I am the youngest of five kids, whose parents have been married 50 years. ’50 years’, people exclaim…and say what a wonderful blessing and example of love. Well, sort of.
My dad started beating up my mom before they were even married, in the mid 60’s. That lasted about until the mid 80’s, when my brother died in an accident. My mom was finally saying she was going to leave my dad, right before my brother died. My dad had been unfaithful (another secret I didn’t know until my twenties, and at that, I learned from a sibling – it was, and never has been talked about). When my brother died, things changed for a while. No more alcohol (both parents are alcoholics), and my dad went to therapy for his abusive behavior towards my mom. The physical violence stopped, but the emotional abuse continues to this day. They control each other and are so co-dependent that they don’t like anyone else. No one.
They’ve had friends over the years, but now they have no one. Just their kids. My dad was physically abused as a child and my mom also comes from a very dysfunctional family as well. Growing up I was their ‘baby’, often ridiculed and humiliated by my siblings for being a ‘kiss-ass’ or ‘their favorite’. When I got married and had my own family, I saw a change. My mother wanted me to be as miserable as her. She wanted me to always be suspicious of my husband and to bitch and complain my life away. She is also morbidly obese, and I am not – she is a food addict and has yo-yo dieted through her whole adult life, trying to drag me with her and into her lifestyle of self pity and depression (I went that route in my early twenties – bulimia and depression). I recovered and I’ve tried so hard to help her recover, too.
I’ve gone to the diet meetings with her, shared my healthy lifestyle tips with her – all to no avail. It’s a cycle that’s been on repeat for 20 years. She still picks on me about my clothes and appearance, and has tried to do this to my daughter, which I quickly nipped in the bud. I won’t have it. My daughter is everything my mom is not, and I am too – she seems to not like that or understand it, even. We exercise to be strong, not to be skinny – we eat healthy because we want to live a long life, not because we want to lose weight. That is how we live, to be healthy and happy.
Last year, my dad was diagnosed with a terminal disease. This past year has been a nightmare. From my dad almost dying before his initial diagnosis, to living with the prospect that he could die any time and we don’t know how long he has, it’s pretty much destroyed my mom…and caused all of us stress and emotional pain. See, my dad has never really been there for me in a meaningful way. He traveled a lot, and never spent too much time with us. He drank a lot….every day of my life that I can remember, except when he promised my mom he’d stop, and didn’t. [SO…..he never stopped drinking?]
Every single night as a child would end in a fight between them. (or him beating up an older sibling for a minor infraction) There was always lots of yelling, throwing things and people threatening each other. I spent as much time out of the house as possible as a teen. As adults, we rarely see him. He doesn’t want kids (meaning grandchildren) in his house (think Ferris Bueller, when he’s talking about Cameron’s house – ‘it’s cold and you’re not supposed to touch anything’)…and no one is ever invited over. He has never liked talking on the phone, and he is just not the kind of guy to go out and do social stuff.
My mom has terrible social anxiety and her obesity prevents her from doing pretty much anything these days. So, now they basically spend their retirement going to doctors appointments and the grocery store in between Netflix binges. It’s quite sad to see them so immobile. I have helped a lot in the last year – driving to chemo appointments, grocery shopping, cooking meals, cleaning and taking care of their pets (adding on to that caring for my husband and three kids). Now, my mom has decided in the midst of my dads illness that she want to have weight loss surgery. How? Why now? I was given a lecture by my dad and told I was a selfish bitch for not being a part of that process with her. It’s not my job to over-function for her, you know? I felt guilt and sadness after my dad said that, and my mom didn’t even care. They never apologized for those hurtful words. In the usual family manner, it was all swept under the carpet.
At present, I am still on good terms with them, at a surface level. Underneath, though, there is a build-up of feelings I’ve never experienced before, so much anger and pain. Anger: at them for being so distant and now needing everyone so often, but still bitching about the help they do receive. Pain: that my dad is such a mean, angry man and that he never apologized for anything regarding my traumatic childhood experiences, that he doesn’t give a shit about me or his grandchildren. So much more I could say.
