family

'My dad told me I was a disappointment and that he didn't love me. Then he died.'

To say my father and I had a complicated relationship is to sell it painfully short. We had a terrible one.

Those who really loved him might think it was a matter of parent alienation. They may assume that my mother came between us. But the truth is that my father was the one who chronically let me down, dismissed me, and made it clear that he never really loved me right until the end.

He had every opportunity to forge a healthy relationship with me, but he never really tried.

The closest to trying that I ever saw from my dad happened in my school years. Twice during that time, he took my mother to court in an effort to get more visitation with me and my sister.

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On the second occasion, he was granted more visits, including those without supervision. In the past, all visits with my father came with court-ordered supervision because my mother claimed my dad molested my sister (who is five years older than me), and the local children’s hospital substantiated the abuse.

In my preteen years, the judge granted unsupervised visits but insisted upon therapy with a psychiatrist named Bruce.

In my younger years, I loathed going to family therapy. I especially disliked the female therapists who seemed to fawn all over my dad. But I liked Bruce because he helped me feel more empowered. Like I wasn’t the spoiled brat my dad often told me I was.

Bruce was quick to point out that my dad seemed to help my older sister out with whatever she needed, but when I was in need, he expected me to either do without or use hand-me-downs. My dad’s habit left me with a strong sense of rejection and Bruce told my dad that he needed to give me the same care and attention that he gave to my sister.

Because of Bruce’s urging, I had the joy of picking out my own Beauty and the Beast sleeping bag instead of being expected to once again drag my sister’s enormous old grey and plaid Eddie Bauer sack.

Things went on like that for several months. Bruce even worked it out with our dad to give us an equal monthly allowance which meant I didn’t have to worry so much about getting what I needed.

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But the equity ended when we fulfilled the family court order and stopped seeing Bruce.

When I got into college, it occurred to me that I was growing up and I would be more responsible for the relationship I had with my father. Which means, I had to try to communicate more effectively with him.

It was scary. For most of my life, he had lectured or lashed out at me any time I didn’t do something “right” in his eyes. That time my mum accidentally shut his car door on my thumb? I was “a stupid little shit,” an “idiot.”

In particular, he got angry if I needed something, like, um pads but I didn’t give him enough advance notice.

But at 12 years old, or even, 17, asking him for help was nerve-wracking. My dad had a habit of making guilt-inducing statements about everything he’d ever done for me.

Looking back at my childhood, I see that hairline fractures of an abusive relationship with the man I called Dad. I depended upon him for all the things my single, not working mother couldn’t provide. And when he helped me out at all financially, he didn’t let me forget it.

So, I often made the mistake of asking for his help on the way home from dinner when he preferred I would have asked earlier in the evening. If I did ask earlier, however, I knew it meant the whole dinner might have been filled with guilt or shame, with complaints of how I constantly needed something from him and how money was always too tight.

In college, however, my dad offered more mixed messages.

He encouraged me to get a low limit credit card so I had access to resources when I really needed something. He promised that he’d help me make the minimum payments while I was in school and didn’t yet have a paying job.

But then the first bill came through because I used the card for an urgent care clinic and a round of antibiotics. When I brought the bill up to my dad, he acted like he had no idea what I was talking about. Who did I think I was that he would just pay my credit card bill?

I was hard on myself when he responded like that. Who was I? Some days, I thought I was just a girl who wanted to believe her father. And on other days, I decided I was the spoiled brat he claimed me to be.

Eventually, I spoke up to my father with a handwritten letter. I tried to be kind and diplomatic, but honest, remembering everything I learned from Bruce in family therapy.

My dad was always talking about the ways he was going to help in the future. He talked about life insurance and paying into CDs which were going to mature when I turned forty. I brought those investments up and told him that I needed his help in college. That when he promised to help, I needed to know that I could count on him.

