God has shown me twice this week, by marking time in my past, to show me how I have changed. When this happened I was blown away by how much God loves me, something I have long struggled to believe. And that in and of itself is so sweet. So good. I just sat in the moment, feeling precious. God loves me enough to show me the changes, the progress, the healing that has come.
When I fell into my first major depression in 02, I didn’t really know what was happening to me. At first I just sat absorbing the fact that I couldn’t think, or sleep, or make decisions, or read; I couldn’t do anything. It was strange. Foggy. A bit like being in slow motion. A ten-hour day at home with three small children didn’t feel like a day at all. It felt like a flash, because I wasn’t really conscious. I had no words to describe what was happening to me. Depression took everything.
After five weeks stranded in this place, I finally told Tom that something strange was going on. And then my friend Carol, then at some point I told my parents. I remember sitting on my back porch talking on the phone to my father who had called. Of course he said he would cancel all his plans and come straight away if I needed him. He was good in an emergency. But I declined his offer knowing it wouldn’t be that pleasant nor likely to be helpful. And I don’t remember much about that conversation except saying “Dad, I just want to be happy. I can’t remember the last time I felt happy.”
Looking back today, from the perspective finally of joy and contentment, I have to admit that I never believed I deserved happiness. It wasn’t something on the conscious level or anything I thought about very clearly. But at a deep, foundational level I couldn’t remember happiness. And didn’t believe I deserved it. I would reach out for it sometimes. Usually that resulted in hurt because I did it in such needy or aggressive way. And more than how others treated me, my thinking about myself was so bad, so low; I had a deep hatred for myself.
I can only guess that this was caused by being yelled at so often and so unexpectedly as a child, young adult and adult. You knew it might come at some point, but you could never guess why he was mad or what you might have done. My father was unpredictable in his rages. Berating. Pushing. Demanding that you admit wrongdoing. Keeping at you, over and over again verbally — until you concede to him, whatever it was. The subject didn’t matter. You must apologize. You must ask for forgiveness, absolutely. Looking back, he was Psychotic.
And so, inside I slowly disappeared. Life was numbing and I was without opinion. Without question I began to do whatever he expected of me. And that too reinforces your own loathing. I was a classic under achiever, my one way of getting his goat.
Every once in a while over the years, the last time happened in the late ’90s, I would meet someone who seemed to see right through the walls and ask me “Why are you in so much pain?” It was if I was translucent and they could peer into my heart and soul in a way that I couldn’t even do any more. I just looked at this person who didn’t even know me, with shock and disbelief at what they saw. I felt exposed and yet I had revealed nothing. They felt the pain I had stopped feeling. It was horrible. And yet, looking back it was so important. Again, one of those markers God gives me to see how far I have come.
I worked for my father for many years. My reasons (I see now) were to receive his affirmation. And it worked, though I worked too much and became a workaholic. I worked unreasonable hours, had no boundaries between work and my life, and I had hardly any personal life until I met Tom. Even then, I really had trouble getting home for dinner, worked through lunches, lived and breathed work. I worked 150% and knew that I couldn’t fail, which was what I was sure was going to happen if I stopped striving, because it was my father’s reputation and his good will toward me that were hanging in the balance. His love?
It wasn’t until I had my third baby in five years and quit that life to be at home that it all came crashing down around me. Thank God it did. I say that because it began a nine-year process of finding myself , FINDING LIFE — Oh, the mistakes I had to make in order for that to happen. But hey, I was doing the sped up version of adolescent rebellion I guess. Growing, learning, expanding, reaching, feeling. Finally feeling. And it felt terrible, and good at the same time.
Nine long years. And in those years I found
- Writing poetry and thought put into words in general.
- A study of the Bible and the power of prayer with faithful believing women.
- I developed opinions, thoughts and ideas that originate with me!
- I found gardening and theology.
- I have been slowly overcoming of anxiety – mostly social anxiety which I get so badly even still. I really do hate that.
- I have found joy. I’m actually glad to be alive.
- I have found love from humans and cats,
- And more important than any of this I have found that Jesus loves me. No really, he does and I never believed it. After the phone conversation with my father he sent me a postcard in a frame that said “You are the One Jesus Loves.” I was so uncomfortable with it that I buried it in a sock drawer for years. Long past when he died. I really couldn’t fathom it. Sunday, right before church, I found the post-it that he included on it which said: “And your father loves you too. Love, Dad. 7/02” (Yes, in the strange third person.)
- I don’t want to die anymore.
- I started smoking in that time, which was a slow suicide and last year I quit smoking.
- I starting drinking, socially at first, and then heavily and began to abuse it. And I quit drinking over a period of three or four l o n g years. When I started to think about quitting, I thought I would never have any fun again. I actually thought that. No fun, ever again. I had no idea what true contentment and joy, even happiness was until I quit drinking, accepted my powerlessness against it, and faced the shit I had been so cleverly (or not so cleverly really) been avoiding.
