1. The Early Days of Healing
I open my eyes and know immediately it’s going to be “a day”. I feel like shit. I know why -though I prefer not to know.
My body is laden, full of rocks. That’s what it feels like. I am dull like a boulder, numb yet heavy. It takes a lot of effort just to move my limbs. I am vaguely nauseous and I want to stay in bed all day. Staying in bed is how I run from the heaviness. Sleep is my escape and my dear friend. It feels unbearable at times; the tightness in my chest is physically painful on days like today. Anxiety and shame run off me. I feel myself dripping in them. They are like a rain jacket gone awry- clinging to my skin, soaking me in exhaustion; steeping me in soggy irritability.
This is what I call a “body memory day”. I’ve gone months and months without them but I’ve never gone years. Sometimes they come seemingly out of the blue, sometimes out of the sadness. Other days they are sparked by rage, loneliness or feelings of being overwhelmed. Perhaps I will run into a man that reminds me of my father in some way. Perhaps I’ll hear a voice that sounds like him. He was my father and my captor. He was a rapist and a thief.
I am a survivor of incest. I survived the experience. It’s an ugly, unfathomable cloud that has followed me around for much of my life. I have only begun to conceptualize how this disaster has permeated each experience I have lived through. From alcoholism, to hypochondria, binge eating to infertility, the consequences of my father’s actions have been far reaching. I feel robbed, hysterical and incredibly pissed off.
I have to write about it. I have to tell the truth. I cannot pretend I am okay for one more second. I feel broken down and nervous. My hands shake. I lose track of what I am talking about. All I want to do is sit in silence but my mind won’t leave me in peace. It picks and berates. Belittles me. I do this to myself; my mind is undisciplined on these days, my thoughts run amok. I pick up where my father left off. I pick and pick at the scab he made and I know I should stop but I cannot.
I changed my name when I was 18 years old. My given name is Leaha. Pronounced the same as Leah. I think my father thought it was somehow Avant-garde to change the spelling and make it into something odd. He cared about breaking the mold. He wanted everyone to know he was the exception to the rule, the special one. He was a narcissist. Text book really. He viewed me as nothing more than an object for his use.
I changed my name for several reasons. He named me for one. He called me by my name, said so many awful things to Leaha. Ugly, rancid things. Leaha, as I experienced myself, needed a clean slate, a fresh start.
I was also afraid of him. Afraid he would come, find me and kill me now that I was doing what he had forbidden. I was telling on him by pressing charges. I was threatening his family. Even though I was his family. I shaved my head, relocated to Harrisonburg, VA and changed my name all the while only being dully aware that I was afraid for my life. He had made it very clear to me that he wouldn’t think twice of killing me if I told anyone about what had happened between us. What I had done. Not what HE had done or even what WE had done. What I had done.
He was watering the garden and as he threatened me and he spoke calmly, which made him quite believable.
“You know that I would kill anyone who tried to mess up our family. That includes you. I suggest you keep your mouth shut this summer. Got it?” He made it all sound so reasonable.
I was on my way to spend the summer with my mother in Maine and he must have been worried I was going to spill the beans. My stomach did flip-flops as he made sure I understood the depth and weight of his promise. No one was to ever threaten him or his family. Not even his daughter. Especially not his daughter. I’d like to say I seethed as he told me this-that I looked right at him, kicked him in the balls and ran to the nearest police station. Or even to the neighbors. But I didn’t. I began shaking.
As soon as I turned eighteen I made the decision that I would press charges against him for the abuse. And I did. And I won. He remained on the sex offender list for the remainder of his life. I hope it prevented him from hurting other people but he was so full of poison- I know that for as long as he was on this planet, he was hurting someone. My stepmother stood by him until after his dying day. She is loyal to him even today; at least that’s what I hear. I know that she paid the price as did their child together, my half brother Daniel. Daniel and I are estranged. He believes my father’s version of the story- that I was a perverted temptress bent on destroying my father. Why that narrative is more believable to him I can only guess. Maybe its because it allowed him to continue to depend and rely on his parents. Quite a clever trick actually. Emotionally smart. I have decided to let Daniel be. I cannot salvage that relationship- we were so young when “it” happened. He was still a small boy. I was thirteen. The last time I saw him was at the courthouse when I was eighteen. My father and stepmother had decided to use him as a manipulation, a tug on the heartstrings of the court instead of shielding him from the ugliness of seeing his father prosecuted in a court of law for pedophilia. I can imagine what the judge thought. So, I give Daniel a lot of space. I don’t need to be Daniel’s lightening rod. I feel sadness about how it all turned out. Of course. It feels like another loss in the annals of my childhood. I think of Daniel’s facial expression when I saw him last. I waved at him as I exited the parking lot of the courthouse. He looked lost, abandoned, and pale. Angry. I was shaking having just come off the horror of testifying against my father. I thought to myself, “That’s the best I can do kiddo.” I try not to think of what Daniel’s childhood must have been like. His adolescence. I try to understand how a convicted pedophile can be left to raise a child in this country.
I don’t remember a lot about the trial. I remember terror and begging the guard to search my father in a panicked whisper. I was sure he had a gun. I remember shaking on the stand and swallowing the hard nub in my throat, a deep dull ache and throb. I left the courthouse and drove straight to the house where the abuse had occurred. I’m not sure why I did this. I had to see it for some reason; it was such a famous place in my life. The place where my life went to smithereens, the scene of the crime. I felt like I wanted an autograph or something to make it more concrete. I hadn’t been there in five years. By the time I got there I was sick to my stomach from shaking, crying and screaming; Ani DiFranco was blaring on my stereo. I threw myself down in the backyard where the garden used to be. I threw myself down like Scarlet O’Hara might in a barren potato field. I had so much feeling inside me, so much rage; I didn’t know how to get it out of my body. I heaved there for a while. I’m not sure how long. As I was leaving I noticed the house didn’t look abandoned but it didn’t look occupied either. I always wonder if there was someone in there, trying to figure out what to do with the hysterical young woman in the backyard.
I married the man of my dreams when I was 34 years old. Almost 35. My husband is 65 years old. He is my senior by quite a few years. 26 to be exact. I have heard of studies done that say a woman’s chances of marrying after 35 go down significantly. I remember the relief washing over me when my then boyfriend of six years finally asked me to be his wife. I felt like a late bloomer. I spent most of my twenties trying to untangle the mess that was my childhood. I met David in my late twenties. I was wild, reckless. Dangerous even. My husband has loved me through some very challenging times. I feel grateful for that. For him. I also feel terror. I’m sure I cannot trust him on body memory days and sometimes even on “good days” I am skeptical. He has lied to me in the past about inconsequential things. This creates a real dilemma for survivors of incest. Our flesh and blood, the ones who are meant to keep us safe, violated us in the grossest of ways. It’s fucking hard to trust. And my mind plays tricks on me. I don’t worry that my husband will have an affair. In fact, it would ease a lot of my guilt if he did. I understand that he has needs and I’m not meeting them right now. The guilt of coming up short all the time is a cross I lug around with me. My trust issues are deep rooted and go way beyond whether or not someone is faithful. This is almost inconsequential to me. I wonder if I can trust someone enough to relax around them. Enough to be myself, enough to breathe.
