Surviving a dysfunctional family and being a better person because of it.
| How many times have we all heard the litanies about repeating our parents’ mistakes? We have all heard the stories of abusers and general “bad” people blaming their actions on their parents. My question is why is this an acceptable excuse for doing bad things? As a woman who grew up in a dysfunctional home, I simply cannot believe that just because you were treated badly you have to continue the cycle. I am not saying that childhood does not leave indelible marks on a person, but how does someone get away with never taking the initiative and learning from the things that they knew in their hearts were wrong? My childhood was not normal in any way; I made my mistakes growing into adulthood just like everyone else, but I continue to strive to never become the parents that I had.
I came into this world as the result of a lie. After two boys with my mother and several other children from different relationships, my father wanted no more children. My mother, however, wanted one more child so she could have her daughter. She lied to my father, said that it was “safe” for them to make love. The rest as they say was history. My mother knew she was pregnant, but no one else did. She hid her pregnancy for 6 months, at which time I decided to make my entrance. Surprise dad! You are a daddy again, and it’s a girl! Today I am eternally grateful to my mother for that lie, even though my life was in no way easy.
I remember as a very young child loving my parents. I had the usual memories of my mother taking my brothers and me on family outings, and there were even some times when my father was there as well. Things started getting a little weird when I was around five or six, and from there everything went crazy. My mom had diabetes, she was obese, and she was always in and out of the hospital. If she was in the hospital, I always wanted to sleep in my dad’s bed so that I didn’t feel so scared. At about this time I remember my dad touching me in ways that I felt odd about, and I vaguely recall painful encounters that I knew had to be wrong. I believe I was seven or eight when I decided I did not want to sleep with my father any more. The odd touching did not stop, and I remember wanting to tell my mom about it. I talked to my two older brothers, and they said that she would not believe me; I might even make her sicker. I believed them, but I know now that they were just trying to make sure they did not get in trouble for the same thing.
When I was nine years old, my life was totally turned upside down. Picture a nine year old talking to her mother. All of a sudden she is asking you who you are. She does not know the dog’s name that is lying beside her, even though it has been her dog for years. Then, she wants my dad because she cannot see. I recall running to my dad, obviously scared, and asking him why he would not help her. Instead of the response I expected, I was yelled at and whipped for crying. He told me my mother was faking it, and I needed to leave her alone. I believe it was at that point that I learned how to shut down my emotions. The next day, my aunt took her to the hospital. When I got home from school, the woman that I would later dub as one of my father’s “affair women” met me at my house to tell me that my mother had had her fourth stroke. My mom had already lost small parts of her memory to the previous three strokes, but with this one she lost most of her vision along with a large part of her short term memory. I was upset, but there would be no more tears to get me in trouble.
My mother was in the hospital for what seemed like a long time. When she came home I became her caregiver. I learned how to give her her medications, fix her insulin shots, and how to cook for a family of five. I do not recall how this came about exactly, but I remember being yelled and cussed at a lot until I learned what I needed to do. I asked my father when I was ten why he did not take care of all these things; His response was that if something happened and she died, he did not want people to blame him. By the time I was thirteen, if my mother had a doctor’s appointment, I missed school to go. I was the one who had her medications filled, told her doctor what was going on with her, and made sure that the results from her blood tests were given to me in order to make sure her blood thinners were updated accordingly.
My father was always yelling at my mother during all of this. He would tell her that she was a fat cow, worthless, and that she was faking all of her problems. I never got between them on these one-sided arguments, but my brain seemed to absorb everything that went on. I would get angry at him for being so mean, and I would get angry at her for never defending herself. I could not understand how she could just stare out a window and never stand up to him. My escape during these times was books. Books became my best friend, even though my dad cussed and yelled at me about that as well. I would read anything I could get my hands on, no matter the consequences. I was whipped, threatened, demeaned, and had them taken away, but I never gave in to him on this. If there was a brief moment I could escape into my reading, I did.
By the time I was fifteen, I was a product of my upbringing. I was very overweight, had a major attitude problem, and never showed any emotion but anger. I managed to do well in school, but I was never allowed to socialize outside of school. I had a few close friends that knew some of what I dealt with, but I tried not to have them over often in case they saw more than what they should. Upon entering high school, I discovered band. From my first moment with an instrument, I was hooked. As a freshman I was in marching band, jazz band, concert band, and pep band. My dad hated this; I was wasting my time, and I would never get anything out of it. My sophomore year, I was forbidden to be in band. At that point, it seemed that the only thing but reading that I had ever enjoyed was being ripped away. With my mother’s and friends’ parents help I was able to sneak to practices, even though I was not able to march. It was at this time that I became bulimic. I know now that according to all the experts I was using that as a way to have some control over my life; I was simply tired of being fat and watching my mom be ridiculed about being the same way. I swore the first time I threw up that no man would ever call me a fat cow, no matter what.
