An abstract piece of art resembling frozen ice at night

Photo by maxx

During the last year I lived at home with my family in Minnesota, I was a bad boy. A miscreant. A drunken, drug-addled fiend searching for sustenance in the cultural desert of the arctic Midwest.

My punk rock insanity was fueled by a series of traumatic events that caused me to learn what self-medication was before I knew the term. Kidney surgery, broken bones, losing everything in a fire, eviction, being beaten by a gang, and being hunted by small-town police were all littered throughout my teen years.

Although I was a devilish delinquent living in a nightmare, I believe my father was living in a worse hell.

My father was a PTSD-ridden, soused, drug-fueled, anxiety and depression-suffering maniac who had been self-medicating since before he was a soldier in the Vietnam War. The war only poured gasoline on his feverish inner blaze. By the time I was seventeen, he was having recurring meltdowns, flashbacks, and angry episodes that made what he did in my childhood look tame.

That was the year that my father got in my face and angrily said, “Come on, hit me,” for the last time.

By then, I was too old to be a broken boy anymore. I was a fuse lit on a pipebomb and my father was the burning, war-torn building I threw it into.

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I had learned to survive and cope with my father’s self-immolation since I was born. I understand what PTSD is now, but in our whirling past with my family, it was never given as an explanation for the havoc.

It began on the farm where I grew up, in the middle of the cornfields where our farmhouse stood miles from the nearest town. The area surrounding my home resembled the horror film Children of the Corn, and in that isolated setting, there was a recurring scene of bullying and abuse.

One day, when I was six years old, I was working on building a toy cabin with Lincoln Logs and couldn’t get the green roof to fit right. Frustrated, I started to cry and broke a piece. It was a silly tantrum.

My father was at the kitchen table, smoking a menthol cigarette and wearing his guard uniform. It was his routine to smoke at the table in the afternoon before he left for his 4:00 shift at the prison where he worked. I knew I had started a firestorm when he threw his cigarette in the ashtray and marched over to me.

He crouched down, put his face inches from my own, and said, “Oh yeah? Oh yeah!? Are you mad? You mad, huh?!”

I looked into his burning eyes as tears rolled down my cheeks, and I blubbered, “No. I’m not.”

With fury, he took his pointer and middle fingers and began tapping his chin over and over. Then, while he growled through a clenched jaw he said, “Come on, hit me! Come on!”

I didn’t move a muscle. I was a peaceful little boy. A young pacifist. Hearing my father say those words made me both petrified and immensely sad as I thought, Why would I ever hit you, Dad?

That was the first time my father said those words, and it continued for eleven more years.

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The next time it happened was because I was upset about losing the hand to my Six Million Dollar Man action figure. Then came the time I didn’t want to eat my spinach. And then when I didn’t want to put away my Star Wars toys in the living room. All were small, inconsequential things that caused my dad to extend his chin and wickedly taunt me.

But other events were more darkly absurd.

Once I wanted to close the bathroom door because I needed to defecate, but my father wouldn’t let me.

He commanded, “You’re gonna have to get used to having the door open when you’re in the Army! Keep it open.”

I was confused and embarrassed, and I yelled, “Dad, let me close the door!”

With my pants around my ankles sitting on the toilet half naked, my father rushed over, his face red and swollen with anger as he snarled, “Oh yeah? Yeah!? You’re mad about that? Come on, hit me!”

His words came out so violently that his spit hit me in the face and slid down my cheeks. I cried, the door stayed open, and I shat while staring into the kitchen.

From a nearby room, I heard, “If you keep it up, you’re gonna end up where I work.”

That meant that if I continued being a bad seven-year-old boy I’d end up incarcerated. Locked up at the prison where he was employed.

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I don’t know how to account for my mother or where she was. Maybe she didn’t witness him doing those things or maybe she rewrote our family history so that those events never occurred. I wish they hadn’t happened. I wish my mother or someone would have stopped him. I wish someone would have made the yelling and verbal abuse end.

Out in the farmhouse as a child, I lived in a world of taut fear. Always on edge. I didn’t deserve to be treated that way. No one did.

