Father's Day

I spent this last Father’s Day in silent, burning rage at my dad, and it’s taken me three months to sort it out enough to write.

Some people are practically saints, and for some it can be hard to find a single redeeming virtue, but most of us fall somewhere in between.  My dad was smart and witty, friendly and generous.  He took me fishing and taught me to whittle.  He worked very hard to support our family, and we never went without.  I loved him very deeply, and he was respected in our community.

He was also a violent alcoholic, who could put on a calm, jovial face in public, while terrorizing his family behind doors.  He could be in the middle of mercilessly beating one of us, then calmly pick up the ringing phone and answer with a smile in his voice.  I loved him and hated his guts.

For some reason, I was spared most of the violence.  Maybe it was because I was so much younger than the other kids, but he doted on me.  But being spared wasn’t a blessing; it was terrible.  I used to wish he would beat me because I felt tremendously guilty.  It was like being handed a banquet of food in a room full of starving people.  I also became the “dad whisperer” and learned very young how to talk him down and get him to stop beating my mom and siblings.  

After I got a little older and the rest of the kids left home, I became the target of his rage.  It was almost a relief.

In the meantime, he focused his rage and violence on everyone else, but especially my brother Dal.  Maybe it was because he was the only boy, and that he looked so much like my dad, who was filled with self loathing.  Maybe it was because Dal was so brilliant and talented and he was jealous.  Maybe it was because Dal wasn’t as interested in fishing and outdoor things, but preferred intellectual pursuits, such as chess and music. 

Whatever it was, he bullied him relentlessly, following him around and picking at him as he did his chores, spoiling for a fight, looking for excuses to shove or hit him.  And sweet Dal just tried to do better and make him happy, even as he was beaten on a regular basis.  I watched him try to placate him with patience and logic, but none of that worked on our drunken, angry dad.  I have images burned into my brain that will never go away, the sounds of screams, things I will never forget.  

One of my earliest memories was at the age of five, waking up late at night to the sound of fighting, and realizing my dad was beating my brother in the hallway outside my bedroom.  I could hear scuffling, and my brother’s screams.  I flew out of bed in my pajamas, and into the hall, where I grabbed a boot, climbed up my dad’s back, and beat him over the head to get him to stop.  

To my surprise, it worked.  That night changed my life because I felt a sense of responsibility from that point on to make him stop hurting people, and it’s colored the rest of my life.  I also became fiercely protective of my brother for the rest of his life, even though he was seven years older.  More than any other person other than my children, I would fly into a white hot rage if anyone said or did anything unkind to him.  In school, he was cheerful and popular, a well-liked leader.  Nobody realized what he was going through at home.  In spite of his own suffering, he was always looking out for me.  He was the bravest and kindest person I knew and that only made me love him more.  I vowed that nobody would ever hurt my brother again, or I would make them sorry.

When I was 19, my dad had a minor traffic accident and was arrested for driving drunk.  The embarrassment of that incident motivated him to stop drinking.  After he sobered up, I was able to experience a relationship with him I had never had, and we began to heal.  However, a lifetime of heavy drinking and smoking caught up with him, and in ten years, he was dead. 

I was devastated to have him ripped away when we had begun to heal together and I finally had the dad I always knew was there.  He was sorry for all the pain he had caused and we had many long talks and were very close.  I had forgiven him, but I still had a lifetime of pain as a result of what we all went through.  After he died, I wrote a six page letter to him, which nobody ever read, and tucked it into his ashes on the day we buried them. 

Years later, I learned a lot about trauma and why I still was suffering, even though I had forgiven him.  My gentle brother was the most forgiving person I ever met.  I still struggled with my memories of watching him being hurt.  We often talked about who had it worse growing up.  I had the images of him being abused seared into my head, and I said he had it the worst of everyone in the family.  He insisted I had it worse because I had to watch it.  Either way, it had a lifetime effect on both of us.  

Dal used alcohol to deal with what he had been through, and never said an unkind word about my dad.  Unlike Dad, he didn’t have a violent bone in his body, and was a jovial, fun drunk, which may have prevented him from getting help for years.  He wasn’t causing problems for anyone but himself, as it affected his health.  But he was a fun guy.

Many years ago, I learned about childhood trauma and its effect on adults.  A very famous study called the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACES) clearly outlined that kids who grew up in households with addiction, abuse, and trauma typically had a much higher risk of unhealthy behaviors, chronic physical and mental health problems, and addiction.  

Worst of all, people with high ACES scores tend to live much shorter lives than their less traumatized counterparts, upwards of 20 years less.

Dal and I talked about this; I knew he had depression and anxiety which he preferred to ignore, and that alcohol is a depressant drug which only masks these things while making everything worse.  We talked about his drinking and we talked about the mental health issues that arise when you grow up in constant abuse and trauma.  I tried to normalize the conversation about self-care for mental health, and how mental and physical health are intertwined.  I think he preferred to just forget about it; the problem is, our bodies and our brains remember.  It doesn’t work to cover it up and it doesn’t go away if you try to “forget about it.”

