Friday, November 29, 2013

What Change Is

For all my doubts and fears, I do firmly believe in this: change is possible. It can be hard, and there is always a limit to what you can and can't change. But we can change ourselves. We can change our patterns. We can even change patterns that have been entrenched in our families for decades, for generations. Change is possible.

I've believed this so devoutly for so long because I need it to be true. It's why I started blogging, actually, over a decade ago: I wanted to explore myself, understand myself so I could find a way to change and avoid the endlessly repeating patterns of destruction my father seemed trapped in all his life.

And slowly but surely, I've been changing. I have some honest-to-god friendships with people I trust not to leave me. I have some confidence in myself. I can, increasingly, not only identify my feelings but vulnerably express them to others. And, perhaps most difficult but most important, I can separate my responsibility to others from how they are responsible for their own reactions and own choices.

I have changed. So very much. I'm still changing. And today I decided to truly test it.

I've not talked to my father in a few years. I have had very brief, very superficial conversations. But I've not said anything of substance to him in three years. It's been really good for me. To remove such an omnipresent source of fear and guilt, to free myself from constantly feeling responsible for him; it's been really really good. But I also felt really guilty about it. Not because I wasn't talking to him, but because I didn't tell him why, didn't at least give him a chance to respond. So finally, I felt like I'd grown enough to meet with him and talk to him.

So, today, I did.

We walked for a little awhile, easing back in, catching up. And then we sat down and I told him.

I told him that there were many reasons I'd distanced from him. The main one, though, was what happened the last time we'd really talked, three years ago, about me coming out to his parents. He felt that me telling them would kill them, and he made it clear that if I did against his wishes he would really, truly hurt me. Back then, I did what I knew: got really quiet, felt really guilty and scared, and gave up. But today, I was able to tell him that that conversation was not only terrifying but immensely hurtful because it felt like he felt as if I really wanted to hurt him and he had to do whatever it took to stop me.

He agreed with me, and said he still feels that way. He still feels like my mother, my sister, and I do want to hurt him. He said he's felt at least since we were in high school that we didn't care about him, that if he was across the street bleeding to death in a ditch we wouldn't do a thing to help him.

In the past, I would have been wracked with guilt and stayed silent. I would have felt like I couldn't do anything to change his mind, and I would have been paralyzed.

But because I've changed, I didn't do that. I knew I couldn't convince him of anything. But what I could do was tell him how I feel and then let him do with that as he would. So I told him that it hasn't felt like that just since high school. That I could remember telling him that I loved him when I was six years old and that he would still tell me "No, you don't." That I tried for years and years even as an adult, despite his furious drunken rampages, despite being called a traitor and harangued for hours during his divorce, despite being terrified of him all my life, that I had tried and tried to keep caring for him and not give up. But that when he threatened me, it became apparent that nothing I could do would ever be good enough to convince him that I cared about him. So I stopped trying.

And then, astonishingly, he said that I was right. He said that he's felt this way in all his relationships, that he can't trust anyone and that everyone wants to hurt him. It didn't really affect me that much, not at first. He's apologized before, and he's really good at saying what a "bad, terrible person" he is. I've always known he hates himself, and he's so filled with guilt and shame that it's not uncommon.

So I didn't trust it. I still don't. He's tortured and has so many years of dealing with his demons that I'm not going to jump for joy and say "Oh Daddy, I love you so!" and believe everything's going to be ok in the end. But, as we kept talking, I started to let myself listen. I let myself hear him say "It wasn't right for me to transfer my suffering to you as a child." I let myself hear "I made my own choices and it wasn't your fault." It wasn't my fault. It wasn't that I wasn't good enough to prove I loved him, it was that he was not in a place to believe that love. He decided, influenced by so many of his past experiences, to reject me. It was his choice, not a defect of mine. And he said this. Over and over. And even if it was a statement made from guilt, a statement made to convince himself he was A Good Person, a statement he will forget, a statement disconnected from his emotional core, it was also a statement I think part of him really believed.

In a movie, this might have been an epic turning point. Or it might have been vindication or a momentous event for me. But it wasn't. I keep wanting change to be A Huge Moment where things "click" and I am the optimal, self-actualized person I feel I can be. I keep wanting The Answer or The Experience which makes everything different. Yet change, as I've experienced it, has never been about Big Moments. It's a bunch of small, but significant moments. It's slow, inching growth.

Today, I grew. Instead of responding with fear, self-blame, or guilt, I responded with vulnerable honesty from a hard-earned place of compassion and self-worth. Instead of disbelieving or not trusting the affirming things someone else (my father, of all people!) said, I let myself listen to them. Instead of taking responsibility for his self-hatred, for his guilt, for his anger, I was better able to let those be his own choices and reactions and to let authentically expressing myself Be Enough. I was not in a place to do any of these things three years ago. I don't think I could have even imagined them. But today, I did.

Again, it's small. I don't know if my father will change or how our relationship will look in the future. But it feels good to put myself in a situation that used to completely overwhelm and defeat me and come out the other side intact. There is some guilt. There is some doubt. My heart is still hard with mistrust. But not as much guilt, not as much doubt, not as hard. And I think that's what change really is.

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