It Happened To Me: I Became a Perfectionist Because My Father Died

Four months after my father’s death, I decided to go back to college and get a bachelor’s degree. I had wanted to eventually do it for myself, sometime in a non-specific future, but it was my father’s death and the crushing depression and anger that I experienced afterwards which catalyzed my decision to do it as soon as I possibly could.

Oct 26, 2012 at 5:00pm | Leave a comment

My father was a perfectionist. He was meticulously neat: trimming his moustache every day, keeping his hair cut in a military-neat flattop. 

Even though he worked from home for most of my life, he made his bed every morning. He collected motivational quotes from inspirational intellectuals. He particularly liked Theodore Roosevelt, who extolled the virtues of “failing while daring greatly” if one must fail. My father penned a few quotes of his own, including, “Convert adversity into opportunity through perseverance.”

When my father died, four days after my 22nd birthday, I was filled with a rage so strong I thought it would pour out of my eyes and fingertips and melt anything I gazed at or touched. That throbbing, venomous anger still lives inside me, but it doesn’t well out of me anymore. I tap into it when I need an extra push to work harder or do better. I feel it as I write this.

Four months after my father’s death, I decided to go back to college and get a bachelor’s degree. I had wanted to eventually do it for myself, sometime in a non-specific future, but it was my father’s death and the crushing depression and anger that I experienced afterward which catalyzed my decision to do it as soon as I possibly could. 

In high school and in my early years of community college, I wasn't particularly interested in my grades. When I was passionate about a subject, then I would work hard to excel. But if a subject did not hold my interest, my effort dropped considerably. I always managed to pass, and often did well, but I never strove for excellence.

My father and I often clashed on the subject of academics. I remember proudly showing him a test grade, a 95/100 on a very difficult exam. And he told me, “It’s those other five points you should be thinking about.” When someone has been dead for a while, it is very hard to conjure their voice, but I will always be able to think of that and hear my father.

The things I was interested in when I was growing up, like boys, Stephen King books, neon hair color and "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," were alien to him -- as his interests were to me. When I shaved my head, got my first tattoos, started smoking cigarettes and left school to work in a coffee shop, I could see in his eyes how far apart we were. 

I always knew that my father loved me, but I didn’t really think he liked me. When my family discovered that I was depressed and self-mutilating, my father and I never even spoke to each other about it. We were two people on opposite sides of soundproof prison glass, unable to hear one another and unwilling to try.

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After my father died, my life fell further apart. The night he died, I downed half a bottle of vodka, screamed uncontrollably for hours, and tried to bash my own face apart on the tile floor in the basement. My boyfriend-at-the-time, who had once been a rock of support for me, cheated on me repeatedly with another woman (who he got pregnant) and then left me. I had daily thoughts of suicide.

I staggered under the weight of my sadness, and the only support holding me up was my anger. I hated everyone. When people told me they were sorry for my loss, I wanted to spit in their faces. I used to go out to a bar every night and pray that someone would start a fight with me, so that I could have a reason to inflict pain on them. But I never did. I held that rage deep inside, along with my depression. I needed an outlet, an avenue, a floodgate. I applied to college.

I threw myself into my work, quickly jumping from a declaration of an Art major to a dual-degree in Art and English Literature. I filled my schedule with classes: creative writing, post-colonial literature, watercolor painting, human anatomy, Victorian literature, biology. I always took the maximum allowable amount of credits.

Though I was initially reluctant to socialize with anyone, I joined the English Honors Society, submitted drawings and paintings to the literary magazine, and was even invited to join the Golden Key International Honour Society, a group whose invitation is only extended to students in the top 15 percent of their class. I quit smoking cigarettes; I ran and resumed a somewhat regular yoga practice.

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When I returned to school, I did so channeling my father’s perfectionism. I like to think that I work hard and achieve for myself, for my future, but in the spirit of total honesty, I also strive for perfection because I can imagine it making my father proud. 

It’s a shame he is not around to see who I am now, and perhaps come to like this new person. The longer I go without seeing him, the more I realize that it is not exaggeration when people say that a dead loved one is carried with them. I carry my father with me.