Last weekend I had an experience that I can only define as grace; a deep, soulful resolution with my estranged father. As some of you know, I am currently working with a copy editor on my submission for the compilation, From Shadows to Light: A Whole Human Approach to Mental Health. Within my chapter I am writing a bit about my healing journey and how it led me to do the work that I am doing now. In part of my story I recount a traumatic experience that involved my father and, as a result, I was asked by my editor whether I had been given my father’s permission (since he is still alive) to refer to him directly. This is standard practice for publishing companies as it avoids any litigious issues after publication.
At first I felt angry. To get the permission to speak about the person who hurt me from the person who hurt me felt unfair, yet on a logical level I also realized the necessity of it. Without slander laws, anyone could say anything about anyone without any proof or consequences. I also felt ready to call my father and share with him my memories and I was curious to hear his side of the story. So I decided to call him.
After some polite family up-date conversation, I told my father that there was a specific reason for my call that day. I wanted to share with him a memory that had come up during a series of somatic experiencing sessions of a time when my parents split up when I was three years old. I said to him that I did not have any anger or resentment towards him, that I simply wanted him to share with me what he remembered of that event, after I shared with him what my memories were.
For anyone who has suffered early childhood trauma confronting a parent whom you think has harmed you in some way is a very brave thing to do, because there is the risk that the parent will have a denial response, or disproportionate response that could potentially reactivate your own trauma. Gratefully, my father responded in neither of these ways. Instead, he was open to hearing what I remembered, he was calm and loving in his responses. I could hear in the tone of his voice, he was glad just to be talking with me. I could feel it in my body that there was love there.
Encouraged by this I began with the recounting of my memory of the time when my parents separated. I shared that I remembered being in a state of hysteria; absolute overwhelm with a mix of rage, sadness and despair. I remembered my father being present with me, holding me, and that he was really angry and full of rage. Then I felt the sensation of being choked followed by a sensation of being shattered into a million tiny pieces. Energetically it felt like I was the unstoppable force colliding with my father the immovable object and as we moved through each other, I was left shattered but still inside a container. Then I felt the sensation of shutting down and becoming unconscious. My last memory was of waking up in a bedroom all alone in the dark and feeling so scared and alone; abandoned.
I then explained to my father that my overall sense of what happened was that I was hysterical because I was missing my mother. He then became angry with me and tried to stop me from crying. Because of the body memory of choking and accompanying an intense sense of fear, I felt he must have forcibly tried to stop me from crying and accidentally cut off my air supply leading to a state of unconsciousness. It is important to note that I also had an inner narrative, a story I was told by my mother about my father. She had told me that he had taken me from her and that this would amount to kidnapping by modern standards. I also knew that for as long as I could remember I have had a difficult time trusting my father to be there for me. I always had a deep feeling of abandonment whenever I spent time with him followed by an intense fear and anxiety I couldn’t explain. So it seemed entirely likely at the time I was reintegrating these somatic memories that my father was capable of such an act.
Before I share with you my fathers response I want to explain how memories work and how the mind can fill in the gaps with story. There are two kinds of memory, explicit and implicit. Explicit memory is conscious and consists of declarative memory which are precise factual details of events, and episodic memory which is more auto biographical, spontaneous and interesting like a story with warm emotional overtones. Implicit memory is predominantly unconscious, intense and powerfully compelling. These memories arise as a mixture of sensations, emotions, and impulses or behaviours. These memories can not be accessed deliberately as they are enacted unconsciously, instinctively. Emotional memories(how we feel) mingle with procedural memories(how are bodies are responding to our feelings/circumstances) and are experienced in the body as physical sensations. Our bodies emergency responses (fight/flight/freeze) are also a part of procedural memory. It is the implicit procedural and emotional memories I was accessing and integrating during my Somatic Experiencing sessions. One thing that is important to remember is that there is going to be gaps within our implicit memories, especially if they were very intense and required our survival response system to shutdown or collapse. This is when our explicit memory attempts to fill in those gaps with story.
