In front of me is a picture of my father when he was around age 7 posed on the steps of the schoolhouse with 36 other children who all appear to be the same age. They look so happy sitting under the sunshine 74 years ago. Some of the children are wearing hats made out of paper plates with the middle cut out but most of them are wearing fancy hats with funny decorations of them.
As I sit here pondering about whether any of them are still alive, I can’t help but gaze at my father’s image and feel compassion for the way his life turned out. The smiling image of the boy in the paper plate hat looks so sweet and cuddly the same way my own son did at that age. In the picture, there is no indication my dad would grow to become a cruel manipulative man.
My dad was raised in a highly abusive home. His father was an alcoholic who beat him mercilessly. My dad showed me a picture of himself as a young teen with a black eye and his arm in a cast. His father gave him the injuries and is in the picture also, his arm around my dad’s neck. Both are smiling cheerfully.
It is no surprise to me that they could smile for a picture together as though they didn’t have a care in the world. In abusive households, secrecy and acting on best behavior when around other people are practiced and encouraged.
My dad’s mother had a tumor in her head that caused one of her eyes to close. The tumor also pressed on her brain. This caused my grandmother to have seizures. Her tumor may have affected her behavior. She was also cruel to my dad but she did not beat him.
The whole year my father was 5 years old his mother made him stay in a dark bedroom. Then, for several years, my dad was kept from going outside. The thing that upset him the most was that he always had to go to bed for the night in the afternoon. He would listen to the children in the neighborhood playing for hours while he lay in bed, miserable.
Neither of his parents had any interest in my dad’s physical hygiene or how well he was doing in school. My dad would wander through the forests of his town alone and would befriend the hobos even as a young boy. The only time my dad’s parents turned their attention on him was to abuse him or pretend to be nice around other people.
My dad never got over or forgave his parents for the way that they treated him while he was growing up. He would often repeat the same stories over and over again about the abuse he suffered. He talked about the horrible things his parents said and did on a daily basis
When a person has been treated badly, it is sometimes common for that person to think or speak about it over and over.
The unfortunate consequence of focusing on a past situation of mistreatment is that the brain responds as if the abuse is being repeated in the present tense. This is called ruminating and can result in anxiety and depression. Untreated depression can lead to self-loathing, personality changes, addictions, and a myriad of other complications.
What was once a sweet and happy 7-year-old grew up to resent every aspect of his upbringing. My dad focused so much on every wrong, large or small, that he became much like the very people who hurt him: an addict with severe mental illness.
He was also a pathological liar, cunning, and highly manipulative. His personality could be charming; however, and because he was good looking and intelligent, he was able to mask these aspects of himself around people. Most of my friends thought I had the best dad ever when they met him for the first time.
My life growing up with my dad was anything but pleasant. He had a charismatic personality, was funny and quick witted, but underneath lurked a monster. My dad terrorized the whole family but we all had to put on a smile and pretend to be happy around everyone else.
The worst thing my dad did was scare me constantly. He would sneak up behind me quietly and just breathe. He told me that there was an evil presence in my closet. He would lure me into the dark basement and then say that someone down there wanted to talk to me. There are many other ways he scared me, but he scariest thing he did was he would get an evil look in his eye and say, “I’m not your father!”
The terrorizing didn’t stop at frightening me.
My dad would tell me that it was time for a talk. He would take me into the living room and close the door dramatically and have me sit down. Then he would look me in the eye and say, “I know.” “What are you talking about?” I would ask. He would answer, “You know.”
This would go on for a while until he would finally start accusing me of something like stealing one of his prescription medications. The accusations would be mixed with interrogation sometimes for over an hour. I never had any clue what he was talking about.
He would tease me and make fun of me constantly. He would also go to great lengths to embarrass and humiliate me. He would decide that I had a crush on a boy and would taunt me about it for weeks. He would pick on my looks, weight, height, food preferences, clothes, makeup, grades, friend choices, and anything else you can imagine.
He had also been a staff sergeant in the army and loved to yell for hours. I would be accused of some wildly strange thing, which I would deny, and then the berating would start. “Look at me when I talk to you!” he would scream. I figured out that if I just stared at the spot between his eyes, I could focus on that while tuning him out and still keep him satisfied.
