Finding Happiness Without My Abusive Father
How I maintain a positive attitude after experiencing trauma.
In the middle of the night my mother softly woke me. “C’mon, sweetie. Let’s go.”
I yawned while rubbing my eyes. “Where are we going, Mommy?”
“Vacation, remember? Hurry, we need to make the flight.”
Every year, my mother took my two sisters and I to Virginia for the summer to visit my grandparents. My father never joined us. Looking back, this isn’t necessarily normal, but it was what I knew.
But this time little did I know we were never coming back. That moment would be the last time I would see my friends, my room, my toys, or my father for 15 years.
I've blocked out most of my horrific experiences but a few scenes are etched into my memory forever. When my mother was pregnant with my youngest sister, my father took her by the neck and choked her, lifting her feet off the ground. Terrified and hiding in the closet, I watched him choke my mother until she nearly died.
One Friday, my mother was finishing the cooking in the kitchen. My father became inexplicably angry and started throwing all the food in a rage. That Shabbos we had no cooked food to eat.
Another time, my father was playing dominoes with me. He started lining them up and when my elbow slipped and knocked one domino onto the floor, he beat me.
These are only a few memories that have penetrated the deepest recesses of my mind. My mother would try to physically protect us, and I recoiled as he retaliated against her. I saw him punish her severely for small infractions during everyday life.
My mother made an executive decision to extract us from this abusive reality. In doing so, she exhibited tremendous self-sacrifice to ensure our safety.
My parents officially divorced and my father disappeared into a distant memory.
At every birthday thereafter, I blew out my candles and made a wish that my father would come back. But what I was wishing for was a fantasy. I didn’t mean my father, but a father who would love me unconditionally and be part of my life.
One might think my life circumstances would leave me bitter and angry. But thank God, I am well-adjusted and married, with three beautiful children of my own. I have a successful career and lead a happy life, even during Covid-19!
People often ask me how I manage to maintain a positive attitude after experiencing trauma. Here are some of the tools that have helped me.
Accept Help and Express Gratitude
One of the hardest lessons I learned was to humble myself to receive. I learned how to accept emotional and financial support from others. The school helped my mother with tuition, and various community members stepped in to help my mother pay for doctor and dentists bills. My family saw God's guiding hand with both small and large miracles throughout our journey.
My childhood was laced with “strange” occurrences in the form of acts of kindness or money. Special people 'randomly' appeared throughout my childhood at exactly the right moment.
Once, when I was driving at night with two friends and my gas tank was completely empty, my car began sputtering and stopped in its tracks. My phone had died and I didn’t know what to do. We were on a hill and slowly rolled the car down, hoping to reach a main street to ask for help. Within moments of reaching the road, a tow truck drove up behind me and stopped, asking if we needed help. He happened to have a portable tank of gas, which he gave us that night.
My best friend sometimes says to me, “Bracha, please just pray for me because I know God makes miracles for you.”
Although I didn’t have a real father present in my life, I did – and still do – have God, the ultimate Father, right by my side. God is always there, even in tough times, offering help exactly when we need it. Learning to lean upon God enabled me to feel supported, loved, and connected throughout my life. When I started writing down these miracles and instances through a gratitude journal, I realized that recognition helps that moment's joy last.
You Own Your Happiness
You own your happiness and no one can take that from you.
I try my best to focus on anything positive, and sometimes I have to fake it. I've come to learn that if I merely put a smile on my face, then God gives me more reasons to smile.
My mother served as a role model of positivity which I try to imitate. She could have easily succumbed to depression. When she left my father, my mother had three children under seven and she was suddenly alone.
Instead of falling to despair, she created her own happiness. Every day my mother lavished us with love, affection and attention. Several times a day she would tell us how much she loved us. When we walked in the door her face lit up. She played music in the house and filled the house with laughter. We knew from her actions we were the light of her life. As a family, we focused on our new life. If we could manage to create happiness during that crisis, then I can certainly create my own happiness in daily challenges.
When I think about the happiest moments in my life, the common thread is connection: connection to oneself, to another human being, or ultimately to God Himself.
After accepting my father’s absence, I promised myself to focus on the connections I do have because choosing connection translates into living an overall happy, fulfilled life. Initially with my mother and siblings, and after marriage, extending to my husband and children.
When facing difficulty in a relationship, we can choose to connect or disconnect, relationship or estrangement. Connection means sometimes I have to hold back from saying something hurtful, or apologizing even when I don’t feel like it. But the joy I experience from renewed connection outweighs the difficulty in the moment.
These are all helpful strategies, but when reality hits, we won’t always come out on top. I’m not always happy! I struggle, like everyone else. Releasing the pressure to be perfect is another important ingredient to attain happiness. When we accept help, create our own happiness, and choose connection, we can ultimately overcome anything life brings our way.
The author is using a pseudonym.