempt to connect with people on a deeper level that my father ever connected with me. I am appreciative that I learned that my value is something that comes from the inside, not the outside.
I learned that regardless of how much milk is spilled it has NO correlation to who I am as a human being.
I learned to become spiritual in the sense that I believe there is something greater in store for me than I can understand. A funny story occurred when my daughter was about a year old. During the early month’s of my daughter’s life, I wanted to make sure I wasn’t my father. I wanted to make sure that my children never saw the rage I knew as common place. I know this wasn’t always possible, but I was very aware of me behavior and reactions. We are at a restaurant, eating breakfast, and my daughter reaches out for her cup of water and spills it all over the table and right onto my lap.
I started to laugh silently because I knew how my father would have reacted. I quickly stood up and tried to cleanup the mess. I told my daughter, in the midst of cleaning up, that I love her. I then proceeded to sit down after spill #1 is cleaned up and I spilled an entire glass of milk onto the table and, subsequently, onto myself. At this point my pants are soaking wet, my wife is smiling at me and my daughter is laughing and pointing.
Rather than cleaning up the mess this time or even trying to dry my pants, I simply sit there, covered in milk, and continue eating and talking to my daughter and wife. I focus on how lucky I am to have a family and how lucky I am to be covered in milk.
Today, when I find myself getting upset with my children I find that I sometimes retreat in order to gather my emotions before responding. This coping mechanism has helped me be the best father I can be. I still get upset and share with my children when I am. I also always reassure them that I love them unconditionally. While I might not be happy with what they have done, I will always love them.
I grew up in a confusing world. My mother showed me unconditional love. My father showed me conditional love. The lesson that stuck with me longer than I care to admit was regarding conditional love. I even applied it to my life and my own happiness.
I learned that I will show my children, from as early as they can remember, that they will receive unconditional love from me, as their father, and that the world is a much better place to be in when living with unconditional happiness! Today I am happy just being with my family, whether I am covered in milk or not!
Originally published at www.huffingtonpost.com on October 19, 2016.