Stuck in my painful childhood

Our agony aunt, Mary Fenwick, offers a new perspective on whatever is troubling you


Stuck in my painful childhood

2 minute read

Q. My mother has dementia. Our relationship has always been difficult; her father was abusive and she repeated the ugly cycle of violent behaviour towards me. My father is a good man but he never put my needs on a par with hers. They were appalling with money, and my husband and I sold our house to buy them a home. Despite this, Dad complains to other relatives about what a terrible daughter I am and they no longer see me. I have a wonderful husband and children, yet I feel lonely and empty without any other relationships. I want to move forward, and to have a relationship with Dad that doesn’t render me exhausted and angry. Name supplied

A. The emotional gymnastics you’ve been through to reconcile your experiences of family life would exhaust anyone. When I imagine selling your house to provide for parents who didn’t give you a safe home in the first place, it takes me into a weird loop of thought that’s difficult to describe. Maybe that’s because it’s not a situation that can be fixed with logic. It sounds as if part of you can acknowledge your dad made his choice a long time ago, while another part has held on to the ideal dad in your mind. Carl Jung said life’s greatest problems can’t be solved, only outgrown.

I keep coming back to that image of a safe home. You’ve created it with your husband and children, and now you want to expand from that base into the wider world. A lot of avenues seem cut off because your dad occupies them with his version of events. Rather than solve the problem as you see it now, there are people who offer compassion and practical help to get onto a different page. The first is NAPAC – the National Association for People Abused in Childhood. In addition to telephone advice, they point to research which shows yoga or other movement can be effective for recovery, while peer support groups and realising that you are not alone helps healing at any stage.

A second option is acceptance and commitment therapy, or ACT. Here is a link to a booklet of exercises to work through. This approach does not ask you to challenge difficult thoughts, but to diffuse them to make them less painful. ACT says we can choose the legacy we want to pass on. Questions may include: what words hook you into memories and fear; what are you doing that keeps you stuck; what do you want to stand for in life; what would you like to do more of to enrich your life?

Your kind of background can sometimes be a barrier to human connection, but you have managed to break the pattern of abuse and create a loving family of your own. Please don’t leave it there: more people need to hear your story; sadly for him, I do not think that your father will be one of them.

Mary Fenwick is a business coach, journalist, fundraiser, mother, divorcée and widow. Follow Mary on Twitter @MJFenwick. Got a question for Mary? Email, with ‘MARY’ in the subject line.

Photograph: Getty