When You Have NPC Parents and No Cheat Codes
At thirty, I flew out from California to Chicago to meet my dad for the first time. It was a surprise to him that I planned with my younger sister who picked me up from O’Hare Airport in a very new, fully-loaded car. “Graduation present,” she said.
Five years’ earlier, this younger sister, who I never knew existed, found me on Facebook. That’s also when I talked to my dad for the first time in my life, providing a new objective for me as I had just started a twelve-year estrangement with my mom. I longed for a parent.
When I flew in, my sister was still living with our dad and her mom in their new condo near downtown Chicago. I had never been to Chicago so my dad drove me around in his new car, telling me about his work history. Being around my dad for the first time solidified my suspicion that I had acquired a lot of my skills and traits from him. My parents met when he was in the military, then he got a government job before moving back to work for the city of Chicago. “That’s how I was able to retire before 65,” he boasted to me.
My dad’s gigantic family had a big cookout celebration for me. I met two more sisters, both older. I met so many aunts, uncles, and cousins who repeatedly told me that I looked, acted, and carried myself just like my dad’s mother. I looked like everyone. There was no doubt that this was family and it was so thrilling to be around my people, the same square pegs with my facial features. I did a few mental mind-saves throughout the night. I didn’t want to forget.
Which is why it was so strange that I wasn’t enjoying my time somewhere I belonged. I remember thinking “Bitch, this is what you wanted—be happy!” And I was! Like eighty percent happy. The rest was because my dad sold himself too well: he considered his life a success story even though I was never present.
* * *
I’m not a pessimist, I’ve just experienced a bit too much of c’est la vie. I hope for the best, plan for the catastrophic. The events leading up to and surrounding the fallout with the estrangement from my mom were life-altering. Traumatic actually, although I wouldn’t realize until years later in therapy. My ignorance on this subject, as well as the stigma surrounding therapy at the time, deterred me from seeking mental help. Eventually, though, society’s awareness on mental health shifted; I got health insurance and immediately sought on a therapist. In our first session I told her that the internet was telling me I had trauma but I always thought trauma had to do with childhood, war, or death.
“There’s also emotional and psychological trauma,” my therapist said. “Something that biblically destroys your world, sense of security and your place in it.”
“Ah, yeah, that totally happened with my mom. But I thought I was handling it pretty well.”
“What did you do?”
“Cocaine. But it was not sustainable.”
* * *
I watched all the 80s and 90s TV sitcoms growing up alone. And I always knew what I wanted: preposterous, sappy family moments. I wanted annoyingly adorable siblings who would fight and play and scheme with me. I wanted the contentment and comfort that comes with having a messy but entertaining and supportive family. My parents finalized their divorce when I was a year and a half; my mom was awarded full custody. She moved us to the midwest from California and my dad went back to Chicago. She was never happy when I’d inquire about him, so I stopped when I was still just a kid.
For (some) legitimate reasons, my mom cut off contact with the rest of her family. It was just the two of us for holidays and sometimes she didn’t want to celebrate because of how depressed it made her.
My mom and I were close growing up but the relationship was more codependent/helicopter parenting when she was around. I grew up with cats but no siblings and was left by myself more often than not because she worked multiple jobs.
In my early twenties, my mom became a fugitive and left me with a Mariana Trench of legal and financial problems. Throughout that entire time, I wasn’t exactly sure what she had done. She just vanished. We had gone from talking every day to nothing. On the run, she would drop in and call me on a disposable phone, gaslight me about my (justified) anger and feelings concerning our situation, then disappear only to repeat the cycle a week or two later. If I wasn’t happy-daughter during these calls, she’d disappear for a month.
Achievement Unlocked: Abandonment Issues!
My mom equated her dishonesty and lying as a weakness, like being disorganized. She expected blind loyalty from me and was flabbergasted at my refusal. Eventually she turned herself in and promised me she would tell me exactly why she was a fugitive. (Spoiler: She didn’t.) Instead she took a page from the Mommie Dearest playbook, telling me to get over my wariness of her since it was my fault I didn’t trust her.
Achievement Unlocked: Irradicable Trust Issues!
My mom verbatim told me her secrets were more important than doing right by me, and she was fine being childless if I couldn’t get over it.
Rare Item Found: Brutally Broken Spirit with Indelible Insecurity!
Bonus Content Unlocked: Ingrained Self-Doubt on Intuition Abilities!
