Mental Illness – An American Odyssey – 3

 

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Sins of the Father

My relationship with my dad was complicated.  I’m not going to mince words, he was a shitty father. But I’m not sure he’s entirely to blame for his actions. I don’t like to make excuses for the behavior of others, but I’d be lying if I said that he was set up for success. He was violently abused growing up. His father would beat him bloody with fishing rods and anything else he could get his hands on. I remember my dad telling me a story about how his cat had kittens and his old man didn’t want them. So my dad tried to hide them away, but of course his old man found out. So he put them in a garbage bag, walked my dad down to the river, and made him toss them in. I think I was 10 when I heard that story.

Aside from the abuse, there were the horrors of war that he witnessed. My dad joined the Marine Corps right out of high-school. He went straight to Vietnam, passing his time as an infantryman, chopping jungle and killing whatever stood in his path. I heard stories about how he had to shoot a child, about calling in napalm strikes on enemies and civilians alike, about how the prostitutes would stick razor blades in their crotches and lure the American soldier’s into purchasing them. And it’s not like I heard these stories as an older teenager or an adult, I heard them as a child. So I think I always had this perception that my dad was slightly damaged, and so, no matter what he did to me, I was always quick to forgive.

***

Living with my dad, before the divorce, was turmoil and pain, interrupted by moments of bliss. He was quick to anger. It didn’t take much to set him off: walk in front of the television, move a little too slow or a little too fast, and that was it, the demon bared its teeth.

I learned early on not to bring my friends around him. I was never that great at making friends. So when I finally got a few that were interested in hanging out with me, I brought them over to the house. We were all on the front porch one day. I don’t remember what we were doing. My dad came out and asked me to do something for him. I guess I didn’t move fast enough. He laid into me hard. His fingernails dug into my skin, he ripped my shirt off my body, and left welts across my back. It was so sudden and so violent, and above all, humiliating. My friends sat there and watched, mouths open in shock. When I finally came back out, my face still red from crying, new shirt on my back, my friends had taken their bikes and left.

My pops was never one to spare the rod.

Or the paddle.

There was this toy back in the day, I’m not sure if it’s still around, it was a paddle with a rubber ball attached. We went through a couple of those in my house. You see, my dad liked to take my toy paddles and rip the balls off of them so that he could use them as “discipline” tools. He even managed to hit me so hard with one that he broke it in half. That just pissed him off and he switched to using his hand.

I begged him once, “Please don’t hit me without warning me first.” That was the worst part, the anticipation of getting hit. He’d do that thing where he’d be in your face, yelling, spit flying, and then he’d throw a hard smack in. I never saw it coming either. It was always shock and awe with him. Like a glass of ice-water down the back. It would take the breath right out of my lungs every time and set my heart to pounding. The surprise. I hated that more than anything.

 

***

I don’t mean to sound like I’m complaining.

I’m not.

I’m not special.

Plenty of people are abused worse than I’ve ever been. Some are killed at the hands of their abusers. I’m very fortunate.

The point in me telling you all of this is to say that, despite that, I still loved the guy, I still sought after his acceptance and his affection. I still idolized him, the way boys are prone to do with their fathers. I fought for his attention, even when we were still living under the same roof, but he never reciprocated that gesture. He never really seemed like he wanted anything to do with me.

He’d do things like promise to take me fishing. I’d wake up one morning and find him on the front porch cleaning bunch of fish he caught. With tears in my eyes I’d ask, “Why didn’t you take me with you.” He’d just shrug. He never really had an answer.

After the divorce it was the same pattern, lots of promises with zero follow through. He’d go months without seeing us. Often times we’d have to call him and convince him to come spend time with us. He’d show up, ferry us to his house, and then veg out in his recliner with a beer and Nascar blaring on the television.

Did my dad love me? Did he even want me? Those are questions that have haunted me for years. I still don’t have the answers. I haven’t seen the guy in well over a decade. The last time I saw him he was being taken out of a courtroom in handcuffs for not paying child support. I don’t have his number. I don’t have his address. I heard that he may live somewhere in Texas. He doesn’t know that I’m a published author. Or that I’m married. Or that, like him, I am in a constant battle with my mind.

I’d like to think, that perhaps, if I ever saw him again, we could bond a little over our unfortunate similarity.

When we get further along in this little story, you’re going to see how much of my life actually paralleled his. In many ways I walked the same path he did. I stumbled over the same obstacles. The only difference is that I chose to step off and make a new path; a better one. I guess if I should be grateful to him for one thing, it would be showing me now NOT to live.

2 comments on “Mental Illness – An American Odyssey – 3Add yours →

  1. I don’t quite know what to say. I feel for that boy. I do believe that when a child is abused, many times that child will abuse his children.
    My son Jim’s Dad was abusive to my children more than me. He threw things like beer cans/bottles and a bottle of A-1 steak sauce at me several times. He adopted Candy and he was more abusive to her than Jim. When my husband was out of control, I just packed up the kids and went to a motel for the night. After our divorce, Candy & Jim told stories that I didn’t know happened while we were married.
    It is hard for me to forgive myself. I still cry and get depressed about it sometimes. It helps me to talk to who I call my Father because he knows everything about me – the Good, the Bad, the Ugly – and He loves me still and wants the best for me.

    1. Thank you for sharing your story and I can definitely relate to that struggle. What’s even more important than what we’ve gone through is where we are now and how we’ve gotten here. Sounds like you’ve overcome a lot and that’s inspiring.

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