Alone in the Spotlight

Writing my story is much harder than I thought it would be, but it’s also more rewarding and freeing than I ever imagined. I’m only halfway done, but I’ve already had many, many epiphanies and I’m sure there are more to come. But along with all the unlearning of old beliefs and breaking of old patterns of thought comes a new fear.

Last night, I watched the latest episode of CMT’s Nashville. One of the lead characters is Deacon Claybourne, a country musician and recovering alcoholic. He was trying to support a rising artist by pushing her to record a song that exposes her truth about her relationship with an abusive ex-husband. She said that she just wasn’t feeling it and decided to quit recording for the evening. Deacon then said something to her that hit me right in the heart. He told her that he knew how scary it was when all of the obstacles to everything you want are gone and you’re left standing there, alone, in front of the mic.

I started bawling like I’d just lost my best friend – and honestly, I cry every time I think about it. Right now, I’m standing alone and the spotlight is on me. All of the obstacles that I’ve set up to keep me from doing what I want to do – because I was made to believe that what I wanted was wrong – are being destroyed, one by one, and I’m left standing here, exposed, raw, and unsure of what to do now.

However, I know the truth now. I know who he really was. I know that I’ve been living the lie he gave me for most of my life, but I also know that I don’t have to believe the lie anymore. I know that it’s up to me to sing my own truth or walk away from the spotlight, but leaving the spotlight is not an option. I know too much. I have to stand in that spotlight alone and be my authentic self. And that scares me to death.


Owning My Story Part 2: Dad

the king and the princess


My relationship with my father was not as cut and dried as the one I had with my mother. With her, there were distinct guideposts by which to tell the story. With Dad, it’s not as clear, even to me. So, instead of trying to explain a relationship that took me decades to unravel, I’ve decided to make it into a fairy tale of sorts, and let you glean from it what you wish. My Dad was beloved by many, but he wasn’t the benevolent martyr that he proclaimed himself to be, especially when it came to his kids.


Once upon a time, there was a King who ruled over a small, but independent kingdom called Narcissa. He didn’t inherit his kingdom. He came from very humble beginnings as the son of a farmer and struggled to build it on his own. He was proud that he had escaped the labor of farm life.

As was the way of royalty, he married a Princess from another, more wealthy kingdom to build upon his own kingdom. This Princess was unhappy under the strict rule of her mother, the Evil Queen, so she was relieved to marry a man who vowed to protect her and allow her to be the Queen of her own kingdom.

The King and Queen soon had a child, a beautiful dark haired little girl called the Dark Princess. The King remembered the day he fell in love with the little girl. She was sleeping with her head on his chest, when she awoke briefly, looked up at him, and smiled, then went back to sleep. The King loved the idea that someone could be that innocent and dependent on him. He thought he could love no one more.

After a few years, the King and Queen had a son, and the King went off to war. When he returned to his castle, the Queen was beside herself with joy. She bounded down the great stairway to greet him, leaving the Princess to struggle down the long staircase on her own. The Princess quickly found the King amongst all the soldiers and he was never so happy to see anyone, not even the Queen. A few years later, they had a golden haired daughter called the Golden Princess, and their family was complete.

The King was often out with his men, surveying his kingdom, and basking in the adulation of his subjects. The King was away more than he was home and the Queen, being prone to madness, became increasingly frightened that thieves would come and steal her youngest child away. Unbeknownst to the Dark Princess, the Queen would pace around in the nursery at night, keeping a watchful eye out for kidnappers. The Dark Princess heard the footsteps and knowing of her mother’s fears, began to fear for her own safety as well. She did not feel safe with her mother and would only feel safe when the King finally came home.

This went on for quite some time and the Dark Princess became increasingly afraid to be alone with her mother. She would wait to go sleep until the King got home, then she would lay at the foot of her mother and father’s bed. She would awaken before the King so that she could sneak back to her room, but one night the King found her and became angry. He said through clenched teeth, “I told you, there was nothing to be afraid of.” The Dark Princess cried as he dragged her around the castle, opening doors, trying to prove to her that no one was there. He told her that she was too old to be acting like a baby and, always wanting to please her father, she decided to hide her fears and do as she was told.

