The shrink looked at me and smiled. At least I think it was a smile – his steepled fingers resting in front of his mouth obscured the view a little. “I’m waiting; it’s your turn to talk,” he told me. I didn’t want to talk. He knew that because I never wanted to talk, but for some reason, he always insisted on it. He kept looking at me, and I decided it was definitely a smile, the kind of smile a villain gets when his evil plot to take over the world is working perfectly. I didn’t know why he was enjoying my discomfort so much, but I guess you have to be a bit mental if you were going to understand other people who are. Well fine, I knew something to say that could wipe that stupid smile off his face.
“My father was a step removed from being abusive. He would yell and scream, make threats, throw things, pick me up and shove me against the wall. He once left a bruise on my arm after he grabbed me to keep me from leaving the room, but he never actually hit me. Sometimes I’d wish that he would. Then I’d have a good reason to hate him. More importantly, I wouldn’t have to wonder if, or when, it would eventually happen. Once, after he’d raised his fist and come towards me, I asked him to hit me, yelled it at him actually. I just wanted it to be over with. My mother screamed and grabbed his arm, or I think he would have actually done it that time.” I shifted in my chair and tried to figure out where to focus my attention. I looked at the nameplate on the desk, the plain blue coffee mug, and the dusty window blinds before deciding on the elegantly framed degree on the wall, just over the doctor’s right shoulder. He leaned back and tapped a sporadic rhythm on the arm of his chair.
“So, why are you telling me this now?”
“Isn’t that what I’m supposed to do?” I made a mental note to see if Syracuse University was a real school.
“Yes, of course it is. But we’ve been meeting for over a month now, and you’ve only talked about grocery lists, hating reality shows, and how annoying it is that you can’t find jeans that fit. I’m wondering what prompted you to start talking about this now. I’m just curious what the catalyst was.”
“Nothing, it just came to me so I thought I’d tell you. Then you could tell me how it’s my father’s fault that I’m in therapy, and I can go home secure in my dislike for him.”
“I see.” He didn’t say anything else. He just leaned on his desk and stared at me. Or he stared right through me; I couldn’t tell which. Either way, I hated that. Silence. It seemed to be sitting on my shoulder. I’m fairly certain it was also staring at me.
“I yelled at Danah last night. I scared her. I made her cry.”
“Can you tell me more about that?”
“No. There’s nothing to tell. She talked back and I yelled at her. That’s it.”
I know it’s not an excuse, but it had been a hard day, and I wasn’t in the mood to deal with attitude. Unfortunately, I’d been blessed with a little girl full of attitude. I don’t know who she got it from, although my husband says she takes after me. I was battling a headache and trying to fix a Hamburger Helper while she blared some sort of rap music in the living room. I asked from the kitchen, “Danah, could you please turn that crap down.”
“It’s not crap.”
“Taste is subjective. Turn it down.” After a minute, the volume hadn’t changed, so I went into the living room and pointed to the stereo. “I said, turn it down... now.”
“If I turn it down, I won’t be able to hear it.”
“Then you might as well just turn it off.”
“Mom...” she rolled her eyes. Why God gave teenagers the ability to do that, I’ll never know.
“Look, turn it down or turn it off. Those are your options.” I remained silent as she climbed out of the chair as if it were a feat equal to scaling Everest. I kept quiet as the race to the stereo cabinet could have been won by the tortoise, and I didn’t say anything when she practically jerked the cabinet doors off their hinges. But I lost my patience when she flicked the volume knob to the right with a sly grin on her face.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” I yelled loud enough to be heard over the thumping bass and reached over and ripped the chord out of the wall. Silence. I glared at my daughter. She at least had the decency to not glare back. She looked down at her painted toenails and mumbled something.
“What did you say to me?” Despite the absence of the music, my own volume hadn’t diminished.
“I said, ‘It was just a joke.’”
“Oh, you think that’s funny? You think it’s funny to disobey me? You think it’s funny that I have a splitting headache, which you’ve just made worse? That’s what you find funny?”
“No. I just...”
“Just what? You know what? I don’t care! Get upstairs right now. Do not turn on your radio, do not get on your computer, do not open a book. You are not allowed to do anything but sit there and twiddle your thumbs in absolute silence.”
“Mom, I’m sorry.”
“I’m sorry, too. I’m sorry that I have a daughter who is so rude and insolent.” I grabbed her arm and turned her towards the stairs.
