In the middle of the night, I was awakened by a familiar breathless urgency. Scenes of my father swirled in and out of clarity in that half-awake state, heating my chest, pinning me to the damp sheets. Countless atrocities materialized with such vividness I knew I’d never escape. But then something shifted. Light shimmered at the edge of his image, softening his features, and for the first time, I shouted back, "Enough!"
The sound of that word woke me up, although, surprisingly, not my sweetheart, who was snoring on the other side of the bed. I reached for my glasses and laptop, my fingers shaking, my belly an empty pit. I looked over at the man I loved and wanted to wake him. I wanted to tell him how grateful I was for his kindness and what a wonderful father he is.
But the claws of the nightmare were still in me. I tiptoed to the couch in our tiny studio and began writing in the darkness of that October night. My face, a disembodied mask illuminated by the laptop screen, hovered like the moon over my keyboard. Shouldn’t I be over this by now? After all, Dad’s been dead for 30 years—he can’t get me anymore. But as I typed, I heard the impatient pacing of his cowboy boots scraping the linoleum and my fingers began to stab the keyboard. If I do this, will he finally go away? Will I ever heal?
Within a few years, I had dozens of Dad stories—tight, tense scenes from my childhood that brought relief when I read them aloud. They electrified readers. Literary magazines published some. I now had a regular posse of writing pals hating my dad. But the memories didn’t stop. They surprised me like stray bullets while I drove to work or when I was helping my students or as I sat in meditation. There was no telling when they’d appear.
In response, I kept writing as if it could save my life. I carved large swathes of time from my day like an addict, waking at 3 a.m. to write before work, saying no to everything social except the most crucial family events. I became a lousy friend. Such was the urgency to purge my past.
Then came the "oh, sh*t!" stories I’d long since buried—the hell of self-damage I had crawled away from half a century ago and had never imagined putting on the page. Immersing my body in a nightly bath of scalding water, pain searing every orifice, my suffering euphoric, staring into the mirror, blind to my skeletal reflection, taunting my haunted body. I held my breath and exposed these, too—reliving each moment, weeping as I wrote down every last motherf*cking word.
This was followed by days I wanted to give up and throw my manuscript away. Days I didn’t give a shit what anyone thought about my work followed by days I wanted to be told that my writing was brilliant, that I’d made someone cry, days I avoided everything—choosing to drink, shop, or get lost in the black hole of the internet. But none of it worked.
Every time I quit, an internal compass nagged at me, gently at first, then relentlessly. Then I’d begin again. I started with the softer, nearly forgotten memories: my horse nuzzling me in greeting, the scent of oats on his breath; the warm breeze moving through pines like a whisper; my body dancing like liquid, music in every pore; my mother reciting poetry, her face lifted in rapture.
Finally, I had both sides of the story. I had pushed through the denial, hatred, and fear and discovered what really mattered: I could choose happiness. I could choose compassion. I had found a way to put the truth on the page—both the trauma and the beauty—and discovered that with kindness, I could contain them both. Now what holds me to the page day after day is the contrast of all of life’s beauty braided with the ugliness—and the power of those words strung together to heal.