Lately, I just shudder to think what life will be like when one of them dies. It will not be pleasant Who will go first (morbid thoughts abound lately)? Where will the surviving parent live? How long til they die, then? How will they die? My family of origin has never been able to have an honest conversation about much, and this is why I’ve never fit in with them. Don’t even get me started on my sisters (think Cinderella – me, as Cinderella, in name only). Thank God for my older brother, and my angel brother in Heaven…their love and support sustains me right now. I guess what I’m asking is, ‘dear life – how do I handle the tsunami of trauma and drama that seems forthcoming?’
The Unending Drama that is My Parents
Dearest Unending Drama,
Your letter reminds me of the phrase “the storms of life.” Your parents’ tumultuous pasts meant that you and your siblings were born at sea, forced to learn how to find your own solid footing, your own safe places to land. From what you write about helping your parents deal with the latest waves of trouble, it seems you figured out how to navigate their ups and downs without getting caught in their broken ways. By setting a healthier course for your daughter and yourself, you have redrawn your own family’s map, ensuring you won’t end up the same way.
So I wonder: What if your hard-won resilience turns out to be the silver lining of this lifetime of clouds? And what if your successful navigation so far is the most important factor in how your future will unfold?
Worrying about what’s around the bend — “the tsunami of trauma and drama that seems forthcoming” — can feel like planning ahead. We imagine that chewing over the details of our problem is a kind of preparation.
It’s actually more useful to jump into the fire. Whatever fear makes us think is too big to handle is precisely where to aim. Just because your parents don’t want to have an honest conversation about their past or future doesn’t mean you can’t.
Imagine your father is already dead and buried. Picture as much as you need to. Maybe your mother falls apart — or she rises from the ashes of her old self into someone you actually like. What do you need to tell your dad?
Would you curse him for his terrible choices and selfishness? List all the ways he let you down?
If that’s too hard, think of your parents as characters in a novel or movie. Give them different names if it helps, as long as you’re saying what you need to say, in all the details that matter. What childhood needs of theirs were not met? What traumas twisted and bent them into the shapes you know? Name it all. Let your imagination take you as far as it can.
Do whatever it takes to Get It Out.
Write it on reams of paper or scream it into a voice recorder until you’re hoarse. Throw angry colors at a 12-foot canvas until your arm is too sore to move or run through the woods until you’re out of breath from giving him a piece of your mind.
After, you will probably feel spent. And then you will feel clearer and eventually, you will feel lighter.
The point is you don’t need for them to listen, in real life, for you to tell them what you think they need to hear. Whatever comes next will be easier to bear if you let yourself grieve now for all the ways they hurt you.
You can rise above their legacy, hold on to the best parts of who they have been and let the rest go. In time, you’ll see them through the lens of compassion, where it will be easier to forgive them for all they did or didn’t do.
Whatever you come up with won’t change them, of course. But it can change you and mitigate your pain. It can give you the space you need to remember they are not you. Their losses and failures are not yours.
You have already traveled so many dusty, treacherous miles. If you let yourself internally prepare, this last part won’t be the most difficult.
You will still grieve their deaths when they go — your challenging, imperfect parents. But you won’t suffer the double whammy of grieving for them and yourself when you’re at your lowest.
Right now, the fear of what lies ahead feels stronger.
In truth, you are.
Eileen Drennen is a writer and editor. Her work has appeared in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, O, the Oprah Magazine and The Rumpus. She lives in Lafayette, Indiana. She can be found on Twitter as @eileen527.
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That was spot on. One of the things we grieve when we lose someone significant is the hope that we will ever have a better relationship or get what we needed from that individual. So excavating some of the anger now is far more productive than anticipating what more drama is in store.
I so admire your courage in confronting these issues with your parents, privately and publicly.