INTERVIEW: on Separating Parents
ON BEING THE SON OF SEPARATING PARENTS
I met Matt as he, with his girlfriend and her son, stayed at a hotel I worked at. They left after a couple nights. A couple days later they came in again… and he was very clearly just out of the hospital, with cuts, bruises, and a hospital gown still on. They needed a room again so he could recover. The photographs were taken quite awhile later when he’d healed, taken at a beautiful area where I photograph pictures of ice.
Matt – “I grew up with my Mom and Dad, which I guess for these days is a bit odd.
I always felt like my role in my family has been to make people feel happy, you know, I was always doing some goofy thing. When everyone was fighting, they’d look at me and get happy ’cause I was doing this little distraction. That’s kind of how I grew up.”
SCATTERED SEEDS OF SEPARATION
“We moved here during grade twelve, didn’t know anyone. I played hockey, gradded in 2002, when I was eighteen. This song I’d been working on got nominated to be one of the songs the students voted on… everyone voted on it, it actually became the grad song. I ended up performing it; that was the first time in the school’s history that the song was written and performed by a member of the grad class – usually it’s just a popular (radio) song chosen, right?
The song was about everyone I went to school with. It was called ‘Goodbye To You’. The song was special because it was also written for the people I’d left from the high school the year before. But the people here just loved it, so they voted it to be the grad song.
A short while after I graduated my parents started… I don’t know if they started growing apart or if this had been a planned thing for a long time. There were about three or four months there when… my parents were just not getting along. Not giving any effort.”
You started becoming aware of this while you were in grade twelve; did it seem like it had been building up for quite awhile before that, in retrospect? That you just weren’t picking it up?
“In a way… but I’d been billeted out in hockey (living with families in other cities, in order to train hockey there), not really being around the problem, not really seeing it.”
ESCAPING FROM DARK INNER FEELINGS
“I saw this… kind of deterioration, you know? Then after high school I started spending less time with my family. I’m old enough to realize that this whole separation isn’t because of me, but at the same time I do feel partially responsible. I think… it’s because of decisions I was making at the time: I turned to drugs, after high school. It was partially experimentation, curiosity in trying the drugs, but mostly it was because… I just didn’t want to think about anything. I found if I was with my friends, drinking, partying, not thinking about anything – about this – then I was feeling okay.
There was one weekend I remember specifically: I ended up overdraft on my bank card, spending, like, two grand in a weekend. I was ‘up’ the whole weekend, didn’t sleep the whole time. Cocaine. After that, I just felt so awful, so bad about what I was doing, the drugs, about the way my life was heading. I stopped hanging out with all my friends that I was doing that with. It wasn’t going anywhere, it was going nowhere, and fast. It was heading towards me winding up without a home, without money, without anything.
I could see myself wanting to get so far away that… losing myself completely, you know? The feeling, I guess, of uncontrollably leaving what you really care about, and thinking that you’ll never be able to come back. Whether it’s death… or just not being able to come back.”
STILL LIVING AT HOME, BUT NOT FEELING ALIVE AT HOME?
“I was still living with my parents at that time. My Dad was sleeping on the couch, Mom was upstairs in the bedroom. I was pretty much never there. I would crash around at places, friends’ houses, sometimes I’d crash at my house, sleep until everyone was out of the house, then leave.
Right at the beginning, when my parents were starting to go through it, I took stress leave from my job. When I told my doctor about it, right away he said, ‘Do you need something for depression?’ That was the first thing he asked me.
I was like, ‘No; I don’t feel very good, but I’m not going to start taking pills right now, just for depression’. I took two weeks stress leave for this thing with my parents, I was dealing with my (very religious) brother, doing lots of drugs. I was about nineteen, then.”
How was it between you and your parents at that time? Were they too caught up with their own problems to really notice how your life was?
“I think they knew something was going on, not exactly what. I hid it from them, for sure. If they had ever come up to me, said, ‘You’re on drugs’, I’d be like, ‘No I’m not.’ But they didn’t ask. I never had an instance of them coming to me and asking. They always asked things like, ‘Is there something wrong?’ But I didn’t want to talk to them about it. I didn’t really tell anyone. I’ve been so used to kind of putting on a happy face, you know?”
