Letting go of a long-held anger

This Father’s Day marks five years since my dad died.

Five years and I still haven’t worked out how I feel about my dad and his early demise.

During the strange period when we knew he was going to die but during which I was ignoring the issue to finish up my undergraduate degree and take my final exams, I was forced to talk to a counsellor by my university. I hated every minute of that consultation but the counsellor said one thing that stuck with me. He pointed out that I refuse to talk about my feelings unless I’ve had time to properly evaluate them and can give them a comprehensible label. But, he said, emotion doesn’t always work like that.

But still I don’t talk about my dad much because I can’t explain the way I feel. Instead I read article after article about good dads and bad dads and all the really truly awful dads who put their families through hell and I try to work out where mine falls on the spectrum of paternal success.

Because here’s the thing – my dad wasn’t a bad man. He certainly wasn’t anywhere near the truly awful dads and my childhood was far from any kind of hell. But he wasn’t a great dad either. The truth is that he was distant, removed, uninterested in me or my brother. He lived in our house but he was more like a stranger who shared our space but not our lives.

It wasn’t always that way. I have great memories of my early childhood, family days out to the railway or the science museum and a proud father beaming over a glowing report card. But something changed around about the time I went to high school. I developed opinions of my own, wanted to hang out with my friends at weekends and lost interest in the things my dad cared about. As a result he lost interest in me.

From that point on I have few memories of my dad. He came to school events and I know he was always very proud of me but I felt more like a walking report card than a living, breathing person. He drove me to school every day and dread is the wrong word but I certainly never looked forward to our stilted conversations or the awkward silence as I racked my brains for a topic of conversation to which we could both contribute. Sometimes I tried to draw him on the bigger issues in life – his family and childhood (which I now know was always going to be a sticky point), his life outside of work and the biggie – my future. None of these topics got me much beyond a couple of lines.

I came to resent his distance and the wall that existed between us. Who put it there I can’t say since there came a point where I was as guilty of coldness and remove as him. And towards the end I know he did his best to break through but by then I was too well defended and was having none of it.

The truth though is that I’d always imagined that one day in the future me and him would mend our bridges. Maybe once I was working, once I had a mortgage, once I had kids, one day we’d have something in common, something to talk about, something to break down the walls. When we were told his cancer was terminal the doctors said to expect we had six months left and with my summer holidays coming up I thought I’d have more time. Something I wasn’t looking forward to but hoped would heal a few wounds. Sadly he didn’t make it to six months, he barely lasted six weeks and spent most of that in a twilight world where he didn’t know any of us and deep and meaningfuls weren’t really possible. So I never got to tell him how I felt.

I have a lot of anger and resentment towards my dad. I feel like he didn’t really care about me as a person and that his interest in me was purely academic. But that doesn’t make him a bad man, or a bad dad.

When I hear stories about some of the horrendous things some men put their families through I’m truly glad that my father wasn’t like them. He always came home at night, put money on our table and never once raised a hand to any of us. There are so many worse parents in the world that I should be grateful for the one I had and I am. But at the same time he wasn’t the great father that so many seem to be. Today Facebook is full of people extolling the virtues of the wonderful men who are always there to support and advise, brimming with their unconditional love. I didn’t have that and I’m angry about it.

But today I’m letting go of that anger. There’s no way that I can put things right now and this anger isn’t helping anyone so today I say: my dad wasn’t great at being a father (any more than I was great at being his daughter) but I forgive him. Instead of the things he failed at I’m grateful for the things he succeeded at. There’s one memory in particular that I’ve only recently recovered, I think I was hiding it because it doesn’t chime with the picture I’ve painted of him in order to hold on to my anger. My memory is of the one day that he came to meet me at university. We went for lunch and then for a  coffee and then for another coffee, circling the train station with neither of us wanting that one good day to end with him getting on a train and riding out of my life again. Against all my expectations I enjoyed that day, I enjoyed having my dad back for that one afternoon and remembering that time I can remember that I did have a dad that loved me and who tried, in his own way, to be the best father he could be.

Blog 9: Make the most of now

Anyone who’s read my regular blog will know that I am a scientist. More specifically I’m a geneticist and my long-term goal is to become a genetic counsellor. Because of this, genetic testing is an interest of mine and so I recently attended a screening of the film Do you really want to know? at the UCL Open City Docs Fest.

Do you really want to know? is a documentary about Huntington Disease (or HD) and the genetic test which is available to affected families.

For anyone who doesn’t know what it is, HD is a devastating disease which appears at around age 30-60 and slowly but surely destroys a person’s faculties until they can no longer walk, eat, talk or even remember who they are. What’s worse is that if you have a parent who has HD, there is a 50% chance that you yourself will inherit the disease. There is however, a very simple genetic test which will show without any doubt whether or not someone carries the gene.

The film talked to members of three families who all had very different views on whether they wanted to know their HD status and what knowing would do to them. A surprising number had decided not to find out. (Actually this is maybe less surprising considering they were American families and in the US knowing you carry the gene for HD could affect your ability to find health insurance.)

I can certainly understand why people don’t want to know but the interesting part for me was the reaction of those who did take the test and found out that they do carry the gene.

They had all embraced life and done everything possible to make the most of the disease-free time they have and were seizing opportunities that most of us wouldn’t even think about.

I understand this point of view completely but what it made me think was: why aren’t I doing that? I don’t think I have anything nasty lurking in my genes (one of my grandparents is 92 and still flitting about the place relatively independently) but life is, after all, short.

One of the families in the film had made it their mission to travel the world and try lots of extreme sports while their father was still able to join them. While on the other hand, the number of countries I’ve visited is still in single figures and as for extreme sports, the most extreme thing I’ve ever done is climb a tree.