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As the years passed and my teen years began, traumatic events happened that fueled my own erratic behavior.

At fourteen, I had to undergo a year of humiliating and excruciating tests for a kidney disorder. After my long-undetected birth defect was diagnosed, I had major surgery two days after I turned fifteen. Six weeks later, I lost nearly everything in a house fire, and two days after the fire, I broke my leg.

Throughout these ordeals, my family was very caring. It must have been terrible for them. At the same time, I watched my father slip further into darkness.

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The chaos grew worse after I had a sixteenth birthday party at the farm. My young rock band and I were on a makeshift stage and I was singing when David the landlord appeared. He demanded that everyone go home or he’d call the cops. When it was just David and I remaining, he told me that he was evicting my family from the home where we’d lived the last decade and that it was my fault.

After my father arrived home, I had to tell him myself. He sobbed and collapsed. The farm had been his hideaway. A place away from war and some of the inner demons that haunted him.

Although my parents had allowed the party, I held myself accountable for causing his pain. Now, my father’s PTSD began to claw its way through him even more rapidly. At the same time, my traumas started ripping away at my young nerves.

Even though I continued singing in a band, winning classical piano awards, and getting good grades, anarchic disruption seemed the only way to communicate the vast sadness and fear I held inside.

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After all my band’s gear was stolen from our rehearsal studio and never recovered, I fell into fury and chaos.

I began to be arrested for various crimes. The police of Granite City had little to do but hunt young punk kids who looked different, and they put a bullseye on my back. The cops lurked the streets and stalked the farm roads looking for hoodlums like me.

The mayhem never seemed to end.

One night, my friend, Paul, was attacked by a gang of three rednecks. They began beating his head into the sidewalk for being Asian. I pulled them off him before he was killed. After Paul got away, the three bigots turned to me and broke my arm.

Winter snow and sub-zero temperatures arrived as they did every year in the Minnesota wasteland. People hid from the cold and cabin fever set in. That was when the years of damage and turmoil between my father and I came to a ferocious climax.

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In February, with snow packed against windows and the arctic wind whipping outside, I decided to take a sabbatical from pills, ecstasy, and Jack Daniels. I rented a Nintendo game system one Friday night and planned to stay home with my girlfriend to play Bubble Bobble in my bedroom.

My family and I were living in a suburban split-level house by then. After we were evicted from the farm, my parents bought their first house on a cul-de-sac. My bedroom was in the basement and other than creeping upstairs to eat frozen pizzas and burritos, I lived in the basement.

That night, everything began smoothly. My brother was staying the night with a friend and my mother was working. My girlfriend and I were having innocent fun in my room, and when we heard my father come home, we paid no attention.

Without warning, I heard him quickly pound down the stairs and rap hard on my bedroom door.

“What you doin’ in there?” he asked sounding as though he was speaking through angrily grit teeth.

“What do mean, Dad?” I said, annoyed.

“What the fuck are you doing in there?”

“We’re just playing a game, Dad.”

“Who? Who’s in there with you?!”

“Tara. We’re just playing video games.”

“Open the door. Open the door now!”

“Why?”

“Because! I said so!”

Jesus, I mumbled and opened the door.

He flew in and looked manic. His eyes were wide open, glassy, red, and furious.

“Get out! It’s Friday night. Get out and go do something!” he screamed.

Tara was visibly frightened, and even though I was used to it, this was even more over the top than normal.

“We’re just playing games, Dad!” I yelled. “We don’t wanna go out tonight. It’s really cold out there and we just wanna stay in. What’s wrong with that?”

“Get…out…NOW!”

It quickly became a chaotic whirlwind. Tara and I gathered the game system and hurried out of the house in the freezing night to her yellow Datsun. As we left, my blood was pumping and I was incensed. I went from being a calm, saintly teen to a storm cloud of sin. I had a fire-breathing desire to get as wasted as possible.

“Let’s go downtown. I wanna get fucked up,” I said to Tara as she drove.