All of this has taken a toll on my husband. He has to wait patiently and kindly for his wife to come back to him more than he would like. I have to leave sometimes. I just do. Lately that means staying in my office all day. Sometimes it means running errands all day. Sometimes it means leaving the state or even country. Sometimes it means leaving my body. It’s a circus anyway you slice it.
My need to be alone is overwhelming at times. Being around people is painful on body memory days because I live in a world where the most benign interaction with another human can feel like a hall of mirrors to me. Everything about my perception becomes distorted. I cannot see clearly. It feels like the people who love me hate me. I cannot feel or see love. Only disappointment. This is PTSD.
I’ll consider myself incredibly blessed if my marriage can survive given the rat’s nest we have to untangle at this point.
He’s trying to hang tough. He is. And he has a part in what’s wrong with our marriage so that adds another layer of complication upon us. But he is working hard. It’s painful. The work is painful but worthwhile. That is the hope.
He also has to see me struggle and suffer. For a long time I couldn’t see how my struggle impacted him and if I did perchance glimpse it- it made me angry. I just wanted the space and time to do what I have needed to do. To heal. To be. Exactly as I am. I have spent a long time hiding everything behind a smile or a flirtatious laugh. I cannot do that anymore. There are days where I would like to but that gift, that talent, that grace seems out of my reach now. I don’t know who this new person is, this new woman that can feel so incredibly connected to everyone but her own family seemingly. I can feel overwhelmed with love for a stranger yet completely consumed and devoured by my husband’s seemingly healthy and normal needs.
4. The Mirror
The first time my father touched me inappropriately, that I can remember, I was giving him a hug. He stood in front of his dresser, which had a mirror. He faced away from the mirror and I could see my face in it as my arms were wrapped around him and my head was over his shoulder, straining to look over it. He reached down, placing his hand between my legs and squeezed hard. The look of horror on my face as he asked me if I was “getting all hot and wet down there” tells me that it wasn’t my desire or wish to have him touch me in that way. I didn’t want him to touch me at all after that day. No more hugs. I began shrinking away from him. It was complicated however as he was my only shield from my stepmother who honestly made the Wicked Witch of the West look like Glenda. She called me a “stupid cunt” on a regular basis, sometimes mumbling it under her breath, other times yelling it whilst throwing a pot in my general direction. It was her go to phrase. I was a shy child, very sensitive, more so now that the abuse was happening. And she was an educated woman. Moderately so anyway. She was a nurse in a pulmonary unit at one of the local hospitals. I knew that I was the only one who knew what she was actually capable of, how she was always dancing on the brink of a meltdown… Or a breakdown. She hated me. I was very thin and lithe and told regularly by others that I was a beautiful child, a pretty girl. She was obese partly due to her Lupus, which she was always trying to control with either chemotherapy or radiation back then. She was bald mostly with a few thin wisps of hair across the top of her head. Debra was quite a mess physically and I know the deterioration of her physical health was a contributing factor as far as her behavior towards me was concerned. I feel a great deal of compassion for her now because I know, deep in my heart, her life has been punishment enough.
Her feet would get very swollen either from the Lupus or from the treatment. Coming home from school one day I could see she was quite shaken. She told me to, “Keep your head down. Your father is in one of his moods. I’ll be lucky to live tonight.” Her voice was trembling as she took laundry off the line and she had the look of a wild animal in her eyes. I could see she was absolutely convinced he was going to kill her. She regularly had a way of walking around on eggshells around my father, trying not to poke the bear but I had never seen anyone look the way she looked in that moment, rabid, scared… doomed. It frightened me and gave weight and validity to my father’s threats. I still believe he was capable of murder.
Later that evening he walked up behind her and began stomping on her already swollen and sore feet with his steel toe boots on until she was lying on the floor in the middle of the hallway, not even crying. He grunted and groaned and called her ugly, yelling for her to shut up. I peed my pants. “Thomas, please.” She cowered there but that’s all she said.
And she went to work the next day.
My father wanted me to believe that I was the reason he did that to her, that he was angry about the way she had been treating me. I believed him.
I threw my breakfast up the next morning. Not because I wanted to- but because my stomach was in knots. I know that some survivors turn to eating disorders as a way of coping and while I became a binge eater, I was never a candidate for bulimia. I loathe everything about throwing up. And so I cried that morning before I vomited up my breakfast. I cried because I didn’t want to throw up and because I didn’t know what else to do. I thought to myself: how had my life turned into this actual real life nightmare? What was happening? I mean honestly, my life wasn’t fabulous before I left to live with my father. I felt like things were a bit over the top at this point- in contrast, my life before looked easy. Bring on the bullies and the alcoholic mom!
I had no idea what to do… My brain could scarcely process what was happening. My father had worked to isolate me for a period of months before he began touching me. I wasn’t permitted to spend time with anyone other than my church group, where he was an active member. Housework and babysitting duties came before homework. Homework was a privilege to be earned although I would be punished for sub par grades. My gratitude to my parents and devotion to my family was the best way for me to praise God. Just like my life depended on it.
5. When the student is ready the teacher appears.
“Evelyn. The disaster is over. It already happened. You can relax.”
My therapist says this to me over the phone. She has made herself available to me over the weekend, to help me to feel held as I go through what certainly must be hell. That’s what it feels like. Not to sound mopey. I am disoriented and my hypochondria is through the roof. I’m not smoking cigarettes or drinking but I want to be doing both. I’m convinced, NO CONVINCED, that I have early Alzheimer’s disease. I want to go see a neurologist. “Honey, you are stressed out. You are fine.” says my husband but I can see he’s not sure that I am fine. I can see fear in his eyes. This is further validates my skewed reality. I cannot see my way out of it. I think I should call my doctor. I feel my heart rate accelerate. There is something wrong with me. I know it as plainly as I know the nose on my face.
I smoke a little marijuana once my kiddos are tucked safely (I pray) into school. It takes the edge off. It helps. I feel my shoulders come down. I imagine there are beautiful balloons attached to them. They lift my shoulders gently out of their locked position. They bring a lightness to the rocks. I can conceive of feeling hopeful again. I can conceive that my mind is simply playing tricks on me these days and that this crazy ride might just be part of the process. I have to surrender to the disorientation, acknowledge the panic and pray for it to pass swiftly. I close my eyes.
6. I smoke medical marijuana.
My therapist suggested that if I was going to medicate with pot, (which I was), that I go about it responsibly, which made perfect sense to me. So much of my problem revolves around shame. I do not need to give myself anything else to feel ashamed about. Medical marijuana is obviously legal in my state but quite controversial as it stands. It’s not something I advertise but I suspect a fair amount of people in my life know, aside from my immediate family.
It’s getting me through an impossible time right now. It affirms positivity and makes it easier for me to see the ways in which I am changing. It allows me to be gentle with myself. It eases my anxiety. It doesn’t take it away but it certainly diminishes it.
