I’ve never met anyone who’s had a childhood quite like mine. This isn’t meant to incite a debate over suffering or difficulty, mostly because that’s super stupid and a giant waste of everyone’s time (life hack: someone else’s pain doesn’t make you less entitled to yours. That’s like saying that just because someone else might be happier than you that you’re less deserving of being slightly less happy. Stupid, right?). It’s more a statement of fact.
Could I have had it worse? Absolutely. Could I have had it better? I’d like to think so.
Most of my interactions with people who may have endured a similar upbringing exist behind shiny anonymous screens. Which, while comforting, isn’t exactly the same as interacting with a living breathing person who has eyes and lips and weird hand gestures that make you feel slightly less like some sort of freaky alien. I would have liked to stare into the eyes of some of these people and feel that sort of silent connection, that feeling of they get it, they really get it, I’m not alone.
So far this has not happened in my life, and maybe it never will. Maybe all any of us can really do is sympathize with people but never really understand. That’s a strangely comforting and lonely thought, I think; that we are all together in our ‘aloneness.’
Anyway, the point is (I think) that, while I can’t speak for everyone here, when you grow up with a mentally ill parent or parental figure, your deepest darkest fear is that you will be just like them.
It’s a terrible, shitty, and conflicting belief. You’re filled with that visceral terror combined with a smelly side-dish of self-loathing followed by a hearty portion of gut wrenching guilt. When someone that close to you loses their mind, transforming into someone or something you don’t recognize, the universe starts to look pretty damn fragile. Everything had previously seemed pretty well ordered, everything in its orbit, everything doing what it needed to be doing according to the magical laws of physics. Then someone comes along and throws String Theory at you and fucks it all up.
This especially rings true when you’re just a kid and you’re sort of used to having the world revolve around you. I went from being one of the stars in a Broadway play (along with my two younger sisters, of which I was clearly the leader) to being a rarely used under-study. Self-sacrifice is much easier when you’re older and actually understand what the hell is going on and what you’re giving up, but when you’re only seven you don’t really have the capacity to properly comprehend the complex and nuanced implications of mental illness. You just know that someone who had been the firm foundation of your entire existence is now manic, unavailable, and often traumatic to be around. Basically; you want your mom/dad/parental figure back and, while something that resembles them is still there, they are, for all intents and purposes, long gone. It was like living with a ghost, a constant reminder of someone I had lost.
As I grew into young adulthood/awkward adolescence, things somehow made even less sense. My mother required a lot of my father’s time outside of work (basic care, medical appointments, administration of her medications, etc) as well as emotional attention. There was this sort of unspoken rule amongst my younger sisters and me (who had no recollection of my mother prior to her illness, by the way) that we weren’t allowed to be too difficult, too demanding. Children know when they’re parents are hurting, when they are stressed, when they are on their last leg. They might not understand why, but my siblings and I did understand that we didn’t want to make it worse by having ‘problems’. There was this invisible wall there, a wall that kept us from discussing our difficulties less and less as we got older and turning more to each other or quietly into ourselves because my father was so overworked and my mother entirely emotionally unavailable.
Illness had turned my mother into a selfish, vitriolic monster that rarely left her bed. My sisters and I would play quietly not because we didn’t want to disturb her out of some sense of loving compassion, but because we feared her outbursts that came with almost no notice. Outbursts that were my job, as the eldest, to bear the brunt of. I think my dad was perhaps just slightly older than I am now (26) at the time my mother became ill, which quite literally makes me feel sick to my stomach. I have no idea what I’m doing 90% of the time, I imagine my father often felt similarly.
We’d gone from living comfortably (my mother working as a nurse and my father attending college), to suddenly living with relatives or in small houses on the ‘bad sides’ of town. I can’t blame him for maybe being less available than we needed him to be. He was just as blindsided and unprepared as we were, probably more so. He’d gone from having a supportive wife helping him raise his children, to being a single father with a mentally ill wife that rarely got out of bed. I am certain that I could not have done it even half as well as he did. As he is still doing.
