Survivor 💪🏻

Thanks to another Tough Cookie for sharing their story 💪🏻🍪

I was asked to write this post on Father’s Day. In truth, I’ve stopped paying attention to when Father’s Day comes around each year, since I haven’t celebrated in five years now. This isn’t going to be a typical story of the loss of a father through an untimely death—indeed, my father is still alive. This story is more about the loss of innocence, the loss of youth, the loss of a feeling of safety and trust, and the loss of my relationship with my father. But more importantly, this is the story of what I gained.

My family was never wealthy growing up. We were middle-class, but it always seemed that we were on the brink of some kind of financial ruin. There were times when my parents struggled to pay the mortgage, though we always got by somehow. My sister and I were both in the honors system at our schools and fully expected to go to college, so the promise that our parents made to us was that as long as we were in school we would be able to live at home with them for free. I grew up less than three miles away from Arizona State University, one of the largest universities in the United States, and since we qualified for in-state tuition, my sister and I both saw this as our most affordable option for our bachelor’s degrees.

My sister graduated from ASU in 2010, the same year I finished high school and subsequently started my college career. For the next two years, I was studying and my sister was working. Then, in 2012, my sister applied to graduate school in Chicago and was accepted, even offered an enormous scholarship. Our mother was so proud of her. Our father was furious that she was leaving.

There had been tension between my parents for a long time. Their fights were loud and long, and almost always about money. When they fought, my sister would come to my room or I would go to hers and we would wait the fight out together. Sometimes the fights were so bad that my father would end up sleeping on the couch. The fight on April 1, 2012 was different, though. That was the day my parents’ 29-year-old marriage ended. It was the day before my 20th birthday.

2012 and 2013 were two of the hardest years of my life. My mother, my sister, and I discovered things about my father that we’d never known: trauma from his childhood, the depth of the history of mental illness in his family. And we uncovered things that he’d hidden: an emotional affair with another woman, though he swore he had never been unfaithful to my mother; secret credit cards in his name that my mother didn’t know about. To me, though, the worst was the secret that he had kept about the house. For several months even before April 1, 2012, he had stopped paying the mortgage. By the time he had moved out, the house was in foreclosure and the rest of us didn’t even know. The house had originally belonged to my grandmother, my mother’s mother, and both my sister and I had lived there all our lives. The bank took possession of it in December 2013, just a few days before Christmas. By that time, the divorce had been finalized and none of us had spoken to my father in months. I was on my last year of my bachelor’s degree, and my sister had moved to Chicago for grad school.

I graduated from ASU in 2014, on-schedule and with honors. I lived with my mother the last two years of college, and in spite of the foreclosure on the house we were able to avoid homelessness and even keep all of our pets. We had been living in survival mode for two years, and finally we had a bit more space to breathe.

I never cease to be amazed by the things that hindsight can reveal. I had a happy childhood, but it wasn’t until after I was away from my father’s influence that I saw many of his behaviors for what they were. He never hit me or did anything physically inappropriate, but there was no way for me to deny any longer that there had been emotional abuse. His favoritism of my sister got more and more obvious as we got older. I had loved my father, but it had never truly occurred to me how much I also feared him. I feared his temper, his disapproval, but perhaps my biggest fear was just that he would never notice me. Acting out was a sure way to bring down his wrath, so instead I tried to model myself after my sister, since she seemed to enjoy his unconditional approval. It wasn’t until I no longer had a relationship with my father that I felt free enough to try and be something different. Now, five years later, I can be myself.

I don’t regret my decision five years ago to stop having a relationship with a man who was a toxic influence in my life. I don’t believe that my father ever intended to hurt me, but the fact is that he did. Maybe someday I will make the decision to allow him back into my life. I don’t know that yet. What I do know is this: the worst time in your life can turn out to be the best thing for you. Survival mode is temporary. All bad times eventually come to an end. Sometimes we have to make choices that cause us as much pain as the circumstances that led to it. Nothing gives perspective quite like hindsight. I wouldn’t trade the things that have happened in my life in the last five years for anything, the good and the bad.

The good things have given me joy. The bad things have given me strength.