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.