Now it was my fathers turn to recount the events of my parents difficult separation. The first thing he said was that I was indeed hysterical, absolutely inconsolable. I felt affirmed by his words. Then he said that he was holding me in his arms and trying to comfort me. He recalled holding a finger to my mouth and saying “Shhhhh” to try and stop me from crying. There was never a moment when he attempted to stop my crying with force. Then he recalled more of the details of the events of that day. It began the evening before when my mother and he were attending a party in my fathers honour. During that evening my father discovered my drunk mother cheating on him with another man. He was humiliated in front of his colleagues. He then came home. The next day my mother returned and my parents had an argument. My father was furious with her. He stated that I was a very astute child and he imagined I must have either woke up to the argument or sensed the tension in the room. My father asked my mother to leave their home and gave her two weeks to figure herself out and get a new place to live. She did leave, quietly and cooly, he did not remember if she said goodbye to me. Around the time my mother left I became hysterical. He remembered that I cried so hard that I was choking and couldn’t get my breath. Eventually I just cried myself to sleep. He had no knowledge of me waking in my room. He admitted that he was barley hanging on and working very hard to contain all of his pain. He then found a place for me to stay with my grandmother, while he was preparing for his entrance into the police academy. I was happy to go to my grandmothers but when I arrived there I became upset again and wouldn’t stop crying. I kept saying “mommy ran away”. To distract me from my feelings my grandmother cleverly took me fabric shopping and engaged me in making some new clothes. Of course within a couple of weeks my mother did find a apartment and I moved in with her. My dad was relegated to the minimal parental visiting rights that existed in the 70s.
After hearing all of this so many things fell into place for me. I realized that my somatic or implicit memories were all correct. I was hysterical. My father was very angry. I did experience choking. I did feel like I was torn into a million pieces, and I did loose consciousness as a result of being completely overwhelmed. However, my interpretation of these implicit memories was incorrect. This is the part where my mind filled in the gaps. I was hysterical because my mother left me, not because my father took me away from her. I was scared of my father because I could feel his rage, even though it was not being directed at me. I did choke because I was crying so hard I could not catch my breath, not because he was choking me. I passed out because my nervous system chose wisely to shut all the big feelings down, because they were too much for me to feel, and being three years old I fell asleep. In the background there was also the story my mother had built around the event to assuage her own fears and guilt about her behaviour, making my father the one who was the “bad guy”.
After my father shared his version of this event with me I was able to process this with him and resolve all the misunderstandings that have been there hidden between us ever since that time. I said to him that ever since that day I have never been able to feel truly safe around him, and that I must have associated the intense and overwhelming feelings of abandonment with him because he was the one I was left with. We had experienced the abandonment together, albeit differently. My mother then became the parent I worked extra hard for with an unconscious dreadful fear of her leaving me again, along with her perpetual reinforcement of that fear through her self-destructive alcoholism and promiscuity. This new information from my dad also fits with all the trauma work I have done around my mother. Just like that my story has changed. I realize now that my father was trying to protect me from my mother and that in his own way he has always been there waiting for me to return to him. I feel a lightness in my heart that is indescribable simply because I have never felt anything like it before.
After my phone call I have been giving some thought to all the time I spent believing the story that kept me apart from my father and the distance I needed to have from him to feel safe. I felt some regret at all the time wasted being so afraid of a man whom I didn’t need to be afraid of. Yet I also understand that it was completely unavoidable because it was all implicit(unconscious) memory. I know that there was nothing I could do until I was ready to make that call. The feelings of abandonment I experienced whenever I was around my father were very real and very intense and I deliberately avoided them and therefore him. Eventually, as a result of the healing work of somatic trauma therapies I was able to talk with my father about my experiences and not feel overwhelmed. I had healed the trauma enough within my own body that I could reach out to someone that has always elicited a terror/abandonment response inside my body while also being able to discern better the real time messages my father was sending me now in this moment, the ones of love and acceptance. I could discern that he was indeed safe and that I could take him at his word. Because of all the years of work I’ve done on myself healing and integrating a childhood full of adverse experiences, my father and I have fortunately now had the healing opportunity to begin to resolve our common trauma. I feel like I have returned home from years at sea not quite used to walking on solid ground yet. There is a sense of rediscovering some of the original feelings of love between us, the ones that existed before the heartbreak. For this my heart is full of gratitude.