For the past week, something had been troubling me but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was. I’m sure many of you know the feeling I’m talking about—that sense of foreboding that hovers in your subconscious and makes you feel edgy, like you’re standing at the precipice of some unknown cavern of uneasiness.
When I was a child, my mother referred to this feeling as “nameless dread.” As a young mother, she often struggled with this common maternal malady herself —the belief that all was not right in the world; that disaster was looming around the next corner, just waiting to reach out and seize what bit of happiness she’d managed to hold onto. I know that she endured great pain while she waited for misfortune to strike, the smile plastered on her face attempting to hide the dread she felt.
It really wasn’t my mother’s fault. The women of her generation were expected to hide their feelings; to box them up neatly and shove them into the back of the pantry out of sight and mind, never thinking their fear, guilt and resentment would eventually begin to ferment and stink like rotting fruit— and that someday the mess would have to be cleaned up. As I grew up, I watched my mother hide her feelings and I learned to hide mine, too. I was the ever-dutiful daughter and obediently followed her lead. It was just easier to sweep the hurt and pain under the rug and deny that the muck was seeping out from all sides like a backed-up kitchen sink.
Lying in bed the other night, after about an hour of trying unsuccessfully to fall asleep, I finally figured out what was bothering me and causing my latest bout of “nameless dread.” I was angry.
I was angry about an email that my mother had recently forwarded to me. One of her dear friends whom she’s known since high school had been reading my blog posts and wrote that she was enjoying my writing, and my mother thoughtfully wanted to share this with me. Included in this email was a comment mentioning the fact that I had referred to my father as an “alcoholic” in some of my posts. She wrote that she didn’t really think my father was an alcoholic; after all, everyone “drank a lot” back in the day, and that perhaps (I’m paraphrasing here) that I was just an impressionable little girl who was too sensitive about her daddy.
I was irritated when I read that line, but good girl that I am, I immediately shoved the feeling aside, as I’m as skillful as my mother is at tucking away any uncomfortable emotions into the back of the cupboard. But it triggered something in me that started a slow burn. The hidden anger I carry deep inside of me about my father’s alcoholism began to simmer and bubble over like that cast iron pot of soup on the stove with the flame on high.
She didn’t believe me.
Now, in no way is my anger directed at my mother’s friend—after all, she had gleaned her all of her information through my mother, who kept mum about truth of what went on in our home every night. With so much practice, the members of my family were skilled professionals at putting on a good show—my father being the best actor in the entire troupe. When sober, he was an intelligent and amiable man—full of wit and humor and love. But after a few drinks it would be time for his costume change and his character would transform into that of an intimidating ogre acting out in uncontrollable rage. And the people he supposedly loved most in life were right next to him on the stage, standing still and silent, their intense fear making them forget their lines. But as they say, the show must go on, so we allowed him the center stage to perform his nightly monologue, each of us turning inward and covering our pain with masks of surrender.
A little girl shouldn’t have had to be afraid of what was coming every single night. She shouldn’t have had to carry the dread around in her stomach and tiptoe around the house like a ghost, closing doors with silent precision to avoid hearing her daddy bellow at her about making too much noise. A little girl shouldn’t have had to watch her daddy throw shoes and books and dishes across the room in fits of alcoholic fury. She shouldn’t have had to get out of bed to check and make sure that her daddy hadn’t passed out on the couch with a lit cigarette still clenched between his fingers. She shouldn’t have had to learn to be the caretaker of others instead of herself.
A teenage girl shouldn’t have had to witness her drunken father threaten two high school boys with a fireplace poker, their only crime being that they gave her a ride home from a party late one night. A seventeen year-old girl with talent and intelligence with the world at her feet shouldn’t have spent the next five years of her life in a relationship with a young and handsome boy who was so obviously an alcoholic himself—trying in vain to fix him and failing miserably.
A college senior shouldn’t have had to see her father lying naked and motionless in the ICU, his thin body ravaged by years of smoking and drinking, the only movement that of his chest rising and falling with the hum of a respirator. She shouldn’t have had to lose her daddy when she was only twenty-three years old.
A young mother with small babies shouldn’t have had to watch and worry as her older brother, emotionally scarred from years of his father’s abuse and neglect, turned to alcohol to dull his own unfathomable pain.
A middle aged woman with the blessings of four exceptional children and a loving husband shouldn’t have had to live practically her entire life feeling that she is not beautiful and worthy and good because her father’s drinking was all her fault.
It was not her fault.
So I’m angry. I’m angry that I’ve lived more than half my life believing that I did something to cause my father’s alcoholism. I know in my heart that my father was a good man, even though his actions contradicted this. I realize that his true self was masked by his depression and resentment and the need to deaden the pain of his own wounds. I know this now and I wish I could tell him that although he hurt me deeply, I forgive him.
It’s difficult and painful to admit that someone you loved so much could let you down so completely. It’s not easy to acknowledge those buried feelings—they’ve become an intrinsic part of who I am. But now it’s time to be honest—for my own emotional health, I have to tell the truth and let the anger go. That magnificent little girl who was born perfect and kind and exceptional is still that person today—she just got lost for a while. In the process of finding her, I can release the pain I’ve carried for so long, and then the dread will no longer be nameless.
By revealing my secrets, I become stronger. I don’t have to play the role of damaged little girl anymore. I know that underneath that tight and painful mask I’ve been wearing for so long is that beautiful little girl, smiling and radiating love. Together, she and I can walk off that dark and dusty stage, push open that heavy door and go out into the light.