I’ve done a lot of writing centered around my childhood trauma, specifically around the terrible things that my father did to me when I was a little boy. As I continue to break away from my old story, and really remember who I am, I want to share with you a wonderful gift that my father and I gave each other along the way.
“I think I have to get angry at my dad.” Those were the words that came out of my mouth while sitting on my therapist’s couch. “Like, really angry with him. At him.” It was time. I just knew it. And I was ready to do the work.
Ray, my therapist, thought that stepping into my anger was a great idea. In fact, he suggested I invite dad to be a part one of my therapy sessions, and Ray would be there to help guide my process. The idea of approaching my dad with my anger was intimidating, but the thought that I wouldn’t be alone helped.
As I sat with the idea of inviting my dad to therapy, I warmed to it. I imagined how it would all go down. I imagined the freedom I could feel by giving myself the gift of closure on my anger.
I did something that I still to this day don’t know how I did it. I held the phone in my hand and I called my dad. I was scared. My childhood fears began talking to me. I felt scared that he might say no. Scared that he wouldn’t take my needs into consideration. Scared he wouldn’t accept my vulnerable invitation.
At the same time, I was scared that he might actually say yes. After all, there was unfinished and untouched business between the two of us, and who knew what darkness awaited us there. There were thoughts and feelings that I had never dealt with before, many of them were things I wasn’t allowed to express as a child. They were suppressed deep within me from childhood into my 39-year old self. They felt heavy and huge.
As I called my dad I was shaking from head to toe. I was on the precipice of fear and possibility. I could have hung up the phone and run back to safe territory out of fear, or I could take a step toward my healing and the unknown.
Even in that moment, I was more healed than I thought. I told myself I’m worth the risk and that regardless of the outcome everything would be okay. That was progress.
Dad picked up the phone. “Hello?”
Step past the cliff, Zach…
I got right to the point of my call. I told him about my therapy, about Ray, and I invited him to a session with me. Before I had time to pause and take in my own words, and without hesitation, my father said he would be happy to show up for me. He would make the hour-long drive and listen to what I had to say. It was strangely simple. I hung up and sighed of relief. I stepped away from my fear and the stability of growth caught me.
The next week went by as a blur, mixed with anticipation and nervousness. Before I knew it, the day had arrived.
It started out simple. Ray acknowledged both of us for showing up and being willing to put ourselves in discomfort in order to heal our relationship. I felt heaviness in my chest and my heart was beating faster. Deep down, I knew this was a good thing for me… for us. Ray went on to describe how he saw things playing out for the session. Then he asked my dad if he had anything to say. “I do,” he replied. Ray gestured for him to share.
“When Zach first called I wondered why he invited me to be with him during some of his intense and painful emotional work. I didn’t know how I could help but I was sure I was part of the reason he was in therapy in the first place. I’m here because he asked me.” I looked at the floor. Ray nodded.
The room fell silent. After a few moments, Ray turned to me. “Zach, do you want to tell your father why you’ve invited him here?” Before I could say a single word I started crying. I cried from a place I had never cried from before. There, in the presence of two grown men, I allowed myself to feel the fullness of my broken childhood.
A few minutes later I was able to open my mouth and share. Originally I was going to share my anger, but what I shared instead was my hurt for all of the years of neglect and emotional abuse. Dad sat and listened with a concerned look on his face as it all sunk in for him.
I shared hurt by his lack of parenting, for abandoning me, and for not taking care of my basic human needs. I explained wounds that ran deeper than anything I had ever imagined as a little boy trapped in a 39-year old man’s body. I didn’t need to be angry at my father, I needed to be seen. I needed him to see how much pain I was in and how much pain I carried around with me as the result of his parenting. I had been afraid my whole life of showing him this side of me. I was afraid of not being enough, and being abandoned again.
I basically cried through the entire therapy session. My dad said nothing, but he was visually affected. It wasn’t angered silence or manipulative silence; it was compassionate silence. For the first time in my adult life, my dad granted me the freedom to feel without interjecting himself.
Silence and my sniffles were the only sound for a few minutes. Then Ray asked me a question I will never forget, “Zach would you be willing to let your father hold you?” I told him that dad and I hug every time we see each other. “No, I’m talking about letting him hold you like a father holds his baby son. It’s okay if you say no.”
I went to say no, but I couldn’t. Something deep down inside said I needed to let that happen. I said that was okay. Ray nodded and stood up. He said, “This is a private moment between the two of you. Take as much time as you need. I’ll be right outside of the door.” And he left the room.
I was scared. This man, my dad, sitting opposite of me got up and came over to where I was sitting on the couch. He sat down next to me and put his arms around me. And I buried my head in his chest and sobbed harder and louder than I had ever sobbed before.
A minute or so later I said that was enough and pulled away. A couple of minutes were literally all I could handle. I wanted and needed distance again. We sat there in silence until my dad finally spoke.
“I never knew the importance of holding a child until just now. Thank you for letting me in,” he said. All I could do was shake my head up and down.
I had spent so many years behind thick, safeguarding, emotional walls. I’m proud to say that my courage to be seen was taking both of us to a new place.
To have a parent willing to show up and own their mistakes like my father did was an amazing gift. We should all be so blessed to have a parent like this in our lives. Thank you dad. I love you. Happy birthday.