The Queen, however, could not suppress her fears. Instead, she built a tower and locked herself away. It was the only way she felt safe. The King would go visit her in her tower every day, while the Dark Princess watched over her younger siblings. The King gave her chores to complete and would get angry with her if he came home and the chores weren’t done. The Dark Princess didn’t understand why she had to make up for her mother’s absence and she resented all the work that she was expected to do. She was still a child after all, but the King and his confidants felt that the King was already terribly burdened, taking care of his sick wife and three small children, so the Dark Princess was urged to be good, be quiet, and help her father.

The Dark Princess missed her mother terribly. She couldn’t understand why her mother locked herself up in the tower and left her all alone. The King, not understanding children, did not try to help her understand what was going on nor did he try to convince her that everything would be okay. He simply left her to try to make sense of everything on her own.

Physical beauty was of the utmost importance to the King, and the older the Dark Princess got, the more disappointed in her appearance he became. She was not as pretty as she had been as a baby and he was afraid that he would never be able to marry her off. He resented the fact that the wealthy King and Queen had burdened him with an unhealthy wife and now he had a homely daughter he was going to have to care for as well.

The Prince and the Golden Princess, however, seemed to be everything the King wanted or at least that’s what he led the Dark Princess to believe. He boasted about how handsome the Prince was, how intelligent he was, and how extremely talented he was at all things creative. He also bragged that the Golden Princess was such a pretty girl, that all the young noblemen were enamored of her, and that she could dance like a fairy. Whenever the Dark Princess tried to gain her father’s approval with drawings, stories, or even her ability to compete in the hunt with all his men, he would simply pat her on the head and talk to her about how beautiful the princesses in other realms were or how smart, talented, and creative her siblings were. The Dark Princess finally gave up trying. She knew that nothing she could do would ever please her father and win back his love.

The King was not able to provide the Queen or her children with everything they needed, so the Queen’s parents often had to help them. This angered the King and he accused them of being coddled by the royal grandparents. Despite his resentment, the King was also dependent on the Queen’s parents to help him maintain his kingdom. He felt, however, that they owed it to him for taking their sick daughter off of their hands. He was not spoiled. The rest of his family was.

The Dark Princess, seeing no place for herself in the castle, ventured off on her own, but she was ill prepared for the real world outside her father’s realm. She had no confidence in her own abilities after years of negative comparison to others and had never found encouragement or support in anything she did. She didn’t even know who she was, she had spent so long trying to find a way to gain her father’s approval. However, she didn’t feel safe out in the world after depending on her father for so long and soon, she slunk back to the castle and locked herself up in her own room as her mother had done. She spent some time with her mother, telling her about her failures and her grief. The Queen confessed her own fears and did her best to shore up her daughter’s confidence, but by that time, the damage had been done and the Queen was too far gone in her isolation and madness to know how to help her.

The Prince and the Golden Princess eventually went their own ways, while the Dark Princess stayed in the castle with the King and Queen. She convinced herself that she was helping them, but she knew they merely saw her as a burden. Eventually, the Dark Princess knew the time had come for her to strike out on her own again and this time, she was able to eke out an existence for herself. She knew she could never go back to the castle again.

Eventually, the Queen succumbed to her madness and died alone in her tower. The King, after so many years trying to make the Queen happy and blaming her for his own unhappiness, was at a loss. He sat dejected on his throne and didn’t move for many years while his kingdom slowly deteriorated around him. Soon, his wife’s parents died as well. The King hoped that the influx of money from his wife’s inheritance would allow him to get back on his feet and repair his kingdom. He felt that he deserved that money after all of his years of sacrifice.