PARENTS’ ODD BEHAVIOUR
“I was really confused about my parents. I’m sure everyone who goes through that is. It’s a confusing time. I’d be in a room talking to my Mom – not that I talked to my Mom much – she’d be really nice to me, and as soon as my Dad came in, it would change, she was super-short, to him, and would turn around and be nice to me, with my Dad still there. I could tell that she was deliberately being a lot nicer to us than to him. I didn’t understand it at the time, but now… she wanted something different, and… unless she acted this way… he wouldn’t get pushed away… and she would never be able to have that other… (life).
It was completely my Mom (her choice to separate). Talking with my sister (who their Mom confided in), she said that my Mom’s been feeling this way for about ten years. I think she just wants something else, now. I think she was just tired of it… I don’t think it was because she doesn’t like or respect him any more, or want him to not have anything good. It’s that she wants to have her own different kind of life now, and she can’t do that with him there.”
Was there ever a point where she said to everyone that she wanted to separate from her husband, from your father; did she come out and say it to you guys?
“Umm… no. No. …No. She hasn’t, still… to me. They had been to therapy, a couple times. I didn’t even know about it at the time, they were so secret about it.”
TIRING OF WHAT HAS BEEN: REASONS FOR SPLITTING
“I think probably the biggest reason they’re not together… is money. My Mom wants to have it… she wants the little things, to be able to buy a jacket, spend $500 on a fooseball table, she wants that. I think she did love my Dad very much at one point. Well, obviously – they had four kids together, they had to have something then. He doesn’t care about money, he’ll put himself into debt to help all his kids…
My Dad has a huge heart, just a huge heart. He got in a motorcycle accident when he was twenty-two, lost the use of his left arm from the shoulder down. He’s had a number of complications because of that, like over-usage of his right arm, muscles are breaking down, extreme tendonitis, a lot of things. And my Dad’s not able to go out. He was working for the government, he got really badly fucked over in his job, they blamed a huge, huge scandal on him, that he had nothing to do with. That, and the injury… it came to the point where he just couldn’t go to work anymore, just couldn’t deal with the people there. It just fell apart.”
AND YOUR ‘SIDE’ DURING THIS?
“I was… pretty upset with my Mom for a long time, everything she’d do. I remember one time, I was talking with them about selling their house… my Dad didn’t want to sell it, because he wanted a place where we could all come back to… maybe spend Christmas, or whatever. And my Mom wanted to sell the house… for money, and to get rid of everything they had together, so they could just split their things and move on. And I got in a big fight with her… I thought it was stupid to sell the house now, the way the markets were… and partly me wanting to hang on to the house, and being on my Dad’s side.
I’ve come to realize that there really isn’t a side, for the children. I think you just have to think of them still as your Mom and your Dad – that’s my Mom and that’s my Dad, and they each love me – separately. I’ve learned to think of it as what it is: it’s two people’s relationship that’s come apart. You know? There’s nothing that I or any one of us could do to change it.
And part of me wants to take advantage of that separation, you could get a little more from your Dad, and then a little more from your Mom. I could see how kids could use that. Like, ‘Mom wants me to like her, think of her situation, so she’s going to be as good to me as she can, because she wants me to not hold this break-up against her’. You know, kind of ‘play’ your parents a little.
But I didn’t do it. I guess I used the situation to tell my parents a lot of things that I wouldn’t have told them if they were together, but I don’t remember ever using it to get things from them… just because… I think that kind of behavior comes around. (Returns to harm you in the future)
HOW HE FELT
“I kind of lost the ability to tell them directly how I feel about things. I don’t know how or when that happened; I don’t know if I can’t, or just don’t want to, or if it’s been so long that it’s too hard? I have one word for how I felt then: it’s broken. Everything just felt so far away, and so un-fixable. It leaves you with a big empty. A big void.
