Dear Dana is a bi-weekly advice column for humans who engage in romantic relationships. Please send your dilemmas, issues, conundrums, assumptions, conflicts, anxieties, worriments, obstacles, complications, predicaments, queries, questions, and any other synonyms for “problems” to firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’ve been estranged from my family (father, stepmother, and two brothers) for the past six years. I’ve suffered from complex PTSD since I was about 10 years old (I’m over 50 now), and my family was a source of much of that trauma. (Short version: I grew up in an invalidating environment with people who considered themselves too logical and rational to have any empathy; my younger but heavier/stronger brother constantly abused me both physically and verbally in full view of my parents, who insisted that nothing he did or said “could” or “should” bother me and I was just too sensitive and over-reacting, so nothing was done to protect me; my mother died when I was 18 and my father’s reaction was to give away the dog and all of my mother’s things within two months, get a new girlfriend/fiancee after four months, remarry at the 14-month mark, sell our family home so he and the new wife could start fresh, and tell me that I had to find my own places to live forever after; the loss upon loss over an 18-month-or-so period was awful and impossible to describe.)
I stopped communicating with my family when I was just beginning to recover (with good therapy) from the most severe depression of my chronically-depressed life and needed an escape from all the negativity, sadness, and resentment I associate with them. I did write letters to my father for a while trying to explain how I’d gotten to that point, and if he’d responded, “Wow, I can see that things were incredibly hard for you, I’m sorry that I didn’t handle the situation(s) better at the time, and what would help you now?” I would have been fine. But what he said to me was, “Your perceptions are all wrong, and if you just understood what was going on, then you would see that I did nothing hurtful to you, and we can just get on with our lives and never talk about this again.” That felt like my childhood all over again, with me having no right to my feelings, and I ended the exchange. My brothers are on my father’s “side” (I don’t think emotional experiences have “sides,” but that’s a discussion for another day) and refuse to acknowledge my depression and PTSD as anything but my own individual problem, which is why I’m not speaking to them, either.
Now, I would like to write to my father, saying I’m very sorry for cutting him off completely the way I did, because I know it has to hurt him deeply every day, but I had to protect myself and that was the only way I knew how. The problem is, I don’t know how to start such a letter, or how to end it, either, since I’m not sure I want to actually go visit him or anything. My father is 85, I’m only assuming he’s still alive, and getting this done feels urgent.
Do you have any suggestions?
Dear Lost Child:
First off, I want to say that I’m really sorry that your family sucks. I believe that the world is made up of mostly good people, but also that some people fundamentally suck, therefore some of us get those sucky people as parents and then, through no fault of our own, have to do the double work of striving to be a good person while also overcoming whatever damage was done to us by our truly sucky parents. It’s wholly unfair.
When you were a child you had no control—your brother could terrorize you whenever he wanted and you had no recourse. What made this even worse is the fact that your family refused to protect you, especially in those tender years before you had the ability to protect yourself. As you grew up, your father perpetuated the bullshit by doing nothing to protect you from the trauma of your mother’s death and then dismissing your completely valid complaints about his behavior.
It’s true that sucky people are usually made by other sucky people. A sucky person doesn’t emerge from the womb fully sucky—they themselves are first dismissed, diminished, abused, and taught on the most basic level that life is painful and the only way to survive this pain is to pay it forward. There’s probably a reason why your father is the way he is, but I also want you to really, really work to understand that the reasons for his suckiness are not your problem. He didn’t deal with his problem, he chose instead to pretend that emotions are optional and that feelings can be denied if you just crush your whole body weight against them hard enough. He chose to be this way, and you get to choose how you react to him.
You are now a grown up and you do have the ability to protect yourself, and you have protected yourself by cutting your father out of your life. If all someone does is bring you pain, do you have an obligation to continue to have a relationship with them? I say firmly no, you do not. I imagine that since you cut off communication with your father your life has been much calmer, quieter, and more peaceful. I also imagine that, even though you have not spoken to him in many years, your father is still a large presence in your life.
We talk about cutting people out of our lives like it’s easy, simple. Just the term “cut him out of your life” implies it’s a clean break—snip, snip, he’s gone. But relationships don’t start in a single instant and they also don’t end in one. When you love someone, really love them, you can’t ever truly be rid of them. We are all enmeshed, entangled, and even though you choose to no longer communicate with your father, you still have a father. He still exists in your mind, in the core of you, even in death.
It’s important to acknowledge that cutting someone out of your life doesn’t mean that they’re out of your mind. You think about them and, if you forget to think about them for a few days or weeks, you dream about them. People who have left my life appear in my dreams, a regular cast. Sometimes we’re in a restaurant and we apologize to each other; sometimes we’re on the beach and we have a screaming fight; sometimes it’s 10 years ago, before we realized we couldn’t be together anymore, and we’re on a train, hopeful; sometimes it’s now and we’re in my kitchen and I introduce them to my husband and child as I make us all a nice salad. It doesn’t matter what happens, I know that I’ll dream about them again. I think it’s because my mind wants to try again, somehow make it so we don’t hate each other anymore, somehow make it so the pain we caused each other can be erased. But it can’t.
I’m going to ask you a question and I need you to be really honest: Why do you think that your father is going to be different this time? Each time you’ve reached out to him in the past he’s given you the same response: Your emotions are wrong, you are wrong, this whole thing is stupid, you need to stop/apologize/change.
What do you want your father to do with this letter? Are you looking for a way to minimize the guilt you feel as a result of cutting him off? Are you ready to accept him as the sucky person that he is and let him back into your life with the understanding that he will never see things your way? And, most importantly, why does this feel urgent now?
It’s possible that your father will give you the response that you want, but it’s probable that he won’t. I understand that you feel the need to apologize to him for leaving his life, but I also need you to know that you don’t owe him anything. Parents are supposed to take care of children physically, mentally, and emotionally. He may have given you food and clothes and a home, but he didn’t allow you to feel safe or secure within that home.
If this letter is for you, and just for you, if it will allow you to sleep better, to quiet your dreams, and to give you a greater feeling of peace, then I say it’s fine to write it. Say what you need to say to him, but be sure to say it in a way that allows you to still protect yourself. Don’t include any contact information, don’t include a return address, don’t include anything that will allow him to respond to you. Start the letter by saying why you’re compelled to write it: You feel bad about having cut him off. You feel bad about having caused him pain. You wish him the best. You wish you two didn’t have this fundamental disagreement where he believes that you choose to be hurt and you believe that pretending that pain isn’t real doesn’t make it disappear. Don’t ask him for anything, don’t list your grievances against him. Write the letter as a gift to yourself, as an act of grace, but still maintain the layer of protection you have built around yourself. Write it, send it, and do not permit a response.
Dana Norris once went on 71 internet dates, many of which you may read about here. She is the founder of Story Club and editor-in-chief of Story Club Magazine. She has been featured in McSweeney’s, Role Reboot, The Rumpus, and Tampa Review and she teaches at StoryStudio Chicago. You may find her on Twitter at @dananorris.