I cannot drink. I cannot act out sexually, although I have. I cannot pop Ativan like my mother. I take antidepressants and I use marijuana. I don’t know that the pot is a long-term solution. I have to think of my children always. But for today it’s working and so we are going with it. My children get a calm mother that has more than half a nerve left to stand upon when I take my medicine. I try to take life day by day. Hour by hour sometimes. I thank God for my children. On bad days, they get me through.
7. My mother died six months ago.
I hated pot until she passed away. I couldn’t stand it and hadn’t smoked since high school. It made me paranoid. She passed June 17,2017. She was 58 years old.
It was breast cancer- it spread to her brain and it was a very rapid decline. Three weeks and she was gone. Just like that. My relationship with my mom was very complicated as you might imagine. She failed me as a mother in some pretty profound ways. It wasn’t her fault. She was sick with alcoholism. The outcome was the same though whether she could control it or not. I truly believed my primary emotion would be relief when she passed — and some sadness. After all- I had spent the better part of my adult life mourning our relationship or lack thereof. Her alcoholism took a grave toll upon her mental health and her physical health as well and I couldn’t have her in the lives of my children for that reason. We were essentially estranged when news of her brain tumors came from my grandfather.
Based on my Internet research, I decided that I would have to go down to Delaware, where she lived, and bring her back up to MA with me so she could die with some of her family around her. At this point she was basically homeless, couch surfing at friend’s homes, dying of late stage cancer, still smoking cigarettes and drinking cough syrup. Jesus. I was sending her enough money each month to have a place to live and food in her belly along with all the other expenses associated with living. It didn’t seem to matter. She liked couch surfing. She was a fucking gypsy.
My father had many hobbies. He was passionate about marine biology as well as architecture, motorcycles, model trains and model airplanes that actually fly. All of his hobbies were outside his budget.
He was a compulsive and impulsive spender. His hobbies came before food on the table or electricity. That was the feeling at least. We were not allowed to say anything to him about his spending. It was a secret and silent understanding in our family culture that his desires came before our needs. He was an asshole. Sometimes I worry that I am too. I’m trying hard not to be.
According to Psychology Today all narcissist share some personality traits. There are six specifically that they have in common. My father had all of them a few new to add to the list. He was a liar and an exaggerator. He was unapproachable and highly sensitive to any criticism. The rules never applied to him. He was incredibly manipulative and abusive- emotionally, physically and spiritually. He gas lighted allthe time. Gas lighting is when someone invalidates the reality of another person in such a way that they begin to mistrust their own perception. It’s absolutely crazy making.
The last time he abused me he made me get on my knees and beg God for forgiveness. It took me 30 minutes of shaking on my boney knees to get the words out. I was crying the sort of cry that happens when you have lost complete control of yourself. Crying where your breath is ragged and it catches like a hiccup in your throat. My knees were purple and then a sallow yellow for days.
I have a reoccurring dream that he and my stepmother are trying to stab me to death. I cannot scream in the dream although I might wake up screaming. She is trying to tie me down with vines and rope. It gets bloody.
9. Oprah saved me too.
The year and the year after I decided to press charges against my father were years of wonder.
Looking back I can see that I was given just the sort of help I needed at just the right time. Exactly the right people showed up when they were needed. There was grace just as I imagine there is now. I just cannot see it because I’m in it. And it doesn’t feel graceful. At all.
Anyway, I began watching Oprah and Oprah began doing her Book of the Month Club. Bitterroot Landing by Sheri Reynolds came into my life. I couldn’t put it down. I was rapt and read it cover to cover in a few hours, only to start it again. The protagonist Jael became my heroine. She was strong and wild and felt the way I felt, saw the things I saw. Her experiences were so much like my own. I didn’t know it at the time but I that book was my life jacket. If Jael could do it, if she could survive and build a life for herself, in spite of where she came from- then I felt there was a possibility I could too. I tried to reread it a few months ago. That should have been my red flag. That should have been a tip that I was getting ready to open the wound. To perform surgery on myself. I couldn’t read it. I made it into the third chapter and began to feel nauseous and so I tucked it away.
10. Some days are better than others.
Some days I wake up and everything feels fine. I feel grounded and anchored in my life. I feel able to enjoy what is instead of worrying over what has been or what might be. Lately, these days are few and far between. Today I woke up and felt fine at first, well enough to brush my hair and put my makeup on at least. As I was making my children their breakfast I began feeling queasy and then coming up with a list of all the things I have let slip through the cracks in recent months. The shame begins now. I didn’t send thank you letters out for this past Christmas or for my babies’ birthdays. Everyone must think I am so tacky. My nanny cannot stand me for this reason. This is what I tell myself. While it cannot be proven in a court of law- I am convinced that she thinks I am a horrible mother and an even worse boss. Sometimes I perceive that does she pick on me and sometimes I even feel bullied. It’s as though she is in constant competition with me- always trying to prove my incompetence or trying to prove her competence at my expense. I don’t know how much of this is real and how much is imagined because my PTSD helps me to believe these things. I think that many mothers with a nanny experience a certain level of fraught emotion towards them. My primary emotion when I think of Ellen is gratitude. She has loved my children through a time when their mother hasn’t been able to be available in some ways. The amount of time that I need for self-care is intense. I liken it to at least a part time job but it feels more full time job lately.
I flew down to get my mother on Jet Blue. My mother insisted that she bring her bratty dog Zeus up to MA to live with us. She couldn’t part with her dog and I wasn’t about to make her. She was dying for Pete’s sake. The problem of course, was that the dog’s vaccinations and health had to be certified to fly and my mother, in gypsy fashion, had neglected to do this. So I had two days to gather her, the small amount of belongings she would bring and her insane MinPin, ridiculously named Zeus. I would need to get him to the vet in the meantime. My nerves weren’t on edge enough. We needed this added layer of complication, clearly, to round out the situation.
My mother’s dog was a neurotic manifestation of her metal illness. This dog would growl or go ballistic anytime anyone tried to get near my mother and his bark was a piercing, high-pitched torture device. Only she could get him to calm down by becoming abusive with him. She said more than once that when he barked, her inclination was to kill him. She couldn’t take the barking and yet she was the cause of the barking. She allowed her dog to dominate her and so he tried to dominate everyone.
I had not yet met Zeus when I landed, picked up the rental car and drove about an hour and a half from Baltimore to the barely there town of Felton, Delaware to pick up my new roommates. Oh, I was in for a treat. I hate it in Delaware. I refer to it as the armpit of the Eastern Shore, all chains and big boxes on an ugly, flat strip of highway.
Once in Felton, I located my mother at her friend Elsie’s house. The house was ramshackle at best and the smell of cigarette smoke was so strong walking through the front door that I almost gagged. It wasn’t just cigarette smoke. It was body odor, unhealthy food, intellectual waste and stale smoke. It was hopelessness, welfare, drug addiction and dog smell all mixed together. I felt oppressed by the air as I crossed the threshold of the living room to see my dying mother sitting on a sunken couch with the look of a disoriented ten year old on her face.