I was a wildly gregarious child but being falsely accused and punished all of the time finally broke my spirit. As an older teen, I fell into depression. I could barely eat or get out of bed. I stopped going to school. By this time my parents had split up and my mother was left to pick up the pieces of our shattered lives.
I remember one morning my mom was very upset and voiced her concern, “You weigh 90 pounds. You never smile. You have circles under your eyes. I’m worried you may be using drugs.” I explained, “The problem is that I’m depressed. I can’t shake it. I can’t sleep so I’m always tired. I’m not trying to act this way and I am certainly not on drugs.”
My mother drew a sigh of relief. “Well if you are depressed that’s understandable. I want you to seriously consider doing some affirmations, they have really helped me.”
An affirmation is a positive phrase that is repeated over in over in order to overcome a challenge or something negative. I agreed to give it a try. What did I have to lose?
“These are to be in your own handwriting and spoken aloud each day.” My mom gave me a book of affirmations with certain ones highlighted that she wanted me to copy and recite. They included positive statements like “I deserve the best and I accept the best,” and, “I am limitless in my abilities and potential.”
Since my father was an addict and an alcoholic, my mother included the serenity prayer in the affirmations that she gave me to speak aloud every day: “God grant me the ability to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
The affirmations did help but something in the serenity prayer really stood out to me. I never grew up knowing that I could just accept the things I couldn’t change. I did hear a lot about how bad things were for my dad and how he wished things were different and that he didn’t deserve what happened to him. I never heard anything about accepting anything. This was a new and exciting idea.
What caused my depression? It was thinking about the bad things that had happened to me. It was me wishing things had been different. It was also me wishing that my dad would change and stop being such an embarrassing screw-up.
Along with the affirmations I had a new arsenal in my belt: acceptance.
I was treated badly and didn’t deserve it but there was nothing in the world that would ever change the past. I just had to accept it. My dad would probably always be an addict and a manipulative asshole and there was absolutely nothing in my power to change it. I didn’t need to wish for a good dad. I could just accept that this was who he was.
Acceptance made me a more rational person.
I no longer carried the load of resentment so I was less anxious and could think more logically when I was confronted with hard situations. When my father became unreasonable, I could confidently stay calm and not get swept up in his crazy-making drama.
Acceptance gave me the ability to find joy in the smallest acts of kindness.
When I gave up expecting anything, that is when true joy started to fill my spirit. I could be happy when my dad made me a nice dinner without worrying about if the next time I saw him would he be wasted and acting like a jerk. Even if that did happen next time, I knew that there was nothing I could do to change it. That was freeing.
Acceptance kept me from repeating the same negative patterns.
Since I was coming at life in a rational way, I didn’t end up falling into the patterns my dad did. I didn’t sit around and ruminate about how unfair my life was. I think that by not focusing on the bad things that happened to me, I was able to attract positive people and situations into my life.
Acceptance helped me to acknowledge that sometimes bad things would happen to me but that is just part of life which too shall pass.
Once when my dad was stoned out of his mind, he stole my mom’s car and drove it to my house. I knew that his actions were out of my control. I had already accepted that my dad sometimes did things that were completely inappropriate and dangerous. My calm head helped resolve the situation much more quickly than if I had reacted in an equally inappropriate manner.
What is the next step?
Once I accepted everything, I realized that the only thing in the world I could change for sure was myself. I read thousands of books and took courses to improve who I was as a person. I tried my best to put them into practice and let them guide me in my journey through life. There is no end to self-improvement resources online, in bookstores, the library, and from professionals.
Acceptance was the first step for me to overcome the depression I was experiencing. Acceptance allowed my mind to calm down and it became easier to live in the here and now rather than ruminating about what had happened to me. I could work on improving myself and my circumstances from a rational state of mind. It brought me peace.
I hope that I was able to convey to you the concept of acceptance through this article and I hope you will begin to put it to practice*. Life is not fair. Thinking about how you didn’t deserve something that happened to you will never change it and will only harm you. Accept the things you cannot change and begin to experience peace.
*If you are in an abusive and/or dangerous situation this does not apply to you. Please call 911 right away and seek assistance.
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