The Women at Work

I am not, nor have I ever been one of those people who feels extremely inadequate or materialistic. I am not someone who desires the newest luxury vehicle or lavish home decor. I don’t buy designer clothes or shoes or handbags. Generally I am a pretty humble and feel like I don’t need a lot of that stuff. I buy most of my clothes at Target. I use store-brand foods. I drive a car that is 17 years old but in decent condition. None of this has ever really bothered me.

I took a job at a university as an executive administrative assistant not that long ago. I was excited to work in an office full of highly-educated, successful and well-adjusted women. My hope was that their air of “normalcy” would rub off and be a good influence on me (and before you tell me that those appearances can be misleading, I want to tell you that after a year, all of that has remained pretty true and that I remain the most dysfunctional person in the office).

But a few months ago, I started having this gnawing feeling. Every day, at some point in the morning, there’s a little gathering of 3 or 4 of them, generally right out in the open work area near my desk, and the topics of conversation range from extreme shopping to the ivy league schools their teenage children are visiting to $80 face creams to the 3-4 vacations they take each year. There was a time when I would listen and attempt to join into these conversations. I’d say things like “I found that the most amazing moisturizer is Neutrogena because it does _______ .” And those interjections were ALWAYS met with “if you have a problem with ______, there’s this amazing and VERY inexpensive product by Lancome and it’s only $65 for a 1 oz tube and that tube lasts AT LEAST 2 weeks so it’s TOTALLY worth it…” so I stopped joining in.

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They aren’t trying to be assholes. They aren’t bragging or trying to one-up each other. This is just a normal part of their lives and they really don’t get what it is like to live paycheck to paycheck, budgeting to the penny and not being sure if you will be able to fix your car if it needs something. These women were raised in homes that at the very least never had to use coffee filters for 2 days because they ran out of toilet paper before their parents got paid. They never came home from school and found the electricity off or had their parents not be able to drive them somewhere because the quarter-tank of gas had to last until Friday. And they married people from these same backgrounds, who are also highly functional, and have continued to make choices that allow for this type of financial comfort. So they just do not get what it is like not to have that.

My favorite petty example of this happened yesterday, when one of my coworkers pulled her lunch out of the refrigerator, and embarrassingly explained to me that she saved the plastic cottage cheese containers because they’re the perfect size for the amount of quinoa salad she brings and that it’s just so easy to rinse it out. And I was like “I guess your mother had REAL Tupperware when you were growing up. See, our leftovers were always kept in Cool Whip containers or Country Crock containers and those were the only 2 sizes of  plastic containers with lids that existed in my house so there’s nothing weird or worthy of explanation here.”

One day, I came to work having had an allergic rash on my face, so they recommended the dermatologist that they ALL GO TO who although not covered by our insurance, ONLY charges $175 per visit and has a line of products also not covered by our insurance that would be amazingly helpful. The morning when the rear emergency brake on my car decided to fall apart and make a terrifying noise that rendered it not-drivable I had to text and let everyone know I would be late. When I finally got to work (thanks Uber!) my boss, trying to understand that funds are limited for a car payment (but in no way comprehending how deeply in debt I am), kindly suggested I just lease a car since the payments are so much lower. The idea that I continued to drive my car even though it was making a minor sound that I was pretty sure was a brake issue because I knew there was no way I could willingly spend the couple hundred dollars to get it fixed if it wasn’t an absolute emergency (the front brakes work fine) gave them a look of total incomprehension, and they literally did not know what to say.

There are daily reminders of how different I am from these people and how wonderful it would be to have made different life choices so that I was NOT in the position of being constantly trying to make up for some deficit. It really isn’t that I want more stuff or better stuff or to be able to go on cruises or anything like that. I want to be able to go see a doctor when I feel like something is wrong without waiting until it becomes obvious that I have a condition that will not go away on its own. I want to be able to see a shirt that I like on sale in a store window and just buy it without having to figure out what is not going to be purchased in order for me to do this nice thing for myself. I want to be able to provide my kid the option of the best college she can get into without the crushing worry of a lifetime of student loan debt. And I want to be able to drive my own car for a day trip with at least a relative amount of confidence that it is not going to just die in the middle of nowhere.

To me, none of those things are about “greed” or “material things” or even about fitting in (although honestly I feel more like an outsider now than I ever did in high school). It’s about a basic level of comfort and functioning that at 42, I have not mastered and am in no position to teach my child how to be able to do. And I’ll be honest. It hurts to see it so blatantly every single day.

I am working on setting goals, which has been a non-existent part of my life because my parents never taught me and it really just never occurred to me that simply saying “I’d like to buy a house” is not the same thing as having and working toward a goal. I am budgeting to save money for emergencies, another thing that my parents are incapable of. I am examining what my values and priorities are in life, and how they have not actually been applied to working toward the real, deep desire of being more financially and mentally stable.

In a lot of ways, I suppose this IS the positive influence that I was hoping for because it is becoming vividly obvious to me what habits and shortcomings I need to work on to have the kind of stable, comfortable life that I have never had and maybe didn’t believe people had because I always gravitated toward the people I felt comfortable with and was never really forced to engage with the more “functional” people at any workplace I have ever had for more than generalized small talk. I only wish that I had realized that this was an actual, achievable reality sooner.

Related but totally random side note: The pressure on me to start running or exercising, as if that is something I would do on purpose I will save to write about another day. THAT shit is the stuff that makes me hate them…

The Real Reason I Dread The Holidays

There are 2 kinds of people in this world: Those who absolutely fucking love the entire Christmas season and everything about it, and those who don’t. I am one of the latter. But it turns out that there is a VERY good reason.

For much of my 40+ years on this earth, I have been blaming my aversion to Christmas on working in retail for as long as I did. In fact, I would say that it would not be wrong to attribute my entire lifelong misanthropic outlook from being a retail employee during the month of December for so many years. And I know that if you have ever worked in any kind of service industry, you know EXACTLY why I feel the way I do.

Retail has taught me that idea of “Holiday Cheer” does not apply to the stranger who is helping them gather those gifts they know their loved ones will not actually ever use. And once you get into that last week, people get MEAN. The stores are a fucking disaster (because said people do not give a single fuck about where things belong), the things they want are out of stock (because they waited until the last possible minute to come looking for it), there are never enough store employees to help find things or check them out (usually because they are being yelled at by some other asshole somewhere else in the store), and that coupon from July will not get them 50% off of an item that is already marked down 75% (the stupidity surrounding how coupons work can fill another entire post).

But I’ll be honest: I hated Christmas before I got my first shitty retail job. I hated it when most people my age were excitedly dreaming of  tearing the wrapping off the one item they had been wishing for all year. I hated it as a child. I hated it when at 11, my brother’s 17 year old girlfriend talked me into decorating my room and trying to be festive and I left it up for a week then threw it in a pile in my closet. I hated it when I lived alone as a young adult and I would go out drinking with friends on Christmas Eve.  I hated it when I lived in Arizona and we ate Christmas Dinner next to the pool. I even hated it when Lila was little, a time when parents usually say that Christmas finally had meaning again. And the reason is personal and up to this point has been hard for me to articulate.

For background: My mother had VERY dark episodes of depression (although we never called it that then) and had an alcohol problem. And my father, although physically present and loving, had a gambling problem and was so wrapped up in what my mother was doing that he just did not have the mental energy or the understanding to effectively reign her in. I was a very sentimental and hugely self-aware kid. I’ve written in other posts about my early love of self-help books and my desire to make sense of things happening around me that didn’t make sense. So I understood from a very young age that this wasn’t how other families operated. There were always the actions that gave the appearance of normalcy. My parents decorated. They bought (overbought) a lot of Christmas gifts. I had nice clothes and there was always food in the house. But the other stuff was lacking. I don’t remember a lot about the very early years. But I do remember starting roughly around 8 or 9, after my grandmother and my mom’s best friend both passed away in the same year. My mother started drinking out at bars a whole lot more.

In fairness, the 80’s were a totally different time for parenting. I understand that their only job was really to keep us alive. And I understand that although now we really have no excuse and cannot claim ignorance, when I was a kid they really just didn’t think about these things or seek help. And now, looking back and having been educated about all the ways trauma can happen that don’t involve midnight beatings and being taken into foster care, I am exploring the things that have left a very tangible and life-long mark on me, and have in turn affected the way I parent my own daughter (which is to say, in an emotionally stunted way).

But I am going off on a tangent.

My childhood idea of Christmas revolved around Christmas Eve. To me, Christmas Eve is more special than Christmas Day. Christmas Day was great from the time you got up and saw all the presents until 30 minutes later when you were done and you played with the one item you liked and were already bored with it. Then you spent the rest of the day staying out of the adults’ way while they prepared and cooked and drank and swore and you hoped there were not fights and your drunk uncle wasn’t arrested (again). And honestly, the song Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer actually gave me anxiety for a long time because my Grandma lived down the street and would often stumble out the door during an argument drunk to walk home so it wasn’t a joke to me.

My mother wasn’t the kind of drinker who splurged on bottles of liquor and was passed out on the floor when I came home from school. My mother went to the bars. A lot. I’d guess she went to the bar 4-5 times a week. As you all can imagine, it’s not cheap to do that. But I digress. Every year, as we’d get closer to Christmas, I would imagine me and my brother and my mom and dad hanging out on Christmas Eve, maybe watching a christmas show on TV or maybe having some of my aunts and uncles and cousins over to read The Night Before Christmas before putting out cookies for Santa. And I would talk about this all week, dropping hints about Christmas Eve and how festive and fun it would be. I listened to songs like “Have yourself a merry Little Christmas” and “The Christmas Song” and I would imagine myself and my loved ones all huddled around a fireplace (that we didn’t have), all in matching sweaters (which we also didn’t have), drinking hot cocoa and laughing about the previous year’s antics. I really played it up big in my mind. I always wanted a close, intimate, family Christmas Eve. And as a sentimental kid who read a lot of books with happy endings, and who had an entire fantasy world with a happy, loving and close family in my head, I NEEDED that.

