The memory of my parents telling me they were getting a divorce is cinematic. My mom sat us down on the couch in the living room where we never really hung out, it was a room reserved for Christmas parties and serious conversations. My dad paced, silent, his rigid movements jolting with anger. My mom broke the news–we’re getting divorced–and followed it with a bright attempt to find some good: You’ll have two houses now! I felt a brewing thunderstorm–sunny dispositions colliding with frigid auras–and me in the middle, brimming with nervous energy, rubbing my socked feet on the carpet.
I was seven at the time. The divorce happened too early for me to understand that people get married because they love each other. There wasn’t any evidence of that connection in my home. I never saw my parents being loving to one another, so I just assumed my mom and dad were partners in parenting; put together by some omniscient force to raise me. No matter what happens, you should know that your dad and I still love you no matter what. I was too young to understand that something could be wrong that wasn’t my doing or that my parents could be angry about something other than me. To my knowledge, their entire focus in life was me. I thought: If I’m good, Mom & Dad will be happy. If I’m bad, Mom & Dad will be sad.
But then they split, an event that was beyond my control, and I saw my parents getting sad when I couldn’t find anything I’d done wrong to attribute it to. At seven, I was exposed to a range of emotions usually reserved for adulthood, and I didn’t know how to handle them. I didn’t only misunderstand love. I was about to misunderstand hatred, regret, and anger.
So began the early days of what I jokingly refer to as “The Dark Years,” when my dad was learning to be a single parent–cooking meals for us or spending three hours getting gum out of my hair that I had fallen asleep chewing. One morning, he’d planned a day trip out of town for us. We left the house and rounded the corner to find the rear window of our beat-up brown Subaru had been shattered. Someone had thrown a brick through it during the night–likely a shit-head teenager egged on by friends–but my dad lost it, cursing, kicking, and screaming. His outburst came suddenly, like a power grid being switched on; I could almost hear it humming to life. The Anger had arrived and it wasn’t going away. I bolted into my room, cried all day, and racked my brain trying to figure out what I’d done wrong. In my childhood brain the brick through the window was somehow my fault.
My dad wasn’t very good at tempering his anger around us. I think he felt victimized, outraged, and completely lost after the divorce. After some time around this new version of my dad, I developed an instinctual avoidance of provoking him. My life became a crash course in walking on egg shells. When I was nine, we were Christmas shopping in Pottery Barn. I was playing with the vinyl belt in front of the register when it shocked my fingers and I instinctively let the belt go, it snapping quickly across the line with a loud crack. I looked up at my dad and burst into tears, knowing I’d done something to set him off again. He swiftly picked me up and we left the mall. Ten minutes later, we were pulled over in the breakdown lane of route 128, with my brother sitting outside on the guardrail in the dead of Massachusetts winter, and my dad inside the car, screaming at me. I tried to tune him out—listening to the whiz of cars flying by, shaking us slightly as they passed, and concentrating on the rhythmic clicking of the hazard lights, their orange glow bouncing off the snow outside. It was a twenty-minute barrage of rage, and all I could do was keep my head down and cry, and apologize, and apologize, and apologize. I know now that this moment switched on an unyielding fear of the person that made me.
My mom, bless her, was committed to giving me a normal upbringing in the face of a lot of bullshit. In 2001 she remarried, and it took me ages of coming home from school to cryptic clues to recognize I was living in an unstable environment–a broken mirror on the wall one day, my step-brother showing up covered in bruises and blood the next, or my allowance strangely gone from my bureau. But I still blamed myself. Soon enough my step-father could no longer hide the fact he was an alcoholic, a drug-addict, and an abuser. We spent years stuck in a thick fog of ubiquitous threat in the midst of his extreme behavior until my mom was finally able to divorce him, but I still struggled with feeling safe. My experience during those years had metastasized my uneasy feelings around men into an impenetrable phobia and distrust of them.
In my adult life, I’ve worked constantly to navigate that fear. After college, I moved across the country from Vermont to California in an attempt to escape my rocky adolescence. Choosing to trust men remains a battle against my instincts, but my choice to be far from home helped to dull the trigger-like suspicion of all men I once had. The fear that once pulsed through my veins has slowed some, and I’m lucky enough to know some men I truly care for and can confide in. Finding out who I am outside of the shadow of my hometown has me relishing in adulthood, because, as it turns out, it’s a lot easier to deal with a sink of dirty dishes or a parking ticket than threatening phone calls and violated restraining orders. The mundane issues of adulthood are a symbol of my independence. I can embrace my anxiety about my career or finances because it means I’m growing. I feel like I can finally turn off the hazard lights.
I’m happy to have had time to consider what really happened in my early life. Now that I’m the age my parents were when they had me, I can only imagine what it must have been like to try to stay in a marriage, raise kids, and not screw it up. At 28, I live with anxiety all the time–uncertainty about my job and restless pseudo-profound nights of yelling what the fuck am I even doing? at the heavens. To imagine that my parents were experiencing those kinds of realizations and stressors helped me come to terms with a truly shocking fact: My parents are people too. And even more scandalizing: They can also be wrong? Like, as much as they want?
Within that realization, my fundamental frame of mind regarding my parents–and particularly my father–had changed almost without my knowledge. At some point I stopped accepting his authority as ultimate truth. I stopped considering everything that had happened as my own fault when I learned that there are a thousand different ways to be wrong and failure doesn’t escape anybody. Being wrong becomes a rite of passage as you get older. Like radio waves, our mistakes are omnipresent, rarely acknowledged, but incredibly useful in the end. Accepting your mistakes and owning that wrong is just a state you’ll exist in sometimes can make being wronged in the past sting a little less. If a guy threw a rock through my rear window, I’d flip the fuck out, too. If someone I’d decided to commit to decided they weren’t committed to me anymore, I don’t know how I’d compartmentalize something that significant.
After decades of trying to find a way to relate to my dad and build a relationship, I still come up short all the time. We don’t discuss the past, which leaves us books and movies and foods we both like as discussion topics. I’ve noticed in our clumsy conversations that we’re still trying in vain to find something in common, even after everything that’s happened to distance us. I think maybe by writing this essay and speaking up about the fear of him I’ve always had, we can cobble together something real. We can stitch together our inadequacies, wrong-doings and fears right alongside the good intentions and hopes for the future. To flip the on switch and awaken the Frankenstein will give us something with a lot of work to do, but there is usually a good heart under the awkward, bumbling monster. In the end, I don’t think I’d even change my experiences. I don’t want a life that looks perfect, one that doesn’t require struggle and dissection and reassembly. I’ll take the freak instead.
Illustration by Paige Vickers