However, the inheritance went to their daughter’s children, the young Prince, Golden Princess, and the Dark Princess instead. The King was furious. He demanded that the children give him part of their inheritance and they acquiesced to his demand, even though they knew that the King had been given large sums of money throughout his marriage to the Queen. With that demand, the King hammered in the wedge that had been growing between he and his children for many years and they began to see the King for who he truly was.

The Dark Princess, despite her dour demeanor, was ever the optimist when it came to others. She believed that one day, her father would realize that she wasn’t worthless. She also hoped that he would finally start doing things for himself, instead of depending on others to do everything for him. She also wanted for him to quit seeing himself as a victim of his circumstances. She hoped, but she didn’t believe.

Over the next several years, the King’s health began to fade. He developed dementia in addition to the very weak heart he had lived with for several decades. The dementia removed the already porous filter he had on his thoughts and he began to pick at his children’s emotional weaknesses with vicious glee. Eventually, they decided to stop subjecting themselves to his abuse and refused to see him.

While her father’s health declined, the Dark Princess began to find her true self. She had hidden away those parts of herself that the King didn’t approve of for most of her life, but now she felt free to explore what it was that she truly wanted out of life. She returned to her drawing and other creative pursuits and she was happier than she had ever been. The King came to visit her in her own tiny kingdom one day and she decided to give him one last chance to realize that he had been wrong about her all those years. She showed him her artwork and told him how excited she was to be doing it again. The King looked at her work and said, “Uh huh. That’s nice. Do you remember that drawing I did for you many years ago? Do you still have it? I’d love to see it.” And with that, the Dark Princess smiled and knew that the King would never be able to see her for who she truly was. After so many years of trying to please him, she finally gave up trying to win his love and she let him go.

She didn’t see the King again until he was on his deathbed. The Prince and the Golden Princess convinced her that she should go see her father one last time, although she had no desire to put herself in the position to be hurt by him again. However, she knew she would regret not going, so she agreed to go. While her brother and sister attended to their ailing father, the Dark Princess remained distant. The King was aware enough to know that his children were there and he tried to act as he normally would have in healthier times, but he he was too far gone to fool anyone. The Dark Princess was relieved when it was finally time to go. She leaned over her father, kissed him on the forehead, and said, “Bye, Dad.” Soon after, he was gone.

Owning My Story Part 1: Mom

Owning our stories and loving ourselves through that process is the bravest thing that we’ll ever do. – Brené Brown


*Disclaimer – I might not have all the facts right and the timeline is pretty fuzzy, but this isn’t meant to be a factual re-accounting of my childhood. It’s more of an emotional re-accounting of how I perceived my childhood. While my brother and sister shared a childhood with me, their perceptions may be quite different. They have their own stories to tell.

I learned shame at an early age and I’ve carried it with my throughout my adulthood. My childhood wasn’t horrific, but it didn’t have to be horrific for it to have a crippling impact on my life. I hope that by putting my memories down in writing, I’ll be able to let them be where they belong: in the past. As the saying goes, you can’t start the next chapter of your life if you keep re-reading the last one.

I also wanted to write my story because I want to prove to the younger members of my family that we aren’t doomed due to our family history and genetics, but we can use these things to make us stronger and help us grow. My goal is to help myself heal and in the process, perhaps heal all those who came before me and all those not yet born.

I sat in front of my computer for a couple of days, typing and deleting, typing and deleting. I had a hard time figuring out what my story is and how to tell it. I’ve decided to tell it in four parts: Mom, Dad, The Drinking Years, and The Not Drinking Years.

