Thursday, February 19, 2015

Hanging On To Myself Because No One Else Did

Do you remember how old you were when you realized that no matter how many good people were in your life that in one sense you were living this life alone? That as much as you might want to share your life with other important people there is still a very solitary aspect of living on this planet. Each of us has to navigate certain aspects of our lives alone.

What I think makes this realization harder for those of us with long-term childhood abuse is that for many of us there never really was a time we felt safe. And it doesn’t take long to realize that for most of us, if we didn’t feel safe, it was because of something pretty big in our lives. For those of us with abuse it’s usually either that we had a parent abuser or we had a parent who wasn’t able to stop the abuse that was happening to us once they found out or we had a parent abandon us entirely. And what this means is parents fell down on their jobs. Just didn’t get done the one thing we all expect out of parents. And that is to protect and defend their children.

It is devastating to feel the despair and hopelessness that permeates your heart, when you truly begin to realize the personal loss of not having had a father and a mother. Now in my case I had parents who were present in my house. They directed a whole lot of what went on under our roof. But they were pretty much unavailable to do what parents do for children. Which is interact with them, teach them to read, spend time with them, give advice for living life, and the myriad of things parents do.

My father/abuser did not really want to be a father and my mother was not allowed to be a mother because my father believed he needed her more than we did. But in whatever way abuse keeps parents from parenting it is overwhelming. The realization initially is: ‘you are on your own, whatever you do will have to be done with your own strength, and there is no source of strength to draw on for what you need because you are empty inside’. The emptiness I am speaking about is the well in each child that gets filled up by loving, caring parents or other adult caregivers. Children of abuse are always empty on the inside.

Part of the reason I tackled this aspect of my healing, the emptiness that existed in me from not having had loving adults in my life, was because I knew I couldn’t parent my own children from this place of emptiness. You can’t give away what you don’t have. For me, the primary reason I chose to bravely go forth into the process of healing my losses is because I love my girls and I had the Lord in my heart. The Lord provided strength and hope! My girls gave me the motivation!

It takes a lot of strength to plan, to dream, and then to be able to take action on your plans and dreams. It takes strength deep in your heart to live a life of integrity, following the dictates of your own heart. Such strength mostly comes from a strong foundation laid during the growing up years, from the love and nurturing and support of responsible parents. It is not natural to grow up without parents. God made us with a need for parents and it is very difficult to properly prepare for adulthood and to effectively manage the responsibilities of adulthood without a father and mother, (or a caring, loving parent substitute) and the strength of their love in our hearts.

But God promises He will be a father to the fatherless . . . and He is! God is faithful in this! He truly is . . . a father to the fatherless!!

As a young adult, one way I had managed without a father was by finding male role models.

Dr. James Dobson of ‘Focus on the Family’ was one role model that God brought into my life. Dr. Dobson was not a role model in person, but he had a daily radio program in the late 1970’s, ‘80’s and ‘90’s and I often listened to his program. Depending on the particular program, over the years I learned various important lessons. His wisdom and teaching in my life really filled in some critical things I had never been taught at home.

I learned from him more about healthy relationships. I learned about the role, beliefs and behaviors of a good husband. I learned more about the role, beliefs and behaviors of a good father. I heard about what it was like to have a strong father who loves and supports you, because Dr. Dobson was very close with his father and he would freely describe details about his experiences with his father.

I learned about what it was like to have a loving mother who was respected and loved by her husband. I would often cry as I listened to Dr. Dobson’s programs because I was realizing what life could be like and how to live the life I wanted to live. And I learned what life could have been like for me and my siblings had we had healthy parents.

I would often do an extra amount of work listening (not that I had planned to, but it worked out that way) when it came near to Mother’s Day or Father’s Day. Dr. Dobson would have live phone calls of fathers and sons talking. I listened to these callers and learned and imagined what it could be like to be a godly father; what it should have been like to have had a godly father. I was very motivated to learn what I had not learned from my parents because I knew all I learned would end up being a blessing to my girls. They were so worth it to me that I pushed myself to keep learning and keep growing for their sakes.

I had a similar experience on Mother’s Day. I heard live calls with mothers and children speaking to one another. Though it is not the same as having your own father or your own mother speaking to you, if you open your heart and open your mind, the Lord can do amazing work and restore a great deal of what was lost, and enable you to live a more full life in the present. And all of this truly can come with wonderful teaching, nurturing, modeling and care of others in your life. You can tap into healthy, solid people whose health seems to spill over onto you when you are feeling parched and without direction.