“There’s my girl. There you are.” I saw the flicker of recognition falter on her face. The brain masses were pressing on the part of her brain responsible for memory and so she was behaving like a patient with dementia. Hell, she was a patient with dementia. Out of all the moments that have stuck with me throughout the journey of my mother’s passing, her face expression in that moment, on the couch, has impacted me the most. She looked so bewildered and frail. Her chemotherapy and radiation treatments had robbed her of her beautiful mane and now all she had was a few straggly pieces tufting at the very top of her head. I felt so sad for her. I think life was moving very fast at that point and she was having a hard time understanding what was happening to her. I guess that was a blessing in disguise. I had so hoped we would have some time together to try to process the complete disaster area of our relationship. She was losing ground by the hour though and I felt opportunity slipping through my fingers. I felt frantic, robbed. She was dying. I still have moments when I cannot believe she is gone. It’s only been a bit over six months at this point. Still, when does it really ever sink in? Losing a parent makes our own mortality all too real. All too tangible. I wrestle with the idea of my death on a regular basis. Maybe we all do. We don’t like to talk about it though.
12. The Hampton Inn
As I mentioned, I had two days to get her dog squared away as well as arrange for a wheelchair as her ambulatory function was declining quite literally by the day. I knew I couldn’t get her home without one but where the hell was I going to get a wheelchair? In order for her insurance to cover it I had to get a prescription from the doctor, which meant another errand to add onto the list. Mother kept pestering me about the fact that she wanted to stop by her storage facility to get “some things”. I couldn’t bring myself to tell her that she didn’t need anything anymore (other than a wheelchair) but I didn’t have time to add one more errand to the list either. I kept putting her off- praying she would forget.
I rented a room at The Hampton Inn, the nicest accommodations in the area, and pushed her into the building on the chair part of her walker. The smell of new rugs and paint was strong. We looked ridiculous. We were ridiculous. Two lost women, fumbling over one another, not knowing how to navigate these new waters and with so many new rules- never mind navigating the damn walker…that one that wasn’t meant to be a wheelchair- but was being used as one.
With the information of my mother’s impending death informing my every move, I barely felt I could feelshort with her and so I worked diligently to keep my tone calm and kind with her, even though she had and still has in some ways, the ability to make me into a stark raving lunatic. I remember a fight we had years ago. I was visiting her at her farm in Delaware, painting her kitchen for her. I had brought my brand new French bulldog puppy down with me to see her. His name was Henry. It was my hope that between the puppy and staying busy we would keep out of trouble- meaning we wouldn’t start hurling discussion grenades at one another. Her kitchen needed to be painted badly and there must have been a centimeter of caked nicotine on the walls. I had to wash the walls down with a bleach solution before painting them. They looked like dirty fly strips. I wore a mask thinking and was trying hard to keep my sense of horror and mortification to myself. I scrubbed the nicotine sludge off the walls. And the dust, so much dust.
I don’t remember what the fight was about anymore, only that I was so angry I actually saw color and dark spots. I grabbed my puppy dog and ran out of there, jumped in my BMW and sped out of the driveway only to be pulled over a mile down the road. The officer told me I was speeding but didn’t even give me written warning. It was quite clear I was very upset, my face a splotchy mess- my breath catching as I cried. “Miss, are you alright? Is there someone I should call? “
“No officer, there’s no one to call.”
My mother and I didn’t speak for two years. And so it went. That was our relationship. Hot and cold. Never lukewarm and before you knew it… over.
I was remembering the details of our fight as I pushed her down the hallway of the Hampton Inn, trying so hard to be gentle with her. I could feel all that rage just under the surface, a cauldron of old hurt and shame- but I also knew that this road was a one-way street and if I didn’t find a way to love my mother through this, through her death, I would regret it for the rest of my life.
My mother’s doctor disappeared once her cancer showed back up. She told me this and I thought surely she must be imagining it- that they must have met and she didn’t remember it. She knew she was dying and yet she didn’t know. We were touch and go with her memory, moment to moment -and the fact that she continued to bring this doctor up struck me. I asked her if it would be helpful for me to arrange a visit with him before we left. She said that she would like that very much. He had been with her through it all and it certainly seemed like an exit interview was in order to me, especially given the fact that I had spent the prior 48 hours in Massachusetts trying to get a hold of this doctor, to no avail. Now I was curious. What was going on? By this time she had tumors and inflammation pressing on the part of her brain that affected her personality and she had, after all these years, reverted to the sweet, Southern person I once knew, the mother from my earliest memories, not un -childlike herself. It was breaking my heart. I was on edge. I berated myself. I should feel grateful. I should feel grateful to get a glimpse of that person again but I saw her now- self-sacrificing to a fault, a martyr, talented, lost- a shell of who she could have been- and it pierced me. My hands started shaking regularly by the time I had been with her for a few hours; I was clammy and nauseous, my appetite gone, my body overrunning me. I was drowning in guilt but I hadn’t done anything wrong. I was here to help. I was bringing her home to die with me, to be surrounded by her only family. I was doing the right thing. Wasn’t I? I felt myself grow jumpy, felt all my buttons being pushed- my PTSD kicking up, survival mode kicking in. I could feel myself brace against it. This was hard. A small earthquake inside me and I felt the track in me light up all the way back to my father, to the closet, the dark room, to the man who smelled of pipe.
I decided we were not leaving the state until the doctor agreed to see my mother. She deserved 15 minutes of his time after being in his care for over two years. This was my way of thinking. And according to his nurse he was just back from vacation. So even better.
14. The Doctor doesn’t want to meet with us.
I cannot believe I am saying this but it’s highly likely the doctor had developed feelings for my mother. I forgot to mention- my mother LOVES men and they love her. All her craziness and eccentricities seem to go completely unnoticed by men at large. She can show up with hot pink snakeskin luggage and an American flag bow tie around her neck and all they see are her big brown eyes. There you have it. So- I go into this appointment thinking that this doctor doesn’t want to see my mother because he has fallen for her on some level and he cannot save her. Sounds far fetched right? Snort. We’ll call it female intuition.
This doctor, I couldn’t figure him out, but he was not budging when it came to squeezing us into his very tight and important schedule. And that meant I wasn’t going to budge. I threatened to file a complaint if he didn’t agree to meet my mother for a few minutes, long enough to give us a straightforward answer regarding her prognosis. Even though I knew what the verdict would be- I knew in my gut it would be helpful for her to hear it from him. She quite obviously had developed strong feelings for him. She couldn’t remember my name and yet she wouldn’t stop talking about this guy. Anyway, after the threat — we were magically granted access to Dr. Asshole as I have come to call him. I needed to meet with him too. I needed to hear the words myself. I needed his help talking to her about what her options were… options like- did she want to come with me or did she prefer to stay here with Elsie? Did she want to go through more chemo to gain a month maybe a little more? Should we have care transferred? In the off chance this wasn’t the case I had already made arrangements for hospice once we got home. I had two-year-old twins at the house and knew I would need help caring for her. Based on what my mother had shared with me, chemo had made her quite miserable and she didn’t want to do any more treatments. Still, I wasn’t completely married to the idea of bringing her back home if she was adamant that she wanted to stay. Her mental function was declining so rapidly it was hard to even know if she was competent at this point. I wanted to believe she was.