And so I left myself open for devastating disappointment.

Christmas Eve would come and I would be so excited (as all kids are). And we’d have a  regular dinner, like meatloaf or grilled cheese sandwiches, just the 4 of us, and then my brother would go out to wherever older teen boys go, my dad would retreat to his recliner, and my mom would start getting ready to “go out.” I’d tread lightly, trying to figure out how to stop her. I knew that getting mad wouldn’t help. I knew begging and crying would result in her telling me “just for a little while.” I knew that if I even tried to bring it up calmly that she’d essentially write me off and I’d end up either yelling or in tears anyway. I would usually go and appeal to my dad but he was no help because he’d rather watch his shows and relax but he’d tell me that I could watch his shows with him. I was pretty much totally disregarded and Christmas Eve simply WAS NOT a big deal to anyone else.

The fact that I assigned Christmas Eve so much importance and that it was always a disappointing non-event isn’t the thing that makes me HATE it though.

I never knew if my mother was going to be home Christmas morning.

My mother would often go to various neighborhood bars (now that I am thinking back, the bar to house ratio was REALLY high). She drove. Even to the one right on the corner. But she’d make the rounds and eventually end up several blocks away. So when she would go out, in my mind it was a crap shoot: she could get into a drunk driving car accident (how her best friend died), she could try walking home and get murdered, she could maybe get a ride home from a less-drunk friend, but in all likelihood, it would be the thing I feared most on Christmas Eve. She could simply not come home at all.

This wasn’t an unreasonable fear. One of the things I didn’t actually know affected me until recently was my mom’s habit of not bothering to come home. I’d be woken up early in the morning by my dad (I was still too young to be left home alone), and we’d go driving past all the usual places to see if my mom’s car was there. I’d be in a full panic attack (which my dad was not helpful with) convinced we were going to find her car wrapped around at tree or that we simply would not find her at all. If she left her car somewhere (and boy did I panic then) he’d knock on doors until he found her and brought her home. And knowing she was ok never provided relief. It reminded me that my mother had other priorities that did not take me or my father into consideration. And as an adult woman, I know without a doubt what she was doing when she left her car at the bar and went to a “friend’s” house. My parents would fight about it for days and then my dad would resign himself to the fact that although she’d be good for a bit, it 100% would happen again.

So when my mother would go out drinking on Christmas Eve, I knew for sure that I would wake up in the morning and she would not be there. I would have to sit and wait until she found her way home staring at the stuff under the tree, and then wait while she got herself together, probably still partially drunk, and tolerated me opening presents, rather than even being happy to see the joy in my eyes. I was AFRAID of this every single Christmas Eve until I moved out of my parents house at 20.

Now in her defense, her track record of being home in the morning on Christmas was 100%. Maybe she wasn’t enthusiastic about me waking her up 3 hours after she stumbled into bed, but she was there. My brother was usually there. My father was always there.

I know that my parents almost always came through for me with actions. I know that they kept me alive and fed and housed. I know they bought me a lot of toys and that the facade of “parenting” as we understand it was always there. But my parents were never really emotionally invested in me. They loved me, I never doubted that. But they were handed the kind of kid who needed attention and guidance and to be made to feel important and like a priority. And I never did. My mother always chose her friends, the bars, the drinking, over me. My father always chose my mother.

I think about the way I try to make Christmas special for my kid (even though I only have her every other Christmas now). But every Christmas Eve, even if it’s her father’s turn to have her overnight, we go to my aunt’s (my dad’s sister) house for dinner. She gets to see relatives she wouldn’t otherwise know, and people she only gets to see once a year. My aunt absolutely LOVE her. She spends Christmas Eve. around family and catching up and knowing she is loved by them and me. And these people are stable, and sane, and functional (unlike the relatives on my mother’s side). And even that provokes an intense sadness for me. Because my mother felt so threatened by the apparent “normalcy” and their (honestly very reserved) criticism of her that she refused to take me to visit with them. And as I said, my dad almost always chose my mother.

Lila is too old for Santa. But when we come home, we hang out watching Christmas movies or whatever she wants to do (last year she made a video singing about Krampus-because she is MY kid after all) and I tuck her in and when she gets me out of bed in the morning I feign excitement for her.

It isn’t much. And when her father and I were together and she was smaller, there was certainly far more of that closeness and cheer (I usually invited the parents over for dinner and we put a key out for santa) but I try to keep it consistent. So she can feel like it’s stable, and she can know what to expect. And so that she can know that there are certain days that are special and worth me making it special for her.

 

 

 

My Dad Had The Numbers

Plenty of people have hobbies. They find pleasure in researching their topic and reading up and trying to be skilled at or bragging about their pastime of choice. For example, my friend’s dad plays golf. He sometimes buys golf magazines and books for tips and has very informative discussions with his buddies about how he was ½ away from an Eagle on the last hole of the course. My father had a hobby too. But it wasn’t the kind of thing they have clubs for or give awards for. My father’s hobby was the numbers. 

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If you are not familiar with the numbers, it’s essentially a small-scale the lottery every day. The gist is that they pick a 3digit number every day. For each 3-digit number you want to play, it costs a dollar and if it comes in as you played it you win $400. Unless you want to widen your chances and play it “boxed” which means that if all three digits come in, no matter what the order, you still win something (usually less than $100).  That costs $.50 per ticketThere’s also a 4-digit version but that’s another discussion.

“The Numbers” is a poor person’s gameIt is not to be confused with what regular people call “the lottery,” because with the New York Lottery and/or Powerball, all you need is a dollar and a millionaire’s dream. With the lottery, you play in small increments but the payoff is huge. With the numbers, you hedge your bets by playing as many combinations as possible, and the prize is so small that it barely covers the cost of the electric bill. 

Now understand that this was probably 20 years ago and the internet was in its infancy. People still read printed pamphlets and books and magazines. At that time, I didn’t even believe that there were actual publications that give tips on picking the daily numbers because it seems pretty straightforward and random. But there were. There were HUNDREDS of little flyers and pamphlets and magazines and people would buy these publications and think that if they read about the magical system (I guess you rub your head counter-clockwise three times while clicking your slippers and saying “there’s no place like the poor house!”) that you could fix your bad luck and this foolproof system (they’re all foolproof) would help you pick the exact right three digits and you’d win a whopping $400!  

My father is not a reader. He hates to read. He has always hated to read. But if you slapped a “how to outsmart luck and win big every day” booklet next to him and he’d happily go at it with a fluorescent yellow highlighter while furiously jotting notes on a little notepad. On a typical day my dad would spend between $20 and $50 trying to pick the next winner. And every day it was the same thing: “Jesus! I played 257,757, 267, 277, and 776 and doesn’t 371 come out? I had the SEVEN!!! I was only TWO numbers off!!!  And believe me, those sevens and twos are coming! I been watching…they’re gonna come in! Mark my words!”  And every day I would say some variation of the exact same thing: “You do understand that given long enough, EVERY COMBINATION that can possibly be made will come in. And he’d shoo me away telling me he has a system. He simply did not care for probability or logic.    

The thing that kept him going, though was that sometimes he would win. If he played 659 and 956 came in, he’d get his $100, put $75 back into tomorrow’s drawing (in case he was on a winning streak!) and immediately purchase $25 in scratch-off tickets (it’s always smart to keep going when you are lucky!)The math of it just made no rational sense?  Conservatively, he’d play $20 a day. Maybe once a month he would win $100. So, in a 30-day month, he handed New York State a minimum of $600, in addition to the hefty tax bill that New York is known for. Perhaps twice a year he’d manage to rake in the big winning of $400. So again, $20 for 365 days equals $7300. And if he won $100 a month, and 2 out of 12 months he wins $400, his winnings equal about $1800. It was not even possible for him to ever break even. He never, ever won more than what he spent. He was always in the red and he refused to believe that his irrational gratification at winning didn’t actually translate into reality.  

There was a point where I explained to him that he could put $50 a day into a coffee can and I would be happy to draw numbers and if he picked the right ones, he could have the money back. I even offered to make it simple, one digit, 0 through 9. If he didn’t get it, I got to take the money. I could have paid for my college education with a scam like that.  But my father promptly pointed out that I don’t have the ability to draw my numbers on live Television. Again, this was before the internet.  

The real problem here isn’t that my father had a very expensive hobby. It’s that my family lived barely paycheck to paycheck. My parents very often borrowed money from people to keep the lights and phone and heat on. My parents both worked and they both worked really hard and took all the overtime they could. But between the gigantic bar tabs (which I have written about here) and the daily numbers, we were always running out of things, sometimes had the phone off for a few weeks, or the electricity would be turned off when I came home from school and my father would have to hit up a friend or relative to get the money to have it turned back on.    

When I was about 15, I went to the corner store and BEGGED the barely English-speaking owner to stop letting my dad run a tab on the numbers because I needed new clothes for school. But my father KNEW that expense was coming up so he had increased the amount he was spending for several days, on credit, hoping to “win big” and he literally HAD TO keep playing to win because he now owed the corner store mafia a several-hundred-dollar tab and he just did not have the money to pay them backYou see, he was such a regular that they KNEW he would be back day after day, so they’d let him play on credit. At the end of most weekswhen there were no winnings to be claimed, Dad would cash his paycheck and go there to pay it off, and then immediately play $50 more “because his numbers were coming any day!”   

To say that this was upsetting for me as a kid is an understatement. I don’t necessarily believe that kids should be totally in the dark about the family’s financial situation especially if money is tight. But I was a pretty precocious kid. And I had an understanding that your parents cannot seem to prioritize their responsibilities over their vices is anxiety-provoking at best. And to young me, honestly, it always felt a little like I didn’t matter as much as those numbers. I always knew they loved me. I always knew my BASIC needs would be met. But we never took vacations or had name-brand clothes (that was a real issue for me as a teen) or did the kinds of things other families managed to save up to do. There wasn’t a week that went by where the money wasn’t gone halfway through.   

