Stuck in resentment after 35 years

My father died last year -- and suddenly I'm reliving junior high.

Published January 5, 2006 10:24AM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I am holding on to some old resentments that are eating away at me and ruining my present life. And when I say old, I mean it -- these situations happened 30, 35 years ago.

I'm 46 years old. Last year my father died, and I think that released some deeply hidden issues. The resentments don't relate to him directly. My father himself was always a very kind man, but he was distant, particularly during my childhood, and he was gone a lot -- working all the time, as fathers seemed to do in the '60s and '70s.

I wasn't a particularly popular child. I was picked on and excluded by some other children, most of the incidents occurring from sixth to eighth grade. I remember, in particular, one little boy who had been my good friend when I was 7 or 8 suddenly turning on me, calling me a fat slob and throwing snowballs at me at the bus stop.

Junior high was rough in general, the girls were mean, the boys didn't like me, and there were always random nasty remarks cast in my direction. I internalized a great deal of anxiety, and for a period of six or so months lost a great deal of hair, a condition that was diagnosed as alopecia, probably induced by stress.

It seems important to stress that unhappy as I was, I was never a complete outcast. I always had a few friends, and those people were quite loyal to me for many years.

I am also well aware that mocking and teasing happens to a lot of children, particularly in that age group. And -- this is the honest truth -- reliving these problems hasn't been a huge issue in my life, up until now. High school was essentially fine for me. After that, I grew up, went to college, got married, and rarely thought about my early adolescent problems.

Then my father died and since then my interior life has been taken up with thinking about how horribly I was treated for four or five years. It has become almost an obsession with me. I fantasize about tracking down some of my attackers and harming them or humiliating them. I wallow in ridiculous self-pity. It's absurd.

So what am I to do? I know, rationally, that I am wasting time on things that cannot be solved or changed, and that honestly don't matter at all any more. Yet I can't seem to stop, and I can't figure out why. I can't seem to determine what I am getting out of this, because I must be deriving something from it or I wouldn't keep doing it. Right?

Stuck in Resentment

Dear Stuck,

I note with sadness the death of your father last year. I note as well how often this happens -- people will write to me about seemingly unrelated things but mention, almost in passing, their father's death the year before. And there will usually be a faint echo of some unresolved sadness or wish, some tenuous connection between the sadness and the father's death. But it is almost as if the father's death is by now in the background. Your letter like no other opened my eyes to this pattern.

The father's dying is like a hurricane, stirring things up.

Look what it has stirred up in you.

Let's talk about this "ridiculous self-pity" that you mention. I suppose that all of us from time to time are guilty of "ridiculous self-pity" -- a lazy, self-indulgent wallowing in hurt feelings. But in a man who has suffered a major loss, I suspect that what you call "ridiculous self-pity" is actually an unfamiliar intensity of self-regard, a true sadness so strong it seems threatening, almost immoral.

So we try to shake it off. But we can't shake it.

This baffles us. And it frightens us too.

One of the truly eye-opening things I have discovered in my ongoing quest to become just a little bit less insane is this: just how cruelly I have regarded myself in the past. It took some doing to see that what I took to be normal and balanced male self-regard was actually, given my emotional requirements, an almost debilitatingly harsh and unforgiving litany of self-criticism and self-rebuke. When I sought psychotherapy for some problems I was having in my writing, I discovered quickly that there was a great difference between how my father appeared to me consciously and how I experienced him emotionally -- that while he was outwardly a placid and kind man I was secretly in great terror of him, and that this terror manifested itself in relentless perfectionism. The result of this insight was twofold: I came to care for myself with greater tenderness, and also came to see my father with both greater compassion and greater realism. The key was realizing what I actually felt -- that while I pretended to regard him with placid and somewhat indulgent affection I was actually living in terror of his judgment.

Now, my father is still alive and luckily I have been able, in certain ways, to a limited extent, to put into practice what I realized. But I imagine that if he had died before I had this insight, and even when he does die someday in the future, it will still roil much unsettled feeling. We are never done with this sort of thing -- never. We are never done being the sons of our fathers. So my advice to you would be to spend some time with a therapist talking about your father and what he meant to you, and try to connect these feelings of persecution by other adolescents to your feelings toward your father in your own adolescence. It may be that these things are related.

For instance, your anger at these adolescents may be connected with your never-granted wish to be protected from them by your father. Now that your father is truly out of the picture, that wish may feel more poignantly hopeless than ever.

It could also be that these young people are a distraction from your anger at your father, or a substitute target for that anger; to consciously feel anger at your father while you are still mourning his death may be just too uncomfortable.

Think about your adolescence. It would be natural for a boy that age to wish that his father would come to his rescue, would protect him from these tormentors, or at least advise him on how to repel them and get on with life. To find that one's father is too consumed in work to help is quite a letdown. And one doesn't know, really, how to express such things in junior high.

I hope you can find someone to help you talk through these things. It is indeed a little unsettling to suddenly have intense feelings about things that happened decades ago. It may help to consider that you are not actually concerned with things that happened decades ago, but with your feelings, which are happening right now.

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