6 Lessons My Emotionally Abusive Father Taught Me

Self portrait: "Mourning". Taken at age 15 in my paternal grandma's yard.
I'm in 10th grade. Mr. F, my English teacher, is leading a debate about how sitcom parents affect our opinion on the "ideal parent". The kid next to me, in between loud snaps of his gum, says that parents like Peter Griffin on Family Guy give men something to aspire to. "What dude doesn't wanna drink beer all day and have a hot wife with huge jugs?". Mr. F. didn't look impressed with his answer.

Suddenly, a light bulb goes off in my head. Raising my hand, I exclaim, "TV dads show us what we shouldn't aspire to be. Instead of being lazy, womanizing, unambitious slobs, we should work hard and be compassionate and respectful".

When I later write a paper on the topic, I get an A.

That's when I learned that sometimes, the moral of the story isn't so clear; we have to read between the lines. It wasn't about what TV dads taught us to do; it was what they taught us not to do.

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It's been 5 months since my father walked out of my life. Since today is Father's Day, I thought I'd share the lessons he taught me. Just like that fateful 10th grade English class, the lessons my father taught me weren't always so clear. But when I dig deep, I realize that sometimes surviving emotional abuse is one of life's greatest teachers.

Lessons my father taught me:

1. Be sensitive to other people's feelings. 

I've told this story a lot of times, but this event really shaped how I handle sensitive situations. 

I was sitting in a pizza place in rural New Brunswick on a family trip. My mom, brother and I were happily discussing the menu, when my dad, noticing an infected bug bite on my arm, barked, "Rebecca! What the hell is that?". I wanted to remind him that we'd been hiking last week and mosquitoes love me. I wanted to say, "I have dermatillomania (compulsive skin picking related to my anxiety disorder), remember? I can't help it". I wanted to reassure him that I was applying Polysporin every day and that it wasn't as painful as it looked. But all I could do was burst into tears.

If there's a crusty yellow pus-filled sore on a girl's arm, you can bet she's aware of it. Other than the fact that it probably hurts like a bitch, she's likely praying that no one will call attention to it because bug bite- covered limbs are embarrassing enough, but a mental illness compelling you to dig holes in your own epidermis takes the cake.

Don't draw attention to your daughter's (or other loved one's) bug bites or mole or C minus in Spanish unless absolutely necessary, and done in a compassionate and quiet tone of voice. How a 40 year-old high school principal didn't know that basic etiquette is beyond me.

2. The person who yells loudest doesn't always win the argument.

"My father used to always say, 'Don't raise your voice. Improve your argument'". -Desmond Tutu. 

If my father had taught me that by not yelling and instead making irrefutable points, that would have saved me a lot of (sometimes literal) headaches.

3. An education can get you far. 

My father was the youngest person to become principal of a high school in the Toronto District. Damn impressive. He studied hard and completed his degree, going to university every day, even when he would have preferred to avoid the hour long commute and stay at home with his daughter (me) and his beautiful wife. Between him, my mom and my step-dad, I've learned that acquiring as much knowledge as possible (even when it's difficult) is one of the best ways to attain your goals.

4. The experiences your child has during her formative years will impact her for life. 

Some of my best memories are of my father; days at the park, rolling over logs and checking out the cool bugs underneath them; dancing barefoot in the basement to his record collection; baking gingerbread cookies. Some of my worst memories are with my father, too; locking myself in the bathroom during an argument with him and cutting my wrists with a razor blade to drown out his voice; hearing him berate my mom day after day and knowing I couldn't do anything to make him stop; being lectured about my weight and how I'll never fit into my clothes or society if I don't stop "eating like a pig". It's no surprise that I developed an eating disorder as a teen, or that my eyes tear up whenever I hear Brown Eyed Girl or that I'm suddenly terrified of bugs as an adult, even though I loved them so much I wanted to study them as a kid. 

5. People will perceive you however they want to; what you wear has little to do with it. 

I stood before the mirror, smoothing down my skirt and smiling at my reflection. I looked good. My denim mini hit a couple inches above the knee, accentuating my favourite part of my body without revealing too much. The skirt had song lyrics scribbled around the hem (DIY chic!). The blouse I'd chosen, my grandma had bought the week before. It was white with red pinstripes and had ruffles in the middle. I buttoned it all the way and made sure the cuffs were just so. My makeup was very subtle (for teenage me, anyway): navy blue liner around my lids, lightly smudged. I considered wearing fishnets or adding some glitter, but figured I'd tone it down. Didn't want to scare my family at our get together. I'd save my best outfits for drama club or trips to the mall anyway. 

I raced down the stairs to put on my shoes, when my father noticed my outfit. "Really? You're wearing that?". I nodded. "I love this skirt. And Bubby bought me the top at Old Navy". "Put on an appropriate skirt, now. And no leg things. I won't have you embarrassing me again".

That's when I realized that people who are looking for a fight will always find something to be angry about. If I had been the jeans- wearing daughter he'd wanted, my father still would have found something to be mad about, whether it was my dermatillomania or my weight or the fact that I'd gotten a B- on my last math test instead of a B.

6. Most importantly, my father taught me to never, ever walk out of someone's life just because the going gets tough.  

Sometimes, I'm hard to love. I suffer from myriad complicated, incurable and little- known illnesses. I'm highly sensitive and often idealistic. Hell, I write about anything and everything that I please (like this piece... ahem!). But... being hard to love doesn't make someone unloveable. I'm witty. I'm affectionate. I'm loyal. And I'm his daughter. Ableism and a few disagreements aren't reason enough to throw out a relationship that's 23 years in the making, are they?

No matter who it is, if they love you and you love them, you'll find the courage to step up and be there for them in whatever capacity you can be.

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This Father's Day, I'm grateful to the men who are in my life and not going anywhere. The ones who don't get scared when I say I need them. Who see me for my sense of humour and my wit and my affection instead of just my waistline and my cane. I have the best boyfriend and the best step-dad a girl could dream of. So today I won't dwell on my genes; I'll celebrate the men I love, and who love me right back.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous23 June, 2015

    And your step-dad does love you right back. You are an amazing and wonderful person (just like your mom) and she and I are so proud of the beautiful and intelligent young woman that you have grown to become. We are blessed to have a daughter like you. Happy Father's Day and every day My Lovely Daughter 2.0

    ReplyDelete

I always read (and often respond) to comments. I appreciate each and every one!

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