How do you forgive an abusive father? Kim Cottrell shares how she learned how to stop living in secret and pretending everything was okay.
“This isn’t going to work.” I whispered, tears flooding my eyes. My dad had ripped the blankets off his bed and was ranting to get out of it, though he couldn’t stand up because half his body was paralyzed from a stroke.
Maybe it was my hushed voice, or the tears. Whatever it was, he abruptly quieted and meekly waited while I remade the bed. I settled him in, all the while swearing under my breath, and returned to the makeshift bed on the couch in the living room where I’d been sleeping.
The house became quiet again. He called out. “Hello. Hello. Can we talk? I need to say something.”
I went back and sat at his bedside. “Yeah Dad, what is it?”
“I don’t know what to do, what can I do? I’m afraid. I don’t know how to stop this. I don’t want to hurt you.” He was genuinely worried. I was too. My husband and I had brought him home from the rehabilitation unit three days earlier. I had expected problems, but had hoped they would resolve when he felt safe.
“I think you’re having flashbacks, Dad, from the bad things that happened when you were a kid. Maybe we can get you a therapy1 appointment.” Here we were, at two a.m. and he was asking me what he should do about events that had happened more than 70 years earlier, about people who were dead and gone.
We managed an session with a therapist a few days later and I interpreted for him. His stroke had interrupted his ability to express himself and he needed help. The therapy worked and Dad’s flashbacks ceased that day, and after one additional session his rage abated.
The man I’ve been caring for since his stroke is the same father who tore apart his family as a younger man. He hurt his wife, my mother, in a sick game of control. His strategies involved yelling and intimidating, hers involved silence and withdrawal. He never hit her, but he once twisted her arm so tightly it broke when she refused to speak. He yelled and browbeat all of us kids. He sent his sisters and their families away, especially when their differing views about God came into the conversation. He molested my sister. I shared the same bed. He tried to molest me.
My mother sent him away when we told her. I had begged my sister to tell Mom when it all began. My sister urged me to wait. After Dad tried to molest me, I felt I owned a piece of the story and firmly announced I was telling. Mom drove us out of our little town on a country road and pulled over on the shoulder. I draped over the back of the front seat into the space between my sister and my mother and spoke of our father’s violations. The next day he was gone. It was 1974. I was 14.
If only it could have been settled that simply. Sadly, it wasn’t. There were no restrictions on our visitations with our dad. He tried to molest me again when I spent the night at my grandparent’s house where he was living temporarily. I said no. He stopped trying.
When I was afraid he would try again because his drinking was out of control, I moved in with the first man who looked at me. He was older than my father but what mattered was that he wasn’t my father. The sex hardly mattered, I’d lost my virginity at fifteen to my sister’s boyfriend after she pushed us to hang out together, including me being her surrogate during naps with him. My actions weren’t about enjoyment, they were about survival.
College offered an escape and became my haven and sanity-keeper. After college, I began the healing process in earnest, following my sister’s lead. She had studied psychology and the research on sex offenders. Together we had long conversations analyzing all the family members and I desperately wanted to be in solidarity with her. Somewhere in there, I got married to a good man, a kind man. Years later, my therapist suggested maybe someday I’d want to listen to my father’s story. Years went by.
One day, I finally did listen to Dad’s story and then he listened to mine, about how my life and relationships had been interrupted by his actions. Somewhere along the way to that tribunal, my experience of the world2 and what was right and wrong had shifted from judgmental black and white to grayscale tones of understanding. I was divorced by then and learned about making my own life, rather than the life others wanted me to live.
These days, I care for my father. The dad some think is the worst of the worst. Except he’s not. I’ve learned he’s just a human, a tormented human. He was much younger when he was hurt and traumatized himself, long before a hospitalization with life-threatening kidney disease. Long before a car accident that left him and a friend in body casts and half the family in the other car dead. Long before he pursued my mother through years and years of a difficult relationship and they both buried themselves in a bottle. None of those incidents, not kidney disease, not a head injury, and not alcohol abuse, diminished my father’s responsibility for his behavior. But, as I went through his belongings when we moved him closer after his stroke, I found more important pieces of my own history.
