themighty logo

To My Abusive Father, From a Daughter Learning to Live

This is an open letter to anyone who grew up with an abusive parent. I see you. I know how much it hurts and how much work it takes to break free and to slowly come into your own. If Father’s Day is a tough time for you, please take good care of yourself and know you are not alone.

The first time I was in residential treatment for anorexia nervosa, I was asked to write a letter to both parents and share it in group. This was an exercise everyone was asked to do. I had great difficulty doing it. I was very shut down and yet highly emotional. I didn’t even fully understand why I was there. I managed to write a letter, barely skimming the surface of the trauma I had experienced.

The next time I was in residential, I was more aware of my trauma history. I had experienced living in a fed body for a while, experienced the flashbacks that hit me full-force once I was more nourished (and which sent me back to restrictive eating because I was not prepared for the flashbacks or body memories). My letter dug deeper than it did the first time. I had begun to actually touch the trauma that had been below the surface for so long. I remember reading the letter as if I was someone else. I read the letter completely detached from the pain that parts of me were holding so tightly. It wasn’t until I stopped reading and felt the silence in the room and saw the look in the eyes of the therapist leading group that I started to get flooded by emotions. Those were my first steps breaking free. I’m grateful for the space I had to take those first steps. 

For several years I had already been taking precautions in terms of contact with my father. At first only meeting him in public places, not giving him my address or phone number then eventually only having contact via email, to an account where only his emails went because the very sight of his emails triggered intrusive memories, thoughts and emotions. In my last stay in eating disorder residential treatment in 2016, I made the decision to break contact with him entirely. I had needed to for a while but was too afraid of how he might react if I did. I have held firm to that decision since and I have never needed to go back to eating disorder treatment again. It was OK for me to exist. I deserved to live. This decision to break all ties was one of the best I’ve ever made. This boundary has been life-saving.

People who don’t really know me well sometimes ask about my family as it’s natural to do in some instances. A coworker might ask if I’m going home for the holidays and I’ll make up some excuse about needing to stay in the city. A doctor might ask about my parents, and I’ll end up having to explain that I haven’t had contact with my father for several years. Sometimes relatives with their own histories will say “but he’s your father,” as if I should welcome him back into my life, as if they grew up in the same house with him, as if it was their body and mind that was in the firing zone. If you no longer have a relationship with your father, if you choose not to because your wellbeing depends on it, don’t let others lack of awareness or inability to understand get to you or cause you to waiver in what you know to be true for you.

I can have empathy for my father, I can intellectualize that the abusive environment he grew up in impacted him. I can even acknowledge that he was not all bad all the time; that’s what makes it so complicated, why it was so confusing. That’s why, over time, I learned to brace myself for what might come next because his good mood one second might switch to a violent outburst the next. Anything could set him off. His traumatic childhood is no excuse for how I was treated. He did not attempt to heal. To this day he refuses to own his behavior and acknowledge the harm he did and so I will never have contact with him again. He made me feel like my life didn’t matter, that I was worthless. I’m slowly learning that I do matter. I am not garbage as I believed for most of my life.

Here’s the letter I wrote to my father five years ago. I never sent it; it was for me to express and process as much as anyone can process such things. I’ve done so much trauma work since then, shared so much more of my story in therapy and have had to sit with more than I could ever imagine I’d be capable of sitting with. I could write a list a mile long of all the abuses I survived and how it has impacted me, but all that matters now is getting all parts of me to realize that he can’t hurt us anymore. I’m worth knowing. I’m intelligent. And I deserve love. I will make it my mission to keep healing and to help others find their own paths to healing as well.

If you relate to any of what I’ve written, know you are not alone. If you think it would help, write your own letter to your father or anyone else who has hurt you deeply and who you are trying to heal from. Share it with a therapist or someone trusted. Break the silence, end the shame, and allow yourself to heal because you deserve it. You are powerful. And please know, no matter what you were told or how you were treated, you are worthwhile and you deserve to thrive.

