Dear Carolyn: My father was a nightmare. When I was a kid, he would tell me I was “a b–– just like your mother” and throw things at me; he even threw me down the stairs once and broke my arm. By the time I was 13, I realized I hated him and wanted him gone.
Eventually I convinced my mother to leave him. I was 15 then and it’s been about 10 years since I’ve seen or spoken to him.
Over the years, my father has sent me cards on my birthday and other holidays, telling me how much he loves and misses me but never acknowledging what he did. He always sends sizable checks, usually several hundred dollars. I’ve always cashed the checks and thought of the money as child support he owed me.
When I was younger and struggling to put myself through college, I desperately needed the money.
Now I’m done with school, have a good job and don’t need the money, but the checks keep coming.
On the one hand, I feel he still owes me a lot. On the other hand, through the process of repairing my relationship with my mother, I’ve found I no longer hate my father. I’ve come to understand he is severely mentally ill.
If I were a better person I could donate the money to people who need it more than I do, but if I cash the checks I’m most likely going to spend the money on myself.
I’ve been thinking the right thing to do is release him from my life permanently. I think if I stop opening the cards and cashing the checks, then I can give him back to God, if that makes sense. What do you think? – Torn
Carolyn Says: When someone has been through what you have, I’m inclined to vote for whatever you believe will help, as long as it isn’t destructive. Your idea for releasing him is not a destructive one – and yes, the way you describe it makes perfect sense to me.
There’s one thing that stops me, though: “If I were a better person.” That’s both an alarm and an opportunity.
The alarm is self-evident, since you spent your formative years being systematically put down. That means putting yourself down, even with just a throwaway comment, is no throwaway matter.
The opportunity: Depositing your father’s check and writing another for the exact amount to an organization that, say, helps abused kids or aids the mentally ill or supports struggling parents to help break the abuse cycle, might provide you with a surprising source of strength and validation. Inform your father of the donation with a brief note, even.
You could also use the money – or your own, certainly – for good counseling, if “torn” is a chronic condition for you, and not limited to matters of money from Dad.
Not that you need to choose either of these paths to prove your worth; you’re grounded and self-sufficient at an age and to a degree that would be impressive for someone without a rocky childhood, much less for somebody with one. You don’t need to prove a thing to anyone.
Except, perhaps, yourself, which is ultimately how I suggest you frame this decision: Do yourself proud, in whatever shape that takes.
Send email to Carolyn Hax at firstname.lastname@example.org.