Making Peace With Dad

Maya entered recovery with an intense loathing of her father. Controlling and verbally abusive, he struggled to manage his own anger. And though he loved his daughter, he was an imperfect father. She wanted nothing to do with him, though he had always tried, in his damaged way, to have a relationship with her. He wanted her to get well. She resented his interference. Everything he did annoyed her.

She wanted to tell him what she thought of him. She wanted to remind him of what he had so conveniently seemed to forget—that growing up with him was terror. That he had been abusive and selfish and tyrannical. If they became estranged, if he died, she didn’t think she’d care. It would save her from having to deal with him.

When Maya started working the 12 steps, she knew what lay ahead. There would be the fourth step in which she would have to dissect all of this anger bubbling so near the surface, and not so much later, the ninth step in which she would have to make amends. She couldn’t imagine how she would apologize for this damaged relationship, or why she should. It was, after all, his fault.

The work of the fourth step was arduous and she suffered panic attacks as she had to work through the relationship and everything she could remember about it. It meant reliving and detailing every hurt, fear and offense. She remembered things she hadn’t thought of in years. It was all actually worse than she thought, and she hated him more than she did when she started the process. She resented her Higher Power for bringing her into the world under the care of such a wretch of a man.

As she moved to the fifth step, she discussed her resentments with her sponsor. But it was hard for her to see her part in the problem. She had been just a child. They continued the process, and by step eight it was time to look at the people to whom she would make amends. While she believed that her father held the bulk of the responsibility for the sad state of their relationship and that her anger was justified, she could admit that she hadn’t always been a model daughter and that she might have chosen better ways of reacting to the circumstances between them.

It felt pretty inauthentic as she went before him and made amends for her shortcomings. But she had, after all, been hurtful in her struggle with addiction and had caused significant worry and distress. She could apologize for this. He told her there was no need to be sorry. He was simply glad she was in recovery.

But the anger didn’t miraculously go away upon completing this step, as she imagined it would. In fact, she still felt the same pangs of anger, the desire to get revenge or the hope that she’d never have to see him again. She wondered where she’d gone wrong or what she had missed as she worked through the process.

Her sponsor gave her an assignment. Maya was to list every single good thing she could remember about her father and every kind thing he had done for her. She did as told, surprised that the list spilled off the page. After she shared the list with her sponsor, there was another assignment. Buy a beautiful card, write each of these things into it, thank him and send it.

Maya bristled at the vulnerability this would require. But she knew better than to refuse her sponsor. She did as told, mailing the card so that it would not arrive until after she was scheduled to see her father in a couple of days. She didn’t want to discuss it.

As they walked along the walking path, her father said, “You know, I got your card.”

Maya winced.

He went on, voice wavering, “I think that is the nicest card anyone has ever sent to me.”

Something broke in Maya that day. With the list of all the kindnesses, and expressions of love and care so fresh in her mind, it became harder and harder to remember the resentments. As one came to mind, it was quickly supplanted by the thought of something good, sweet or generous her father had done. She soon started to forget why she had been so angry. A shift in focus made all the difference.

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