One week ago, I wrote a list of the good things about my father. In the course of the week that has passed since then, I have decided to take a break from contact with him. Yes, something triggered the decision, but the details don’t matter. I’m writing about it, here, because improving my mental health and becoming a mother have made me extremely protective of the my peace.
I have never felt this good in my entire adult life, in an everyday sense. I can’t remember feeling this good since before elementary school, but that’s another issue. My first psychiatrist once told me that his goal for me was for me to live without daily anxiety. I laughed at him. For years. Yeah, right, buddy! Keep dreaming! I’m not there yet. But I can see it. I can taste it. I will get there. The idea knocks my freaking socks off. I imagine that seeing the finish line must have this effect on people who run races. “Holy crap, I’m not going to die before I make it?! Let’s go!” I don’t expect to wake up tomorrow, free from anxiety. This is hard work. It’s also me. There is something inside me that will not quit. I am proud of who I am.
In order to be the mother that I want to be, and in order to have the energy to do the basic mothering required of me on a daily basis, I need to protect the progress that I have made. New fears, new boogeymen, new threats, have no place in my new life. I cannot afford to believe, as my father does, that evil waits around every corner.
My father does not believe that his mental health will improve, via medication or work on his part. He has said this, in so many words. Last time I spoke to him, he laughed about how starkly my optimism contrasts with his pessimism. For a time, he spent his waking hours studying conspiracy theories that Hitler and Stalin had worked together to kill even more people than the very worst estimates of the Holocaust have calculated. That year, I bought him a book on the subject for Father’s Day. I couldn’t think of anything else that he might enjoy. I mention this, because it’s important to note that, in the world my father occupies, it does not surprise him to find evil, whether on a massive or petty scale. He also finds it fascinating, sometimes. Let me be very clear on something, now: my father is allowed to feel whatever it is that he feels. If he feels afraid all day and all night, and evidently his nightmares are terrifying as well, then that simply makes my heart ache for him. If he wants to talk about “killing fields” and Stalin and conspiracy theories, I really don’t mind listening.
My boundary is very specific, and I have asked for him to respect it. All that I need to know to keep talking to my dad is that he will not ask me to feel afraid, too.
The problem is, I don’t think that he can see that line.
There is a long and exhausting history of my dad demanding that I fear people and even places; he once threatened to never speak to me again if I didn’t “share his history.” I just don’t have the energy to repeat most of that narrative, and I think it would cause me more pain to relive it. It has been years since my father attempted to spread a new narrative with a new evil for all of his loved ones to fear. I didn’t think he could shock me, anymore. But he has a new theory, and there’s a new threat. I find myself shocked. I feel so very angry.
At the moment, my father is asking that his loved ones feel afraid, with him, about a clear and present danger that only he is able to detect. It reminds me of the time he tried to convince his daughters that “many years” of terrible events would happen and that only people who belonged to our religion would “make it,” so we should “prepare” to see our unenlightened loved ones suffer. (I can’t even find what it was that he twisted into this theory–there’s nothing in our religion but love, hope and an emphasis on the individual‘s inner path.) This time, my own mind doesn’t even contain the kind of fear that he is trying to spread.
I don’t think he reads this. I told him that it exists, and I strongly advised that it would trigger his illness to read about parenting and mental health. I warned him that I mention my mother in this space; despite the fifteen years that have passed since they divorced, he believes that she is evil and terrifying. That idea is patently absurd, so it’s best if he doesn’t read any of my loving stories about her. If he does read this, I’m sorry to say that this is how he’ll be finding out that I’m taking a three-month break from communicating with him. But telling someone that you’re not talking to them is sort of absurd in general and, in this case, I don’t see what good could come of it. We don’t talk often enough for a three-month silence to worry him.
I don’t want to punish him. I just want to protect my life from the kind of fear he is spreading, right now. Years ago, I accepted the idea that evil could strike at any moment as a sort of given. Isn’t that sad? And isn’t it exciting that I don’t live that way, anymore? My father is the only person in my life, now, who threatens to introduce a Huge [manufactured] Crisis out of the clear blue sky. I deal very well in an actual crisis. If something bad actually happens to someone I love, I don’t resent feeling a little afraid or anxious about it. That’s part of life. I love my life! I have so many loved ones! Sadness or fear is bound to come up. So, for clarity’s sake, again, let me say that I am protecting myself from my father’s ability to introduce dangers that are somehow very specific and still undefined. The “bad things” he warned us about were going to happen starting in 2005, I think. He was very specific about the year, even if I can’t remember it. But as for what we were supposed to fear, it could be anything from natural disasters to war to a higher crime rate. In general. What in the heck is anyone supposed to do with that kind of information? The only thing you can do is feel afraid, and probably paranoid. Paranoia is a big part of his illness. This is what I cannot allow, anymore. I don’t have the spare energy, and my peace of mind is too important to me to let him threaten it.
I’m writing this all out, in part for me, but in part as a reminder that surrounding ourselves with people who are healthy and kind is a really big help in the healing process. His behavior does not set me back or impede my ability to mother. I am in responsible for my own feelings. But it takes enormous energy to deal with someone who is screaming about danger, even when I know that there is none. I don’t want to give any more of my energy to that, especially when my father’s illness makes it nearly impossible for him to even take much interest in my life. When we talk, we talk about him. Usually about the movies he’s seen. If he has something big to say, he writes email.
My idea, moving forward, is that we communicate only by letters, after my three-month break. I can choose not to open a letter. I can give it to my therapist to read and filter out important information. An email stares at me (I check my email rather obsessively) and the phone is too unpredictable, even for him. We already reserve the phone for holidays. I haven’t seen him in four years, and any visits we do make are limited by him to several hours, maximum.
I miss the dad I described a week ago, but he’s gone. I can’t bring him back. My father, as he is now, is a toxic presence. I’m sad that he lives this way. I can’t convince him that my world is safe, nor can I convince him to stop insisting that it is unsafe.