I’ve always been comically atrocious at mini-golf, and at other sports that require finesse in hand-eye coordination and the action of aiming a ball into a hole, hoop, or goal. Captain J’s Mini-Golf Course is a particularly malicious 18-hole booby trap perched on the tip of Lake Superior, and is where I have some of the best memories of my father. Us laughing as I sink my fifth fluorescent pink ball into the chilly waters. The crisp lake breeze soothing our skin, throbbing from the heat of the mid-August sun. Him waiting for me patiently while I struggled with each hole. The strawberry ice cream when we finally finished the course, sweet and victorious.
This is what I chose to sneak out for as a teenager. Not wild, sensuous nights indulging in all the vices of youth. Just a couple of hours failing at an absurd game with my abusive and terribly complicated father.
After years of neglect, physical abuse, and immersion into the world of hard drugs, my mother and father left me, at age 13, and my younger siblings alone in a trashy motel for an entire week. The courts decided we would either have to live with my grandmothers or be thrown into the hungry mouth of the foster care system, an institution I still fear even as a full-grown adult. We moved in with my grandmother and great-grandmother.
Our grandmothers loved us. Our parents also showed their love to us by granting our grandmothers custody of us instead of letting the courts decide our fates. But love was not always enough to protect us from the violence and anger exacerbated by amphetamines. It would certainly not save us from the disappointment of watching our parents drown in the whirling currents of addiction again, and again, and again, no matter how many times we let them use us as life rafts.
Me, my brother, and my sister retreated inward. We developed a necessarily vicious sense of independence and self-reliance. My siblings decided to cut off all contact with our dad, decisions I will support and defend to the grave.
For me, however, not seeing him caused me severe emotional turmoil. I was going through outpatient treatment for self-harm during the thick of my isolation from my father. He engaged in extremely controlling and manipulative behavior, sending us unwanted gifts through the mail, appearing uninvited to my brother’s recreational football practices, calling my sister relentlessly, always, always, always to tell us that he was sorry, that he loved us.
The man who beat our mother into a temporary coma, who strangled me against a wall when I asked him to stop smoking meth in my bed. He insisted that he loved us.
To this day, I do not think it was love that drove him to seek contact with us but a desperate sense of responsibility and ownership. Love was something else. To me the purest form of love to ever come from him was playing silly games together, laughing and showing off our hilarious ineptitude.
My grandmother told us that if we ever even talked to him on the phone again, she would give us up to foster care. Us, who didn’t appreciate her protection.
I felt like I had no control over my path toward healing from childhood abuse. My grandmother’s path was nothing but cold turkey; in her mind, if we stopped seeing him, we would stop loving him, and then he wouldn’t be able to hurt us ever again. Which works for some people, including my siblings. Removing yourself from dangerous, toxic abusers is absolutely necessary for not only one’s immediate physical safety but also for the recovery of bodily, emotional, and spiritual autonomy.
But as my therapist and I discovered, years of no contact with my father was not contributing to my recovery, and in fact seemed to make it worse. I felt abandoned, forgotten, useless. I also felt like a pawn played between my father and grandmother, a tool for her to leverage revenge, a tool for him to assuage his guilt. The only way I felt like I had any control over my body was to harm it, and like the only way I felt that my distress and emotional pain would be taken seriously was if there was a physical reminder of it splayed on my forearms.
I hurt myself the worst when suffering through intense flashbacks caused by PTSD. My therapist had me undergoing exposure therapy to loud noises and sudden shouts, but it became more and more apparent that it just wasn’t enough.
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So, my therapist suggested the unbelievable: that I make contact with my father. Do something fun with him, help drown out the bad memories with good ones. We role-played conversations I might have with my father, where he might try to violate my boundaries, which included touching me or hugging me without my consent and showing up to our meetings drunk or high. She helped me learn the power of my no, guided me to the realization that I have the final say over who I want to see, and why, and where. And so, I decided that a safe place to see him was at Captain J’s mini-golf course, a public place, a place where we could bond over a silly game and make casual conversation like a father and child should.
I learned that I could see my father out of my own desire to have a relationship with him, and not because it was my duty as a child to save him from drugs and alcohol. I had the power to direct the path and journey of my recovery, even if it ran contrary to what others expected of me.
This autonomy is a complicated autonomy, since by seeing my father I did put myself at risk of physical violence. However, making my boundaries absolutely clear gave me power over my father, something I had never before possessed. Once I saw him as a human, a rather sad and complicated human, and not as an unstoppable monster, I was able to also take more control over my flashbacks and more quickly stop a severe panic attack from racking my body.
By defying my grandmother’s stipulation that I never see him capital-E Ever, I also learned that I have the final say on my recovery. I know myself and love myself better than anybody else. It only makes sense that I be in control of my path to recovery.
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Certainly, contact with an abuser is not a one-size-fits-all approach from recovering from abuse. What I envision is a world that encourages survivors of childhood abuse to practice radical self-love, the power to find, name, and embrace what exactly gives us back a sense of bodily autonomy, no matter what that looks like. There are plenty of survivors whose path to recovery runs contrary to traditional narratives to what a “proper recovery” looks like.
Let’s support and encourage each other, even if that means failing at mini-golf, even if that means failing at hating the people who’ve irreparably hurt us and transformed our sense of what love is.
[Feature Image: A photo of a young person sitting on the back of a yellow VW bug. The person has long brown hair and is wearing a light pink dress. Source: Michel Curi]