I had a great childhood. I grew up in a Christian home with stable, loving parents who raised my brother and me to love the Lord, leading us in daily morning Bible studies. They both had somewhat difficult childhoods themselves and, as most parents do, they wanted to give their sons a better start in life than what they’d had.
They did the best they could, and I firmly believe that. I’m grateful for my parents’ love and the sacrifices they made for me and my brother.
Many SSA guys tell stories of how distant their fathers were growing up, how cold they were, how harsh or demanding. Mine was not like that.
My father was warm, caring, patient, and merciful. He hugged me every day and kissed me as much as I would let him. He told me he loved me just as often — if not in his words, then in his actions. I remember his often holding my hand just to hold it.
I had a great dad when I was a kid.
Then I became a teenager, and while my father continued to be his usual self with me, I was changing. When you’re in the middle of that change, it’s often hard to understand exactly what’s going on. My voice cracked. I didn’t start to grow facial hair until I was almost sixteen.
Being the youngest in my family and the youngest of my most immediate cousins, I had always been the cute little boy of the family, but now I wanted to grow up. I was tired of being cute. I struggled with my identity and understanding my place in the world and in God’s plans. I slid into depression and became suicidal. I fell into addiction to pornography.
My life was all secrecy, hiding, and lies. My father never approached me to talk about what was going on, to reach into my darkness and pull me through.
My father still loved me, though. He’d look at me across the dinner table after eating and just stare at me and smile.
“What?” I’d ask him.
“Nothin’,” he’d say. “Just lookin’ at you . . . ’cause I love you. Is that okay?”
I’d just roll my eyes.
Of course he loved me. He didn’t know I’d just spent three hours that afternoon jacking off to porn, or that the time I’d spent doing that forced me to cheat on my homework in order to get it done in time.
Sure, my father loved me; he loved what he knew of me.
I read John Eldredge’s bestselling book Wild at Heart when I was eighteen. It was like finding the missing piece of a puzzle that made all of the other pieces come together and make sense. When Eldredge started talking in that book about a man’s father-wound, I could suddenly find words to describe and understand what I’d been bleeding over for so many years.
My father never beat me. He never condemned me or cursed me or shamed me or did anything malicious against me.
But because of his own brokenness, my father stopped growing with me when I entered puberty. He reached out to hold the hand of a ten-year-old boy, even though I was well into my teens. Stares and smiles across the table are great, but when that’s all there is, it leaves a son feeling neglected.
My father loved me, but he didn’t know how to be the father of a teenager or how to guide his sons into manhood.
I wanted to stop keeping so many secrets from people, especially my father. I wanted to start opening up. Later that same year, I told my parents about my SSA. My father took the news well, but he never brought it up again and would only keep silent whenever I tried to talk about it.
When I was 19, I wrote a book about sexual development and sexual issues guys face in their teenage years. It was over 200 pages. I was proud of that thing. My mother read it. My father never did. It was never published.
I wanted so desperately to connect with my father. I was affectionate with him, I never felt embarrassed by him, I tried again and again to become vulnerable with him, to go deep with him, to build some kind of strong, lasting bond with him.
But I was always met with an oblivious response that had the warmest wishes, never going more than ankle-deep.
In my early twenties, I continued to struggle with porn. I stopped being discreet about it. I left the door open when I looked at it. I stopped deleting my viewing history on the computer. I wanted to get caught. I wanted my father to walk in and see what I was doing and be forced into a conversation with me about something other than work or the weather.
It never happened.
He did walk in on me once, though. I wasn’t watching porn, but I was sitting at my computer after a shower one evening, naked and masturbating. My door was closed, but not locked. He knocked.
In surprise, I blurted out, “Yeah?” Apparently, he thought that “yeah” meant permission for him to come on in, so he did. I jumped into my closet with double doors that opened in the middle. I was hoping for the one door between me and my father to hide me, but I’d forgotten there was a full-length mirror on the other door, reflecting my image back at my father.
I put on some underwear as he stepped into my room, asking him what he wanted.
“Is this your laundry?” he asked.
I stepped out rocking a boner under my skivvies. “Yeah, it’s mine,” I said, and I took it from him.
He said nothing and walked out normally, closing the door behind him.
Did he see me? I thought to myself. There’s no way he could have not seen me!
At first, I was nervous, shaken up, unsure what to do next. But soon my anxiety gave way to hope; this was pretty much exactly what I’d wanted to happen. I’d wanted my father to see me in my most vulnerable state and for him to receive me and affirm me. I’d hoped he had seen me naked.
I waited for him to approach me so we could talk about what had just happened.
But he didn’t. It was never brought up.
I was very open by this time about my SSA, my faith, and a lot of other issues. I didn’t mind putting everything out on the table if needed, and I made sure my father knew this. But I didn’t want to force anything on him. I wanted him to meet me where I was, to ask to see whatever was in me, to show some interest in me, in what I was going through, and in whom I was becoming.
But instead I got silence. Just a bunch of smiling stares across the dinner table.
Not long after this, my mother left him for another man. As the mess of that affair splattered beyond anyone’s control, she said that my father was a nice man but could never be intimate. She was tired of a shallow marriage. I disagreed with her adultery, but I understood what she was saying.
A year or so later, my dad picked me up from work one night and drove me home. I had to be honest with him about how I was doing, and I told him I was struggling with some kind of SSA-related issue. I don’t remember what it was now.
My dad replied awkwardly, “I don’t want to hear this, Kevin. Don’t talk to me about this.”
“Okay,” I said, “I’ll say I’m fine and tell you a bunch of lies then.”
My dad was obviously uncomfortable. He squirmed. “Well, don’t do that, either.” He forced a chuckle to lighten the mood.
“This is real life, Dad. I’m being honest with you,” I said.
But Dad kept quiet and stared at the road. He wasn’t smiling.
Last year, I went back to the USA to visit my family — mainly my dad. He had developed a kind of dementia much like Alzheimer’s, as well as another kind of mental disorder which affected his ability to understand and use language. His condition was declining at three times the normal rate. He wasn’t even seventy yet, but had to live with my brother and wasn’t able to work or drive anymore.
Things are still that way now.
When I first saw my father last year, he seemed to recognize my face, but he had forgotten my name. I don’t think he knew I was his son. I told him, but he soon forgot again. He was emotionally stable and seemingly normal at first glance, and we could even have a decent conversation, as long as the topic was light and I spoke slowly. But it was soon clear that he had gone downhill pretty far.
I look back on my relationship with my father over these last three decades, and I can see that my father did truly love me. He did his best to be the best father he knew how to be. But he was also a very wounded man, wounded in ways that nobody knows because he’s never told anyone. The effects are all there, but nobody knows the cause.
And it was these wounds that kept him from loving me in ways that I needed.
My father was never malicious toward me, but his wounds hurt me over time. He loved me, yes, but I often wondered if he ever really knew me, and if he would still love me if he did.
Now my father obviously doesn’t know me, at least beyond some vague memory he might hold onto for warmth in the back of his mind. And now that I have gained so much healing from my Heavenly Father, I look at my earthly father with compassion, wishing I could do something to help him, to pull him out of the pit of pain and the fog of dementia he’s in.
All I know to do now is pray. That’s my only hope for him.
What was your relationship with your father like growing up? Has it changed for the better or worse over the years?
* Photo courtesy Adrenus Craton, Creative Commons.