photo by Bethany Barker
When parenting fails
Looking back, I felt a lot more mature in elementary school than I actually was. My parents’ divorce resulted in me being responsible for the care of my brother. This put me in the mindset of someone more advanced in age, something my dad noticed. What he did not notice, was the fact that despite my responsible nature, I was still a child, and I still needed someone to take care of me.
The children of divorce very rarely have it easy, and I would have killed to be an exception to this. My time was split between my parents, but I spent much more of the week with my mom. I longed for a regular schedule; as a child, my priorities were my friends, who all happened to live closer to my mom’s house.
Eventually, my mom remarried when I was in fifth grade and gave me some of the normalcy I had craved for so long. I believe my dad grew jealous and bitter over my mom’s newfound happiness. While I was still quite young, I already understood that the man my father lived with was his romantic partner, but it was not until after my mom remarried that he pulled me aside to come-out about his preferences. The conversation I thought started well; I told him I understood and was fine, yet he was not satisfied. After asking me if I preferred my mom’s heterosexual relationship, I replied with a nonchalant shrug of my shoulders, which unbeknownst to me, was the wrong answer and the moment where everything started to go wrong.
All I remember was the voice of a large man yelling as if accusing me of being the reason for my mom’s happy relationship. He had only a foot over me in height, but it felt like stories. For the first time, I felt small, like a child. I did not understand what could have caused this vast change from his usual stoicism. That day was the blueprint for the next few years of my life.
I began to dread the visits to my dad’s house. He would pick me up after school on Mondays and Fridays, meeting my brother and I with a smile. On rougher days, he would often separate me from my brother, sending him outside or to go and get ice cream or other desserts while I had to remain home. Left alone, he used that time to take out his anger on me.
As a naive 12-year-old, I would occasionally try and calm his anger by telling him the issues I had at my mom’s house. For a while it would work, but eventually it just added fuel to his delusions that I was a demon-child sent to curse him by my mom.
Yelling, threatening, hurting me. He never left any visual marks, and I thought myself lucky until I realized he only did so to keep anyone from believing what he was really like. Instead, he hurt me in subtle ways: pinches, slaps, denying me food, water, and access to the bathroom, keeping me locked in my room. If I were to try and leave, I would be chased back, followed by yelling and a hand ready to strike me if I was within range. He belittled me constantly calling me stupid, a whore, and the devil spawn of my mother. My dad took out his anger toward my mom on me, but I never blamed her, despite how often he drilled into my head that I should. The resolve I maintained did not work in my favor as my resistance made him adamant to break me no matter what it took.
My middle school years had already started pretty rough. I did not have any friends in my sixth-grade year, as no one wanted to hang out with the girl that spent her lunchtimes crying in the library. Although I was often seen crying near the trash cans, I played a happy child for the majority of the time. I refused to talk to anyone about my situation and repressed my feelings.
At the time I had not realized but I developed anxiety. The walk to my dad’s car after school on the days I was with him filled me with dread. My head grew cloudy, my hands shook, my breathing quickened and my legs seemed to be weighed down. It happened for a while only around my dad, but as it developed I noticed even the mention of him caused a breakdown. My mom finally noticed something was the matter and decided to take me to therapy, chalking up the issue to a developing teenager’s natural hormones.
Therapy seemed like a good idea, until I realized that the court required my mom to inform my dad about my sessions and bring him along. In the first session, I had received a warning from my dad not to say anything that may incriminate him. When I walked into the room and met my new therapist, she seemed like someone I could finally trust to tell my story. She had a large black poodle that I could pet if I got nervous during the session. While the therapist seemed caring, it still took me a while to open up.
After the first two months of sessions, she had gotten me to talk. I told her of my woes and experience with degradation at my father’s house. I told her my plan to get out; I was documenting, in a variety of different locations, all the times that he hurt me or allowed weird men to touch me. The evidence I collected was crucial in presenting my case, as I knew no one would believe that my charismatic and easy-going dad treated his child so horribly.