Today, when I read the letter below that I wrote just five years ago, I feel proud of how far I have come and so grateful to everyone who has helped me get here and who continues to support my recovery. I am in a body that is nourished, I dare to speak my truth and I have hope. The sense of loss I feel is great but the sense of reclaiming myself, all parts of me, is so powerful.

Here is the letter:

Dad,

I don’t even want to call you that. You are not a dad, you are not a parent. You have never been a dad to me. I think when I was really young I wanted your attention and I wanted you to be proud of me, but by the time I started going to school I began wishing I had a different dad. I think I actually believed that it would be better to have no dad because I was convinced they were all like you. I see you as a monster. I haven’t seen you for almost 2 years, and I haven’t lived under your roof for many more and yet you still appear in my nightmares.

A door slammed causes me to jump and be transported back in time. An email from you causes me to panic. I won’t speak with you on the phone because your voice, your words, shake me to my core. I hate you. I hate you for making me hate you, for filling me with such sadness and rage. I hate you for causing me to hate myself, for making me believe I am nothing. You are a vile and cruel person. I am ashamed of you and yet I carry shame with me like chains I get break free from. The weight is immense. I am terrified that somewhere in me a part of you exists. I don’t want to be anything like you. You make me sick. In the past, being in your presence or even hearing from you made me want to purge. I used to starve myself for days on end, scratch my throat and purge blood in some twisted effort to eliminate you from my life, to express how tortured I felt inside. Anger welling up in me and no safe place to go.

A peaceful sleep eludes me. Sometimes I feel as though I am living through everything all over again. I wake up in the middle of night, crying and disoriented. I see myself doubled over in pain after you punched me in the stomach in a hotel room in Walt Disney World — the last family vacation we went on. I feel my heart pounding as I ran down the street barefoot and in pajamas cradling my cat, praying to God that I would make it to grandma’s place safely. I see broken glass, holes in walls, doors pulled off hinges… destruction everywhere. Constantly moving. From the outside, our place always looked so pleasant but I think people knew that things were not perfect. So many secrets… even now. I am so sensitive to sound and movement now, craving a silent and nurturing calm that feels constantly out of reach. Your voice. Your thunder. Your red-in-the-face, slurring, filthy mouth. Everything you did was so loud and frightening to me. To this day the sound of a key in a lock puts me on edge.

I hated when you came home. I never knew who we’d be dealing with. I feel the car hurtling across lanes of traffic, leaving the highway and headed for a ditch… I see you grabbing the wheel and trying to push my mom out of the car. I see you naked on the floor in the bathroom in a pool of your own vomit. I am disgusted that you think it’s funny to flash yourself in your bathrobe or worse. I hear bottles of booze, I see them stashed around the house. I see you pinning my mom and hurting her while I stood in the doorway screaming. I see your ugly hateful face everywhere. I try to be good and clean and perfect and to do everything right… anything to silence the whispers and stares that I feel you cause to be directed at us. I see my mom cry when she finds out how you’ve humiliated our family further by being caught with prostitutes. I am tortured by the fact that I was unable to stop you from hurting her at times. I am ashamed that you hurt me, I try to fight the thoughts that tell me it must be my fault but they overpower me. I am sickened. I see my mom struggle to keep things together but all you do is tear everything apart. I wonder if maybe we are all cursed. Maybe I am.

It’s no wonder that I feel anxious around food and that it looks like poison to me at times. Any meal time with you was always traumatic. Food felt like a violation to any peace I managed to find in my soul and a violation to my body. I couldn’t control you and I couldn’t protect myself so I controlled food, fought my body and longed for an escape. I learned to dissociate at an early age. I could leave my body any time I wanted. In fact, I disowned my body entirely. I wasn’t that person with the mean father. I didn’t want to be her. I couldn’t be her. Knowing you and all that you have done makes me want to sink into the floor and disappear from sight. I want to do everything the opposite of you. The last time I ever actually ate anything in your presence was in Newfoundland when you visited because you were attending some conference. I ran out of the restaurant and hopped in a cab, not caring that I looked “crazy” when usually I always try so hard to look presentable and put-together. I purged the moment I got in the door and took a box of laxatives and other pills… I was sick for days. I used to numb out the pain you caused. At least I was in control. I wanted to rid myself of the sickness I felt inside me after being around you. I bet you don’t even remember this incident. I don’t believe you have any interest in ever taking inventory of all the harm you have done, all the times you hurt us.