“Mom, you’re hurting my arm!” Her tears stopped me up short. Had I really just said I was sorry she was my daughter? I had inflicted bodily harm on my little girl. Who had I just become?
“So, what happened after you yelled at her?”
“I apologized for what I said, for grabbing her arm to tight. I told her I loved her, that I was lucky to be her mom.”
“Are you afraid that you’re like your father.”
“I’m nothing like my father.” People used to always tell me I was just like my dad, people who thought he was merely a stubborn and sarcastic man. Nothing anyone could say was a bigger insult to me. It was true that I wasn’t the most flexible of people, but no one ever said I had a temper, because I didn’t. I never fought back; I never got upset; I never yelled. At least, not until after my daughter was born. The doctor smiled at me again. I don’t know why.
“I’ll ask again, why are telling me this?” I squinted at him. I was beginning to seriously doubt if this guy was really a shrink. He didn’t even have a couch in his office, for crying out loud. Silence reigned as he waited for an answer. Okay, so it wasn’t rhetorical. I thought about not answering, waiting him out to see how long he could go before saying something. Unfortunately he was better at this game than I was.
“I don’t know. I don’t know why I’m telling you this.”
“If you had to answer, what would you say? Make it up. Guess.” He waited again, letting in more of that doggone silence. Fine, I could placate this silly man if I had to.
“I’m not like my father now. But what if I become him in the future? What if age, stress, or who knows what makes something in me snap? I get annoyed a lot now. I argue with Steve; I yell at little old ladies driving too slow. What if I have latent tendencies buried in me that are beginning to surface? What if that’s why I snapped when arguing with Danah?”
My parents offered to pay for college if I lived at home. I liked the idea of not having student loan debts after I graduated, so I took them up in it. My junior year, I had a professor I hated. I was talking to my mom about him and, to this day I don’t know why, but it made my father really mad. He began yelling, “Would you just shut up? Shut up! I’m sick of your whining.” He jumped out of his chair and lunged at me. I shrank back, but his hand reached the homework I was holding in my hand. He grabbed it and ripped it into four pieces. Holding them up in my face, he said, “Why don’t you just quit? Give up, Sarah, you’re never gonna graduate. You’re too stupid; you’re a failure.” I hated myself for starting to cry. I didn’t want his words to affect me. I’d been telling myself for years I didn’t care what he said to me, but there I was, in the middle of the dining room, balling my eyes out. Once again, I wished he had hit me, but this time it was because I thought that would have hurt less. I ran out of the dining room and grabbed my keys. I had just opened the door to leave when it suddenly slammed closed again. I looked up and saw his hand on the door, holding it shut. He looked down at me, “Where do you think you’re going?”
“Anywhere you’re not.” I tried to open the door again, but he was stronger than me and it barely budged.
“You’re not going anywhere.”
“I’m twenty years old; you can’t stop me!” I turned to run towards the backdoor, but he followed and got there first. “You’re not leaving this house, Sarah.” I should have let it drop then, but it was a matter pf principle. I wanted to get outside, even if only for a second, just to prove I could. It occurred to me we were acting like children, but I didn’t care. I turned again to run back towards the front door. This time he grabbed me from behind and lifted me into the air. Every thing I learned in self-defense class completely escaped me, and I just hung in his arms, helpless. My mom started crying. I hated when she did that. It always made me give up. I always gave in first. I always lost. I never did get out of the house that night, but the next week I moved into a friend’s basement. In a bit of irony that I completely despised, I dropped out of college in order to get a better job and pay the bills. I ended up going back and graduating a few years later, but my father never let me forget that it took nine years.
“Sarah,” the doc looked at me, carefully forming his words. “Why don’t you consider your father abusive?”
“Well, he never hit me.”
“There are other kinds of abuse.”
“I know. I guess–it’s just–Sometimes I think he actually could be labeled an ‘abusive father,’ but when I think that I feel guilty. I know there are kids out there who had it much worse than I did – beaten to a pulp, molested, locked in closets, things I could never imagine. Those kids would have loved a father like mine. He’d have been a vacation for them.”
“That doesn’t make what he did acceptable.”
“I know that. But... he wasn’t all bad, you know.”
