Why do I feel so uneasy around my father?

Did something happen in my childhood that I can't remember?

Published December 13, 2004 8:00PM (EST)

Dear Readers,

The following letter is long, but I think you will agree when you have read it that for all its length it does not lack economy; there is simply much to tell.

Dear Cary,

I don't know if I was sexually abused by my father. I have no memory of that -- no picture, anyway. My body might disagree that I have no memory. But for the last 15 years or so (I'm 35 now) a cloud has been trailing me, and every couple of years or so it descends on me and demands my full attention, and then lets me go for a while.

A constant truth is that I feel unsafe in my dad's presence. Not undoably, overwhelmingly so. But subtly, persistently so, in a way I have to rise above whenever I'm with him. I don't feel safe alone in a car with him -- don't know why, but I go out of my way to avoid that when I can. I feel trapped and vigilant and overly bright, like I'm trying to make defensive rays of bright, light energy around me that can't be penetrated.

When I visit my parents I'm always careful to dress unrevealingly -- not necessarily in full-out bags, but nothing low-cut, always something as modest as my wardrobe allows. Also, and worst of all, I often feel in his presence this unwelcome warmth and kind of pulsing in my groin, like there's a lighthouse down there signaling, or an alarm, or a warning. I don't feel that in any other situation. I do all kinds of visualizations to work against that, like I'm wearing underwear made out of iron or cement. And I cross my legs. In an ideal world, I could cross my legs around and around like a cinnamon goddamn twistie. Crossed isn't crossed enough to give me a safe feeling.

I've gotten counseling about this on and off for the past 15 years. I first had this feeling when I was around 20. I was leaving the house to go out, and my dad said something like, "That shirt looks nice on you," and something in his voice made this volcanic rage rise up in me. I wanted to punch him in the face, knock him out cold. So that rage wasn't born in that moment, I'm thinking. But, as always, not knowing.

For the most part, what I've done over all these years is ignore it. I feel bad for my dad. And I love him. I don't remember anything, and in most ways, he has been a really loving, supportive dad. My feeling was, if I can ignore this, I'm going to. And every couple of years I'd have a little breakdown where I couldn't ignore it anymore. I'd do the "Artist's Way" or something, become clearer in my life, and up it would pop -- still no memory, but a stark, unignorable presence. Off I would go to therapy, and the subject would be up for a handful of weeks at most, and then the monster would dive way back down where I couldn't really feel it or see it. And I'd be on to other things -- with bells on, let me tell you.

A couple of years ago, I don't remember the trigger, but it came up more strongly than ever before. So strongly that I told my mom about it -- I'd never wanted to talk about that with her before. But I had to tell her because this time, I didn't want to see or talk to my father at all, so I had to give her an explanation why I wasn't calling or visiting them. (We live in the same city.) When I told her what I'd been feeling, her response was, and I quote, "Oh, damn." Like this wasn't particularly a surprise to her. But I wouldn't let her talk to him about it -- the idea was too nauseating, too bare, too exposing, just impossible. She went, after I begged her, to a therapist. I didn't want to be the only one holding this. But she dropped it as soon as I did, which was within a couple of months. I was always glad to drop it whenever it would loosen its grip on me.

But then, this last summer, two things happened that have made this finally unavoidable and undroppable. The first was when my fiancé (a beautiful, gentle man whom I may occasionally refer to as Mr. Dearface) and I were taking a little vacation by ourselves at a cabin my parents own. I woke up one morning in a strange, terrible state. I felt this vivid feeling of being trapped, a prisoner, an intense combined feeling of anger and frozenness, powerlessness. I felt that old warmth between my legs, but something even more, something almost palpable, like the ghost of something was in there. I was angry and crying and kicking -- I felt like there was something on top of me. And still, there was no picture. But I knew that somewhere in all this, it was my dad. My dad was the source of all this. Mr. Dearface held me and took care of me, and within an hour or so, I felt better. But I had never had anything like that happen before. Frightening.

The second thing happened a couple of weeks later. Mr. Dearface and I had a trip to the cabin planned with my parents. You may be thinking, What?! A vacation with them?! Them?! Unwise!! But here's the thing. My fiancé is from Australia, and I'd been with him in Australia for several months, and we were going to be going back down soon. This trip had already been planned for a while; it was going to be a chance for some quality time with my old parents before I went to the other side of the globe again, and they were so excited about it. I didn't feel good about going, but I felt worse about canceling. We knew it was risky, Mr. Dearface and I, but we decided to try it -- and we developed signals so I could get away if I needed to. We'd get out of the house immediately if I felt trapped or upset. So we went ahead with the trip.

Things were doable for a few days. I brought my laptop so I could do some writing I needed to do, and so we could all access the Internet if we felt like it. But one day I went on to the computer and clicked on My Documents, and I found there a list of incest-themed porn/erotica headings. It felt like my eyes went up in flames. I shut my laptop immediately. My dad was sitting a couple of feet away from me. He was the only other person to have used my computer. (We had seen him a day or so before on some "literotica" Web site, and it was like, oh, Dad, man, do you have to do that where we can see what you're looking at? But it was let-go-able.) I bolted out to the back deck. I felt like I was flying into pieces. Mr. Dearface was out at a lecture somewhere else on the island. I lost it, as quietly as I could, there on the deck. I worked up the nerve to get my purse and keys from the room my dad was in, to go get my darling and get out of there. I rushed out of there in tears with no explanation, fetched my sweetheart, and we went back to the cabin and briskly gathered our stuff. I said we were leaving, that I just suddenly felt like being back home. My mom pulled me aside and questioned me further, and I said I found something on my computer that I didn't like. She guessed the nature of it right away, and fell on the bed crying. I comforted her for a few minutes, and then we left.

