This is how villains are made
Foreword: this morning the internet reminded me it’s been 365 days since my mom passed away. Really awful timing, what with being serotonin-negative from a weekend of celebrating friends and family at Coachella. This is an uncut brain dump — an attempt at catharsis. I am not going to edit it (sans redlined typos), and I’ll write the first paragraph at the end, after I’ve figured out what I’m trying to say. It won’t be for everyone. In many ways, this can be perceived as over-sharing. If you’re not into that, feel free to close the tab now. I’ve always been an awful in-person communicator; maybe it’s the years of failed speech therapy, or the generally low self-esteem, but to this day I’ve always felt stronger behind a keyboard.
This is a story about grit. It’s my open letter asking for patience and forgiveness with my middle finger in the air to the trustfund kids who are ungrateful for the success their parents laid out for them.
I stopped telling this story years ago, it stopped feeling important. I wasn’t going to let myself be judged by my past, I was going to define my own future. But sometimes context helps, especially when asking for forgiveness. It’s a reminder to myself that I’m at times impossible to deal with, and to be patient while begging for patience.
So, this is my story.
It all starts off with a broken home, much like most cliched tales of New Americana: an early childhood divorce (5 years old), debilitating diseases, and the crippling financial burden of the former two. I was the only son of a sheet metal contractor ($$$) and an unskilled laborer (not $$$) born into lower middle class steam-town Pennsylvania. [My folks thought they were clever, that Tyler was a rare name for a boy…Tyler N, Tyler R, Tyler D and Tyler G in my 2nd grade class would beg to differ.] Life didn’t suck — we had a house, we had cars, we went on vacations.
But men stray. On the last day of their marriage, good ol’ pops handed ma’ a smashed wedding band, “accidentally ran over it with the car.” Turns out compressing your former lover’s wedding band with a sheet metal press was a great way to demonstrate your dedication to your next wife.
One rainy afternoon my ride home from preschool went to a different address. It wasn’t the 4 bedroom home with the white picket fence, it was an attic with a bathroom. I came home to this attic (and the eventual baby-sitter, on account of the Mom Who Works Two Jobs newness) for some amount of time fairly consistently, sometimes the babysitter replaced by Potential Future Dad(s). I was a terror of a kid — I’d cry at the drop of a cup, scream in my sleep, bite my teachers so hard they’d bleed [I’m older than my classmates for a reason: biting gets you held back, apparently.]
How my mom put up with being left, being broken, and caring for Lucifer Jr, I’ll never know. But she did it with a kind of grace you’ve never seen before. A conversation never ended without a reminder of “I love you”, and I never went to bed without a song (sometimes Disney, sometimes Celine or Mariah — man she had some pipes.)
Her patience paid off — she eventually met the love of her life (a Doctor no less), and they were to be wed. The attic turned into an apartment, the babysitter disappeared, the Christmas tree was fuller. [Tangent: apparently the day he first met me he told my mom I was gay. She was so offended, she almost left him on the spot. But he was sincere, and expressed an uncanny sense of confidence that he was right, and would love me either way. First. Day. Could you imagine?]
I still spent Wednesdays and every-other-Weekend with the sperm donor and his new wife (who, admittedly, I truly loved…like an aunt. A close aunt.) I didn’t have the words for why, but after feeling love for my mom, stepfather, and stepmother, I knew I hated him. He’d shower me with gifts and toys and presents every time I saw him. I was his little prince, and he was the evil king. This made it all the more difficult when my stepdad’s new private practice across the country in Arizona led to Tyler “Jr. Flight Attendant” Eltringham racking up plenty of summertime air miles.
For the next few years, I lived two lives. Both upper middle class, suburban, good lives. One night in Arizona, our small trio gathered to watch the season finale of Big Brother. With my stepdad changing out of his scrubs, my mom walked into the living room carrying a dinner plate, abruptly stopped in the hallway, made a guttural hissing sound and fell to the ground in a body-wracking seizure. (She may have hit her head on the coffee table, I was like 10 and my mom was potentially dying, the specifics are blurry.) This was the first of hundreds of seizures she’d endure under the banner of a new grand mal epilepsy diagnosis.