Ultimately, I forgave my dad because I needed my life back. I needed to stop living in secret and pretending everything was okay. I needed to quit running. When I stood still, it didn’t take long for the family legacy to surround me and I was forced to wade through a junk yard full of shitty memories before I uncovered the stuff of heart and love and kinship. Eventually, I recovered from feeling sorry for myself and accepted the past I couldn’t change or cover up by applying pink paint. I set about reestablishing relationships with my father and the family he’d pushed away.
My naive opinion of healing was that I could do the work on my own, with a therapist but separate from my father. Now I see that standing outside the relationship with him, in anger, pain, and outrage, wasn’t about healing. Remaining outside the conflict wasn’t either, though it created a space for healing to begin. And, healing wasn’t about the sense of security when wielding power over another. For me, the healing involved going back to face the man who hurt me and listening. It involved being comfortable enough in my own skin to stand there and know that even if I didn’t know what to do next, even if I made a scene and sounded like an idiot, I was there reclaiming the pieces of me.
I forgave my dad for selfish reasons. I knew as long as I labeled myself with the negativity from my childhood, I’d never make space for the positive aspects of my life, never fully embrace my marriage to an incredible life partner. I was greedy and wanted to wear all the labels. I wanted to paste them on myself and wear them around so everyone could see. Yes, I am a child abuse survivor. I am also a woman, wife, lover, stepmother, dog-friend, builder, writer, artist, dog-walker, dinner-fixer, teacher, mentor, fundraiser, traveler, communication disorders specialist, friend, volunteer, change-maker, mistake-maker, divorcee, advocate, provider, neighbor, daughter-in-law, and daughter.
In order to help myself in the processing and forgiving, I began writing about some of the family stories. Always, something prevented me from publishing them. At first, I thought I was protecting my sister. Then, I convinced myself I was protecting my father. I waited and then waited more. Now, I know I was waiting until I had lived the ending.
This is the Ending
Repeatedly during Dad’s stroke recovery, many of the rehabilitation staff said, “You’re such a good daughter. Your dad is so lucky to have you.”
Or, they’d look at him and say, “Wow, you must be a really good dad for your daughter to take such good care of you.”
Each time, my dad and I looked at each other and shrugged. We didn’t tell them our story of being estranged for seven years when I joined my sister in hate solidarity against him, or why. We didn’t need to tell them I spent years correcting his behavior and setting boundaries with him, eventually establishing a relationship that included respect and compassion. I wondered about the implication we humans should only take care of the good people. I wondered who the good people were.
Over lunch the other day, I told him I was writing again, this time about healing and forgiveness. He nodded with interest. I hinted maybe he and I should wrote a story together. After a few silent moments, he told me that would be an entirely different story. Smiling, I agreed. It would.
1The therapy I arranged for my father was based on Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). The therapist acknowledged the protocol for EMDR is very strict and my father didn’t qualify for the actual treatment. Despite that, he was helped dramatically by whatever she did with him and our lives have been improved forever. We left the first session in silence and got into the car and my dad shook his head. “It’s that simple, is it?” “Yeah Dad, it’s that simple to let go of shame. And, it changes everything.”
2In my early-30s, I enrolled in a training program to become a Feldenkrais® practitioner. The Feldenkrais Method® is an educational method that harnesses the power of attention and awareness to alter one’s compulsive responses and reactions to the conditioning of one’s life. It was during that training when I came to understand and integrate the experiences the previous counseling had set in motion. Since 1996, I’ve used the Feldenkrais Method to systematically teach myself to stop dissociating. In addition, I’ve recently reduced my anxiety to less than 15% of what it was throughout most of my life. I attribute a significant portion of my anxiety reduction to three sessions of EMDR.