My Dad, who I haven't spoken to in four years, just had a stroke

I’ve long had a complicated relationship with my father. While I was growing up, he was abusive and absent by turns, preferring shouting to talking, and work to parenting. He heaped emotional abuse on my mother, on my sister, and on me. This wasn’t due to any malice on his part; he really doesn’t seem to know any better. When he and my mother finally got divorced six years ago–after I’d moved out and gotten married–I was relieved.

We kept in contact; he’s still my dad, after all, and the abuse of me had stopped completely when I’d moved out of my parents’ house. He got remarried, which I was fine with. I figured maybe it’d make him happy, and he’d simmer down. And, to my view, he had; in fact, he seemed happier with the family he’d married into than with me and my siblings. But while he wasn’t abusive towards me, he was still kind of a jerk. He mixed my sister’s birthday and mine up. He invited me to a party for his son-in-law’s birthday and sort-of last minute claimed it was mine. He misspelled my name, my sister’s name, and, while I’d attribute it to getting older if it were anyone else…he’d always done things like that. After one particularly egregious error, and the realization that, really, that relationship was pretty toxic, I didn’t talk to him for a couple of months. I was offended, but I didn’t mean to cut him off. I really didn’t.

But the months turned to years. Some of it was not wanting contact. Some of it was being embarrassed and frightened about calling after so long. And, really, none of his kids kept in much contact with him. My sister hasn’t talked to him in two years. My half-brother (who did not really grow up with him, as his mother had custody and my dad never even remotely pressed for visitation) has kept up some minimal contact, but he lives two-thousand miles away. And even he was getting fed up with putting up the effort only to get mostly ignored, and acknowledged only at my father’s whim.

So it was quite a shock when my father’s wife–who I’ll call Jane, though that’s not her name–called me on Thursday to tell me that he’d had a hemorrhagic stroke. That he was in the ICU in the hospital downtown. Lucid and with it, she said, but with weakness on the left side. They’d be doing surgery to drain off the blood the next day. And there was really only one answer I could give:

“I’ll be there at nine.”

And I was; I hopped the Metra, and then a cab to the University hospital. I went up to the ICU, and there he was. He looked kind of smaller than I’d remember, and Jane told me that’d made the effort to lose twenty pounds, and had kept it off. He was pretty drugged, but he recognized me. He even said, “hi, sweetie.” He seemed happy to see me.

And I wish the story ended there, because that would be easy, would mirror the story of the prodigal son and would end in forgiveness and redemption. Such simple things don’t exist in the realm of humans. People don’t change who they are.

My dad has always been a terrible patient. Six years ago, he had a case of pneumonia so bad that he had to spend nearly a month on a respirator. Despite being doped to the gills, he managed twice to rouse himself, and to completely pull out the tube. He hates doctors, hates hospitals, and, more than anything else, hates being out of control. It brings out the worst in him, and the worst in him is pretty bad.

A little over an hour after I arrived, he started to wake more. To ask to leave. He was already restrained, and he asked for those to be taken off so he could leave. But since he was about to have surgery and had a tube in his head draining off the excess fluid, that wasn’t going to happen. He started thrashing and cursing, enough that he knocked off the blanket, threw aside the gown. At that point, I stepped outside of the room, and Jane followed me.

There were orderlies in there trying to calm him down. Ativan knocked him out for a minute, and then he’d rouse himself again. He’d start screaming for Jane, would scream for me, would scream for my sister who wasn’t even there. He could be heard across the entire ICU, shouting “motherfucker!” and threatening to sue. Screaming in frustration. Pretending (badly) to cry.

Jane was in tears. I’d been there before. I told her that it would be okay, that afterwards he probably wouldn’t remember any of this, and that we needed to let the medical professionals do their job. They asked if he was going through alcohol withdrawal, and we both gave the same answer: no, he hardly ever drinks. He doesn’t really even like it. They’d asked the same question six years ago, and back then my mom and I gave the same answer. He doesn’t drink. He just is this way.

Jane and I talked a lot while we were waiting, while he was in surgery. His abusive ways hadn’t stopped; he yells at her, goes into flying rages just as he did with my mom. He plays the victim card by saying he’s called me, that I haven’t answered. I haven’t heard from him in almost four years. He’s abusing her verbally just as surely as he did with my mom, and with my sister, and with me. After I left yesterday evening, I got a call on my cell phone.

“One of you needs to come back here,” they said. “He’s thrashing and threatening to kill the staff.”

“I’m already on the train home. Jane will probably be back up there soon.”

And so now I’m home today, and my sister and I will go tomorrow. My brother is on the other side of the country, with a job and a wife and a two year-old, and so can’t do much. My sister is closer, but not as close as I am, and she wouldn’t do it even if she were closer. So it falls to me, and I just don’t want to. It’s hard to see him act that way. It’d be one thing if I could tell myself it was the stroke, but in my heart of hearts, I know it’s not. This is totally him. And he’s in for probably a month inpatient, and a year of rehabilitation. He’ll probably have to retire.

