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Here’s part two of the article on growing up with an alcoholic father – the upsides, the strengths, and your power to create your world.
Yes, there is an upside to your situation, one that you will excavate for yourself. The full credit of which will be due to you and you alone, for bringing in the light in the face of all that darkness. As a survival tool, you will develop your own ‘operating system’ so to say, some of whose features will be:
Your self-esteem will be self-derived and strengthened by all the attacks on it from a society that judges children on the basis of their parents. Some of my family members, out of their ignorance, tagged my dad’s dysfunctional behaviour to me, as if I had had any role in it; referring to him in chiding and condescending tones as “your dad” as if he hadn’t also been, for a longer time, closely related to them. Overlooking the fact that I wasn’t even born when his addiction began. And that they were fully grown adults by then, who presumably could’ve helped the situation but didn’t.
So you’re at the receiving end of that condescension for unwittingly being “his daughter”, but remember the no-dirty-feet rule. Hopefully you’ve long disidentified with any idea of his flaws as being any reason for you to have even a speck of shame. Your self-esteem and sense of self has to be rooted inside you, against any shame/embarrassment you were expected to carry for being his daughter.
While others piggyback on their fathers (literally and metaphorically) cooing “my daddy strongest”, you have an anthem of your own strength pulsing inside you. An anthem that grows a little more urgent every day. Self-reliance is the oldest tool in your kit, sharpened a tad more every time you choose to be cheerful rather than cynical, fight rather than give up, yell back rather than be silenced.
People whose battles start early in life grow into formidable warriors, stronger for every ‘damage’. They know they can survive. Having seen things as a child, which would mess up an adult, and retained your sanity, does give you that invincible, bring-it-on attitude to life, as long as you don’t identify too strongly as a victim, which I didn’t and I hope you won’t.
You will be able to sense the ‘goodness’ in people from a mile away, even if they’re concealing it (for whatever reason). And you will value it. That ability will lead you to some of your best connections with other people. But there is also a very real danger of ‘over-valuing’ people. Any reasonably nice and functional guy might seem like a golden unicorn you.
This kind of elevated perception or over-valuation of ‘normal’ people will of course be a direct result of having grown up with a rather poor specimen of the male species. So the stark contrast between him and regular people made me over-value regular people at times, until I eventually learnt to assess people from a benchmark higher than what had been set by the first male in my life.
Because humour got you through a lot, and you know well how much worse life can be.
The things that faze others will amuse you. The irony that escapes others will not once be lost on you. The not-so-obvious joke that others miss will crack you up. The comic timing that others see only in sitcoms will be second nature to you. You will crack yourself up – and that is a special talent, however loony it may sound. The humour in a situation can only be visible to you if you’re not caught up in the situation. And in a corollary, seeing the humour in a situation disentangles you from its grip.
Struggling to ‘escape’ the shackles of my not-so-pleasant situation, with as much good cheer as possible, humour became my weapon of choice more times than I can count. As far as I could, I chose to regard things as curious/laughable/ridiculous before I found them appalling or disturbing. Some of my funniest anecdotes, to this day, revolve around dad in those dark days. But that’s another story.
Pain generally tends to hold people back from their fullest lives, but it cannot imprison you anymore because you’ve dug a tunnel right through it and into the sunshine – like a stubborn freedom-bent prisoner. So your present joy isn’t tainted by memories of pain or threatened by possibilities of pain, it is ‘pain-proof’. You know you’ll somehow dig up that tunnel again if you have to. After all, it’s worked before.
It takes a particular kind of courage to find life beautiful and to believe in its inherent worth after having been exposed to life’s darker corners early on. I’ve known people (such as my own sibling) who practically opened negativity factories inside themselves, manufacturing more and more negativity as a response to the negativity thrown at them. But that’s the self-destructive path they choose out of their weakness. Life can be awful, yes, but it is also equally awesome, and your obligation to yourself is to discover all that is awesome in you, with all the courage and through all the pain.
The other extreme (to victim mentality) being holding yourself responsible for every single thing that went wrong. Being in control lies somewhere midway.
People go through their whole lives playing victim and not even realizing it. Building lifelong narratives of their victimhood. But your desire to be in control and in charge of your life will make you look for your own role in everything that happens to you. Tracing back every event to something you did or didn’t do. But don’t let that go against you when it didn’t really have to do with you.
With your deep disdain for victim mentality, you will be able to see it crystal clear in other people who choose that role. Helplessness, the marker of victimhood, will hold no appeal to you and nor will victim-minded people. Which is definitely a good thing.
Your ‘issues’ are not your flaws, they’re your battle scars. It took many years and a wise best friend for me to realize I even had these issues and that they had been dictating a lot of my actions in my personal life. But she had me know that I’m not a bag of symptoms. That it’s perfectly acceptable and human to have old hurts lurking in the shadows. That they’re a part of me as much as my strengths and one day they will heal too.
It’s important not to see/label yourself as ‘damaged’, given the strong negative connotation the word brings. These ‘issues’ may look like weaknesses, but they were born only out of your own natural instinct to look out for yourself, with whatever means you had, before you could even spell ‘issues’. So embrace and own them.
