Healing My Relationship With My Dad Is Helping Me Heal My Mental Health
I spent most of my adult years resenting my dad. I'd go as far as saying it was one of the underlying causes of my undiagnosed depression and the complicated relationships I formed with men. I grew up with my dad up until the age of 17 when I moved to London. Once I left, it felt like the love did too, because I never got a "just checking on you" phone call, "happy birthday" message, or "I love you" text. I needed my dad to help me navigate life and I didn't feel like he showed up and loved me like a father was supposed to. I was disappointed because I was expecting love like sitcom dad's from Full House, Sister Sister, and Family Matters gave their kids, and that wasn't my reality. In retrospect, I can see how unrealistic expectations kill relationships.
Over a year ago, after my marriage fell apart, I decided it was time to confront my daddy issues and the trauma I was constantly avoiding. I finally decided to try therapy because I knew I had to heal if I ever wanted to be happy and maintain healthy relationships.
Therapy felt like repeatedly analyzing a scene from a movie and coming to a different conclusion each time. Every problem I uncovered managed to be connected with my childhood trauma. I found that my fear of rejection, inability to speak up for myself, feelings of unworthiness, and choices in men could all be traced back to the relationship I had with my father. My therapist guided me through the process of acknowledging, accepting, and then giving myself what I was lacking so I could move forward. And the more I was able to give myself the love and acceptance I so desperately needed from my dad, the less resentful I felt.
The Grief Recovery Handbook (recommended by a divorce group I joined on Facebook) also guided me along my journey. The book helped me accept that I needed to allow myself to grieve the loss of who I thought my dad should be and accept him for who he is — an imperfect person with trauma of his own. As time passed and I continued healing, I realized just because my dad isn't able to love me the way I want to be loved, that doesn't mean he doesn't love me at all. Becoming a parent helped me show him more grace too; it dawned on me that my son will also grow up and judge me for the expectations I don't meet. Hopefully, he doesn't resent me when he realizes I'm not invincible enough to move all of his mountains.
I decided to take some practical steps to mend our relationship, too. I started reaching out to him more often and stopped holding it against him when he didn't do the same. This has done wonders for my mental health and my healing journey because I'm learning to give because I love, and not because I'm hoping to receive love in return. Although my dad still doesn't call or wish me a happy birthday, he sometimes reads my articles and comments on them, which is everything to me.
Whenever I find myself getting upset with him and feel old pain resurfacing, I think back to our driving lessons in the middle of the night. Then, my mind flashes back to ceremonial stops at McDonald's to grab double cheeseburgers every weekend, him making us traditional Nigerian dinners every night, dreadful keyboard lessons, and never ending choir practices. And as I replay each memory and relive those moments, I feel my heart healing. Because in those moments, although I wasn't loved in the ways the world tells me a dad should love, I was and am immensely loved by my father.
Now that our relationship is better, it has also given me a greater sense of family. I have a deeper desire to understand who he is and how that influences who I am. As he grows older, I'm intentional about drawing words of wisdom from his well and creating new memories with him. I have started my own family ritual which consists of spending quality time together two Sundays a month. On these days, I ask him questions. Anything from mundane ones like what his favorite food is, to more complex questions like what he would change about his life if he could go back in time. And his answers heal me because they show me my dad is human, and fragile, and needs love just as much as I do.
These days, I collect pieces of him as often as I can because I want to feel his presence everywhere I am. I enshrine his sweaters, stopping to memorize his scent; some mornings, my eyes well up as I blast the musical records he wrote and sang on in hopes that I can memorize the sound of his voice. I favorite pictures of him because I know one day they'll be all I have left. That, and the comfort of knowing I made amends and found the courage to love him beyond his inadequacies before it was too late.