The more I learned about trauma and ACES, the more I understood every member of my family, and it gave me great empathy for all of us, including my parents.  There was no ACES, or understanding of trauma, during my parents’ lives.  They were just muddling through life as broken people, and we all paid the price.  I’m certain my dad had his own trauma, and never wanted to become an abusive parent and damage his children, but he didn’t have the resources and skills to do it differently.  He spent his older years full of remorse and regret.

Dal got sober this year and I was so proud of him.  He was regaining his health and actually dealing with the demons that were handed to him by the past.  But the damage was done.  Dal died on May 6th of a heart attack, which was an utter shock as it looked like he was getting healthier.

I believe Dal was the victim of childhood toxic stress and trauma and was coping the only ways that were available to him at the time: denial and alcohol.  He minimized how bad things were because that was how he coped, and drank to forget.  I never minimized any of it when we talked because I was hoping we could move beyond that.  It wasn’t disloyal to our dad to be honest about it.

Most people had no idea that my funny, quirky, sweet brother had grown up in hell.  He was good at hiding it.  He could have become bitter and angry.  Instead, in defiance of our dad and all of the abuse, he chose to be a positive, loving person who CHOSE kindness and goodness.  He will always be my hero.  But he paid a steep price for pretending he was okay.  Nobody really knew that he wasn’t raised to be a good person; he was a good person in spite of how he was treated.

I believe that, had it not been for the abuse that he suffered daily, growing up, Dal would still be alive.  I believe he would have been a healthier person, and lived a longer life.  

I believe my dad took my brother away from me before his time.  It was the final abuse I got to witness, and I can’t forgive him right now.

That may be unfair, but it’s honest.  On Father’s Day this year, all the grief and rage I thought I had processed came back full force, as I grieved the loss of my brother a month before.  I hated my dad with a fiery passion I hadn’t felt in many years. I thought I had forgiven him, and I thought I had moved on, but apparently, I still have a lot of work to do.  Processing trauma can take a lifetime.

I owe it to Dal to be honest, even when it means writing this.  It means being honest with myself about my feelings, and knowing it’s okay to be mad at my dad on Father’s Day.  To take responsibility for my own trauma and understand that grief is a trauma trigger.  To reaffirm my commitment to healing myself and making sure I don’t pass that trauma along to others, any more than I may already have.  To continue to strive to be a better person, and forgive myself for not knowing what I didn’t know.  Part of that is writing this, and laying down this heavy load of grief and rage and guilt.

If you are dealing with trauma, it’s okay to name it and take care of yourself.  You don’t have to put on a happy face.  And even if you’ve had traumatic experiences that have shaped your life, that doesn’t mean you are doomed to a short, unhealthy life.  You can heal through building resilience.  Making connections with people, acknowledging the trauma and talking about it, writing about it, doing art, whatever helps you to heal.  It’s not your fault, and it’s not a character flaw. 

Studies show that even one supportive, caring adult can build resilience in a child who is experiencing trauma.  In adults, it’s important to build caring relationships and trust, friendships where it’s safe to be our true selves.

Nobody needs to be ashamed.  I’m trying to live my best life in Dal’s honor, knowing that he struggled harder than anyone I ever met to be such an incredible soul.  Healing is possible.  If you want to learn more about the ACES Study, here is a link.


One caution: Reading about high ACES scores can create anxiety and stress.  Please don’t be discouraged if you have a high ACES score; it’s never too late to address your pain and get the support that you need.  You are not doomed!  A big step in healing is to recognize that it’s not that something is “wrong with you.” It’s about what happened to you.  And it helps to know that stress, anxiety, and depression are a NORMAL response to trauma.  You CAN heal.

Here’s more information about resilience and how to build hope:



  1. Oh, wow. This is so powerful and empowering. You are brave to write and post this, and so many are blessed from your wisdom and the comfort this writing gives to so many who are needing to hear this, including me. Thank you for this.

    1. Thank you so much. Other than my brother's obituary, this was the hardest thing I've ever written. My heart didn't give me a choice.

  2. Romy, one day when Dal was in third grade, Vernonia Seaholm came across the hall to my music room to show me a picture Dal had drawn. She was very upset, as it showed brutality. Now I understand why Dal drew that picture. It was his way of releasing, and, possibly asking for help. I advised her to take it to Mr Frazier. I never knew the outcome. Thank you for having the courage to tell your story.

    1. That breaks my heart. I wish I could ask him how that ended. He was so brave and kind. Thank you for telling me that.


Father's Day

I spent this last Father’s Day in silent, burning rage at my dad, and it’s taken me three months to sort it out enough to write.