It was a few days before Christmas. We were living in an old and cheap rented house in a run-down part of the city in a northern mid-west city. I was taking care of our two children while my wife was out for the evening with her mom or a friend. Our year-old daughter was upstairs asleep in her crib. Our three-year-old son was playing on the living room floor. I was lying on the sofa – tired from a day of work at a minimum-wage job outside of my area of expertise –overwhelmed by all the circumstances that I had been fighting for the past six months – and depressed and devastated by the toxic memories that had been bubbling up through my deteriorating defenses like a backed up sewer.
We had moved cross-country during the summer to live in a place where we could afford to live on a single income and get closer to family. But I had not been able to find a job in my field. Now we were at the end of our savings and I was severely under-employed. We had no close friends, no support system other than my in-laws – who had been opposed to our marriage – and who made me feel inadequate and defensive. We had recently left an extreme controlling religious cult – which made me feel used and violated and stupid for having been manipulated for so long – and seriously doubting my own judgment. Additionally, it was cold and snowy and gloomy – a huge change from the warm and sunny Southern California we had left. Utility bills were high, pipes froze and cars did not start. We were reduced to accepting help from charity for groceries and Christmas gifts for our kids.
And while my self-esteem was at an all-time low, insidious memories and dreams were invading my every waking moment. Knowledge and images and feelings and thoughts that I had successfully repressed and forgotten for decades. Stuff that made me feel even worse: abuse and bullying and neglect and dysfunction and denial. No wonder I felt damaged and dirty and worthless.
I was stumbling around in a fog – largely unaware of others, oblivious to conversations, barely able to function on the most basic level. A virtual zombie. Consumed with guilt, shame, self-loathing, self-condemnation, and self-rejection. Both numb and in excruciating pain. I could not see any way out – no hope for things getting better, no answer to the chaotic confusion in my head and in my deepest core, no means of providing a decent life for my family. Everything was dark and claustrophobic and I felt trapped and paralyzed and isolated. I was ready to be finished with this.
I was making a plan. I got the idea while driving one night and nearly losing control on an icy road – a condition I was not familiar with. It would be so easy to fake an accident. There were a couple of places that might work well – big concrete pillars supporting expressway overpasses. There was insurance that I had purchased during a more successful period of life – when I still had a career. My family would be better off. They wouldn’t have to know. The insurance would only pay off if it looked like a convincing accident. I could stop the suffering once and for all. I would wait until after the holidays so there would not be bad memories for those left behind. It would just be a matter of waiting for the right weather and road conditions. The plan helped me feel “better.” There was now a goal – an end in sight.
My little son was tired of playing by himself. He wanted me to join in. I wanted to make him happy – but didn’t have the energy to take the initiative. He had a great idea: he would be the daddy and I would be the little boy. He was very focused on Christmas. So our play took that direction, too. He came to me and asked me what I wanted for Christmas. Playing the assigned role, I answered as I thought he would – I want a toy truck. He toddled off and disappeared for a couple of minutes, returning with one of his own. I was pretending to be asleep – an easy job. He plunked the truck on my chest and said, “Wake up! It’s Christmas!” I “woke up” and acted surprised and happy. He wanted to do it again. This time, I asked for building blocks. Before I knew it, he was waking me up again. Again, I was delighted. The next time, I asked for a train. Soon he returned with that. I don’t know how many times we repeated the routine. I decided to make it more challenging – to give me longer to sleep in between. So I asked for a drum. I knew he didn’t have one to bring and wondered what he would do. That didn’t slow him down much. After a few minutes he came from the kitchen with a big, round, plastic, food storage container and a wooden spoon – a very acceptable substitute. He explained that I would have to “betend” that it was a real drum. By this time, I was buried in toys.
Suddenly, the significance of what had just happened started to penetrate my awareness. My father had died when I was not quite 3. I had a step-dad (the first abuser of several) from when I was 5 ½ who did not seem to care what I wanted – unless it was to censor my wishes and “correct” them by giving me what he thought I “should” have and what he wanted me to have – things that had previously belonged to his dead son, or things that his son would have liked – or that a normal boy should like. Here was my own son, behaving is a way that was like what a good father would do for his son - caring about his desires and seeking to fulfill them. Trying to make him happy. I was learning more about parenting from my own child than I had from my parents.
Tears started to run down my face. I hugged my little boy/pretend daddy and told him that it was all right.
It was time for him to go to bed so I took care of him – all the steps in the regular night-time pattern: potty, jammies on, bed-time story, tucking in, good-night song, prayers, kiss and hug, lights out. When my wife got home I told her what had happened. She said something that helped me a lot: “Where do you think he learned how to be a good daddy? The only one he knows is you. He thinks that is the way it should be.” It made me feel like I might not be such a complete and total failure after all.
I can’t say that the episode that evening changed my mind about my plan. But it contributed to my change of heart. In talking to a therapist, I was digging up lots of garbage - identifying and naming more and more of the vague and unspoken forms of abuse I had endured. I was feeling worse as the past was unveiled to my conscious mind. But I was getting in touch more with my own feelings about what had been done to me – as well as how I had felt about it at the time.
The weather also played a part – in that the roads were not icy at the times that I thought it would be right to put my plan into action.
And the biggest single thing that caused me to pause and re-evaluate my decision was this – I did not want my own children to be subjected to the possibility of abuse from a step-father as I had been. Maybe I could not give them the standard of living that I wanted to – but I could at least try to protect them from that.
Meanwhile, the therapy was starting to help – bringing me back into real life – giving me tactics to help cope in new ways – most importantly – giving me hope for change and a better future.
That was more than 25 years ago. My son and daughter are now grown and independent and a 3rd child - another daughter – has also grown up and let the nest.
I stuck with therapy long enough to get back on my feet and start functioning again. unfortunately, I had to stop before the job was done. It was a couple more decades before I fell back into depression and had to start working at recovery again. But that Christmas episode gave me another chance to try again – that I might not have had otherwise.
"That you are here - that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. . . What will your verse be?" Robin Williams as John Keating in "Dead Poets Society"