Heart of Steel

I am an empath. I remember the day I started being able to feel other people’s emotions. I was young, watching the first Christopher Reeve “Superman” movie. There’s a part where his dad on earth dies and his mother is heartbroken and he decides it’s time to leave home. I think I was like 7 years old. This pain in my heart forced me to cry because it was so painful. They both lost that great man and for whatever reason, Clark Kent has to leave his mom too? It just seemed so painful. I understand the story line much better now, as an adult, but as a child it seemed devastating.

I like that I can feel so deeply because it means that I can love deeply and I care so much about people. But it seems like sometimes it’s just too much for me and I find it draining when I’ve pulled in too much. I know I’ve reached that point when I am exhausted after waking up, when moving my body seems way too hard, and when I can’t seem to stop crying.

It took many sessions with my first therapist in 2021 to learn that not everyone deserves my full empathy. Some people don’t deserve any of it. Separating all that out has been challenging but not impossible. I just want to make sure I don’t leave anyone out that deserves more from me.

I had to learn how to be “steely” as I call it. Where I can’t let anything in, or I need to protect myself because it’s not a healthy time for me to take on someone else’s pain. It’s not something I can do in the moment, I have to prepare myself mentally to block the energy that I can feel and to just not feel in that moment. It was useful this time last year when one of my wife’s coworkers lost his wife in her late 40s. The funeral was heartbreaking and lots of people were sobbing. When he walked down behind her casket, the look on his face was tortured. I had to close my eyes, breath, and imagine the steel around my heart melting into my heart, solidifying, and not letting me feel his pain in that moment. It wouldn’t make much sense to sob at a funeral of someone I never met and whose husband barely knew me.

When we picked up the kids last week, I did not steel up at all. I didn’t think about it. I was wide open and ready to get them back. And what happened was that I took too much in. I did the second best thing, which was to put the steel around my heart afterwards and pretend I was fine and that I wasn’t feeling anything. That comes at a price though. I am distant and stoic and not happy inside. I can’t take in anything good or bad at that point. I’m blocked until I can process those feelings.

That came last night in the form of an almost-panic attack. I let the steel melt away and all that was there was physical pain. All of that emotion flooded me at once and I could not even process it. My wife helped me get out of panic attack mode at the time and I was doing better. But I didn’t sleep well, my heart still hurts, and now I get to process all of this in the light of day.

I have four kids, 19, 16, 11, and 9. The oldest lives in Florida with his father. The other three live with us most of the time. They go back to Florida for school breaks when they can. The 16 year old spent the entire summer in Florida, the younger two went for the first week after school ended, came back for 6 weeks for a summer program, and then went back to Florida for 3.5 weeks.

There had been a lot of conflict between the middle two (both boys) during the school year and having them split up for 6 weeks was a good thing. When the little two were here alone, they did great. We had a good time and the fighting was much less than it had been with all three.

When I went to drop the younger two off to their dad, we found out on our drive that our beloved dog had died that morning in Florida. Everyone was devastated. It was so painful and the younger two cried for awhile. They seemed ok by the time we met up with him and off they went, leaving me to drive back the 7 hours alone I had just done. The solitude was good though, and I was looking forward to the 3.5 week break from having kids.

Their father is…at best…complicated and messy. At worst, he is psychotic and codependent. He promised me that the crazy yelling had stopped because the 11 year had shared in therapy that the yelling made him very anxious and upset. I was hopeful. He also didn’t like how the conflict with his brother made him feel. So there were these fews things for their father to work through with them. Plus dealing with the pain of the losing the dog.

I didn’t hear much from the kids while they were gone, but their father said things were going well and he was having a great time with them. Every time he brings them back to me, he gets all emotional and angry and upset. I hate it. So I focused this laser beam of steel his way and didn’t think about steeling myself for what I would find/figure out later.

On the previous visit with him, the youngest (and only girl) had huge knots in her hair that I could not work out after 90 minutes of trying. So we had to cut chunks of hair out. I noticed right away that her hair was brushed nicely and she had spent a lot of time keeping those knots out because she was upset about the knots.

