Like many people who are anxious or a bit socially awkward, I constantly run potential conversations in my mind to see how they might go, before I have to actually have them. Tonight’s imaginary conversations are brought to you courtesy of my parents saying (threatening?) that they want to visit me.
Me: “Hey Dad remember the last time we actually talked, years ago, when you said that just because someone is related to me doesn’t mean they can’t lust after me?”
Him: “I don’t remember that exact conversation but you’re wearing your jeans too tight.”
Me, attempting to get him to admit he loves me even though I’m not the kind of person he hoped I would be: “I really did try to be a good Christian like you taught me. Trying to live exactly like you wanted me to nearly drove me to suicide. You have to accept me as I am, because I’m not going back to trying to be that person.”
Him: “But you said you were trying. You weren’t doing it by the power of the Holy Spirit, and the Bible teaches us that people who try to be good without the power of Christ will be driven to despair. If only you humble yourself before the Lord, you will be saved!”
Me: *bursts into frustrated tears*
Me: “Okay I know we’re kinda pretending that all the stuff you don’t like doesn’t exist but, uh, just so you know, my boyfriend and I are living together and love each other very much and might never get married.”
Him: *looks at me with that pained expression like I just stabbed him* (I know this expression well because it’s the one he got on his face when I told him I was only going to church in the morning on Sundays and not morning and evening plus Wednesday prayer meeting anymore).
Me: “I’m happy. I’m actually really, really happy.”
Him: “You might think you are happy, but that’s only the Devil deceiving you. Don’t you want the true joy of God in your heart?”
Me: “You know, I’m not trying to change your mind about anything! I just want you to love me.”
Him: “I do love you, and it breaks my heart that you’ve gone off to the far country, like the Prodigal Son, and are living in waywardness and sin. We taught you the truth, and you’ve strayed from it….
And here is where the imaginary conversations in my head break off, either because I’m crying at the necessity of having to gaslight myself before my dad can do it to me, or because I am filled with frustration that he never has actually tried to convert me back to Christianity. I heard his agonized whispered prayers at night for his siblings who were “unsaved” and I know he says such prayers for me now. So why do we never talk about anything real? And could I possibly make it through a conversation without crying (and having my tears be interpreted as the Holy Spirit trying to soften my heart)? Does he not want to save my soul from the hell he so fervently believes in? Why does he insist on suffering this self-inflicted misery over my quite happy and carefree little soul, and never lashing out to make me feel any of the pain? Is that just one more manipulation, is he trying to get me to come back to his weird Puritan Christianity by being nice? It wouldn’t work, not in a million years, but why be so hard on me for two decades and now, when I’ve actually been doing things he would consider sin, and have given up on his faith, there’s just….nothing?
I’m usually just fine, until any possibility that I might have to interact with my dad comes up, and then I bury myself beneath a mountain of gaslighting, abuse, and paranoia. I’ve gotten out of his house, he no longer is in charge of me or has the power to keep me isolated from human contact and from any ideas he doesn’t approve of, but I’m still capable of taking a break from reality and, in my own head, finding myself back there, where what he thinks controls my whole world, where anything other than that one narrow way of thinking is insanity and deception.
If a simple email about a potential visit can fuck me up this badly, what would an actual conversation about anything real do to me? My father will never understand or accept the words I’m saying, while at the same time I know every word he will say, and all the volumes of theology behind each of those words. I’m no longer killing myself to please him (when my boyfriend made me watch Whiplash, I told him at the end of it that if I wanted to see that particular story unfold I would just go back and read my high school diaries), but sometimes, when I start thinking of what words I might say that could lead to some actual love and understanding, I can still only imagine rejection and pyschological and emotional torment.
And what’s worse, everyone has sworn up and down for my whole life that he loves me. “He really loves you,” they tell me. “He just struggles to show it.”
Fuck that. This isn’t a dad failing to show up for a baseball game or a ballet recital. This is a dad who decided that his children must be perfect, in deed and in thought, every moment of their lives, and whose heart is set on some arbitrary standard of theological purity, who has crafted an entire reality in his head that we are now failing him by not living up to. How the fuck do you reconcile with that?