An abstract art piece that appears to have silhouettes of people in a dark forest with sparks of fire over them

Photo by Jr Korpa

I bought several bottles of booze with a fake ID, and we had a night carousing in college basements, in dank arcades, and on the icy streets of Granite City. After having sex in the back of Tara’s car, she poured me into my parents’ driveway and went home. It was 3:00 in the morning.

I walked inside teetering, wanting to get some food and crash. I went up the carpeted stairs to the kitchen and started looking in the refrigerator. Then, I heard the deep, gruff voice of my father in the hallway.

“Where have you been?”

“I did what you said. I went out,” I replied.

“You’re drunk.”

“So are you.”

He walked over to the kitchen and slammed the fridge door in my face.

“What the fuck, Dad?”

“Oh yeah? Oh, yeah!?” he snapped and his mustache seemed to quiver over his tight mouth. “Whatcha gonna do about it? Huh? What?”

I backed up and he brought his angry face inches from my own in the same way he’d done many times before. He angrily tapped his fingers to his chin over and over, growled and spit and taunted and said, “Come on, hit me. Come on! Do it. Do it!”

Years of pent-up rage and trauma swam inside me. I was now just as tall as him, but stronger. I wanted to be emancipated from years of fear. Years of abuse. He had opened the door to both violence and my freedom.

I drew back my fist and clocked my father hard in the chin.

He fell backward, crouched down, and turned his head up toward me. His eyes were wide with shock. Then, he came at me, stampeding forward. When he did, I grabbed his thin frame by the shoulders and used his momentum to knock his body to the side. But he was going too hard. His body kept moving forward and his head crashed into the front of the dishwasher.

When he stood up, one long, red, trickle of blood ran down the bald spot on his forehead.

From behind me, I heard, “Kiai!”

It was my mother, the brown belt, standing in the hallway. I didn’t know she was home. She was in a karate stance holding a four-foot-long wooden bo staff as a weapon. She spun the staff in the air, threw it down with one end pointed at the ground, and continued wielding it.

She glared at me and yelled out, “Get away from your father!”

My mother was not a joke. She was trained and I knew she could beat me down. But in that instant, she reminded me of Daffy Duck in a Loony Toon cartoon. One where Daffy played a version of Robin Hood. It was lunacy.

I laughed. Then realizing the insanity of the situation, I said with incredulity, “Wait? You want me to get away from him? He’s attacking me. He’s been abusing me like that for years!”

“Get back,” she commanded.

The house spun. I was on a carnival ride in a surreal hell. I looked at my drunk, bleeding father and then at his bodyguard, my mother. I thought about all the years I had never been defended. All the humiliation, anger, fear, and isolation festered inside me.

I looked at my mother defeated, lowered my head, and said, “You got it. He’s all yours.”

I went down the stairs, put on my coat, opened the door, and left.

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I did not return for three days. During that time, I stayed at a punk rock house drinking Mickey’s Big Mouth beers and eating mayonnaise sandwiches until I felt I could go home safely.

A few months later, I left for university in Track Town, Oregon. Until I drove west, Minnesota life continued in a melee of arguments and madness, but my father never said those words to me again.

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It took many years for me to forgive my father for the way I was treated growing up, but I did forgive him. It took even longer to forgive myself for being a nightmare, but I eventually did.

What persists are deep scars. They do not go away. Forgiveness is essential, but owning my scars and my stories is even more valuable.

Owning what happened — what I could control and everything I could not — those are hidden treasures I discovered. Diamonds that helped me develop the boundaries and healthy behaviors I have now. Those tools continue to help me tell my stories. And once a story is told, I set it free.

I can’t remove the Vietnam War from my father, but I can empathize with the trauma it caused him. I can’t remove the toxicity from my family, but I can recognize it. People don’t need to understand every aspect of my history, but I do need to speak and write about it.

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I’d love to go back in time, find myself, and say to that kid in all that chaos, “You’re going to be okay.”

And when he looks at me and asks, “How do you know that?”

I’ll say, “Because I’m still here to tell our story.”