Monday, March 04, 2019

My Own Private Patriarchy

Often, when I'm sad, it helps to write. Word-vomiting is weirdly cathartic and soothing for me. And I've had a whole day of this need without knowing exactly how it should fittingly be expressed. Until I remembered yesterday's book club. I frequently used my book club in Oregon as therapy, albeit not intentionally. There is just something about the words from someone else that elicit my own about my feelings. Only that hadn't happened with book club 2.0 in Nashville until yesterday. Thus, I found inspiration for this entry which may or may not be very organized and, worse, might not make total sense. But I'm trying. Because words. I have them.

We read 'The Leavers' by Lisa Ko. I'm not going to summarize it here because you can read for yourself if you want, but the central theme revolved around a young boy whose mother "left" him. I had lots of ideas to share with the ladies. Like how I've known girls and women who have been adopted and how it shaped them as people. And also how reading a book in a fairly severe depression gives you a different view of a story. Because current mood? Pretty Severe Depression.

And then one of the ladies mentioned that her own mother was adopted and hadn't been told until later in life and how the mother didn't want much, if anything, to do with her birth mother because you Don't Leave your children. Cue therapy moment for me.

While reading the book, I had considered my own experience briefly, in passing, but I didn't really relate it to myself directly until that moment. I talked about the experiences of "other" people. That is much easier to deal with. I can talk about the after-effects that adoption has on other people. But me? I wasn't affected that deeply or badly. Until I told my story and I had tears in my eyes. YEARS later.

So, here it is. Because I can't talk about my depression anymore. Because I'm sick to death over talking about who I am now and trying to prove myself worthy to potential employers. It might be easier to talk about Who I Was. What happened to the Me Before. The experience that still affects me today in surprising ways when I think I've already dealt with it.

Do we ever really deal with our past?

My parents divorced when I was four. Which is the point at which I learned to be a people-pleaser. I knew they hated each other. I sat on the steps near the kitchen nightly listening to them scream at each other while I waited for my dinner to be prepared. I told whomever I was talking to whatever I thought they wanted to hear.

"Who do I want to live with? Why, you! Of course, Mommy/Daddy."

I remember sitting outside a court room but Mom tells me that didn't happen. I do remember them each pulling an arm on either side of my body during an argument outside an apartment door. I think I cried, but maybe I stayed silent so that neither of them would feel bad. I definitely went to a court-appointed therapist and played with the wooden dollhouse that was there (an eerie premonition of what my own daughter would go through.)

My dad had custody of me first. It was the 70's, when moms were typically granted custody automatically, but my mom was a "whore" who had cheated on her marriage. So my dad got custody. We lived in a one-bedroom apartment, each of us sleeping in a twin bed, and we ate TV dinners out of foil trays. Which I couldn't stomach and I was punished regularly for not eating as I was told.

When I was halfway through first grade, my mom was finally granted custody. Only she was living in California then, so I moved there from Texas. By plane. By myself. I arrived to my own bedroom. With a four-poster canopy bed. And a desk. And a pool in the backyard. I was also reunited with our English Bulldog. Adding all of this to finally being with my mom? It was pretty much Paradise.

That summer, I turned seven. My dad drove from Texas to pick me up to take me camping for my birthday. I think we went to Colorado. Maybe. I remember mountains and hearing stories of mountain lions and being afraid I'd die in our tent by whatever mythical mountain creature roamed at night to eat small children. One day, I was left in the car parked outside a storefront. It seemed like hours and I didn't know why I couldn't go in. Finally, I lost my proverbial shit and started sobbing. Some nice old ladies (who were probably actually in their 40's) stopped at the car and waited with me until my dad came out of the store. My big reward? Some stupid coloring book. I wonder why the fuck I have abandonment issues now.

After the fabulous camping trip of abandonment, I didn't see my dad again. He called once and I didn't want to talk to him, due to my aforementioned people-pleasing skills. That was it. For years. I wondered where he was. Why he didn't want to talk to me. Did he get married again? Did he have another family? When I had the vocabulary, I called him my sperm-donor.

My step dad became my father. He was the only dad I had for years and years. My sister was born when I was seven, my brother when I was seventeen. This was my family. Most people didn't know I had any other "dad."

And yet.... I did always wonder.

When I was 12 or 13, my "dad" molested me for the first time. This is a fact that I will still hide from the majority of my family.
This is the first time I've put it down in writing. Fucking momentous occasion here.
I was in my room. He hugged me.... I don't know why.... and his hand found its way between my butt cheeks. I pulled away immediately and he grinned sheepishly. "What?..."

