Life

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The Grief & The Delight Of Being No-Contact With My Dad

Today has been good. There was a promise in the words as I repeated them to myself again and again.

Before my parents’ divorce, I never brought friends to my house. I didn’t want them there in case something set my dad off — usually it had to do with my older sister’s grades, or her seeing someone he didn’t approve of. Whatever it was, he would spiral into one of his door-slamming, name-calling, angry tirades. His diatribes tended to go late into the night, so I learned to sleep with the TV on, cloistered in my room. Sometimes, when it was Dad vs. Mom, my sister would cross the hall, check to see if I was awake, and bring me into her room. She’d tuck me into bed beside her, turn on her CD player, and slide the foamy headphones over my ears.

My parents split when I was 10, which flooded me with relief. I was hopeful that Mean Scary Dad was just Dad who Was Married to Mom, and that going forward, he’d change. Instead, he treated partner after partner progressively worse, and eventually, once I was old enough to have some agency and my own opinions, he turned on me, too. At the same time, he carefully sowed seeds of closeness, telling me he and I would never keep secrets from each other, which I know now was just a way to make sure I kept bringing him information about my mom.

When he went to jail for being delinquent on child support, I was angry — there was a secret he had kept, for one. But also, even at 13, I thought about how much my mom worked, and knew this had made her life harder. I was scared and confused, and I didn’t want to talk to him while he was behind bars. And when he got out, one of the first things he did was call to let me know he’d found a new home for my childhood horse, promising that the buyer would send pictures and updates that never came. I assume he took her to the nearest livestock auction and left with cash.

As I got older, his behavior only escalated.

I did my best not to think or talk about him all day, the silence that used to keep me safe feeling like a vestigial organ.

Going no-contact with your parent is sort of a hot topic these days, or maybe it’s just my algorithm, but the idea started to roll around in my brain three years ago, right after my son was born. My dad, who lived a couple hours away, had made no efforts to visit us and meet his grandson, though he was quick to admonish me on the phone during my pregnancy for getting the Covid vaccine. He was coming to terms with the fact that my then-unborn son and I would both be dead within two years as a result of the shot, he said, sobbing into the phone. He and my stepmom had broken up by this time, and against his wishes, I reconnected with her to ensure I could still see my little brother. After that, things snowballed. A loved one sent me a news article featuring a mugshot of my father front and center. His expression was menacing, and familiar — one I’d been on the receiving end of more than once. He’d hidden outside a man’s house, masked, attacked him with a baseball bat, then fled into the woods, where he was later dragged out by a police K9. The article was from three months prior, and my dad had hidden the entire ordeal, including the fact that he was currently bonded out of jail and awaiting trial for felony assault charges. He had always been quick to threaten people with violence, but now he was clearly dangerous.

I booked an emergency session with my therapist the next day. That night, I sent him a text telling him never to contact me again. I blocked his number and his social media profiles. When Father’s Day came three months later, it felt like I was wearing a mourning veil. I grieved for the father he was in the good moments, the one I deserved. I was surrounded by loving family members — my father-in-law, stepdad-in-law, and grandpas — and my own incredibly kind and supportive husband. But fear and paranoia nipped at my heels all day. Will he show up at my house to cause a scene? Get a friend to call me and wheedle me into speaking with him? (This happened eventually, but much later than I expected, to his credit.) Will he just exist in the world, seething at me? He had always felt omnipotent, omnipresent. Speak of the devil, and he will appear.

My mom, my sister, and I didn’t talk to anyone else about how we were treated at home, even to each other, because it felt like he would know if we told anyone, wouldn’t he? I did my best not to think or talk about him all day, the silence that used to keep me safe feeling like a vestigial organ. Keeping quiet and letting him think he’d won had been the only way to end his tantrums, but it wasn’t him I was dealing with now — it was my own nervous system.

I wish him ill and well in turns depending on the day. I hope he’s safe and treated with respect, and I hope no one cares enough about him to put any money in his commissary account.

