The prompt for this essay was to write about a time when life was beautiful or not. I chose the first time I realized something was wrong with the way my father acted. I was six and trying to come to grips with an abusive father. There are trigger warnings for this involving abuse and mental illness, so please read at your own caution.
“I want to walk into the ocean and feel it trying to drag me along and I want to resist it.”
-Kim Addonizo “For Desire”
Six years old. Life should always be beautiful for six year old girls, with her colorful dress-up clothes crumpled in the corner, with her younger brothers who can be used as real-life real dollies. With her crayons and stacks of papers, shelves crammed with picture books, a warm bed and two loving parents.
It should be, but it isn’t always.
I was six years old when I realized that something was wrong with my father. I was in bed and my bedroom was near the stairs that led up to my parent’s bedroom and my twin brothers’ cribs. My bed was right behind the door and I could peer through the door jam and see into the bathroom across the hall. My bedroom was tiny but a safe cocoon for me to be by myself and read. It was safe because my father was rarely in there and had never yelled so near to there as he did that night. I don’t remember if I woke up to him screaming and pounding my Playskool kitchen or if I hadn’t yet fallen asleep.
“I need help. I can’t carry them both by myself” my mom said.
“Just fucking do it! I don’t have time for this shit!” my dad screamed.
“Please, I need your help. They are too heavy for me to carry them both.”
“Fine, leave one of them on the floor. Who gives a shit?!”
Pound. Pound. Pound.
I shrank back in my bed. I remember thinking, “If I use my back, if I push hard enough, I can disappear into the mattress.” I wouldn’t have to hear what my father was doing. I wouldn’t have to hear the sound of his palm, smacking my toys or my mother’s pleading and soft weeping.
Pound. Pound. Pound.
Something deep inside me shattered that night. I didn’t know it then, or the next morning when my father came downstairs and picked me up, hugging me his good morning, or even the day after that.
Life was a lot less beautiful for me after that. I had my good moments, but anxiety and dread began to slowly creep into my life at home. I became conscious of my father’s rapid mood swings; one minute he was on an upswing and the whole family was going on an impromptu beach visit to Delaware. In the next breath, he was down again-we were all fuck-ups and could do nothing right in his eyes.
I would come home from school and ask my mother the same question, “What mood is Dad in?”
“He had a good day today,” she might say. Or “His boss pissed him off again.”
Most of the time, I could gauge his mood and act accordingly with a run to the door to hug him, smelling the Metro on him, or hiding in my room until he knocked on my door to bitch and complain. He did that a lot. He told me that I was old enough to understand certain adult details at twelve, thirteen, and fourteen years old, like what the phrase put away wet meant in reference to a dear friend’s mother, or how this mother would perpetually come on to him. I would shiver uncomfortably, but not know what to say. I thought we just had a special relationship because I was Daddy’s Little Girl. I didn’t realize how completely fucked up it was until later. I didn’t realize a lot of things until later.
And sometimes acting accordingly got my brothers and I nowhere at all. My nine year brother dropped an old glass cup and it shattered on the floor. We all turned at the sound, looked at my father and held a collective breath. We kept holding it as he turned red and began screaming. My mother tried to soothe him as we slowly and stealthily slipped from the room. If he caught us trying to leave, his rage would double.
The verbal abuse from my father always echoed the same themes. We were good for nothings, he shouldn’t have to come home and deal with this shit and on and on and on. My mother pleaded with him to spit the bone out, which was her metaphor for him to stop flinging back the carpet and dredging up past mistakes to hurl them into our faces.
My bad grade from two years ago? In my father’s mind, it was the sole reason I didn’t get a 1600 on the SAT’s and the reason I wouldn’t be going to Princeton.
My brother knocking over the trash can two weeks ago? He was garbage, said Dad, and he always would be.
We began to cower in his presence or knowingly be out of the house when he was around. We all lost our voices. If I tried to fight back, if my mother tried to stick up for us, it made the situation worse: he would make us all watch as he singled us each out and humiliated us. We would watch as he walked to each of us, screaming at us. We would watch him make my mother cry.
Life wasn’t beautiful when my father blamed me-his oldest child, his only daughter, for everything wrong in his life, past and present. Life wasn’t beautiful when he was the perpetual victim of his supposedly “his ball busting bitch of a boss” and his incompetent wife, my mother, who claimed was actively trying to ruin his life. When constant verbal abuse and spittle are hurled your way, it wears you down like someone walking over carpet daily for years on end. Little nubs and stains are all that’s left.
We have all left him, in one way or another. My mother divorced him after he tried to strangle her two days before Christmas. I fled to college. My brothers ignore him in his own house.
But life has gotten a little more beautiful for me. I sought help, both in college and once I graduated. I learn all the proper terms of how to deal with having an abusive, toxic parent; not to blame myself, that emotional and physical distance can be good things for me, that I am a person of value who deserves a happy, beautiful life. I live on my own terms, set my own routines and follow what makes me happy. I take lots of pictures, buy lots of books and spend lots of time with people that I love.
It’s still hard to see it, though. I have two chronic conditions, either partially or fully caused by the abuse. I still have to deal with near daily reminders that my father was abusive and mentally ill, either through jumbled, threatening emails or voicemails full of hurtful, hateful messages. When he tried to strangle my mother, his job forced him into therapy, where he was diagnosed bipolar.
It’s hard to have an abusive parent and not just for the obvious reasons. People may have heard of domestic violence, but only in the physical sense. Since I bore no bruises or scars (at least ones that people can easily see, I still have a crescent shaped one in my scalp from a toy car that he threw at the wall because I didn’t duck fast enough), clearly, I wasn’t the right type of abuse victim. Domestic violence can be many different things: verbal abuse, sexual/or incest, covert incest, emotional abuse, religious or financial abuse, in addition to the horrible scars and pain inflicted physically.
I’m planning my wedding and I’ve gotten the invasive “Why isn’t your father invited?” or “Why isn’t your father walking you down the aisle?” types of questions. I envy the women who have fathers who cared for them, tucked them into bed and read them stories, without twisting or manipulating their desires for their own sick pleasures. I envy the women who can smile proudly when someone mentions their father, their fathers that are, in turn, proud of them.
I want to resist the emotional flashbacks; I want to resist the anxiety disorder that still cripples me. I want to be free from the digestive illness that still causes me pain. I want a more permanent happiness and reassurance, the kind that comes from Roberto Benigni movies. We make our own beauty through the struggles. I’ve lived no other life, so I don’t know what life is like without threatening phone calls and emails and hiding. Despite the undercurrent that snatched me at the tender age of six, I know beauty and kindness and tenderness. I fight the rip tides for these qualities. I fight it daily.