I was 16 years old the first time found myself sitting in the stuffy waiting room of a psychologists office, I still wasn’t sure exactly how I ended up there. I picked at the plastic armrest on the chair next to me thinking I wasn’t crazy and simmering in anger that my parents had sent me here. In my first session with Jessica she had me talk about my childhood, the happy bits and the sad bits. I focused mostly on the happy, the trips to the mountains and the birthday parties with balloons and a homemade cake. That was my problem, she said, I only focused on the good, I pretended the bad didn’t happen. She was right, still is right. I don’t like the bad, but I think most people don’t. As we went on she pushed me to deal with loss and grief and the root of my self-destructive behavior.
“Why do you think you’re so unwilling to deal with what happened?” Jessica the psychologist asked me.
“I don’t know, you’re the head doctor you tell me.” I retorted, using sarcasm as a wall to keep her out.
“Well I have my own ideas, but I’d like you to try to think about why you don’t want to deal with things.”
“I don’t like thinking about them, I’d rather just pretend nothing ever happened. Is that so bad? Does that make me crazy?” I said bitterly.
“No, it doesn’t make you crazy. You need to deal with your loss because if you don’t your grief will continue to manifest in unhealthy ways, like the cutting and the pills. You understand that, don’t you?” She said gently.
“Yeah, I get it, I just don’t care anymore.”
“You do care, if you didn’t you wouldn’t be trying to mask the hurt by hurting yourself. Losing a parent is always traumatic and as a child even more so. Your emotional reaction is normal. We just need to find a healthier way for you to deal with the grief.”
I have to give her credit, she really did try to get me to become proactive in my treatment, but I was still too angry, hurt and scared to care about my own mental and emotional health.
My parents–which consisted of my step-dad Eddie and his older sister; my Aunt Trena–didn’t know what to do with me, I was clinically depressed, angry and suicidal. Rather than deal with my emotional turmoil I cut myself, drank and popped pills like they were Tic Tacs. They feared for my life, for the influence I had on my brother and for how I reflected on them as parents. I don’t think they ever understood why I was the way I was, even though they’d gone through the same thing when they were young, their mother died when Eddie was eight and Trena was eighteen.
After the psychologist failed the only threat they had left was Memorial Hospital. I wasn’t afraid of being committed, there was something romantic about it to me, so secretly I hoped they would send me there. I thought maybe I’d meet someone like Angelina Jolie’s character in Girl Interrupted because that’s how I felt: interrupted. I’d get away from them and get to really live up to my reputation as the ‘crazy girl.’ Had I been in a sane frame of mind I might have been worried about myself.
I have always loved the architecture of Memorial Hospital, every time we drove by the building, which is conveniently located on Central Avenue and Interstate 25, I made sure to tell my parents how much I loved the building, how beautiful the architecture was. Looking back I realize I was driving them insane, I didn’t feel bad about it, and I still don’t. Over time I’ve become capable of forgiving a lot, however, I’ve yet to be able to forgive their chosen ignorance and unwillingness to help me when I was spinning out of control.
They never did send me to Memorial Hospital, and when they didn’t I knew any threat they made was empty so it pushed me even further. I embraced my imbalances, the depression became my friend and the anger was like a significant other. The suicidal tendencies faded, but I still cut myself and by the time I was 17-years old I was stealing the cheap bottom shelf vodka from the grocery store and popping at least 20 Viccodin a week. My friends and family thought I had a death wish, but I didn’t. I just wanted the hurt to go away, I wanted to stop the memories of my mom in her last days from overtaking my mind. When I closed my eyes I wanted peaceful darkness, not the picture of my mom as the skeletal shell of her former self.
My parents response to my acting out was to ground me, which didn’t work. When they realized grounding me was akin to trying to blow out a house fire they hit me, a lot. The abuse fed into my anger and depression, in my mind I deserved it for losing her. I found some twisted way of blaming myself for my mom contracting cancer and dying.
The more they hit me the more I was able to feel, I wasn’t numb while they were hitting me, it was afterwards when I didn’t have the physical pain to block the emotional pain that the numbness was terrifying and I would retreat back to cutting and drugs. I felt I was fading away.