It was a difficult letter to write, but it was the best way I knew how to clear the air. As it was, he sometimes did come through for me. So, I had learned to take his moods and hope he’d keep his word. But it was stressful living like that.

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After mailing the letter, I didn’t hear back from my father for a few months. He’d withdrawn from me before, but this was the first time he ignored me as a young adult.

I knew my father was bipolar, however, so I understood that his silence might have nothing to do with me.

So I waited.

Eventually, he contacted me again after Christmas.

“I was angry with you,” he admitted in an email. “I thought I would ignore you to teach you a lesson.” According to him, he needed some space.

Did I learn my lesson? At that point, all that really registered was that my dad seemed to hate me.

During my brief marriage in my early twenties, my dad helped my husband purchase a used car when the current car died. In exchange for that $2,000, my dad made me promise that I would never ask him for help again. He also said that I was to never bring up the fact that he seemed to help my sister out more than me.

There wan’t much more to say, I figured. “Okay,” I answered.

When my marriage ended, I moved back to to my hometown and remembered what my father had said. I never did ask him for help again, though there were a couple of occasions where he offered help by allowing me to job search at his house on his desktop computer.

Back then, I was busy trying to build a new life for myself after my divorce. I found office work through a temp agency and got my own apartment.

Eventually, I got hired on at one of my temp jobs and signed a lease at better apartment with a shorter commute.

I learned how to take care of myself without help from a parent or partner. And I learned to more or less accept the emotional distance between me and my dad. We lived minutes away from each other, but rarely saw each other.

Meanwhile, he saw my older sister practically every day. My sister had four young children and battled drug addiction back then. I’d seen her living spaces a few times in those days and was shocked by the mess she and her kids lived in. Rubbish everywhere. Spaghetti all over the carpet.

Dad didn’t seem to care. He helped my sister out financially, but paying her bills while she and her kids’ dad blew money on drugs was a bandaid on a broken leg.

My sister and my father became close during that time, but I was uncomfortable because it felt like he enabled her drug use.

In the spring of 2008, my mother had enough of the drugs and mess my sister lived in. She contacted child services, something I warned her she wouldn’t be able to take back.

Before I knew it, there was an investigation, and my sister’s children were taken away and placed into protective care. It was a nightmare. My mother also claimed sexual abuse, and the police showed up at my workplace to question me about anything I had seen going on with my nieces and nephew.

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All I could say was that I was worried about the kids and my sister. Her house was in shambles, and the kids told me they were banned from a local supermarket for stealing.

I felt that my father was more of an enabler than a helper. And I didn’t know what to do.

The investigators asked if I thought my dad could be molesting his grandkids. But I didn’t know. My whole life, my mum had insisted that my father molested my sister, and my sister often cried and told me it was true. On more than one occasion, she yelled at me that I didn’t know what it was like to be abused by our dad.

So, I was surprised when I learned my sister had him babysitting her kids.

In fact, I was so concerned that I often offered to babysit instead. But after several instances of offering to watch the kids, my dad called me out of the blue and asked to pick me up.

He drove me to my sister’s house, where I was greeted with eggshells all over the kitchen and a pasta dinner splattered across the living room floor.

I nervously sat down for what would be the strangest intervention of my life. My sister and our father’s new wife did all of the talking. They told me that I had to quit offering to watch the kids because they knew why I was doing it.

Then they chastised me for being such a terrible daughter.

“Mum lied,” my sister said. “Dad never touched me.”

“How could you expect me to know that when you never told me?” I had a lot of questions that night, like how my stepmother could speak as if I was forever to blame for the terrible relationship I had with my dad.

“So, you’re saying that at eight years old, when I was scared to approach my dad and we already had a terrible relationship, that was all my fault?”

My stepmum didn’t even skip a beat. She just said yes as if that wasn’t the most absurd thing to expect from a child. As if I should have been wholly responsible for my dad’s own relationship with me.

