A Pause Changed My Relationship With My Father
Updated: Mar 24, 2020
I have my father’s blessing to publish this story.
I’m with my father in his office in Ontario. I live in British Columbia, and it’s been eight years since we were last together in person. My father and I have been working hard on our relationship over the last year, attempting, over several phone calls, to work through some unresolved issues between us. At one point during the year, we hit an impasse and took a four-month break.
It was thanks to plant medicine that I had decided to raise the issues with my father. I was shown during an earlier psilocybin mushroom ceremony that I had paid a significant price for holding things back from my father. It was time to let go of this old way of being.
During the four-month break, I did four ayahuasca ceremonies. Part of my intention for those ceremonies was to look more deeply at what my father and I had been working through in the past year and find a healthy way to move forward from our break. I also had several talks with friends in which I wrestled with questions such as, How do I remain true to myself while also respecting my father? How do I make space for my belief that my father did the best he could (given all he’d been through), while also making space for my pain about the unresolved things between us? What is it that I really want from doing this work with my father? Does it really make sense to work on these things with my father or is it wiser to simply let it be?
Prior to our break, my father and I had explored the possibility of working with a counsellor. I thought it might work to have one of us meet in person with a counsellor while the other joined by video. However, after the ayahuasca ceremonies, I decided to let go of working through our unresolved issues, at least for the time being. Instead, I reflected on the kind of relationship that I wanted for us now and on how I imagined we could both contribute to such a relationship. What I most needed was to know that our relationship truly mattered to my father, which is to say I needed to know that I truly mattered to my father. So, I made a few requests of my father for specific things he could do to show me I mattered, and he agreed to them.
We moved forward from our four-month break and had several months of mostly harmonious phone calls. Early in the fall, my father asked me if I might come to Ontario for a visit. I was touched that he asked and told him that I would think about it. Soon after that, I left for Vancouver Island to do another four nights of Ayahuasca ceremonies. During the first ceremony it was made clear to me that it was time to go back to Ontario.
So here I am with my father in his office. After some initial chit chat, he asks me if there is more we still need to talk about in regards to the issues we had been discussing over the last year. I’m surprised by the question as it is uncommon for my father to initiate such discussions. But I’m also grateful. He is making an effort to show me I matter. There are things I’d like to talk about, but I feel hesitant about trying again. Yes, I have written a book that is full of information and tools for working through difficult things. But, as I discovered during our initial attempts to work through these things, I have a backlog of big emotions related to these issues, so some skilled counselling support would seem like a wise idea. Nonetheless, I decide to risk trying on our own. We may not have many more opportunities to be together and we have a good chunk of time. Maybe we can find our way.
It’s not too long before things heat up. We’re not yelling, but we are talking over each other. The needle on my feelometer is at frustration and heading toward anger. My body is tense. I know if I could offer some empathic listening, it would be tremendously helpful right now, but I just can’t get the listening neurons in my brain to fire together. Fortunately, I manage to call a pause. “I need to pause, Dad.” More good fortune, my father doesn’t object. In fact, he excuses himself to go to the bathroom. This gives me a couple of minutes and some extra space to calm my frustration. While I’m taking deep breaths and connecting to my feelings and needs, I find a larger perspective on what is happening and then decide to change the course of our dialogue.
When my father returns, I tell him I’m grateful that we are trying to talk through these hard things. I believe that just by trying to talk we are breaking a multi-generational pattern of avoiding hard conversations, and I tell him as much. My father then tells me that his father may have left the Netherlands and come to Canada because of a conflict with his father. Tears come to my eyes when I hear this. I feel a huge sadness in my heart when I think about my grandfather leaving his parents, siblings and country because of a conflict that couldn’t be resolved. My father tells me he doesn’t know for certain that this happened, and I know that there were other significant factors involved in my grandfather's decision to emigrate. Nonetheless, grief for the loss of family connection, of our own and of generations past, is flowing through me. I ask my father for a few moments to be with the grief. He excuses himself again.
As I’m waiting for my father and reflecting on my grief, an image appears in my mind and I know what I need to do. When my father returns, I stand up and I ask my father to stand behind me with his hands on my shoulders. Next, I ask him to join me in imagining his father is behind him, with more generations of fathers lined up further behind. Together, we start saying things that we’d want to hear from our ancestors, words such as, “We’re with you. Thank you for the work you’re doing. You’re not alone.” I can feel that my dad is fully there and tears start flowing again. I lean into his support at my back and we continue in this way for several minutes.
Just when I think we’re coming to the end of the process, my father says, “Eric, I think I need to put my arms around you, is that OK?” He then proceeds to wrap his arms around my upper belly, hugging me from behind. Now the tears are pouring out and I make no attempt to hold them back. I breathe through the tears with my dad gently squeezing my belly to help me release my grief each time I manage a big exhale. When it’s over, I turn to face him and put my hands on his shoulders. My father puts his hands on my shoulders. I have facilitated a few family constellations in my day and I know what I need to say now. I look my dad straight in the eyes and say, “You are my father.” My dad looks right back into my eyes and says, “You are my son.” I haven’t felt this close to my father since I was a child.
The process is complete and it’s my turn to go to the bathroom. When I return, my father asks me if I still want to go for a paddle down the river as we had planned. “What I really want to do,” I say to my father, “is tell you more about my work, particularly my work with plant medicine.” So my father pulls out the lunch he had brought along and I tell him about some memorable healing experiences I’ve had with psilocybin mushrooms and ayahuasca. My father has had mixed feelings about the use of plant medicines for healing, so I’ve been reluctant to share much in the past. But now I feel free to share openly and wholeheartedly about how plant medicines have contributed to my healing and to my life. My father is genuinely interested and asks questions and makes comments. (My father will email me the following Sunday to tell me that the news show 60 Minutes has a piece on the research at Johns Hopkins University on the use of psilocybin mushrooms for treating addiction and anxiety.) I tell my father that the healing work of plant medicine ceremonies is often difficult and that feeling more connected to family is very helpful. I now have a powerful felt experience of my father at my back that I know I will draw upon in future ceremonies.
Eventually, we go for a walk by the river. My father tells me more about his relationship with his father and some of the unresolvable issues they had when my grandfather was alive. Hearing more about my father’s life before I was born is always meaningful to me. I have thought a great deal about what kind of upbringing my father had and all that he’s been through. Imagining another’s childhood and life is part of how I attempt to resolve conflict with others. I’ve told my father more than once that, had I lived his life, I may have made all the same choices he’s made. However, as the psilocybin mushrooms made clear to me, I also need to honour what I’ve been through, sometimes by addressing unresolved issues.
A week later, back in his office, this time with my older brother, my father will ask my brother and me if there is anything we need to talk about. Again, I will be surprised, hesitant, and grateful. Again, it won’t be easy. I still think that counselling support is necessary, and I don’t need to have all the answers. I only need to stay open to new possibilities and continue feeling and pausing my way along.