“Don’t you hate being around her when she seizes?”, good king pops would ask. Of course he’d weaponize her illness, why wouldn’t he? The answer was still no. My mom got me into video games — Donkey Kong was our release. Some mix of gameplay and electronic midi music was addicting, and we couldn’t stop. We’d play for hours and hours, until it was over, and they got me newer, longer games to fill my time.
The next decade get complicated, it’s probably easier to bullet this shit:
- Epilepsy is hard to manage, causes lots of stress on marriage and household, but we stay strong.
- Complications from a combination of a sloppy c-section, epilepsy, and sheer bad luck lead to mom developing chronic pancreatitis, a cripplingly painful disease that, at the time, was rarely diagnosed. A hypochondriac’s disease, they’d call it.
- Pancreatitis and epilepsy gets expensive. I occasionally overhear fighting in the other room. We still love each other.
- I keep flying back and forth between Arizona (❤) and Pennsylvania (FUCK).
- Mom takes lots of trips to the hospital. She hides it from me well, but is constantly in pain. Always. Her face droops, her muscles exhausted from crying.
- On my 13th birthday, I hide in my walk-in closet and write a note that says (abridged) “I’m gay, please don’t hate me.” I run out of the closet, into my parent’s room, throw the note at them, and run straight back into my closet. Go ahead and laugh, the comedy wrote itself. Mom and stepdad come get me, smother me in love, never let me go. Very awkward banana-and-condom explanation situations later unfold, a story for another time.
- A voicemail to pops in Pennsylvania goes unanswered. Days pass. Weeks pass. Summers pass. Child support stops showing up. Apparently a gay son wasn’t in his master plan. Thank God.
- I get home from school one day and listen to my parents explain that we’d be moving, that the house was too expensive. We still love each other.
- A few nights later, the too-expensive house was explained. White Knight stepdad said enough was enough with the doctors who wouldn’t prescribe a hypochondriac medication for her pain, so he did it himself. Turns out writing painkiller prescriptions for someone who isn’t your patient usually results in you losing your license to practice medicine.
- We manage. We get a much smaller house. He gets odd jobs. She keeps hiding the pain. I complain that everything sucks. They do everything they can to make it easier. I love them still the same, but everything is awful.
- I spend lots of time out of the house. Hours dancing in studios. Weekends with boys. Spring breaks with friend’s families.
- One day I come home to my mom home alone, crying on the couch. “He overdosed and I don’t know what to do.” Some men stray, others break. I’ll never blame him. He really, really tried, and he never stopped loving us.
- We traded the small house for a small apartment. Almost instantly, we traded the small apartment for a motel room. Every few weeks we traded motel rooms for other, smaller motel rooms. I start doubting if we still love each other.
- We put our things in a storage unit. Eventually we couldn’t afford that unit, and lost everything we had. Every photo, every trinket and physical representation of our lives before the fire was gone.
- My grades start slipping. Its hard to focus on homework when you aren’t sure if there’ll be a roof tonight. Dance keeps me sane (I was one of those “I’M HERE AND I’M QUEER SO GET USED TO IT” gay kids who are literally the worst.)
SIDEBAR FUNNY FUCKED UP STORY TIME: I hate math. Ever wonder why I hate math? This sidebar story time will explain! My freshman year of high school included a 5th hour math class taught by an ex-Military bro. Day 2 included bringing a paper bag with “things that describe you” to get to know each other. I vaguely remember what I brought, but it was definitely gay. Under his breath, and only a few feet from a good friend of mine, he mutters “what a faggot.” Upon learning this, I make the executive decision to skip this 5th hour math class for the rest of the semester. An upperclassman whom I had recently lost my virginity to had no 5th hour, so we spent that time trying out damnedest to procreate. Military Bro Math Teacher never marked me absent and gave me fantastic grades. That sure complicated things when a security guard eventually caught me and Upperclassman making babies in an empty room one 5th hour. To this day I still don’t quite understand how or why I wasn’t suspended or expelled — we were yelled at, but life went on. Military Bro Math Teacher ended up leaving the school, and would later go on to be a vice principal at another. I hate math.
Alright, back to your previously scheduled sob story.
- Eventually I met a boy. Let me put it this way: the boy was older. “I’m at the library” meant “I’m lying and out with an older boy.” He represented freedom — he had a car, he had a job, he told me I was beautiful. We’ll call him Older Boy.