Luckily, at some point, the fascination with the numbers wore off. My parents were both able to retire. And with his pension and her Social Security and no kids left in the house to support, they are able to live comfortably. They bought a new car, moved to a nicer neighborhood and have managed to secure a decent credit rating.   

Now that I understand the concept of intermittent reinforcement, where a random and totally unpredictable but anticipated reward can make a person obsess and make insane personal sacrifices in an attempt to secure that reward, I get how it works. I know now that what my father was experiencing was a classic gambling addiction, except that instead of going to the casino every month and blowing the mortgage payment all at once he was doing it slowly, like an IV drip of morphine, and he kept pressing that button repeatedly until the relief of winning finally came and washed over him again.  

But the uncertainty of living paycheck to paycheck and not ever feeling sure that the lights would be on or there would be anything other than peanut butter for dinner has stuck with me. And when I have been under a lot of stress or feel myself sinking into that dark place mentally, I have caught myself being irresponsible with my budget, spending money I don’t have before making sure all the bills are paid. I get anxious if I realize I forgot to add toilet paper to the grocery list, as if running out of some essential item would make me feel as frustrated as it did when I was 9 and had to use coffee filters in the bathroom until my parents got paid again. And I am afraid of subjecting my daughter to that feeling of deprivation.  

In my own adult life, I have seen the destructive psychological grip of intermittent reinforcement, although my reward was not the “win” of gambling. For me it was the crumbs of affection and validation from a terrifically emotionally abusive partner. And when I sat down and applied this idea to my own relationship and then to my father’s numbers, it really struck me how insanely powerful that feeling of satiation is when you have repeatedly been denied it and then it finally, suddenly happens. Chasing it can make you forget what is important in the present and what you really need and it completely overshadows the ability to have any long-term objectives. The only thing that matters is to feel good again. Even as you know that every time you don’t succeed both you and the people you love suffer. You know it’s awful. You know you need to just stop doing it. And with great guilt and agony and a lot of uncertainty you swear it off for a bit. But that need for the reward gnaws away at you and with that same guilt and agony and uncertainty, this time with a little less hope, you try again. And again. And again. And at some point, it feels good again, and that is enough to keep you coming back for more. Indefinitely. Until something happens and you have no choice but to stop.  

I’m OK but Here’s 7 Habits and 10 Stupid Ways to Win Friends on the Road Less Traveled with Self-Help Books from Mars and Venus.

Self-help books almost ruined my life. Seriously.  

You see, I came of age in the golden age of self-help gurus. But it started way before that. When I was just a wee little lass. Bored and inquisitive and not really feeling happy and trying to figure out why. It started innocently enough. Being about 9 or 10 and buying Tiger Beat magazine not just for the pull-out posters of 80’s teen heart throbs but also for enthralling articles like “How to Make Your Crush Notice You.” I quickly graduated to Seventeen Magazine, where I tore out and saved articles like “Are You In Love? How to Tell If It’s Real,” and “Mom, I’m an Alcoholic: One Girl’s Battle with Booze…” Before I was 12, I was knee-deep in Cosmopolitan Magazine where I learned all about “What Happens When Straight Women Find Out Their Husbands are Gay,” and “What Men Want Most In Bed” (all of these are actual cover stories).

But I also discovered something else. Something MAGICAL. Something life altering.

There was a little strip mall where my mother and I would spend our afternoons shopping and getting lunch. One day, when I was about 8, my mother was looking for a book about dealing with grief after the loss of her best friend. I grudgingly followed her into the tiny little Waldenbooks store, which for those of you who aren’t familiar is essentially like a closet compared to the mega bookstores that sprung up in the mid-90’s and dominate today. She dragged me over to the self-help section and as she looked I discovered that there were all these books giving exactly the kind of advice I loved so much in my magazines. And I was hooked. While other girls my age went straight for the Sweet Valley High or Choose Your Own Adventure books, when I was left alone to peruse the bookstore, I spent my allowance on books about self-reflection and self-improvement. 

I read Codependent No More when I was about 10 years old. It really spoke to me because even from a young age I knew that uncles getting into drunken fistfights at my 2nd grade Holy Communion party wasn’t exactly normal, even if I didn’t have the words for it until then. I don’t know if that was my gateway self-help drug, but it certainly spoke to me. I rapidly moved on to the obviously relevant Women Who Love Too Much and Men Who Can’t Love and began to figure out how to avoid the pitfalls of falling for such a man. Let me remind you, I was maybe 12 at this point.  

I wrote in another post about my early fascination (obsession) with boys and I attempted to apply all of this knowledge to my VERY intense and volatile teen romances. I was hospitalized during a bout of depression when I was just 13, after I was in an abusive relationship with someone who was clearly one of those Men Who Can’t Love. They recommended a whole assortment of books to read and took me to Al-anon meetings for teens. This is where I was formally introduced to the 12-step movement. 

I attended miscellaneous 12-step meetings for a few years in my later teens. My parents had no problem with this at all. And it wasn’t just Al-anon meetings. I went to AA and NA meetings as well. As a teen (who was clearly not normal) this was my idea of fun. Where teens today would be involved in productive after-school activities I was sharing my (mostly hypothetical) story in front of (mostly much older) strangers, spilling my family secrets (and some made up scenarios) and trying to learn how to cope. I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t also drawn to the boys (and men) I met at those meetings, who filled all the requirements for me to try to analyze, diagnose, and attempt to “fix.”  

In the late 90’s, during the peak of self-help dominance, I got a job at Borders (the mega-chain that no longer exists). I devoured Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff, 10 Stupid Things Women Do to Mess Up Their Lives, Men are From Mars-Women are From Venus, and The Dance of Intimacy as well as classics like I’m Ok-You’re OK, and The Power of Positive Thinking. And when Oprah started telling us what to read, I was ecstatic to read The Seat of the Soul, Simple Abundance, and everything by Iyanla Vanzant and Dr. Phil (and probably due to my own impostering at meetings I kind of shrugged when I found out that James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces was dramatically exaggerated for entertainment value).

But I also went into my 20’s feeling deeply flawed and like I couldn’t really get a grasp of what it meant to feel “ok.” I went from one tumultuous relationship to the next, and really felt like I had no purpose or meaning in my life. All those words I had carefully pored over and all that advice that I had often even highlighted or written down to refer back to and nothing seemed to fill the void that I felt made me so abnormal and made everything feel so complicated.  I KNEW all the keys to happiness and healthy relationships, and yet I was completely incapable of actually making it happen.

I had my daughter when I was 28. By that point the self-help craze had died down a bit and so did my total obsession (I had begun actually reading fiction and other less life-altering stuff). I had (somehow) figured out how to be in a stable (if not unfulfilling) long-term relationship with someone who can best be described as a “a really nice guy.” When I was pregnant, I did what I always did: I turned to books filled with the advice and wisdom of other people to help me navigate all the feelings (physical and emotional) pregnancy had produced that I was in no way warned about or prepared for. This was before we had the entirety of human knowledge literally in the palm or our hands (I wasn’t going to spend hours in front of a light-up box waiting 3 full minutes for a semi-useless dial-up connection to make a website load. I wasn’t a fucking heathen after all). Since I was still employed with Borders, I brought home one pregnancy book after another after another, accumulating a library that was nearly as large as the entire pregnancy section of the bookstore.

When my daughter arrived and I was confused by my mixed feelings of devotion and repulsion at the thought of being a mother, I again turned to these clearly omniscient gurus to guide me through it. I consumed every book about how to soothe a screaming child, how to ensure super-intelligence and long, beautiful stretches of sleep and a sense of contentment and secure attachment in your infant. And no matter how strictly I followed the schedules and instructions and all the steps, my kid screamed continually and refused to sleep and seemed absolutely miserable. I vacillated between telling myself “it’s temporary and the joy of seeing this baby grow up will totally be worth it” and saying to myself (and often out loud), “I could drop the baby off at a fire station at any time, leave a note for her dad, skip town and change my identity, and end the relentless suffering of all three of us.” I was ashamed that I felt this way. Mothers were supposed to love their babies instantly and constantly. I was supposed to enjoy this time that was filled with the loudest wailing I had ever heard and this complete and total sleep deprivation because she would never be this small again. There was little information on the internet about this phenomenon and what there was seemed to make a lot of impractical suggestions that you would need a full time nanny and a bottomless checking account to do.

So here I was, this absolute monster, who did NOT want to smell her head and would have probably sacrificed her to Satan for a fucking 20 minute shower. And the reason she was like this was because I wasn’t swaddling her properly and I wasn’t keeping rigidly enough to the schedule and I wasn’t giving her enough tummy time and also did I mention that this 6 week old baby could SENSE my reticence (like a wild dog can sense fear apparently)? It was my fault and I was the worst fucking parent ever.

At least that’s what ALL THE BOOKS told me. 

A hardcore post-partum depression hit me like a nuclear blast one morning and I knew (thanks to all my experience with regular old depression) I needed help. I found myself a psychiatrist who specialized in PPD (among other things). We talked for about 20 minutes that first day and when I began sobbing and telling him what a terrible mother I obviously was, he asked me what gave me the idea that I was so awful. I told him about the 2 dozen or so books I read that essentially told me if I followed all of the rules I would have a content, quiet, well-rested, highly intelligent baby and that although every single book had a different approach and often gave seemingly opposite advice, I attempted to follow them to a tee, and my baby still hated me. Then we talked how I always felt empty and like I was never functioning at my potential and how I felt like I was defective and unable to ever be happy. I felt like nothing I ever did was good enough. I told him about how I tried to not sweat the small stuff and that I knew that wherever I was, here I am, and I asked him if I had low self- esteem, or if I was codependent or if I was a perfectionist or even an emotional masochist. 

