Insanity; I Come By It Honestly

Stephen P. Conrad
Real
Published in
7 min readJan 20, 2023

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Photo on Unsplash

I’m half crazy, slightly socially retarded, and prone to mildly violent outbursts, but I come by it honestly.

Dark incidents of my youth I wished had never happened became the metaphors of my life and taught me how to navigate the many roads I would travel. Some I travelled by choice, others I was forced to travel.

But that’s life, right?

We barrelled down I-294, heading for home from the far Southwest Side of Chicago. It was late, it was dark, very dark, and we were held in winter's grip. My kid brother slept soundly in the back seat of our lime green beat-up old station wagon. I never could figure out how the kid did it.

I sat up front with Ma, who it seemed could barely keep her eyes open. Ma tried to get me to sing. I didn’t want to. She was insistent and kept asking me to sing. Sing a song for her, any song, just as long as I sang. I wasn’t in the mood, yet she insisted that I sing.

I cried.

Admit it or not, there is a time in every kid’s life that they want to run away from their parents, warranted or not. Just run away to some far-off place to not be bothered with the niceties of life.

There are those kids that just don’t want to be bothered to do what they are supposed to, the spoiled little shits of the world never taught the rules of the road. There are plenty of them.

Others intuitively, if unwittingly, seek out a safe place. That place nothing can hurt them.

They inherently know a bad situation when they’re in one. They know when it’s time to make a stand and when it’s time to run if necessary. For some kids, intuition and fear tell them all they need to know.

Kids aren’t as dumb as adults like to think they are. Sometimes an adult can be served well by kid guidance.

There it describes the bulk of my life. I learned from the lessons I was not taught. Driven by pure instinct that I learned to heed early on, survival by blood and error. Survival by instinct.

The folks didn’t leave us with much. Financial skills, wise teachings, property, and inheritances, amongst a host of other things weren’t in the cards. Out of the gate, these weren’t things we counted on.

Still, for all they lacked in their own life skills, they taught us to love in their own way, especially Ma. Love, loyalty and how to survive in an often-unfair world were our hard-learned lessons. The unholy union of my folks bore and created survivors.

Sometimes parents simply don’t know how to instil the lessons of life in their children.

Why? Maybe they themselves never learned them. Maybe they were never taught. The inexperienced and ignorant make the worst teachers.

But my folks weren’t dumb, not by a long shot! Textbook-wise, they were two of the most intelligent people I ever knew. Though they could not afford it, they appreciated the value of a good education. Read, read, read, write, write, write, that’s what they told us to do.

For common sense, instincts and street smarts they could not be matched. They came up hard, poor and insecure, but they also came from good stock. Highly intelligent genes. Inheriting their instinct helped me foster a solid intuition. An intuition that saved my life many times.

I’ve often been told by serious, capable men who walked in dark circles that my relatives, my father, and uncles, in general, were some intelligent men they ever knew. They may have also been some of the most dangerous and violent, but extremely intelligent, nonetheless.

They just never knew how, or never cared enough, to get out of their own way. Another gene I inherited.

Too many people, usually the ‘adults’ in the room, try to teach from a place of fear. They raise their voice, talk over you, and even yell as if the louder they get, the better you will hear them. YELL! YELL! THEN your child will HEAR ME and understand that my commands will SAVE YOU!

Yeah, we see how that works out.

So, as we sped and swerved down the interstate, I cried.

At the moment, all I knew was that I was seven years old, scared, pissed off, hungry, tired and not in the fucking mood to sing. Even if I knew it was to help her stay awake, I didn’t want to sing. I didn’t care that she didn’t know how to drive, as if anyone had ever taken the time to teach her.

All I knew is that I didn’t know how to sing.

I loved Ma, shit, I am a self-professed mama’s boy, but it was one of those nights I didn’t like her. She was speeding, swerving lane to lane, no better at driving than any other day, kind of antagonizing me, and I was sure she was drunk.

She reminded me at that moment of the way the old man always acted, except she wasn’t screaming and punching anyone.

So, I did what any self-respecting kid who was scared and uncertain and pissed off could do; I cried and whined. All the while, my kid brother slept soundly in the back seat.

After a while of that, Ma didn’t insinuate, she plain out said; “If you don’t sing, I’m gonna crash then we’re gonna die”.

This would be another theme of life. The “I’m gonna die” or “you’ll be sorry when I die” shit. Then she would proceed to pound the side of her head with her fists with all her might until I was sure her skull was going to split open.

Ma knew how to let us know she truly loved us, she did. But she also had a way of knowing how to manipulate, cry and emotionally torture you into doing her bidding, at least she did with me. My siblings seemed able to shut that shit out and pay her crazy act no mind. Not so much I. I was a sucker for a soft touch.

I’ve always accepted torture as part of life, a penance to pay for sins I’m not sure if I committed. Kind of like ma, a lot like ma.

By seven years old, death threats were no big deal. I had seen my share of dead bodies lying around in caskets by then. I heard people utter the threat, “I’m gonna kill you” countless times. I often heard about people dying, usually in bad ways, regularly in family conversations by then.

I can’t count how many times, I heard how ‘so-and-so’ they just poof, disappeared and were presumed dead. How does someone just disappear and be presumed fucking dead! I would ask myself?

Death was no big deal, but dying, scared the living shit out of me, to the point I slept with my blanket over my head at night so that boogeyman wouldn’t see me and left me the fuck alone. I surely didn’t want to end up like one of those MIA’s I always heard about. Even if they were always adults, not kids, screw that, I wasn’t taking any chances.

At about the same time in life, I started sleeping with a knife under the pillow at night. Between the boogeyman and my old man, you couldn’t be too careful.

But I played it safe anyway because I never knew if I was going to have to fight off the boogeyman or protect Ma and others from the old man. Situations that, fortunately, never came to play.

Ma started to sing. She belted it out loud and clear. “Sing for me! Sing for mama puh-leeze. Sing for me, baby.” My kid brother slept through it all in the back seat. At least he acted like he was asleep. He knew better, my kid brother. No dummy. He knew when to shut it down and say, fuck it, you can’t win, so just act like they’re not there.

Our station wagon swerved back and forth. I thought about jumping out. But, what good would that do? All that would happen is I would die alone, I figured, at least if we crashed, we all died together.

Funny how even in violence, addiction, insanity, and horror we all stayed together. Even at seven years old, I had consciously made this choice and knew that blood loyalty was their choice too. Blood is blood, I suppose, even in bloody times.

Eventually, Ma was laid off a bit. She gave up trying to test my vocal cords but succeeded in testing my sanity.

Maybe it was because we were closer to home, or maybe she simply blacked out, and we got home on fumes and a Hail Mary.

Next up, was the old man waiting for us at home.

I remained silent, pissed, and traumatized as we barrelled down the road.

The next day, Ma was extra nice to us. I mean, she was always nice, rarely in a crummy mood, around us at least, but the next day she was extra nice. I never understood how she was, how she could be; too many people were never nice to her.

Like so many things in life, the events of that night fell to distant memories. No one spoke of the incident or even remembered it after that.

We got home, how; I’m still unsure. I jumped into the top bunk bed and pulled the sheets tightly over my head. But first, I checked to make sure I had my knife under my pillow. It was there, I was ready for them.

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Stephen P. Conrad
Real
Writer for

A nomad, a gypsy at heart, writer, actor, artist, anti-sycophant, socially maladjusted and comfortably near complete insanity.