After my post about why Mother’s Day had never meant anything to me up until 2016, I was floored by the sheer amount of responses I received from you. (Day = made!)
What struck me, though, was just how many times this one question was asked:
“How were you able to forgive your mother??“
Weeeeell… that work is still under construction; there are so many layers to the story that I could fill a book with them. Clearly, you don’t want to spend 14 days reading through the murky depths of this complex story.
But since I want to give you an honest answer, I’ll take my father instead, okay?
Due to his great absence, there is a certain lack of material, so it’ll be a lot easier to explain. (And take a moment to acknowledge the neatness of this: it’s actually Father’s Day today!)
Be aware that this is a rather lengthy read, because you simply need a bit of the backstory so that you get the big picture. Also, I guess you brought that upon yourself. 🙂
So. My father.
The man who left when I was not even born yet.
I hated him for leaving me with an unpredictable, alcoholic mother who was living a highly destructive double life; every day, until the early afternoon, she was the highly intelligent, beautiful and well-dressed personal assistant…and after that, at home, she turned into the other one.
I hated him for turning a blind eye on everything that was going on, and for not even listening when I asked him to please, PLEASE, let me live with him.
Interestingly enough though, I never realized how much resentment I held in me until after my mother’s death. Those feelings had all been locked away under layers and layers of desperately glorifying him as if he were a rockstar. In fact, the more my mother—usually with a tongue heavy from alcohol—insisted that he was ‘the most despicable specimen of humanity’, the more I put my father on a pedestal.
The reality that he ‘didn’t want me’ was too painful.
So, instead, I idealized him.
I didn’t know much about him to start with, but I was certain that he was the coolest man ever.
The beautiful hands he had. The awesome massive silver-turquoise ring he wore. The way he dressed in that lax-but-totally-fly style. His elegant handwriting. The smell of his aftershave (Chanel Antaeus). His trendy red round glasses… Glory.
Add all that to the fact that he even took me to McDonalds once (a total no-go with my weight-obsessed mother)… I mean, wasn’t it evident that this was Superman??
Sometimes, I got very lucky. Ever so rarely, when it suited him, he let me sleep over at his place on a Saturday. Dream-come-true moments!
I remember sitting in his living room, in front of this antique, wooden sideboard with his huge headphones on, listening through his awesome records collection. I must have spent days with John Lee Hooker, Eric Clapton and the Dire Straits in my kiddo-ears, playing with the curly cord of the headphones, smelling his vanilla-scented tobacco and dreaming of living like this. I marveled at his wicked records (since there was never music on in my house, these tunes were fucking groundbreaking for me), his disturbingly interesting collection of slightly offensive and PG-rated comics, his stunning—and certainly more than slightly erotic—pictures and posters on the walls, his incredibly gorgeous girlfriends, and his sheer knowledge of seemingly all things… I imagined it would be heaven on earth to be allowed to live with this ubermensch in this retro-yet-modern-yet-cozy apartment that always smelled so nice (and was equipped with a fridge full of the most aaaaawesome foods I’d ever seen… OMG! Ketchup, peanut butter, Coke, Nutella!!)
I couldn’t admit to myself that he never had the intention of any sort of commitment to me. All he was committed to was his own pleasure-seeking, the pursuit of beautiful skinny women, going out, traveling, and generally having as few responsibilities as possible…
Clearly, it was too much of an inconvenience to get his daughter out of hell.
And as any kid would have, I made it about me. I made it about me not being pretty enough, not being worthy of such a cool man’s love.
Well, he stopped being so cool to me when I lived with him for 2 years after my mother died.
I was a teenager and still too young to live on my own, so he ‘had’ to take me, and that’s exactly how it felt. I was an inconvenience.
It didn’t take long for me to get to know and fear his mean side, his sudden outbursts of anger, his icy sarcastic remarks about anything I did or said, his ridicule for my body, my clothes, my hair, my eating. I got to know the king of one-upping other people, the king of shaming people who had a different opinion, a lesser education, other values.
What I especially hated was the way he drove his girlfriends to tears with his disrespect and unpredictability.
He was out of the country a lot, so I was on my own for long stretches of time. In retrospect, I’m pretty amazed that I survived puberty without heading for the gutter, because—just as before—I had to make all the big decisions of my life without any sort of parental guidance. You know, career choice, first boyfriend, what to wear to work, dealing with emotions…
Of course, I moved out the first chance I got.
And for the next 20 years, I oscillated between hateful dreams of revenge and a humiliating hustle for his approval.