I always want to fix something that’s broken, when someone’s not feeling well, I want to give them a hug, and have that hug fix the problem. I just don’t like seeing that… in a way, I think it hurts me. I remember once I yelled; I was listening to them argue, from the bottom of the stairs, I yelled at my Mom, ‘Can’t you talk to him like a fucking human!? Can’t you give him that decency?!’ Only a couple times like that, I don’t get excited much, but when I do I usually end up… breaking things.
I don’t like to get upset, I don’t like the way I am when I’m upset. I don’t like myself, upset. You lose common sense. You’re so irrational when you’re angry. It’s not how I want to be. I don’t really know how I want to be… but I know it’s not mad.
I talk to (girlfriend) about it, a little. She has a lot more problems than me right now. I don’t see a therapist, my therapist is my guitar, my writing. I do journal a little, on and off. Sometimes when I’m having a really hard time I will write down everything that happens in that day… I think it helps me because I remember everything better that way. And when you know everything that happened, I think you have a much better ability to make a decision.”
‘SONG’ IT OUT
“I’ve never really been one to talk to my parents about much. I like figuring things out by myself. I like sitting down, writing a song that makes me feel better. I feel like I’m telling everyone, when I make a song out of it.
I think for everyone who ever needs a release – sit down, play an instrument, start writing music… because I don’t think I’d be alive now if it wasn’t for music, writing it. That’s been something huge in my life.”
“I do remember crying once. It was weird, because the last time I remember crying before that was when I was sixteen. When you haven’t cried for a long time… you know, you can feel it coming, feel it coming… you almost don’t know what to expect, ’cause it’s been so long you don’t even remember really how to do it. And then it just starts coming, you know?
I think I wanted to feel bad so much, wanted to cry, that even once I started doing it, it almost… wasn’t enough. That’s what I thought was going to make me feel better, I just built it up way too much. Once I started, it just wasn’t… I wanted to keep crying, you know?
I was just thinking of little things, of when I was growing up, memories I have, little flashes, when my family was together, my parents, all these little things. That really made me sad enough to start crying. So many, so many good memories. My Dad used to take me on hockey trips all the time, we all grew up pretty close. Me and my youngest sister were super-close, she was, you know, my ‘little boo-boo’, and I was her – you know? That was the other thing I felt pretty guilty over, not having that relationship anymore with her.
Then, me and my brother were wanting to stay in a band together, but he was making different decisions – we never really got into the decisions that I was making. Once we had a heated debate over where I was going – he pretty much told me where he thought I was going, something like, ‘I don’t want to be standing at the gates of heaven going, ‘Why didn’t you listen to me?’ At the time, that just pushed me further away from him, ’cause I’ve always been kind of proud; got my own ways of figuring things out, whether through music, or whatever.”
“My Dad’s having a real hard time getting over the separation. With my Dad, I think I’m less patient than I want to be. Just the way he is now… I’m not sure if it’s just the medications, he seems different all the time.
It’s hard for me to say if he’s ‘grounded’ inside his own head. There was this time where I was fucked up… doing coke, doing whatever, not caring, not thinking about it. And during that time, my Dad was taking more and more medications for things. I don’t even know what he’s taking medications for now… it’s to the point where he really doesn’t seem the same type of person that I used to know, he’s losing his train of thought.
I think maybe because I didn’t talk to my parents for a long time about anything… maybe I just haven’t grown with them. I kind of lost my relationship with them. Now, I almost feel myself being annoyed with him, in the sense… I wish he could just be… the way he used to be. Or, what I used to think he was.”
GAINING A NEW GIRLFRIEND, AND CONSEQUENTLY A NEW IDEA OF MOM
“I stopped thinking so badly of my Mom… when I met (girlfriend). Because she’s in a very similar situation. The more I got to know her and her situation, the more it made me think of my parents’ situation. She split from her husband, and her husband didn’t want that separation.
It’s crazy how life can be: you’re feeling one way – like you have this huge fort you’ve built, this big army, this army of insults and backfires and comments you can make, and you have you and your army behind your wall of angry feelings… It’s so funny how one little thing happening – me meeting this girl – can take me from behind this wall, destroy my whole army, and throw me in the middle.