- The ever-dwindling motel size didn’t mean there was a break in hospital visits. It did mean that my mom was crying herself to sleep 5 feet away from me, rather than 50. I knew we still loved each other, but it was hard to express it.
- Christmas was still lavish. I’m not going to explain how here, go read my only other Medium post for that story.
- One day Older Boy picked me up from dance and took me on a date. On our way home the cops pulled us over; his tags were expired. I was a sweaty mess from dance, in basketball shorts and a tanktop, with an open dufflebag on the floor, some deodorant and loose cash sticking out. If you haven’t picked up on this yet, the cops thought I was a prostitute. Calls were made home: “This is Officer Soandso, do you know where your son Tyler is or who he is with right now?” My parents, ever calm and collected, asked us to be released and for Older Boy to bring me home. I was banned from seeing Older Boy. I told them I hated them. Mom had to deal with me crying myself to sleep that night. I wasn’t sure we loved each other anymore.
- Any resiliency I had used to get through the last few years vanished. I was broken. I’d beg to see Older Boy, they’d deny me. One night I’d scream at them. I told them I hated them. That they were the worst parents on the planet. That they failed in every way possible. I tore them to shreds with no intent of leaving anything to be repaired. I said the most vile, awful things I could possibly imagine. They sat, and listened, and waited. I eventually ran out of steam, and fell asleep. The devil child in the motel bed next to them. They loved me.
- Between a rock and a hard place, they caved. I could see Older Boy. A 2 hour date. Then another. Then a dinner date. Then an overnight date. Then at 16 years old, I packed a bag and moved in with him. I got a job. I started living again. I rarely saw them anymore. “All the better”, I thought — they didn’t need me bothering them. I dropped out of school and got my GED.
- Time apart healed us. I grew to miss them, they always accepted me back with open arms. When Older Boy and I fought, they took me back for a night here and a day there. They acted like I never snapped at them, that they didn’t live in a motel, that our perfect suburban lives never crumbled around us. We loved each other.
- Mom got better. The pain got easier. Stepdad had more time to plan for the future — “I’ll get my license back” was the plan. True serendipity (I’m looking at you, Amy) led to an infinitely impossible series of events that landed me, a high school dropout, with a full ride scholarship to my state university (this, again, is another story for another time.) We were back on the path life had set for us before pancreatitis broke us. Everything, everything, was looking up.
- At university, I was pre-med. “I’ll get my degree and become a doctor, then I’ll fix my mom myself!”, I’d say. I made new friends; friends that didn’t know my sob story, and when I’d tell them my sob story we would become better friends. Something about perceived resiliency, maybe. Maybe it was pity. Maybe I was their lucky charm. Either way, I made friends that gave me faith that life was fixing itself right in front of my eyes and all I had to do was let it happen. Everything was looking up.
- Older Boy and I just weren’t a match. So far we’ve learned that men stray, and men break. Older Boy taught me that men lie. But it didn’t matter anymore — life was fixing itself. I was fighting to keep this future. My parents were fighting to keep this future. Older Boy didn’t matter anymore.
- College life was very good.
- No one knows exactly what happened. Everyone has theories, hypotheses, conspiracies. All I knew for sure was that I was woken early in the morning by a phone call, with my stepdad inconsolably sobbing in a hospital lobby. “She isn’t waking up, Ty.” Older Boy rushed me to the hospital, where we sat next to the ICU bed that held my mom, full of tubes and wires and hoses, barely keeping her with us. The story goes stepdad awoke to mom being blue, having had stopped breathing in her sleep. Her heart was beating, but her brain was gone. Comatose. I don’t remember the next few weeks of life support, sans periodic visits from close friends and intermittent fits of sobbing.
This is the part in the story where I stopped sharing my life with others. Outside of a handpicked 2 or 3, the next few bullets have been archived in Tyler’s Secrets for years. I was embarrassed, I was lost, and I was desperate. But fuck that shit, time to share.
- Then one day the phone rang: “I have someone who wants to speak with you…” the first voice said. “Ty…? My baby…?” the second voice asked. I rushed to the hospital to find that mom had, quite literally, magically awoken from her coma. Within days she was sitting upright, within weeks she was eating on her own, and a month later she was back “home” (still a motel room) and we were back on the right path.