I was bullied relentlessly in grade school; for the way I dressed, for being sort of constantly sad-ish and vulnerable, and for my love of books and comics, but mostly because I was horribly desperate. I was dying for a real emotional connection with someone. Someone who could help me make sense of the world that so often made no sense at all; why was my mom so different? Why was my father so tired and stressed out? Why could I never have friends over? Why did I have to wear my cousins hand me downs? I wanted to find these answers in my peers, in other kids, because adults seemed to sort of shy away from me, maybe sensing my need and pain and not wanting to get involved, which is a hell of a lot to ask from other eleven year olds. (It’s actually a lot to ask from someone at any age, I’ve found out.)
I was an outsider, a weirdo with unkempt hair, a messy desk, broken glasses, a bag full of books who just really, really wanted a friend. Bullies can smell that sort of weakness from across the parking lot before the mini-van door closes. Thus began many years of quiet torment, forced loneliness, and abject cruelty -made all the better by a deep and pervasive understanding that telling my parents would somehow make everything worse; make our home more despondent and strained.
I’ve written before about my lack of extreme emotional response to things sometimes, in varying degrees and particular cases. I’ve since been Internet Diagnosed (people commenting on opinion articles on the internet are clearly the voice of reason here) with everything from a personality disorder to plain old psychosis. Fun story is, I’ve actually seen real medical professionals and it turns out that kids whom grow up in strenuous circumstances often learn to ignore and internalize pain. Weird, right?
By middle school I didn’t cry much anymore. I didn’t display hurt or react when the boys on the bus mocked my long shorts, high socks, and thick glasses. I didn’t blush or stutter when they snickered behind their hands about my developing breasts and baggy clothing (meant to hide said pre-maturely developed boobs). I was well on my way to numbness.
But things didn’t get really bad until high school. I’d been on a steady downward spiral for years — but under the pressure of newly developed hormones, the impending doom of adulthood, a continuous cycle of emotional upheaval at home, and the ever present peer pressure, I finally cracked.
That growing numbness morphed and expanded into a vast nothingness. My disinterest spread from merely a self-defense mechanism to encompassing everything. Things I’d loved became a chore that I forced myself to do because I loved them right? My grades slipped a little more every year, my interest in sports waned, and eventually I was spending almost half the school week in bed, feigning stomach cramps. My dad would persistently argue with me for the hour before he had to go to work, but would eventually leave me be. I didn’t want to consider depression because I’d spent most of life witnessing how poorly the world dealt with and viewed mental illness, especially in women, and it would mean that maybe I was exactly like my mom.
Anyone who’s been depressed knows the cycle of self-loathing that backs you into a dark corner. Depression isn’t just sadness, it’s more a lack of anything. A lack of emotion, compassion or motivation. I’d stopped being able to relate to my friends and my desire to go to college slipped further and further away. The world just constantly seemed too bright, too loud, too harsh. Every time I built up the courage to face it again, to step outside and find something worth feeling again, I felt burned and sanded down.
I started to consider my death like most people consider what they want to eat for dinner, or what they want to wear to school the next day. It wasn’t dramatic or overly emotional. I didn’t write dark poetry and start wearing black, I just considered that it would be easier for everyone if I could somehow just not be alive anymore. I didn’t plan a suicide, precisely, I just didn’t want to wake up anymore. I wanted to go to sleep one night and stay that way.
Then I met my ex-husband.
