It all started out so simply. My family went out to celebrate my birthday at the cinema. We were going to watch Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen at around 2pm, so we decided to grab some lunch at Swensen’s beforehand. I’m not entirely sure what happened next, but what I do remember was that in the middle of the movie, my father got up and never came back. Everyone assumed he went for a quick bathroom break, but when the movie ended he was nowhere to be found, and we went into a frenzy. We searched all over the mall but to no avail; eventually we headed home only to find that he had been there the whole time.
I recall receiving the scolding of a lifetime from him that night. Apparently, he had called for me the night before and I had not answered, so he decided to do the same to me so I would understand how he felt. In hindsight, that was probably not the best way for a grown man to teach his daughter a valuable life lesson since it further reinforced the idea that everything was my fault.
When I was younger, my father was always in a bad mood. My mother used to say that he was just tired and grouchy – that’s just how he always is. She was probably trying to protect me from his wrath, but you can never fully protect the curious fool that tries to find out the truth. We rarely saw him during the day because that was when he would come back from work, exhausted and in dire need of rest. He was only awake at night so I would try to bond with him then. I did everything I could to make him happy; I consistently got good grades, researched on his topics of interest just so I could talk to him, I made sure to do all my chores, tried my hardest to include him in family activities but alas, things don’t always work out the way you want them to. Despite my efforts, I was still the target of his anger and my sister was still favored over me. It was almost as if my efforts were not enough, as if I wasn’t enough.
As time went by, things only got worse. He started getting angry over the smallest things, going into a blind rage over matters that others consider insignificant. Sometimes he would threaten me or my sister; usually they were not carried out, but on the rare occasions they were, the whole house would go still. It didn’t matter if he was just taking away our allowance or our internet privileges, the look in his eyes said it all:
“If you do this again, it’ll be worse.”
I vividly remember an incident that changed my life. I don’t exactly remember what I did or what happened, but I know this – it was the first time my father had gotten extremely close to slapping me but stopped short. Sure, my parents may have caned me as a form of discipline; but slapping is an entirely different matter. I had never seen my father so furious. I was sure that this would be the end of the line for me. I’ll never forget his words – “You’re lucky I don’t slap you.”
Since that day, I began walking on eggshells around him for fear that he might do something even worse than just slapping me. Little did I know that this was merely the beginning of my living hell.
Now, if you can imagine how I was constantly treated by my father based on the above anecdotes; you’re in for a treat. When I was diagnosed with rapid cycling bipolar disorder, my father was less than thrilled at the idea that his over-achieving shining star was suddenly broken. He was in constant denial up until my suicide attempt, where he just broke down and told me that he just couldn’t believe I was broken. Due to his words, I stopped taking my medication not long after seeking treatment to prove to him that I didn’t need chemicals to be normal; that I could fix myself. Obviously that backfired horribly. Instead, I was publicly humiliated by him in a parking lot and in the heat of the moment he uttered “I regret getting your mother pregnant with you.”
It shattered me to hear that. My mother once told me that when I was born, my father was the happiest man on the planet. To hear him say those words felt like someone ripped my heart in two. I imagined him smiling and laughing as he picked me up and held me in his arms, and that mental picture just didn’t fit with the man standing in front of me. My father wouldn’t hurt me, he couldn’t. And yet he did. I wanted to cry in that instance but I did my best to hold back because I didn’t want to appear any weaker than I already was in front of him.
He went on and on about how I didn’t deserve to feel the way I do because others have it harder, and did I know how much of a financial burden I was? How ashamed he was of me for being mentally ill? To put it simply, he basically said I was worthless and he never wanted me. Now, people struggling with mental health issues shouldn’t be dealing with others hurling abuse their way when they are already fighting a war being waged in their own head. I can’t stress enough how important it is for people like me to be surrounded by an understanding support system. I think if my father reacted differently to my diagnosis, it would have saved him a lot of money and spared me a lot of time and pain.
