One of the biggest hurdles to writing this memoir I’m cooking is unpacking my relationship with my dad. When he died about 5 years ago (right after I shipped off to exile), we hadn’t spoken in about 8 years. The years before that weren’t exactly full of quality time either. In fact, he’d been at a fair distance my whole life, and especially after I hit high school. Most of that was my doing, in the sense that it was my choice to shut him out of my mind and heart, so of course now that he has the ultimate last word (that of no last word forever), I can’t compare our memories of key events, or really try to understand him and his motivations and fears. It makes it really tough to find some truths about what made me the guy I am today. And it’s plain sad, too.
One thing I usually hold up as evidence that he was shut-out worthy is the way he manipulated the feelings and attitudes of the people around him. He had a compulsive gift for it. It seemed like from my vantage that no opinion but his was able to thrive in his presence. This got compounded for me by the fact that he had a warped view of the motivations of people around him. He was at times paranoid, and took issues strangely personally, and often seemed to operate with a logic that was skewed from the common realities most people operated in.
I made a promise to myself back then that I would never argue for the sake of winning because I saw that was the path that led my dad to his manipulative ways. He could spin arguments and justifications so effectively he had you believing in human fairy tales and apologizing for being so terrible. And he created a little army of puppets spouting the same weird stuff out for him (his family and friends). In the meantime we went without heat in the winter while he bought himself expensive toys only he could enjoy, and learned to inflict guilt on ourselves for actions and feelings most people wouldn’t think twice about. If that powerful monster was lurking inside me, I wasn’t going to feed him by learning to manipulate others.
The real straw that broke the back of our strained relationship (strained by my growing awareness of his detachment from reality and of his erratic emotional responses) was an email conversation that devolved super quickly. After I told him I wasn’t going to participate in a new agey pseudo psychological ritual thing with him, he exploded on me in a rage of self flagellation and castigation. I have the text saved somewhere. But the thing is, in hindsight I bet it’s not that bad. In fact, I bet I did the same thing he was often guilty of. Twisting the words of others into personal insult and injury, and using them as an excuse to throw a tantrum.
Which brings me to a revelation of sorts. I’ve spent my adult life holding back in emotional confrontations out of fear that I’ll swoop in with my inherited powers of persuasion and rewrite the rules of the argument so that I can’t lose. Or unleash a stream of molten bile and raw pain. But I do it anyway. I open my mouth and I hear him coming through.
Moreover, in the early days of internet communication, I got a powerful example of the dangers in trying to interpret someone’s emotional reality from the words they’ve typed at you. But I do it just like he did, I snap and assume the person is shitty and attacking my very core. And then I bottle the rage and close up shop, move on.
I did it recently when a girl I was semi-dating but holding at arms length finally unloaded every ambivalent thought and feeling she’d been having about our “relationship” in a stream of texts. I didn’t take it well at all. I pulled in and got super defensive, and to avoid becoming manipulative I clammed up. That was effectively the end of it for us. She was right about everything she texted, and it was stuff I had been expecting to hear anyway, but it felt like such an unfair attack on the core of my being that I was unable to respond in any kind of reasonable fashion. I’m afraid to reread those texts for fear of seeing just how crazy I must have been.
But here’s the deal. There’s a core issue in all this that I’m only just now starting to unravel. It’s exciting. I’m thrilled to be on the edge of something super healthy and life changing here, even though it means a huge uphill struggle and a probable personality shift I can’t undo. The core issue has to do with the translation that happens inside when words (spoken or written) hit my brain. Feeling attacked, or hurt, or whatever, is a CHOICE. Words hit your brain and then you do a little magic calculation to interpret them, to file them in categories and trigger your responses. I’m focusing on that process more and man has my happiness level gone up. It doesn’t always help 100%, for example the aforementioned girl has denied my request for a nice chat to wrap up and make nice. But that’s ok, I made the effort to open up and it feels a touch better.
I should give a shout out to the cheesy self-help book that made it clear, although my shrink has been chipping away at this tendency for a while now. It’s called Nonviolent Communication, by some guy click the link if you’re interested. Ironically, it’s also about how to get what you want from people. But in a healthy way? Whatever, I dig it. It’s built around the premise that the words we choose cause/are a form of violence, and that we can be mindful about the roots and aims of that violence.
Anyway, you can never control the response your words are going to get from their recipients. And it’s noone’s fault when misunderstanding occurs. The important step is to become conscious of why you’re responding the way you are, and where that’s really coming from. Then talk about it. Hint: it’s some need for understanding you aren’t getting fulfilled. So, it’s not my fault my dad was a crazy asshole, and it’s not his fault his son was a cringing coward. We just responded to the violence in words perhaps more frequently and passionately than most, and didn’t know how to express what we really need/needed. I wonder if he ever figured that out about himself. Given the way he died, I don’t think he did. I hope I do!
Next life lesson: I learn to stop using such destructive self-references as “coward” and start feeling good about myself.
And don’t worry, my next post should have AT LEAST 300% more references to boobs and blow jobs.