I had a homework assignment to write this all down. Since I went to the effort, I thought I’d repost here.
Warning: contains triggers.
Here is the story/timeline of my life-trauma. Find a comfortable chair and grab a drink. I will try to be as concise as possible, though it is not one of my stronger points. It isn’t all trauma, because to write about my life like that would just be too depressing. For me and for you.
~ First, a brief family background including people and events I believe are relevant, which either precede my story or do not fit chronologically into it:
I was close to neither of my paternal grandparents, who divorced when my father was young. I could count on one hand the number of times I saw my paternal grandfather. After I began talking openly about my father last year, a distant relative from that side of my family wrote to inform me that my grandfather had sexually abused at least one cousin of mine. I did know and frequently saw my paternal grandmother, but we were not close, and I have nothing of note to mention about her. My father was drafted into Viet Nam, but he never spoke of it.
My maternal grandfather, Kenneth, was born in 1898 and died when my mother was 14 (1963 or 4.) While I never met him, he was frequently spoken of, like a household saint. My maternal grandmother, Ruby, was like a second mother to me and her house like our second (and safe) home. She never recovered from my grandfather’s death, changing nothing in her home like Miss Havisham in Great Expectations. She was rather dark and eccentric and “went away for exhaustion” several times when my mother was young. She developed Alzheimer’s when I was a teenager. My mother, Rosemary, had a self-described nervous breakdown after my grandfather died, and was sent to live with family friends in New York for a while. She later ran off to Italy, fell in love, something tragic happened (I don’t know the details) and she came back and married my father. She was astonishingly charming and outgoing, but would also frequently lock herself in her room and cry a lot when I was a kid. She survived largely on Valium and vodka. She missed her father and this fellow in Italy and was being beaten and emotionally abused daily by my father, so not shocking.
~ I was born in 1974. I suppose that was traumatic.
~ I was hospitalized each winter for the first several years of my life, with bronchial pneumonia or similar illness. I remember a Christmas in the hospital, when I was given a wooden rocking horse. I remember the cage-like beds, so I must have been very little.
~ When I was 2 and ½ my brother was born. I remember that.
~ I can’t say I ever remember a time when my father was not a tyrant. He was frequently yelling at us over ridiculously minor things like missing a leaf while raking or for wanting to talk about our day at the dinner table, often physically violent, whipping us with belts, throwing things, hitting us and making threats. He was obsessed with us recognizing his authority is what it came down to. Every interaction was about reinforcing his authority. He was not like that in public, or course. To others it probably seemed we had the perfect small town nuclear family. Though I can’t imagine neighbors did not hear all that constant yelling. I don’t remember ever not being afraid of my father. I can neatly divide my childhood into 6am-6pm (happy, fun times with my mother and brother, as if we were living in some fantasy world) and 6pm-6am (when we walked on eggshells and lived in fear.) I think it is worth mentioning that my mother was not like an authority figure but a peer to my brother and me. I have heard that referred to as a form of neglect, but we loved it. She was our cool, older friend, and we were all in the same boat.
~ My first memory of – Jesus, this is difficult – my father sexually… I was 4 or 5. I had just begun going to school. My mother had left for the evening (she was very active in school and community organizations,) and my father asked me to do something I knew even then was very wrong. Afterwards he told me I was not allowed to tell my mother what “we” had done that evening. Ever.
[I space out a bit after writing that. I take a break. I pour a glass of wine. I smoke a cigarette. Out of the blue, Patrick begins messaging me, and we chat off and on all night. I’m thankful for his timing. I return to this.]
It was also when I was about 5 that I began having nightmares, terrors even, waking up screaming every night. I was eventually given sedatives. As a child.
So these events with my father went on for years. I cannot describe them. It is not that I don’t remember them; I remember them vividly. You know how hung up I get about language. I just can’t use the same language to describe the abuse that I would also use to describe the quite beautiful and enjoyable things I consensually do as an adult. I can’t use the same words to describe what my father did to me. I can’t do it. Often pornography was involved. He also did these things to someone else. Which is horrible, but I guess unlike a lot of people, I have someone who can confirm my story.
I was never willing, just terrified out of my wits. I did not seek out or even enjoy it, despite what the founding fathers of psychoanalysis might have you believe. I lived in fear of it. Of him.
~ I was taken out of regular classes and placed in a program for gifted children when I was 6. They never explained what the gift was, but it was nice to not be bored to death.
~ When I was about 8 or 9, my great grandfather (my maternal grandmother’s father) died. It was disturbing because we had gone to visit him in the nursing home one day, and he was asleep. So we left. We came home to a message from the nursing home informing us that he had died. I think we saw him dead.
~ When I was 9, I told my father that if he ever touched me again I would tell my mother and teacher and police. He never did. The physical abuse, the beatings and yelling and general home dictatorship continued. But I never told anyone about the sexual abuse, and he never touched me again.
It was also when I was 9 that I stopped believing in God, or stopped pretending or wanting to. I stopped telling my father I loved him, which resulted in a lot of punishment but I wasn’t going to say it. I began wanting to die. I would go to bed and try to will myself to not wake up again. I remember learning I could not hold my breath until I died or suffocate myself with a pillow.
~ When I was 10, my paternal aunt, Victoria, died from ovarian cancer. She had been very sick for years. She was quite young, 31 I think. My family often compared me to her (perfectionist, neurotic, shy, Virgo, would cry at the drop of the hat…) My mother was at her side when she died.
