Before I jump into this, I recognize that I haven’t blogged or written this year for myself; that is, written something that someone hasn’t commissioned me for. I’ve taken a hiatus because I was overwhelmed from keeping up with work while falling in love while reconciling a new chronic illness and dealing with all that I’m about to share. But lately I’ve been taking some breaths and am on my way to balance. So hopefully this is the start of more.
We began Advent early at our church on Sunday in response, I believe, to Christmas Eve being a Sunday. Plus, I’m totally a believer that as soon as Thanksgiving is over, we are 100% into full Christmas mode.
So it makes sense then, when I begin to think about it, why on Sunday morning I would wake up anxious. In truth, I’ve been struggling with anxiety for a while now. Two months ago I began having panic attacks, mostly stemming from me angry at someone or something and then spiraling until I couldn’t breathe.
On Sunday morning, my anger was directed towards my dad. In the shower, I began arguing in my head with him, about how angry I am with him and how I don’t understand why he doesn’t want me. I told myself, “Heather, this is random, get it together…you need to lead students today. Quit making yourself angry about nothing. It’s 5am. Go get some coffee.”
I had a great morning in youth ministry, and then heard an amazing sermon in our first week of Advent. Our series this year is about the places surrounding the birth of Christ, and how each place symbolizes a place of “Longing,” “Waiting,” “Simplicity,” “Justice,” “Welcome,” and “Hope.” This week’s passage was on “Longing”–that the Christmas story began with chaos and the world longing for something better; which is relatable to our lives today, as we long for a space to breathe in a world littered by scandal, terror, fear, disasters, and divisiveness.
I loved the sermon–and then my heart strings were pulled when our Contemporary Worship Director and his wife bravely shared their story of longing. Two years ago, their son disappeared and told them that he needed to find his own path, without them. After they shared their story, they began to sing a song of praise and worship together.
The entire congregation broke down, each of us for our own reasons. But it was in that moment that I related to their message and named it: For me, Advent is a Place of Rejection. It’s a yearly reminder that I’ve been rejected by my family, especially my own father. And like our brave worship leaders, I was longing for him to want me again.
You see, my father is an addict. Both my parents are, although my mom has been clean by God’s grace for around 5 years now. My parents began drug usage recreationally, like every 80s burn-out cliché. I remember attending a Drug Awareness class at school in first or second grade and realizing for the first time that my parents did drugs. I tattled to my Recreation Officer and he promised me that he would investigate. He didn’t, and so I assumed that I just had to ignore my parents because no one was going to help me. As I look back, I can’t help but think about how terrible it is to feel defeated by the justice system at 7 years old.
The drug usage didn’t get bad until my parents agreed to separate. My dad fell heavy into drug usage when my mom officially left him for another man; and when that man would die of a heart attack in my mother’s arms soon after, she would also succumb to addiction. My parents were barely around my teenage years, and several areas of my life showed it. I was fortunate that a family friend introduced me to church as a child; as the church saved my life, provided for my needs, and gave me purpose.
I ran away to college to escape my family. Both my parents separately became homeless when both of their homes were foreclosed on and they began living in family members’ homes. After college, I came home to help transition my sister to living with my grandparents, which saved her life. I was pretty fed up with my parents at this point, but it all peaked at this point: My belongings were stored in a storage shed that my father managed, and he somehow “lost” all my things. We can’t help but wonder if all my things were sold to support his addiction. I gave my parents both separate ultimatums: You need to choose between drugs are me. Both chose drugs.
Six months later, my dad went to jail briefly for several drug-related charges. My mom bailed him out, and it was at this point that she realized that she was alone. I gave both of them the same ultimatum, again: “I’m 23 years old. One day I’m going to fall in love, get married, and have children. If you want to be a part of that, you need to get clean.” My mom got clean. My dad stepped further out of my life.
