“Detachment is not about refusing to feel or not caring or turning away from those you love. Detachment is profoundly honest, grounded firmly in the truth of what is.” ~Sharon Salzberg
A few months ago, my father informed me that he’d been diagnosed with prostate cancer. Although he seemed optimistic about the treatment, I knew that hearing such news was not easy.
After a few weeks, I followed up with him. He ignored my message and went silent for a couple of months. Although his slight ghosting was common, it made me feel ignored and dismissed.
In the meantime, I went to India for a couple of months. A few weeks before I returned, he reached out, saying he needed to talk. Although he wasn’t specific, I knew something was happening and immediately agreed to speak to him.
It was Sunday afternoon when he called. After I picked up, I immediately asked about his health. He went on to explain the situation and the next steps of the treatment.
The call took one hour and twenty-six minutes. I learned everything about his health, where he goes hiking, what food he eats after the hike, what time he wakes up, the fun he and his girlfriend have, what his relationships with his students is like, and where he goes dancing every Saturday night.
The only thing he knew about me was that my trip to India was great. He didn’t ask me what I did there or why I even decided to take such a radical step.
Right after the call, somewhat discouraged because of his lack of interest, I received a call from my mom.
Since my parents are divorced, I must divide these calls and often keep them secret in front of each other.
The call with my mom went pretty much the same way. The only difference was that she repeated things numerous times without realizing it since she is on anti-depressants, often accompanied by alcohol.
After both calls were over, thoughts of unworthiness started hitting me. At first, I judged myself for expecting my father to care about my life and used his health as a justification for his treatment. Then I realized I always made excuses for my parents. It was the way I coped with their behavior.
Although talking to them was more of a duty than anything else, I knew not having contact wouldn’t resolve the issue. However, I didn’t know how to deal with these feelings. It felt as if every phone call with them reminded me how unworthy and unimportant I was to them.
While growing up, my mother struggled with alcohol, and my father abused the entire family. When I began dating, I naturally attracted partners that reflected what I thought of myself: I was unworthy and unlovable.
Although I wasn’t sure how to handle it, I knew there must have been a solution to this emotional torture.
Typically, when I ended my calls with my parents, I would reach for thoughts of unworthiness and inadequacy. However, this Sunday, I chose differently. For the first time, I stopped the self-destructive thoughts in their tracks and asked myself the fundamental question that changed everything: How long will I let my unhealed parents define my worth and how lovable I am?
After sitting in awe for about ten minutes and realizing the healthy step I just took, I asked myself another question: How can I manage these relationships to protect my mental health and, at the same time, maintain a decent relationship with them?
Here is how I decided to move forward.
1. Setting boundaries while finding understanding
I always dreamed of how it would be if my mom didn’t drink. I remember as a fourteen-year-old kneeling by the couch where she lay intoxicated, asking her to please quit drinking. As a child and as an adult, I believed that if she could stop the alcohol abuse, everything would be better. She wasn’t a bad mother but an unhealed mother.
Today, I understand that this may not be possible. Although watching someone I love destroying themselves almost in front of my eyes is painful, after working through my codependency, I understand that it’s impossible to save those who have no desire to change their life.
Therefore, emotional distance for me is inevitable. I decided to use the skills I learned as a recovering codependent when appropriate. If I feel guilty that I moved far away, stopped financially supporting my mom since she drinks, or that I am not there to deal with her alcohol issue, I pause. Then, I forgive myself for such thoughts and remind myself that the only power I hold is the power to heal myself.
If I find myself secretly begging for the love of my father, I reflect on all those loving and close relationships I was able to create with people around me.
Another self-care remedy I use when feeling sad is a loving-kindness meditation to soothe my heart, or I talk with a close friend.
2. Accepting and meeting my parents where they are
Frankly, this has been the hardest thing for me to conquer. For years, the little girl inside me screamed and prayed for my parents to be more present, loving, and caring.
Because I secretly wished for them to change, I couldn’t accept them for who they were. I wanted my father to be more loving and my mom to be the overly caring woman many other mothers are.
When I began accepting that the people who caused my wounding couldn’t heal it, I dropped my unrealistic expectations and let go.
I also realized that instead of healing my wounded inner child, I used her to blame my parents. Therefore, I was stuck in a victim mentality while giving them all the power to define my value.
Today, I understand that expecting change will only lead to disappointment. Frankly, my parents are entitled to be whoever they choose to be. Although it takes greater mental power and maturity, I try to remind myself that this is what their best looks like while considering their unhealed wounds. This realization allows me to be more accepting and less controlled by their behavior. It allows me not to take things too personally.
3. Practicing detachment
Frankly, I felt exuberant when I chose not to allow my parents to define how I felt about myself when we last spoke. It wasn’t anger or arrogance; it was detachment. I remember sitting there with my phone in hand, mentally repeating: “I won’t let you define my worth anymore.” After a couple of weeks of reflecting on this day, I can say that this was the first time I took responsibility for my feelings concerning my parents.
Although this story doesn’t necessarily have a happy ending, it feels empowering, freeing, and unbelievably healing. Breaking the emotional chains from the two most important people in my life is the healthiest decision I could have made.
After my first victory in a years-long battle, I feel optimistic that this is the beginning of immense healing. Although I know that thoughts of unworthiness will creep in when interacting with them in the future, now I understand that I hold in my hands the most powerful tool there is—the power of choice.