Why Yelling At My Disabled Son Doesn’t Make Me A Horrible Parent
The following was syndicated from Medium for The Fatherly Forum, a community of parents and influencers with insights about work, family, and life. If you’d like to join the Forum, drop us a line at [email protected].
When my son, through his tears is saying, “Daddy, could you please talk calmly to me?” you know things have gone south.
It was our semi-annual trip to the Rehabilitation Doctor for his check up. One of a couple of thousand appointments since the accident and it was the same old conversation.
“Dad. I don’t like wearing these boots.”
“I know, son.”
“When will it be over?”
“I’ve told you before buddy, I don’t know for sure. The doctor said when you haven’t fallen for at least 6 months then we can talk about it. You fell a few weeks ago. You have to be willing to do the work to improve your balance. That takes time and it is the only thing that is going to change this.”
“Yeah, but I really don’t like these boots! Or this helmet!”
I can feel my emotions begin to get charged up. I was at my wit’s end and had been consciously and quietly contemplating how to handle the questions the next time they would come up. It was really pissing me off, again. I’m really trying to be patient but this has been going on sooo long and I feel I’ve exhausted every word I can to help him deal with his problem. I let it fly.
“What the hell do you want, Josh? What do you really want? I can’t make this different! The accident happened! The goddamned accident happened, the f—ing truck driver hit your mother’s car and ran off, you got hurt and our lives are forever different! I can’t change a goddamned thing about it.”
The tears are rolling out of his eyes and he has slid closer to the passenger door. He looks scared.
“Do you understand me? Can you hear what I’m saying!!! THIS IS OUR LIFE! This is IT! We have to deal with it. We have to play this hand. IT’S WHAT WE GOT DEALT! Nobody is going to fix it for us. NOBODY!!! Nobody is going to turn back time and make it all go away. Nobody is going to wave a magic wand and make it different. NOBODY IS GOING TO RESCUE US. They can’t!!!
“I have done absolutely everything I could to help you, to try to make the best of this completely shitty situation that I don’t like either. THERE ISN’T ANY MORE THAT I CAN DO. IT’S UP TO YOU NOW. YOU HAVE TO DO THE F—ING WORK!”
Bam! My open palm hits the console hard enough to sound like a gun going off.
“Dad! Will you stop yelling?”
The question caused me to pause for a second. I didn’t want to yell. I didn’t want to curse. I didn’t want to be mad because we were going through this. I too wanted things to be different. I wanted to watch him play football as he grew up. Not have to watch it from goddamned chair!
“NO! NO, I’m not going to stop! UNLESS OF COURSE YOU WANT TO START LISTENING TO ME! I don’t know what to say to you, to get through to you, or how to make it better. We have been through this a thousand times already and you keep expecting the answers to change!
“If you want things to be different then it is up to YOU! DO YOU HEAR ME? IT’S ON YOU! Things aren’t going to be different Josh unless YOU make it so!”
I feel like shit. He keeps saying, “DAD! DAD!” Pleading with me to calm down. He’s crying and raising his own voice trying to establish some authority but I won’t back off. I don’t want to hurt him. I don’t want to overwhelm him.
But worse, I don’t want him to keep living this fantasy. I knew in my heart it had to be this way today. Most likely, never again, but today this was the way it was going to be.
“So what do you want, Josh? If you want it all to go away, that is not one of the choices.“
“You can’t wish this away or hide from it! I’m sick of telling you the right things but you not making the right choice. If you want your life to be better than what it is then you will have to get off your ass and do something about it.
I hate saying this. I hate being so blunt. I hate raising my voice.
“Everybody we know is in your corner, Josh. Doctors, teachers, therapists, family, friends. But it doesn’t matter how much WE care or want things to be better. YOU HAVE TO DO THE WORK. It’s not going to magically change. Nobody is going to wave a magic wand and make your problems go away and your life be amazing!”
I’m hearing myself say all this to him but the person who really needs to hear what I am saying is me.
“Josh! If you want things to be better than you are going to have to do what I say. You are going to have to do the exercises, do the work, do kung-fu every day. There is NO OTHER ANSWER! STOP PRETENDING IT’S ALL GOING TO TURN OUT FINE WITHOUT YOU DOING THE WORK.”
“Okay, Dad, okay! I’ll do whatever I have to, to get out of these stupid boots.”
“Yes. Yes, I will.”
“Good! Do you promise?”
“I do, Dad.”
I feel a bit guilty for the whole incident. I know how an intense moment or incident can be burned into a person’s mind. It happened to me. I don’t want this to be one of those defining negative moments so I try to assuage my own conscious and put things in perspective for him by asking him a question.
“Josh, do you know how many times dad has yelled at you in your whole life?”
Through his sniffles he says, “Yea. All the time!”
I start laughing.
“Are you kidding me, Josh? I have raised my voice a total of 3 times with you — I put my fingers up in the air for him to see — A grand total of 3 times, Josh! But I get that it feels different than that to you. I’m sorry! Please forgive me.”
“I do, Dad.”
A minute passes.
“Dad … You know I love you, right?”
I get choked up. I’m thinking about how much I love him and how good it was to hear those words from him.
“Dad, what’s wrong?”
“Dad, something’s wrong.”
“No, there isn’t.”
“Dad, I see something.”
“Yeah, there’s something in my eye.”
“Daaaad!” He has a grin on his face tempered by a touch of concern. “There’s nothing in your eye except tears.”
“I know, Josh …”
“Because you are going through this and I can’t fix it for you. My heart breaks every day because of the collision.”
“Dad, we’ll be okay!”
I get choked up again…
“I know son. I just want you to remember that about yourself! You will always be okay.”
We get out of the car and I give him a hug. He starts to cry a little bit again.
“Dad, are you sorry for yelling at your only son?“
On one hand, I think to myself, “Shit!” and on the other hand I’m glad he knows this isn’t normal for us. I also like the idea that he can stand up for himself and ask for an apology when somebody crosses a line. Part of me feels like a jerk and part of me doesn’t.
Part of me realizes this is life.
I don’t like being angry. I don’t like losing my temper. I don’t like seeing people hurting for any reason.
I really try to not overwhelm Josh. It can leave scar tissue. I experienced it growing up and tried to learn from it. I’ve tried to remember he is growing and learning.
I’ve tried to remember how horrible it felt being treated unfairly or unreasonably by a stressed out or unskilled parent when I was growing up.
I’ve tried to remember he isn’t doing, whatever he is doing just to piss me off. He might want my attention but he really isn’t trying to piss me off. That being said, having taught thousands of children over the years I do see little angels from time to time who do it on purpose.
I’ve tried to remember that memory isn’t permanent. It’s fluid. Once you “understand” or can do something doesn’t mean you can consistently do it.
Trying to remember those things over the years has allowed me to not blow a cork as often as I might have.
Either way, it’s a tough place to know where the lines are. Emotions are funny things. Feelings are powerful and we can get swept up.
I felt frustration but I tried to remember what he is going through at the same time. Life is hard for all parties involved.
Even with as few times as I have lost it, each one has left a mark on him. He thinks 3 moments out of the over 5,515 days he’s been alive (that’s 132,600 hours) of which I may have ranted for a total of 30 minutes is “all the time.”
Intensity is powerful. Sometimes it’s needed. Sometimes we have to go places we don’t want to go. It’s easy for the lines to blur. I hope I never have to go back there again. He’s a good kid who is doing his best.
Sometimes the volume needs to go up … just not too often.
Mark Goblowsky is a writer. Check out more of his writing on Medium.