Having said that, I do live a fairly exciting life, I’m always off to some event or another and certainly since I’ve been living in London I’m rarely short of a story about something interesting I’ve done recently.

But there’s always this feeling hanging over me of waiting. I put things off until later, things like travelling and other experiences.

I want to run a marathon someday but this year I’m not even doing the 5km Race for Life. I want to become fluent in French and learn Spanish but I don’t read any books or even watch many films in a foreign language. I keep thinking “there’s time for that later” but when is later? And what’s wrong with right now?

And I’m not alone in this, I know many people who are the same as me and I’m sure everyone reading this can think of something they keep putting off for no real reason. Does it really take the knowledge that there’s a ticking time bomb inside to kick us into acting on our dreams?

So this is the message I want you to take from this post: live for the moment. Embrace the present. And make the most of now.

Blog 4: The Importance of Happiness

I use this picture as my gravatar because the spinning effect makes me smile. It's important to embrace the small things.

I use this picture as my gravatar because the spinning effect makes me smile. It’s important to embrace the small things.

Happiness. I think it’s an underrated thing these days.

Everyone’s rushing around trying to do great at school, get a great job, have a great house, drive a great car etc. etc. But what’s the point if you don’t take the time to stop and smell the roses as the saying goes?

I’ve been guilty of this myself recently – I’m currently in the final year of studying for a PhD which has made me deeply unhappy. I love science, I enjoyed doing my BSc and I’m really passionate about the area I work in but I don’t like being in the lab. It’s a very hard environment to be a part of and it turns out that my brain, which is great at memorising facts and writing essays and all the kinds of things that get you through school and university, is not built for practical applications.

Without wanting to sound big-headed, when you spend your life being told how clever you are, regardless of how supportive your friends and family are, it can be hard not to feel like you’d be letting everyone down if you don’t make it to the top. Which is why I’m putting myself through the hell that is a PhD. Well, that coupled with a lack of alternative ideas.

I actually wrote a list a few weeks back of pros and cons for quitting my PhD. On the pros side was lots of stuff about how miserable I am and how I might be happier doing anything else in the world whereas the cons were all about the benefit to my CV if I see it through.

The cons won because, in my own words, “feelings are transient, you can be happy later”.

Even I’m arguing against the importance of my own happiness.

And I should know how important happiness is.

Now I don’t want to confuse general miserableness with clinical depression, they are two very different beasts; one WILL pass in time whereas one requires medical help and is a much more serious affair. I am currently fairly miserable but I’m nowhere near the arena of clinical depression and it’s not something I would ever make light of.

However the story I’m going to tell now does concern that area and while I am aware that depression is a chemical imbalance, that there’s nothing that an outsider can do about it and that the I am not entirely culpable in the events I’m about to relay, I still think it proves my point to a certain extent.

So, why should I in particular be aware of this seminal emotion?

Well, when I was at school I had a friend, whose name was Alison. (It wasn’t really, for obvious reasons, names have been changed.) Alison and I were part of the same group of friends, we hung out at school together and occasionally outside of school but always with a group of people, we were never really close friends. She had her best friend and I had mine. So it wasn’t until we started our A-levels and the rest of our group drifted away that we started hanging out just the two of us.

By the end of those two years I would describe us as really close friends. We talked about everything; home, boys, the future, everything. But then we went away to university, I moved to one city and Alison went elsewhere to pursue her dream career. She’d worked really hard to get there and I was so proud of her and certain that she was going to have an amazing time.

I loved university from the very first day; I made loads of new friends, I enjoyed my lectures, learned that going out and getting drunk was great, I was really happy. And as far as I could tell, Alison felt the same.

At first we’d meet up when we were both at home but then it started to get harder. We both had holiday jobs and she’d make excuses about having to see family or having too much university work. Other times she’d cancel on me at the last minute or just never reply to my messages which got me really frustrated, all the effort seemed to come from my side while she just dodged all my attempts.

Eventually I told her that I wasn’t going to keep trying and if she wanted to get together, it was going to have to come from her. I gave her a list of dates and asked what she wanted to do.

She never replied.

The next year around the Christmas break I was feeling low and I sent her a message asking if she wanted to meet up over the holidays. She agreed but when I got home I was only back for a short time and it was such a whirlwind of family visits and other friends to see, that I never got round to contacting Alison.

I sent her a message when I went back to university apologising but she didn’t respond.

Three months later I got the worst news of my life when I discovered that, alone, feeling that nobody cared and nobody understood, Alison had ended her life.

Then I discovered that for years she had been suffering from depression and that all the fun she’d been having at university came with terrible lows and that she hadn’t been avoiding me at all but she just couldn’t face the world. I didn’t know and I didn’t understand.

Like I said, I’m not underestimating the power of clinical depression and I know it to be a very different thing to a low mood but I can’t help feeling that if I’d have noticed how unhappy she was, things might have been different.

I’m also not blaming myself so please don’t start telling me not to as there’s no need.

All I’m saying is that sometimes we all need a little happiness in our lives and sometimes it needs to be provided by an outside source. There have been times since moving to London when I’ve been feeling down and a kind work or even a smile from a stranger or an inspirational quote on an advert have been enough to remind me that there’s plenty of good things and happiness out there in the world.

So if something as simple as a nice note in a library book can touch someone’s life and bring them a little bit of cheer then perhaps I can go some way towards making up for my terrible lack of attention and trivial attitude towards Alison’s happiness.

As for myself, I’m still sticking with the PhD but I’ve also come up with an alternative plan for once I’m finished and since I made that decision I’ve been feeling an awful lot happier.