Lost and ruined with no help or support, I turned to drugs and booze and sex for escape. My romance with substance abuse and meaningless intimacy was also left over from childhood: I was looking for comfort and love. Someone to hold and tell me everything’s going to be fine.
I relayed all of this to my dad in our first few conversations. “I will not tolerate any type of lying,” I said to him. I didn’t care how bad he thought it would make him look because in the end, I’ll respect him more for being transparent. He understood, so I assumed he must be telling the truth about everything and that he really did have a wonderful life with my sisters, his wife, and his giant Chicago family. I believed him when he told me about all the happy-family reunions, the parties, the gatherings they had. I believed him—and I got depressed.
Both of my parents had decided I was not worthy of their presence and their time and was ineligible for their love and affection. My very essence was déjà vu; easy to dismiss and toss aside.
Besides, my younger sister was the one who found me. My dad would have continued living this great life without me in it. It had never crossed his mind to fight for custody. It had never crossed his mind to see all my milestones. My three sisters had our dad in their lives while I grew up with cats in a house by myself. I could have used a dad when my mom cut me out of her life. I could have used a dad. Both of my parents had dumped me. There was something innately wrong with who I am.
After about a decade of depression and a year of therapy, I finally told my therapist I was sick of not having answers, so she suggested I start a side quest and reach out to my mom for some closure.
“I was just a bad parent who continued to make bad decisions.” My mom said. She had gotten into therapy herself. It really is a miracle drug. “It was just shitty parenting. I’m sorry,” she continued. She listened to my questions and answered them all with solid, satisfying answers.
Our new relationship has been going well. I still have to occasionally put her in check but she’s making genuine attempts to be more Clair Huxtable and less any-black-woman-character-cast-by-Tyler-Perry.
As for my dad, I wasn’t sure the best way to start “Why am I the trash daughter?” so I emailed my younger sister instead. I told her she was the one that found me—and I’ll forever love her for that—but ever since she picked me up from the airport in her new car and took me to their new condo and introduced me to my family that wasn’t surprised by my existence, I’ve felt like I’ve been erased. I unloaded on her: “While I’m not accusing of you having a perfect life, dad made it seem that way. Did you have any idea I wasn’t even an afterthought to him or anyone else?”
My sister unloaded on me a few days later. She apologized for the delay, but had been so emotional she wanted to make sure she got it all out before writing her response. My sister told me that how I first saw them was all new to her as well. Our dad (and her mother) had serious substance abuse problems all of her childhood and had only gotten clean when she was almost done with high school (which is about the time she found me.) “They’d steal from me. We never had shit.”
Her first memory of him was as a mean old man and she told me that he wanted kids because that’s what you were supposed to do, but that he didn’t want or know how to parent. Our sisters weren’t in her life all that much and the only reason she knew about me is that the second-oldest told her. “Everything kind of just happened,” she wrote. “Our sisters just started their relationship with our dad. Me too, when I got to college.”
She wrote pages and pages explaining her tragic and difficult upbringing. She grew up quick. It was terrible for her.
And it lifted the fucking mountain off of my shoulders.
It never occured to me that I get my maxed out skill in lying from both of my parents. I can fully admit to being more of a dishonest person in my younger years. My lies were because I was embarrassed and ashamed about my financial and drug problems. I inherited all of that from my dad. Unlike him, I stopped lying about it.
A call to my mom revealed new information. That’s the reason they divorced, she said. She’d go to work and come home to me crying next to my passed-out-from-being-high-and-drunk dad. “It happened too much, I couldn’t trust him with you. But how do I tell you that?”
“You say the goddamn words,” I said.
“It was difficult to tell your child that her dad chose drugs over her. Do you understand?”
* * *
My dad was just a deadbeat, my mom believed her own lies, and my parents are terrible at parenting. I giggled over the Occams’ razor of this revelation. Without therapy, I’m not sure I would have figured it out. My mom was shit, I understood that, but I still couldn’t comprehend what makes a parent throw away their only child like that. No one on my mom’s side of the family would even talk to me about our estrangement and I always got dismissed when I sought out answers. Pair that with how my dad presented his life and it was impossible not to think it was me.
This whole situation was like trying to find all the hidden items of Zelda. Can’t you enjoy the game without discovering all the secrets? Not for me. To truly know myself, to be able to successfully walk through my life, I had to understand my parents’ programming.
A friend remarked on my unusual tenacity to understand and surrender to the fact that my parents are flawed. Being able to truly see who my parents are and forgive them fixed all the bugs, prevented crashes and smoothed out the glitches, giving me the skills needed to play life in expert mode.