I can’t do it; I can’t be there for him to the extent that will be needed. I have grad school and I have a job and I have a life that actually doesn’t suck. I’ve turned around my weight and my health and am in the best place I’ve been since high school. I can’t be there for him every day, and if Jane wises up enough to leave him–which, though it pains me to admit it, she should; she’s nice and she shouldn’t have to put up with his crap–then there will not be anyone else. And I just can’t do it.

And I can’t not do it, because, despite the fact that my best friend describes him as “the worst person in the world” with no sense of hyperbole, he’s still my dad, and I still have whatever love for him that that title presupposes. For all of his flaws, he does love his children to the best of his extremely limited capability. I don’t know if I can live with myself if I just abandon him. I’m the point of contact for everyone else. I can go there, and I can turn things off, and I can cope. I’m a good person to have around in this sort of crisis. And if I can help, I feel like I should. Like anything else would be a mortal sin.

And yet I don’t want to, and there’s this horrible, selfish and evil part of me that half-wishes he’d pass, because then it would be done. I know I don’t mean that. I know I don’t want him to die. Except that part of me does. I hate myself for that. If I prayed, I don’t know what my heart of hearts would pray for.

Hug your fathers, if you can. Be glad they’re healthy and sane. Be glad they’re not mine.

I am very sorry, and I know you feel you have to be there for him, and it will make you feel better years later that you were, but not to the detriment of your own mental health. Do what you can, and then let the professionals take over.

My husband is in his seventies and I’m in my sixties, and we cannot and do not expect the kids to give up their own lives for us. I know your father is different, but don’t do it. Do what you can and know you did your best.

I am sorry this is all coming down on you.

I’m quite sorry to hear this. I think you should make as much effort as you can if you still love your dad. As far as having a shitty father - and I hope this isn’t out of line - this book resonated with me quite well.

Best of luck to you! <3

Damn, when I hear stories like this I thank God, literally, that I have two parents who love each other, love us kids, and have been married, as of July 20th, for sixty years.

If you can’t “be there for him” don’t beat yourself up over it. Since it sounds as if you live close, maybe you could let “Jane” bend your ear some, offer moral support and so on. It sounds as if he may need home care, and I’ll bet it will be hard to keep someone, if dad is so difficult.

And you can always do what you have already done, talk about it here on the Dope. You can bend our ears, if you’ve been to see your father and it hurts again.

Just remember this:


Remember this: You’re not responsible for the fact that he has alienated everyone else and doesn’t have anyone else now. That was his choice. I don’t feel that you are obligated to be there for someone who has been abusive towards you. Do what you feel comfortable doing for him, but don’t give up your own life to help him.
In my opinion, you should not feel bad about not going back to the hospital just because he was agitated. Agitated, delirious patients are EXTREMELY common in hospital settings, especially in the ICU (sometimes delirium is referred to as “ICU psychosis” because of how common it is among critically ill patients). It’s just part of what happens when people are sick and in an unfamiliar environment, especially if they are older and already have cognitive problems. The hospital staff should be very comfortable managing agitated and confused patients without you having to personally be there. I have often had to deal with delirious patients on call and never felt that I had to call the family back to the hospital for it…if anything, having someone who isn’t a medical professional in the room when someone is agitated probably just raises the chance someone will get injured when the confused person is lashing out.

Incidentally, my own father had a profoundly disabling stroke quite young. We all took care of him the best we could, but only because he was a good dad who had been there for us. If he acted like yours, I probably would have kept my distance. Your dad’s situation is very sad, but he is the one who created it, not you.

Yup, my mother-in-law had hospital psychosis when she was hospitalized prior to having stents put in around her heart. She decided she was going to check out of the “hotel” and it took 4 orderlies to pin down this late-70s woman and get her sedated.

That being said, if he’s always been an asshole of a patient, it’s up to him to decide whether or not to get better. Don’t fuck up your life just because he’d rather not bother do things to help himself heal.

I have a brother-in-law who nearly drank himself to death. His liver was failing from alcoholic cirrhosis when he went into the ICU, then his kidneys shut down, he had a mild stroke, he got pneumonia, everyone expected him to die. But his liver slowly started working again, his kidneys too, and finally he woke up and had to go into a rehabilitation institute. He says he saw a lot of people there who just whined their asses off about how hard it was and everything hurt and the doctors and therapists were assholes. His response was that true or not, none of that mattered - he didn’t want to spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair.

Your dad is going to have to make that decision, to suck it up and actively work at getting better, or not. Someone might have to have a hard talk with him about that, but otherwise, there’s nothing you can do. If you spent your days and nights taking care of him, you still can’t make him do physical therapy sessions or take his meds or want to take care of himself.

I’m so sorry. My father was an abusive jerk. It took me years to figure out that I was shipped off to boarding school to protect me from his wandering hands. However, my mother died in her late 50’s and when dad got Parkinson’s and senile dementia, the burden of caring for him fell on me.
I did what was needed and I took him out once a week or visited (he was in a personal care home) but I realized early on that he was still the same asshole that he had always been.

