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By Caroline Nash
A secret, in its best form, brings people together. In its worst, isolates us from the world because it shames us into believing we can’t trust anyone with it.
I have a secret that I’ve carried for most of my life. It’s always made me feel out of place. Different. Like my childhood was weird. Or I was. The few times I have shared this part of myself, I’ve been told I was wrong. That what I was feeling wasn’t real. So, I buried it deep, deep down until it seeped into my bones, into my marrow, until it was no longer just there, but a part of me.
It’s time to let it out in the open.
My name is Caroline. My father is emotionally and verbally abusive.
Most people who meet my father say he is a great man. He knows so much about football, he is passionate about sports, whatever. That’s fine. They see a side he chooses to show most people. I wish that was the man I knew. I wish that was the man I could say was my father. But he’s not. I want to be someone who is proud of my father. But I don’t know if I ever will be.
The man I know terrified me growing up. The man I know saddled me with never-ending trust issues in all relationships, especially with men. The man I know told me on multiple occasions that I wouldn’t make it and that my opinions were wrong. The man I know locked me out of the house for disagreeing with him, and locked my mother out for taking a drive just to be alone for a bit. The man I know calls my mom 10-15 times if she’s leaves the house for longer than a half hour. The man I know sent me to my room because his team lost and it was my fault. The man I know would wake everyone up in the middle of the night to yell at me for doing schoolwork outside of my room. The man I know threatened to kick me out of the house because I saw Fahrenheit 9/11. The man I know told me on my 18th birthday that I was not invited to his funeral because he only wanted people there that he cared about. And that didn’t include me. The man I know is the reason why the thought of having children scares me; because I might turn into him. The man I know is the reason why I started having panic attacks at just the thought of confrontation.
I know this is a story you’ve heard many times – girl is raised in relatively quaint home with generally good life but with an abusive father. We see this storyline on every teen drama. You probably know someone that has experienced a similar story, if this isn’t already you.
And yet it’s happening. We hear stories of abuse, acknowledge them for a little while, especially when a big media story involving celebrities or otherwise beautiful people surfaces, and just as quickly as we become infuriated about it, we forget. It is important, we say, but there are so many things that are important. How can we focus on just this?
And then you, the victim of abuse, certainly don’t talk about it, because then you become the person with “daddy issues”. You’re diminished to “damaged” and “crazy” and no one wants to take the time to deal with your baggage. It’s hard, sticky, and uncomfortable. Like a Now and Later with no reward. For some, it’s nothing more than a moment of listening to a sad story. You can have your five minutes to talk about how difficult abuse is for you, they’ll even give you a YouTube video and pass your link around Facebooks and Tumblrs, but eventually, enough will be enough. The thought that so many children, women, and men experience varying levels of abuse on a consistent basis is too much to deal with. It’s too hard to relate to.
Your issues and constant discussion of said issues make it difficult to just be fine. And we all just want to be fine. It’s easier to be fine.
But for you, it’s forever present. It’s not enough for us to just say our peace and go, fading away into the distance of public discourse. This is important. This is happening. And it should demand our attention like the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge did in 2014.
Where do we begin to change? Where do we find the freedom to discuss abuse?
For people like me, surrounded by immediate and extended family denying your story or – even worse – defending the abusive behavior, it start to make you think you’re insane. I know the first step in change for me was seeing my friends interact with their fathers and finding that maybe my instincts were right. Maybe something was wrong.
Maybe you and I aren’t so crazy after all.
This is a thing I struggle with daily, sometimes externally, but always internally, somehow, though many that know me may be completely oblivious to it. The Ray Rice scandal bothered me a lot. (I’m sure a few of you have stored this horrible story since this happened.) Regarding his wife, whom he abused, many people would say things like, “Well, why doesn’t she just leave? She chose to marry him!”
Y’all, it’s so easy to talk when you aren’t involved.
When you’re abused in any shape or form, your perception of the world is changed entirely. Your abuser may be calm right now, having a laugh at dinner, enjoying themselves, but anything could set them off at any moment. This could be the day it changes. Where it goes from verbal to physical harm and from physical to injury and injury to death. And it would be your fault. It feels like someone holding a gun to your loved one’s head, saying, “If you annoy me in any way, I will shoot them.” It’s living with perpetual fear, always aware, always afraid.