It was during one particularly nasty session of ass kicking, after I’d been hit twice in the mouth and slapped across my face several times for talking back I turned and screamed at my step-dad. I heard my voice but I couldn’t make out what I said. I pulled my hands up to protect my face expecting the next blow to come, but he stopped, hand in midair, and looked at me; looked through the black hair, black eyeliner, angry black t-shirt, cuts, scars and bruises and saw me for what I really was: a kid who lost her mom too young and had no idea how to deal with the conflicting emotions of crippling sorrow and roaring anger.
He repeated what I said back to me, “I want my mom.” He kept saying it, over and over, he sat down haphazardly at the messy kitchen table, knocking down a stack of papers and spilling a two day old beer. I stood next to the stinking pile of trash near the dishwasher and sobbed wildly and freely for the first time since my mom died. I’d been holding in the pain and anger for five years and it had eaten at me. My step-dad and aunt never noticed, even though they’d lost their mother when they were young. They never considered that my acting out, my depression and anger had to do with losing my mom when I was 12-years old.
My step-dad sat at that table for an hour just repeating what I’d said over and over and crying quietly, his sobs broken by the dull thudding of the beer dripping onto the dirty linoleum floor. Finally he looked at me, the mascara and eyeliner running into the bruise on my cheek I looked back at him and in a small, defeated voice I said, “I can’t find her, I don’t know what to do without her. I can’t find her.”
He looked at me like he was seeing me for the first time and said, “I can’t find her either.”
It was only two sentences but it was the first real exchange we’d had in five years, the date was June 15, 2004, Father’s Day. He looked away from me, tears still streaming down his cheeks, and I left him sitting in the kitchen in his own sort of shock and went to my room.
I sat on my bed for a long time, I started talking to her, feeling foolish at first but eventually I started to feel the burden of grief lift just a little.
“I feel really stupid doing this, I miss you. I go to sleep every night hoping when I wake up in the morning you’ll be in the kitchen and this will all have been just a bad dream.” Tears started silently streaming down my face, I looked to the floor and saw one of my notebooks for school. I picked it up and started to write.
I wrote a long letter to my mom, I told her I missed her, I was angry and I didn’t know what to do. I admitted for the first time that I was angry at her for leaving me here alone. I told her I didn’t know how to live anymore, but I’d learn. I read it over and tore it up, symbolically tearing up my grief and letting go of as much as I could in that moment.
I decided if I was going to learn to live I needed to stop hurting myself, I wrote myself a contract and I signed it and taped it to my wall. I promised myself I’d never hurt myself again, I’d never use physical pain as a mask for emotional hurt, that I would learn to deal with the things that were bothering me.
I started on the path to stop drinking and using drugs that night as well. I don’t know what it was that propelled me to change, maybe it was the two short sentences I shared with my step-dad or maybe it was that I finally screamed it out that I missed my mom. I wanted my mom back. The pain I felt in that moment was all encompassing, it was like having my heart crushed. I couldn’t breathe or think, it was like being thrown into freezing water the only thing I could feel was the onslaught of pain. As the moment ended I felt something else, a freedom. I let out a long breath and it seemed like I breathed out all the anger and the self-punishment I’d been harboring towards myself.
I’d spent five years in a prison of self-recrimination. I was twelve when she died, only a child, and yet I felt I was somehow responsible. Maybe if I hadn’t acted up the cancer would have responded to the medication, maybe if I had listened she could have gotten the rest she needed and she would still be here. It was as if in that moment I realized how wrong I was, that there was nothing I could have done, I had no control over her cancer, I was just a kid. The important thing was she knew I loved her and I knew she loved me. That struggle with survivors guilt has been one I’ve fought with everyday, I’ve accepted the loss and the hurt seems to fade but it’s always there. The loss never really goes away, it just becomes less painful to deal with the hole in my life.
My step-dad has never talked about what happened that night between us, eventually he did apologize for abusing me instead of getting me help. Forgiveness is an ongoing process, I’ve reached a point where I am learning to let it go. That moment when he truly saw me, I saw in him the 8-year-old boy who lost his mother and then later the woman he loved and I feel we understand each other.