There were times when my father seemed like a pretty good guy. I played volleyball in high school. My best friend really wanted to play but was too scared to try-out alone, so I went with her. It turned it out that I really liked playing, and I was pretty good at it, too. After my first year, the coach quit and they hired my father to take her place. He was a pretty good coach. The team went from losing almost every game to placing second in the championships. You could tell a group of eleven adolescent girls scared him a bit, and I even felt sorry for him sometimes. He had his favorites on the team, though. He told me he couldn’t make it seem like he gave me special treatment since I was his daughter, so he was always harder on me than anyone else. He never told me I played well, I was never nominated for awards, but I was a starter and a team-voted captain, so I didn’t mind too much. Then, my senior year at the awards banquet, he gave me the MVP trophy. I couldn’t believe it. When he handed it to me, he whispered, “You deserve it. It wasn’t right to not give it to you. I’m proud of you, honey.”
“I guess when I think of an abusive father, I think of huge guys in wife-beaters drinking beer, guys who hate their life and their kids. He wasn’t like that. He never had a drop of alcohol in his life, and, when he wasn’t losing his temper, he was a good father. He came to school events; he’d brag about me to his co-workers. I always had food, clothing, and shelter, something he was constantly reminding me of whenever I dared to complain about anything. He took me to movies and sporting events. He was forever patting my head and telling me he loved me, even after I stopped saying I loved him back. But sometimes, I couldn’t figure out if he meant it, or if he was just feeling guilty.” I stopped talking and sighed hard. Everything had seemed to come out in one breath, and I felt like I needed an oxygen mask. The doctor remained silent. I wondered if this was some shrinky practice of allowing me to “process my thoughts” or some crap like that. I wasn’t paying him so I could analyze myself. Still, since he wasn’t going to say anything... “I guess maybe that’s what worries the most. He wasn’t a stereotypical abusive person. But he still made my life a living hell. If he could do it to me, I could do it to Danah.”
“So what are you going to do about it?” he asked.
“I don’t know. I’ve thought about leaving–moving to Colorado or something.”
“You want to run away?”
“It’s not running away, it’s protecting my daughter. I used to always hope my father would leave us, or that my mother would take me, and we’d leave him. Most kids in school were worried that their parents might get a divorce someday. I think I was the only one who wished that they would. But, my parents don’t believe in divorce. The stupid thing is I don’t either. I always figured I’d never get married because it was too much of a risk. The guy could turn out to be some jerk, like my father, and I’d be stuck with him. My mom didn’t know my dad had a temper until after they were married. It was actually on their honeymoon; how sad is that?”
“You did get married though. What made you change your mind?”
“And is your husband anything like your father?”
“No. He’s actually really great. It turns out that I’m the monster, not him.”
I met my husband in college. We never really dated, though. I didn’t date much at all actually. Some guy would ask me out every now and then, but not very often. I’ve been told I have a frosty demeanor around men. I guess that’s true—I’m always suspicious of them, trying to figure out their ulterior motives, waiting for the other shoe to drop. When a guy did ask me out, I always managed to wreck it. I used to try to get them angry on purpose to see how long it took for them to lose their temper, and how they acted once they did. I’d intentionally push their buttons. Jake and I worked the same shift at a local bookstore, and we just got along really well. He always made me laugh and listened to me vent about school and my parents. I saw him handle angry customers with calmness and ease. He never got angry, not even when someone’s kid threw up in the children’s department and they left without bothering to clean it up. Jake just shrugged his shoulders and went to get some paper towels and cleaning solution. During the slow hours, we’d talk about everything from the weather and favorites sports teams to politics and religion. I looked forward to going to work, just to spend time with him. We worked together for over two years, and the other shoe never dropped. He came to my graduation and that night he told me he loved me. A month later, we went to dinner to celebrate my new job, and I told him I loved him back. We spent a lot of time together after that, usually watching TV or making dinner at one or the other’s home. I tried pushing his buttons, ticking him off, but it didn’t work. He’d just look at me and say, “I know what you’re trying to do. It’s not going to work, so just stop it.” I finally did see him mad. I told him about the time my father had shoved me against the door and told me to stop acting like a baby. His jaw tightened and he got really quiet for a long time. I liked that. When he finally did speak, his voice was hard and deep.
“Your father’s a jerk, Sarah. He had no right to do stuff like that, and you didn’t deserve to be treated like that.” I gave him a half smile, and told him it didn’t matter anymore. Since I no longer lived with him, we got along all right. I still didn’t hug him or anything; there was too much history for me to ever feel a close connection with him, but we could be civil and cordial with each other. Jake shook his head.
“I’m sorry you went through that stuff.” His voice softened as he continued. “I’ll never treat you like that, and I want to spend my life proving it to you.” He asked me to marry him and gave me a beautiful ring. When he said, “I promise I’ll never make you cry,” I said yes.