My life wasn’t all bad. I was a pretty cute, outgoing kid and the wheels didn’t fall off the family bike until I was about ten years old. However, you don’t need to hear about the time I was three and rode my tricycle in the 4th of July parade. I was dressed in a little sailor dress with a white bucket hat on. I was pretty darn cute. And you probably don’t care to hear about the time my cousins and I walked what seemed like miles down a blistery hot, dusty Kansas backroad to go swimming in the creek that only had about a foot of water in it, but it was nice and cool and we had fun anyway. Or the time my dad, brother, and sister and I were staying in a cabin in Lake City, Colorado and we went out one night along the winding highway to look at the stars. We were talking about the Colorado cannibal, Alferd Packer, and how this was the area where he ate a few people, when we suddenly heard a loud sound, banging and creeping its way up the highway toward us. It kept getting closer and closer until someone said, “Maybe it’s Alferd Packer’s ghost!” We all looked at each other and at once, turned and bolted for the car, my dad included. We sped off up the highway, laughing hysterically.

Those stories are cute and funny, but they’re not My Story.

My story started out pretty “normal” for the first ten years. I was a tomboy. I loved to ride my bike and climb trees and play just about all the sports, but the normal didn’t last. The first particularly bizarre and scary event happened when I was about ten.  The good Christian folks from Mom and Dad’s Wednesday night prayer group decided Mom was possessed by the devil and that they needed to do an exorcism. So one Wednesday night, they put us kids to bed and got to work on those demons. I heard some scary music, like Gregorian chants (which creep me out to this day), coming from the living room, so I got up to see what was going on. All these people that I trusted had my mom surrounded with their hands on her and they were yelling at her. Someone saw me and Dad told me to go back to my mom and dad’s bedroom. The chanting started again and suddenly, a white dress came floating out of the closet and went swooping around the room. I cowered on the bed as the dress swooped overhead, then I got between the bed and the wall so I’d be safe. Now, I’m pretty sure this was a dream. However, I’ve had several dreams that were so real that to this day, I’m not sure they were dreams. This was definitely one of those. I never spoke about the exorcism and like my dream, I wasn’t even sure it had happened. I asked my Dad about it several years ago and he confessed that it had happened. He said he felt pretty bad about it.

Soon after the “exorcism,” a nurse came to our house to explain to my brother and me that our mom was sick and had to go away for a while. I vaguely remember Mom sitting there, looking off in the distance, like she was someplace else.

“I felt very still and empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surround hullabaloo.” – Sylvia Plath

That’s how I felt that day. As the nurse talked to us, I felt numb. Voices were muffled like I was under water. I felt as if I were watching the scene play out from far away. All I wanted to do was get away, so when the nurse asked if I had any questions, I said that I was fine and walked away. I went to my mom and dad’s room to watch an episode of ‘One Day At A Time’ on our little black and white TV. I couldn’t tell you what the episode was about.

After that, we didn’t talk too much about Mom. We were told not to tell anybody about what was going on. Dad and my grandmother said that people wouldn’t understand and it wasn’t their business. That’s where the shame started. Dad wasn’t much on talking about feelings either, so if I couldn’t tell anybody, then I had no way to process what was going on. I had no one to tell me everything would be okay. I told by all the adults in my life to keep quiet and be a good helper. At school, I isolated myself from the other kids, because I was ashamed. I felt that they wouldn’t like me if they found out about my mother. I was so sad all the time and it made for a pretty lonely childhood.

Mom was taken to the Texas State Hospital in Vernon, TX where she spent about a year. Vernon was about a three hour drive from Amarillo. Dad went to see her at least once a month, but we didn’t see her until we went to pick her up. She seemed reluctant to come home.

The State Hospital had a “prom” for the patients while my mom was there. Just like in high school, she was chosen “Prom Queen”. My mother was thrilled. In fact, she seemed to thrive there. A big part of me believes my mother went in and out of the hospital at will, because it was too hard for her to take care of three kids. She was definitely sick, but I also think she enjoyed the attention she got.

As all this was going down with my mother, we had a student teacher in our music class that I adored. She gave me a lot of attention and was very kind and supportive. One day, she announced to the class that it was her last day as student teacher. I was devastated. They had to have one of my friends bring me lunch in the classroom because I was so distraught. No one understood why I was so upset and I wasn’t even sure why myself, but it was like I was losing my mother all over again and this time, it was just too much to handle.

