Choosing to distance myself from my toxic father made me stronger and happier.

When I was in elementary school, I wanted nothing more than to be daddy’s little princess. Although my parents had separated, I still had what I thought was a good relationship with him. We would watch 80s movies, go to sporting events and eat junk food. What more could a princess ask for? My father was a king in my eyes: He was always the cool chaperone on a field trip, he helped me win a science fair or two and he supported my tomboy tendencies. He was borderline perfect—until a huge secret ripped apart our perfect little kingdom.

When I was nine years old, a hurricane hit our area and my father came to the house my mom and I shared to check on us. Whenever my mom told me my father was coming over, I got so excited. I loved having both of my parents around, like we were a real family. After the hurricane, it only made sense that he would come and check on us, like a real dad. When I came downstairs, eager to see my father, he had a somber look on his face. That’s when I knew something was up. Did a tree fall on his house? Did a family member die? What could possibly be wrong?

Nothing could have prepared me for what I was about to hear. My dad pulled a photo out of his wallet and gave it to me, explaining that I had a brother just six months younger than me. I stared at the picture for a while. This boy looked exactly like my father—there was no denying that he was definitely my father’s child. But how did my mom manage to have a baby right after I was born and not tell me? That’s when reality hit: My dad had cheated on my mom while she was pregnant. My heart broke for her. However, though I wanted to be angry, I couldn’t. My mom had obviously moved on and had remained friends with my dad, so I didn’t have any reason to be mad at him.

Cole Mitchell/Dose

Even though my father knew he had a son, he had abandoned him and stayed in my life. Now that, I could justify feeling angry about—but in this instance, too, I forgave my dad almost instantaneously. What had happened happened. It appeared to me that he was finally facing the reality of his actions and taking responsibility for them. I knew I wanted to meet my brother and become the best big sister (even if it was only by six months) I possibly could.

When I met my brother, Thomas, that same evening, we clicked right away. Now, it wasn’t just my dad and me anymore—we had a new member of the crew. My perfect little kingdom had grown. In a time before everyone had a cell phone, Thomas and I relied on our father to organize our hangouts. We took road trips to drag races and had sleepovers during which we’d all watch classic movies and eat junk food.

Cole Mitchell/Dose

We remained in each other’s lives for years—until my father packed up his things and moved out of the state without telling either of us. I was devastated. This small kingdom I was so happy to be a part of had been torn apart and I didn’t even have a chance to say goodbye.

Maybe a year or two later, my father returned home and I forgave him. The two of us started hanging out again—without my brother. My dad told me Thomas no longer wanted to be a part of our lives.

‘Was there something wrong with me?’ I wondered. ‘Was I pushing everyone out of my life?’

On Thomas’ 16th birthday, I wanted answers. I had found an old phone number and tried calling it, hoping he would accept my request to be in his life again. To my surprise, he answered the phone, excited to hear from me.

That weekend, I went to what felt like a stranger’s birthday party. When I walked through the door, Thomas had the biggest smile on his face I had ever seen. Why would someone who didn’t want to be in my life for all those years be so excited to see me?

I asked Thomas why he stayed out of my life for so long. He explained that when our father moved away, he practically erased my brother from his life. Our dad had promised to come to Thomas’ basketball game, but never showed up. When Thomas tried calling my father to see if he was okay, he never answered. He didn’t answer for years. Eventually, Thomas gave up.

I never talked to my father about this, because I thought it was none of my business. This was an issue that he and my brother had to settle. As I left for college, my father sent me a copy of his will, letting me know that if he died, I would receive all of his assets. I read that letter about three times before reality set in: Thomas never wanted to be out of our lives—he was kicked out. My father’s will was proof of that.

My heart broke for my him, the ‘mistake’ who was never truly accepted by my father.

I thought back to my father breaking my mother’s heart. I remembered when he left us unannounced and abandoned my brother for the first eight years of his life. I couldn’t help but think that he left partially to escape Thomas. I thought about all the times I had forgiven my father in the past. I looked down at the will in my hands. I couldn’t forgive him for this. It’s been five years since that moment, and I haven’t spoken to him since.

Cole Mitchell/Dose

Paradoxically, if there’s one thing I’ve learned from my father, it’s how to love. I use that frustration that’s built up within me during years of my father’s mistreatment, and I redirect it into unconditional love for Thomas. I try to love my brother the way he has yearned to be loved by my father. I know that my father isn’t perfect and will never be, but I can only hope that during the time we haven’t talked, he’s matured and realized that his actions have affected not only my brother and my mother, but me as well.

I know that what’s best for me at this time is to step away from my toxic father and to turn all of my frustration into love. Maybe one day we’ll speak again and he’ll be open to loving both me and my brother unconditionally, but until then, I can’t bear to have the undivided attention of my father while Thomas gets left out again. Maybe one day our kingdom will be at peace once again.