I love my mom, more than anything. And it’s hard for me to say this, but I have been frustrated with her on a number of occasions. I want her to be happy, healthy, and thriving and living the life she deserves. It’s agonizing knowing that she will never leave my father. I vividly fantasize of that life she could be living. The moment of her being set free. But I know this is just a dream I weave to comfort myself.
In so many ways, I get it. I think the choice would be easy to leave, sure. But when I’m really honest with myself, I know it’s not easy for my mom. It’s not easy for any woman, man, or child involved in these circumstances. That’s what makes it even more difficult. I want the world for my mom, but she probably won’t get that until my father dies. And even then, I don’t know if she’ll go after it. When I was younger, I was livid that she stayed with him and didn’t really confront what he did. But when I think about it now, I can see that she was trying to keep a family together. It isn’t the healthiest choice, but I can see her side more as I’m getting older.
This will never be a black and white situation. Abuse changes your mentality. You have reasons that keep you behind – your children or a certain sense of obligation. This is something that I understand now.
I spent most of my life planning on when it was my time to finally leave and move as far as my bank account could take, so I could finally escape my father and the terror that encompassed most of my youth. But the thing that they don’t tell you is that when you finally get to leave, or get up the courage and resources to leave, you suddenly see the things you’re leaving behind – like your siblings and your mother and their safety, which you feel responsible for. Because, when I was home, I could be the scapegoat. I could take his wrath so that they didn’t have to. Leaving gave me a whole new brand of guilt to haunt me as I chase the dreams I’ve always had.
Leaving brought new issues into my life, like trying to explain my past to any man I’ve dated without him seeing me as this emotionally unhinged human being or how I will always have my guard up no matter how wonderful and perfect someone is or if marriage were something I were to aspire to, I hope that it’s after my father died, so I don’t even have to have the conversation about him not walking me down the aisle. These are not great first date discussion topics.
These are fears that weigh on me constantly. This is why it is hard to leave.
Abused children become adults and with that comes the bombardment of marriage around every corner. We hear so much about weddings, but there are quiet moments that we don’t hear a lot about. Like the moment when you sit on the side wearing your well-thought out cocktail dress and pretend that you’re not about to burst into tears as the father-daughter dance begins. You’re fine. You’re a rock. 150 of your best friend’s family, friends, and assorted acquaintances do not need to see your emotional breakdown. You’re better than this. Quietly you understand that you that you will never create memories like everyone else you know. And no amount of therapy, journaling, or running will not keep those feelings from ever going away.
Forgiveness is something I’ve tried to do with my father. In college, he got extremely ill while I studied abroad in France. I came home with the thought that maybe the silver lining to this illness would be that he saw the errors of his ways and had changed. Maybe he would want to be a better person. Maybe he would want to work on a relationship with me. Maybe he would apologize.
You knew this before I said it, but no, none of those things happened. He still had the same behavior, still treated my mom and me horribly. The hardest thing to realize is that the family you’re born with isn’t necessarily the one that’s best for you. Sometimes, they’re more toxic than good. But it’s important for me to tell you, as someone who is working through this daily, hourly, by the minute, sometimes: you don’t have to let them control you. They do not decide where you go and what you do in life. You do. This has taken me years and years to finally accept. It’s okay. I’m okay.
For years I’ve made excuses for my father. Not anymore. I owe him nothing. This isn’t something I ever want pity for.
Truthfully, I want more than anything to be cured of the years of abuse and hurt, as though this were the flu. But the sickness I’ve been touched by cannot be wiped away with Nyquil and a day off. This is not my illness. It is my father’s. This is not the thing that defines me, Caroline, as a human being, but it has impacted me just the same.
So, truthfully, I’m not here to say this is something that will ever be 100% wiped away for people experiencing or who have experienced abuse. But it is something that we can fight, as long as we are brave enough to keep talking about it. We must keep the conversation going. I’m here to open a new strand of dialogue, because, truly, the more we talk about this, the more we can empower the abused and enlighten those on the outside looking in. Abuse is always unacceptable. When we are open and honest, we let the men, women, and children who stay see that there is some way out eventually. It’s terrifying, but it will be okay. You’ll be okay.
We can do this.
Image: Omar Yassen