He sat back in his chair and smirked at me the way that authority figures always did when they knew they were about to tell you something that was going to ruin your life.  “You really do have a problem. And I don’t know if I can help you. But your diagnosis is pretty serious and is going to take some time to fully accept.” 

I stared back at him, somewhat relieved that finally someone was going to tell me what was at the root of all my feelings of inadequacy and dysfunction. 

“I am not sure how to break this to you, kid.  But I think you might be…” He paused and made a look of disbelief at me…. “NORMAL!”   

I looked at him like he had 7 heads. “No. I am not normal. If I was normal, I would have decent self-worth. I would be capable of the kind of joy new mothers are supposed to feel. I would be able to feel truly whole and complete within the committed relationship I was in. I wouldn’t feel like I was so utterly different than everyone else I have ever known. I have read all the books. I know what normal is supposed to look like.” 

He thought for a minute. I thought perhaps he was going to reconsider his evaluation. He asked me if I knew anyone that was the kind of person I was describing. Not just casual acquaintances, but close friends. Family members, perhaps ex-lovers. Was there anyone I could point to who seemed to check all those boxes and functioned as the self-help books promised they could if only they had just tried. I had to admit there was not. 

Then he said the thing that would cause me to reflect on everything that I had thought about how life works since I was about 10 years old. “Those books describe an ideal. The picture of perfect mental health. They describe how to be perfect by fixing ONE ASPECT of your personality. Most of us are more complicated than that. We have a lot of different things we want to improve. So we take bits of this and bits of that. And we fall short because we aren’t perfect. And although you may not feel like you live up to this ‘ideal’ way of functioning, I can assure you that compared to every other person who struggles trying to balance all the different complexities of their lives, you are 100% completely normal.” 

I spent a lot of time thinking about this in the days and weeks and years that followed. It was life-altering to realize that what is “normal,” as in average or typical is very different than the total stark-raving contentment every single one of those books promised. How much of my life did I feel was a failure because I wasn’t totally confident or able to have a perfect, happy, conflict-free relationship or be able to manifest my deepest desires just by thinking really hard about it? How much of my feeling of lack revolved around a very flawed idea about what normal means? I started to pay attention to the people I interacted with every day. And realized that they all had these kinds of imperfect personalities and they too were always looking for the next thing to make them happy, even as they seemed to be pretty content most of the time (of course, this was before social media allowed us to pretend our lives were bigger, brighter, and more thrilling than they really were). I was also newly aware that although there were a lot of people who had these periods of seemingly perfect circumstances, most of the time, they were also stressed or angry or bored or yearning. I realized that I was not broken or defective. I was human. I was average. I was normal. 

I’m not going to pretend that in the time since that light bulb moment with the good doctor that I haven’t had absolutely dark times and a near total nervous breakdown. I can tell you that it was not related to this sense of never being able to be OK. But I will tell you that that moment of clarity helped me to let go a little. I accepted that shit happens. I started to simply observe my daughter and instead of trying to adhere to some suggested routine by some asshole who got lucky enough to publish a book, I decided to just wing it. I just accepted that she had her own idea of when to sleep and eat and cry and let me love her and I just had to adapt. I also forced myself to stop analyzing every single thought and feeling I had in the frame of how dysfunctional it was and to begin to just try to be. I learned to set some little goals, to do my best, to not beat myself up.  

But perhaps the best insight to come out of that whole conversation with that doctor was that I realized that I was living up to other people’s ideals of what constitutes happiness and normalcy and mental health. I saw how they seemingly make you feel like you cannot function or even just be OK as you are specifically so they can offer you a sort of emotional snake-oil to fix it, and you will never be able to attain the results promised because it is a myth. I asked around for a while and although there were plenty of people who said they “got something” from a particular self-help book or author, very few people will claim that it actually changed their lives in in a meaningful way for the long term. In order for that to happen, a lot of other changes need to be undertaken and continued, in perpetuity, to heal. And if you throw in a propensity toward mental illness that is often determined as much by biology as it is by circumstance, you end up never really being able to enter that promised land. And I learned to be OK with that.

Today I define “normal” a lot differently. If I am able to get out of bed, go to work, eat when I am hungry, not cry over things like sad commercials or someone asking me to re-formulate a spreadsheet, go into a fill panic attack because I can’t locate my car keys, tolerate my now-tween daughter slamming doors without seriously considering setting the whole house on fire (that would show her!) and find some little pleasure in some little things, then I am doing pretty well. And I watch for those things to know when I am slipping. And I use those as a basic measure for when I need to seek help. Not in the form of some pre-packaged, one-size-fits-all tome from someone I’ve never met, but from a friend or if it doesn’t seem to be getting better, a professional. I trust myself a little more now. And I know for sure that I will be OK.

The Seven Year Itch?

My mother got a boyfriend when I was about 17 years old and left my father, moving out of the house. At 17, I wasn’t even mad because my parents’ relationship was so far from what I pictured a happy relationship should look like that I thought that she deserved to be happy.

My father was completely crushed, however. The boyfriend was someone he knew and used to apparently be pretty good friends with and beyond the initial shock of “she’s fucking someone else” was the immediately ensuing “she’s also leaving you after almost 20 years.” My father was completely devastated. He would go into the garage for hours and listen to oldies (mostly “Run Around Sue”) and cry his heart out. This went on for weeks. Being that I was in high school and a pretty fucked up rambunctious teenager, I was not equipped to take care of the house or my father so to fill that gap (and because he needed a place to stay) my Uncle Phil stepped in.

Uncle Phil is not my father’s brother. He is related to my mother and refers to himself often as the only “sane” one in the entire family. Uncle Phil’s life choices can best be described as “reckless” and for the longest time (and during the time frame of this story) Uncle Phil was a very active weekend crack user. He is also a raging alcoholic. Uncle Phil stands about 4′ 10″ and weighs about what my 10-year-old daughter weighs. His typical attire was something like too tight, boys-sized jeans (as they don’t make men’s pants with a 25-inch waist), a wife beater undershirt, and this 70s style reddish brown shiny leather jacket. He often wore his round green John Lennon sunglasses to help deflect attention away from his glorious white guy afro.

My Uncle had an afro for the majority of my life. It’s only recently now that he’s in his 50’s that he has begun to tone it down and keep it under control. He was gifted (cursed) with extremely thick, naturally curly light-brown hair that when it grew, it grew straight outward. In the 70s and 80s when he was young, this gave him a pot-smoking hippie guy vibe that was well-matched to his personality. But as the years progressed, his style did not. At that point he was still sporting the afro that defined him. Even with the missing teeth and the fancy prison-style tattoos, he still exudes the air of a mellow dude (except when he is drunk but that’s a story for another day).

When Uncle Phil moved in, he kind of took over the day to day operation of the house. He’d force my father out of bed to help with the cleaning and other chores and his humor sometimes even put a smile on my father’s drained face. Uncle Phil is a natural performer. He can make anyone laugh and knows how to have a good time. He can make a terrible situation seem funny and my father desperately needed that.

My father was pretty helpless as a single adult. He was retired at this point so he had nothing to get him out of the house. He would sulk and try not to cry into his coffee. This is how he wanted to spend most of his days and my uncle wouldn’t allow it. My uncle would force him out of the sweat pants he had been wearing for 4 days into jeans to go do the grocery shopping together. They were the classic odd couple. My uncle in his tight jeans and jean jacket and my father with his coke bottle glasses and slicked back hair that he thought made him look like Robert De Niro.

1974_Tony_Randall_and_Jack_Klugman_Odd_Couple

There were a lot of instances where they’d be doing the housework and talking and a song would come on the radio and my father’s lip would tremble and he’d say “be right back.” My uncle and I would look at each other and it was a little inside joke we had that perhaps he was going out back to smoke some weed.  (For the record, my father doesn’t smoke pot. It’s for the same reason I don’t. He can’t handle it. He’s tried it on a few occasions and it never ends well. The last time he did was right around this time and he ended up crying on the toilet thinking he was having a heart attack and going to die. Like I said, pretty much the same as me.) We knew what was really happening when he’d take these little breaks, but there was so much sadness rolling around the house that it was necessary sometimes to make light of it.

My uncle would try to urge my father to get out. He’d sometimes drag him to the unsavory hole-in-the-wall dive bars that he hung out in trying to hook him up with one of the skanks my uncle was more than thrilled to take home but as far as I know, this never panned out. My father was heartbroken and devoted, even when it was obvious that he shouldn’t or didn’t need to be. He refused to go on a date or do anything that resembled getting over it and moving on. He held on for dear life and then it got weird.

After a few months, my mother began to come over. She’d clean up, do the dishes, maybe do laundry, then go home to her boyfriend. This went on pretty much the entire 7 years she lived with him. She would come over a few times a week and hang out with my father, do all the things she did when she lived with us, make dinner for the three of us, then she’d go home and I assume do all those things at her new place. So, for a good portion of the week, it was like she had never left. She would even sometimes kiss him goodbye. It didn’t seem to faze her boyfriend that this is how my mother was spending her days. As far as I knew he never accused her of being unfaithful or felt jealousy in any way. I think everyone understood that my father was basically helpless without my mother and so it was only the right thing for her to do to take care of him. I mean, she had vowed ’til death do they part, right?

Since my mother was keeping him company, at 21, I moved out on my own, several blocks away, on the same side of town. When I would come over during the day and my mom was there she acted just like she had when she lived there. She’d sit in the back yard drinking coffee and doing a crossword puzzle and my father would go about whatever the hell he did in the garage or he’d watch TV and do his own thing. It was seriously like she still lived there, like they were still together, like everything was normal, except that after dinner she went home and slept in someone else’s bed. I knew this was not normal.

There was one evening that I stopped by with laundry to do and my parents mysteriously came down from upstairs acting perfectly normal. The only rooms upstairs were the bedrooms, as my father never converted my room into a weight room or Zen meditation garden or anything, and so it was a little suspicious but not really any of my business. I was just happy to have a free washer and dryer to use and usually there was free dinner.