He was good looking, far better looking than me I was sure, and seemed incredibly taken with me. Riding his bike across town to be with me, enduring long winded church sessions just to sneak a hand hold under his folded up jacket, tugging me into dark hallways during church dances to steal a kiss. He would call and talk to me for hours and hours until my dad would eventually get on the line and force us to hang up. He was my best friend, possibly my only real friend at the time, and he brought with him a sense of hope. For the first time in my life I thought that maybe I was worth something after all. That maybe he saw something special inside of me that I’d overlooked, that everyone had overlooked. Unfortunately the spark I felt between us couldn’t quite manage to fill the nothingness inside me. At the time I didn’t understand that what I was experiencing wasn’t the sort of thing I could cure alone, or that someone else could step in and fix for me. The more numb I felt, the more addicted I became to my relationship. Desperately craving that spark that I felt whenever we touched, whenever we slipped just a little too far away from our shared religious upbringing. It felt dangerous, vital and real. For those brief moments I felt alive.
I was raised in a very religious home and was very active within the community. I had fully planned to wait until marriage to have sex with someone who had also waited till marriage. I had followed all the rules, said my prayers, read my scriptures, and listened to the lessons. I was beyond miserable. After I continued to miss large chunks of school, and likely concerned by my sudden and desperate fixation with my new boyfriend (which I was totally not allowed to have), my parents eventually sent me to a religious counselor. After two short sessions, where I slowly and haltingly opened up about the struggles at home, letting the pain weep out like an infected wound, his main message was to ‘pray harder.’ To humble myself further. That my suffering was entirely of my own making and that I merely wasn’t trying hard enough to serve God. And I did try harder. I broke up with my boyfriend, repented for my sins, and slipped back into my Nothingness.
I can’t quite recall all the details, but my mother had a very profound episode one day sometime in my Junior year of high school. Screaming, cursing, and yelling as she rampaged through the house in her underwear. My littlest sister was in her room sobbing while I tried to get our mother back into bed, wrestling with her anger and intoxicated stumbling. I remember looking down at her when I’d finally gotten her beneath the sheets, the area by her bed a massive pile of used cups, magazines and tissue, her face familiarly slackened with all the medications she was taking, and feeling horribly, terribly bitter. I had done everything that had been asked of me and things had only gotten worse. I couldn’t just run off to college and leave my dad to deal with my mom and two sisters, I realized, perhaps for the first time with true clarity. Whatever hopes I’d carried with me, which had pushed me along for the last few years, died in a single exhale. I was just so tired of trying. The sort of tired that all the sleep in the world couldn’t cure. The sort of weariness that digs deep and festers, making even the simplest of tasks difficult.
I hated my mother in that moment and I hated myself even more.
Filled with self-loathing and hopeless, I invited my ex-husband (then teenaged boyfriend) over to my house one night. He snuck through the window, my family sleeping in their rooms nearby but I hardly cared. I hardly cared about anything. He begged me to be with him again, insisting that he loved me, that after high school he wanted to marry me. Even at sixteen I knew highschool sweethearts rarely panned out, but for whatever reason, logic and fact no longer mattered to me. I agreed. I was tired of trying to be the good girl, the strong girl, the perfect daughter. I was tired of being level headed and resilient. I was tired of acting like I wasn’t breaking apart from the inside out.
I had sex that night less because I was caught in the throes of teenage hormones and ‘love’ and more because I wanted to feel something. I wanted to say a big fuck you to my entire life and everything I had been taught because it clearly wasn’t working. I was tired of being alone, of being ignored and shut out. I wanted to feel like I mattered. Like there was something in life worth living for.
It was another type of addiction, another brief flash of feeling, of light in the darkness that would fade like a bolt of lightning burning through my eyelids; hot and electric for a small moment, leaving me momentarily blinded, but forgotten before the thunder rumbled overhead. Our relationship became less about two young people finding solace in one another (I wasn’t the only one who had a difficult family life) and more about losing ourselves in a mad, physical dance that had little to do with anything like true intimacy.
We used protection. I didn’t know much (I honestly don’t think they ever taught a sex education class in my high school) but I knew that much, at least. We’d slip away in my parent’s min-van after church activities and buy condoms, sneaking over to his house because his parents were rarely home or even just finding a secluded place to park. I didn’t care any more. I’d found my life-line and I clung to it. A few months later, however, it was impossible to ignore. I was pregnant.