- But things were…different. The easiest way to describe this part is just to go read the Wikipedia entry for 50 First Dates. Mom wasn’t making new memories. She’d remember a day or so at a time, but then lose it. Sometimes only a few hours stuck, and sometimes barely minutes. “Permanent brain damage”, the doctors said. She couldn’t walk on her own, she couldn’t use the restroom on her own, but it didn’t matter; we had mom back.
- I knew my grades sucked (my mom was braindead for a bit and I hated math, remember?) but I still wanted to get into med school. Inspired by TOMS Shoes, my friends and I would go on to start a non-profit in an attempt to all at once get into med school together and make a dent in the universe. A story for another time — or you can read about it in Blake Mycoskie’s Start Something That Matters. The org flourished; we were the talk of the town, consulting with government agencies, speaking at universities. We were laying the seeds for what would later become Walgreen’s “Give a Shot, Get a Shot” slogan, and we couldn’t have been prouder. I’d share this pride with my folks, and they would validate my hard work in every way they could. Nothing made me happier than the handwritten birthday card that read “We treasure the joy and pride that you constantly provide to us as our son. We could not be more proud of the man you have become. Love, Mom & Stepdad.” I knew I was on the right path.
- Stepdad would leave to run errands — put out job applications, buy groceries, and mom would call me crying (sometimes during class, sometimes during work, sometimes as I was laying down to bed.) She was alone and didn’t know where she was, even though she was sitting in her bed. She had forgotten where stepdad went, or why she was in the room she was in. I’d console her, tell her everything would be okay. She’d feel better, and we’d hang up. Sometimes minutes later she would call back; rinse, lather, repeat. I had to get into med school. I had to become a doctor. I had to fix my mom.
- “My name is Officer Soandso, and I’m with your mom at Hospital X. Your stepfather, your mom’s primary caregiver, was arrested this morning on an outstanding warrant for failing to appear in court.” Stepdad had been avoiding the cops for years. Maybe it was guilt in not wanting to leave mom’s side. Maybe it was fear of the inevitable. But eventually he ended up behind bars, and I ended up being my mom’s primary caretaker for half a year.
- I spent those months negotiating with lawyers, begging doctors, nurses, and professors for forgiveness and patience, persuading insurance providers, wiping my own mom’s ass, and eventually sleeping with any guy I could. Older Boy was sweet, but had the EQ and IQ of a Younger Boy. I lost count of the guys I fucked. I had figured out why men stray: stress. It was a release that I could tolerate (because at the time, surprisingly enough DARE still meant something to me.) In hindsight, I am not ashamed. If sex was the worst I could do to myself, I think I did a fine job of keeping me from harm. After 50+ months of dating, Older Boy and I broke up.
- Eventually, ‘ma got placed in a nursing home. I was able to return to class. Things were “normal”…except for the phone calls. I will fail miserably at describing this, the entire point of this damn Medium post, but I will try: the devil doesn’t whisper, he screams. Mom would call me 20, 30 times a day. At first I’d answer, I’d be relentlessly patient and radically loving. She’d cry, and beg for me to come get her, to take her home. Her stress had begun deteriorating any progress her brain had been making on the memory front — “home” was Pennsylvania, Arizona had never existed. She’d scream and sob and cry and beg for her life to end, and I’d listen and nod and console her and take it. This was my penance for destroying her for needlessly for Older Boy. And I took it. And every so often, I wouldn’t answer; she’d leave 5–10 minute voicemails, mostly crying followed by silence where she’ll forget she’s on the phone, followed by attempting to re-call me. I’d listen to the whole thing, hoping to hear a glimmer of hope, or a positive turn, of a realization that she was going to be okay. It never came. These calls haunted me. I lost sleep. I heard her crying in my dreams. I was pulled out of reality every time my phone rang. I hid this from nearly everyone, successfully. It was my cross to bear, and fuck if I wasn’t going to bear it alone.
- Stepdad got out of jail and returned home to the glorious motel. He was changed, but ready to fix things. To get us back on that path. But he found solace, he found peace, in the quiet time he discovered without mom in the motel. She now split her calls home between myself and stepdad, so the burden was eased…but her questions shifted from “when can I come home?” to “why can’t I come home?”, and I didn’t have answers. Stepdad continued searching for our path to the future, but needed time to figure things out for mom. He’d figure it out, though. I knew he would. He’d get his job back, mom would come home, and everyone would be okay.