Continuing to confide in my therapist, I felt as though some of the weight and pressure of keeping everything hidden was being taken off my shoulders. When I told her about my problems and the thoughts that ran through my head on a daily basis, she had me take a test, then told me that I most likely suffered from both depression and anxiety.
I found it strange that she supposedly prioritized my anxiety, yet told me to be nice to my father after I had just finished sobbing my way through a story about how he had kept me locked in my room for an entire week where I was only able to eat the Ritz crackers I snuck from the pantry in the middle of the night, sending me off with a thumbs-up. Then I started noticing that my dad would question me about things he should not have known about.
Stashed throughout my room and on the old iPod touch underneath a dresser in the garage, I was hiding journals, collecting evidence of mistreatment. The plan was to use months of pictures, audio recordings, and my own writings to finally get away from my dad for good. Somehow he found all my evidence with ease, and with every new discovery, I realized that as the only person I had told about my stashes, my therapist was working against me.
Therapy was supposed to help; it is supposed to be a safe space. For many, it is. I was severely unlucky. I stopped talking in my sessions and noticed how she would hang around and talk to my dad after the time was supposed to be over.
Trusting people grew harder and my depression worsened. I did not have anyone on my side to depend on or care for me like I wanted.
My luck seemed to change when I finally made a friend that seemed to understand my struggles. I told her everything and she genuinely seemed to care. She told me not to tell the others in our circle of friends because, by her reasoning, it would just make them sad.
Out of everyone in my life, I became reliant on her. As the situation at my dad’s festered into my personal hell, I tried to ignore the voice in the back of my head telling me it would be easier if I just ended my own life. Thinking about my friend, I did not want to upset her with my death so instead, I planned to run away so that my dad could see how serious I was about getting away from him.
My attempt to run away failed horribly and I felt like suicide was the only option. Clouded with these thoughts, I reached out to my friend, and she told me to do it. The only friend I had in the world wanted me dead. I was in shock.
Thinking I was unwanted in the world, I started planning to end my own life. I hid knives in my room, stopped eating the little food I was able to gather at my dad’s and my mom’s house, and I started taking whatever random pills I could find. The night I planned to cut my throat, my mom found me sobbing in my room. Neither of us said anything as she walked in on me, and to this day, the topic is avoided. Instead, she just held me until my crying stopped and put me to bed.
I did not know it at the time, but I desperately wanted someone to stop me, to care about me. My mom has never really mentioned that night, but every now and again I scare myself with how different I used to be.
I still did not have much help getting away from my dad. My mom did all she could but ultimately it was left up to me. When I turned 15, I took a stand for myself and refused to go to my dad’s house on one of the weekends he was meant to have me. The first time I did this, everything just got worse. He threatened me into his car. My dad told me that if I ever left, he would adopt another little girl to fill my spot. That shut me up for at least three months. I was concerned about my brother, but my dad loved him for being a boy and so, he had never experienced the issues I had.
After months of struggling with my mental issues, I made a plan that would avoid the court forcing my mom to send me to my father’s house. I refused to go to his house, threatening to call the cops on him if he tried to drag me out. Looking back I believe both my age and seriousness about the situation got him to stop trying to take me with him. He still has not adopted another child like he threatened but, I occasionally get hateful messages and letters from him.
If I could give any advice to my younger self, I would want her to know that nothing is permanent. Torment can go on for years, making it seem like there is no way out, but eventually things do get better. However, nothing will change on its own. Even if it is difficult, you have to fight for yourself.
I saw my dad again for the first time in a while a few months ago. It is my belief that people should get a second chance and I was hoping he would apologize for what he had put me through. Instead, he met me with the same hateful demeanor and slapped me.
Not everyone can recognize when they are at fault but I have learned to forgive him so that I can try and better myself without his influence. Now I have amazing and trustworthy people in my life that I know I can rely on. Some days are darker than others, but my struggles made me stronger so I know I have the strength to push through.
The biggest benefit, despite the personal growth, is my ability to relate to friends that may be going through something similar. Everyone has different experiences, but we all have something to learn about each other. Every bad day brings a story, and in those stories, is advice.