Jon and I were listening to a "This American Life" podcast the other night and during one of the segments, a woman was reading letters from openletters.net. The letters were from a woman writing to her teenage son's father who she had not been in touch with for many years. The letters were published on the web and he might or might not have been reading them at the time. One of the lines in one of the letters was "you take up a lot of room for a guy who's not here."
I murmured an "ummhmm" when I head this.
And I knew, this is where I could begin to talk about "it" here.
My parents separated 12 years ago and shortly after that divorced. Then, and for many years after, it was a time period known as "when my dad left." That was what it felt like and that was how the picture was painted by all involved.
The scars from that experience are the "thing" that takes up so much room even though it isn't here. The stuff from the past; the stuff one might sometimes talk about on a blog and sometimes just leave out. That is the "thing" that takes up space. Being "extra mature" and playing a role in my family that involved being "extra mature" is what takes up that room for me. Wanting to talk about it with people who do not want to talk about it, that is what takes up so much room.
I was a freshman in college at the time, going to school in my home town, so there was no "escaping" it; my parents' divorce was the center of my college years. The pain and confusion experienced by us all. And my role, as was always the case from my perspective, was to be the peacemaker, the strongest person, the people pleaser. I tried for years to balance it all. The pain balanced with my relationships with my mom, dad, and brother.
And, as usually happens, over the years you find a rhythm of how to deal with things. As any child of divorced parents knows, you lie here and there to protect the feelings of others (while desperately trying to protect yourself even though you don't realize it at the time), while trying to make sure everyone knows you love them. You panic. You try to balance the roles you play. You "wear many hats." You become the most adult person in your family. I was my mother's support person. I was also attempting to have a relationship with my father where I could let go of the past and the hope of a deeper relationship with him. And, it was working. In the last six years or so, my dad and I had come to a place where I enjoyed spending time with him. And with the addition of Jon coming into my life and my dad's girlfriend Anne, it became even easier for me. But, one of the reasons it became easier was because I had let go of something really big: I had let go of thinking I could help him with his drinking problem.
So, when he called in late January to say he was going to do something about his drinking problem, I was in complete shock. He had never admitted to having a drinking problem, let alone, talked about getting help for one. But, it was my own reaction that shocked me even more.
I was angry.
Anger is not an emotion I have spent a lot of time in. I am more likely to simply feel sad or lonely. Anger is a different beast. I know people say anger is masking something else, and I agree with this, but to be so in touch with anger about something like this was a true surprise for me.
I share this here because I think that others in similar situations might have a reaction like mine and wonder if anyone else has felt this way. I want even one person out there who might be reading this to know that he or she is not alone.
The anger was not at all directed at my father's wish to get help. No. Those were words I had been waiting and wanting to hear for almost 20 years. The emotion that flared up for me was instead really about pain from my childhood, from the role I played in my family during my parents' divorce. I didn’t want to think about that stuff or talk about it or spend time in it. At all. But, I knew that it was all gonna come up. For all of us. For me.
And it did.
I balance writing this with the reality that my parents are going to read "pain from my childhood" and potentially get a bit defensive. But,the pain from childhood thing, that is how it works for most of us. And, here is the thing: I know my parents did the best they could. They did better than their parents. I had a safe childhood. I was given an incredible education. I knew I was (and am) loved. There are many more positives than negatives in my past.
But, I think anyone reading this can agree that we all have our shit. This is how it works. We are born. We are loved. There is shit. Hopefully there is more love than shit. But, there is gonna be shit all the same. This is how it works.
As my dad decided to take part in a treatment program, one that was going to involve time when "loved ones" would come to "talk about stuff," my feelings of being proud of my dad for seeking support were in sharp contrast to the rage that was also brewing inside me.
I had thoughts like: Once again, my father's alcoholism was dictating my life. I moved across the country from this stuff but it was still trying to control my life. How were my mom and my brother going to react to this and how can I make sure I protect them? Who was going to protect me? Who was going to think of me and my feelings? Why do we have to talk about this stuff now?
The thought of sitting in a room with people and talking about all this, talking about it with my father, was not something I wanted to do. Not even a little bit. I was afraid of how I might react. All the while, I was only supportive of him when he called, never letting on that I was so overwhelmed by it. At first, I talked to my mother about it all because I knew if there was one person in the world who was going to understand how shocked I was, it was her. But then I realized that I was putting her in an unfair position by expecting her to support me when she would, of course, have her own feelings about this.
The thing is, my parents do not talk. At all. They live in the same town but it is as though they exist in different worlds. I won't go into more details, because really, it is not my story. It is theirs. My story is how it affects me though. And even though I am now almost 31, having parents who do not speak is…well, I think you can probably imagine without me going into it. It fractures you a bit. When your parents don't speak and seem to hate one another; it fractures you. No matter your age. And it is a fracture that never really heals.
I was not able to attend the family time due to ArtFest, but my dad asked me if I would still come in April to attend the next three-day family session. My brother and Anne had attended the first family session and encouraged me to go. Hearing my brother say, "Liz, I think you have to do it" was what prompted me to agree to it. And, even though I tried not to let on to my dad too much, I so didn't want to go. But, I also realized that this was probably going to be the only time I would be able to sit in a room with my father and a counselor and say what I wanted and needed to say to at least one of my parents.
But for weeks, I balanced the thought of flying back to the midwest and all that was coming up for me with a need to get lost in pink buttons and fabric and other stuff.
I want to share some of my experience last month when I did get to talk with my dad, but I am going to save that for another post. I think I have shared enough for now (big deep breath). Thinking about all this is exhausting. I have had insomnia for several nights now and I think that has more to do with my mind being excited about my upcoming etsy shop and all that I am creating and hope to create. But, how this all has shifted things is taking up a lot of mental space too.
Thank you for being out there and for stopping by to spend this time with me and reading my words.