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My dad, who was often drunk and angry, has messaged me after 20 years. Should I reply?

The Guardian
The Guardian
 2021-10-15
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My mum left my dad when I as four, and I only saw him rarely after that.

My dad is in his 70s and has contacted me on Facebook. I have not yet replied. I last spoke to him almost 20 years ago, shortly after my mum died. I was 17, and he was angry with me for ignoring him. In my early childhood my dad lived with us only briefly, but was often drunk and angry, and I heard stories of him hitting my mum.

My mum left him when I was four and I saw him again when I was eight, when I was expected to keep him company; if I didn’t he would go to the pub and get very drunk. One time I went to play with my friends, and when I came home he was so drunk he hit my mum and threw my dog against a painting. That day I decided I hated my dad.

Despite this, I always felt he got me in a way my mum did not. We are very similar: we like maths and puzzles and I got my love of walking from him. But he has a temper, and I had to be careful.

I now have children, a home and a career – my life is stable. I had years of serious mental health issues after my mum’s death. I have thought about reaching out to my dad several times. I owe this man nothing but I do not want to live a life of regret or guilt. Should I reply?

Your longer letter described some incredible adversities you’ve overcome: your violent father, your mother dying when you were so young (I’m so sorry about that), having to look after your mother’s business while still a teen. You’ve earned your “stable life” so I’d be wary of rocking that. You’ve thought about contacting your dad before but haven’t, probably because you remember what he was like. And you haven’t replied yet for the same reason. The first thing to think about is what you hope to achieve. Children are endlessly forgiving of their parents and hopeful that they will change.

Psychotherapist Katherine Walker says that whatever you do, it’s important to re-evaluate your support network, because this may reopen past traumas. “You may find your childhood experiences come hurtling back and memories that may have been long forgotten can reignite old wounds.” We want you to bring your adult self to any meet-up, for this is crucial in making safe decisions.

If possible, it would be beneficial for you to find a therapist (psychotherapy.org.uk) to work with you on this – whether you meet up with him or not.

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“You don’t need to rush into contacting your father,” says Walker. “It’s OK to choose not to have people in your life you believe are/will be harmful to your sense of self.”

She also advises planning the meeting: imagine the scenario, where you’d like to meet, what you’d like to say, but don’t have “fixed expectations so as not to disappoint yourself”.

Even if the meeting goes well, don’t get carried away. You have children to think about so don’t, for example, invite him to your home until you are really very sure. I am mindful of you saying he “never made me feel safe”, and his harming your dog. It’s not all or nothing: you can meet up with him once, then never again, or only occasionally. You don’t have to have him back in your family.

Walker and I recognise you have “taken responsibility from a really young age”. Be careful of falling back into old habits: guilt is often less about our own behaviour than responsibility for other people’s. And regret tends to come from not thinking things through or owning your decisions.

Every week Annalisa Barbieri addresses a family-related problem sent in by a reader. If you would like advice from Annalisa on a family matter, please send your problem to ask.annalisa@theguardian.com. Annalisa regrets she cannot enter into personal correspondence. Submissions are subject to our terms and conditions

Comments on this piece are premoderated to ensure the discussion remains on the topics raised by the article. Please be aware that there may be a short delay in comments appearing on the site.

Comments / 293

Da Groovelyne
10-15

Psychologically speaking...in life... after a period of time...we as humans ofter realize the variety of mistakes we made due to the selfishness of addiction or anything else one might put above family. Being able to let go the animosity you may have for him will allow you to grow both personally and spiritually. Whatever road you decide to take BE BLESSED 🙌 😇 🙏!

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50 Pinkies
10-15

Alcoholisim is family disease. It affects everyone. If you can forgive him, yes keep in touch. But be wary. Make boundaries and take nothing for granted The alcoholic carries a lot of guilt, shame and also the selfish habits and behavior, long after cessation. God bless.

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Patricia Sims
10-15

I went to see my alcoholic mother 13 years or so since we last spoke and I only went because she was dying of cancer. I figured I needed to at least attempt to reach out, as I would want my daughter to attempt to make peace in situations in her own life, but no. she hadn't changed and I don't think it made any real difference. I guess it was the "right" thing to do, but in the end I only felt pity for her wasting her life like she did. She was an angry, bitter, resentful woman who ended up dying a slow, painful death. I learned to not be like her. That was my lesson.

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