My wife can tell you how many hundreds of hours I have spent watching The Andy Griffith Show. My father was very similar in appearance and charisma to Andy Griffith, and they both kind of had a southern accent and were from the south. So there were physical features, voice intonations and mannerisms similar between the two men.

I have watched The Andy Griffith Show hour after hour to see the relationship and learn from the relationship that Andy had with his son, Opie. The actor who played Opie is Ron Howard, and Ron Howard and I are the same age. Even at the beginning of the show; I would watch Andy and his little boy walking together on their way to go fishing and I would imagine what it would have been like to walk along together with my father, leisurely holding hands; Opie spontaneously running off to throw a stone in the lake, then back to his father to hold hands again. I couldn’t imagine doing this with my father, but it helped me to watch these two. Through imagination, and good models to watch, I was able to fill a lot of the hole left in my heart from not having grown up with a loving father.

In some of the episodes, Opie made the typical mistakes and experienced the typical struggles of a young boy. I was able to watch his father respond with gentleness and kindness and understanding of the mistakes of his son. Other episodes allowed me to see Opie having done the right thing but his father, Andy, would have made the assumption that his son had done the wrong thing. It was absolutely riveting to me to watch a father honestly apologize to his young son for having misjudged and unfairly treated him. And it was very healing to watch a father respond with kindness and understanding when his little boy struggled with insecurities and failures.

You would be surprised how healing it is to watch what should have been done even if you did not experience that same treatment yourself. I believe God has given us the power of our imaginations for all kinds of important things and I truly believe healing is one of His best uses of it. I believe that is one of the blessings of community. In community people can see each other living out their lives. Sometimes we see each other make mistakes, but sometimes we see each other doing it right. My father was so afraid of allowing his children to be around a real, transparent community of people that I simply did not experience the ups and downs of good people trying to live their lives.

Abuse in our family robbed me of seeing things done well or done right or done lovingly. It just didn’t happen! My experiences were only the negatives of my family’s lack of love and good parenting. I was rarely given the opportunity to witness caring, decent marriages or parenting and if I did I actually just had to stumble across them. The healing that I experienced from watching Andy Griffith came through the repetition of watching positive scenes and from having an open heart and open mind to what I was seeing. I let those images and the emotions connected to them wash over me and heal me. I was choosing to be all I could be in spite of what my life had been.

I also had the opportunity to meet men in a Bible study who were ten or fifteen years older than I was. I spent a lot of time with them and I really attached myself to them! They taught me and showed me aspects of life and important life lessons I had not gotten from my father. There were even men my age, and a little younger, who I was able to learn a lot from. They might have been more like brothers but I was filling a father deficit in my life and all these wonderful men, as well as my father-in-law were a big part of helping me get on the road to healing.

But even this type of work in choosing to draw from and learn from positive role models takes emotional strength. Part of what was happening as I watched the lives of these men was that I honestly didn’t understand what I was seeing. I couldn’t understand why their lives were so “right” and why there was such peace in their lives. It really was an oddity to me at first. I had always thought my father had armed me with all the “right answers.” What I got from these men was how to live right. The difference was just profound.

What began to hit me was that my father had been all talk. He may have preached on Sunday mornings but he never lived out godly, solid, mature life. He never gave us positives about what to do and how to live. He just gave us some rules. He never gave us the do’s, but focused on the don’ts.

What I found in the lives of the Christian men was a strong doctrinal foundation that they would talk about if the subject came up, but mostly they were living godly lives, day by day, and loving one another and supporting one another, and loving their wives and being fathers to their children. These were men building into one another's lives and being as Christ to one another and being servants to their families. Honestly, I was stunned and could find no fault with their lives, basically. I had a lot of learning to do to get my head and heart around this profoundly different world I found myself in the middle of. It was nothing like the life I had lived with my family and my father.

I began to grow in grace and in the knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ - and began to understand, for the first time, what that verse was talking about. I remember sitting down with the pastor one time with my list of questions - and leaving with a most incredulous feeling that I had come in with guns loaded and left with a feeling I had never felt before. This pastor was a man of grace and love, who was not dogmatic (though he knew the Bible) but a man who accepted me and invited me into his church. I felt embarrassed, inadequate, foolish . . . and so wonderful all at the same time. I could not stay away as this man drew me toward his church and his ministry, much like Christ has drawn me with His love, and much like several of the men I have grown to know and love.