As I said, this went on for 7 years. Then one day, I stopped over and my mother was there crying and there were bags of clothes in the living room.  Apparently, she and her boyfriend had split up and she had decided to “come home.” After 7 years. I cannot stress this enough. She spent 7 years living with another man, taking care of my father, and then one day just decided to come back. Some would say my father was right in holding out. I thought they were both out of their minds. I asked her if she really thought she’d be happier this time around and she said it didn’t matter. Things didn’t work out with the boyfriend and this was the only other place she would belong. I told her that if she came back to my father she couldn’t someday change her mind-that she couldn’t put him through it again. She obviously knew this.

Without my father to worry about this took a weight off my shoulders. Up to that point, I felt obligated to stay around and make sure that if anything happened I would be there in case my mother wasn’t. But now I was free to pursue my own life. It wasn’t long after this that I packed up and moved to Arizona.

My parents are still together now, more than 15 years after this whole ordeal. They live together but rarely spend any time together. My mother does her solitary thing in the yard, or watching the news and my father watches TV in the bedroom or sits at the kitchen table. No, neither of them is happy. No neither of them seems to care about this. They have just accepted that they’re old, and this is just how it is now. Their relationship is very much the opposite of “relationship goals” that I hold for myself. But if it works for them, who the hell am I to judge?

Getting to Know Me-Volume 2

1. Song that always makes you sad?
Anything by Justin Bieber. It isn’t sadness, exactly…more of a murderous rage that makes me feel like I need to kill small animals…

2. Last thing you bought?
Prescription sedatives. Ahhhh….sweet relief.

3. One of your stuffed animals’ names as a kid?
Like I remember that shit. (actually I had a monkey that my mom tells me was called Mahnu, because I couldn’t say monkey. And that I used to refer to any older man with a beard as Mahnu too.)

4. Favorite sundae topping?
Peanut Butter and Hot Fudge. Together.

5. Did you take piano lessons?
I wanted to but since my mother was insane, that never happened.  Instead I learned to play terrible 80s ballads on my Casio keyboard.

6. Would you rather play basketball or hockey?
I would rather slit my wrists.

7. Date someone older or younger?
At this point, if I could score a 24 year old, that would be awesome.

8. One place you could travel right now?
Based on my bank balance, I could take a nice leisurely tour of the bathroom.

9. Do you know all the words to the Canadian national anthem?
No, but I should learn them because I think that shortly many Americans are going to qualify for refugee status and I hope Justin Trudeau is willing to take me.

10. Favorite cheese?
Any kind that won’t make me feel like I have an alien growing in my bowels.

11. The Smith’s or The Cure?
Neither. That was my generation’s version of Emo.

12. Do you prefer blondes or brunettes?
I prefer well hung.

13. Best job you ever had?
I loved my job at the library.  I would have stayed there FOREVER.  Too bad it was part time and getting placed full time is nearly impossible.

14. Did you go to your high school prom?
No.  I barely showed up at school.

15. Perfect time to wake up?
4pm.

16. Perfect time to go to bed?
Also 4 pm.

17. Do you use your queen right away in chess?
I only use my queen to get into the gay bar.

18. Ever been in a car accident?
Yes. Totally not my fault.  He should have seen that I wasn’t paying the least bit of attention.

19. What age is this exciting life over for you?
22 (I’m now 40, so…).

20. What decade during the 20th century would you have chosen to be a teenager?
1975-1985. If I was of the age of sexual consent during the hair metal days, I would have been the trashiest, most aggressive groupie the world has ever seen.

21. Favorite shoes you have EVER owned?
When I was a kid, maybe about 9 or 10, I had these awful white shoes that had a row of like 40 safety pins across the top. My mother hated them which meant I thought they were fucking incredible.

22. Do you have an article of clothing you have had since you were in high school?
I burned pretty much any mementos from high school on purpose.

23. Were you in track and field?
Hahahahahahahahahaha! I only run if I am being chased. And that doesn’t ever happen anymore.

24. Were you ever in a school talent show?
If being slutty was considered a talent, then yes.

25. Have you ever written in a library book?
BLASPHEMY!!!!

26. Allergic to?
Motherhood, manual labor, heartfelt sentimental-type conversation, emotional intimacy, and cockroaches (the last one is true. I was actually allergy tested as a kid and that is the only one I really remember).

27. You just got a free plane ticket to anywhere. You have to depart right now. Where are you gonna go?
The Isle of Man.  Not because it’s awesome of anything. It just has a fantastic name and a flag that makes NO sense:

isle-of-man-162324_640

28. What do you think about most?
I spend a lot of time mentally talking myself down from my murderous rage.

29. You have the opportunity to spend a romantic night with the music celebrity of your choice. Who would it be?
Elvis just after the 1968 Comeback Special. That’s my favorite Elvis.

39. You can erase any horrible experience from your past. What will it be?
The first year of Motherhood.

31. What’s your strangest talent?
*wink* Let’s just say I couldn’t demonstrate it in public.

32. Do you have any strange phobias?
Fear of accidentally punching someone because they’re stupid and I couldn’t control myself. What’s that called?

33. What’s the last song you listened to?
I Don’t Fuck With You by Big Sean (It’s been one of those days)

34. What was the last lie you told?
Wow.  I am totally interested in your truly stupid thoughts.

35. Do you believe in karma?
Yes. YES. i obviously really f**ked up last time around.

36. What is a saying you say a lot?
This is NOT Grandma’s house and I am not Grandma.

The Worst Kind of Love Story

I want to tell you the story of my first love.  As with most first loves, our relationship defined and helped to determine the course of every single relationship I was to have after it. I wish I could tell you this was a romantic and whimsical story with a “happily ever after” ending but it isn’t. It’s actually quite awful.

Like most love stories this one began when he spotted me from afar. My girlfriends and I used to walk a certain route to the corner store a few blocks from my house and we always walked past this one house that looked like it should have been demolished a hundred years ago. The surprising thing was that people actually lived there. What was more surprising was that there were teenage boys there. And what was NOT surprising was that my knack for sniffing out and targeting teenage boys led us to constantly walk by that house.

It just so happened that one gloomy cold day, as we were on our way probably to buy New York Seltzer and Wise Onion Rings, a group of said boys was standing outside of the house. We crossed the street to avoid them (playing hard to get) and they cat called and tried to get us to stop. But we wanted our Onion Rings and we were not going to be deterred. This was the first of many times we would be harassed by the boys at the house that shouldn’t still be standing.

One day, as we were rapidly walk-running on the other side of the street, one of the boys came running over to us, stood in front of us, and stopped us in our tracks. He was tall and thin and wore a knee-length Triple Fat Goose coat. He also was wearing colorful Skidz pants (which were basically ridiculously high-priced pajama pants that everyone wore as if they were outerwear) and just gave the impression that he was most definitely a juvenile delinquent (I.e. exactly my type). He wanted to know where we were going, why we walked by every single day but never stopped and if we could be friends. We hesitantly approved and he called the other 3 boys over and they introduced themselves, then walked with us to the store and back.

Tom took an instant liking to me, asking lots of questions and in the style of an overly-confident 16-year old boy, put his arm around me while we walked, as if we’d known each other for years. He had an aggressive yet easy way of making me feel like I was the only person there and he was intensely interested in everything I had to say. They asked us to hang out outside the wreck of a house with them, and we did. And that was it. That evening Tom walked me home and kissed me in the way every young girl dreams a boy will kiss her. We exchanged numbers but it was unnecessary. We were inseparable after that.

My little group of friends started hanging out with those boys and other girls and boys they knew at the park and at a rec center in the neighborhood. This was the very early 90s. Gangster rap was very popular and every group of white kids had a “posse” which was what we called our street gang. But honestly, we weren’t an overly assertive or violent group. There was an opposing gang that sometimes showed up at the park and there were a few instances of “gang fights” which ended rather anti-climactically, but we were just a bunch of regular kids with poor supervision and nothing to do who wanted to be tough.

Tom was one of the leaders of the gang and, what can I say, I like a man in a powerful position. A lot of the younger guys looked up to him and emulated his way of swaying as he walked, and his particular cadence when speaking. He wore the best, most expensive clothes, had gold jewelry, always had the newest sneakers and he wanted me to have all those things too. He was placed in a school for delinquents, along with most of the guys we hung out with, but rarely attended and I have no idea if his parents knew or cared. But I was smitten and I loved that he “claimed me” as his girl. Everyone knew he was mine and I was his and we were openly affectionate whenever we were near each other.

A few weeks after Tom and I got serious, my mother made her suicide attempt. I came home one night with Tom and my father told me he was on his way to the hospital, that my mother had already been taken by ambulance and he had been driving around the neighborhood trying to find me to tell me he’d be gone for much of the night. I was 13. I couldn’t stay the night alone yet. So naturally Tom stayed with me. He held me as I cried, reassured me everything was going to be okay, got me up and out the door to school the next morning and was there waiting for me after school. He was the perfect boyfriend and he took on this role of protector and caregiver when I needed him most.

We had sex after about a month of dating (which is an eternity in horny teenager years), and in my mind it cemented our relationship as special and unbreakable. We messed around constantly after that. Any time we got a moment alone he was in my pants and I was in his. We used condoms at first but soon abandoned that because we had so much sex that it wasn’t feasible to have that many condoms on hand at all times. With my mother and father absorbed in getting my mother on her feet, I was pretty much left to my own devices and in this case my own devices involved a shit load of intercourse.

