I was a teenager gazing at a row of Father’s Day cards. It was one of the rare times my dad was home. He left when I was five and occasionally resurfaced over the years. I reached for a card, read it, and placed it back in the holder. Once, twice, three times, and again and again.
There weren’t cards for girls like me to give their fathers.
“You’re the best dad in the world. You’re a super-dad. World’s best dad. Thank you for always being there for me. Thank you for everything you do for me. Thanks for the example you set. Thank you for teaching me so many things. Thank you for always encouraging me. Thank you for believing in me.”
Or the more painful. “I’ll always be daddy’s little girl.”
In some ways, that’s true. He’ll always be the man I remember through the eyes of a five-year-old. The little girl who made him a handmade card. A picture of a horse glued to the front saying, “I love you as much as this horse weighs.”
Back then, I was still free to express love without restrictions. Now he’d be gone years and nothing applied to him.
I couldn’t profess endless gratitude to a man who had abandoned me physically, emotionally, and financially. There was nothing sincere in the words that applied to most dads. And it wasn’t natural to purchase a card I only had the occasion to need a few years since birth.
I swore I would not marry a man like my father. To be fair, I swore I would never marry an alcoholic. That was his actual problem.
My dad was a lovable, caring, funny, and sweet man which made his vice all the more tragic. A song was always springing from his lips and those early memories are filled with joy. He just couldn’t overcome an addiction that ushered sadness and unpredictability into our lives.
I forgave him and I loved him.
I wasn’t tied up with resentments or anger.
My mom was a great example. She told us to love our father and that he loved us but he had an illness. She was remarkable really. To take us out of a position of conflict, even when she was left to physically, financially, emotionally, and spiritually care for us without complaint.
When I met my then-boyfriend, I told him if he ever made anything about alcohol I would leave.
I said it wouldn’t be a choice. My head would overrule my heart without hesitation. We were overly social beings and I admired his ability to drink without affliction. It was a relief. I had succeeded.
Until we said our vows and I realized I married a man with a different type of illness, one that brought the same sadness and unpredictability to a home. One that could destroy a family just as alcoholism could. I had repeated a version of my past.
Not long after my husband was diagnosed as lacking empathy and having a narcissistic personality disorder, I asked my marriage counselor a question.
“I know this is about me,” I said. “But what is it about me that made me gravitate towards a man like this?”
“Oh, Colleen,” said my counselor, “Not everything is textbook but you had a father who physically abandoned you and you married a man who emotionally abandoned you.”
I love that my marriage counselor said not everything is textbook because it’s not.
But obviously, the family of origin is a strong pull. And I repeated similar patterns with a serious illness upending the safety, calm, and predictability of a family. I knew I didn’t want to marry an alcoholic but I didn’t understand the role my mother played.
She was an enabler. An enabler is an overly caring person who tolerates repeatedly bad behavior. They make excuses for the one they love in favor of seeing the best in them.
I was my mother’s daughter.
I thought I was being kind and loyal. My marriage counselor explained, “Kindness is forgiving bad behavior once or twice. Enabling is forgiving it over and over again.”
I lacked the type of boundaries and self-protective instincts to leave my marriage as soon as I realized I had walked down an aisle toward a guy I never dated. It’s not uncommon for a narcissist to not expose themselves until they get a commitment from the person they’re pursuing.
Once they win and achieve what they want, their true nature will come out to play.
It was a painful realization that I made a choice in a man that would impact my children negatively. Worse, once I told him I was thinking of leaving he started drinking uncharacteristically making sure I fully repeated things.
One day my three boys were talking amongst themselves.
“I love dad but I don’t want to be like him,” said each of them in various ways. I had never said those words out loud. But it was the same way I felt about my own dad. The final indication of my past meeting my present.