- It could’ve been any number of things, but suddenly I needed change. I didn’t want to be a doctor, I didn’t think I could fix my mom, and I didn’t want to keep running this business. I had always been a huge gamer (turns out video games are a great escape from reality), and had been playing a few games with some friends for the past few years. I found the Careers page for each of those games and desperately applied for jobs. I networked my ass off to forge relationships that resulted in recommendations, and eventually landed a job in Los Angeles. “Thank you for the offer, I can’t wait to start when I graduate!” I would say to my hiring manager. “Oh, the job offer is for now. See you in two weeks, otherwise we’ll move to the next candidate” he’d reply. Two weeks later I arrived in Santa Monica and started my job at what would turn into the best thing that ever happened to me. My parents, in their transient sanity and sobriety, were endlessly proud of me, and I couldn’t be happier.
- In time, mom’s memory started healing again. She called less, panicked less, knew more, remembered more. It was very shocking, very positive progress. She was able to keep her emotions under control, and found faith in God to heal all. She was really looking up.
- In case you didn’t see this coming, my stepdad called to inform me he was leaving my mom and moving back to the east coast. He tried. He gave it years. He sacrificed his life for us. It’s hard to blame him. I get it — we’re just human. But part of me would never forgive him. The calls began again, and now I was forced to hide this skeleton from my new life. She was inconsolable, left alone in the middle of Arizona with no one to love her.
- This wasn’t sustainable, and eventually having found solace in old family in Pennsylvania. With some time and social lubricant, she moved to a nursing home back East, and again the burden was shared. Within months she showed dramatic, absolutely astonishing signs of recovery. She was walking. She was eating. She was making plans for her future. She would call me and remember the last time we spoke, the last thing we talked about. I started treating her like my best friend again — I’d tell her about the latest boy I was involved with, the latest accomplishment at work, the latest (very censored) party I had been to, about how insane Los Angeles was, and that I couldn’t wait for her to see it. And she remembered. She always remembered. For the first time in many, many years, I felt comfortable in my own skin. Comfortable that if my phone rang, it wasn’t the end of the world. Comfortable that even if things weren’t perfect, my mom was at the very least okay. She would call, and I would answer. I became comfortable taking her voicemails, resigning to call her tomorrow. We loved each other.
On April 26th 2015, my mom passed suddenly passed away. If you’re curious you can read about it here. It was sudden, it was lonely, and it was everything we had narrowly avoided for so many years. My stepdad and I hadn’t talked. My mom’s family, while beautiful human beings who deserve nothing but adoration, don’t feel like family. My bigoted father had disowned me 12 years prior. I was unequivocally alone. This is how villains are made.
I’ve sought solace in a lot of places. Sex, drugs, the bottom of the bottle, the end of a 15 hour workday. They’re all just band-aids. The only time I believe that healing is possible is when I feel pride. That I did something right, that I made something that matters happen. That at the end of the day, someone else’s life is less likely to hurt as much as mine did.
So I’ll keep chasing it. Pride in my work, which I’ll never stop chasing. Pride in my friends, who I’ll never stop protecting. Work gives purpose, friends give family. It’s my job to make it work from there. I’ve found that the highs of life are worth fighting for, and I’ve learned to cherish the lows since they make the highs higher. The fight is always worth fighting — why would you suddenly give up everything that you thought was once worth fighting for?
I know some of you worry that I’m self-destructing, but please take this context and believe that I’m not. I’ve proven to myself time and time again that its possible to get through anything if you want to. I want to. I’ve gotta — mom wouldn’t be proud otherwise. So please, forgive me for my recklessness, and be patient with my lack of faith. Highs and lows ebb and flow, and I’m grateful you are along for the ride.
What I’m trying to say is I’ve already been through hell and back — whatever this most recent bump in the road is doesn’t have shit on what younger, dumber Tyler went through. We’ll make it, together.
I’ve been writing for hours. I’ve never written this out before, and I’ve been afraid that I never would. I’m four glasses of whiskey deep. If I don’t histPublish now, this thing is never seeing the light of day.
Don’t give up.