All of this was in my mind as we waited to be called into the doctor’s office. We had the dog with us and he was barking at strangers, jangling our nerves. She didn’t want to be without him though and so I couldn’t say no. I was having a hard time saying no to her at the expense of my own mental health. The dog’s barking had me teetering and irritable.
Finally they called us in. I was expecting a young doctor to appear because of how my mother talked about him. Imagine my surprise when a short, square, bald and rather unattractive fifty something year old came bounding in the room.
“Jennifer honey!!! How are you??!!” He gave her a big hug and I saw my mother transform before my eyes from a sick, cancer stricken patient to, well, a flirtatious schoolgirl.
“Look Dr. Michael, I shaved my head just like you asked!” she beamed.
“Good Jennifer, good girl.” was his response. Was she a dog? I held my hand out to introduce myself to him.
“Ahh yes. You are za daughter. I’ve heard so much about you. “ He spoke in broken English and had a what sounded like a Polish accent.
I didn’t know what to say. I had only recently learned of him. My mother had gone through her first two years of treatment with me at a distance, although we spoke regularly and I supported her financially so she wouldn’t need to work, I wasn’t involved in the day-to-day ins and outs of her treatment. I was busy with a young family and she was still quite capable of managing her care at that time and she did it beautifully. She did it beautifully but she continued to drink and to smoke. I would learn this later while reading her medical chart.
“So, how cans I help you today? You were so determined to see. Tell me-how cans I help you?” he asked, clearly annoyed with me.
“Well, you have been my mother’s doctor since the onset of her treatment…I was hoping you could talk to us about her prognosis as well as a treatment plan moving forward. Are we looking at hospice or palliative care? Is there a treatment you can recommend that might buy us more time? Plus, she wanted to say goodbye to you as it is likely she will be returning to MA with me.”
He looked dejected and I saw dread on his face.
“Who said anything about hospice or palliative care? There is a treatment that we can do now that will give your mother a little more time.” He said.
I felt my heart skip a beat.
“There is?” I looked over at my mother who was playing with the lint on her sweatpants, talking to herself like she had Tourette’s syndrome. I hated that we were talking about her like she wasn’t there.
“Mother, this is a discussion you should be a part of.” I said.
“Yes, Jennifer. I don’t think you should go into hospice.”
At this point I didn’t know what to believe. The doctor that I had originally spoken with while in Massachusetts, who could now not be located, had told me that he thought hospice at this point was the right thing to do. I was getting mixed messages and it scared me. I felt so out of control of everything as it was; I needed to feel like the doctors knew what they were doing. I needed those walls around this situation.
I explained to the doctor that I had spoken with her other care provider and that hospice had been put on the table. I watched his face grow red.
“I don’t appreciate your insinuation young lady,” he hissed at me. Was he being serious? The dog started growling and then barking.
I think my mouth must have hit the floor.
“Where have you been for the last two years? I am her doctor. She is MY patient.” he enunciated each word perfectly, his accent disappearing, his cadence becoming clipped.
“She’s MY mother!” I retorted.
I became immediately triggered and the room began to spin for me a bit. Was this really happening? My voice began shaking and I replied,
“I beg your pardon. I’m here to help. I came all the way here to help. Please don’t speak to me like I’m a child.” My voice was small and choked. I began to shrink. He began to get louder, bigger. I could see he was a bully.
“I want you out of my office. Get out and take that FUCKING dog with you. “
“IT”S HER DOG!!!” I pointed this out rather emphatically. “And I will not get out of your office! You have lost your mind. You need to finish this discussion with my mother.” I squeaked.
“I’m calling security. Get. Out. Of. My. Office. ” He literally stomped over to the phone. Again, I couldn’t believe this was happening. It was too much. I burst out laughing from nerves. He did not like that. I told him I was going to report him to the medical board and he better pray I didn’t sue for emotional distress. He really didn’t like that.
My mother had decided to jump in half way through our “discussion” and in typical fucking gypsy fashion; she sided with her man, Dr. Asshole.
“I don’t know why she’s like this.” She said to him. “That’s just her. I’m so embarrassed.”
“You know how much I like to be threatened Jennifer,” he said to my mother. What did that mean?!
And yeah right she didn’t know why I am “like this”. I choked back a sob along with my disbelief. It took all my discipline to keep my composure until we were out in the parking lot. Then I lost it. I sobbed so hard I couldn’t catch my breath, my entire body quaking with anger and grief. This was so hard. Everyone was upset. The doctor was upset too. I could see he couldn’t process his emotions around not being able to cure my mother. She had probably roped him in as she had a way of doing. What else could justify this level of unprofessionalism? My mother once had told me that a therapist she had been seeing made advances towards her and she had accepted. I believed her. She had a way of pushing past boundaries. I had seen it happen on more than one occasion. She had once dated a doctor and convinced him to give her Ativan, which she abused regularly, even though he was not her treating physician. Call me crazy but that seemed like a boundary violation to me. That doctor, the one she dated, lost his license a couple years later so maybe she was simply skilled at attracting the wrong sort of people into her life.
I sobbed, heartbroken in the car and my mother tried to put her arms around me. I was so angry at her for siding with the doctor, I needed to calm down and didn’t want her touching me. I felt humiliated, unappreciated and generally unwell.
“Alright, alright. “ she said.
I was still overcome by my emotions but I was working by now to get my breath under control at least.
“This is tearing me up. And I know it’s tearing you up. I feel just awful that this has happened. I really do. “ She said this softly, her voice shaking and broken. Just like me, her lower lip trembled when she tried not to cry.
I didn’t know if she was talking about the doctor or about the cancer. Or both. I suspected both. That’s the closest my mother ever came to an apology for anything. I grabbed ahold of it and held on for dear life.
We hugged and I told her we needed to talk. I explained what the doctor had said- the first doctor I spoken with. Then I explained to her what Dr. Asshole had said. I was very clear with her. There was a treatment that involved more chemo that might extend her life for a month or more. But not much more. As Dr. Asshole had so aptly said as I stood outside his exam room waiting for security to escort me off the premises, “The cancer is going to get you Jen. It’s a matter of time.”
God, how I hated him for saying those words. I sent daggers his way with my eyes, trying not to bawl. It was all too much. My mother, the dog, the cancer, my PTSD, my mother’s PTSD, the crazy doctor, the stress of travelling and being away from my children and my husband. The way I kept seeing my mother in myself was triggering me to no end. The way my hands moved, the cadence of my speech. We were mirror images. I didn’t want to be like my mother. Doomed. Lost. Lonely. Sick. I felt myself stretched to the breaking point. Maybe I had bitten off more than I could chew.
