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Today, I received a phone call from my father. He rarely calls so I'm always a bit nervous to answer the phone. Not because I think it will be bad news like the passing of a relative. But more so because I feel a dressing-down coming on. Suffice to say that even at nearly 47, I feel like an anxious child ready to be scolded for something I didn't do. And today was no exception.
He began the conversation by telling me that my daughter had not spoken slowly enough to be understood in her voicemail message to my stepmother for her birthday the day before. He continued by saying that I should also have called to wish her a happy birthday directly. He used the phase "You should do 'the right thing'."
Now before I continue with where this conversation led, I feel it necessary to point out that my father in no way determined this on his own. Without a doubt, he was TOLD to tell me that not only had I not done my step daughterly duties but that I clearly was misguiding my daughter in how to address her step grandmother. This is a pattern that I have endured for over three decades. As a child, I had no recourse. No one to defend me. No voice in the matter. As an adult, the pattern continues.
But it was the wording of "you should do 'the right thing'" that gave me the opening. It was a gift that I readily accepted. With more composure than I would have thought possible and with a clear head and voice I replied "Are you actually calling me to discuss what is 'the right thing'?" And as if I was reciting a script I had rehearsed a lifetime, I went into the clearly defined sequence of events that had taken place over the last six months and well before.
Last summer I told my father that my husband and I were separating. I had discussed my marriage with him and the problems we were having for the last two years so this was ultimately not a surprise. At the end of that conversation, he offered to tell my stepmother the news and I eagerly accepted. Her erratic and irrational behavior is well know by everyone she comes in contact with so I thought it best that he deliver this. At the time, I thought "Dad is finally taking a bullet for me." That turned out not to be the case.
Weeks went by and I heard nothing from either of them. A month later, I called my father and asked if he had told her the news. He said he had. I took this an opportunity to call my stepmother directly. She answered the phone with a tone I had heard all too often throughout my life. The simmering anger masked by condescension. She told me she was too busy to talk but she'd tell my father I had called. When I told her that I called to talk to her, she said, "I'm busy" and hung up the phone. I was furious! How dare she take my tragedy and find a way to play the righteous victim. I called my father immediately. I told him what happened and his reply was the final slap in the face "She can handle it anyway she'd like. I'm busy. I have to go." Click.
Months went by with family functions and holidays. My father would call to make plans but I did not answer the phone. When we were together, it was only the most superficial of conversations. In her usual passive aggressive way, my stepmother gave me a tote bag for Christmas with my husband's initial on it.
The new year began and with it, a new career for me and a brand new life. Both of them found ways to dismiss my new role and point out my inevitable failure.
"That's not something I would say. Besides, you stopped taking my calls." my father said in reply to my telling him about the hang-up. "Dad, with all due respect. You said it! And it hurt! And that's when I stopped answering the phone."
I proceeded to tell him that my stepmother's behavior towards me during this time in my life was appalling. That her behavior in general is abrasive and aggressive and tyrannical. That she has put me in the position of defending myself against her complete fabrications of the truth for the better part of my life. AND, that you, my father, have put blinders on to the entire situation.
And I said it all without a waiver of my voice, without a tear, and without agitation.
Then something completely unexpected happened. Unprecedented! My father agreed with me.
He agreed that her behavior is everything I said (he may have even added bitter and nasty). He agreed that he does avoid the issue because he thinks I can handle it (though I didn't remind him that I was only 10 when she came into my life; clearly I couldn't handle it). And he apologized. Not specifically but given that he has never done that before, I took it as a win!
He then said something odd that I will have to give some more thought to. He said I have his "permission to defend myself" and to do so "especially in his presence". Now, I don't know if I need his permission but I have to admit, it does make me feel as if I have the green light to take the low road once in a while instead of the path of the scared child 'doing the right thing'. The "in his presence" thing is, I'm sure, a power in numbers scenario. He's scared of her too.
Bottom line, today I felt the power to stand up for myself. Truly. Without tip-toeing around politeness and 'good daughter' etiquette. Without being scared of what might come, who'll be angry at me, who'll be disappointed in me. I stood tall, made my point, and concluded with my head held high. It was a victory for what has been right all along. And most importantly, it was a first vital step in releasing my past fears, anxieties, and anger, forgiving my father for turning a blind eye, and moving onto a better future clear of anything that hampers my growth.
You see, through therapy I've come to realize that the anger I held from my past was seeping into my present. I couldn't just release it and forgive, like so many others can and do. It was a constant reminder, in some strange way, a badge of honor, that I have endured something profound for many years. But I learned that it comes at a price. I would never be free of the burden as long as I wore the badge. It's time to let go.
The past is behind me. I'm not going there. I'm traveling forward. I'm leaving my suitcase and I'm only taking a carry on... to be unpacked at a later date ;-)