Later on, I learned from my mother why my father is the way he is. When he was younger, my grandfather used to favor him over the rest of his siblings and my grandmother was jealous of him. She thought that he was stealing her husband’s affections so she mistreated him in any way she could. Right now, my father is behaving in the exact same way my grandmother did when he was my age. Additionally, according to my grandmother, she was also mistreated by her stepmother when she was young. This is a vicious cycle in my family that has to end somewhere. I hope that I’m the last victim because no one deserves to feel this way about themselves, I hope my child gets a better father than I did. Truth be told, there’s a part of me deep down that understands and empathizes with what my grandmother and father went through. However, this doesn’t negate their hurtful actions towards others, including me.
As a result of my experiences, I have developed an unhealthy co-dependency with my father. I value his opinions of me highly and derive almost all of my validation from him. On top of that, there isn’t any emotional boundary whatsoever between the two of us; so I feel every single one of his emotions and I worry about his problems when I’m not supposed to. I enable him to remove all responsibility from himself and put it on me which is terrible, might I add.
Having said all this, my father isn’t actually a terrible man. In fact, I think he’s doing what most parents are; he’s just doing the best he can with what little he has. Not everyday is a nightmare for me. Sometimes he treats me like the little girl he’s always wanted and other times he’s downright mean. As a result, I never really know whether to love or hate him. I constantly feel conflicted about my feelings towards him but I am still what most would consider an obedient daughter.
On the other hand, both my mother and sister exist outside of the obedient box that a lot of Malays tend to put women in. My mother has always been very outspoken and when she got married, she never really mellowed out so when my father started mistreating me; she immediately confronted him about it. She’s not one to bend over backwards just to please her husband because she believes that a woman’s worth comes from herself, not from anyone else. She was always there to encourage me to pursue my interests, no matter how unconventional they were. It didn’t matter to her whether or not her husband approved of her actions, as long as we were comfortable and happy.
Despite dealing with mental health issues herself, she always made time to talk to me, especially if it had anything to do with my father and for that, I couldn’t be more grateful to have her in my life. She told me that the reason why she believed me every single time I came running to her was because she wholeheartedly believed that children were a trust from God, they were meant to be taken care of.
Although my mother maintained a great relationship with her children, her marriage isn’t exactly what you would see in fairytales. Growing up, I saw a lot of arguing between my parents and there were many a time where I thought they were going to get a divorce. I also noticed that unlike other people’s parents, mine didn’t actually interact. It was almost like they were actively trying to avoid each other, yet they still live in the same house and sleep in the same bed. Just as my father was unsupportive of me, he also didn’t support my mother in her times of crisis and as such; she wasn’t surprised at all when he did the same to me. Seeing my parents’ marriage fall apart right before my eyes is probably the reason why I have a hard time trusting anyone, because I know that the people closest to you are the ones who are capable of hurting you the most.
I used to believe I was alone in my pain until I confided in a few individuals and realized that this behavior among parents, especially fathers, is more common than we realize. I have a theory regarding this. Most boys are raised believing in the lies of toxic masculinity. They grow up being told that having feelings beside anger is wrong and the only way to show affection is through aggression. Eventually when they have a family of their own, they become dysfunctional parents because they don’t know how to love their children safely. Too often, we see this type of behavior excused in Malay dramas because ”he’s your father, no matter what you have to forgive him.” Yes, he may still be my father and yes, I still have to treat him with respect, but nowhere does it state that I have to forgive his wrongdoings immediately. Let me grieve over the father I never had and heal and forgive at my own pace.
Nowadays, I cope mainly by going to therapy and figuring out my own identity separate from my father. I am still filled with fear and dread whenever I have to interact with him or members of his family, but I just put on a big smile and power through no matter how drained I am. However, I try to limit talking to him because I’ve learned that you have to love some people from afar and that’s okay. Maybe one day things will be different, but until then I’ll continue with life and continue praying that he’ll have a change of heart.