I think that’s the beauty of life. I enjoy that – being shown I’m not in control of this whole situation as much as I think I am. I believe there is a greater power, whether it’s God, the Creator, whatever… there’s something out there that is juggling people around, for our benefit. To get us through.
So I saw the exact parallel, the exact opposite side from what I had been seeing the whole time. And almost overnight, it opened me up completely to the way my Mom is seeing things; you know, how she’s just a person too, how we’re all these separate people and we all have our little separate wants and needs, and who am I to say (to his Mom), ‘That’s not what you need, that’s not what you want’?
Who is anyone to do that? No one can do that, to anyone… and be right. You can’t control people. But that’s what I wanted: I just wanted my Mom to be there for my Dad. That’s what was making me so upset with my Mom. That’s not fair. I see that now. It’s not fair.
Just because she went into a church, went through a ceremony… she still shouldn’t feel imprisoned if she later decides she needs to grow past that relationship. And this is the really hard part for me, because I was raised Roman Catholic. When she talks to my Dad, she’s like, ‘You’ll meet someone, you’ll meet someone.’ He’s like, ‘I did. Twenty-five years ago. I met someone, and that was you’.
That’s what he tells her.”
WHAT IS RIGHT AND WRONG –THAT MARRIAGE-BOND THING
“So… I’m still in it. I’m still experiencing it. I think the biggest question for me now, is… what is right? You know? You’re not going to be able to answer me, and I’m probably not going to find the answer for a long time, but… is the church right? If you marry in the church, ‘till death do us part’? But then you look at the world today, and what is the divorce rate? Like, 75 % or more? That’s saying the world is corrupt… does that make my Mom corrupt? Does that make me corrupt?
In a way, I am – I’m here, I’m living in it. But then, you meet people, like you, like all sorts of people, who have this… this energy, and you talk to them… and you think that there’s hope for the world. I guess that makes me realize that I am here for a reason, there’s a definite reason why I’m here. And whether it’s to raise this boy (his girlfriend’s son) now, help him have a good life, or whether it’s something else…”
LEARNING LESSONS: ON THE ACCEPTANCE OF PAIN
“I don’t think I’m alone, right now. I think everyone is struggling hugely. And some people that have a lot of money can cover it up better than people who don’t have that money, that comfort blanket, they’re stuck there in the open for everyone to see their problems. A lot of the pain of seeing my parents separate has gone. Or, maybe it’s been rationalized, because I don’t think it’s gone, or will ever be gone. I don’t think pain goes away, I think you get used to pain, at least emotional pain.
I think I learned that one when I was sixteen. When I was sixteen, my best friend died. I wrote a song for him, too, because I couldn’t go to his funeral… just couldn’t bring myself to say goodbye to him in that way… I told myself I’d say goodbye to him in a different way. The song I wrote for him… everyone that I played it for who knew him, they would cry when they heard it. They were like, ‘That’s him, saying goodbye’. It was the second song I ever wrote. I sat down and wrote it from start to finish, never let my pen leave the paper.
That was a good lesson to learn, young. It was so horrible to lose my best friend at that time in my life. But at the same time, it was a huge lesson – it got me ready for this.”
NOW: DAD, SIS, MOM
“Now, they’ve been living apart for about a year. They’re working on a separation agreement.
I’m excited for my Dad because his time to be happy is pretty close, he’s been dealing with a lot of shit for a long time. I think it’s going to get better with my sister’s baby – she’s going to have a baby soon – that will start turning him around. He bought a big piece of property, just got his pump-house (for the property’s water well) built, and she’ll be living there with him once he has some place that is livable. (He’s building on the property) I think that’s going to be great for my Dad, to help him get his mind off other things.
My Mom is extremely happy. I don’t ever remember seeing her like this, she’s like a little kid. She has a boyfriend, she’s really happy with him. I’m going to go work for him, in Alberta. Make some money. (Laughter) My Dad doesn’t have a girlfriend. And he doesn’t want one.
