Monday, February 1, 2016

The First Time My Dad Gave Me the Silent Treatment

When I was about ten, give or take a couple of years, my mother and I got home from back-to-school clothes shopping.  It was the one time per year I got to go shopping as a kid.  My dad told me cheerily to put on a fashion show for him so he could see everything we'd bought, something I had previously been happy to do.  But this year I didn't want to.  I told my dad I was tired and didn't feel like doing a fashion show.  He stopped being cheery and said something along the lines of, "Tough shit.  Those are my clothes paid for with my money.  If I want to see what they look like on, you have to show me." 

I replied -- and this is going to be pretty close to verbatim because the fallout burned it into my brain -- "I will give you all the money I have never to speak to me again."

Was it hyperbolic?  A bit.  Was it mean?  Absolutely.  Was it unfair?  Not really from where I'm sitting.  My dad threw around his ownership of us and our belongings pretty regularly.  It was his house, his food, his toys, all bought with his money from his disability checks.  Two of the monthly social security checks came specifically for care of Dante and me, with our names printed on them, but I didn't know that at the time.  Or maybe I did and it didn't matter.  I remember the time my mother told me they had gotten extra government money when they adopted Dante but that they had gotten nothing for me.  Dante's check simply got cut in half when I was born.  Poor Dante.  Freeloading me.  I can't remember when I learned about social security.  I also can't remember a time I didn't know I cost my family money and brought in nothing.  I was worthless in the most literal sense of the word.

My dad got upset and decided to respond by giving me exactly what I'd requested -- he stopped speaking to me or even acknowledging my existence.

The really scary part was when I let slip something that might normally upset him.  I don't remember what I said.  It wasn't anything big or intentionally offensive -- it was probably a lame joke, knowing me -- but it didn't take much to set him off.  Both my parents tended to freak out at things I never would have anticipated.  We were in the living room and I said something to my mother or Dante or someone else who did still speak to me, immediately followed by the realization that I'd said something that might upset my dad.  My entire body went tense, as it often did.  I paused and didn't move or speak or breathe, waiting to see if he'd erupt.  Imagine the Jurassic Park kids trying to hide from the T-Rex.  I would freeze like that.  But he didn't erupt.  He didn't acknowledge that I'd spoken at all.  That was when I first realized that he could actually control his rages and tantrums.  He simply hadn't bothered to control himself before.

Before that time, I had seen him more as a wounded wild animal -- dangerous and scary, but not willfully violent or cruel.  When I realized his screaming outbursts -- a several time per day occurrence -- were at least partly within his control, he got a whole lot scarier.  I knew now that he had been mistreating us and scaring us on purpose.  He wasn't weak and broken and completely out of control like I'd always assumed.  He was uncaring.  I had always assumed he was the one who cared for me the most, but if his behavior clearly hurt me and he could in fact control his behavior, he must not care if he hurt me.  That realization felt like a punch in the gut. 

As much as my dad's refusal to rage at me should have been a welcome relief, much like my mother's glee at getting high for the first time, I found it creepy and disconcerting.  It was like being stuck in a nightmare that shouldn't even qualify as a nightmare because nothing is happening, but it's too quiet and something just seems off and I keep waiting for a monster to jump out and assault me.

Within a matter of days, I came to my dad sobbing, begging for forgiveness, begging him to speak to me again.  I couldn't handle the silent treatment from the ruler of our house.  I couldn't handle knowing he was constantly displeased with me but always nearby at the same time.  I felt disgusting and ashamed for crying to him and begging him to speak to me when I knew how he judged me for crying and I didn't particularly like hearing from him anyway, but I was a perfectionist and a people pleaser and I had to keep him happy with me.  It was too scary for me when he wasn't happy with me.  After all, everything I owned was his.  If I didn't stay on his good side, I wouldn't have a home or food or clothes or toys.  What would become of me?  I was just a child, as my parents liked to remind me.  I had nothing.

My dad deigned to speak to me again, shutting off the silent treatment and anger toward me like flipping a switch.  I had learned my lesson.  We treated this spat the way we treated every other unpleasantness in our family -- we pretended none of it had ever happened.  I cannot remember a time I ever confronted him with my anger again.

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