What I knew for sure was that what had to be avoided at all cost was to appear needy in any way. Asking for advice, support or—heaven forbid!—comfort, had him running for the hills. So I played the independent, low-maintenance daughter.
Seeing the gorgeous skinny women he courted, I of course soon realized that I wasn’t like them at all. At one point, I convinced myself that my mother must have been right when she used to call me ugly and fat. I mean, he seemed to be ashamed of his daughter’s looks too! So in order to live up his standard, I did what I already knew how to do. Fixing my body, getting leaner, trying to ‘improve’ my looks.
When I lost a bunch of weight and started to become known as a national radio host, he suddenly showed interest, and started boasting to his friends about me… He made me his big success story and only called to gather the latest info and to promise to keep in touch or support me.—A cheap betrayal, really, because after being updated, he usually just went AWOL again and forgot all the promises he’d made.
No matter how much I dieted, exercised, hustled or denied myself, he kept being unavailable.
Something in me went very cold and very hard over the years and I started applying cold-war-mode whenever he was nasty. I threatened to cut all contact, thinking: “Screw you and your friends! I got myself to where I am today, so fuck you for making it all about your great fathering!“ I usually even followed through with it for a year or two. But sooner or later he would suddenly reappear and want to go and have coffee with me, and—boom—the longing for fatherly love washed over me again. (“Now! Now! He’s finally come to his senses!“ said my hungry heart and of course I lost all my resolve every time, of course my soul melted every time, of course I left my dignity rotting in the corner… Only every damn time.)
I would’ve given everything to finally be able to steal my way into his heart.
Only… that never seemed to happen and, soon enough, he would turn mean, snappy or hostile again, and back I went into cold-war-mode… Rinse and repeat.
So I secretly fostered this smoldering resentment inside of me.
I was addicted to the conviction that I was the one who was in the right, addicted to the fantasy that I would bring him to his knees (wailing with remorse), and I was addicted to the idea that I would, one day, dance on his grave.
It’s a little embarrassing to admit how totally self-righteous I was, how quick to make accusations and how easy it was for me to speak disparagingly about him to my friends:
“He can go to hell. He never once helped me when I was down, he’s never there, he forgets my birthday. He’s just a coldhearted, ignorant, narcissistic bastard!“ —You bet, everyone who knew the story agreed with me: “He’s your my goddamn father, so he should at least start to effing act like something similar to that. He is the one who needs to apologize for his grandiose, ongoing failure.” Yes! Surely, I wouldn’t let him get off the hook that easily.
And aaall the while…. he just kept being who he was.
And even more embarrassing: I was still afraid of his rejection and I was never able to be authentic around him. Deep down, I was still a sucker for his approval, and since I lacked self-respect and a sense of worthiness, I was kinda stuck in victim-mentality.
I stubbornly held on to my belief that he was the one who had to make the first move towards real change.
Today, I love this cantankerous guy. And he is still exactly the same.
What has changed, is my attitude.
And today I know why it took me so damn long to forgive him:
I tried to think my way to forgiveness. I tried ‘talk-therapying’ my way to forgiveness. I read about forgiveness. I tried to affirm forgiveness and I tried the spiritual detour to forgiveness (you know… ‘meditating a few times, assuming to thereby jump from status quo directly into divine love for all living creatures… bliiiiing!’). Nope. Not happening.
I couldn’t get rid of my accusations against him! All I saw was MY lack of love, MY neglected needs, MY poor daughter heart. It was a very heady matter, and it was a lot of black and white thinking and very little real feeling. I had zero real compassion for him, and really very little real compassion for myself.
Look, you might hate it, but it is what it is:
There is no shortcut to forgiveness.
As life has it, I had to be down in the shitters really bad to become humble enough to explore beyond what I was used to. It was November 2014 when all my walls crumbled and I was at the end of my wits. I was way too skinny and my body was shutting down from exercising obsessively. My life was devoid of any meaning, and I was feeling crippling anxiety almost 24/7. All I wanted was… to leave this shit-show.
I started searching through Youtube for videos about resilience, self-worth, authenticity and vulnerability and after consuming all of what I found from Dr. Brené Brown, I ended up watching stuff about mindfulness meditation.
I had only massive resistance to that. Who wants to sit in silence, trying not to think about anything, while that monkey mind inside goes fucking batshit?? But, Io and behold, I was humble enough to open some doors in my mind and, well, just tried. And kept trying. As if a part of me knew that I had found the key to the door of healing. I listened to a ton of teachings and learned something that sounded so ‘out there’ that I didn’t believe it at first:
That me and my thoughts aren’t ONE.