The first time he hit me I literally didn’t know what had happened. Me and a bunch of the girls were at the rec center doing a project. We were sitting on the floor and using fabric paint to paint on jeans. I was facing away from the door and suddenly, out of nowhere I felt this blow to my head and I was on the floor. The lady supervising immediately got in front of him as he yelled something about me being a little whore and she physically pushed him out of the room telling him he needed to leave immediately. I had no idea what was happening and I got up and chased after him to see why he would have done that to me. Turns out that one of his friends had told him that we were on the phone late talking the night before. Nothing sinister or suspicious-we all talked to each other, boys and girls, on the phone all the time. I didn’t understand what I did wrong but as he belittled me and told me what a devious little bitch I was, I cried and promised I wouldn’t do it again.

Things were different after that. He didn’t want me at the park or rec center without him and he insisted on being with me almost at all times. The one time a few weeks later that he showed up at the park and I was already there he grabbed me by my hair and walked me part of the way home, then shoved me off and told me to stay in the house until he got there. Somehow this was all perfectly normal stuff. None of the other kids said anything. I never told. And he never really punched me or left any marks. It was always slaps and shoves and whacks on the side of the head. And since there were no marks, I didn’t think there was anything to tell.

One night he called me at home and told me to head to the rec center and he would meet me there. So, I did as I was told and met up with the group already hanging out there. About 20 minutes later he showed up with one of the girls from our group. She was on his arm and it was implied rather quickly that they had just had sex earlier that day. I was confused and somewhat in shock. I didn’t understand what I was seeing and hearing. He came over to me and kissed me as if nothing had happened and for the rest of the evening acted like his normal overly-affectionate self. We went back to my house and had sex, as usual, and I believed him when he said nothing had happened between him and her.

But he began to have sex with her regularly. And then it was someone else. And then someone else. Most of these girls were my friends. We all hung out together every day. Everyone knew Tom and I were together and yet they all thought so little of me that they had casual sex with my boyfriend. The guys used to brag about how they “dirty dicked” a girl they had no respect for, meaning they had sex with one girl then went and had sex with another without bothering to wash the first one off. I knew he was doing this to me but I was terrified of him at this point. I’d confront him with what I had heard, he’d deny it, and if I insisted I’d get a slap or a whack in the head or body, and get sent (or worse, dragged) home. This was just something I would have to live with. None of the other boys would talk to me or ever dare to date me so if I wanted to be with anyone, it was going to be him. Plus, I fucking loved him. Completely.

I had my first hospitalization for depression somewhere in this time frame. I had started to refuse to go to school and would spend the entire day holed up in my room listening to sappy love songs crying my eyes out, then get dressed when I should have been getting out of school and wait for him or someone else to come get me to go out to the park or wherever. My parents tried to ground me but I’d just leave out my bedroom window. They tried taking me to counselors and doctors and couldn’t understand why I had suddenly become so isolated and antsy. One night, after a fight with Tom where he told me flat out that he was fucking my friend and I insisted that I was his fucking girlfriend and we were supposed to be together forever, I carved his name into my arm with a broken piece of glass. In big letters down my forearm, I have T-O-M. The scars are still there. My parents saw this, freaked out thinking it was a suicide attempt (it wasn’t), called my doctor and they admitted me immediately. Looking back, it’s kind of humorous because everyone rallied around me like I was going to prison unjustly. The hospital monitored who I called and received mail from and he was forbidden from contacting me while I was there. But from what I heard from my girlfriends, he was trying to find out which room was mind so he could bust me out. I have no idea what he thought, like maybe we’d run off to Mexico or something, but this is the kind of stuff that made me believe he still loved me the way I loved him.

Of course, when I got out I went right back to seeing him, but now I couldn’t bring him to my house. So we had to get creative as to when and where we saw each other. Luckily, none of the kids in our gang had any kind of parental supervision so there was always someone whose house had no adults in it. For a little while after I was in the hospital, he seemed to understand how much he was hurting me. He was more attentive and I stopped hearing about his escapades for a few weeks. But it wasn’t long before I got a call from a random girl I didn’t know saying he was with her and I needed to back off. And every time I confronted him he did the bare minimum to convince me that they meant nothing to him. And that he only loved me. At this point, he didn’t care anymore if I was out and about without him. He also didn’t seem to care that the other boys flirted with me or called me. He knew he had mentally destroyed my confidence in my ability to make anyone else like me. He knew with 100 percent certainty that I wasn’t going anywhere.

That summer he got a car and this complicated things for me considerably. It was easier for him to find me. We found this playground at a school that we used to walk to and we’d spend the days vandalizing the picnic tables and playground equipment. By this point, the other guys would flirt with me and I’d flirt back but Tom had made it very clear to me that no one would ever want me. That I was garbage and not worth anything. The only thing I had that anyone would ever be interested in was my pussy and that wasn’t even the best he’d had. I accepted this as my truth. And I was totally faithful to him. He started seeing this girl I’ll call “Brandy” pretty regularly. In fact, he could often be seen (by me) driving by our hangout spots with her in his car. He didn’t even try to hide it from me. This pissed me off.  I would tell him it was over on the phone, hang up. Not answer his calls. But then he’d show up somewhere and approach me with that swagger and I’d be an idiot and we’d be making out an hour later.

I knew Brandy had replaced me. I started to get the idea that maybe this wasn’t love and that this isn’t the way it is supposed to be. And I would try to talk to him but he would just end up on top of me and I’d give in every time.  I mean, this is what I was good for, right? Why else would he or anyone want me? He still told me he loved me every time we talked and I clung to this so desperately that hearing those words out of his mouth was the only thing I lived for. And I remained faithful. Since he didn’t want to listen to me cry about him being seen with Brandy he started limiting where I was allowed to be again. He didn’t want me at that playground. Or the public pool. Or anywhere else unless he brought me there.

At this point, I was growing a spine and plus I didn’t want to miss out on an entire summer for some guy who clearly had another girlfriend. I’d go to the playground and we’d see his car turn the corner and I’d hide so he didn’t see me when he drove by. One day when he spotted me, he got out of the car and chased me across the baseball field and slapped me so hard I felt my jaw crack. Then he grabbed me by my arm, forced me into his car and dumped me off up the street from my house. But I didn’t learn and this happened repeatedly.

One night there was a party at this girl’s house. I was told I better not be there. When he walked in, I was sitting on the floor drinking (I’m sure) some early 90s alcoholic beverage like Zima, and just talking to a couple friends. He had brought one of the girls he cheated on me with way back with him and started bragging openly about how good the sex with her was…with her right there. Then he spotted me and I saw the look of fury flash across his face. He walked over to me and SMACK hit me in the face. I had noticed that for some reason there was a large pair of scissors sitting on an end table next to me and I just smiled up at him. “Hit me again motherfucker.” “Oh, you want me to hit you? I’ll fucking show you bitch!” And as he smacked me again, I grabbed the scissors and plunged them into his upper thigh. I was aiming for his dick but I wasn’t really looking when I did it. He fell backwards. “THAT BITCH STABBED ME,” he was yelling and blood was going all over the place. Two friends grabbed my hands, pulled me up and pushed me out the door. “RUN” they said.

I hid behind a house a few blocks away. And I was sobbing hysterically. He was going to fucking kill me. Literally. I knew that if he found me he would fucking beat me to death with his bare fists. I cried and cried and the poor lady who lived in the house must have heard me through an open window and she was yelling “what’s the matter? Are you okay? Do you need help?” And I told her no, but this made me feel like I couldn’t stay there so I got up and made my way home dodging between houses and bushes every time I saw a car the color of Tom’s.

I didn’t hear from him for 3 days. It was a relief. I thought I had finally gotten rid of him. But one night rocks were thrown at my window and like an idiot I went out to his apologies and promises that he would never hit me again. He loved me. He was going to stop seeing Brandy and all the other girls and he was going to get back into my parents’ good graces. That lasted a couple weeks.

I went to New York City for my uncle’s wedding just before Labor Day. While I was there I got really sick and my bladder hurt like I had a bladder infection. I threw up a few times, but it wasn’t like a stomach bug because I’d just get sick, then be fine, but then feel like I was going to be sick again. When we got home my mother took me to a doctor and they tested my urine for a urinary tract infection. But they also did a pregnancy test. And it was positive. I was 13. There was no thought about what was going to happen. My mother and I literally never discussed it. We never said the words “pregnant” or “baby”. She just made an appointment for a doctor who performed abortions and we were going to take care of it.

One of my big mouthed friends went straight to Tom and told him. And he showed up outside my bedroom window that night and begged me not to kill our baby. He rubbed my stomach and talked about what a great father he’d be saying things about basketball games and buying expensive gifts for “him”. And I laughed and told him to fuck off. I didn’t need to chain myself to him for the rest of my life. He begged. I believe he may have cried. But I told him I had no choice. The appointment was made and I had to go. His friend had to drag him away because he didn’t want to leave before convincing me. Oddly, I felt nothing.

I don’t want to discuss the procedure in detail or anything. But it hurt. A lot. The nurse was very sensitive to me being so young and she asked me if I wanted a soft blanket rather than those awful stiff ones they typically give you to cover up with. And as it was happening, she held my hand while I cried. I fucking hated him for doing this to me. I found out that Brandy had an abortion during the same week as me. He paid for hers. He took her and took care of her after. After hearing this, something clicked and I understood that he didn’t love me. I was done. But for him, this was when the fun began.

A little over a week after the procedure, there was a dance at my high school. My first high school dance! I wasn’t going to miss it. My friends and I got slutted up in tight clothes that our parents didn’t approve of and went to the dance. There’s this big park behind the high school and there’s a huge hill and all the high school kids went to “the hill” after the dance to drink. I was there, this time probably drinking MD 20/20 (another juvenile delinquent 90s liquor), and Tom showed up with some girl I didn’t know. He was not amused that I was there and he was less amused that I looked like I was ready to pick up a new boyfriend. He picked me up, kicking and screaming and then dragged me part of the way to his car and put me inside. He told me that if I tried to get out he would fucking kill me and I believed him. I thought he was taking me home and I was yelling at him the whole way that he didn’t own me and I wasn’t his girlfriend anymore and he had Brandy now and I wanted to be left alone. I then realized that he wasn’t taking me home.