The first thing I noticed was that she was wearing a pajama shirt and regular shorts. Both dirty. The 11 year old was wearing the exact same shirt I dropped him off in, with the exact same food stains it had before. They were unusual food stains which is why I recognized them. We then found out that he didn’t leave the house once in three weeks, despite his dad worried about connecting with him and asking me what to do. I had suggested an outing for just the two of them, which clearly didn’t happen. All three of them smelled like serious body odor but they claimed they had taken a bath in the hotel the night before. Sure. Not a very thorough bath if they smelled that badly. When we had them each bathe again at the hotel that night, they all claimed they had but did admit that none of them put on deodorant. Great. Cue bath/shower instructions and deodorant application reminders.

The youngest had her allergy eyes back, which tells me that she didn’t take allergy medicine every day. I already knew she had forgotten her flonase because it was on our kitchen table. He doesn’t believe her allergies are “that bad” and won’t remind her to take her medicine. She is perfect in his eyes and that includes very real medical problems like her severe seasonal allergies that can get so bad she can barely eat and breathe when unmedicated. Her saint of a pediatrician suggested flonase and zyrtec, but also said claritin would work. Apparently the chewable zyrtec is terrible, so we went with claritin. Whatever. She has allergies and he refuses to acknowledge that and remind her to take something that will make her feel better.

None of this ever comes as a surprise to me. I know who he is. I dealt with all that for way too many years and have spent many hours in therapy and alone working through everything he put me through, his lack of ability to function as a normal adult, and sheer laziness. I processed so much pain and trauma in therapy. The boundaries that I learned how to hold are not flexible with him at all. He gets zero access to my inner core and my empathy.

But what surprised me was him admitting that he doesn’t make them bathe, shower, or even change their clothes because he cannot bear to lose those 10-15 minutes with them each day when he doesn’t see them very often. WHAT THE ACTUAL FUCK IS THAT??? You are so codependent on your children that you can’t allow them to time for personal hygiene? This is not normal and has me extremely concerned about what the future holds for them. He complains constantly how the oldest is dirty, won’t wash, always looks greasy, whatever. But he lets the younger ones go for weeks without washing or even changing their clothes?? I just can’t anymore. I wasn’t in a place where I wanted to keep them away from him, but I’m getting there. He’s an emotional wreck and probably has undiagnosed borderline personality disorder, so he is very volatile. I want him to get better and be a better father, but this is unacceptable.

All of that has been weighing heavy inside my steeled heart until last night, when it melted away and came out with lots of tears. I still feel the ache inside me. How could he use these beautiful souls as validation for his pathetic childish life? How could he become so codependent on them that he doesn’t actually parent them in any meaningful way?

Part of me has always been of the mindset that they will come to know who he is. They will see the childish behavior, the refusal to adapt, the inability to manage emotions at all, and most of all, the way he refuses to take responsibility for anything. Unless he does something about all that, they will come to know the truth, just like their older brother has. They will want less and less to do with him, and his crippling grasp that feels like a drowning man pulling you under the surface to your own death, while he stands on your shoulders, breathing the air that should’ve been yours.

I learned not to have empathy for this man through therapy. I learned that he doesn’t deserve it. That his refusal to handle his own mental health makes him abusive and mean, cold and distant, codependent and stifling, and everything in between. For now, I will mentally grapple with what comes next. Florida manages our custody paperwork and I’m not sure I want to play hardball right now, since we have them until Christmas at the very earliest. And that’s assuming that he doesn’t get another job where he’s not available to take them at Christmas. I very much appreciate the break from the kids at times, but at the same time it doesn’t feel like he can handle them for more than a week.

(And the worst part…he doesn’t even know these kids. They all have secrets they keep from him about who they really are. They don’t miss him much when he’s not around. They miss him after they leave him, but then he fades away into the background once they get wrapped up in life. When he visits, they often do their own thing and WE are forced to hang out with him because we are kind and allow him to stay here to spend as much time with them as possible. And we watch as he doesn’t even try. He whines about how work gets in the way of seeing them much when he has them, but then ignores them when they want to talk to him here. I will never understand him or his bullshit. And all he can hope for is that they will try when they are adults. If they go the way of their older brother, he stands no chance. He wants nothing to do with his father and takes nothing his father tells him to heart, even when it might be good advice.)

What I do know is that I will not allow him to sabotage the success that is awaiting these children. I will not let him drag them down to the unhealthy place where he lives. I will protect them and keep them safe and help them on their journey to understand who he is and how they can safely interact with him. I will teach them how to be steely if they need it.

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