Between the ages of sixteen and eighteen, I got over my fear of my father. I was so used to being whipped with a belt; along with all the threats that he was going to shoot me that I had started standing up for myself. I got to the point that if I was threatened, I called his bluff. If he said he was going to shoot me, I told him to get his gun out so we could see who would actually use it. When he raised his fist, I taunted him. I wanted him to hit me so I could hit him back. I was becoming a very angry person, and I refused to put up with anything from my father. When I turned seventeen, I convinced my mom to leave my dad to go to my aunt’s. It took her two days before she decided she had to go back to him. Most of that was due to small-town politics. When the chief of police told us he wouldn't give us restraining orders against my dad because "he knew him and he would never do those things", the wind went right out of her sails.
When she made her decision, I told her I was not going back with her. I had already made arrangements to live with a friend until I finished school. I knew this was going to be hard on her, but I knew I could not stay in my father’s house any longer. I was at the end of my ability not to resort to violence against him, which I knew would only hurt my mother more. When my aunt took us back to his house, he noticed that I kept my stuff outside. He did not believe I was going to leave and even made the comment that this seemed a bit much for him saying that I needed to clean my room. I told him that if he truly thought that was why I was moving, then he was sadder than I thought.
I managed to finish school while working and continuing to go to my parents’ house to fix my mom’s medication. When I graduated from high school I moved in with my boyfriend at the time, where I stayed for another year. Soon after this, my mom had her fifth stroke.
This stroke left her unable to use her left arm or leg, which meant she was bed bound. My father begged me to move back home to care for her, which I did. Even though I was working full time I still managed to care for her, even though I was now expected to clean her up after accidents in addition to everything else. My mom became a very bitter and unhelpful patient. She would not help when it was time to change her or her bedding, and she refused to allow me to put her in adult diapers. I somehow managed to keep up with all this without growing bitter towards her, at least for a while.
After a few months of this, I reached my limit. I was trying to care for my mom and I yelled at her. This was a bad moment for me because I had always sworn that I would never treat her the way my father did. That day I called her doctor and told him that I simply could not handle taking care of her anymore. My fear was that if I yelled at her once, I would continue to do so. That was the day I made the decision to put her in a nursing home. I say I made that decision due to the fact that everyone knew who took care of her, and when I couldn’t do it anymore there was no one else that would. My mom was moved to a nursing home within the week, and once again I moved out of his house.
I was not in a good place mentally at that time. I had made the one decision that I had tried to avoid for years, even against my mom’s doctor’s advice. Her doctor had been telling me for several years that there was no way I could continue caring for her without doing myself harm both mentally and physically. By this time I was nineteen, and my mom outweighed me by 230 pounds. I was still bulimic, and my body was run down. I was working more than full time, I rarely slept, and I now had the mental stress of giving up on my mom. Within a few months, I had met a new boyfriend, moved in with him, and let him take over my life.
This boyfriend was a drug user, but I was so naïve that I simply did not know it. He had me doing drug runs for him, and when I figured out what he was having me do I balked. He then resorted to threatening me with violence, the police, holding a knife to my throat, anything he could think of. I was afraid of him, so I did what I was told. As a result of this, I ended up in jail, doing time for the things that he had convinced me to do. After four months in jail, I woke up and realized how stupid I was. Six months of house arrest and three years of probation later, I moved on with my life.
I made a promise to myself while I was in jail that I would never go back. I am happy to say that eight years later, I have kept that promise. My mother’s health failed even more, and she eventually ended up losing both of her legs. During this, my father found out he had cancer. He never went to tell my mother, and he refused to speak to her for over a year. I finally convinced my aunt that my mother needed to know the truth, but he died two days before I was scheduled to tell her. Instead of telling her that her husband had cancer, I was telling her that he was dead. My mother was distraught, but she handled the news better than I had expected. My biggest problem with his death was that I could not honestly say whether I loved him or hated him. My mom stayed alive for three more years. She got to meet my husband and her granddaughter before she passed away.
I live my life always remembering what I went through as a child. I learned many lessons growing up about what not to do as a parent. I look back on the mistakes I made and realize that I might have been able to get out of trouble by crying that it was my parents’ fault I made a bad decision. I would not do that when I was answering for my crimes, and I still do not wish I had. I knew that I was not raised in a normal or healthy home, but I did learn a lot. I have never been through formal counseling, even though I was told that I needed it. I did try to see a therapist, but she only wanted me to use drugs that had no effect on me. She was concerned about my lack of emotion. I still have a serious problem expressing my emotions, but I try to make sure that my daughter always gets the attention she needs if she is upset. She is only three, but I am confident that I have the ability to raise her in a totally loving and nurturing home. I refuse to allow the sins of the father to continue to haunt me; I certainly know that because of that, she will never have to deal with the issues that I did as a child.