I haven't seen my dad since -- haven't been able to do it. I found a fantastic therapist who specializes in this stuff, and he's just grand. Supportive, insightful, delicate, skillful, funny, compassionate. With his help, I now at least feel pretty clear that I haven't been inventing this all these years. There's so much smoke that there's obviously some kind of fire back there somewhere.

But here, finally, is my problem. I'm in Australia now, and my fiancé and I are coming back to the States right before Christmas to take care of some visa-related business. Cary, despite everything, I love my parents, and want to be able to share some of this Christmas with them. Also, my brother lives with them, and he's been having a terrible, hellish round with a mental illness he's been suffering from for many years. I want to be there to give him love at Christmastime, too. And my dad -- the poor, old, broken being -- when my mom confronted him about this (she had permission from me this time), he denied ever having done anything sexually inappropriate with me or my brother. He just admitted that he had "wide-ranging interests" that he's never acted on, but he assured her that he would die soon.

I really believe that he will -- even before this happened, he seemed like a person who was partially dead. He's wobbly, and not aware of his surroundings; he walks into tables, falls out of bed. His eyes seem to have only half a person behind them. He's had two heart attacks, diabetes, bladder cancer. He's precarious. In lots of ways, he's had a rough life -- he had a mother who openly admitted not loving him, he had a lonely childhood, and he had a nervous breakdown when he was middle-aged. He's such sad, wistful figure to me, despite everything.

I don't want his life to end on this tragic note. I want to make everything all right, let it go. But I can't -- it's come too far now. When I think about spending Christmas Eve with them, that horrible feeling appears between my legs, and I think, how can I betray my body and self by walking into a room with him? But then I think of my brother, and my aging mother, who's taking care of both of them, and my confused old father, and I think, how can I not attempt it? How can I leave them alone at Christmas? Their life is difficult and sad enough. I'm torn, absolutely torn. I don't know how to take care of myself and still be compassionate with them.

For the first time in my life, my inner compass isn't pointing me anywhere. I am absolutely at a loss. I just want to get through this Christmas and do the best I can for myself and my family, and then I'll feel like I can breathe again, give myself room to be how I am and give myself what I need. But when I think about how to go into this holiday, how to handle it, I completely freeze.

I'll be talking to my great therapist when I get home, if I can get an appointment to see him. But his job is finally to look out for me. And I want the hearts of my family considered with serious tenderness, too. I crave the advice of someone outside of this whole thing. If you have any ideas on how to get through this Christmas, how to choose what to do, or any ideas on how to hold this messy thing, I would be so grateful.

Thank you, Frozen Solid

Dear Frozen Solid,

First of all, thank you for your brave, clear and detailed letter. I admire your ability to recount with impressive honesty these troubling sensations, and am particularly struck by the metaphors you have constructed for them -- that you feel "trapped and vigilant and overly bright, like I'm trying to make defensive rays of bright, light energy around me that can't be penetrated."

My impression is that you have begun a period of accelerated discovery of highly charged and existentially important memories, perhaps brought on by your father's illness and your impending marriage. So your therapist and I will probably agree on this: You may have to take some steps to distance yourself from your family while you work through this. That doesn't mean permanent estrangement. It just means that some things have come up right now that you have to deal with. If it were a fire or a flood that kept you from spending all your time with them this Christmas, they would understand. This is just as urgent, if somewhat less easy to explain.

In deciding exactly how to manage your visit, it may help to avoid formulating the problem as an either/or situation. That is, when you say, "I don't know how to take care of myself and still be compassionate with them," I would suggest that you do both -- just not at the same time! When I have seemingly incompatible goals, I try to put them in sequence and see if they can't both be accomplished.

First, to take care of yourself, you need control over your space and time. Stay in your house or in a hotel. Make sure you have a car at your disposal. Avoid open-ended visits with your parents. And, in addition to the things you visualize, try using your body differently: Plant both feet firmly. Fold your arms across your chest. Speak more loudly than usual to maintain a greater social distance. You get the picture. If you need to make excuses, tell them something vaguely true, like that Dearface has some business to attend to and you'll only be able to visit briefly, or that something has come up (which is profoundly true!).

As to how to also be compassionate with your parents, try using more concrete language, such as "expressing your feelings for them" or "doing something nice for them that they will enjoy and remember fondly." Note that these are actions, not expressions of being. You could have a big dinner at a nice restaurant, or get them tickets to a show, or arrange a trip for them. That way, you're not avoiding them -- you're expressing your love.

Try to consider your options in terms of degrees; consider how painful each one is, and how much uneasiness it introduces into your life. For instance, sending a package. How does sending a package feel? What about sending a letter? Next, consider phone calls with your dad and your mom. Are these relatively safe, or do you get into trouble talking on the phone with them? Next is physical proximity. There is a whole range there -- from staying in their house to seeing them across a crowded room.

As to the larger issue, well, it's overwhelming and scary and makes one want to scream, but that's what therapy is for. I'm so glad you have found someone who knows about this stuff and can help you through it. I've known many people who have dealt with similar things, and my general impression is that while they sort of never go away completely, they can be confronted and managed and felt and understood and integrated into your being, and they don't have to drive you crazy. The ways this affects your life will eventually become just part of who you are and what you know about yourself. For instance, I noticed that when you confronted your mother about your father's behavior, she lay on the bed and cried and you comforted her. That pattern is no doubt familiar to many of us. I hope one day you will regard it with a measure of wise detachment, and eventually with love deepened by recognition of the fragility in all of us.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

What? You want more?

  • Read more Cary Tennis in the Since You Asked directory.
  • See what others are saying in the Table Talk forum.
  • Ask for advice.

  • By Cary Tennis

    MORE FROM Cary Tennis

    Related Topics ------------------------------------------

    Since You Asked