I’m a nearly 24-year-old woman, and I’m afraid to visit my dad. I will occasionally. But from the first moment the door is opened, we both put on masks and start our acts. His role is a kind, affectionate, overly generous man who will convey all the sympathy and love in the world through his tone and gentle manner. My role is a gracious, polite daughter, aloof about her Catholicism and more willing to talk about work and current events.
Here are the actual people behind the masks. He is a paranoid recluse, increasingly aware of the many ways his actions have driven away everyone in his life, desperate to portray himself as kindly and lovingly as possible so as not to lose the few people left.
I am the victim of his past abuse, pretending that it never happened as I listen to his delusions about life, gender dynamics, religion and politics with a courteous smile plastered on my face. The woman I pretend to be in his presence is passively religious – not passionate about her Catholicism, but practicing enough so as not to cause this poor old man a heart attack. In reality, I abandoned the very idea of a loving god when I was seventeen.
I haven’t lived with my dad in four years, and I’m still afraid of him.
In theory, I probably could tell him a lot more about myself without any physically adverse consequences. I’m completely financially independent from him, and he hasn’t physically abused me since I was a child. But the memories are still there, and I fall into the same survival tactics whenever I’m in his presence. This is what it’s like to be a survivor of parental abuse.
Growing Up with Emotional Abuse
I’ve always had to wear a mask around my father. If I expressed hurt or sadness as a child from something he did, he in turn would express annoyance at me. “Agh, stop crying,” he would snap exasperatedly with a sharp brushing motion of the hand. If I expressed anger, he in turn would express anger toward me, bending down to shove his glaring face close to my own. He never uttered the words “I’ll give you something to cry about,” but the implication was plain.
I also never knew what would turn him against me. At age seven, I shared with him my own interpretation of a Biblical story, and I remember saying, “No one knows exactly what they said [at the time].” He exploded, raising his voice louder and louder as he rebuked me for not taking the scripted words in the story literally.
At age nine, he took me to Mass with him every morning, and I got used to genuflecting (bending one knee in respect to God) every time I entered and left the seats in the church. One time, out of habit and sheer muscle memory, I performed the same kneeling motion when we were leaving a movie theater. He yelled and lectured me for hours afterward, questioning my devotion to God when I had done a sacred gesture of respect to a movie theater screen.
At age eleven, I was sick with strep throat during Sunday mass, and I stayed silent during the Our Father prayer. At some point he realized that I wasn’t speaking, and he bent down and glared at me, eyes wide and teeth bared, for the last half of the prayer. He screamed at me during the entire car ride home.
There were no mistakes to be made around him. His anger was unpredictable and he was utterly unsympathetic to my own emotions. So I learned to analyze every situation for the slightest detail that might set him off.
I learned to set my jaw and turn my face to stone whenever I was sad, frustrated or angry around him. I learned to quietly grind my teeth and not say anything whenever he would gleefully mock a character in a movie for expressing sadness or crying.
I learned to glare at the floor – and never directly at him – whenever he criticized my mother for not cooking a meal or running an errand to his exact specifications, when he sat at his computer all day and she worked until midnight. I learned how to walk and play quietly around the house, to never make any unnecessary noise, to sit perfectly still so he wouldn’t notice me.
It never did any good to tell him that his actions were hurtful. At one point, at age seventeen – isolated in the house, only allowed to go out for classes at my homeschooler co-op and for chaperoned friend visits – I finally snapped and told him that his decision to isolate me had made me socially awkward with barely any friends. He growled at me for feeling sorry for myself.
At age eighteen, my mother got home late one weekend night, running errands for him, and he criticized her for not bringing home new towels in addition to everything else she had done.
The next day, furious at him for treating my mother like that, I told him that she did all the cooking and the errands for him, worked nine hours a day and came home exhausted, and we both needed to do more to help her.
He became dangerously quiet and sullen and told me that he wouldn’t cook – since he was a man – and that I would help her with the cooking thenceforth. They were supposed to go out for a haircut later that day; she told me he screamed at her during the whole car ride and nearly wrecked the car turning it around in a rage.
That was the last time I stood up for my mom against him. He had tacitly taught me over the years that standing up for myself against him would only bring more pain, and standing up for her against him would only bring more punishment down on her.
So at nineteen, I left.
I had never explicitly told him, but he seemed to know that I would never want to live with him again. He still financed my college tuition and gave me money for food as I studied full time in university, and in return, I visited him to give him updates on my life.
And that’s when our acts began.
He was never discourteous or unkind to me during my visits – only smiling, happy, and sympathetic to whatever I told him about school or work. I didn’t know what to expect from him, so I was gracious, polite, and told about the events in my life as though I was emotionally aloof from them.
It’s been like that for four years.
The Role of Therapy for C-PTSD
In my therapy sessions, a frequent topic of conversation is the separation of myself and my own actions from the emotions of other people. My dad no longer has the power to control my life, and whatever emotional reactions he has to my own words or actions cannot affect me. They might cause memories to resurface, and they might cause me feelings of fear. But he can no longer have any physical effect on my life – and from that point of view, nothing he does can affect me.
Why do I keep visiting him, then?
Primarily, it’s because of the fact that he’s gained better control over himself and more awareness of his own toxicity. After years of observing him, it seems his kindness and his calm demeanor is genuine.
He’s become more sympathetic and willing to listen to my mom, and on the occasions when I’ve expressed frustration with something in my life (usually school), he’s listened without judgement and provided thoughtful and emotionally intelligent advice.
I’ve only had one incident with him in four years in which he lost his temper with me, and I’m proud to say that I remained calm during the incident and refused to submit to the tantrum. His growth has occurred in baby steps, but it is growth nonetheless.
It’s still difficult to interact with him, however. I’ve told my father less and less about my life over the years during our visits. He knows the basics – he attended my graduation from university and knows that I work full-time – but nothing about my friends or my hobbies or what I do with my time on the weekends. He never earned the right to know any of these things, and so I maintain a boundary over them as an adult when I visit him.
So our relationship consists of other things. Movies that we still mutually like. Current events that we both have the same views on. Talks about history – especially World War II. One topic of conversation that has proven especially promising has been his childhood, his memories of his own parents and the nuances of his life growing up. During these conversations, I learn more about the past and he remembers his own vulnerability as a child, and we find a tentative connection.
It’s a rocky road to finding common ground, and we still wear the masks and put on our acts with each other. But perhaps one day we’ll be able to interact without them.
Thanks for reading!
More C-PTSD Stories by Emily.