My friend “Jane” (pen name) has been writing ever so bravely about her journey through the looking glass since she realized that her husband is emotionally and verbally abusive. It has taken me a few days to process my reaction to one post in particular, “Follow the fear: how you know it’s abuse” because it triggered so many memories of my own past. I read her words, and I thought, “My God. My mother and I spent so much of our lives tiptoeing around my father. We were so very afraid. Was he actually abusive?”
Oddly enough, the best “proof” I have of this is a letter that he wrote to me when I was in college in which my father accuses me of abusive behavior toward him. It’s in a file somewhere or shredded or something, because I couldn’t keep it. I gave it to my therapist at the time. The contents of this letter triggered a spiral that landed me in the psych ward, but I’ve told that story. What I keep thinking about now is the way that I reacted to the litany of accusations his letter hurled at me, and how very different that reaction was from the reactions of my loved ones.
“My dad says I’m abusive.”
Several friend actually laughed out loud. Some just looked utterly baffled. I heard again and again that they had never met anyone who fit that description less.
But I was so scared. I thought, at the time, that I was afraid that it was true and that this would make me a terrible person, a terrible daughter; that it would mean I had a sort of Hyde personality that could come out without me knowing. That I could hurt anyone I loved at any time. That I was a ticking time bomb, ready to go off and abuse the people I loved most.
That rings totally false. I knew at the time that it rang false. I knew my friends and family were right. I knew that a teenage girl yelling at her dad was normal, not abusive. I was afraid of retribution. And it came. He cut me off. Refused to answer his phone. Blocked my email. My poor sister had to tell me that he had done this, while I cried into the public phone in the middle of the hallway at the psych ward.
I was the center of his world, you see. When it was just me and my dad, we were everything to each other. There were people in my class at school who I never got to know, because he didn’t like them. (He was a teacher there.) I was the only one who never let him down, after my mother and my sister, according to him, had betrayed his trust just the way his mother and father and brothers and sister had all betrayed him. I was his best friend. He was so proud of me. He brought me to New York to settle me in at Barnard, and we cried together that we would be so far apart.
A mere four years later, here he was, writing letters accusing me of abuse and refusing to come to my Barnard graduation. Without him, he promised, I would never have even gone to college. I would have ended up “just like your mother.” That’s pretty much the worst insult he can come up with, since my beloved child-care provider, soft-spoken mother has somehow become Evil Incarnate to him. How dare I invite her to my graduation, when he had “done all the work” to get me there?
That did spark some anger in me. After all, I wrote the damn papers. I got myself into college, and I got myself to that stage on graduation day, magna cum laude, without even his financial help.
But this is how emotional abuse works. I believed that I needed him. I believed that without his approval, I really was worthless. I believed him when he told me that my mother had abandoned and betrayed me and would even kidnap me if she had the chance. I believed every word he said, even when he said cruel things about me, the mother I still loved, the sister I adored, the friends I spent my time with.
Then, the day came when he asked me to make one final, impossible choice: choose between him and me. If I continued to believe him, to be “on his side,” then I was worth less than nothing. I had betrayed the one person who had ever loved me. That road lead to my plan to commit suicide.
If I stepped outside his world and admitted that he was wrong, I would have to rebuild a world of my own, but I would be worth something. My life would be valuable. I could learn to trust the other half of my family again. I could trust my friends. I could trust myself. The trouble was, I didn’t trust trust myself or anyone. I had to spend years reconstructing my sense of self.
But this morning, I spent ten minutes bawling happy tears into my husband’s t-shirt, telling him how happy I am that there is no fear in our home. I have built myself a life and a family where no one has to be afraid. No one will threaten to withhold love or approval for any reason. I stood up to my dad a few years ago. I told him that I wouldn’t follow his rules. He could cut me off forever, but I would not do this any more. The sky didn’t fall. We’re still in touch, but I keep him at a distance. I love him. I think that I’ve even forgiven him. He has no power, anymore. One day, I hope that the fear leaves me entirely. I hope that the nightmares stop. But the fear lives in the nightmares, not in my reality. If I ever doubt that, all I need to do is look in my husband’s eyes.
This is the world that my child will know.