Digging into the depths of your psyche sometimes brings up things you’d long since forgotten, long since tossed aside as no longer meaningful, no longer relevant, no longer affecting your life. I’ve been doing a lot digging lately. With a backhoe. It was bound that I’d dig up some forgotten parts of my psyche eventually.
As my friend Travis noted, treating a mental illness is an all-encompassing process. Treatment has to be holistic, and I don’t mean in a woo-y, new age-y kind of way. Rather I mean that you have to treat yourself from multiple angles. In my case, those angles are chemical (bupropion), physical (good exercise and diet), and psychological. The first two parts are easy, relatively speaking. The third is really fucking hard. You have to examine yourself with such intensity and so deeply that the ugly parts are bound to rear their ugly heads. Only by confronting the ugly parts can I really proceed further in my continual journey of self-actualization. And that journey of self-actualization recently took me down the “you have repressed issues about your father” road.
My father, Dan, has never been a significant part of my life. Or really any part of my life, for that matter. He was simply … not there. You’ll notice that I refer to him primarily as Dan. I don’t really consider him a father in anything other than the genetic sense because, quite frankly, he wasn’t my father. That role, to the degree that anyone did it, was filled by my mother and grandfather. I’m a little unclear on the timing, but my father started using cocaine either slightly before or while my mom was pregnant. It changed him, she said. He was not the man with whom she had fallen in love. Initially when I was born, a tiny thing, under six pounds, with a mop of strawberry blonde hair, he claimed that I couldn’t be his. “Red hair doesn’t run in my family” he said. Later, he admitted that I was indeed his; my mom thought that his denial was the result of a crazy girlfriend he had at the time. The courts ordered him to pay child support. He was in arrears by tens of thousands of dollars by the time I went to college. He may still be, for all I know.
So Dan was never really in my life. My mother didn’t prevent him from seeing me or vice versa. He just never really seemed to want to be a part of my life. Years passed. I never met him, even though he lived in the same tiny town of 300 people where I grew up. I saw him a couple of times growing up; my mother would point him out when we were in a store or something. Still, I never actually met him in person until I was 18, shortly after I graduated from high school. He came to the library where I worked and asked if he could speak with me. I barely recognized him, as I’d only seen the man a handful of times, and only in passing at that. He spoke to me a bit in his car, something about meeting my grandparents and how I should read Zorba The Greek. Honestly, I had a hard time understanding what he was saying. The conversation was disjointed, as if there were leaps of logic happening in his head that I just couldn’t follow. I suppose the conversation was as one might expect from a mind addled by years of cocaine use.
I spoke with Dan a few other times in my life. For a few years after college, I worked in my hometown library. There were a couple of times when he’d come in, chat a bit. Talking with him was similarly difficult to follow, kind of like trying to follow the logic of a 9-11 truther or a birther: “logic” really didn’t apply. When I finished graduate school and got my first professional job near my hometown, he visited me there a couple of times, too. It was awkward, to say the least. By that time, he had moved to a community about fifty miles south of my hometown and worked with the local animal shelter.
Perhaps I should tell you a bit about Dan, the pre-cocaine Dan, that is. Much like Dan’s conversations with me, my description will sound disjointed. All that I have are snippets that I’ve heard, mostly from my mother, but from other people sometimes as well. Dan was a gifted man, a chiropractor of amazing talent. In fact, aside from when she described what he was like while snorting coke, my mother had nothing but good things to say about him; even in my youth, I could sense the love she had for the man my father was. He was fiendishly smart, funny, a free spirit who enjoyed animals, surfing, and Chinese checkers. He was the only person who could beat my mother at Chinese checkers, so she said. Others who found out Dan was my father had similar praise to heap upon him. I often heard, “He was the best chiropractor I’ve ever had”. What a nice guy he was. How fun he was. And always an emphasis on how intelligent he was, how sharp his mind was. I was often told that I inherited that mind, most often by my mom. That was why I seemed so different from the rest of my small family, she said.
For most of my adult life, I denied how much Dan’s absence affected me. After all, I was successful. Valedictorian of my high school class. Graduated summa cum laude from college. Received two masters degrees at the top of my classes. Built a strong track record and earned respect in my chosen field. I achieved these things despite his absence, I told myself and others. I would brush off suggestions that my lack of a father affected me. When my ex-wife and I went to counseling and we each spoke separately with a psychiatrist, I dodged the issue by saying it wasn’t relevant. I said the same thing to the therapist I went to shortly after I was diagnosed with dysthymia. And I once again professed my father’s irrelevance to my current therapist fewer than three months ago.