The Lord provided all this teaching for me even though it might have been later in my life than I thought it should have been. These good men in my life taught me by the example of their lives and their love and encouragement to me. They chose to take time away from their own families and pursuits just to show me and teach me what I needed to know; what I should have been able to learn from my father. They taught me what it would look like to have a godly father but also how to be a godly father. They were amazing mentors, brothers, and friends.

At one point along the process of therapy, my therapist and I agreed that it would be good for my progress if I were to call my father on the phone. It was very frightening for me (actually it was terrifying for me) but I prepared my mind and heart – worked up the courage – and eventually, after several weeks of preparation, I placed a call to my father. By this point in my life my wife and I had already experienced the miscarriage of three sons and we had adopted our first daughter. My wife and I had been married quite a while by this time. My father did not know any of the details of my life because there had been no contact at all between my father and me since I had left home some 19 years earlier.

In making the call, after overcoming the fear and anxiety, I made an attempt at conversation with my father, after he came to the phone. I realized later, he was only willing to take my call because he thought perhaps I was calling to tell him I had repented of my sin of leaving him (or whatever sins he imagined were in my life) and was going to come back to ‘The Place’. When I had barely begun to speak, during the first 30 seconds of my speaking, my father interrupted me.

All I had gotten around to telling him was that my wife and I had miscarried three boys and had finally been able to adopt a precious little girl . . . and he interrupted with: “God hasn’t given you any children because you are a reprobate. God hates you and has not given you any children so you don’t have any children and have to stoop to raising someone else’s reject. You better get yourself right with God and get back in ‘The Place’ or you are going to end up in hell”. I told him I was calling to talk a little bit and see how he was doing and to let him know a little bit about how I was doing. But he was not interested in conversation, only attacking me hatefully. I just had to end the call.

The Bible says “the glory of children is their fathers” which clearly speaks to how important a father can be to a child. That day my father did not choose to be my glory but my profound sadness and disappointment once again. I think that phone call was important for me to realize again that my father never really had anything to give other people but disdain. It seemed that disdain was the primary emotion he showed everyone except those people in his life who had done exactly as he told them to do. He wanted puppets.

But when I made that call to my father that day all those years later I just wanted to be his son. Not someone to be judged and condemned but someone to be loved. To have a give and take between two men who could listen to each other’s hearts and minds. What a gift that would have been to me. As it is, I was reminded during that phone call of the real truth of my father. He only wanted us in his life if we bowed to his wishes in every way. This conversation allowed me to finally move on realizing he had nothing good or wise or useful to offer his son Mark.

But his son Mark was moving in a very positive direction. I was learning the truth about who God really was, His love for me, who I was, and how much I had to learn still to be the man, the husband, the father and the citizen I wanted to be. I was taking steps every day along the journey of healing and that path was getting brighter each day. Not all abusers are going to say they are sorry for what they did. Mine never did. But that didn’t stop me from continuing my journey toward wholeness and healing. I wish for you the same! One step at a time, one day at a time…

Mark Phelps


  1. Mark, your blogs are just beautiful. It's hard growing up without having love from a mother, Your message of love can inspire others who are down, and who have been rejected by their families. Your father and his so called church do not represent Jesus Christ or follow his message about loving your enemies and neighbors and praying for those who persecute you. When you, Nate, Dortha, and Katherine left the church and his hatefulness. You did what some people are afraid of doing, and that is doing what is right and moral. I should show you the song from Joseph king of dreams It's called You Know Better Than I.

    1. Abraham the song is beautiful, just beautiful. I had not heard it before just now. Thank you for your great encouragement. What you wrote is true and you have lifted me higher than I was before! Thank you Abraham!!

  2. It was very sad to read the blog knowing your mother never paid attention to you, and what was also sad was that whenever you, your brothers, sisters, and mother went on candy sales, your brother Nate had to stay behind with your father and he beat him merciless, I'm glad that you and Nate have made up he is your true brother, and Dortha is your true sister. I love your blogs and I'm glad that you and I are friends on Facebook

    1. I am glad we are friends on Facebook too Abraham!