Father’s Day When You’re Estranged From Your Dad
By Ilonka Michelle O’Neil, Special to www.JenniferMargulis.net
My father isn’t dead but our relationship seems to be. Thanks, Facebook. The last time I heard from him, he told me to go forward as if he were dead. A reverse “You’re dead to me.” That’s where we left it.
My father is an alcoholic. He was abused as a child, married at 17, fathered five children, and walked out on the family when the youngest, twins, were two years old.
He wasn’t a pedophile, per se. But he was overly sexually charged.
He also spied on me as a teen while I was getting dressed.
After I discovered this, I had to hide between my bed and the wall, in a place he couldn’t see me, to change my clothes.
He was intrigued by any female form. He loved his Playboy magazines. My father didn’t hold back using profanity regarding women’s bodies around his daughters.
My young ears heard lots of talk of “tits” and “asses” and “pussies” growing up. My father and I spent many years estranged and I worked hard on my own healing.
Part of that healing included writing a memoir about my childhood. In my book, I told the story of my childhood, a story that still caused me shame. One of the reasons I wrote it was to absolve the child I was of carrying blame for things she couldn’t control.
Eventually, through my own spiritual practice, I would get to a place of forgiveness for my father. I found myself wishing I could go back in time, to his childhood, to love and protect him. I sat on the book for a couple of years.
I didn’t want to hurt this already wounded person further. Plus, I was scared. It’s a lot to put out there. It’s so personal. After about a dozen years of estrangement, I began to let my father in, just a little.
I saw him at a family celebration and he asked if he could send my children birthday and Christmas cards.
It was a start.
We had a cordial, light, surface relationship. Maybe we could build something. And then he joined Facebook. I have a good old time on Facebook. We’ve moved a lot and I love how it allows me to keep in touch with people in so many places.
But when my father reached out to “friend” me, my whole body recoiled.
Visions of him spying on me.
Visions of him trolling my FB feed and my pictures (and photos of my adolescent daughter).
The thought made me ill.
Ignoring this necessary boundary would be bad for me physically and emotionally.
I told him I couldn’t accept his FB friend request. I was honest about why.
Come with me into a dream. This is what a real healed father would do under these circumstances.
He’d say, “I am so sorry for the things I did decades ago. Even if I don’t remember them, because I was always drunk…I know you’ve been burdened with the memories. I am so sorry for ever making you uncomfortable. I will do anything and everything in my power to respect your boundaries, and I won’t give up. Your feelings matter to me.”
Of course, he isn’t healed.
And that’s not what happened.
His response was swift and final. It came in all caps.
(There were times as a child I wished him dead to stop my own suffering. There were times as an adult I wished him dead, to end HIS suffering).
I GUESS NOTHING HAS CHANGED. THIS IS THE LAST YOU WILL BE HEARING FROM ME. I LOVE YOU DEARLY BUT I JUST CAN’T HANDLE ANYMORE OF THIS. YOU WISHED ME DEAD AT LEAST TWICE SO MAYBE IT’S BETTER FOR YOU IF YOU JUST PRETEND THAT I AM. I WAS NOT A GOOD FATHER OR GOOD HUSBAND BUT I AM NOT THE DEMON YOU HAVE LODGED IN YOUR HEAD.
It was as if we had a tiny sapling growing and he mowed right over it.
My father never did know how to treat anything precious to him.
He immediately shut down his Facebook account. Energetically, I could feel his hurt. And it pained me that my rejection hurt him.
While there were times in my life I had been filled with anger toward him, there was no longer any part of me that wished him harm.
And this is going to sound strange, but I liked that he said he is not “the demon I have lodged in my head.” Because I don’t think he is a demon.
I think he is wounded and sick. I love that there is a part of him that knows he is good, despite everything.
But I am a grown woman.
I am a mother.
I am good at boundaries.
It’s a muscle I developed because I had to. And refusing his FB friend request was a choice I needed to make for my own well-being. So was, eventually, publishing my memoir.
I published my book in 2011. I weighed the possibility of protecting him from himself, against the potential benefit to others who might read and be inspired by my story.
I did not put it out in the world with malice toward my father.
I did hope people reading it would give kids from broken and dysfunctional families a little more benefit of the doubt and treat them more kindly.
Lest you fear the book is so heartbreaking it traumatizes the reader, it isn’t. I’ve had a lot of feedback from readers saying they didn’t expect it to be so funny. Most say they came away from the book feeling inspired, not depressed or horrified.
My father read the book. He hated it. He said it was full of lies and inaccuracies. My mother, who doesn’t come out smelling like roses in the book, read it.
She supported me and said every word is true.
Today I feel almost no energetic charge regarding my father.
I feel like our sacred contract has ended. I’ve learned what I am going to learn from him. He has learned all he can from me. I have compassion, but I do not feel emotionally entangled anymore.
Or, maybe I’m in denial, because here I am writing about him once again.
On Father’s Day, we will honor my husband.
He is a wonderful father. He works hard. He sacrifices for our kids. He shows up every time, providing us with everything we need (and almost anything we could want).
His steady and unwavering love for me has healed so many of my childhood wounds. I’ve been with him longer now than I ever lived with my father.
A friend, who is an intuitive, told me my father, on a soul level, decided to come here, so that me and my siblings and our children could come into the world. She said his soul knew it would be hard, being abused and neglected and suffering from addiction, but he did it for us, for the sake of infinite expansion.
I liked this.
My father’s alcoholism made him anything but honorable in my eyes.
But if I look at it from my friend’s perspective, I can see him as a brave and noble soul indeed.
If I choose this to be true, I can be proud of him. I can scroll through all the beautiful Facebook messages this Father’s Day and feel grateful for my own dad.
About the Author: Ilonka Michelle O’Neil is author of the memoir Daughter of the Drunk at the Bar. She is a former radio news reporter and her pieces have been featured during NPR’s Morning Edition on WAMU in Washington DC. She’s contributed to A Cup of Comfort for Parents of Children with Autism, and Special Gifts: Women Writers on the Heartache, the Happiness and the Hope of Raising a Special Needs Child. She has written for Literary Mama, The Imperfect Parent, Age of Autism, Cool Cleveland, The Bark, and many other publications. She’s a registered nurse, and is also a trauma informed yoga teacher in South Florida.