Should I Visit My Dying Yet Toxic Father?

Reader’s Question

I am 24 years old. I’ve just recently landed an amazing job and moved into a lovely house with my boyfriend, who is a great person, and treats me like a princess. I’ve achieved all this in the last year, since I stopped seeing my parents.

Up until last year, I was constantly sabotaging my life in order to take care of my parents. My mother would threaten divorce, go overseas to teach for months at a time, and leave me with an angry, heart-broken man. He’d drink, shout, insult me and try to hit me. She’d return, I would try to tell her what happened, she’d say I was lying and trying to tear the family apart. And then it would happen all over again. This reoccurring situation has been going on since I was ten years old. My mother’s absence was far preferable to her return, in which she’d belittle me, blame me and order me to do her will.

The rule in our house was that my parents were always right. If an unpleasant situation occurred (frequently), I’d take the blame, and the situation was never to be raised again by me. Only my parents could resurrect it to remind me of what an awful person I was. I’ve spent my whole life forgiving, forgetting, and pretending that nothing happened, yet I’ve carried the guilt for so many things. I started drinking and taking drugs at an early age, for which they’ve always reminded me how weak I am to have needed substance support. I slept around a lot, and never seemed to be single.

When I was 21, I realised I was getting nowhere. I stopped drinking, stopped smoking and took up gym, all in one day. For the next year I was their perfect daughter, keeping house, paying bills and never speaking back. Yet the reminders of how terrible I’d been were in constant flow. After yet another incident in which my mother threatened divorce and left the country, my father lost it. This was when I was 22. He threw my boyfriend out of the house, told me how slutty and disgusting I was and then threatened to kill my boyfriend and me, if I didn’t stop my bad behaviour.

I calmly stood in front of him and told him that I was tired of our family situation. I told him I was moving out, they must take care of themselves, and I told him that when he was ready, he can phone me and set up a meeting to apologise for his actions that day. I moved out the next day. I never got that apology, and I’ve been harrassed by mother ever since to ‘stop lying’ about my father, and to ‘get over myself’ and come home to be a ‘loving daughter’ again.

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I’ve only seen my parents about three times in the last year. Last week my mother started phoning, emailing and sending me text messages. The order was clear. My father is dying. I will return home and hold fort. She has other things to do besides sit with a dying man, and I must start acting like a loving daughter. To go to his side means I have once again given in and followed orders. To be her loving daughter, I must take care of him again, while she is away overseas, and after his passing, move home to keep house for my mother.

I know that I’ll never get that apology. He’s never apologised for anything. He’ll look me in the eye, and without saying a word, he’ll let me know that all my life I was a horrible person, and even in his dying state, he held me in his thrall. To not go to his side proves them right; that I really am a terrible person.

The last time I saw them, he was already quite ill. I hugged him for the first time since I was a child, kissed him on the cheek and said goodbye. Ours eyes met, as they haven’t done in years, and we both acknowledged that this was our goodbye. It was a moment outside of all the tears and the anger. A simple, clear moment in a maelstrom of pain. Am I evil to want to hold on to that moment, knowing I’ve said goodbye, and not go to his side, to be defeated as his last act towards me?

He has not summoned me. In fact, he hasn’t uttered my name in years. If I give in to my mother’s demands now, I feel I will forever be in obeisance to her.

Do I get on with the wonderful life I am forging, content in the knowledge I’ve said my goodbye?
Or do I go to his side, let him win the penultimate battle, and have my mother (who, in her grief, will be hard to say no to) make demands of me to stay with her and be her ‘loving daughter’ again?

I’m in a very sensitive space right now. I’ve only just started getting my life together. I’m terrified of destroying the fragile sense of self-worth that I’ve managed to scrape together. I know my boyfriend, and his wonderful family, will support me in my decision, but I know that if I don’t go, my mother will wail my shortcomings to my extended family, and turn my sister, whom I adore; against me. My sister is unpredictable. She has a better relationship with my parents than I, and might cut me out of her life. Then again, she might not.

I can lose the family quite happily, but I don’t want to lose my new life, or my dear sister. Can you please advise me? I feel like a kid again, being told that either way I’m weak and disgusting.

Psychologist’s Reply

From your description, you clearly need to maintain an emotional distance from your parents. Your mother has symptoms of a Personality Disorder (see my introduction to personality disorders) and will always tend to make decisions and manipulate others for her benefit. Your mother is not concerned about your well-being or self-worth and will try to manipulate you into a situation that will be toxic and damaging to you, your new life, and your relationships.

When we have toxic parents, friends, relatives, co-workers, etc., we must develop a protective strategy. That strategy often involves:

  • Keeping them at an emotional distance. Providing no personal information and keeping all conversation at the level of meeting a neighbor at the grocery store.
  • Keep them at a physical distance, avoiding frequent visits and social gatherings. Meeting someone prompts the brain to bring up all the memories we have of that person — as well as the feelings we have about them. It’s called Emotional Memory (see article on this website). The Emotional Memory related to your parents is almost incapacitating for you — creating that small-child feeling and upset stomach.
  • Schedule routine contacts that are safe and protective. Send the appropriate cards (birthday, anniversary, holidays, etc.) and make calls on a schedule. Make the calls brief and when the guilt trip begins (and it will within five minutes!), gradually get off the phone.
  • You may decide to visit — but not stay. When you visit, don’t visit by yourself — that makes you defenseless. Bring along your boyfriend or another relative/friend as that decreases the opportunities for nastiness on the part of your parents. Prearrange cues with your boyfriend so if you become upset or are being tormented by a parent, he can act and announce that you are leaving.
  • If you make a brief visit, don’t take their behavior personally. You are there to visit for closure in your life with your father.
  • Remind your mother that there are many sources of support in the community. If she can afford to go overseas often she can probably afford caregivers to assist with your father.
  • Trust that your mother will speak ill of you and that hopefully, your sister will understand and continue to support you. You may lose a few family members to the discussion of your shortcomings but if they can’t see through your mother’s behavior, you’re probaby better off. We’re always better to have friends that understand us rather than listen to what others say about us.
  • Remember that your father has the ability to request your visit or contact…and he has not. He may feel comfortable with the past visit and decide to keep that memory rather than risk another visit and a bad situation.

I would continue on the new life and lifestyle you’ve developed over the past year. Begin to distance yourself from your mother’s toxic personality and recruit emotionally healthy people for your new life like your boyfriend and his family. While we normally think of our parents as always wanting the best for us, this is not true in your case. For this reason, you must protect yourself and your new, healthy life.

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