Sunshine. I remember sunshine. I remember the coarse itchy summer pollen hitting the back of my throat as I ran, biked, and played with the neighborhood kids. I have these memories; the pool and water balloon fights. How the ground would become so saturated with water, the grass and muck squishing slimy between my toes unpleasantly.
These memories are the ones I have when I really focus and allow my mind to remember my childhood. It’s far easier to remember everything that happened after the age of 11. It’s easier to remember when pieces of my quintessential life were put into glaring focus for all that I had not known or understood. Perhaps I was simply shielded to it all; perhaps I was naïve.
I had only known life with an older sibling who would fall into uncontrollable fits of rage after school and almost daily. I had only known life with not telling others how he would chase my brother and I through the house before we got behind a locked door and listened as he spent what seemed like forever trying to tear through the door. There were holes in the walls that my dad patched up from my eldest brother’s fist going through them and strategically placed pictures hung to cover the damage that had been done that day. My parents were going to “have him fix his own damage,” but it ended up being left until it was forgotten about.
I remember the day he moved out to leave for college. It was like a weight was lifted from my mind; I was finally safe to just be in my household. No more chairs or random objects thrown in my or the middle child’s direction. No more running and wondering how long it would take till dad got home or mom was available to try to calm the oldest down. No more wondering what would end the fit, my brother’s rage ebbing as his blow out wore him down, or the sound of dad getting home and yelling through the house about him needing to calm down. It’s interesting: I truly do not remember where my mom was during these episodes of my oldest brothers break downs. I remember the middle child, time and time again putting himself between our older brother and I; I remember him being chased as he redirected the rage to himself. When the oldest moved out I was finally free.
Unbeknownst to me, my glee was ill advised. Why didn’t I knock on wood? How did I not see any of it before? Was I so consumed with not triggering my older brother that I was simply blind? The stress of raising a high needs child took its toll on my family. My parents’ marriage was in ruins by the time he left. Perhaps this would have happened anyway, in its own time; perhaps it was aggravated through the stress of high needs children. Speculation has never gotten me any answers. What is, simply is.
The separation came swiftly, followed quickly by divorce. My mom was unemployed and living with friends until she could open her own business and afford her own rent. Both brothers moved in with her, seeing as the eldest didn’t make it in college living on his own. He needed more support and came back after only a semester. I was left with a choice: Stay with Dad – whose work meant he was never around – or go with Mom, and reenter my childhood nightmare. I made the logical choice – I stayed with Dad. What took place next was unexpected – a reality that threw me. Where had the summer days gone? Where had the laughter and the neighborhood gone? Where was the façade that kept my innocence, like those perfectly placed photographs of smiling faces blocking the cracks and holes in the wall from the pent up rage unleashed in and on the walls of my childhood home?
My dad was not ready to take on raising a teenage girl. My dad was not equipped to even take care of himself. He would arrive home past midnight every night of the week, if he made it back on weekends. Smelling like booze and with an erratic, frenzied energy that gave me all the indicators that I needed to clear the space. Stress, anger, and dissatisfaction with his life – he sought something to blame, and in the dark hours of the night when he came home and when I was still awake, I was the easiest target for all his troubles. Words like “bitch”, “selfish”, “ungrateful” were thrown my way, unprompted. The glazed over glare of a drunkard’s eyes when they are upset became the most common look I received from my dad. His anger was thrown at me with words and frustrated sighs, sometimes a drink slammed on to the counter.
So where did I hide? Inside the safe walls of stories, imaginary worlds, books keeping me company until the dawn’s early light made me realize school was only a couple hours away. Could I make it through the day on a few hours sleep? Could I make it through the week? If I didn’t go to school, where would I get food? I couldn’t easily visit my friends after school and have a snack, the size of a meal, if I didn’t go to school.
The neighborhood kids had all grown and saw my appearance and attitude change. “Did you become emo?” I remember them asking in the halls of our school, where I dared not speak of how little I had slept or ate. It became easier to shut them out and keep them away. At least in my own personal hell I could expect what was coming, where I would sleep. I felt like I had some control, and the thought of someone finding out, of calling CPS, silenced any thoughts I had of fessing up or coming clean. I became a master, an artist of sorts, of appearing completely fine, of brushing over my own needs and emotions, to keep the focus outside.
Then a call came in from someone I hadn’t seen in a long time. She said, “Hey honey! It has been too long; want to come over?” This was a childhood friend, not connected to the neighborhood, who I hadn’t seen since I was probably nine.
At first it seemed nothing out of the ordinary, with my customary responses of everything was good, Mom and Dad were well, the brothers were doing well working on their degrees, yes school was going well. But perhaps there was a hiccup in my voice, maybe I paused for too long, maybe some indicator I didn’t know I was giving was a glaring red flag. Her dad saw something, or felt something. Somehow he knew not everything was okay. He saw a new weight on my shoulders that he hadn’t seen before. He started kindly prodding, “How are you my darling?”, “What have you been up to?”, “Shall we go to eat?” They began picking me up from school every Friday and not taking me home until Sunday. They made sure to eat first thing after they picked me up and stopped asking me if I was hungry, because they knew the answer and knew I would never fess up. They gave me a space to sleep soundly, to dance, and laugh, and took my broken spirit and handled me gently as I tried to not show my surprise at their kindness.
They showed me a new form of normal, with their own ups and downs. Her dad insisted on homework completion but also believed in fun. We blasted the top 20 countdown on MTV every Saturday morning, running through the house yelling the lyrics. They showed me messy is okay; the dishes would, in fact, get done eventually. And emotion is okay; sometimes you feel sad or stress and there isn’t shame in that.
As I began to relax into our habits, my guarded self began to open up. I told them about my dad’s drinking, and they assured me that my dad loved me, even if he didn’t know of a healthy way to show it. I told them about my oldest brother’s rage, and they taught me about autism (aspergers) and about how sometimes people don’t know how to express their feelings in a productive way. I told them I wasn’t speaking with my mom, because I couldn’t handle her telling me how I was being a burden on her already totally messed up life. And they told me, “You are not a burden; you are a joy; you are a delight.” They continued to tell me how strong I am, how wonderful I am, and how I am loved unconditionally.
I began to feel it again, in moments out around town or at school. The joy was coming back, the simple delight at walking outside with the fresh air and itchy grass. The excitement of a major rain storm and seeing trees knock into each other. I started to let myself feel again – feel my anger, feel my hurt, feel my confusion and dismay. Dismay that anyone could look at me and see fault, and see error, and find my very existence to be a burden.
I am not a burden. I am not weak. I have my flaws, as we all do, but I am deserving of love and compassion just like anyone else.
I knew I was no longer alone, which made me bold. Which made me allow my style of blunt honesty to come to the forefront. I knew that regardless of where my life would lead me and what happened between my immediate family and I, I would make it. I would be okay. I could set boundaries and have standards, and feel, and if those interacting with me were uncomfortable with that, that was their problem. The power I had rediscovered, the unshaking clarity that I am worth it, and deserving of love, gave wings to my life.
“You will never speak to me like this again.” I told him that night so many years ago. “You will never come at me like this again.” I spoke clear and strong. “You will never make your unhappiness be something that I created or a fault of mine; are we clear?” I asked my father. Silence. The shock of hearing a voice that had been silenced and ignored. Silence, that felt like an eternity. Silence, that was eventually broken by the slurred and shocked, “Yes” that came across my phone line. I had rediscovered me.