When I was depressed I thought I would never be happy. When I overdosed, a small part of me must have wanted to live because I woke up and told Tom what I had done and I lived. But only a tiny piece of me still wanted life, mostly I still hated myself.
But it has been the process of becoming ME that has made it possible to consider forgiving my father and mother. I know I am a strong person. As I begin to want more from life, I can accept and voice what happened to me. Yes, my father had to die for me to have the courage.
This near decade long process made it possible for forgiveness. And it isn’t a short or easy road. Truly, it has taken all those years.
My first honest words expressed about my dad were in a poem called “Good Dad. Bad Dad.” It felt so risky, so bold at the time. After reading it again after all these years, I think I’ll post it here:
Good Dad. Bad Dad. I shed no tears today for the warrior who has fallen. Taken down by Cancer's sword. My heart is full of memories, good and bad. Good Dad. Bad Dad. Constant worry. Constant change. Who could have foreseen the Cancer overtaking his mind; that became my liberation in five short months. The danger -- of loving too much; needing tenderness, and all the things Daddy's are supposed to be. PAIN. FEAR. Emotions jangling around me like some kind of white noise; pushing their way into my conscious thoughts. Invaders, threatening to undo the weak hold I've found on a Good Life. So many memories good and bad, bad and good. Who was he? Why was he MY dad? MY tormentor. MY warrior; Finally broken, beaten by the cancer that was to become my friend. Betrayal, these thoughts which plague me. Broken; the unspoken promise to keep our secrets to the end. How do I remember? How do I stay true and honest, when the Truth causes an ache too strong to feel, to face, to bear. Good Dad. Bad Dad. Who was he in the end? A demon? A saint? Now simply a Muse -- remembered, but no longer feared. Thought of in furtive, anxious moments. Good Dad. Bad Dad. Who is he to me now? A man driven to despair Living a chaotic, frantic life. Not the Good Life I choose, Not the legacy I will repeat. Good Girl. Bad Girl. Who will I listen to? Who will I believe? I am the woman I choose to become today, tomorrow. These are the Good Days that I can change. Yesterday is Dead. Burned in the funeral pyre. Vapors Mist Dust settling around me. Good Girl. Bad Girl. Good. Bad. Good. by Melody Hanson, 2004
So how does it work, to forgive a tormentor, an oppressor, an abuser? Does it mean taking someone’s anger and rebuke over and over again? I’ll never know if I could have stood up to my father? I have never met someone who did and stayed in relationship with him. That’s daunting.
Forgiving is “the opposite of ignoring and excusing. It is moving toward the offense.” And that’s been my path. Naming the pain. Drawing attention to it in my writing. My father’s anger and rages were ugly and dangerous and as a child I was constantly afraid of him. With some amount of distance – his death – and my personal work, I’ve worked to let go of it. But there will never be restoration and reconciliation because he has gone.
On the other hand, I’ve also experiences anger toward my mom over the years for her lack of action, defense of us and for shutting down. She also disappeared into health problems, depression, and eventually alcohol. But we, two fragile and broken people are working on a long healing process and I try every day to trust her and not expect or need her to change.
My pastor said recently about forgiveness: “Let go, open your heart, move toward the pain. Recognize the person’s humanity, their broken heart and sense of failure.” I can do that with my mom.
For the longest time I couldn’t have said that my pain and hurt belonged to my father. I had a blessedly complex relationship with him. I longed for his approval while at the same time had much hurt, anger and resentment for his controlling behaviors. I learned to be exceptionally passive aggressive and sarcastic because that was, I thought, the only safe way that I could express myself.
“Safe” is so ironic. I don’t remember ever feeling safe growing up. I was anxious, afraid, tense, doubtful, insecure, wracked with shame, self-loathing, and fear. Fear of the ambiguity of my home growing up — I actually said to a boyfriend “Treat me well or treat me badly. I don’t care. Just be consistent.” I longed for it.
But grace, coming from God in the life of Jesus and the sacrifice done for me — that’s changed everything!!! He takes the most broken and restores. Better put, he heals.
He makes like new but different, strong; his touch, attention, and gaze are profound. I will never be the same.
I have a new life. I have a life. I have started living. I have hope. I have joy. I may not ever feel loved by my human father …but I’m going to be okay. I don’t expect the way forward to be simple because as I grow God continues to ask things of me that are difficult.
Will you obey? Will you choose my path? Will you give such and such up? Will you forgive? Will you seek me? Will you be disciplined to know my words, the Word? Will you exercise because you know it helps your mood, and eat right? Will you pray? Will you have a generous heart? Will you sacrifice your desires for mine?
Every day, if I am listening, God speaks.
Will I choose life today?