In the previous entry, I mentioned my paternal grandmother’s role in creating an unhealthy family dynamic. My father’s mother was a likely candidate for one if not more mental health issues, including Munchausen’s by proxy. Her children had illnesses no doctor ever diagnosed; four of them died without clear cause or record, before the age of four. Competition to be her “baby” and receive her attention was fierce.
What did that mean for my dad, as an adult survivor of such a mother? What did it mean for his children?
Children as Chattel
One of the more subtle forms of emotional abuse in our family appeared in the way my father’s physical issues were treated. His mother was fond of rewarding children who gave were ill (real or imagined). In my childhood, that meant my father received all the pampering he wanted.
I was four when I was assigned the duty of removing my father’s shoes and socks. He was physically capable. He simply ordered us to do it. Since I was the youngest, I earned the “honor” of kneeling at his feet, taking off his boots, peeling off his socks, and then applying anti-fungal creams and ointments to his feet. Once that was done, I cleaned his boots inside and out. My sister, five years older than I, would fetch him beverages, food, and his favorite reading material. By my teens, I was doing all of those tasks.
Rubdowns were another way my father received “pampering” echoing what he had received (or had wanted) from his mother. We, his children, rubbed liniment into his shoulders, calves, and knees. Again, he could have done this himself, yet it was our job.
My father also developed a variety of hand signals to command us, preceded in each case by a triple snap of the fingers to get our attention. Everything else was to be disregarded to bring my father his cigarettes, his drink, his book, his supper, the phone, whatever he required. Was he physically capable of doing it? Yes. Did he? No.
Medical Starts with “Me”
To my father, illness in others was weakness, and weakness was disgusting. I clearly remember lying on the couch, too ill to move, and my father blowing cigarette smoke into my face. If I was really ill, his logic ran, then I’d leave the room. As it happens, I was too weak to walk away. Even after I was taken to the emergency room, where I was treated for high fever and severe dehydration, my father scoffed at the “drama” I was making. Within twenty-four hours, my father had the same virus, and my mother and I were busy making him clarified chicken broth, holding him steady as he knelt before the toilet, tip-toeing around the house to avoid disturbing him. My mother at one point gave him a sponge bath and shaved him so he didn’t have to leave the recliner.
When my sister was diagnosed with epilepsy, my father insisted she was “pretending”, and shamed my sister with insults. He encouraged her to drive, despite the effects of her medication, and the words “epilepsy” and “seizure” were forbidden in our household. To please him, my sister not only lied to friends and family, but to her doctors as well. She died of epilepsy-related complications in her mid-twenties.
When my father developed a stomach ulcer, we all ate his restricted diet. After a time, my mother decreed we would eat as children’s nutritional needs required, and fed my father separately. Since she had full-time employment and he often didn’t, this meant my sister and I became his personal chefs and lived in dread of his rage if the food was not to his standard.
And the examples could continue.
In the final entry in this series, I will discuss the consequences to myself.