He pulled up to a dilapidated old house with loud rap music coming out of it. He said “come on. I just want to go in and talk.” And I came, not knowing what to expect, but not wanting him to hurt me. We went into a bedroom to talk and he was all over me. I told him I was still bleeding from the abortion and he didn’t stop. I told him the doctors told me no sex for 4 weeks and that doing so could really fuck up my insides. He totally ignored me. I begged him to stop. I cried and told him I thought I could die. It didn’t matter to him. He said nothing. And then he was inside me. And I just let him. I let him because it was all I was good for. I let him because it didn’t matter if I was ok or if I wanted it or if I hated him. It didn’t matter because he fucking owned me. And the thing is, as an adult looking back, I know he raped me. But at the time it didn’t even occur to me. I didn’t scream or yell or try to fight him off. I just begged and cried and then let him. When he was finished he literally threw my underwear at me and told me to get dressed and went out to join the party as if nothing had happened. My insides were burning and I had bled on the bed and I didn’t know if it was from the abortion I had had a few days ago or if this was some new way he had managed to damage me inside.

I wish I could say this was the only time that happened with him. It wasn’t. It became a game to him. He would find me walking home from school and pull up next to me with a friend in the car and the two of them would grab me and laugh about kidnapping me. Most of the time he would take me to some random place where I’d either need to take a bus or call a friend to come get me because it was too far to walk. Other times it was to somebody’s house so he could force himself on me once he lured me into the house with promises to “just talk.” And still, I never told my parents or any adults that this was happening.

One day he got me to this apartment that was above a store that a friend’s father owned. The store was closed and for some reason we went downstairs. He went out to his car and came in a few minutes later and I saw that familiar fury on his face. He had gone through my bag and found a note that my friend had passed me in class and the note made a mention of me talking to one of the guys in our little gang who had just gotten out of Juvie. This time the fury wasn’t just a slap. He fucking beat me. He punched me in the ribs. He kicked me. He threw me against a wall. He grabbed me by my hair and pulled me across the floor. His friend sat in a chair and watched the whole thing as I begged Tom to stop with an expression on his face that I knew meant he was disgusted with ME! When he was done, he pushed me out the front door and threw my books and coat at me. It was November and raining and I was about 2 miles from home. I walked, sore and bruised but knew that he at least hadn’t fucked up my face. He just pounded at my body.

When I got home I wanted to sleep for the rest of my life. And I did. I went to bed around 6pm and didn’t get up until 3pm the next day. I checked for damage and found my ribs and legs bruised I had rug burns on my back and my arms were scratched up pretty good. This wasn’t like all the other times. I didn’t care if no one would ever want me or if I ever loved anyone else again. I couldn’t keep letting him do this because what if it was worse next time? What if he broke a bone or hit me so hard in the head that I had brain damage. This wasn’t normal and it wasn’t ok.  I didn’t want to get him in trouble or get the police involved. I just wanted him to stop tormenting and hurting me. And I meant this both physically and psychologically.

I refused to go to school for the next few days saying I was depressed again and I slept and slept. Then I told my mother. I begged her not to tell my father because he’d go ballistic and I was afraid Tom would end up hurting him. But apparently one day shortly after, my father saw Tom out and about and got in his face and told him to leave me the fuck alone and threatened his life. Tom laughed in his face and asked him what he, as an old man, was going to do to him and my father vowed that if he found out Tom was harassing me again that he wasn’t afraid to go to prison to protect me. It was a very long few months after that. I spent a lot of time in the house and dropped all those friends who were complicit in his savage behavior toward me. Of all those kids, dozens of them, that had witnessed him hitting me or dragging me or just saying awful things to me, not a single one of them ever stuck up for me. Not a single one of them ever said, “hey man, back off her. That’s not ok.” Not a single one of them saw enough value in me for them to step in and say anything.

Of course, I punished myself for YEARS. Why wouldn’t I? I was the one who allowed it to go on. I allowed him to say those things and I kept coming back. I allowed him to sleep with everyone and I kept coming back. I allowed him to put his hands on me and spit at me and take his rage out on me and I kept coming back. I allowed him to fuck me when I was in pain and when I hated him and when I needed nothing more than gentleness and care that he refused to give me and I kept coming back. I let him. And I kept coming back. How do you forgive yourself for allowing someone to break you like that? How do you look at yourself knowing that you willingly inflicted that much hurt and sorrow and misery on yourself?

I forgave Tom years ago. One day when I was in my 20s, I ran into him at the grocery store. I always thought I’d punch him in the dick when I saw him again but it was weird, I was happy to see him. And he was happy to see me. We were all grown up and we chatted about the major events of our lives. We exchanged phone numbers as if we were going to keep in touch. We didn’t. But that night he did call me. He told me he knows what a piece of shit he was to me. He told me it was teenage bravado and he was showing off to his friends and that he knows it’s no excuse for what he put me through but if it helps at all he’s sorry for doing all of it. He said he should have treated me better. And I thanked him and when I hung up I let it go. I was able to forgive Tom for his actions toward me. And yet, I still haven’t forgiven myself for what I put myself through with him.

I wish there was a happy ending to this story. Like I could say that after a few years I found the love of my life who was everything that was missing from Tom. I wish I could say that therapy took away that feeling of worthlessness and allowed me to find what really makes me happy. But the truth is that I have struggled with every relationship I’ve ever had either being too intense and desperate for love or being unable to feel anything at all. And when I did finally, after 20 something years of therapy and a few years alone, think I could love someone again, when I did finally take that chance and trust someone to hold my heart and be there for me, he destroyed me much in the same ways that Tom did, making me feel worthless and like I didn’t deserve love and care and compassion. And I am here typing this, 26 years later, and I feel much like that broken 14-year-old girl felt. This time I have no idea how to move forward from the pain. This time, on top of all those feelings of allowing it and not knowing why I kept going back, I also have to contend with a job and bills and raising a daughter and all the adult stuff that I didn’t have to worry about back then.

And once again I have assigned blame. Not to the one who committed the hurts and broke my trust and shattered my faith in love. I forgave him as soon as he told me he was sorry. I only blame myself. Because I wasn’t enough. Because I didn’t deserve kindness and to be taken care of when I hurt. Because I am not worthy of that kind of love. Because I don’t deserve intimacy and consideration and fidelity. Because I stayed in the situation begging for mercy and knowing that it wasn’t going to come. Because I let him do it. And I kept coming back.

Boys, Boys, Boys

boys

When I was 11 years old, there was literally only one thing on earth that I was interested in. You may be thinking, “she was 11 so it must be something like painting or playing in her dollhouse or horses.” You would be wrong.

At the age of 11, the one and only thing I gave a shit about in my entire life was boys. I was obsessed. To be fair, my fascination with the opposite sex started at a very young age. My first crush was Prince. Not the androgynous, dwarf-man from Raspberry Beret. I’m talking about dirty, sweaty, sexy Prince from Purple Rain. I wanted to be Apollonia so bad it hurt. My crushes extended all through grade school and in 4th grade I was so in love with a 6th grade boy that I thought I was going to die without him (I clearly lived and he turned out to be gay). But at the age of 11 was when things really started to take off and boys actually started to like me back.

It started at the park up the street from my house. If you’ve been following along, this is the late 80s and kids are barely supervised during the day. I would get out of school and drop my stuff off and head right to the park with my best friend Jennifer. Jennifer and I had been friends since Pre-K and shared a lot of the same interests such as New Kids on the Block and Kirk Cameron posters. There were rival girls there. Neighbors who had been my sworn enemies since I was like 7, but we were not to be deterred. You see, the park had basketball courts. And as such, every day after school teenage boys would congregate there to play basketball and cuss and spit on the sidewalk and all those cool things that draw girls to teenage boys. It wasn’t long before the enemy girls and my little posse became friends and we would “cheer” for the boys playing basketball from the sidelines. I’m sure you can imagine how thrilled these often much older boys were at having some 11-13-year-old girls rooting for them to make baskets and we were often acknowledged with “shut the fuck up” and other really sweet indications of their interest in us romantically so we would just keep going. For hours.

The park was fun and there were always different boys from different neighborhoods to flirt with. The boys in my catholic school were dorks compared to the bad-asses at the park and I was honing my skills as a seductress in my bleached, torn up jeans and color-changing, body heat activated tee shirts (remember those???) and was finding that I was getting to be quite successful. One day a boy asked me to “go out” with him. Essentially, what this entailed was seeing him at the park, talking on the phone for like 20 minutes in the evening and not touching in any way. It was serious and lasted a month until one day another, cuter, more bad ass boy asked me so I had to break the first boys heart and go out with the second boy. It was a revolving door of non-touching and intense phone calls that always ended with “no you hang up first…”

The park started to get boring and we were about to get tremendously lucky in the bad ass boy department. You see, a skateboard shop opened up on Butternut Street, which was right at the edge of the neighborhood where our delinquent behavior happened. This provided an endless supply of older, cooler more delinquent boys at our disposal.

The shop was called Skoot and Skate and it was run by an 18-year old bad ass named Marc. Marc was the fantasy dream man of each of us but only one of us would be able to claim him as her official crush (Girl Rule #6586). The shop was on a busy street and happened to be exactly along the route where Jennifer and I would walk home from school each day. The guys would be skating up and down the street, doing tricks out front, or just sitting on the steps. Some were smokers, some were not. Some were vegan or straight edge and others were not. There was a lot of variety and diversity at Skoot and Skate and the eclectic menu of boy flavor options was what we loved most about it.

I am not exaggerating when I say that from the day the store opened until the day it closed, my friends and I were there literally every single day. Literally. Every. Single. Day. Most of the regular guys were there daily as well. There were the dependable ones who also saw this as an ideal teen hangout and then there were the occasional guys who lived outside the neighborhood who would have to borrow a car or get a ride over or skateboard across town to come hang out. The guys were, for the most part, much older than us. When you’re 11 years old, 15 is A LOT older and more mature. And if I ever found out my now 10-year-old daughter was exposed to the sick perverted stuff that my friends and I encountered and lapped up every day I would probably murder someone.

