My father is learning the language of healing. It’s touching to watch him take his first tentative steps, trying out how it feels on his tongue. Using words like abandonment, anxiety and attachment; trying to piece together the words he needs to tell his story.
When my dad told me he was going to therapy, I nearly dropped everything I was holding. As a 30-something millennial, someone seeing a psychologist isn’t particularly new or shocking to me. My dad seeing a therapist though? Well that’s different. My father is a 64-year-old brown Australian who was raised to ‘tough it out and be a man’. It was hard to picture my dad in a psychologist’s office talking about his past, his fears and his hopes. And yet, here he was, willing to try something new. I was so proud, my heart wanted to burst.
Like many Australian men in the 80s and 90s, my dad saw his fatherly duty as providing financially, not as an emotional caregiver. If we had a roof over our heads, food on our table and money in our pocket, he had done his job as a dad. It never occurred to him that his children might need more.
Like many Australian men in the 80s and 90s, my dad saw his fatherly duty as providing financially, not as an emotional caregiver.
Don’t get me wrong, overall I had a happy childhood – I didn’t go hungry, my dad read books to me before bed and my siblings and I played in cubbies that my dad built with his own two hands. But at the same time, our home was tense and uneasy and my siblings and I walked on eggshells. Explosive fights were common, and what I now see as my parents’ own trauma, pain and inability to communicate led to screams and shouts, tears and anger, broken items and even physical violence. I love my dad, of course I do; but as a kid I was scared of him and as an adult I was angry at him for not doing better by us.
My father is learning the language of healing. He’s surprised that I speak it so well. After all, we’ve never had conversations like this before, how was he to know I was fluent? How could he have known that I’d learned this language myself through my own sessions with counsellors, conversations with my siblings about our childhood and from closeness with friends and lovers with mental illnesses. My dad is a different generation, he doesn’t learn this language of social media like I do from the host of therapists on Instagram and Twitter that offer bite-sized opportunities for self-awareness, growth and healing.
As my dad delves into therapy, he learns more about himself and shares his discoveries with me. As he learns, I learn. I learn more about the terrified little boy, the abandoned teenager and the guarded young man who was and is my dad. I understand the grief he never processed from losing a parent well before adolescence, how abandoned he felt as a teen when it seemed there was no one who cared about him, and the anger that was for so long the only socially accepted way for him to express any kind of emotion.
As my dad delves into therapy, he learns more about himself and shares his discoveries with me.
As dad’s understanding of trauma and mental health has grown, this shared language has given us a bridge to talking about things that previously seemed off limits – my childhood, his relationships, our shared experiences. As he explains how he feels in response to everyday situations, a flicker of recognition runs through me. It turns out the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. We both like to feel needed, we both have short tempers and we both struggle to ask for help. My old man and I have more in common than we ever would have thought. While I let go of my anger towards him long ago, the work that he’s doing has created a new closeness and connection between us that I didn’t know was possible.
That’s not to say it’s easy. Not for him, not for his partner, not for my siblings or for me. As someone who’s dedicated much of my adult life to healing I know the struggles that lie ahead. I had to stop myself from smiling when Dad said he only needed six sessions to “sort himself out”. And then I had to stop myself from crying as he confided the shame he feels for so much of his past behaviour.
I want so badly to be able to help him through this, to warn him of what’s ahead. To tell him it will get worse before it gets better, that the desire to give up can be impossible to fight. But it’s not my place. His healing is his journey, and I know he’ll move through it at the speed that works for him. If the apple can do it, so can the tree.
As dad’s understanding of trauma and mental health has grown, this shared language has given us a bridge to talking about things that previously seemed off limits – my childhood, his relationships, our shared experiences.
As he comes up on his sixth month of therapy, my dad is feeling the mental, emotional and financial cost. Psychologists aren’t cheap, even with a Mental Health Plan, and the effort of introspection is exhausting. Dad struggles to concentrate, he feels emotionally raw and his frustration often boils over, creating even more guilt to be worked through.
I see this and I smile. Not because of my dad’s pain and struggle, but because I can see the ripple effect of his hard work. I see him normalising therapy and vulnerability for many others in his generation and in our brown communities. His casual mentions, posts on social media and conversations with his own family about mental health and healing are creating change.
My dad is doing his part to remove the stigma of therapy and to flip the narrative of “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks”. He’s inspiring others his age to deal with their trauma instead of passing it onto the next generation. My dad may not realise it, but that accountability, that vulnerability, that openness isn’t just changing his life – it’s changing the lives of his family, his friends and everyone else around them.
My father is learning the language of healing. Even though it’s painful and difficult he keeps at it, determined to make himself a better partner, father and friend. His healing is an act of love; not just for himself, but for everyone in his life, and I wish all fathers would love like that.