I heard the doctor cough, and I jerked up. I looked at the desk, but he wasn’t there. His voice came from the other side of the room. “I said, ‘Would you like some coffee?’” I turned around in my chair and found him standing by a small table, holding a coffee pot in one hand and a Styrofoam cup in the other.
“Oh, sorry. Um, yes, thank you. Black, please.” He nodded and began pouring the coffee. As he dumped sugar and cream into his own mug, he asked, “So, why haven’t you left yet, if that’s what you think is best?”
“Um, I don’t know. I guess I’m too selfish, or I haven’t worked up the nerve yet—I’d miss them. I love them both with all my heart, and I’d miss them.” He walked over and handed me the steaming cup.
“Don’t you think they would miss you?”
“I don’t know. I guess they would... now. But it’s still early. I still remember the look in my father’s eyes the first time I didn’t respond when he told me he loved me. I could tell it hurt him, and I was glad. I don’t want it to come to that point with Danah or Jake. Wouldn’t it be better to leave before that happens?”
The doctor looked at me for a while before speaking. “You think leaving will prevent her from hating you? Is disappearing from her life going to allow you to have a good relationship with her?” Crap. Why did he have to start acting like a doctor now? I blew on my coffee, trying to act like I had already given this idea a lot of thought and had this problem figured out. This time he broke the silence. “Right now, your daughter still says she loves you?” I nodded slowly.
“Last week, I asked her what she wanted to do for her birthday. I thought she’d want a party with her friends or something, but she wanted to spend the day in DC... with Jake and me.”
“Well, then you’re still doing something right. Wouldn’t it be better to focus on that than on the chance that things might go bad?”
I used to love my father. I was the epitome of “daddy’s little girl.” I followed him everywhere; I can remember trying to step in his footprints one snowy day. His stride was so long, I had to jump from step to step. I wanted to be just like him. I don’t know what changed. I can’t even remember when it changed. The first time I remember him yelling at me, I was six years old. My mom had made meatloaf, and when I complained about it, she said, “If you don’t like it, you can go somewhere else for dinner.” So I did. I went next door and asked if they’d feed me. I don’t really remember what my father said to me after he brought me back home, but I remember it was loud. Still, that wasn’t when things began to unravel between us. It took a few years of him losing his temper, apologizing, losing his temper, apologizing. By the time I was in 5th grade, I would spy on him, with the phone in my hand, when he was angry with my mom, so I could call the police the moment he laid a hand her. By the time I reached 7th grade, I knew the crap about it taking two to fight was a lie. I’d try to walk away, but that just made him even madder, and he always came storming after me. I’d stand there and listen to him rant and insult me. He’d put his face in mine, yelling so hard that he’d turn red, and I could feel the spit spray on my face. By the time I was in high school, I couldn’t stand him. Nothing I did pleased him, and everything he did disgusted me. I used to tell him I loved him because that’s what I was supposed to do, but now, I haven’t told my father I loved him in twenty-two years. I was in tenth grade and we had an away volleyball game. A teacher stopped me in the hallway to talk about a project I was involved in, so I arrived five minutes late to where the bus was always waiting. The bus was gone; he had left me. It was a small issue, in the scheme of things. I had been late, after all, and that was the rule. But, I stopped pretending after that.
I sat in my chair, making indentations around the top of the cup with my fingernail. The doctor turned his chair to the side and crossed his legs, but he never stopped looking at me.
“Sarah, I understand your concern. The idea of becoming someone we don’t like is very discomforting, but I think you’re jumping the gun a bit. You’re not going to do your daughter any favors by leaving her without a mother. Danah doesn’t hate you now, but if you leave, she most certainly will.”
I thought about it for a while. A mother who deserted a child or a mother who scared her child—I wanted another option. There needed to be another option. I shrugged, not really knowing what the expected answer was at this point.
He nodded, so I guess the shrug was acceptable. He stood up and walked around to the front of the desk. “Give it some more time. You have a lot of work to do, and this isn’t going to be easy, but you can conquer this.” He sat on the edge of the desk. “I’ll give you some relaxation exercises and we’ll keep working on this in the coming weeks, all right?”
I looked at him doubtingly, but took the material he handed me and gathered my stuff to leave.
As I opened the door to his office, he asked one more question, “Did your father ever go to counseling?”
I shook my head no and waited for him to continue. Silence.
Finally he smiled at me. “See you next week.”