Both of my parents have never been good communicators, and it has frustrated their families to no end. It’s also conditioned me to forget to communicate well with my grandparents, aunts, and uncles. But part of that was all the shame: shame of hiding secrets and trying to protect my parents. I remember getting into a fight with my mom in college because she never initiated contact with me first. She responded by sending me a letter every day for at least a month, full of jokes and glitter and pictures of my sissy and cat. I am fortunate to still have those letters, and cherish them deeply.
But my dad was a sweet-talker; “I’ll do better, baby, I promise.”
Christmas of that year, I said goodbye to my family and moved to Indianapolis. I was able to get the four of us together for the very last time to celebrate. In truth, this was bitter-sweet for me: my mom was quickly becoming one of my best friends, after 10 years of really not liking each other.
I wouldn’t hear from my dad at all in the next year. And to be honest, I wasn’t too interested in contacting him, but I did try. In that year, I had heard that his addiction was only progressing. I had also heard that while my uncle was in jail, my father moved into his house and began dating his girlfriend and assumed the father-figure over her kids. I was furious, obviously. The thought of my dad never contacting me, but choosing to be the father of three kids and a grandchild broke my heart. And the fact he didn’t include me or even inform me about this part of his life broke me.
That Christmas I went to his mom’s house, and had a good time catching up with my grandma and cousins and the rest of the family. My older cousin, who had been a best friend to me all of my childhood, turned to me to gossip, “So have you met his girlfriend?” I was taken aback. “How do you know about her?” She responds, “Well, she’s coming…”
I fell apart.
And I needed to leave. I couldn’t be around him, not with her, not with those kids coming, too. It was at this time that I became really honest with my family about his addiction…and they rejected me. I was a liar, my mom deceived me, I am a bad child because I don’t reach out to my dad… I was hurt beyond measure that evening. And when my dad called me that evening to ask “when I was coming,” I cursed him out.
I tried to be honest with my family about him, but no one listened. I was rejected again at Easter by my cousin, who drunk-called me to tell me I needed to get over it and call my dad.
That side of my family had a lot of change and transition otherwise, and it was hard to watch it as an “outsider.” A big piece of this was a cancer diagnosis for my grandmother. Christmas of last year, as I put up her Christmas tree in my living room, I wept. And I called her, as I did every few months, to leave her a message that I needed her back in my life. So we’re working on it, as best as either of us know how.
Two years ago on Thanksgiving, my father texted me. It had been almost a year since the Christmas Incident. My sister (who hadn’t heard from him in two years–since the Christmas I left for Indianapolis) and I met him for Krispy Kreme donuts. We acted normal, until I finally threw it out on the table: We want a relationship with you. We were promised that not only would we rekindle a relationship, that he would initiate it.
We haven’t heard from him in two years.
Why share this? Why now? Because for me, the holidays are hard. I can recount many more moments of rejection over the holidays by my family members–too many to list. And while I can think of many great memories from my childhood with my family, those memories are often overshadowed by the hurt that I constantly feel during this season. And I know that others experience similar hurt over the holidays.
For me, the hardest part is that in a season where we talk about God giving up his son for the sins of the world, I can’t help but wonder why my dad gave me up. For me, Advent is a season of constant longing for someone to want me.
Thank God the Lord wants me. And thank you, Lord, for bringing me people who want me here on earth. I have to recount my blessings constantly: that people know me and love me and go out of their way to show me that their love has no shame or strings attached. Perhaps that’s why I’ve been so conflicted and anxious lately, because being loved wholly by humans for the first time is almost just as hard as rejection.
The verse that I’ve been praying over for the past two years since this last rejection from my earthly father has been Romans 8:15, a Christmas promise for me this season:
So you have not received a spirit that makes you fearful slaves. Instead, you received God’s Spirit when he adopted you as his own children. Now we call him, “Abba, Father.”
Thank you, Lord, for adopting me as your daughter. I beg for healing, not only for me but for others who might be reading this and who are also longing for connection with their family. Heal our fears of rejection, of lack of safety, and even of being loved and made whole. Give us people who will make up for the pain we have. And of course, if it’s your will, answer our deepest desires of being connected with our families again.