When Your Father Is A Sociopath
When people ask about your family, you try to not mention him. You describe your beloved siblings and your outstanding mother in elaborate and adoring detail and you try to glide effortlessly into asking them about their family. If you’re lucky, they don’t catch it. They don’t ask “Well, what about your dad?” You never know how to answer. Even a decade later, you’re still caught off guard.
For us, the children of sociopaths, the tales of drunks and addicts and abusers are a fantasy. Granted, a disgustingly twisted one, but a fantasy nonetheless. In the “perfect” world of primetime dramas, the deadbeat dad is just trying to figure himself out. He’s trying to get clean or sober or work through his haunting past. It’s almost no one’s fault. A third-party is involved. Everyone wishes that the father had been better or stronger, but the neglect, the absence, is a product of bad, unfortunate habits. Bad habits that transform an otherwise good-hearted person.
When those kids talk about their father, there’s a clarity. “My dad is an addict. We’re stilling working out our issues.” For the kid whose father ran away, left for good, at least they can say “My father isn’t a part of my life, he left when I was (insert age).” The haunted past schtick is even used to excuse physical abuse. They provide these explanations and the conversation is quickly ended. Unless it’s a very special episode of Glee, in which case a stirring a capella rendition of “Papa Was A Rolling Stone” is sure to follow. There is a cause and there is an effect, that’s all the listener needs. The father obviously meant well, but things just didn’t work out or he’s just a shit stain of a human being. Plain and simple.
When your father is a sociopath, you don’t get to tell yourself that he loves you or that, if only things were different, he would be the perfect dad.
“Uh, yah…yah, um, my dad — um, we don’t really — he’s kind of not around.”
“Oh, does he live far away?”
“No… no, he lives in my hometown. He lives a couple miles away.”
“We don’t really… get along?”
“Oh, when did your parents split?”
“About eight years ago.”
“So it’s been a while?”
Their blank stares and confusion compel you to offer:
“My dad — my dad is not a good guy.”
But that isn’t quite right. It makes him sound like a criminal. It doesn’t explain a father who is there, who coached your little league teams and talks about you to everyone like he is a part of your life, and yet is almost entirely absent. Emotional absence isn’t really part of the deadbeat dad chimera. It’s not neglect, is it? It’s too grey, too touchy-feely.
You feel terrible. Thinking how much easier it would be if he had passed away. You could have made up a fantasy. You could have distilled it down to playing sports in the backyard when he wasn’t too busy with the football season and how much he could make you laugh. All of the teasing and prodding would block out the lack of connection, the disinterest that was so apparent when you opened your mouth about basically anything. There are moments now when you wish he was there to see things, to see that great play or that perfect little victory that makes your day. If he were gone, you could tell yourself he was proud of you, smiling down on you.
It could have been beautiful, a tall tale about the love that he didn’t know how to express at the time. A love that surely existed and would have been expressed if only you’d both known that time was running out. Probably something about how he didn’t get the right kind of love as a child. Something like that. Had he been given the gift of time, he would have turned things around. He would have recognized the error of his ways. But you don’t get that. Instead, everyday is another day that you simply didn’t cross his mind.
But wait, maybe you do cross his mind. Perhaps, he thinks about you everyday and all of those days coalesce into that one text message he sends every three to four months. Usually a mass text to you and your siblings on holidays. Something personal like that. Or you do cross his mind and he wonders about you, but he’s just too afraid or too busy to reach out. Perhaps this is the case. When these thoughts surface it’s important to pause and remind yourself that we children of sociopaths have a certain genetic predisposition. We create replacement realities too.
Erasing memories and generating misbeliefs are crucial parts of the process of having lived with him and now living without him. When your mother offers “he loves you as much as he’s capable” she means well. She really does. She’s just trying to help with the delusions. For a moment you want to believe it, to make it your alternate truth.
Does it make you feel any better? That thisis the extent of his capabilities? That’s it? That’s all he could come up with? True, the good-hearted person recognizes a pauper and accepts their offering when it’s far short of the listed price. $13? Sure, that’ll cover the 50. Maybe someday you will be that good-hearted person. It’s gotten better over the years or at least the pain has dulled. Maybe a few more decades and you’ll embrace those text messages. Oh, Father, hello! So good to hear from you! What have you been up to the better part of this past year?
The high road doesn’t always beckon the way it should. He’s the adult, emotional cripple or not, he walked away from a girl’s life. A girl who needed him. Why are you not allowed some anger? Yes, yes, it will eat you up inside and hurt you more than it hurts him, but you’re on your own to bring the emotion to the relationship. If proper love can’t be mustered, anger will have to do. You’re not fighting fire with fire, you’re fighting ice with fire. Isn’t that the only way it will melt? Do not look in the mirror and realize you’re rationalizing the way he does. Sometimes it feels nice to seethe. Singing along a little too loudly every time Taylor Swift warbles “a careless man’s careful daughter” gets old. Maybe someday it will be better. That day is not today.
In the end, you must not carry your mother’s well-meaning message with you. Throw it away as quickly as you can. Do not accept this level of “love.” Eventually your heart will go on and you will want to find someone to spend your life with. When you do this, do not bring this message with you. It will break you down and keep you in places you should have left. It will make you accept the unacceptable. “As much as he’s capable” is not an appropriate yardstick. Love is meant to be boundless. It is meant to be overwhelming and immeasurable. It would break her heart if she knew. If she realized that her own baggage became yours. Do not tell her that you reject her message, but do reject it. Keep it out of your mind, keep it out of your heart. Accepting a person for who they are is one thing, loving them is quite another.
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Understand that it’s not easy to hear how someone you love very much is dissatisfied with you.
You know we are in the thick of summer when you leave your apartment and on the 10 minute walk to the subway you are basically DRENCHED.
I’m not crazy, and this idea of us did exist outside of the dusty corners of my mind.
Our desire to connect is hardwired in our DNA. It’s part of what makes us human.