The past won't let me go

When I told my parents their emotional and verbal abuse hurt me growing up, they broke off contact. Now they're trying to see my kids behind my back.

Published September 25, 2006 10:30AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I was brought up in an environment that was not the most emotionally healthy. My parents have always argued a lot -- oftentimes viciously. My father is verbally and emotionally abusive to all of us including my mother. As a child, when my father was being domineering and verbally abusive to my mother, I would confront him (though it terrified me) and had to bear the brunt of his rage. After their fight, I would spend countless hours consoling and comforting my weeping mother. Soon they would be "back in love" and my mom would accuse me of having made the situation worse by having butted in.

I was her only confidante while growing up and she would unburden all her resentment, frustration, etc., due to my father on me because "the family stuff should not go out of the house." I have not had a close relationship with my mother.

After my two daughters were born (5 years old and 17 months), I wrote a long letter addressed to both my parents and told them how their emotionally and verbally abusive behavior all through the years has hurt and damaged me and that I never wanted my children to be hurt like that. They are very controlling people and withheld their love, approval and contact.

Now, they are trying to establish a relationship with my daughters while bypassing my husband (a very loving, gentle and caring soul) and me by showing up to meet them when both of us are at work or on a business trip. This really scares me as I do not want the children to undergo what I have gone through with my parents. They have very subtle ways of controlling us. I admit that they are not all bad -- they have educated me and given me all the opportunities that a child should have. But they have also hurt me a lot and the effects are visible on all other aspects of my life and relationships.

I wrote to them giving them exact instances of what they have said and done in the past and their effect on my life. They have either ignored those things completely or justified it on some basis but not addressed any of them directly. When I told them I needed time and distance to heal myself, they scoffed, saying it was fine with them "given my ongoing healing."

My 5-year-old asks about them and wants to see them but none of the situation is resolving. My parents had a difficult, superficial, cold relationship with both their parents and I never saw my grandparents much till I was grown and independent. I feel guilty for taking that opportunity from my children but at the same time I am afraid for them. Also, will my children forgive and/or understand me for keeping them away from my parents if I am unable to resolve my differences with them? And how can I perform my duty to them in their old age as their daughter without letting them hurt me more so I can raise my girls in a healthy manner?


Dear Floundering,

When I first got this letter from you, I did not know how to respond, so I just moved on -- in the shamefaced way that we move on from people who seem troubled in ways that we cannot fathom, or people who seem to have sparks flying off of them, who frighten us with a potential for sudden, fiery movement. That was my response. Your letter frightened me somehow; you yourself frightened me in ways that I did not take the time to think about. And so I just moved on, like a weary commuter on the sidewalk, ignoring a plea for help. And so you wrote to me again, saying please, respond to me, "The situation I write about in my e-mail below is getting harder to bear. I am in a state of analysis-paralysis and have lost my clarity of vision."

So it is your persistence that I respond to. Your persistence awakens me to possible dire consequences. And it reminds me that it isn't really up to me who to respond to -- that in a strange way my response precedes me, that I have already responded and now simply am recording it, like the minutes of a hasty and complicated meeting.

I think you need some kind of help that I cannot provide. That is what I think. I sense that you are suffering the effects of your past in a way that requires some kind of committed, serious, disciplined work, perhaps medication.

My metaphor for you is that in some way you have been broken and need to be fixed. That is what it feels like, that under the manifold past traumas and current stresses you have lost the ability to make sense of things. This is serious. It feels as though your thoughts are jumping around. And so if I were to say to you that it sounds as if you are having an episode of serious disturbance, would you deny that, as so many people do?

I am not a clinician nor a cultist nor a guru nor even a personal trainer or physical fitness guru or Dr. Phil or Oprah or anyone with power in the world who can snap their fingers or write a prescription or schedule you for weekly rolfing sessions or advise you to see a neurologist or meet with you over coffee to review your Fourth Step or suggest ways for you to align your chakras or give you some herbal teas or anything like that. I can't do any of that. All I can do is speak from my heart, be as honest as I can be and say that you sound like you are broken in some way, like the bone is protruding through the skin, and you are lying on the sidewalk moaning about some things that happened in your past and you are trying to deal with them the only way you know how but it's not good enough, you can't bind your own wounds, you can't operate on your own brain. You can't get clarity of vision with a broken lens. You need a lensmaker.

It sounds mean to say "you need help," doesn't it? But you need help. I do not mean to be mean. We say that to each other when we are trying to put each other down, to say that some person is messed up, less than whole, less than together: We say it to hurt each other. As if to need help is a crime. It's not a crime. You've been injured. You've been injured and you have been asking for help from your tormenter but your tormenter is never going to help you. You need to get help from people who can help you, from the manifold ranks of counselors, medical doctors, therapists and groups of compassionate individuals who like you have been tormented and abused and need to heal. You need to get help from those who have help to give.

You need to contact some people who can really help you. Look in the phone book, or go on a Web site, or contact me directly and ask me to find somewhere for you to go in your area. I will do it if you have the courage to ask. As you know, I read my e-mail. I will not walk by you again like a weary commuter. You have gotten through to me.

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