Content warning: This story discusses the difficult relationship between the author and a parent who is dealing with alcohol addiction; and the parent’s violent outbursts towards the family.

Dad has been gone for seven days and there is a feeling of peace and relief in the house. I feel happy. I am making my way downstairs to the kitchen when I hear the jingle of keys at the front door. My heart sinks. I stand there frozen as I hear the lock click. Before my dad even appears, I feel the energy of him. I turn and run back up the staircase to my room with a deep and profound sadness. The peace and happiness that me, my mom, sister, and brother have been enjoying are over. I’m five years old.

I am awakened by shouting. “Bitch! You stupid bitch.” My dad is screaming at my mom and, in her soft-spoken voice, she is yelling right back. It is the only way she can defend herself from the endless barrage of insults she endures each day. They are in the kitchen, or living room, or bedroom — the screaming happens everywhere. I want to run to my dad and demand that he does not talk to my mom like that. Of course, I don’t. I’m too afraid. Instead, I lie there angry, or hurt, or sad with tears streaming down my face. There is a huge lump in my throat that I cannot swallow and it hurts. I’m six years old.

Dad approaches me in the living room with his hands behind his back. I know he’s holding the big thick black belt he often wears. He bends his 6 foot, 300-pound body forward and says angrily, “Who broke the iron?” I stammer for the words to say it wasn’t me, tears already welling up in my eyes. I get the beating anyway. I hop from side to side as he viciously slaps my bare legs with the belt. I scream and cry for him to stop. I’m seven years old.

By now, I’m accustomed to seeing large empty bottles of Smirnoff’s vodka littering the house and the smell of alcohol on dad’s breath. I’m used to beatings and endless yelling matches. The lump in my throat is ever present. I often cry. I’m sad a lot. I’m fearful. I’m angry.

Around the age of eight, I began seeking positive feelings and attention wherever I can find them.

The weeds of self-loathing have long been planted and they’re multiplying at a hare’s pace. I ask my friends, “Do you think I’m pretty?”. I spend hours watching the models on Star Search, wishing I was tall and pretty like them. They are always smiling and seem to have everything. I see the same kind of women on television and in magazines. They live in beautiful homes and everyone looks happy. Ever glaring is the fact that l am nothing like any of these women. My hair isn’t straight and long or curly and bouncy. My skin is very dark, my butt is too big, and my home sure isn’t a mansion, much less happy. I begin wishing I was tall, pretty, and happy just like them. I wanted to be them. That’s when I start escaping into my imagination. There I am perfect and so is my life. Men adore me, I live in a beautiful home with no fights or beatings. I am taller, lighter, thinner, smarter, and very courageous. I have no audible sensor and no one ever disrespects me. I am blissfully happy. I race home from school almost daily, just so I can shut myself in my room and imagine.

My escapism continues for more than a decade.

There are many days where my self-loathing threatens to destroy me.

I find a voice in my late teens and begin defending my mom, but the damage from those volatile early years has already been done. This volatility manifests in ways I could never have predicted. I incessantly talk down to myself, I suffer from anorexia, I struggle with over-eating, I experience constant, irrational fear and I do not trust men. There are many days where my self-loathing threatens to destroy me. Thankfully, it didn’t.

It isn’t until my thirties that I finally find the antidote to start unraveling all the hurt. I meet an amazing therapist who understands my feelings of depression, anxiety, and self-loathing. He helps me realize that these emotions are directly related to my childhood and growing up with a parent who was addicted to alcohol. I learn that, because the deep and complex emotions I felt toward my dad were left unspoken as a child, they turned inward and shifted toward myself with the same intensity.

To undo that web of negative feelings, my therapist encouraged me to revisit the most difficult experiences in the depths of my memory. Once there, I’d give that innocent little girl (me) exactly what I so desperately yearned for at the time: A hug, kind words, reassurance, protection.

I learned that my defense mechanism at the time, which was to escape, eventually fostered my self-loathing because I was pretending to be someone else entirely.

I learned that my defense mechanism at the time, which was to escape, eventually fostered my self-loathing because I was pretending to be someone else entirely. I was wracked with guilt at hearing this but my therapist asked that I find compassion. That little girl started escaping as a way to protect herself. She was doing the best she could with what she had.

Dad passed away in 2011, never grasping the pain he inflicted on our family. “I’m only hurting myself,” he’d say. Of course, that isn’t true.

Since he died, I have a much clearer picture of our lives together. My dad wasn’t some monster whose only goal in life was to make everyone miserable. He was in constant pain himself and was using alcohol to stop hurting. He could never speak of his parents without crying and even blamed himself for his mom’s death — she died soon after yelling at him for being late to school.  His father had passed some time before.

Just a boy, he was left to face the world with no parents, and a brother and sister who were not much older than himself. He went to Vietnam in his teens and, after being at war, was dropped off in Harlem and left to his own ill-equipped devices. He tried.

He too, did the best he could with what he had. And I forgive him.