They’re the makeshift first-aid box that the child in you made for herself, when faced with situations she had no means of comprehending. Living proof that you fought back even as a child against things beyond your understanding. The very beginnings of the hero in you. I’ve met adults with few or no battle scars and the word ‘fragile’ doesn’t even begin to describe them. They shrink away from the slightest perception of risk/danger like violets in the sun.
At 12, I read a quote in a newspaper that went – “The finest steel goes through the hottest furnace” – words I would live by. Though there were times when I hoped fervently for the furnace to stop getting any hotter, because the steel really didn’t want to get any finer. But I made it.
Having somehow gotten through a childhood marred by a madman’s highly questionable parenting, you will settle for nothing less than absolute autonomy in your adulthood. Your hot blood will not cool off with anything less. Be it your work or your love life, you will make sure it reflects your most authentic self and your own aspirations at that point in time.
Your decisions will come from your own convictions, and hence will look crazy in a world where blind conformity is the norm. And when people tell you to compromise on your desires and conform like they did, you will pity them the smallness of their minds, their forgotten wings. You’ve waited for adulthood and its prospect of autonomy the way a prisoner awaits his release. You didn’t punch your way through that messy a childhood just so you could toe the line and do what everyone does and expects. You will not rest until you set up your fully autonomous life – every element of it consciously chosen by you.
When the first man in your life has been so deeply, variously and blatantly flawed, you’re hardly likely to harbour any fairy-tale ideas about men and marriage. You’re too independent minded for herd mentality. There’s no kidding you about the whole idea of finding ‘security’ anywhere but in yourself. Self-reliance has been your go-to skill for decades already.
You’ve seen for yourself how empowering it is to be your own hero. Long before society starts trying to convince you that a woman needs a man to feel complete. Long before all the conformists around you start rushing towards their weddings without even taking the time to know themselves and the other. And when told not to be ‘too picky’, you will laugh at that fear-based, though well-intentioned, advice.
You’re going to be exactly as picky as you want to be, and it’s not anyone else’s place to judge what’s ‘too picky’ and what’s ‘just-right picky’ for you. In any case, fear is not the place you make your decisions from, not after getting through that childhood.
Founded on a profound sense of your own strength and grit, your worldview can’t help being as big and broad as it is.
It’s supposed to be something you’re embarrassed about – having a dad like that. But like any weakness in life, it can be turned into a strength if you just stand by it and own it completely. Clear in the knowledge that there’s nothing you need to be ashamed of.
You don’t need selective amnesia pills to forget the dark days so that you can go enjoy the sunny ones. Instead, the deeply lodged memory of your dark days will deepen the joys of your sunny days. Just as the darker shades in your paintings make the brighter ones next to them look even brighter. Wasn’t it Gibran who said – “The deeper that sorrow carves into your being the more joy you can contain”. That dude definitely knew a thing or two about life.
I read Halle Berry say once about her diabetes – that the diagnosis actually made her more health-conscious than she ever was, leading her to make healthier choices than most. In a similar vein, all the cynicism and general negativity you get from your dad on a daily basis will make you reach out for positive and healing forces with a vengeance.
Working out, dancing, music, books and a ridiculously healthy breakfast cereal were some of mine. They were to me life-saving (in more ways than one, no exaggeration) rafts in a tumultous ocean. My bridge to my own reserves of strength and my windows to my widest views of life. I latched onto them like my life depended on them (which it did) and to this day I credit them as my infallible support system and the absolute joys of my life.
What pulls you back can also launch you forward, quite like a catapult. And like the poet David Whyte put it, anything or anyone that does not bring you alive is too small for you. So go out of your way to surround yourself with all the strong positive forces you can find and eliminate any negative, toxic elements in your life as far as you can. Doing that will heal you and help you blossom through all the punches.
It’s easy to feel singled out by the powers that be, when you have a particularly big and unique monstrosity weighing on you every single day while you’re just trying to get through childhood and adolescence without too much drama. But know this: The universe doesn’t make typos. It didn’t just ‘forget’ to hand you your nice, normal, non-alcoholic, non-dysfunctional and ever-loving dad, and accidentally burden you with a faultyone as a result of its oversight.
There’s a big reason you were given this huge challenge. It’s for you to excavate that reason and claim your reward for doing so. A reward which will put all the pieces together like a neat little jigsaw that suddenly makes sense and makes everything worthwhile. And your glory will not lie just in the reward, but in every single minute of your stubborn barreling forward towards it. And right now, it’s a mountain you should be proud of just surviving on, even if the peak seems far away.
Not to pressure you, but your life will hinge on your response to this situation. It can make or break you, but you do get to choose. And when you’ve built yourself your wonderful autonomous life someday, as a grown woman who lives on her own terms and loves her strengths, flaws and everything-in-between, you will look back and marvel at that tiny little girl who started it all on her own pint-sized mettle. So take all of this not just as a survival guide but also as a heart-felt salute to that badass warrior in you. I wouldn’t be here without you and I can’t thank you enough.
Pic credit: Kimberleyeternal (Used under a CC license)
Yoga teacher, writer, travel blogger. Loves going where she’s never been, having (mis)adventures,
Inspiring in a very powerful way!
Thank you Shubha !
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