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Canary in the Coal Mine

“I never met the man.”


Five words spoken during a dinner conversation with my father. Fear, almost panic, drenches my entire body as if the waitress had just dumped a pitcher of ice water on my head. He seems to have no clue how his words are affecting me. I stare at him in disbelief.


“I never met the man.”


The words echo in my head. I can’t respond. I look down at my food, suddenly nauseous. Every part of me wants to make him take those words back. I cannot believe him. It starts to get loud in my head. How had he not been introduced to “the man” who had married my mother? After all, “the man” bought his house, the one he and my grandfather had built. My sister and I would regularly visit my father while we lived with “the man” and my mother for two years. How could my father not have met him?


“I never met the man.”


Photo by Michael Tkach, used with permission

These words remain wrapped around my chest like five bands of iron even though they were spoken months ago. It’s still hard to breathe when I think of them. “The man” severely abused me. “The man” would beat me until I passed out, drag me outside and lock the door and leave me crying in the middle of the night. “The man” abandoned me on the shore while he rode away in a speed boat with his friends. “The man” did unspeakable things to me when I was left alone with him.


“I never met the man.”


The words cling to my face, forcing their way down my throat. I can’t breathe, even think. I feel like I’m living a lie. I think I’m not seeing the world clearly. Maybe I made-up more things in my head. Maybe he’s right. Maybe “the man” who did all these things to me didn’t even exist. Maybe he was the man everyone else saw…


“I never met the man.”


I had asked to come live with my father to escape the abuse of “the man.” In my memory, “the man” was in the dining room comforting my mother, staring me down the day my father came and packed my belongings into the truck.


“I never met the man.”


“Maybe your stepfather wasn’t there when your father came to move you?” My therapist asks when I bring this statement up for the sixth session in a row. She is trying to help free me from this suffocating statement, but her words only seem to add power to his.


Even she thinks you’re making too big a deal about this. He probably never did meet your stepfather. In fact, you’re probably lying to everyone that your stepfather even abused you. You’re a little liar! You’re a self-centered little brat!


Suddenly, I’m eight years old again. I’m standing naked in front of my stepmother while she opens a package of pajamas the night I move away from “the man.” Nothing I brought with me is allowed inside before it is washed. It won’t be long before his scent is removed from my life. It will be as if “the man” never existed... except to me.


“I never met the man.”


Yellow Scarf by Michael Tkach, used with permission

I am alone with these words. Challenging my father will not help. Asking my mother if they are true will not help—she’d rather forget “the man” ever existed. My sister was too young to remember much. It is up to me to figure out what to do with these five words. The longer I allow them here, the stronger their grip.


“I never met the man.”


I’ve sat with these words on my computer screen every morning for the past week. This morning, my perspective shifted, finally. A part of me speaks up—What did you say right before he said this?


We had been talking about the house my father built on his grandfather’s property, the house my stepfather and mother had purchased from him when they married. He said he still resented my mother for losing the house to my stepfather when they divorced. He wanted that property to go to my sister and me. I asked if he knew that “the man” had died a couple years ago, he nodded.


“My cousin worked with him you know. He mentioned it to me when he died.”


“I’m glad the man is dead.” I said to him. “He was not a good man. He did a lot of damage to me and probably my sister and our mother.”


I force myself to look him in the eye. Did he remember what was done to me? Did he remember why I wanted to live with him and my stepmother? Did he even care?


He cannot make eye contact with me. He lowers his head, looking for sanctuary in a plate of half-eaten food.


“I never met the man.”


If you’d like to share part of your journey with me, I invite you to connect with me at: WillKoehlerLCSW@aTraumaInformedLife.com or find me on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or LinkedIn.

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