Please, please don’t beat yourself up for feeling this way. When my father died, I was hugely relieved.
He wasn’t a good father or a good man. Sounds like your father isn’t either. Sure, he fed me and clothed me but he also managed to screw me up for most of my adolescence and through my early twenties. It took a lot of work to recover from being Don’s daughter. Do what you feel you can do without twisting yourself into knots or messing up your own life. Ask yourself how much he would do for you if the situation was reversed. Somehow I very much doubt that he would inconvenience himself to sit at your bedside.

I would never have thought to look at the situation from this angle. Good idea.

I’ve never understood why people put themselves through the wringer for family just because they’re family. If it’ll make you feel better to “be there” for your dad, do it, but don’t do it for him, do it for yourself (and for Jane, who sounds like a decent person who needs and appreciates your support).

I have to agree… Poisonous people are not the kind of people you need in your life. If the roles were reversed, if you had been in an accident and needed the level of care that he needs, how committed would he be to you?

My Mom died very young. I was only 16. My father made it quite clear that he resented being saddled with children. One time he told us that we would be good poster children for the “Pro-Choice” movement. I know that the only thing any of my blood relatives would be interested in if I were injured and dying would be the size of my estate and what they could gain if I died.

I have gone to great trouble and expense to ensure my husband’s (and then his niece if we both pass) is my sole beneficiary. It’d be much cheaper and easier if I could just marry him…

At any rate, sometimes blood is not thicker than water. The fact that he inseminated your mother doesn’t necessarily entitle him to your love or concern. He should get out of your relationship what he put into it and you should NOT overburden yourself if he is not worthy of you.

From one abused kid to another, much love…

Don’t give up a single iota of your life for him. People who treat everyone around them like shit end up in the poorhouse and the nursing home with no friends or family who care. You don’t owe him anything. If he’s sick enough that he can’t take care of himself and then his new lady leaves him, Medicare will kick in once he’s poor enough. He won’t end up in the gutter. Apathy in return is exactly what he deserves for treating you apathetically for your whole life.

Don’t think of it in terms of revenge, because it isn’t revenge. It’s his natural consequences, for being an asshole who never cared about anybody except himself. Continue not contacting him, and focus on making a better life for your *own *kids (if you have them now or in the future).

How you feel is perfectly natural and I’d be kind of worried if you DIDN’T feel that way, hon. Don’t hate yourself for it.

We reap what we sow, and your dad is reaping the years of abuse and neglect he sowed with you and your siblings. You don’t get to treat your family like shit for decades and then expect an outpouring of love, support and help when you get seriously ill.

Do what you can and want to do, and nothing more, and don’t feel the least bit bad about it. You said you’re married, you have other people in your life now that you’re obligated to put first – and even if you weren’t, you still deserve to set boundaries that will keep you from being harmed.

hugs I had a bad dad too. This is a shitty club to belong to.

That’s kind of how I feel about it at this point. When I was there on Friday, I think I was there more for her than I was for him. Not that I don’t care about him–as easy as it is to say or think that I should just walk away, it isn’t that emotionally simple–but he wasn’t really there. Not all the way.

I ended up not going today. He’s still combative; when I called the nurses to see how he was, I could hear him shouting in the background. I can’t deal with that, and they said he won’t remember. I called my sister and told her she probably shouldn’t go, either. The only reason I would go is so that she wouldn’t have to go through it alone.

I’m not married anymore, by the way; I got divorced around the same time that my dad and I stopped talking (well, a few months before). That’s not why I don’t want to deal with this. It’s that I have grad school–which is important, and a time sink–and that, while the brain swelling and hospital setting have certainly amped up the intensity, the abuse and shouting is really just part of who he is. And I’ve been jumpy as hell since I’ve been there–startling at every little sound, constantly looking over my shoulder, and he isn’t even fucking here. My best friend (who lives in Alaska and can’t physically be here) made me promise that if my dad started giving me shit while he’s awake and lucid, that I would just turn around, walk out, and never come back. And I will do exactly that.

They want to give him Haldol, which I think would help massively, but Jane doesn’t want that, and since he’s her husband, that’s her call. Christ, though, it’s a thing to hear someone shouting in distress over the phone.

I’m sorry you’re going through this.

It doesn’t seem fair that we’re “supposed” to maintain an unconditional love for our family members, and that gets hammered into us so strongly that we’re tortured with guilt when we finally have to admit that caring for them is killing us. Or even when we just admit to ourselves that we frankly don’t like them very much and would really prefer not to be around them when they’re demeaning, manipulating, or abusing us.

Your dad’s in good hands with the ICU staff, and it’s their job to calm him and care for him, not yours. You went to see him, and he was happy to see you. That counts. It absolutely counts. Don’t think less of yourself for not wanting to stick around, or come back, while he’s being violent.