I believe my mother was in and out of the local psychiatric hospital for the next several years. It was very confusing to see her acting fairly normal when we went to visit her, but hearing my dad tell people how bad off she was. She would come home for a while, but inevitably, she would go back. It was a very unstable life for three small children.

When I was in seventh grade, Mom was driving me to school one morning. We lived on a busy street and if you’ve been to Amarillo, you know that the streets are like four lane highways. As we were backing out, I was chattering away and she turned to the side as if checking to see that the road was clear. I looked at her and then back to see what she was looking at. Strangely enough, I remember thinking there must be a hot air balloon in the sky behind me. What else could cause her to look so shocked? When I looked back at her and asked her what was wrong, she didn’t answer. Her mouth just hung open and her eyes were vacant. Then she started making a groaning noise and fell over in the front seat. The car continued to roll across the street as I jumped out and sprinted back to the house to get my dad. Unbeknownst to me, my mother had had electroshock therapy while in the hospital and had since begun to have seizures. It scared me so badly that I told my dad that I wanted her to go back to the hospital and never come home. I felt guilty for wanting her to go away, but I didn’t feel safe around her. She continued to have seizures for the rest of her life. It was like waiting for the other shoe to drop all the time. And the shoes dropped a lot.

Throughout the years, Mom was diagnosed with every mental illness in the DSM: depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and multiple personality disorder. I’m sure there were more. I think they threw diagnoses at her to see if any would stick, but none ever did. To this day, we don’t know what was wrong with my mother. We just know that something was terribly wrong with her.

She was also given every psychiatric drug available at the time. The side effects were terrible, from hair loss to rapid weight gain because she couldn’t stop eating to Tardive Dyskinesia, which caused stiff, jerky movements in her face. And she, like a lot of patients with mental health issues, would periodically go off her meds, sometimes to make the side effects stop; sometimes because she didn’t want to deal with life or something happened that made her feel unsafe. My mom’s biggest concern was for her own safety and she knew if she went off her meds, she would have to go back into the hospital, where she would be locked up and safe.


Life with my mother wasn’t all bad though. I loved her very much. When she was well, she would be my greatest champion and the only person I could talk to. She was also fun to be around. She laughed a lot and told the worst jokes ever, but she laughed so hard at her own bad jokes that you couldn’t help but laugh along with her. To this day, her horrible jokes are the only ones I know and they still crack me up. She was also very kind and loving. People were drawn to her like moths to a flame. She could be standing behind someone in a line and they would end up telling her their whole life story. If my mother had been healthy, I can’t even imagine the things she could have done.

This pattern of going in and out of the hospital continued throughout my junior high and high school years and for the first few years I was in college. At one point, I thought I was the cause of her issues because every time I came home from college for the summer, she would go into the hospital. I was told it wasn’t me, but I’m still not sure.

Her mental health grew progressively worse over the years, although she quit going to the hospital. I’m not sure why. My dad kept losing or quitting his jobs, so we moved around quite a bit during that time, which probably didn’t make Mom feel very safe.

In Denver, she started seeing a psychiatrist who diagnosed her with Dissociative Disorder or Multiple Personality Disorder. During the nineties, the psychiatric community was abuzz about repressed memories and satanic ritual abuse (SRA). It turned out that this doctor did some regression therapy with her that led he and my mother to believe that SRA had traumatized her at a very young age and caused her developing personality to split as a coping mechanism.

Mom thoroughly believed that she had suffered SRA at the hands of her mother and a cabal of other wealthy people in their small Kansas town. This doctor worked with her in an attempt to integrate all her personalities into one. However, after he had stirred up this pot of personalities, naming them, developing their stories, the doctor declared that he too was a victim of SRA and dropped my mother to focus on his own recovery. This was the diagnosis she would carry with her for the rest of her life.

