Speak Your Truth

The letter to my father that he never answered.

Dear Dad,

There is something I have been meaning to tell you for a while. There are actually a lot of things I need to say to you that I have never been brave enough to say. Last fall, I was having a hard time, crying every day, feeling hopeless, ready to lose my mind. I called my doctor and went on mood stabilizers for the third or fourth time in my adult life. I started seeing a therapist to deal with what I thought was just the current stress I am under – the speech issues with my children, my mom having cancer again, not knowing what I want to do with my life, etc. It soon became clear to me that there is much deeper stuff that I need to deal with from my childhood.

While it looks like I have my life together – a nice house, husband, and kids – the truth is that I don’t. I have a lot of years of practice of making everyone think I am doing great. I always did well in school, was a good, overachieving child, went to a good college and generally appeared to be successful. I did that for all the people in my life – for my mom, to make sure she wasn’t stressed or worried; for my friends, because I didn’t want to be the weird one with a crazy family and lots of problems; for myself, so I could tell myself that I was ok; and for you…deep down inside, I felt like you would finally love me if I was good enough.

The truth is that I have been struggling with anxiety, depression, and obsessive compulsive disorder for about 25 years. It started when I was around 10 years old. When I thought about how long I have been dealing with this and what was going on in my life at the time, I came up with three major issues that were going on: your increasing absence, my mom going quickly through three marriages, and Grandaddy molesting me. I now know that these issues are a common response from children who have been sexually abused.

I wanted all this buried deep down inside. I never intended to tell anyone about what Grandaddy did. I only admitted it because I found out that he had done it to someone else too. Telling you that was one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life. I had spent a lot of years telling myself that nothing weird had happened…that I had imagined it, or it was perfectly innocent, or that he was a good guy who did something strange. After I told you, I pushed it down again and never wanted to talk about it. It has all been eating me up inside. I let everyone think I am doing just great while I have been crumbling.

I am telling you all this because you don’t really know me. You only see the person who is doing great and has everything she ever wanted. I need you to know more about me. I need you to know that I don’t know what it is like to not feel anxious. I need you to know that I counted my notebooks and went over and over my homework in middle school to make sure I had done everything right. I need you to know that I cried hysterically the first time I didn’t get straight A’s. I need you to know that it is not ok that you walked out on us and then had very little to do with us. I need you to know how sad I was when you cancelled a Sunday visit at Gran’s house because you were too busy. I need you to know that when I was 4 years old, the thing I wanted most in the world was for my daddy to take me to Disney World. I need you to know that I was not a happy child most of the time. I need you to know that I had postpartum depression after I had both of my children. I need you to know that I barely remember the first 6 months of Penelope’s life because of it. I need you to know that I forgot to eat for 2 weeks after I had Teddy…prompting my doctor to question my weight loss and put me on antidepressant medication. I need you to know that there was a night a few years ago, after a rough day with the kids, when I lay down with P to get her to sleep and thought that I could just drive my car into a tree the next day and make it all stop. 

I don’t know what to do with my feelings toward Grandaddy. I didn’t cry at his funeral. I just felt so strange and focused on getting through it all. I’m not sure I ever loved him, but I feel terrible saying that I hated him. I spent a lot of Sunday afternoons listening to his racist jokes, sexist comments, and telling me how great my dad was…the guy who was nowhere to be found. Then he started doing things I didn’t understand. I knew I didn’t like it, and I tried to avoid being alone with him, but I couldn’t really say the words to myself…molested…sexually abused. It stopped after a handful of times, and I never felt comfortable around him again. He always forced us to hug him, sit on his lap, hold his hand…and it was suddenly all creepy. He was a domineering force, and I was terrified. I was confused, and it never occurred to me to tell someone. I didn’t want to be at that house, near him, and I just had to deal with it by myself. I regret that I never got to tell him what I thought of him…to storm out and refuse to ever see him again.

I know this is hard for you. This is probably not what you want to think of your father. Your father was not what you wanted him to be. He was not the grandfather I wanted him to be. You were not the father I wanted you to be. 

In a way I have moved on, put it behind me, mostly forgiven you. I decided long ago it wasn’t worth spending my life being angry. It’s a fine line between putting it behind you and shoving it down and not dealing with it. I am still not ok. It is not ok that you abandoned your family. It is not ok that you rarely saw your children. It is not ok that we got a couple of afternoon visits per year, during which several other people were around and you never spent time with us. It is not ok that for so many years you didn’t explain to your other children that we were their sisters…that they thought we were cousins of some sort. I remember one of them asking me during one of those visits when we were kids why I called you Daddy. I was an adult before I realized you had not explained your first marriage to them. It is not ok that you have never spoken to me again about what Grandaddy did, never expressed concern or asked whether I am ok. I am not ok. I have pretended to be ok for far too long.

As a child, I just wanted a normal family. The only thing I could do was to grow up and make one myself. For the last few years, I have wondered why I am still not happy. There is too much festering inside for me to really be happy right now. I am doing the things I need to do so that I can be happy and really enjoy my life. A big part of that means doing a better job of expressing how I feel. I can’t keep feeling so hopeless and anxious all the time. I have to start talking about things.

My mother’s death has been devastating. Some days I am still in shock and feel like it can’t be real. Some days I am so angry this happened. I only had one real parent and now she is gone. Other days I am just so deeply sad that I will never see her again and that she will not see my children grow up. 

It seems as though you have no idea how to be a parent. We needed more than a child support check when we were young, and how we need more than an occasional check in to see how when are, especially when you just seem to want to hear that things are fine. I have friends who dropped everything to fly to Florida, help us out, and come to Mom’s funeral. They are busy people with busy jobs, just like you, but they prioritized the people who are important to them. My mom’s friends did so much for us while we were there – made us food, babysat the kids, cleaned up, etc. My own father made a 90 minute visit and appeared to be on vacation in the mountains the day of the funeral. We needed you with us, providing emotional support and practical help.

I feel like an orphan, as though I am really on my own now. I talked my mom most weeks and at least texted with her most days. She knew what was going on with us, what our days were like, what the kids were doing. You hardly know us any more than acquaintances do. The most troubling thing is that this doesn’t seem to bother you. I don’t know how you envisioned your life or whether you ever imagined your relationship with your children or grandchildren. Maybe you just want it the way it is: working, traveling, saying hello on occasion. If so, that’s fine, and I can’t change it. If you do actually want to be a father and grandfather, then I have to be able to be honest with you and to know you will be there when I need you.