Life as a Daughter of Agent Orange, Part 4

A Chemically-Forced Submission in a Self-Absorbed World

Photograph Taken by Author

Well, after that previous part, I guess we are all still here! I never thought in a million years I would be sharing my story, let alone some intimate parts of how I dealt with the stress and upheaval. I know what I have gone through is for a purpose and a reason, but there are days and moments when I wish I could take a magic wand and make it all better. My late teens to early 20's were the years where I would wish that the most. 

During my last two years of high school, dad's side effects grew evermore fierce. It was getting to the point where he could not be in large crowds because just a tiny whiff of the wrong chemical makeup would cause his blood pressure to change dramatically and it would take a couple of days for his body to go back to normal (including his moods). Trying to get dad to come to my band and choir concerts was a chore on its own; I knew he could not handle the smells, but I still needed my dad there. The few he did not attend I spent the night watching and waiting for him to step into the gym's doorway (he would always stand in the lobby to be away from the smells) and my heart would sink when he never showed. My mom always came and later I found out that my desire to see dad there overshadowed what mom was doing; she was showing me she was there as both parents and did not receive thanks for it until years later. When it came to high school graduation, I flat out told my dad he would be there. In my mind if he did not attend, he was not proud of me. You could say I had a bit of Stockholm Syndrome at that time in my life; I thought I simply desired his approval, but I think it was more than that—I was trying to be who I thought he wanted me to be. 

I started working at the local grocery store at 17 because that was where my dad worked and I longed to have some kind of connection with him. Unknowingly, I stayed at that store for seven years because I did not want to disappoint him by doing something else. Even when he would threaten to take away my car (even though it was my only way to work and eventually college) or to kick me out, I still tried to please him. I wasted so many years trying to please a man who is psychologically damaged by a chemical; now I'm playing catch-up. I still work in the grocery business, but now it is because I like what I do rather than trying to please my dad. 

It was the year of 2009. I used think the days leading up to my birthday are tainted because bad things happen and that year was no exception. I was supposed to be travelling to Minnesota for a church prom when a few days before, I noticed something was off with Dad. He was pasty-white, sweaty, and not all there. I knew in that instant we had to take him to the emergency room (I can be a bit of a pain in the behind when it comes to situations like that and my bossy side kicks in). While my parents were not thrilled with my fervor, I am glad I had it because it turned out that Dad has a blood infection and if we had waited much longer, he could have died from it. One of the residual side effects of the blood infection combining with the Agent Orange was short term memory loss. The doctor informed us Dad's memory would eventually get better, but eight years later, it has not. Short term memory loss combined with Agent Orange mood swings was interesting to say the least. Dad would forget what time I would be going to work or school even after already telling him several times. When I would remind him, he would get angry with me.

I guess it is natural for anyone who has gone through something similar to undergo a change in how they view themselves, but regardless, that does not make it okay to mistreat one's family. I struggled a lot with community college with trying to find the balance between home life and my coming in to adulthood. I lacked self-confidence and some of my grades showed that. It did not help that when I would come home from school and work, I would be treated like a child who was coming home from middle school. It felt like I would never be respected as an adult in my own home and that was a horrible feeling. There were still moments when I would be threatened to have the car taken away from me, and for those who know me personally, there was no legitimate reason for it. I was struggling to find my own voice and even when I had the tiniest spark of courage, one look at dad would ice it over. One of the most hurtful things Dad did during my last year as a teenager was to throw a major decision back in my face. Fall of 2009, I was baptized and just a couple of months later I had a "human" moment and Dad sad, "What was the point of you getting baptized?" Aside from him calling me "brain-dead" when I was little because I had a hard time understanding math, that was the most hurtful thing he could have ever said to me. 

I think it was at that moment when I started to distance myself from him even though there was a part of me that still desired his approval. There are some who would (and have) said he said those hurtful things because he was sick and did not know what he was saying. To that I say, balderdash! It is not as if he was clinically insane. It was a chemical mutiny that held the captain at sword-point and still let him steer. Years later and many hurtful words later, I know he knew what he was saying—sometimes even on purpose with malicious intent. I began to hate Agent Orange in 2009 and eventually that morphed into hating my dad. To say I felt utterly alone is an understatement. 

Nobody outside my immediate family cared to know the truth about dad; we were often condemned as covering for him, explaining things away, avoiding the family, putting up with him, and he was talked about as if he was making it all up for attention. Seriously, if someone wanted attention, I think there is a much better cover story than being chemically castrated in one's mind and having your insides being slowly embalmed! It hurt to hear those things from people who supposedly cared about us; if they really cared, they would have asked what they could do—or just grab one of us girls and take us out for the day simply to have a day off from the Agent Orange madness. We were alone and isolated from normal life and I can recall only one person who pushed through all of that to stick by us—my mom's best friend, Joni. She never let Dad's issues scare her away from us; she help all of us girls with our emotions and with physical things too, like having us spend the night. She has never judged any part of the situation and never thought we were making up how bad life really was. I cannot imagine how I would have survived the next few years without her wisdom and guidance. She had the ability to look in on our situation as an unbiased third party even though she was emotionally attached to us. Nobody else even attempted what she accomplished. Even when I had my first anxiety attack, and could not handle Dad, she was there to guide me. I probably would not be alive today if not for this one woman's perseverance and unconditional love.

Part 5 will take you through graduating from community college to studying abroad in England. Please stay tuned, and thank you for being a part of this experience! 

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Life as a Daughter of Agent Orange, Part 4
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