That I could put some space between my (usually racing) thoughts.
That my emotions aren’t who I am. That they might flow through me, but that they couldn’t, well, kill me.
So I discovered, over the next few months, that I could, in fact, hold space for myself, somewhere deep inside. I discovered that in that space, I could make room for some of those intense waves of emotions I was so terrified of, and let them flow through me without drowning in them.
What I also learned (which made immediate sense) was the fact that a lifetime of angry resentment in my heart only made me suffer.
Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured. (Mark Twain)
It meant that I lived like a victim and kept being dependent on his changing, his approval, and needing his love.
With all this started my journey into self-inquiry and I learned something that was previously inconceivable for me:
Happiness really is an inside job.
I needed to love myself. And I knew that in order to ever make this miracle happen, I couldn’t avoid those difficult feelings any longer, and that I had to stop running away from the pain. I stopped delusioning myself that anger was the easier way out and started to learn about different ways to work through some of that.
I certainly didn’t start this because I had forgiveness in mind. In fact, it was probably the least important thing I had in mind. I simply wanted to start to get better. And I knew I had a lot of work to do. Work that is still in progress, quite obviously.
I had to start somewhere, right? So, of course my dad came up. But it was quite a surprise to stumble upon forgiveness like this.
Here’s how it went: I had no idea what the outcome of all of it would be, but I started writing down why I was so resentful towards him… Well, that certainly took some time. When I was done, I put all the pieces of paper on the floor around me, sat cross-legged and closed my eyes, thinking about what all of these memories really meant for my life. And finally I was courageous enough to let the gunk come up.
And boy, it did come up.
I felt my arms get warmer and warmer until the seemed explode with heat and I felt like I had turned into some human laser-beam ready to burn the sun. Anger, my friend, pure as it gets.
Instead of running from it, like I used to do, I faced it.
I imagined him sitting across from me (my poor pillow was the stand-in) and let the whole burning red mess come out. My throat produced quite impressive furious growls and I hissed how badly I wanted to hurt him. Let me tell you; in my imaginary carnage, not one gory detail was left out. In fact, I felt it was appropriate to mutilate ‘pillow-him’ with my claws and teeth (which I totally did), to scream at him and to curse him for his emotional bankruptcy.
—As gruesome as this sounds, it really wasn’t. It was like a life-force storming through me in one gigantic wave and I swear it didn’t take more than a few minutes for the anger to subside. And then another feeling came up.
My throat started to constrict and I felt incredibly guilty for what I had done to ‘him’, and for a minute there, I couldn’t help but whisper “I am sorry! I am so sorry!“
Right after that, I felt a surge of unspeakable sadness rising up, a feeling of lonely longing.
The raw, undisguised longing of a daughter for her daddy.
While I was crouching on the floor, whimpering, I kept thinking how ridiculous this whole scene would have to look if someone were to look in, but of course, there was no one. I was my own judge. And this wasn’t the time to judge.
This was the time to just ride with the wave and let go, so I just let myself cry for my father. The wave finally passed, and suddenly, I felt an inexplicable compassion well up inside me. Where before there was anger, toxic resentment, coldness and thoughts of revenge, there was, I don’t know… clarity.
In all of this broken-openness, I saw him differently and—talk about unexpected outcomes—felt love for him.
I understood that my father had his own story with his mother and he was carrying so much unprocessed shit with him that he was a victim himself.
In the months to follow, my view of my dad started to shift. I began to see his own undigested story in his outbursts, absences, sarcastic remarks and his need to be right. I started to look for the boy he once was in his eyes.
A sweet boy with a lot of hurt in his heart.
And I saw that his way of being a father to me was the best he could do. I knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that all of what he did or didn’t do, it had nothing to do with me. It had never been about me being the wrong way or not good enough. He might never be able to express his love for me in a way the little girl inside me would want him to, but I know he loves me.—In his very own way, as good as he can.
What also happened after my anger-cleanse is that I ceased having any expectations towards him. I just let him be. Today, I am not afraid of him anymore, because I have established healthy boundaries for myself. I can say ‘no’.
Love or not, no one said I have to put up with all of his moods, or that I have to like him all the time.
When he’s nasty, I remind myself that it’s never about me personally, and I take the liberty to tell him three things: That this is not the way I’m willing to communicate with him, that I will call him back another time and that I love him anyway. It works just fine.
Sometimes, it’s challenging. It’s in those moments that I remember the boy he once was. And that makes it incredibly easy and even fucking wonderful to tell him:
“Dad, I love you. You’re a good guy.“
Know what? I bet no one ever told him that.