[CN: gaslighting, toxic family]
Something happened yesterday which rattled me to my core. To the casual observer, the thing might seem like no big thing, but it was a big thing to me because it signals the start of a pattern of behaviour from someone else, specifically my father.
Coincidentally (or perhaps not), there are a few people in my life who are dealing with toxic family members at the moment, and hopefully sharing this will be helpful. This is an emotional thing for me to write about, and it will probably be fairly lengthy, but it’s time that I got it all into writing. It needs to be said.
My family is a blended family. I am my father and mother’s only biological child. My mother left when I was four. I remember the day that I discovered that she had left in vivid detail. I woke up and went to her bedroom which was a separate room to my father’s and all her stuff was gone. That was it. Her stuff was gone, and she was gone. I saw her intermittently throughout my childhood – sometimes it would be every second weekend for a while, and sometimes months would go past without seeing her. Sometimes, my father would take me to visit her and she would just be gone again, and then I wouldn’t hear from her for a while until I did, and then the pattern would repeat.
My father entered into a relationship with a woman who had three of her own children when I was five. We moved in with them for six months. Then, my father and my future step-mother broke up, and we moved out for a year. Then, they reunited and we moved back. For me, this meant changing schools several times. For a kid that always had trouble figuring out the unwritten rules of fitting in, this was really, really difficult. This was when I started seeing counsellors and psychologists because I was not fitting in. The pattern there is that I would see someone regularly for a few months, and then my parents would decide that I had to stop going. Then a few months later, I would be sent to speak to someone else. Discussions about me going to see someone were never handled from the perspective that these people could help me; they were always delivered from the basis that maybe this person could fix me. I spent a lot of my life feeling broken because of that.
But, the reunited relationship between my father and future step-mother was when things became really hard. My future step-mother had issues with my father disciplining her daughters. At the same time, she had issues with not being allowed to discipline me. So, they reached a “compromise”: He could discipline me but not them, and she could discipline all of us. Fair, right? Discipline in this context means hitting (with hands, belts, canes, etc.), shouting, reprimanding, etc.
They also decided to go for counselling. The counsellor recommended that they have “family meetings” once a week to discuss any issues. I’m not sure what the intention of this recommendation was. I would hate to think that it was implemented according to the professional’s recommendations because this is how it played out. Once a week, on a Sunday, we would sit down and discuss our issues. Anything that I said was invalidated very quickly because I wasn’t viewing things from the correct perspective according to everyone else. Anything that anyone else said about me was quickly validated by everyone else. I learned a term recently that comes from family counselling: the identified patient. The person in the family dynamic that gets blamed for the dysfunction in the family. That was me. I was the family’s scapegoat for all that was wrong with everyone else.
I stopped talking during those family meetings for two reasons: Firstly, when I become emotional, I can’t produce words properly – they just don’t make their way from my brain and out of my mouth smoothly. Secondly, I learned that what I said didn’t matter, and what everyone else said did. So, whenever it was my turn to speak, I would just say that I had no problems. It was easier than constantly being told that my perceptions were invalid. It was easier to just accept any criticism without trying to defend myself because anything that I said in my defense was invalidated.
The thing about being part of a blended family and being the only one of my kind in that family is that I didn’t even fit in to my own family. I was the odd one out. My sisters were naturally outgoing, sporty, and loud. I was quiet, studious, and my poor coordination pretty much made all sports completely unenjoyable for me. But, I was not allowed to be a spectator. I had to be a participant. My father worked on the basis that if you do something enough, you will start to enjoy it. Let me tell you: it does not work that way. Resentment grew, and grew.
At the age of 17, I finally exploded. I could handle no more. I could not handle being shouted at, I could not handle being hit, I could not handle trying so desperately to be someone who I wasn’t in order to try and keep the peace. I just couldn’t. I just had nothing left in me to do it. I considered living on the streets. I spent a couple of nights outside before I moved in with my biological mother because I didn’t have another place to go.
But, still, I loved my father. I was so desperate to please him. I so badly wanted him to accept me. I just wanted him to not be disappointed in me. He used that against me – he threatened repeatedly to cut me out of his life, unless I did x. But, if I did x, I didn’t do x well enough to meet his expectations, so the threat of being cut out of his life didn’t go away.
That pattern repeated itself for many, many years until a few years after my son was born. I started noticing that my father was doing the same things to my son: forcing him into situations that weren’t comfortable for him, threatening withdrawal of love, telling him that if he didn’t do x then my father would know that my son didn’t love him.
I had enough. I drew up clear boundaries. I wrote them down, and I emailed them to my father and the rest of the family. I intentionally chose email because I express myself better in writing. I didn’t want to sit down and discuss it because I know that sitting down and discussing anything with them leads to me being the scapegoat and them dominating me, and manipulating me. Those boundaries were not respected. I reinforced them. They were again not respected. I cut contact.
But, that’s not where the story ends because for a year after cutting contact, I would receive emotionally manipulative text messages and emails that said things like “It was Father’s Day yesterday, and you didn’t wish me. Now I know how you really feel about me.” So, I changed my phone number and email address, and all was blissfully quiet for six months until I returned one day from dropping my son at school to find my father on my doorstep. He wanted to be in my life. He was prepared to do that in any way that I wanted. I told him I would think about it. He told me to let him know within the next three days. I didn’t recognise that the pattern of manipulation was already repeating itself. I emailed him my boundaries, and I told him what my son needed from the people in his life. He respected those boundaries for a week, bent them a little in the second week, and stomped on them completely by the third week.
I cut contact. I had to resort to emotional manipulation in order to do so because nothing else I tried to do had worked. I told my father that if he tried to contact us again, it would be a clear indication that he did not care about my son’s or my mental wellbeing.
That was 18 months ago. My son and I have built a life that is peaceful and happy and is centred on mutual respect for each other’s needs. We have been happy and content. I have grown as a person in the last 18 months. I am more confident in myself, my perceptions and my experiences. I actually like myself now – something that I hadn’t done for the previous 34 years.
Yesterday, there was a package on my doorstep. It was from my father.