Alex, a man in his mid-thirties, sat across from me tearfully recalling the day his parents gave him a choice on the day they separated. In his words, “It was pick your parent day.” When he was just nine years old, his parents asked, “Do you want to live with Mom or Dad?”
The backstory to this day was a home profoundly affected by his father’s daily decision to either come directly home after leaving his high-profile professional job or (as was more typical) stop at the bar before returning home. “Dad was a functional alcoholic,” Alex recalled. When his father drank too much, he became volatile and unpredictable. His dad often fought with his mother and was verbally and physically abusive to her.
Alex’s parents decided to separate after a fight that ended with nine-year-old Alex aiming the family rifle at his dad’s head, threatening to kill him if he didn’t stop beating his mother. He will never forget that haunting moment of his life.
How could he just put it behind him and forget it?
Alex’s story took an unexpected turn when I asked him which parent he chose. He paused and looked down with tear-filled eyes as he admitted, “I chose to live with my dad.” I was shocked. When I asked why he chose his dad, his answer was painfully incomprehensible to me. “I guess I just felt someone needed to look out for him.”
How is it possible that a nine-year-old boy felt a burden to look out for his abusive father? Isn’t a father supposed to be the one who looks out for the well-being of his son? This man in his mid-thirties was still looking out for his manipulative, controlling and abusive father. I’ve repeatedly observed how this powerful instinct to protect a parent becomes disruptive to adult relationships.
Is it surprising that Alex struggles with personal and relational issues almost thirty years after his toxic upbringing? Telling him to “forget it and move on” would be both simplistic and dismissively hurtful. The same is true if someone suggested that there’s no value in trying to understand the effects of childhood experiences.
(From Chapter 2 – “What good will it do to look back?” For more real-life stories and help with a troubled past, see: “The 18-Year Factor”