It continued until I moved out. I wanted DESPERATELY to be a daddy's girl. He drank, so there was a fine line between his usual grumpy, anti-social, leave-me-the-fuck-alone mood, and his friendly, loving, real "dad" self, into the drunk groper that he could become. Sometimes it was a tongue down my throat. Sometimes it was a hand on my breast. Sometimes it was sit-on-my-lap followed by one of the previous. Every. single. time. I would pull back in horror and he would shrug with innocence.
Who, me??

Many, many nights he'd come to my room at night and lie next to me in my bed. Mom always came to retrieve him. I repeatedly pretended I was asleep. Nothing happened on those nights, but there was invariably the terrifying feeling that I wasn't safe in my own space. Mom and I did not discuss these nights. I "slept" through them.

When I was 23, after I was married, Mom started getting calls from a private investigator, a woman who pretended to know me from college. Soon after, she got a call from her own parents that my dad had shown up, unannounced, at their house. I was given his phone number. I called him only to protect my mom. (Sometimes I feel like my whole life has been about protecting her.) I told him to leave my family alone. He called me "sweetie." I reacted violently.

After a couple of months of angry letters, I allowed him to visit. I asked my then-husband to take a week off so I wouldn't be alone with him. We went to the coast. We played Tourist in Central Oregon. It was weird. He had a girlfriend. I talked to her on the phone. She assured me she wouldn't hurt him but I didn't give a shit. Then, and now, he treats me like the small child that he last saw.

I have allowed him to visit several times since then. I say that I "allowed" him, because I never felt like I was inviting him. I permitted him access to my space. I accommodated him out of guilt. And I resented that guilt. Should Devon know her grandfather? Did he deserve to know her? To know me? But what if I regretted something later?

He was gone for 17 years and it took 17 years of him being back before I felt some semblance of gratitude for him being in my life. And that was a struggle. So many times I heard, "At least he's trying now." And, combatively, my teenage self would want to scream, "But he didn't teach me to drive!! He didn't see me at prom!! He wasn't at my graduation, or my college graduation, or my wedding, or, or, or.....!!!!!!!" He tried too late. He tried too little. And he still hasn't accepted me as an adult.

I continue to struggle with this relationship. He's the dad (now) that I could wrap around my little finger. But the cost is too great. It means letting him in more than I want to. I need control over the access he has to my life. I mete it out to him in bits and pieces. And we're VERY different. I didn't tell him about Devon's experimentally sexual year. I haven't told him I do burlesque. He's racist and conservative. We don't talk about feminism. To him, I am the ideal version that he's imagined. I don't use my energy to correct him. I don't care enough to do so.

He's getting older and I struggle with that. I don't want to take care of him. He wasn't there for me, so why do I owe  him anything? "BUT" I'm his only daughter. "BUT" I don't feel that level of loyalty. How different would my life had been if he was there, consistently? How much can I blame him for? And then, at what point do I have to let go and be accepting? Am I less of a person because I can't do that?

He's been back for almost 25 years now. Twenty. Five. A quarter of a century. I'm still struggling to make peace with it. Some days, it's cool. Other days I simply feel anger. He gives me very little access to my past. He hates his own dad. Tells me he was a deadbeat, left his mom to work three jobs with four kids. A couple of years ago I found my grandfather's death certificate. He died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. A distant cousin confirmed that he had depression. My dad doesn't know about my depression, yet I have this deep connection with someone he hates because of our mutual mental illness.

And right now? He knows I'm looking for a job. He's asked if I need "emergency" money. I said no, not yet. I don't rely on him. I think, because of him, I don't rely on men in general. I want to. Parts of me desperately want to. But my female friends give me the support I need. My best friend knows things about me that he could never imagine. My dance friends offer me a space to be someone outside of myself for a while. There are friends I left back in Oregon who I know, without a doubt, are just a phone call away.

I don't know what my life would have been had he been a constant. I hope it would have been better. Given the animosity between him and my mom, it likely would have been worse. At least there would have been a very contentious piece for me to deal with and mediate.

In the end, what I know is that I have valid reasons for the way that I am. For who I am. I also know that I have the freedom of choice to be who I really want to be. Somehow, that seems to be ever evolving. I don't have those answers yet. I'm still discovering that. Still analyzing the nightmares. Still learning who I am to this person and, by extension, the other people that I meet. Like everything else, it's a process. A lifelong process.


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