You never celebrated my birthday with me ever. When I was little, I wanted you there, but now I am thankful you didn’t bother to come. You never visited me in the hospital after my suicide attempt even though my mom begged you to come to Newfoundland. If it had been up to you, my mom probably wouldn’t have been able to visit me either but thankfully my uncle helped out. I have done everything to escape you and you still show up, you are still in my life in so many ways and I resent it. Your words over the years have left an imprint on my soul that I am afraid I will never be rid of.

Last night, you sent me an email and by the end of our brief exchange, I had to call a hotline to prevent self-harm … and it was really hard to call because I didn’t believe I deserved to be heard or helped, and I still feel that way most of the time. Before leaving for Vista in 2014, I considered killing myself because of how ashamed you made me feel and how helpless I felt by your initial involvement in the admissions process. I had reached out to you to ask for your help in paying the sizable deposit, a deposit that you would get back. Instead of saying yes, instead of being glad I was finally able to get help, you kept pestering admissions and me about when you would get your money back. You told them and me that you didn’t think I could do it. You told me that my employer probably thought I was such a screw up that they’d fire me. You told me I’d be better off on the streets. Thankfully they waived the deposit and blocked you entirely from the process from that moment on. I’m still battling dark memories of you, and when they come up I feel like self-destructing because they are so unbearable.

I would never tell you this, never let you know that you have had such a terrible impact on me because I know it would make you happy. Mom once told me that you would be happy to see both me and her destroyed, particularly if I were to cause my own self-destruction. I believe this is true because I have seen you in action before and I’ve seen you happy about any successes I’ve had. I am not going to destroy myself for you. I cannot keep letting you have this power over me. I am tired of your threats to cut off support to my mom; you know that upsets me so you continue to hang that over my head in an attempt to keep connected to me.

You know nothing of my life. How dare you presume you know me at all! For a lot of my childhood, I only saw you a few months out of the year since you were on the ships. I wish you had stayed on the ships. My world was turned upside down every time you were home and when you came to work in the office when I was in grade eight, the nightmare never ended. My eating disorder went into overdrive as you entered our lives in a more present and threatening way. You made life a living hell. There was never any peace, not one single day.

You won’t even recognize the hell you created to this day. You like to tell me that everyone has challenges and that I didn’t have it so bad. You make me feel pathetic. You make me feel undeserving of goodness. You make me afraid to speak up. You like to tell me how much I cost you. You reduce me to numbers. You invalidate my truth, my experiences. Again and again I feel like you have attacked my very soul and trampled on my spirit. And I wonder how I can still shatter even though I am already pieced together by so many broken parts. I am so empty inside and yet I feel as though I might cry forever. I despise you for this. And I am filled with so much pain tonight, from your poisoned words, that all I could do for over an hour was cry, rock and repeat over and over again that I wish I were dead … anything to make the hurt go away. But I don’t want to die; I want to live and I hate that you still have the ability to make me feel as though I would be better off dead.

I don’t think I have ever asked much of you. I don’t think I expected you to be perfect. I just really had hoped that you would be a dad. I thought you would respect me, care for me, protect me and nurture me as a human. I thought fathers were supposed to strengthen daughters for the world, guide them in this life. I am over all of that now. I don’t need you anymore. I can still be OK in this world. Better than OK. I am healing, and I’m going to be unstoppable.

From a daughter learning to live.

Photo by Engin Akyurt on Unsplash