15. The Playgirl Magazine
Weeks before my father began touching me I came home to find a rumpled paper back rolled up on my twin bed, its top rolled down. I opened it and felt dread run down the back of my throat. My spit felt hot and sludgy. It was a Playgirl magazine.
I took it out of the bag and set it on the bed just as my father was coming down the hall.
“You like what you see there? He would split you open and you would like it.” He laughed and then said with a wink, “Hide it somewhere where Debra won’t find it. And remember that I always take care of you. “ I was looking at the floor as he said this trying not to laugh. It was a nervous reaction for me, laughing. He smiled at me smiling. He liked it. “You’re a good girl.” He said. I liked that he liked it. I liked that I was pleasing to my father but I sensed that there was something off about our dynamic. I knew it was natural to want to please my father on one hand but I also knew that here was something different about what pleased my father compared to other fathers. I felt uneasy. I felt shame.
Later that night when I thought it was safe, I got the magazine out of its hiding place, between the crib sheet and the bottom of a baby doll’s bassinet, and I crawled into bed to have a look. I was dying of curiosity.
Just as I was opening its pages, a loud rap on the window startled me. I screamed. It was my father, spying on me, and then purposefully trying to frighten me. I could hear him laughing through the single pane of glass that was the window above my bed. I was thirteen. I hated him. But I loved him desperately too.
According to RAIIN (Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network), every eight minutes a child is sexually assaulted in our country yet only six out of a thousand perpetrators will end up in prison. I don’t know that institutionalization is the answer but I know that doing nothing is not the answer. I know we have to take the shame out of talking about it so that more men and women will get help. My mother once confided in me that my father was molested by his mother, that he had confided in her about it… that his mother often burned him with cigarettes. Sybil shit. That made perfect sense to me. My father wassadistic in the way he abused me. I’m still trying to wrap my head around that and what it has meant for my life. I’m not sure I ever will. Even with all I ‘ve been through, I cannot understand where that kernel of meanness comes from. Why some people become perpetrators and others don’t has to do with that kernel. Its’ either there or it isn’t. Still, I worry that darkness is inside me somehow. That he got it on me. That I’m marked forever or that it’s contagious like a virus. I’m not free of the fear yet.
I contacted RAINN’s online chat room and asked to speak to someone about statistics relating to incest. I waited in the “waiting room” for almost two hours. The ticker on the computer screen kept saying, “There are five people ahead of you”. It seemed like a busy night.
When I finally did get someone, her name was Sasha. I inquired- is Sasha a male or a female? I was hoping Sasha was a male. For some reason, I feel more judged by women than I do men. Despite the twisted nature of my experiences with my father, I still find men easier to trust than women. Maybe this was because of the dynamic with my father, the one where he shielded me from my stepmother. He made me feel protected, like I had a friend in him when it was clear how much she hated me. When I think back about the casual way in which my father abused me, like I was only a pawn to be used for his desires, I find myself wondering if he was intentionally trying to break me- as though the abuse was somehow meant to be a favor. Khalil Gibran, one of my father’s favorite poets says, “Your pain is the shell that encloses your understanding.” I’m starting to believe that might be true.
17. The Garden
As I mentioned, my father had many hobbies, he considered himself a renaissance man. He loved to grow things. He loved houseplants and and growing our own food. We would start seeds in the springtime and have bounty to share with all of our neighbors through the growing season. I would come to gardening much later in my life but I hated it back then. I hated weeding, hated being bent under the sun of ninety-degree days. My back hurt and the humidity made me want to leave my body. My father would supervise my gardening and critique my methods. He would tell me I was undisciplined, that I wasn’t paying enough attention to detail. I should study my own hands and make their movement beautiful. I should make sure my hips were angled in just the right way as to accentuate my waistline to hip ratio. I must always be aware of how I looked. My looks would be my saving grace. This is how I would find a rich man, marry a rich man and keep a rich man…by studying myself and not wasting a movement as opportunity to enchant or seduce. As though he were training a geisha or something. This is the shit he used to say to me:
“You better learn how to be fun in bed… How do you think you can keep a man interested? You aren’t one of these girls that are going to be able to rely on her mind.” He snorted. “You’ll be lucky to go to community college.”
And then: “Go put your cut off shorts on and come out here so I can watch you in the garden.” The shorts were black and skimpy, left over from my other life with my mother. They had a fringe from being over washed. I skipped into the house to do as I was told. I was glad my father thought I was beautiful but I reallywanted him to think I was smart. His remarks about my intellect cut me to the quick. For years, I connected with the pain of that more than the pain of the sex acts themselves. I couldn’t access that pain until I was in a completely stable place in my life. Which is now. Back then, I completely ignored the fact that none of this was meant to be happening. Not the garden. Not the magazine, not the mirror. He had me by then. I couldn’t see the forest for the trees. I knew in my belly something wasn’t right. I felt nauseous all the time- but I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what the matter was. I blamed Debra, my stepmother, knowing that wasn’t it her. She was just the cherry on top of a shit sundae. Denial is a survival mechanism that kicks in when we have to live through an intolerable situation. It took over me as soon as I perceived I had absolutely no control over what was happening to me. The denial saved me. But it made me feel dull and lifeless. It made me float high, high above myself, threatening always to float away. The denial of self is the ultimate punishment and reward for survivors of incest. It is how we affirm to ourselves that we don’t exist at times in order to avoid the pain of being caught in a horrific moment; it’s also how we dull the intensity of our joy. Even joy can be triggering. Avoiding the pain becomes the name of the game. There are any numbers of ways to achieve this end. Drinking, drugging, smoking, spending, eating, fucking, obsessing, self-harming and working in the sex industry, these and more are ways that survivors “numb out” or strive to reclaim what was taken from us. We go for that sweet spot…that little piece of oblivion. I posit that this “numbing out” and the compulsion to do so is where the perpetrators behavior originates. I have no way of proving it but it seems like common sense to me. That mean little kernel combined with the need to engage in compulsive tendencies turns fathers into demons and mothers into the worst sorts. Call me crazy. It’s just a theory.
18. The Affair
I started having an affair less than two months after my mother passed. I fell so madly, became so obsessed that I actually worried for my own mental health. I could not stop texting this person despite humiliating myself over and over again. I couldn’t stop despite a desperate desire to do so. I was humbled- brought to my knees by this obsession. I was so intoxicated I couldn’t even connect with the reality that I was married. It wasn’t even a consideration and I love my husband desperately. It had nothingto do with him. It was separate from my marriage. I saw myself in slow motion- taking such risks- possibly destroying everything I had worked so hard for and I couldn’t stand myself. My family. My marriage. My home. I could lose it all. I couldn’t stop it though, couldn’t help myself. I started smoking cigarettes again despite the fact my mother had just passed from cancer. The momentum and pull of Alan was strong. I was feeling quite weak. It felt futile to even try to fight it. I threw myself into our affair like my life depended upon it.
