I knew the day would come when something shook me and challenged my resolve. It happened recently when a conversation with my father took an unexpected turn and ended up with both of us angry and harsh.
I couldn’t have been more surprised by his words – I had stopped by to tell him about a clever idea I’d had to help address some tax issues with his estate planning and expected an intelligent conversation to follow. We both have good minds for business and love to talk shop. If I added up all the conversations we’ve ever had and sorted them into categories, “business” would win the majority hands down.
Minutes into the topic and it was clear I’d hit a nerve. Go figure. Approach the subject of estate planning with a retired, 75-year old businessman and he gets touchy. Perhaps I was being insensitive but he came at me with an anger I’ve rarely experienced. This was more than discomfort with his looming mortality. This was resentment. Rejection.
Let’s go, I thought. You want to fight? You want to criticize me? You want to argue? It’s on. No one else would ever dare to disagree with you or jockey for the last word, but I will. You want to battle wits? I’m in.
As you can imagine this was a sad thing to witness. Having spent 43 years trying to earn my parents love instead of just accepting what they were willing to give, I had a lot of ammo to fire.
While my father loudly claimed his right to do things his way, right or wrong, I listed all of my impressive achievements and reasons he should listen to me and respect my opinions. While he claimed it was none of my business how much money he funnels to other family members who haven’t quite landed on their feet, I noted that I would have been just as well off to have tried less hard and taken the free ride. While he listed all the opportunities they had provided me, I listed all the ways I had taken those opportunities and succeeded.
We seemed to be in a battle to determine who had the rightful claim to my success. Wait – when did this become an argument about me? I tried to get things back on track but it was too late. He wanted to prove that my accomplishments would have been impossible without him. I wanted him to recognize that gratitude was self-evident through my efforts and achievements.
My mother and sisters would never dare talk to him this way. His word has always been the last word. It is universally accepted in our family that he is the smartest. And he’s Dad. Do what he says and that’s that. Also it should be mentioned that he is cheerful, funny, warm, and loving. Giving him the last word is usually easy to do. He usually deserves it.
I’ve almost never argued with my dad. We’ve certainly never had words like this. It’s clear that something more is wrong but neither of us knows what. We go round and round. My mother sits quietly by and occasionally tries to steer things, but mostly she seems unwilling to take sides. That hurts, too.
I’m emotionally tattered and leave in tears after over an hour of rapid-fire accusations and statements of defense. I go home and collapse into my husband’s arms and spend the next three days reeling. I don’t drink but man, it’s calling me. I struggle with the physical desire to numb the pain, but since I’m going to “fucking show them” I instead default back on the path to being perfect, beyond criticism.
Ahhh, my old friend. My favourite goal: beyond criticism. Over the years my quest for perfection has driven me in so many ways. It’s the reason I am meticulous with my looks – dressing to perfection, always made up nicely with hair done well. It’s the reason I work out daily and know the amount of fat and calories in every different brand of yogurt. I’ve won scholarships, business of the year awards, national recognitions. I’ve been featured in magazines and have too many news clippings to count. If that’s not enough, I’ve managed music and tv projects on the side. I’ve got a good marriage, raised three great boys, manage the family finances, and keep my house orderly.
Is it any wonder that wine flowed through the cracks in the armor?
All I really want is a gold star for my efforts every day.
I don’t do all these things for my own satisfaction, I do them so others will approve. I expect them to approve, and justifiably so. But here’s the problem: I can’t make them do what I want.
“Bob S” – a twitter connection (@Bobby_Steps) with a passion for encouraging others to ‘keep working the steps’ – made it clear to me when I posted that I’d had a frustrating experience with my folks. “Think what I hear is you expect your parents to be people they aren’t,” he tweeted. “Expectations fuck alcoholics and turn into resentment.”
I see it, I know it. One of my sisters used to tease me that she was Dad’s favourite, and my other sister was Mom’s favourite, and I was “just the baby”. I’d quickly joke back, “I’m everyone’s favourite!” But I never really believed it.
I’ve always felt unconditionally loved, but believed that if I wanted my parents to also “like” me I’d have to earn it. I don’t know if they could help that each of them has a special tie to one of their children, they just do. To complicate things further, both of my sisters have gone through marriage break ups and other difficulties. How dare I resent the help my parents give them while I sit in my happy house on the hill with my husband and perfect life.
So drinking helped numb the unmet expectations of parental approval, helped ease the guilt of resenting the attention showered on others, of resenting how the perfection I’ve come to demand of myself seems to annoy my family instead of impressing them.
The hurt is still there and the issue with my father remains unresolved. I’ve seen him at family occasions since and it’s clear we both wish it never happened. It’s the elephant in the room and we’ll have to sort it out sooner or later. I’m confident we will.
Meanwhile, I’m struggling to keep my sobriety on the right path; to ensure I pursue it from a place of honesty and peace, and not out of a spiteful quest for perfection.