And, now Mom makes more money. I know that’s not the only thing, but that is a big thing for her – she wants the security. And I think she just lived too long without that security – with four kids, one income.”
THE NEXT GENERATION?
What would you say to (his girlfriend’s young son), if he was older and hating one of his parents for separating?
“That’s a good question.
I know part of me would be happy for him to hate his father. I know that’s an awful thing to say, but I can’t honestly say it wouldn’t make me feel good, in a little way. Whether that’s a good feeling, or not.
But I know that’s not what his soul wants, that’s not good for him. If he came to me because he was upset, and thought one of his parents didn’t love him, didn’t care about him because they had their separate lives… I think I could only try to explain in some way, try to make him understand about people… the different decisions we make. That sometimes we make a (painful) decision, that later turns out to be so good… and who would have known? If you hadn’t made that decision, you wouldn’t have found that happiness or whatever good you got from it.
And… sometimes you make a decision that turns out awful. It’s just the way the cookie crumbles, the parents aren’t deciding this because of you. That’s the main thing I would try to get across to him – to let him know that it’s not him. He should not feel that anything is his fault. I hate that word – fault. I don’t think you can ever put fault solely on a person… because there’s so much – life throws so many things at you, you know?”
This can trick you your whole life; for those of you whose parents made feel like you were in the way, like you were stopping them from doing what they really wanted to do, it’s important to remember:
You were just a child, and you needed bringing up by someone. If your guardians were unhappy with their circumstances, that is a battle they have inside them; you just happen to be part of the circumstances, but you are not the cause of their unhappiness.
BUT STILL SOME INERASABLE ‘FAULT’?
Do you still have any feeling that the separation was in any way preventable by you, now that you’ve been dealing with it as an adult for awhile?
“I do. I can’t say that I don’t. I know that I shouldn’t feel that way, but I can’t say I don’t. I think that if I’d gone straight to college, like my Mom wanted – they had some arguments about that. My Mom thinks it’s my Dad’s fault that I didn’t go to college right after high school.”
But when you think about it rationally, you understand there’s nothing you could have done?
“No, nothing. That argument about me not going to college is just a result of her feelings, her situation, the way she was feeling towards my Dad. One more thing that she could use against him.
I had a lot of guilt, a lot of guilt… not because I thought I would have been able to do something (to keep his parents together), just the fact that I wasn’t even there enough to know if I could have done something. And for the whole reason why I wasn’t there… out doing the partying, whatever.
Me and my brother were in a band together, my brother’s off to university to be a teacher… he didn’t even know I was doing drugs. I’ve always been good at hiding things from my parents. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but… I’ve always been good at hiding my emotions, feelings, making everybody believe everything’s okay, even if it’s not. Putting on that mask.
I’m getting out of it. I still find myself stuck in that mask that I made, not sure of my emotions or anything. Sometimes just smoking (a little weed) will drop all that away, you know? But then, you have to be careful with that because… is that you, or is that you plus this (the drugs)? I think I’m still on my way – that we’re all still on our way, to finding out exactly what makes us tick.
My heaviest time of doing drugs was while my parents were separating, but still living at home. Having that home was the only way I would have survived; I think I would have been out on the streets, because I spent all my money on drugs.
I think anyone who’s ever been there will always feel that need; I’ve done serious drugs only once since then, and it was so not worth it that it just reinforced my feeling of why I wasn’t doing it. It just made me feel worse about doing it before.”
DECENCY AMID THE MELEE
“One thing my parents were careful about, which I do appreciate, was each talking about the other one. They kept it pretty hidden. I’m sure there were a lot of things she wanted to say (out loud, in front of the kids) but didn’t. They did make the effort.
Like, I know my girlfriend’s husband was just awful to her… but it’s not my place to talk about (girlfriend’s son’s) father that way in front of him. It’s not her place, either, not anyone’s place to badmouth anyone in front of their kid. He needs to make those decisions on his own.
It’s so funny, because I’m not one who likes to judge someone that way – but you always are judging… always kind of have to.
