Nameless Dread

13 Apr

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.

20 Responses to “Nameless Dread”

  1. Carrie Crocker-Aguirre April 13, 2012 at 2:33 pm #

    I admire you Jessica! You have always been a person who is smart and fun and smiley. I admire you for writing this. I admire the little girl, teenager, College girl. young mother and middle aged women who speaks her mind and writes it down so that all may have inspiration to do the same. I always have and still do think you are beautiful. Keep writing, it’s a true gift!

    • Allegro non tanto April 13, 2012 at 2:35 pm #

      Oh Carrie, thank you so much! It’s funny how difficult it is for me to accept your compliments after a lifetime of believing I’m not worthy of praise. So right now I’m taking to heart what you’ve said, and trying my best to believe it!

  2. Bethany Bacher Bemis April 13, 2012 at 3:38 pm #

    Did we grow up in the same family? Wow. Since we became friends on facebook, I read every story that you post. And everytime I feel like you are writing/speaking for thousands of women. I too admire you, for the strength to showcase your feelings. Keep writing. I love them all. Have you thought about a book?

    • Allegro non tanto April 13, 2012 at 4:27 pm #

      I know, right? There’s so many wounded souls roaming around out there! Thanks for the kind words, Beth. And yes, I have thought about a book. I just have to figure out what I want to put in it!

  3. Charla Bregante April 13, 2012 at 4:51 pm #

    Your honesty is unflinching and your compassion and love are so evident.Thank you for sharing so openly about your life. Isn’t it wonderful that we can keep growing throughout our lives? And isn’t it wonderful that our stories can resonate with other people and help them grow too. No one is truly alone.

    • Allegro non tanto April 13, 2012 at 5:08 pm #

      Something I’ve recently learned, Charla: I can’t possibly love others completely until I love myself! And it is wonderful that we’re all connected in some infinite way that matters.

  4. Kristin April 13, 2012 at 6:55 pm #

    This post may be your best yet. Wow!

  5. McSweeps April 14, 2012 at 3:00 pm #

    This is so meaningful. My alcoholic father died when I was 23 years old too. I got Army leave to go home for his funeral. His life was over. Years later I forgave him. Forgiving is almost a selfish act as it helped me so much. Then I became an alcoholic. But wouldn’t father a child until I was no longer drinking! My daughter is 26 years old now. Here is my “fear” April Fool’s story.

    • Allegro non tanto April 14, 2012 at 3:26 pm #

      What a powerful post. I’m glad that your fear ultimately saved your life. I believe the fear I lived with as a child of an alcoholic saved me, too. Because of my dad’s drinking, I’ve abstained from alcohol for all of my married life (almost 25 years) and have broken the terrible cycle of alcoholism that’s run rampant in my family for generations. My children have never had to live with that terrible fear of dealing with an out of control drunk. I wish my own father had be able to get sober and enjoy his life–he would have adored his grandchildren. You’re a lucky and wise man!

  6. happykidshappymom April 14, 2012 at 9:23 pm #

    Jessica, you have given a name to the “nameless dread,” and for that, I applaud you.

    I know that feeling, we all do, of something gnawing at the back of your mind. You are smart to realize that just because someone doesn’t believe you — it doesn’t mean what you say or feel isn’t true, or didn’t happen. I am glad that writing about your history has given you strength. I know you will pass it along to others.

  7. Jennifer McAdams April 17, 2012 at 9:05 am #

    Wonderful piece Jessie – thank you so much. As a child of acholic parents, It brought up a few almost forgotten memories. I recently joind a 12 step program aimed at compulsive eating and am having to dredge up and deal with many of these old stories of my life. You are a very talented writer and I very much enjoy everything you write.

    • Allegro non tanto April 17, 2012 at 9:54 am #

      Thank you, Jen, for your kind words! We all have our old stories, don’t we? Good for you for working it out with the 12-step program. Love you!

  8. debatterman April 17, 2012 at 4:32 pm #

    I don’t think it’s possible to let go of something before fully acknowledging its hold on you. And, in my experience, more often than not, it takes being on that ‘edge’ before any nameless dread can reveal itself.

    • Allegro non tanto April 18, 2012 at 6:56 am #

      Absolutely, Deborah. I just wish I had understood this a long time ago–I would’ve saved myself years of torment!

  9. Catherine Stine April 18, 2012 at 6:13 am #

    Good to realize all of this. Sounds as if you have a solid handle on what was bothering you, and how to take action.

    • Allegro non tanto April 18, 2012 at 6:58 am #

      It is good, Catherine! It’s extremely freeing to let go of all the garbage that’s haunted me for so long.

  10. Britton Minor April 18, 2012 at 10:40 pm #

    Love to you, Jessica-and to the little girl who loved her daddy so…

    • Allegro non tanto April 18, 2012 at 10:49 pm #

      Thanks, Britton. She’s still in there trying to find her way out.

  11. Kati Bennett July 5, 2012 at 1:32 pm #

    Jess – the picture of you on this entry is how I remember you from childhood. I always thought you of you as so gifted (and you were!) – as an artist, a musician, an athlete (yes, you were the fastest girl at Fairview School), so confident, so popular, so cute. It’s amazing what we don’t realize about how other people are feeling, even those we “know so well.” Thank you for what you write. It’s so beautifully from the heart, and thus so meaningful.

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