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I Finally Told My Kids the Truth About Our Family

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Photograph by Getty Images

A few months ago my youngest, my 4-year-old daughter, came up to me and asked me if "Papa" was real. Yes, Papa is real. I looked down at her with a smile on my face and that childish sadness crept up inside me.

"We just haven't seen him in a long time," I responded.

She then said, "Is Santa real?" I hesitated on that one. I thought about how these two men in her life were being blurred together, somewhere between myth and mystery. That afternoon, as I drove my kids home from school, we saw a homeless person getting arrested. The kids wanted to know why.

"I don't know, maybe he was selling drugs, maybe he's mentally ill," I said. "Unfortunately, we do not take good care of our mentally ill here in America."

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"Well why don't we?" my 5-year-old pushed.

"It's very sad, but we just don't," I said. "Sometimes they don't want help."

This seemed like the time to tell them why we don't see their Papa anymore. And so I kept going.

"You know, Mommy tried to get Papa help, because he was having problems in his head," I said.

There was silence in the backseat.

"OK, what's wrong with Papa's brain?"my brave 5 year-old boy asked.

My kids see pictures of their grandfather and smile. But, honestly, towards the end my two youngest didn't want to be around him.

Since I have vowed not to raise my kids in secrecy and confusion (well, OK, at least try) I told them the truth, right there on the freeway. "Papa is addicted to alcohol and pills, and he's got something wrong with his thinking."

My middle son, pushed on. "Will we ever see Papa again?"

I was unhappy I could not safely take a Xanax at the juncture. Nor could I Google the proper response. Or even quietly ask my husband whether I was doing this right. I kept driving.

My 4- and 5-year-olds don't remember my dad too much, but my 9-year-old does. I see the same look in him that I would have talking about my dad. He smiles and his eyes light up, but ultimately he gulps, choking down the sad realization that my dad's charisma is overrun by his madness.

I put up some boundaries, he ignored them.

I continued on in the car, fear and thrill pushing me forward.

"Well, Papa is mentally ill and has a hard time making the right choices for himself and for us," I explained, steady. "So until Papa gets help he is not allowed to see us."

I glanced at my oldest again in the rear view mirror. "Are you OK?" I asked. "How does that make you feel honey?"

He put on his tough face and said, "Fine, I knew that." I don't know exactly what he knew.

My kids see pictures of their grandfather and smile. But, honestly, towards the end my two youngest didn't want to be around him. I was so uncomfortable being around him the anxiety was nearly crippling. When my dad would show up, un-announced, driving hundreds of miles, my nanny would look at me with alarm. Dread would stop my heart. Panic. My brave nanny never left me alone with him or the kids.

There was no physical or sexual abuse, but the mental confusion became unbearable. I was really struggling that my new family—me with my three very young kids—were suffering from this stress. This all despite my strong/smart/kind husband and my access to the best psychiatrists in Los Angeles. And also despite my attempts to be the good—no, the perfect—daughter to avoid that terrible feeling that I was screwing up, that I was bad.

One psychologist suggested cutting him off, but that was ridiculous. This is my dad. He just needed help.

It wasn't until I was 32 that I began to rebel against the secret code of my family: Everything revolves around dad, dance to make him happy, or else suffer the wrath.

I tried pacifying, he still got to me.

I put up some boundaries, he ignored them.

One psychologist suggested cutting him off, but that was ridiculous. This is my dad. He just needed help.

The break came after he refused to go to a rehab facility. Deposit down, bed reserved, he just had to walk in, and we could start fixing stuff. When he refused, after promising he'd go, and on top of it all mocked my attempts to get him help, I finally cut him off.

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The second I blocked my dad's number from my phone, so much fear and anguish dissipated. I understood why I couldn't have done this years ago, but I wished I would have. I have not seen or talked to my dad in a year and five months. It's made my life incredibly more peaceful.

A few years ago, I prayed to God that I could have birthed my dad. I wished I could have been there to pick him up when cried instead of being left alone, which is how his own horrendous childhood usually played out. I wished so hard that I could make him happy and fix his brain.

He could have been such a beautiful man, and I would have loved for my kids to have a Papa. I would have loved, for myself, to have had a dad.

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