We soon moved to Tulsa, which was probably the worst place for her to be. In Tulsa, she was not far from where she grew up. She was back in the area where she felt the most afraid. She thought that this cult of abusers would find her there and kill her. She became extremely manic and hyper-vigilant and she became convinced that God had a mission for her and my dad.

At one point, Mom and Dad went down to Amarillo to visit her mother. I don’t know whether the SRA ever really happened – although I have my own memory (or was it a dream) about people in the basement of the church with hoods and robes on and it was dark with only candles lit – but my mother did. They stayed in my grandmother’s house, because she was in an assisted living residence. I don’t know what happened there, but when my mom came home, she told me that she and Dad had gone through the house and found all the knives that my grandmother used to torture her with and threw them away. She told me that she had crossed over the thin line of sanity that she had been balancing on for so long and that she couldn’t come back. It turned out to be true. After they got home, she became increasingly manic and paranoid by the day and it became too much for all of us.

I don’t know much about torture methods, but I’m pretty sure non-stop, manic talking could be considered a torture method. Mom talked day and night, to anyone she could find. It was mostly my dad, my sister, and me. We wanted to help her, but she wouldn’t shut up. To me, her voice became like a mosquito in my ear canal. I could cover my ears, but I could still hear her. She lost weight, because she would talk instead of eat. She had all these plans. She was unsure that my dad was going to be able to keep up with her. Her plan was to start their own church in a small, southern Colorado town. It was called the Church of What’s Happening Now – which my siblings and I find hilarious but if you knew my mother, it made sense – and their mission was to convert Jews to Christianity. She believed that Dad was the chosen one. She believed he could heal people, but he was weak and she had to be the one to push him. By this point, she had worn Dad down to the point he would do whatever she wanted, just to keep her quiet. She was biding her time until God told her when the time was right to go. They were living off a Texaco credit card. They had no home, their belongings were in my garage, and they were living with me.

One day, I had had enough. I don’t recall what set me off, but I couldn’t take her non-stop talking anymore. I told her to get out of my house. She ordered my dad to come with her, but I told her that he could stay, but she had to go. She told me that if she left him there with me, he would sit on my couch and do nothing. I told her that I didn’t care. He could stay, but she had to go. I have never been so angry with anyone in my life and at that moment, I hated her. I wanted her gone. I jumped in my car, drove to the ATM, and got her some money. When I got back, Dad was still sitting on the couch, head hanging down while she talked at him. I drug her outside by the arm, told her to take the money, and go. She refused to take the money, so I shoved it into her shirt, scratching her skin as I did so, and told her to get the fuck out of my house. She just smiled at me. Not a nice smile, but a smile that said, “You’ll regret this” and she drove away.

I never really meant for her to leave forever. I thought it was a fight. I waited for her to come back or call, but three days went by and we didn’t hear from her. My dad called their friends, our former preacher and his wife who lived a few hours away, and they said she had been there, but was headed to Amarillo.

Mom tried to stay with my grandmother in her apartment at the assisted living facility, but she was told to leave and banned from coming back because she became abusive to the staff. She spent another month or two in my grandmother’s house without food, without money. The neighbors, whom we had known for many years, watched out for her and fed her, but she often refused to eat. They would give us reports on her health, but the only one that tried to go help her was her brother and she refused to let him in the house.

I’m not sure how she spent her time. I heard that she would do a lot of walking and eat the crabapples off of people’s trees. Or play with the kids across the street. I think a part of her knew she needed to get help, so she checked herself into the psychiatric hospital, but quickly checked herself back out when she got scared of the people there.

When she left the hospital, she left without her seizure medication. Not long after that, the neighbors noticed that the doors and windows were all open, which was odd for my mother to do. They went into the house to check on her and found her dead in the back bedroom. Since she didn’t have her seizure medication, she had gone into status, which is a prolonged seizure of 5 minutes or more. Status will cause either brain damage or death if not stopped. My mother died three and a half months after I kicked her out of my house. “Get the fuck out!” was the last thing I ever said to her.