I think the good thing is (girlfriend’s son) can’t talk yet. So it does give us a bit of time to think things out.”
ON FINDING YOURSELF, AS AN IMPORTANT PROCESS
“Something that frustrates me so much is, you go through school, there’s all this emphasis on what you’re going to be when you grow up, what you’re going to do – you need to have this decided in grade eight, need to have your plan. That’s what they do in school nowadays, it’s called ‘Career and Personal Planning’. You do it through grade eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, you write out what you’re going to do this year, next year, what your plans are for after high school.
And for me… all this emphasis on that, and no emphasis whatsoever on finding out who you are. How do you know what you want to be, if you don’t know what you are, who you are?
It’s frustrating. That’s why I think there’s so many people who rush off to college, then find high paying jobs… that they can only work at for ten years and then go crazy – because that’s not what they were supposed to be doing. They have this midlife crisis and end up losing everything.”
He wasn’t speaking specifically of his parents here… but if you look closely, perhaps he was speaking of a part of his parents’ relationship?
THE ACCIDENT, A FEW DAYS AGO
“I don’t think I would feel right without talking a little about my accident, what that meant to me. I guess I feel – now – that I was ignoring a lot of things, just running through life, not really thinking about what I’m doing too much. Not appreciating much.
That night, I fell asleep, drove off the road. (His car rolled down a steep embankment) My car was completely destroyed, only two wheels left on it. When I went to the auto wreckers later, there was no other car that looked anything close to mine. It was crumpled.
The way I think of it… I know there’s a reason for me to be here, because it would have been so easy for me not to be here. It would have been way easier for me to not be here than to be here, through that accident. All the factors, like, I was unconscious for so long that if I’d had any lacerations big enough, I would have bled to death, unconscious; my car was leaning up against a tree, over the embankment with a lake at the bottom; a branch had gone through my sunroof, right by my head; the car was too far down for anyone to see – if I hadn’t had been able to pull myself out and walk up the hill… if the cell phone didn’t ring and she (his girlfriend) had gone off to sleep thinking, ‘Oh, maybe he decided not to drive out’ and decided not to call.
So many things.
I feel so… blessed. I don’t feel ‘lucky’ covers it at all. I feel there was an angel around me, holding me, and once I stopped spinning and crashing, he went to (girlfriend’s) door, knocked, got her to call me. (Girlfriend) was waiting for me to drive out to her place. She later told me that she went to bed, turned out the light, looked up at the stars… then turned the light right back on, thinking that if I came tonight I wouldn’t be able to see. (See his way to her house in the darkness – it’s a large property) She heard this loud knock on the door on the other side of the house. She went, and there was no one there. Right at that point, she felt something was horribly wrong.
She called me, and that’s what woke me up. I woke up to my cell phone. I was stuck for awhile, couldn’t get out, couldn’t reach the cell phone. I was so confused, stuck, with my hands above my head like this, something beside my head. I don’t even know how I got out. But I managed to get out, walk up to the road.
What was really crazy, I don’t remember clearly, is I kept saying, kept telling everyone (rescuers, afterwards), ‘There’s someone else in the car, someone still in the car’. There wasn’t. But there was, there totally was. There was my angel, my whatever you want to call it, in the car.
I don’t remember going over the bank, rolling, but I remember there was someone in the car. But there was no person in the car.”
“I had a friend in high school – same thing: he fell asleep at the wheel, and never came to school the next day. Who’s to say that shouldn’t have been me, this time?
It really makes me feel good about living; just being alive.”
It’s an amazing lesson for him to learn, and also amazing that most people never learn it – just the appreciation, the gratitude, of being alive, nothing else. Nothing else.
A FINAL STATEMENT OF SELF-AWARENESS, POSSIBILITY, AND FUTURE
“I feel like I’m being prepared for something. You can compare it to a job:
You work at different places and gain different experiences, so that you can get that higher position because you now have this experience, this knowledge.”
Postscript: A few years later, Matt married (not the ‘girlfriend’ in this interview), they became parents and they now have their own family.