This blog is not FDA approved
In support of the Domestic Violence Awareness month.
My sister and my mother fought a lot that summer. After spending my freshman year away at school, I found living at home again… taxing.
It would start out an argument over one small thing, and then it would quickly turn into a fight over EVERYTHING and another broken lamp. (I don’t know why my mother always replaced them since we clearly weren’t people who should own glass lamps.) If I sensed things weren’t too far along, I would try to intervene. If it already seemed hopeless, I would stay away. Afterwards, my mom would come into my bedroom with some lame passive aggressive excuse. She didn’t mean to. She was just so mad. She’d bruised her hand from hitting my sister. I would stand there nodding my head like a puppet, hoping she would leave soon.
Sometimes I would feel guilty that my sister got in so much more trouble than me. Other times, I would feel angry with my sister for being loud and annoying, for not understanding that the best strategy was to stay calm and quiet. Inside, I didn’t feel stoic at all. I would get frustrated at my own powerlessness; I felt trapped.
And then one day it hit me. This used to be normal.
Recently, I’ve been thinking about origins, about what we take with us and what we leave behind. More often than not, I believe the past is better left in the past, but there seem to be pieces of it I drag around with me. Like toilet paper stuck to my shoe, embarrassing and a little pathetic.
My earliest childhood memories are of my mother playing piano. She always played “The Rainbow Connection”. To this day it’s the only song I’ve ever heard her play. It’s not easy to capture that song’s wistfulness, but she plays it perfectly. No other rendition does the song justice.
When I was very young, I thought my parents were just strict. It took me a few years to realize how different my life was, how much more isolated I was than my friends. I was rarely allowed to go to birthday parties or sleepovers. I would often have to call at the last minute to cancel because my mom had a headache. My mother had a LOT of headaches. My father would say, “Your mother is sick so you need to stay home and take care of her.” I would wonder how a nine-year-old was going to do that, but then I would shrug and head back to my room to sulk with a book.
We never had cable, and I wasn’t allowed to listen to popular music. My father claimed trick-or-treating was pagan, and we switched religious denominations every few years. Tank tops were verboten as were a million other things. Money was always tight, and our house was constantly under renovation and upheaval. However, what really kept me on my toes were the mood swings. My parents fought a lot, and my mother’s mood could turn on a dime. My father was no picnic either, especially if he felt my sister or I had wronged my mother. Together they ruled with an iron fist. Being hit wasn’t the worst part; the worst part was feeling like I had zero control over my own life.
Afterwards, we’d be told we were loved, and my mother would say things like, “You don’t have a single bruise on you. We feed you. We take care of you. We don’t abuse you.” I’m pretty sure she personally inspired Chris Rock. I’m also pretty sure if you feel the need to tell someone you don’t abuse them… things are not quite right.
I was expected to eat what was put in front of me, stay on the honor roll, do my chores, and most importantly, not cause a fuss. I was a quiet kid, naturally a bit introverted, and by the time I was a teenager, I suffered from severe depression, as well as eating disorders and amenorrhea. Even though I always received a lot of encouragement from my teachers for academic accomplishments, I felt worthless and unloved. As my weight dropped further and further, my parents insisted I start therapy. I hated therapy. I quickly found out that if you don’t want a visit from Social Services, you lie.
Therapist: “Tell me about your parents.”
Me: “They’re well. Thank you for asking.”
Therapist: “Tell me about school.”
Me: “I get good grades.” (I’m miserable, not stupid.)
Therapist: “What are your hobbies?”
Me: “I like reading and running.” (Away, mostly.)
Therapist: “Do you run track?”
Me: “No. My parents don’t want me to run track.”
Me: “I don’t know.”
Therapist: “Are you having sex?”
Me: “Does that require taking my clothes off? Then, no.”
Therapist: “Do you drink?”
Therapist: “Do you do drugs?”
Therapist: “Why do you think you’re here?”
Me: “I don’t know. I think I’m depressed.”
I was a less than ideal patient for many reasons. I hated that my parents used therapy as an excuse to refer to me as “crazy”. And I hated having to drive there with my mother. I would often leave the room to find my mother in the hallway, listening at the door. Then on the way home, she would pester me about what we had talked about, in an extra cheerful and peppy voice. I would clam up, which would usually be followed by her getting angry and hitting me. By then my braces were off, so she could smack me in the face without needing to worry about ruining my dental work. (My parents never hit me in the face when I wore braces.)
Within two months I was pretending to be on Zoloft, pretending to eat again, and refusing to go to therapy. In reality, the Zoloft sat in my dresser drawer, and I rarely remembered to take it. I don’t even know if I took enough to reach the half-life of the optimal dose. And the eating disorders took years because I basically had to relearn how to eat like a normal person.
What I remember more than anything about that period is that I had to figure out how to stay afloat. One of the first things my therapist told me was that anger tends to either externalize or internalize; that if I didn’t find a way to externalize my anger, I would probably be depressed my whole life.
I think this is challenging for many people, but for me it was particularly difficult. I rarely, if ever, saw anger expressed in an appropriate manner. I had to learn to stop, think about why I was angry, acknowledge that it’s okay to be angry, and then make a game plan for dealing with it. I had to learn that I’m allowed to have feelings just like anyone else; that I didn’t need to walk on eggshells and suppress everything.
After that summer, I rarely went home. I lived away at school year-round. When I did visit, I would take friends or my then boyfriend (now husband) with me. I was blessed to have a great group of friends I could rely on. Because my mother often referred to my money as “hers” (since she’d been paying for my food and lodging for eighteen years), I ended up switching banks to remove her from my account. There were several long periods of time where my parents didn’t speak to me. Now they do, but that’s probably because my children are their only grandchildren. Also, I moved out of state, which limits contact.
The truth is my parents could have been better, but they also could have been a lot worse. Life would have been easier if they had been less controlling, but in their own way they loved me. I honestly don’t think my parents meant to do or say many of the things they did. They simply had no control over their own anger and then the nastiness would spill out.
And I would think about rainbows and wish I was elsewhere.