“Family is a privilege, not a right, and he’s lost his.”
Preparing Sunday lunch for a group of friends and family one afternoon, I noticed my phone was buzzing. The number looked familiar, but it was unsaved in my contacts. It was my dad, who I hadn’t spoken to in years. He was calling as he was worried about my sister, who he couldn’t get hold of. The call lasted seconds; he didn’t ask after me at all, nor his grandchildren (aged three and nine months). His complete lack of interest left me feeling close to a panic attack as my guests tucked into the lamb around me.
It hadn’t always been like this between us: I grew up in a normal suburban family with happily married parents and my younger sister, in a standard three-bed house in the Home Counties. Dad worked away a lot and though we missed him, he would bring us back souvenirs; Disney characters from Florida, exquisite hand-painted kites from China, and later, coral bracelets from the Bahamas or a bottle of perfume from Duty Free.
We didn’t have loads of money (Mum didn’t work, as my parents preferred her to stay at home), but we had a good upbringing, including regular holidays and family trips to the zoo or shows. Dad was attentive and involved in our education; I can’t recall him missing a parents’ evening or a play, and he patiently helped out with German homework and tried to help me understand quadratic equations (I still can’t).
So when I went off to uni up north at 18, I was unprepared for the call I received late one night. Mum rang in tears, barely able to speak, to say that Dad had returned home from a work trip but had announced that he was leaving us. My roommate drove me home and my Mum, sister and I stayed there for a week trying to come to terms with the news. I cried so much I had a permanent headache and the skin around my eyes hurt from constant tissue dabbing.
He explained that he’d fallen in love with a colleague on a project abroad he’d been working on. She was married but on this last trip they’d agreed to confess all and try and make a life together. The woman was 10 years younger than Dad’s 45 years.
I don’t know exactly what happened, but the next day he was back crying, begging us for forgiveness and saying it was a mid-life crisis. We all forgave him instantly, chalking it up to a lapse in judgement after a difficult year in which he had also lost a family member. Ultimately, we were just thrilled to have him back and I returned to university.
But then, two years later during a reading week at home, I noticed that he was distracted and unable to look me in the eye. I challenged him, but he denied anything was wrong. Mum either had her head buried in the sand, or somehow genuinely believed that he was stressed at work, but when history repeated itself just after my 21st birthday I knew he would never change.
It turned out he’d lied about his trips abroad over the last year – discovered when Mum innocently rang his secretary to check a flight time for a trip that didn’t exist. Long story short, he’d rented a flat in Luton, where he’d been living for weeks at a time and had now moved into permanently. Mum was devastated.
He emailed me saying that ‘he thought I’d understand, as an adult’, swore that there was no one else and that he simply didn’t love Mum anymore. The tone was patronising and made me angrier; plus, I didn’t believe him. Of course, there was another woman and she’d been living there throughout, supported by Dad. This time, she wasn’t that much younger than him, which Mum found harder to deal with.
He’d cleared out every savings account – including money Mum had put away herself for my upcoming wedding – and had run up huge debts living his double life, leaving Mum stuck with a mortgage she couldn’t pay. Mum hadn’t realised as she had trusted him to take charge of the family finances. This was before internet banking was standard. It was like he was a different person, and I didn’t want anything more to do with him.
I decided I didn’t want him at my wedding, scheduled for the next year. I let the groomsmen know to eject him if they saw him: they didn’t. I hadn’t expected him to try and attend in any case; all I’d heard were vague murmurings on the family grapevine that he was upset not to be walking me down the aisle, but he hadn’t even thought to speak to me himself about it. I didn’t even tell him not to attend, it was like we just had an unspoken agreement. After that, I blocked him on Facebook and stopped answering his calls (which were few and far between, anyway).
He moved abroad and I didn’t hear from him until I had a sudden bereavement when I was 25. He started calling and texting me and others close to me to try and get in contact, using my loss to try to engineer a meet as he was back in the UK for a week. I think the shock of having someone taken away makes people reassess things, and I had a lot of pressure from well-meaning relatives peddling clichés like ‘he’s still your dad’ to try and get me to give him another chance.
After some persuasion, I met up with him in a pub. He was a stranger with no idea about my career or interests, and was sarcastic about a designer bag I’d worked hard to buy, saying ‘does that make you happy, then?’ I left feeling confused but slightly less angry towards him, as so much time had passed since we’d last seen each other. I decided to unblock him on Facebook, telling myself that he could see what was going on in my life that way without having to put myself through meetings.
But he didn’t attempt any further contact, not even the odd birthday message, which over time made me feel a sense of abandonment and, mentally, like I was rootless and kind of ‘unanchored’.
I began struggling with anxiety and was diagnosed with generalised panic disorder, thanks to the stress of the last few years and experienced symptoms like depersonalisation (feeling like you’re outside of your own body, watching yourself or not recognising your own reflection), unsteadiness (the floor or walls would seem to move), palpitations and an inability to sleep.
My psychologist believed that my unconscious brain was picking up on various stimuli that it had decided were ‘threats’ - these could be anything from a shift in close relationships, to stress at work - even though I wasn’t consciously worried by them. The unconscious brain’s response to a threat is to pump shed loads of adrenaline around your body: useful in prehistoric times for fight or flight scenarios, but less helpful when you’re trying to hold your own in a new business pitch and suddenly your heart is racing and you only have pinpricks of tunnel vision.
So it stands to reason that having my sense of stability threatened – by appearances or thoughts about my dad, for example – was an extra obstacle in trying to manage my mental state.
Panic disorder is truly horrible, but after a bout of counselling and being prescribed beta blockers to reduce the physical symptoms, I gradually got it under control over the course of 18 months.
A few years later I was pregnant, which Dad must have seen on Facebook, because he sent me a mysterious message saying this was my ‘last chance’. Considering I could count on one hand the attempts he’d made to contact me, I ignored it. My mental state was worsened by any contact from him or upsets in family life, and I didn’t want to rock the boat when I couldn’t take my usual medication because of the pregnancy. A while later someone told me my dad had written me out of his will. I didn’t care.
Once I had my baby, I struggled to understand how a parent could accept estrangement from their own child. It’s extremely upsetting to try and reconcile the father he once was with his behaviour towards me today. It’s hard to accept that despite knowing my phone number, my friends, my address and numerous other ways of contacting me, he gave it a handful of tries and gave up – especially knowing how stubborn I am.
Eventually, I blocked him on all channels again and told anybody in touch with him not to share any information about me or my own family with him, as my mental health is too important. Family is a privilege, not a right, and in my book, he’s lost his.
My sister reconciled with him long ago but understands my decision, so it’s only something I’ll have to face if she ever marries. In the meantime, I have many other father-type figures in my life, and a loving and supportive family of my own that keep me busy.
I still have ups and downs with my mental health; I’m prone to bouts of depression and I still experience that familiar heart pounding panic from time to time, but I’m grateful that I haven’t had serious extended anxiety symptoms for a while. I know it’s down to my decision to live my life without my father in it; for now at least.
A note from the author: I’d recommend anyone struggling with anxiety or panic visits their GP. Bereavement counselling via the NHS was also very helpful to me, though these services have since had funding cuts and access will depend on where you are in the country.