I had worked for this person in my early twenties and had been in love with him all those years ago. He was everything my father wasn’t. For one, he was incredibly devoted to his children. I used to get a lump in my throat when I would see him interact with his kids. He was married. He was an ideal I conjured in my head. Successful, happy, devoted. Faithful. Impossibly good –looking he had salt and pepper hair, kind, warm, brown eyes and a wide, flirtatious smile. When I found us texting one night a month or so after my mother died, I couldn’t pretend like I was caught off guard by the chemistry. He had recently separated from his wife. I knew right then I was in trouble. And I was. I really, really was.
Contact with him became my medicine. My hit, my fix. I would get so high from interacting with him, so high off our chemistry that I didn’t have to experience my grief or my PTSD. He was the best antidepressant on the planet. I know now of course that I was only making my bed messier, but god it felt good at the time. It was life affirming. It felt like a life raft. I was drowning and he was a raft. For whatever reason I perceived Alan as safe. I felt he would catch me each time I fell and he did. Over and over again I dared Alan to leave me. Over and over he refused. I acted wildly, inappropriately. I could see it, even laugh at it sometimes, often cry about it but always I came back to him- showing him the darkest parts of myself, the parts I couldn’t for whatever reason, show my husband. I couldn’t stay away from Alan, couldn’t leave him alone. He stayed for six months. He was brave. Strong. I’ll always be grateful to him for hanging tight with me for as long as he did. Most men would have gone screaming for the hills. I feel like I worked so many of my “daddy issues” out with Alan. As I perceived he loved me and was safe, I was able to risk rejection with him. And he didn’t reject me. He refused. It was cathartic. His love and want for me seemed to be unconditional. I had never experienced that before. It was such a gift and it was intoxicating. It was a gift I should have felt badly about but guilt was not the overarching theme of my emotional life at that time. I was tired of depriving myself of joy and I no longer felt emotionally safe with my husband. My post partum experience of my husband had been very upsetting to me. I felt betrayed by his behavior and so our marriage was limping along by this point anyway. My mother’s death was the tipping point. David simply didn’t have the emotional tools needed to show up in a truly supportive way for me and I didn’t know how to stop feeling angry about that fact. He was a fantastic provider financially but our emotional lives were dying. We were adrift. David’s steadiness and distance from emotion was one of the things that attracted me to him initially but as our marriage matured, it seemed to be more of a liability than an asset. I felt far away from my husband, unseen and unheard. We had been together a decade by this point, long enough for resentment and disenchantment to root and even go to seed. I love David and I know he loves me. I don’t know if that means we are meant to be together. I guess we have ups and downs like any married couple. The difference is that there is an added level of danger to the bumps when one of the people in a marriage is a survivor. Everything becomes riskier. Things are fragile and feel as though they could fall apart at any time. There is never a sense of security for survivors. It doesn’t matter how much money we have or how much love. Survivors of incest know that there are no guarantees in this world. We learn that lesson early on.
19. The Trial
By the time I decided to hold dear old Dad accountable for his actions, he had moved from VA to Florida with Debra and Daniel and had to be extradited in order to be brought up on charges. I wish I could have been a fly on the wall when they arrested him. He thought he was going to get away with it- that there wouldn’t be consequences. The local press was informed somehow and he did an interview in which he told the reporter that I was a friend of the family that had come to live with them for a while. He denied I was his daughter. My cheeks burned red the first time I read it and my ears started ringing. That lie bothers me still. It smashes home the fact that he knew he was wrong, that his actions were shameful enough to cover up. He didn’t deny that he had molested me. He denied that I was his daughter. Its painful to realize your own flesh and blood doesn’t love you. Your own father.
He ended up going through several lawyers after being brought back the scene of the crime in VA. He did spend a few weeks in jail before he could make bail. Furthermore, Thomas couldn’t seem to find an attorney that would buy his song and dance. The abuse had been well documented by my eighth grade guidance counselor. My best friend at the time promised to keep it to herself, to keep it on lockdown when I confided in her but wasn’t able to do so. Thank God. She may have saved my life by refusing to keep my secret.
I remember seeing the color drain from her face as I told her about the incest.
“You mean he touched you?” she asked. Her blue eyes welled up with tears.
I felt detached and dead telling her. I felt like I was telling someone else’s story. Someone I didn’t care about. I was shut down and shut off.
I felt the same way when I retold everything to the school guidance counselor. I felt far away from myself, as though I was floating up in the ether. The guidance counselor, whose name was Ernie, documented each and every one of our sessions. Ernie wore glasses that made her look like a sexy librarian and she painted her lips bright red. Ernie also contacted the authorities. She did everything she was supposed to do. There was a record of the police being notified -among other agencies. There was a paper trail that was damning for my father, at best.
He ended up entering into a plea bargain. He pled guilty for a reduced sentence in order to avoid having his ordeal go all the way to trial by jury. That is what my lawyer explained to me. It wasn’t a win for us but it wasn’t a loss either. He wouldn’t serve time but he would be on the Sex Offender Registry. That’s what mattered most to me. It was a win as far as I was concerned.
20. Bringing Mom Home
I convinced the veterinarian to give us some Valium for my mother’s dog to take on the airplane. In the waiting room of the vet’s office, I sat next to a woman and her six or seven year old child. He was watching YouTube on his mother’s phone. A man’s voice was dubbed over a video of a honey badger. “The Honey Badger doesn’t give a shit.” The little boy laughed loudly. “Give me that.” His mother snatched the phone from him. I smiled and prayed to God Zeus would go to sleep on the plane. Even though the flight was less than two hours I couldn’t bear the thought of his incessant barking. I felt like it might be the thing that pushed me over the edge. My mother’s ability to function was declining so fast I was afraid I wasn’t going to get her home while she could still walk. It took us several minutes to get to our seats on the airplane and I had to walk in front of her, walking backwards, supporting her under her elbows, with the dog carrier tossed over my shoulder. Her legs had gone all wobbly and I had to remind her of where she was and where we going. She leaned breathless on the seats every few steps because she got so winded. I felt frightened by the pace of her decline. Life was moving fast. I needed more time.
Once we were seated folks walked by us with sad looks on their faces and one man even stopped to say, “God bless you Mam. I’ll be praying for you.”
She said, “Why thank you dear.”
It was obvious to everyone she was dying of breast cancer. Her double mastectomy was there for all to see. My mother didn’t wear prosthetic breasts. Her shaven head and lack of eyebrows told her story. But it was her chest that people stared at. It was misshapen and scarred from the surgeries but she didn’t seem to care. She still wore lacy tank tops and tee shirts that made her struggle clear. It made me proud of her for being so brave. Just like the honey badger, my mother didn’t give a shit.
Somehow we made it to Boston. We landed. Home sweet home. The smell of Logan airport filled my nose and I thanked God I was out of Delaware. I was able to get my mother into a cab with the dog; able to get the wheelchair into the cab somehow even though it seemed impossible it would fit. I was bringing my mother home to die. I was 38 years old. I felt too young to be going through this sort of ordeal. I was painfully aware of my selfishness in that thought. A least I get to live. I should feel grateful.