The following year, I didn’t think about him until late afternoon. I had gone upstairs to grab a toy or a diaper from my son’s room. In my first quiet moment alone that day, the rush of realizations hit me, like a hot poker between the ribs: Today has been so good I almost forgot about him. He must be so angry and so alone. The thought of it was delicious and heartbreaking, and I wondered what that said about me. I briefly considered unblocking him on Facebook to see how he was framing his newfound lack of a daughter to his friends; others’ perceptions of him were always so important. But, no, today has been good. There was a promise sparkling in the words as I repeated them to myself again and again.

This year, I realize I’m finally processing — for real, and not just in the buzzy way people talk about online. Every night I’ve dreamt of something he took from me. In them, I spend time with my younger brother and his mom, whom I love. I walk a green, overgrown pasture with my horse, Lady. I can feel the soft skin on her nose when I pet her. I thank her for being my friend, and tell her that wherever he stole her away to, I hope she was safe. I dream about him showing up in odd places — at concerts, dinners with friends, on my doorstep. No matter the font, the message is the same: My worst nightmare is him reentering my life, siphoning the joy out of all the special moments again. Without my dad’s active presence in my life, heaping more hurt onto my plate, my brain has the space to unpack decades’ worth of this kind of mistreatment.

It doesn’t feel healing to wake up exhausted from dry runs of seeing my dad again. Or, to spend my dreams living out moments I should have had in real life. My therapist says this means my brain is coming out of survival mode. It is returning to the piles of junk it tossed in corners, quickly emptying its hands to catch the next grenade hurled its way. It’s dusting them off, taking a good look, and packing them away like the artifacts they are. Things of the past, now.

This year, my dad is spending Father’s Day in prison, where he’ll be for the next four years. His sentence has nothing to do with the abuse he doled out to my mom and the women who came after her, or me and my siblings, but it feels good to see him be held accountable for the harm he did to someone.

I wish him ill and well in turns depending on the day. I hope he’s safe and treated with respect, and I hope no one cares enough about him to put any money in his commissary account. I hope he’s hurting, and healing, and I am trying to accept that no amount of either will ever change him. And I’m taking stock of what exactly I’m working toward with all the trauma therapy, trauma books, and the stupid woo-woo trauma yoga my therapist insists on. I have never deluded myself into thinking forgiveness was my end goal, because I don’t believe in forgiving someone who isn’t sorry.

All the “healing” in the world will never cure me of the anxiety, depression, and OCD I live with now. When you have an abusive parent, every interaction is draining and there is no opportunity to meaningfully connect. Each time, it costs you something: your energy, your sanity, your sense of peace. When someone who has hurt you has access to you again and again, your brain is constantly groping for safety and finding no purchase. All of this makes you an exhausted, absent-minded partner and parent. I can see now the ways trauma shows up in my marriage and my mothering, and learn how to be the mom and partner I want to be. Each time, I experience a new wave of rage that he didn’t do the same.

Together, we will celebrate that our family has a dad that we rush to the door to welcome home instead of running to our rooms to escape, who is the soft-spoken antithesis of everything I knew.

Growing up, we tiptoed around my house like it was built on top of a landmine. But in my family, the one I made with my husband and our son, we move: There is dancing, and wrestling, and playing. If you peeked in our front window on any given evening, you’d see a blond-headed blur whizzing around the corner, giggles bubbling up out of him, as he chases his dad between rooms (who is laughing from just as deep within). You’d see my husband scoop up our 3-year-old, roar, and plop him down somewhere soft, our son’s gappy grin on full display. He does not hesitate, or balk, or read the room; it has never occurred to him to be fearful of Dad. My husband does not scream, or intimidate, or threaten; it has never occurred to him to be anything other than loving.

For the kids who’ve gone no-contact, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day aren’t ruined by the parents we no longer speak to — if anything, the day feels lighter knowing there are no dreaded get-togethers with our abusers — but the day will never pass by unnoticed, either. But this year, I know what I want to lean into: delight.

Watching my husband and son delight in each other mends me a little bit every time. Together, we will celebrate that our family has a dad that we rush to the door to welcome home instead of running to our rooms to escape, who is the soft-spoken antithesis of everything I knew, and who has promised us a horse of our own one day, one that will never be taken away.