It would be easy to hate my father, but I don't.

Gely de la Cruz

I'm the daughter of someone with an addictive personality. When I was a child, my father's favorite pastimes were drinking and gambling. When he was drinking, he was the nastiest person ever and I watched, helplessly, as he abused my mother physically, verbally, and emotionally.

In the early 2000s, our family of five lived on just $18,000 a year; enough to get by but not enough to qualify for government assistance. My father gambled and drank his part away. He spent his whole paycheck on the lottery and then asked my mom to give him money to drink and gamble some more. If she refused, he called her names, screaming "You’re good for nothing!” and “I don't even know why I married your dumb ass!" before storming out of the house. Often, it was easier for her to give him the money, but when she didn't, he would come home drunk anyway.

I vividly remember the first time I saw my dad viciously attack my mom. When I was just eight years old, my brothers and I were sleeping in our rooms when we heard a loud noise coming from their bedroom. All three of us saw our father throw our mother on the bed and cover her mouth with his hand. We heard her screaming and crying as she struggled to get out of bed. I yelled, "No!" and grabbed my father from behind to pull him away from my mom while my brothers tried to move her, so she was out of his reach. She just cried helplessly without saying a word. He knew she was afraid of him, and that his children were too, and he used that to his advantage. He considered himself to be an all-powerful, all-knowing, almighty, almost God-like figure and acted like he ruled the world. Now I realize that was all insecurity.

Our household was pure chaos, and as I grew older, I naturally rebelled, looking for a way out. I visited the Alateen website multiple times a week trying to find answers. I wanted to attend meetings, but I was embarrassed. I didn’t want to speak publicly about what I was experiencing, even if others were dealing with similar circumstances. My family always believed in keeping family matters private. No one needed to know what happened inside our home and I believed that if I aired our dirty laundry, I would be betraying the people I loved. 

And so, the cycle continued. Even when my father wasn’t around, I felt like a marionette; it felt like he was still pulling my strings. I always thought about him and what he would think or what he would want me to be. His manipulation was so deeply rooted that I felt like I was drowning in a glass of water. As a teenager, I wrote in my journal to express my feelings and listened to songs like "Say it Ain't So" by Weezer. I felt less alone knowing there were other people out there experiencing the same thing as me.

People my age who grew up in healthy households were excited to go off to college and experience the world. I saw early on that college was my way out, the only way I could escape my situation and leave my tumultuous life behind. I was so motivated, I spent hours at the library to get the highest grades possible. And I chose to get a degree in psychology because I wanted to help other kids living in turbulent households like mine. I felt strongly that no one should ever be afraid to go home, a place where they should feel safe, and I thought of my degree as a step toward changing the world. But I quickly learned that changing the world is hard when your terrors betray you as you navigate the world on your own for the first time.

I eventually left home at 23 years old, a year after getting my degree, and never looked back. After I left, my father wouldn’t speak to me for an entire year. He simply could not believe that I had left, and he bristled at his loss of power over me. But I had the support of my mother, my siblings, and the rest of my family. They understood why I left. And that’s when my journey toward healing began.

I started working on repairing my emotional, mental, and physical health. I went to therapy and read every self-help book I could get my hands on at the time. Before, I was bright and cheery so no one would know that beneath my mask hid deep depression and anxiety. Now, I was on a mission to get better.

Once I felt strong enough, I decided I was ready to visit my dad. It would have been so easy for me to discard my father and go on to live my very best life, and there would be nothing wrong with that after the terror he inflicted on me and on my family. But I chose to stick around because I wanted to learn to see my father for who he is and better understand why he does the things he does. And I learned a lot.

My father grew up in the 1940s and he had a turbulent childhood. He had his own struggles with his mother, who was very strict and dismissive of his needs. At a young age, he had to work to help support his family and then walk miles to school and back. His family was very poor, and they couldn’t afford to take him to a dentist, so he lost many of his teeth. And when he migrated to the United States, that came with its own struggles.

My father slept on the floor of friends’ homes while he worked to provide for his family in another country. He was mistreated and experienced discrimination and many other kinds of cruelty. While his circumstances are not an excuse for his behavior towards our family, I now understand that because of his experiences, he turned to alcohol for relief. It was taboo for him to seek help from a therapist, so he kept everything inside. And then, when he drank, all his pain and humiliation exploded out and he hurt his own family. I now know that, as the saying goes, “hurt people hurt people.”

As I regained my own strength, I started seeing him as a human being. Now, I choose to see the good in him. While there were many hard moments growing up, there were also moments when he passed on lessons and love to his children. I don’t want to discard him because he’s flawed. Instead, I want to help him. So, I choose love. But I know I need to protect myself and set my own rules and boundaries.

As an adult, I have the power I didn’t have as a child. More options are available now that I’m in charge of my own life. I can choose how I respond when something happens, and while I wish I didn’t have to undo the damage my father’s long-term alcohol use caused, this time with him has taught me a lot. Yes, I am still triggered when I smell alcohol on someone’s breath or when someone slurs their words while they drink. But instead of being afraid, I am informed, and I know what next steps to take to feel better.

A little over a year ago, I decided not to drink anymore, not because I didn’t want to turn into my father, but because alcohol doesn’t add to my healing journey. I am sharing my story not to complain about my childhood, but to share how I’ve remained hopeful. Because of the work I’ve done, I now know where to turn when things get hectic and what to do in moments of sorrow. I don’t have to be afraid that I won’t be able to make it without my parents and I don’t have to feel shame when I make decisions to protect myself.

If your story is like mine, stay hopeful and believe in yourself. Create a plan and follow through. As cliché as it sounds, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Ask for help if you need it. It takes courage to overcome your conditioned reactions and to show compassion and understanding for the people who have hurt you. But things do get better. One of my favorite quotes from author, Viktor Frankl, is “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.” In forgiving my father, I set myself free.