21. The Dashboard
We were always broke. Not because my father didn’t make good money. Due largely in part to my father’s spending habits. He would throw himself head first into a new hobby or concept and that usually meant that there were some big-ticket items to purchase. He claimed back then that he worked at power plant as an engineer but honestly, I have no idea whether that was true or not. He didn’t have an engineering degree. He could have been holding a traffic sign at a crosswalk for all I knew. He was such a liar. Anyway, it didn’t matter. We were always robbing Peter to pay Paul.
On this one particular day my father wanted to be a fisherman and so off we went to the bait and tackle shop to all be outfitted with new rods and a tackle box filled with shiny and rubbery lures. I remember the rubber ones smelling bad. It was raining softly outside, a lazy drizzle and my little brother and I were excited to be out with our father, excited to be getting new gear. I was just happy to be away from my stepmother, out of her line of sight. Thomas told us that the fishing was better on rainy days; the fish would be jumping on a day like today.
As we pulled our broken down Chevrolet up onto a field overlooking a pond it began raining in earnest.
“It’s going to blow right on over.” He said as he looked over at me in the passenger seat. Something about the way he said it made my stomach jump.
“I like your skirt Leaha. That’s pretty. Very flattering.”
I looked down at my skirt. It was just a cotton skirt. Light blue. I began to feel queasy.
“Why don’t you take those long legs and put them up on the dashboard for me?” I did as I was told. I didn’t want to be- but I was shaking. I felt humiliated that he could see me shaking. It made me maroon with a rage I didn’t know how to feel. I began to say, “Daddy…” Just then his tone changed from friendly to ice cold, edgy.
“Spread your legs. Now.”
I couldn’t find my voice and began to cry. Silently. My body heaved and I swallowed a million hiccups. I couldn’t help myself. I was so humiliated. My baby brother was sitting in the back seat. Quietly.
I moved my legs to open them and he said, “Oh forget it. Nevermind. What do you think? You think your pussy is too sacred for your own father?” He looked out the window angrily and began biting his thumb nail. It had stopped raining. I was horrified — “it” had happened in front of Daniel. I was also relieved. Relieved because that meant I wasn’t crazy. Someone else saw it happen. I wasn’t imagining it. I was relieved too because he had stopped once I made it clear I wasn’t going to play along with him! My young mind struggled to reconcile my relief and horror as we gathered our fishing poles. I wasn’t going to pretend I liked it anymore. My heart was racing with hope that it might all be over soon.
22. The Stepmother.
My relationship with Debra didn’t get any better once my father initiated sexual contact with me. She knew what was happening. I am convinced of it. In her defense I was a miserable, frightened teenager with a face full of expressions- each of them designed to madden and I’m sure I tested her patience. It wasn’t a secret. She didn’t like me. I was reminded daily that I didn’t deserve to go to the private school they were sending me to- that the money used to pay for my tuition was wasted on me. I was told that my only contribution to the household was my ability to babysit and to clean. That was all I was good for. I thought I knew better than this. It was such a hyperbolic level of verbal and emotional abuse- I tried to tell myself I knew better, not to believe it. It turns out, at the end of the day- when one of your parents tells you something about yourself, you believe it- some part of you internalizes it. At least I did.
One day, I was on the couch reading a book I had located on my step mother’s bookshelf. It was a book I could not put down called Evergreen by Belva Plain. It took me out of my life and into the sprawling life of another family rich with its own drama and a drama that seemed more palatable than my own. It was actual drama- what I was living.
My biological mother, Jennifer, had accused me of being melodramatic for most of my childhood and so back then part of me assumed that perhaps I was just being melodramatic. Or provincial. That’s also what my biological mother would call me. Specifically, when I would protest about the flask of alcohol she would delicately sip off of when we were driving sometimes. Or the open can of beer between her legs. Even so, by some miracle she would make a woman with a can of beer between her legs whilst driving, look dainty and frail. It made me so mad. I was mad about how beautiful she was. And how impossible. She was making my life miserable. What did she have to be my mother? And yet I loved her desperately. Frantically almost. I wanted to take care of her. To know her more. To be her friend. This part of myself disgusted me. It made me feel both weak and stupid. I judged myself very harshly back then. I still sometimes do. I didn’t ever feel this about my step mother. I didn’t ever feel that I wanted to be her friend. Or that I wanted to know more about her. I felt that she was a person I didn’t care to know in fact. Probably how some of the survivors of the Titanic felt. Complete, slightly hostile strangers thrust into a sink or swim sort of situation. I’m sure there were some interesting conversations. Or perhaps complete silence.
As I was curled up on the couch that day reading Evergreen, my stepmother came walking by me and snatched the book out of my hands. Her face was red and she screamed at me that I was going To. Give. Her. A. Heart. Attack. She then hurled the book down the hallway. “You are not to touch my stuff.” she said. I never did finish reading that book. And in defense of my stepmother, she did get so angry that I feared she would have a heart attack at times. This made me afraid because even though she was awful to me- she was another person. Which meant I wasn’t alone. With him. So, I had complicated feelings, feelings that would be confusing for an adult, never mind a thirteen- year -old girl. I can see this clearly now. But it has taken a long time. For so long I have felt numb. And when I haven’t felt numb I have gone looking for the chance to numb out- to blur the edges, to dull the intensity of emotion I feel or to block out all the thoughts. For me, this abuse was an extreme event that left its mark on me. But, because of it I get to experience a level of joy that some will never know. So my ups are high and my downs can be quite low. I search now, today, for a middle ground.
Back then, I thought that my step mother’s heart must was weakened by her chemotherapy and her lifestyle. Plus- she walked around all the time saying she was going to have a heart attack-it just seemed to me a recipe for disaster and so I would work hard not to upset her. It didn’t seem to matter. The fact that I was breathing was upsetting apparently. When I wasn’t able to access her books I began to develop migraines. It’s as though I believed in my thirteen year old heart that those books had been shielding me somehow. They were my only connection to pleasure at that point. So, I guess it makes sense that I woke up the next day with a headache so splitting that I actually craved an ax to my head to relieve the pressure. I wanted to die. Breathing hurt. Moving my eyeballs hurt. I was so nauseous I had to run to the toilet to rid myself of the two spoonfuls of frosted flakes I had mustered into my stomach. The act of vomiting send me into such pain it can only be described as flashes of light. I must have been pale. Debra, my stepmother, took one look at me and said, “What’s the matter with you?”
“It’s my head” is what I muttered. So I thought. Apparently what I said was, “you don’t love me.” Because her reply was, “Don’t be silly. Of course I love you.”
“No. My head.” I said it again.
“Go back to bed.” She then brought me a cool washcloth and put my fan on low so the air was cooling my face. It felt heavenly. She turned off the light and pulled down the shade, which made my head feel ready to explode from the pressure of the vice grip it was in again- but once the room was in darkness I was so grateful. I was in so much physical agony. I have never, ever stopped feeling grateful for the mercy she showed to me in that moment.