How A Fight With My Dad Made Me Realize I Need To Be Strong About Setting Boundaries

Nathan Fertig

At 23 years old stumbling into my father’s recovery from heroin withdrawal, I suddenly realized that I had never created boundaries with men. Instead, I had navigated interactions with others as flexibly as possible. I could fit anyone’s needs and took pride in that but prevented myself from creating and fulfilling my own.

My relationship with my father for the past 12 years had been tumultuous, and the manic energy around him was too much for me (whether it resulted from psychological disorders [which he certifiably had] or the sudden absence of the heroin). Though I had agreed to help him, I asked him to avoid touching me in any way without permission. He acquiesced, and there I had it, my first boundary. How fitting that it was with the first man I knew outside the womb.

In the following days, my father slipped up and touched me a few times but would pull back and apologize immediately afterward. I knew he was learning, and I felt respected even through the accidents. There was no malice there.

However, after approximately a week had passed, the mania increased and peaked when he and I were on our way to John Day, the town where I lived as a baby. While we prepared for the trip, I had an expression he didn’t appreciate on my face, and he yelled at me in a way that no one (except him) has yelled at me before, and it rattled me.

My father’s mania often takes religious undertones, and once he began driving, he talked about how he was “taking his baby back to the manger” and was furiously repeating the Abraham and Isaac story. He needed to impress upon me that Abraham really thought he was going to sacrifice his son. And Abraham would have followed through, too, if God had not intervened at the last moment.

Given my father’s mental instability, I was afraid about what might happen once we arrived. It was late, and I was exhausted from driving through the night the previous day.

The road to John Day was covered in snow on the mid-January night, and my father was speeding up and slowing down at alarming speeds around snow-covered bends in the road. It was at this point that I discovered the large can in the cup holder was beer he was drinking. He insisted on listening to conversations he had recorded with a nomadic person earlier in the day. Five-minute conversations on repeat where my father said “I’m God’s little devil.”

By that time, I had limited exposure to both drugs and mental illness, so I was terrified. I felt powerless and pretended to be asleep for at least an hour before giving up and texting my husband because I was not certain I was going to make it through the night.

In the midst of my fear and his mania, my father rested his hand on my knee. There was no pullback. There was no apology. I felt violated but did not want to create another opportunity for him to use me as verbal target practice. He removed his hand after a time but put it back shortly thereafter. I did not want his energy or his body anywhere near mine. In response, I felt my nerve endings turn off and turn inward as if they were too overloaded. My body became limb and abandoned me.

He pulled his hand away a second time, but his mania only worsened. He yelled at God and answered his own questions; he communicated increasingly bizarre and nonsensical thoughts. And, simultaneously, he barreled us through a winter wasteland of hourglass curves.

At this point, tears were streaming down my face, and I was at once grateful that it was dark. If my tired and disturbed expression from earlier in the day had irked him, I could not imagine his reaction to my tears.

My father reached out to touch me a third time, this time on my left arm. I screamed. I screamed and could not stop screaming. I screamed like I have never screamed before, and my father slammed on the brakes, causing the car to spin out into the snow before coming to a full stop. I was sobbing, terrified of what he would do to me and angry that he had continued to cross my boundaries.

His touch left barbs in my arm, and I had the physical sensation of having my soul thrown out of my body. I felt as though I could leave my body behind, ostensibly forever, to get away from the situation, but the thought of leaving my body behind with my father in that state sickened me to my core.

When he had gotten the car under control, he said, “you either need to go and leave me the fuck alone or stay and calm the fuck down.” For me, though we were in the middle of nowhere and I had little more than a sweater to save me from the snow, my option was clear. I opened the truck door and prepared to leave with my small bag, but he reached for my arm again to stop me, pulling back when he realized further touch was making it worse. “No, not like that!” To clarify his point, he brought out a softball-sized chunk of rough, transparent stone and set it on the center console. He then said, “You either need to touch this crystal to stay in your body or leave your body and leave me the fuck alone.”

I didn’t want to touch anything he had touched, so I said nothing and huddled up against the passenger door. I hoped the remaining half hour of our drive would pass quickly. My father calmed down after that and smoked some weed. Though I understood that further intoxicants would continue to hinder his driving ability, I did not stop him. I’m not sure I could have if I wanted to, though I did offer to drive. (He did not let me.)

My father got me my own hotel room that night and told me I did not have to interact with him the following day. I knew he felt guilty on some level and knew he had caused me a great deal of pain. I was much too shaken to appreciate that at the time.

The following morning, I decided to rent a U-haul (the only rental vehicle available in the small town) to drive back to Portland. Once I returned, I began the long process of unpacking what had happened to me.

I realized with a tremendous amount of shock that boundaries make a person exceptionally vulnerable. In creating a boundary, we tell others exactly how to make us victims.

I learned how to create boundaries and had them torn from under my feet in the same week.

Though I know there are people who would fault me for reacting so dramatically to a light shoulder touch, I began to realize that, to some degree, the type of touch or the place where he touched me didn’t matter. What did matter was that I had trusted him to respect my physical boundaries and he had intentionally gone against my wishes during a moment that was already emotionally charged.

Perhaps you will understand some of my embarrassment when I say I have some PTSD-like symptoms from that encounter. I could not stop shaking for several weeks afterward. I got exceptionally jumpy. I could not tolerate unexpected touch without bursting into tears. Given how significantly my father had affected me with just a shoulder touch, I could not even begin to fathom how sexual assault survivors carry on. I gained, after that experience, a tremendous appreciation for what those women and men have been through.

In light of this experience, I want to do everything I can to foster consent culture. Consent is a rather recent and radical development in our social evolution and is largely contested in terms of law. There are still states where it is legally impossible to rape your wife. Still, there are many communities at work to make consent culture ubiquitous and enthusiastic.

In my own life, consent to sex wasn’t enough for me, though that is the realm where consent is often confined. Because of the experience with my dad and other similar experiences later, my body demanded the ability to consent to every touch, even from my husband. This applies across the board for me: friends, family, etc.

To accommodate my desire for high-level consent culture, the people in my life had to make radical adjustments. They could no longer expect that what was once okay with me was still okay with me. It occurred to me then that the fallacy of the continuity of self does us no favors in terms of consent. Though you might understand that someone appreciates a specific touch or behavior from you at one point, that individual retains all rights to change his/her/their mind at any time. This is what makes checking-in conversations so crucial. You are not allowed to say “But you used to like this!” about anything with regard to consent. Everyone has the right to change their minds and be different people with new wants and needs from one moment to the next.

In the same way that we are responsible for respecting others’ level of consent, we are responsible for communicating our own level of consent. If someone asks “Can I hug you?” and you say “yes” out of habit but don’t actually want that physical interaction, you have done both the asker and yourself an injustice. Instead, consider saying “Please give me a moment to feel my consent” to give yourself an extra moment to process the situation. Then, if it doesn’t feel right to you, you could say “maybe next time” or “not right now” or simply “no.” Oftentimes, the asker will respect your level of self-analysis and not feel slighted by your response. That said, you should never feel guilty about your level of consent, and everyone should always be looking for non-verbal signs of discontent during physical encounters.

My father didn’t learn consent the way I did, and I don’t want to demonize him for his mistakes. I love my father, and I am grateful that he was the man who led me to these conclusions, even if they had to happen the hard way. My family worked and is working hard to get and give him the love and support he might need to recover.

I am lucky and infinitely grateful for the people in my life who value and respect my consent, but I know there are many people who have few, if any, such people around them. Know you are not alone, that there are many such as you who are listening to their emotions and their bodies, and that the revolution of consent is coming. TC mark

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