After my sister got into drugs, my dad became her best friend. Even now, I think I’m allowed to be befuddled about that.

I was back at work a couple of days after talking to the police when a voicemail came in from my dad. He was livid. I’d heard him angry before, but this was angry in a brand new way.

This was… hate.

In the voicemail, he yelled at me for what seemed like a full five minutes. It reminds me of that voicemail Alec Baldwin infamously left his own daughter. My dad didn’t call me an ungrateful pig, but it was in a similar vein.

He told me that he was ashamed of me. Deeply ashamed. So angry that I had spoken to the police at all (as if I felt I had a choice). He asked how I could betray my sister and then he blamed her children being taken away squarely on me.

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I will never know what was really going on in his mind, nor will I know what the police even told him that could have related to me. But my dad didn’t seem to hold back any of his anger.

At the end of the phone call, he called me a disappointment. A bad Christian. And then he went so far as to say he didn’t love me, didn’t like me, and didn’t want anyone to know that I was his kid.

Those were the last words he’d ever tell me.

"Those were the last words he’d ever tell me." Image: Getty

My father and I were estranged for about four months after that voicemail. I was having a backyard sale before moving into my new apartment when my sister called me to say that he had died that day.

She was crying when she explained that our dad had been helping her move into a new place when he suffered a heart attack carrying a piece of furniture. It was sudden, unexpected.

Just like that, I realised he was gone, and I felt like a jerk because I couldn’t cry about it. And I just kept thinking about that hateful voicemail.

My dad passed away in October 2008 when I was 26. I’m 37 today and I’ve never once cried about my dad’s death, I think because I never believed that he loved me. I felt like little more than a nuisance in his life and my biggest regret is simply going to his funeral.

I felt like I was obligated to go, and then I had to sit through all of these speeches and condolences which were never actually true in my life. When people spoke about a kind and generous family man, they weren’t talking about the man I knew.

They may have known someone wonderful, but I never should have had to pretend that their experience canceled out my own. Losing a parent is always a heavy thing, even if you don’t respond in a way that folks think you should.

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I couldn’t cry, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t in mourning. His death cemented those final hateful words in my head. It provided a finality to a troubled relationship that never had a bit of closure. It left me feeling sad, but not in a traditional sense.

It was sad that our relationship would never grow into something better. It was sad that I would always have more questions than answers. And it’s sad now that I still don’t know what to tell my daughter about her grandfather.

My dad died and whoever he was, it was sad.

I don’t write about my father very much. The truth is that I’m scared. I’m scared to upset the people who knew that man I never met.

My sister and I reconnected a few years ago. She is clean and sober, and she had a completely different experience with our dad.

To her, particularly in those last few years of her life, he was a hero. Her best friend. She says she never saw his mean side, and that’s great. I don’t want to discount her experiences.

But I don’t wish to discount mine either. Instead, this is an area where I say we’ve got to let the other person breathe. That means I scroll by her Facebook posts which talk about her dad without adding my conflicting two cents.

I ask her to do the same for my few stories about my dad.

One of the hardest things to accept in any family is the fact that each relationship is its own thing. One parent can treat two children completely different, and neither child should carry a burden about that.

Our dad was bipolar, and for whatever reason, he tended to make big promises to me when he was manic and on top of the world. In his depression, he’d get weepy or bitter with me, and when he went through rage cycles he’d lash out or ignore me for weeks to months at a time.

It took most of my life for me to understand that his behaviour wasn’t my fault. That I didn’t deserve the way he treated me.

It took time, but it also helped me understand why my attention to my own mental health matters so much for my daughter today. I don’t want her to suffer like I did, so I work hard on my emotional regulation to ensure that she won’t.

In that way, my dad gave me an invaluable lesson.

And for that, I’m actually grateful.

Feature Image: Getty.

This post originally appeared on Medium and was republished here with full permission. 

You can read more from Shannon Ashley on Medium, or follow her on Twitter

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