Coffee Break

My childhood memories that I show you are usually horrific ones of an abused and scared little girl.  I remembered this contradictory morning and wanted to share it with you.  Not every hour and every minute was bad and perhaps that type of childhood is even more challenging – never knowing where on the spectrum of love and hate a moment is going to land.

It’s Saturday morning, not too early because even as a little kid, I was never a super-early riser.  Perhaps it’s 8 or 9 o’clock.  I’m watching Saturday morning cartoons from my spot  on the floor at the end of the coffee table.  In front of me is a half-finished Libby  juice glass of “coffee” made especially for me by dad – three heaping tablespoons of sugar, probably filling 1/3 of the glass, 1/3 whole milk and the final third of coffee.  Tasting more like dessert than bitter coffee, it’s delicious. Dad is sitting behind me at the dining table, reading the paper with his mug of black coffee in his hand.  The rest of the family is still asleep.  All is well.

Still the child

Oh shit, dad is mad.

It dawned on me, like the bright morning sun peeking over the horizon. We were talking about a specific feeling I get – the feeling that comes over me when I screw up, when I receive negative feedback, when I’m in a car accident, the day  after my ex left, when I get pulled over by a cop and even when I was reprimanded by the customs official as I crossed into Canada on vacation.

The feeling itself is difficult to explain – it’s a vibration throughout my whole body, as if every cell is alive, scurrying beetles under my hot skin.  I can’t necessarily name it – it’s one part fear, one part shame, and other things that I can’t put my finger on.  I’ve felt this feeling many times before,  when I was a child, looking up to see my dad’s dark shadow descending over me, his eyes slits of hate and a grimace on his lips.  In that instant before he reaches me, I get that feeling – and the thought, “Oh shit, dad is mad.”

I try to avoid that feeling at all costs.  Don’t make dad mad. Don’t make dad mad. Don’t make dad mad.  “Are you a ‘pleaser?’” my ex once asked me.  “No, of course not” I vehemently answered, but now I’m not so sure.  I will do anything not to make dad mad – and “dad” is everywhere.  My male boss is dad, my male customer is dad, my boyfriend is dad, my male friends are dad, and dad is the policeman and the customs official. Dad is the world’s watchful eye, criticizing, judging, waiting gleefully for me to screw up.

Don’t make dad mad.  It dawns on me that I’ve been avoiding conflict and smoothing over relationship issues; I’ve lived my life as the most demanding and exacting perfectionist and shied away from possible failure.  I’m so afraid of getting called out – all because I’m afraid to make dad mad.  If I didn’t try to avoid that feeling, if I didn’t care if dad got ferociously mad, what would I have said and done differently?  How would I approach my daily interactions?  What wouldn’t I allow people to do to me?

And to make matters worse, my mother often couldn’t be bothered to soothe and comfort me.  I was a little child, my dad was a tyrant and I had nowhere safe to go.  I’ve brought this childhood into my adult life – when did it embed in my brain? I’m terrified of the wrath of others and crumble when I receive it, even in its most gentle state.  I’m searching, searching, searching for the nurturing bosom I never had. I want someone who will never get mad and who will protect me from the harshness around me, which is really impossible.

Realizing all of this makes me feel healthier, even if I haven’t fixed it yet.  Sometimes I feel guilt when I write the ugly truth (as I see it) about my father.  He’s been dead 8 years and cannot defend himself.  There was a dad of my childhood and a dad of my adult years – and they are two different fathers.  The father of my adult years was kind and loving.  Whenever I saw him, he would kiss me and tell me he loved me – he never raised his voice.  Maybe the sight of his mortality softened him or, perhaps, once I moved out, our physical distance alleviated the friction.  My sister has a theory that makes sense to me – perhaps I will tell it someday.  Yes, he thankfully changed but, by then, the damage had already been done.