But I was just being obstinate, as you’ve no doubt surmised. It took yet another amazing conversation with my partner, whom I’ll refer to as “S”, and a lot of soul-searching to realize that. The truth is that Dan’s absence loomed large in my youth, adolescence, and into the rest of my life, although I told no one this. In my last post I mentioned that the first “adult” album I bought was Paul Simon’s Graceland. The second was Genesis’s We Can’t Dance. I bought it initially for the delightful “I Can’t Dance”, but it ultimately was this song that spoke to me the most, despite not being an exact match to my own situation:
How could I not feel like my father was saying I was no son of his, after all? I mean, he actually explicitly said it shortly after I was born. And even after he admitted that he fathered me, his absence spoke volumes. Even though we lived in the same tiny town, he never tried to contact me before I graduated high school, and my mom made no attempt to stop him. As a young child and adolescent, I mainly just heard about how friendly, smart, and generally awesome Dan was. It didn’t take much for my young mind to put two and two together: that seemingly cool person I envisioned wanted nothing to do with me. That thought was primary on my mind during my first suicidal episode, laying in that bathtub as a fifteen-year-old, contemplating grabbing that temptingly-close razor blade.
Thoughts like that drill themselves deep into your subconscious. They poison the well. They develop into shame. And eventually, those thoughts get buried so deep that you don’t even remember they’re a source of your shame and insecurities in the first place, hence my deflection. “My lack of a father didn’t adversely affect me”, I insisted. <snort> Right, of course it didn’t. How ever could it negatively impact your life to think that you’re so terrible that your own father didn’t want to be around you? But there I go being uncharitable to myself again. I had to think that it didn’t affect me, really, to protect myself. Otherwise I would have collapsed from its weight years ago.
But back to that conversation with S I mentioned. I don’t recall now how he came up, but I was speaking about Dan with her, telling her all of these things I knew about him, the small snippets. I told her a few more, too, ones I haven’t yet mentioned in this post. The time shortly after I graduated when a high school acquaintance told me that Dan was at my graduation but left before it ended. When the same acquaintance told me that Dan maintained a scrapbook of newspaper clippings mentioning me. His efforts to reach out to me. The last time I spoke with him when he said he was proud of me, and I pushed it aside as if I’d just been told that by a complete stranger. He basically was at that point. While telling S this, I hadn’t really acknowledged Dan at that point as a source of my shame.
Partway through the conversation, S started crying, and I didn’t know why. I tried to get her to tell me, but she refused, instead encouraging me to continue talking. Finally, after another few minutes, she said, “Don’t you see, Buzzy? He stayed away because he loved you so much.”
Cliché though it may be, I felt like I’d been hit by a ton of bricks. Three monumental things hit my brain all at once. First, the ultimate source of many of my thoughts of inadequacy came racing back up from the deep pits where I’d buried them. Second, I finally understood why I held so much shame in my heart. And third, I was just given a completely different, and far more plausible, explanation of a critical part of my life. S really should be billing me hourly.
Those details I hadn’t mentioned earlier in this post, about the scrapbook, his profession of being proud, his presence at my graduation? Those didn’t fit the hypothesis in my head, so I’d essentially relegated them to the “irrelevant data” part of my brain. Now those data points fit together into a different, stronger hypothesis. Perhaps Dan thought that he’d simply have made my life worse by being a part of it. He’d ruined his own life, after all. How could he allow himself potentially to do the same thing to his son? Or maybe he was just so ashamed of how he’d abandoned me early in my life that he simply never could muster the courage to see me until he knew I was heading off to a successful life. My mind raced with possibilities. What if Dan had chosen otherwise? How different would my life be?
After gnawing on these revelations for days with no progress, I finally decided that I would give myself dedicated quiet time to think about this and only this. It was during my drive home and then back to work. I removed all distractions to my brain, aside from driving itself. Yeah, yeah, maybe a ton of metal hurtling down the freeway at 65 miles per hour isn’t the safest place to dig into the depths of your soul, but I’m a busy man!
While running through these what-ifs, I came to a realization: none of it mattered. Now that I was on the road to recovery, I understood that I liked my life. I have great friends, a nice house, a dream job, live in a beautiful area, and have the bestest partner one could ever hope to have. More than that, though, I like who I am. I turned out okay. And the reason I turned out okay is at least in part because of Dan. As my mother often said, I inherited his agile mind. My mind is one of the few things in which I (mostly) retain confidence even in my worst moments (and despite the fact that it sometimes leads me astray). I’m able to make connections quickly, to assess and create complex arguments, and generally to understand the world around me. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no genius, but I can hold my own in the world, for the most part. That mental acuity comes from Dan.
However, there’s more to it than that. Dan’s absence, and my feelings of inadequacy resulting from it, gave me a reason to strive. Maybe I could prove myself worthy of attention, of love, of respect, if I worked hard enough. Got good enough grades. Accomplished great things. Left a mark on the world. That six- or seven-year-old is still in me, that child who saw all of those other kids’ fathers and wondered why mine wasn’t around. That part of me strove to prove myself a worthy son. But I don’t need to prove myself a worthy to a man who was never a father to me in the first place. He had his own reasons for not being a part of my life, and those are his own battle. And in realizing that, now I can proceed to confront the shame deep within me and thereby prove myself worthy to myself, despite all my imperfections and despite my disease. I’m the person now who needs to accept me for who I am. And so my healing proceeds.