Adventure Girl gets some perspective on her past
One evening when I was eighteen, my boyfriend and I were in his living room with his sisters when his dad arrived home from work.
Mr Johns was tired. He was grumpy. He was sore. A car accident had left him with some memory impairment, a heap of medical bills and a flailing business.
Still he walked in, leaned down to give his sixteen-year-old daughter a kiss on the forehead, and his thirteen-year-old a big bear-hug.
My chest tightened. My arms ached. Cold crept across my shoulders.
There was nothing sinister in those gestures. Nothing creepy at all. Both girls responded with warmth and the indifference of routine comfort. They were used to receiving this affection. They expected it.
Sometimes I feel as if I have no skin. Nothing to shield me. Other times I feel surrounded by cement barricades. In that moment I had both.
The skinless me felt shredded, longing to be held and loved, to experience such a simple gesture, given with wholesome and genuine love. To experience affection free from sexual overtones and a sense that something isn’t quite right, that the touch isn’t given freely — touch that is not given at all, but taken. And just as quickly taken away.
Cement-covered me felt a deep, seething anger. Why had I never experienced this? Why had I never realised this was how things could and should be. This affection wasn’t staged, like you see on TV. It was genuine. Natural. Clean.
I always knew something didn’t feel right, that my dad wasn’t like other dads; I just didn’t know why. That one nightly ritual illustrated exactly what was wrong, demonstrating it is possible for a man, a father, to love with affection and caring and warmth. To express that love as a gift and not expect anything in return. You do not have to be their audience, their emotional punching bag. You do not have to walk on eggshells, even when they’ve had a bad day. You are of value in and of yourself, not as an object, and not as an adjunct to them.
My grieving process began. I mourned not for something I had lost, but for something I never had.
A few years later I tried to combat the squeamishness whenever my father touched me. I wanted to stop feeling that he was taking from me, that I had no boundaries. I believed that if I initiated the contact, I might retain control. On my terms, not his. And so I hugged him.
Even at my instigation, when we made contact — even before — I couldn’t shake the clamminess that ran the length of my arms, the shudder that worked its way to my stomach. The boundaries I had tried to set were ignored and ripped away. He determined when the contact ended, not me. And in the moments between I felt suffocated, terrified. I don’t want to use the word ‘violated’. He did not touch me where he should not. But it is the right word for how he made me feel.
I did not try to initiate contact again, and avoided his instigation whenever I could.
I don’t know if he ever intended his contact to be sexual, but through his inability to see people as anything other than objects, his misogyny and sense of entitlement, he projected a persona that was inappropriate, hyper-sexualised and completely lacking in boundaries.
I also don’t know how much of my discomfort was my projection based on the persona I saw. All I know is how it felt, and it was not the big-bear hug a father should be able to give his daughters.
Not long after this failed experiment, my parents separated. I took the opportunity to break contact with my father altogether. And I grieved all over again, for myself, for my mother, and for the childhood I would never have.
I had to accept that you can’t change the past, just as you can’t change other people. Nor can you force them to see the past from your point of view. You can only change yourself, your own perspective, and your future.
My father would never understand how he made me feel, and why that feeling was his fault, not mine. Trying to make him to see it, to acknowledge it, would be setting myself up for new hurt on top of old.
I have tried since then to re-establish contact — touch-free — but he has not changed. He also does not see how I have changed. I am not a person in my own right, but an extension of, and audience for, him.
My skin is a little thicker these days, and there are only occasional patches of concrete surrounding me. I go in to these encounters as an observer, not expecting anything from him — I have given myself what I need. I have found closure within, independent of any action or acknowledgement by him. It was the only way I could move on.
As painful as the memory of that fatherly kiss and hug remains, I am grateful to have it. It made something click in my brain, something I had not understood before. It legitimised the feeling I carried with me that something wasn’t right, but more importantly, that it wasn’t my fault. He was broken, not me. And that is what kicked off the healing process — a process that provided a shift in perspective and freed me.