On some level, we knew we were a bit of a nuisance to most of them. We didn’t skate. We just kind of hung out. We sat on the steps or along the wall inside the shop and would just giggle and flirt endlessly with whoever was there. The guys over 16 or so especially were a bit put off having us there and would basically ignore us but of course those were the ones we were most fascinated with. I fielded a lot of comments about “when you turn 18” and other obvious statements about how young I was but it never deterred me or any of my friends. We liked who we liked and that was that.

About 2 weeks after we started hanging out there we were totally traumatized when one of the guys, Rob, was picked up by his uncle and taken home to Utica. I’m pretty sure Rob was a runaway and Marc was aiding and abetting a fugitive by keeping him in his apartment. Rob was probably our top favorite guy there because he was funny and a smart ass and had terrible hygiene and he would come to our houses to hang out and play video games and sometimes even showed up at the park (on the rare occasions we still went there). You have to remember we were only like 11 or so years old, so this was a major loss to us. I am going to tell you something here that all of us would be horrified if Marc or Rob or any of the other guys knew about: We went to church and prayed. We went and prayed our hearts out for Rob to be brought back to us. And even thinking about it now, it seems bizarre that we only knew him for two weeks but facts are facts.

Marc lived in the apartment behind the shop and on one or two occasions we were invited back there. One time specifically involved me and one boy sitting in a closet holding hands (I’m not kidding) while my friend Christina was out in the living room with another boy who asked if it was ok if he “held her leg.” I think they were just fucking with us, trying to make two little girls a little uncomfortable but who the hell knows what goes on in the minds of teenage boys, AMIRITE?

The guys would skate all over the neighborhood looking for railings and stairs and curbs and other outcroppings that would be cool to do tricks on. One of their favorite places was actually my school because it had a canopy over a massive number of stairs with landings on different levels, railings galore, and even a handicapped ramp. They could skate there even when it rained and it was torture when we’d be in school that fall and we’d hear the familiar sound of the skateboards slapping against the pavement. Those visits were always short-lived because the nuns knew that those teenage boys were out there trying to corrupt our super innocent and virginal minds with their skateboard penis magic and they’d run out there telling them to “shoo!”

Of the four of us in my little girl group, 2 had unrequited crushes that stayed firm. From that first early summer day until the day the shop closed, they were in love with the same boy. My one friend (who will remain anonymous) liked one much older boy who made plenty of sexually suggestive comments but never acted on it and then another boy who she actually had a little “thing” with later. Frankly, I liked them all. I wanted every one of them. My crushes went from one to the next to the next. Whoever was paying me attention that week was who I liked. I spent countless hours on the phone not only with these boys, but with my friends dissecting every word any of them had said to any of us. When a 15-year-old boy named Kevin asked me out I was honestly terrified. He was a bit older and probably would expect more than just talking on the phone. I stopped there on my way home from school on my 12th birthday and that was when Kevin and I had my first kiss.  We broke up soon after. It was too much pressure. (He’s still mad at me that I lost my virginity to one of his friends from the shop. He tells me all the time on Facebook)

In November, we got word that the shop was closing down. Who knew that having a dozen or so people just hanging around all day but never buying anything was bad for business? Again, we were devastated. This was going to destroy our entire boy-flirting, desperate attention-getting operation! We were all there on the last day, saying goodbye to the empty shop and all the man-boys and memories we had made there. We took all the stickers off the wall and took pictures to put in our dedicated Skoot and Skate scrapbooks (I believe 3 of us still have these packed away somewhere). We would never forget the shop and to be honest, I believe this is the official coming-of-age story for myself and all three of my friends.

As an afterwards: The building that used to be Skoot and Skate became an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting place shortly afterwards and has remained as such even as the neighborhood has collapsed into rampant poverty and overall ghetto-ness. The building next door where we used to sit to watch the guys do tricks was torn down. The bar on the other side was torn down. And that little building with its gray siding still sits there quietly housing the now-ancient secret crushes of pre-teen girls.

When Anxiety Attacks

It is so hard to pinpoint when my mental illness first reared its ugly head. We could start with the first time I was hospitalized at 13 because I was so depressed and deranged in love with my abusive boyfriend that I thought I couldn’t live without him. We could talk about when I was 2 or 3 and I had severe abandonment issues where every single day when my mother would drop me off at my Grandmother’s house I would scream bloody murder trying to keep her from going and I would sit in the window crying long after she’d gone convinced she’d never come back to me. We can talk about the vague time that spanned several years where I had an intense phobia of strangers and the idea that I would be kidnapped so much so that when I would go outside to play and a car would turn down our street I’d make a b-line for the front door (those are all stories for another time). But the time I really want to talk about is the summer between 3rd and 4th grades. Because that was when the doctors first got involved.

The year I turned 8 was not a good year for me. Soon after my 8th birthday my mother’s friend died. She was a lot younger than my mother, closer to my older brother’s age and I loved her. She died in a drunk driving accident and I watched my mother grieve her and I felt the pain of my first real loss in an abstract and surreal way, as if it wasn’t real. A few months later, I was hit by a car crossing the street in front of my house. By sheer luck the side mirror clipped my arm but it was enough to throw me back onto the ground and fracture my right arm so I had to go to the hospital and get x-rays and wear a sling to keep it immobile for months. Before that had fully healed, I was in a car accident with my brother. He and his friend were fucking around as I laid stretched out in the back seat, playing imaginary games (no seat belts because kids in the 80s were tough!) and he hit a parked car totaling my father’s pride and joy. As if this wasn’t bad enough, 3 days after school let out for the summer my Grandma Virgie died. The one who lived down the street and babysat me every day and whose house was basically my second home.

Her death was not exactly sudden. At 64, Virgie had severe emphysema but still smoked even with her oxygen tubes hooked up to her nose. She simply wheeled her oxygen tanks around the house from room to room and held her cigarette in her other hand. Knowing as an adult how incredibly and insanely dangerous It is to smoke with oxygen hooked up, I am honestly thankful for not having died in a violent fireball that engulfed the entire house. Virgie had not been doing well at that point and had been in the hospital a few days before. They told her she had “hardening of the arteries” in her heart and that there wasn’t a whole lot they could do for her. She died of a heart attack.

After my grandmother’s death, something happened to me. I was home one night doing whatever the hell I did at 8 years old on a week night and something just started happening. My heart started racing for no apparent reason and I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I started sweating first, then got really cold, then hot again. I was panting and felt like I was drowning sitting there in my room.  I went to my mother and told her I was afraid my heart was going to stop. She assured me it was not and she sat with me for a few minutes telling me to take slow deep breaths. She was clearly concerned but wanted to give it a few minutes before taking me to the emergency room. After what seemed like 5 hours (but was in reality about 5 minutes) the feelings subsided and I started to go back to normal. But I kept my hand on my heart almost constantly after that.

I wish I could say that was a one-time event. But a few nights later it happened again. And I was convinced my heart was going to just stop and I was going to die just like my grandmother had. Perhaps my arteries were hardening right then as we sat there. This was it and I had so many things I wanted to do with my life! My mother worked evenings and so I sought comfort in my father, who offered me a range of terrifying reasons that I could be having this kind of awful and terrifying reaction. He was very helpful.  Again, after about 5 or 10 minutes the feeling subsided and I went to bed, hand on my heart, glad that I had faced down death once again.

It started happening often, lasting for hours rather than minutes, and after a few weeks, my mother took me to a doctor who listened very carefully to my symptoms and then put the stethoscope to my heart. I was sure he was going to find some defect that was causing these episodes and he would tell me that I had just weeks to live. But he told me everything seemed perfectly normal.  His diagnosis: Anxiety Attacks. At that time, panic disorder and generalized anxiety disorder were just not things people ever said. And certainly, they never applied such things to children. I was a rare case apparently and at that time there was never any suggested treatment or solution offered.  I was simply told to “stop worrying so much. We will bill your insurance, thanks.”

My “anxiety attacks” (which are now commonly known as panic attacks) went on for months, all throughout the summer. They rarely happened anywhere but at home and almost always late at night, either when I was lying in bed or I was supposed to already be in bed but wasn’t. I had learned through experience that going to my father when my mother was at work just tended to make things worse so I called the only other person in the world who I was sure would be awake late at night, and happy to hear from me at 10:00 on a weeknight. I called my other grandmother, Grandma Giampa.

Grandma Giampa had a very soothing and simple way of talking me through it. Although I know she thought it was completely bonkers that an 8-year-old was so worried she’d work herself into a panic, she would just talk to me as if everything were normal. “How was school today? What did you have for dinner? Did you watch anything good on TV tonight?” And sometimes, when that wasn’t working she would call attention to the obvious: “but your heart IS beating and you ARE breathing. And although this happens a lot, it always passes. It doesn’t last forever.” She became the only person who could talk me down from that ledge and after a while, once the panic attacks started to subside, I would call her up late at night just to talk and hear about what was happening with the characters on her “programs”.

It was never something that was diagnosed or treated. No one suggested I talk to a therapist or get on medication. Every time my mother took me to the doctor (and I demanded to see a doctor many times because I knew I was dying) they would all just tell me to stop the worrying. Super helpful. Looking back on it now it is almost comical compared to how we rush to medicate and treat every little unpleasant feeling that comes over our kids. On the one hand I probably suffered unnecessarily for longer than I should have or might have had I gotten some kind of help. But on the other hand, I am glad that they didn’t, at 8 years old, just offer me some pills and send me on my way.

After a few months, the panic attacks subsided on their own and I went back to being a normal (as close as I was capable of) kid and went about my life. Unfortunately, the experience of being “normal” wouldn’t last long, and within a few years I’d find myself with an official diagnosis.