A Daughter’s Journey Through Her Father’s Trauma
Recently I read Christal Presley’s new memoir, THIRTY DAYS WITH MY FATHER, an intimate and heartrending look at how trauma, war and PTSD impact generations of a family. Christal’s story is not unique: a father struggling with PTSD terrorizes and alienates his child. What is unique about THIRTY DAYS is the author’s bravery as she seeks to quell her own demons by reaching out to the father who created them.
As Christal seeks to heal herself she embarks on a quest to speak to her father by phone every day for thirty days. As a child who has done everything to disconnect from her dad, this process places Christal at the center of a maelstrom of push me/pull me feelings that takes her on an odyssey of exploration both of herself and the father she’s finally really getting to know.
You can join listen to my interview with Christal on YOUR LIFE AFTER TRAUMA as we discuss her book, plus how trauma and PTSD impact the entire family.
Until then, here’s an excerpt from THIRTY DAYS WITH MY FATHER…
I remember the first time I was afraid of my father.
I was five, home from school and tucked away in my sofa-cushion wolf den watching Tom & Jerry reruns. I was eating crackers, dipping them in potted meat, blowing away the crumbs when they fell onto my lap.
We lived in a trailer, in a trailer park called New Garden Estates in Honaker, Virginia. I had a ten-gallon aquarium with a black pop-eyed goldfish inside. I had an orange and white cat named Tiger that I pushed around in a wagon. I had two dogs, Smokey and Rusty. My favorite drink was the lemon-lime Slush from IGA. My mother had just quilted me a My Little Pony bedspread and purple curtains to match.
Since I clearly remember the day I first became afraid, I know that my dad and my life had once been different, and my mother has the pictures to prove there was some normalcy even after everything changed. But I can’t remember much about those times.
“Your father used to hold you,” she says, as she points to the pictures of my father and me that she has arranged in a scrapbook. She looks happy when she says it. She really remembers us that way.
It must help to have something to hold onto like that.
On that day when I was five, my father came home from work, his eyes wild and his face unshaven. He was a welder who worked on mining equipment and came home with his clothes black and thick with grit. His habit was to put down his lunch box, take off his work boots, and strip down to his underclothes as soon as he came in the door. My mom would come in to greet him, put his dirty clothes in a plastic bag, pick up his empty lunch box, and take them into the kitchen. On this day, however, as he collapsed into the rocking chair in the corner and struggled to untie his boots, his hands trembled and his breathing was labored.
“Daddy?” I whispered.
He did not respond, didn’t even acknowledge I was there.
Something was wrong. This was not my father.
Everything about this man seemed unfamiliar to me, from his countenance to his actions. It was as if some supernatural force had invaded my father’s body and made him act strange.
My mom came in as usual and helped him back to the kitchen. I hid behind the sofa, knees pressed into the shag carpet, and held my breath as I tried to hear their frantic whispers. At some point, when no one was looking, I escaped to my bedroom and hid in the closet. I did not come out for dinner. I remember clutching a little plastic toy called a Glow Worm that my father had bought me for my birthday that year and peering through the slats of my closet door. The black pop-eyed goldfish gulped for air at the top of its tank.
Back then I had not yet heard of Vietnam, did not yet realize that a war in which I’d never fought would shape the course of my life.
This was the moment it all came undone, and after which it would never go back to normal.
“You are smiling in all the pictures,” my mother says, every time I see her. “Look how happy you were.”
I don’t remember being the girl in those happy photographs, but she’s right. It’s me looking out from all those pictures, and I was smiling. I’m smiling in every single picture my mother put in the scrapbook.
“This is your childhood,” she says proudly, pointing to a picture of me when I turned twelve, sitting behind a birthday cake with a horse drawn in icing on the top. She made that cake herself, and gave made me a whole cup of icing, and let me eat it with my fingers because she knew I didn’t like the cake part. That’s one thing I do remember.
“Look at this one,” my mother says. I am nine, trying to bounce a basketball on the grass behind our trailer. There’s an azalea with pink flowers to my left, a freshly-tilled garden to my right. A little bird feeder is attached to the pole on our clothesline. “You used to run through that garden bare-footed,” she says. “You’d eat Fruity Pebbles while you ran. Do you remember that?”
I nod. This is one of the few good things about my childhood that my brain has not erased.
“The mind is a mysterious thing,” one of my first therapists said. “When we block out the trauma, sometimes we block out the good memories too.”
Sometimes, however, it feels as if I kept the trauma and blocked out most of the good things. I am still not convinced my mind works like everyone else’s, but if there’s one thing I do know, it’s that my mother has always loved me. She loved me so much that she erased the devastating effects of the war as best she could, cleaned it all up so I wouldn’t be so afraid. But it didn’t work. You can’t pretend something isn’t happening at the same time you’re having to deal with it on a daily basis. And not talking about it actually makes it seem worse instead of better. When I look at those pictures all I see is the unspoken war and nothing else.