My mother then converted (back, I say) to Catholicism. I eventually quit public school and entered parochial school. I was much happier there. (I know, who says that?) I was given the choice and refused to be confirmed however. I’ve never even been baptized. wow
~ When I was 16 or 17, I became very depressed. Suicidal. I didn’t do anything, but I told my mother. I was taken out of school for a bit, sent to live with my grandmother and allowed to take my exams and finish the year. I should mention that whenever things got very bad at home, as in when we decided our lives were in danger, we went to stay with my grandmother. She’s gotten a bad rap in our family for her being difficult and a bit brooding, but she was really the best. No one in the family gives her any credit, and it pisses me off.
~ When I was 18 I left home and went to college, Northwestern. My sophomore year, I got very depressed – I could not tell you why. It was the first time I saw a mental health professional. I was given some Prozac and sent on my way. Everyone agreed the medicine turned me into a soulless zombie, and my parents happily let me stop taking it.
~ When I was 20, I accompanied my best friend, Angela, to Washington D.C. for a women’s rights march. On the mall was an installation of the Clothesline Project. I returned to Evanston very shaken up. I had never told a soul about my father and even believed that if I didn’t admit it, it could not affect me. But I had to tell someone. When I told Angela, she was not surprised at all and explained that she’d suspected as much.
That summer was insane. There was a heatwave in which hundreds died, including my roommate’s fish, which I had been … fishsitting. I met a lovely flamenco dancer and happily lost my virginity. Officially. Yes, that is how I really see it. I was drinking, doing a lot of mild hallucinogenic drugs (pot, ecstasy, mushrooms…) and taking Zoloft, which, with the heat, killed my appetite. Not a brilliant combination. One afternoon Angela came home to find me in a pile on the floor. She fed me soup, put me in bed and phoned my mother. My mother was demanding to know why I was acting out such. Everyone was totally freaking out. Angela kept shoving the phone at me, saying if I didn’t tell my mother she would. So I took the phone and told my mother about my father. She accused me of lying for attention.
Between that summer break and leaving for study abroad, I came home for a short bit. Maybe a week or two. I’d never left the country before, was moving to Russia, and this is when my mother decided to make me confront my father. She sat us down in the living room. “Tell him what you told me,” she demanded. I was mortified. But I did. He didn’t deny anything. He began crying and said he’d hoped I’d forgotten it all and asked me to forgive him, and my mother threw him and all his belongings out of the house. I left for Russia and stayed there while my family fell apart.
~ When I was 21 I lived in Russia and saw people die, almost die, knew people who were murdered, was detained by men with Kalashnikovs and generally had the time of my life.
~ When I came home, my mother was in the middle of an ugly divorce, I was in culture shock, my father had stopped paying my tuition and had begun to threaten and stalk us to the extent that we had to file a restraining order. We had no money so we all scraped by on odd jobs. I made a half-assed attempt to return to school, the Dean telling me to worry about the financial aid later. I got there and made a half-assed attempt to kill myself, really more of an attempt to kill the pain of the guilt of what I’d just brought upon my mother and brother. This resulted in my first hospitalization. It was just a few days; I checked myself in and out. My mother came to stay with me and then took me home.
These times were rough, but I have a lot of very happy memories, of just my mother, brother and I. Every day was like a dream somehow. The house had become a kind of commune, with everyone’s friends coming and going. 22 years of rules had given way to pretty much no rules. Rooms were painted in psychedelic colors (and my mother was selling the house!), we’d get up, make breakfast, and eat outside and dance around to the Grateful Dead. My mother had been a hippie before meeting my father. My brother and I were both college age. It was a scene.
~ When I was 24 I returned to Northwestern and graduated. I worked at a bookstore, where I met a boy, we moved in together and stayed that way for 8 years. We adopted a cat. My mother remarried. My brother moved to San Francisco to go to art school. Everything was on the up and up.
~ When I was 25, my mother died.
That spring she’d had planned to visit us but cancelled because she was sick. This was the second time, and I was angry. In June she went into the hospital for a “routine hysterectomy” (I feel like a Soviet refugee: what didn’t she lie to me about?) But her random calls to say “just know I will always love you” made it clear something was not right. The day of her surgery, the phone rang. And I knew. Because the phone rang exactly the way it had rung the evening my aunt Victoria had died. The Ring of Death. She had cancer and it had spread everywhere. Even with rigorous treatment, they gave her 2 months. She took 3.
I made many visits home that summer, but my mother forbid me to stay. She said she did not want me to see her, to remember her like that, sick, like she remembered her father. At 4am on September 7, 2000, I received a phone call from my stepfather. “We are at the hospital. She isn’t going to make it. You need to say goodbye now.” He put the phone to her ear, and I screamed, “Listen! This is your daughter and I am on the next plane to St. Louis and you WILL be alive when I arrive. I will be there by 8, and you will be alive, do you understand? Do you promise?” I wouldn’t hang up until she promised. She kept it. She died shortly after noon, me by her side. It was the most beautiful thing I have ever witnessed – all that pain completely evaporating from her face, her body. It was also the worst thing that has ever happened to me. By far.
~ A few years after my mother died, my grandmother Ruby (her mother) died. She was in her nineties, so it was expected. She had really been gone for some years, with Alzheimers. So in some ways it was more of a relief than anything.
A few years after my mother died, I had surgery to remove ovarian tumors. They were benign, but it did give me quite a scare.
At some point a few years after my mother died, I decided I would never be happy and decided to kill myself. But I didn’t. Our little feral cat got on my lap and refused to move. I was in a sorry state, and had large supply of sleeping pills and large bottle of vodka. Unfortunately, my significant other came home, saw all of this and called 911. I ended up in the hospital. This was my second and last hospitalization.
~ When I was 32 we split up. We’d lived a “normal” life. I got a job at the University of Chicago and got involved in politics. He became a teacher. We took vacations on Cape Cod and only cooked organic. Neither of us wanted to spend the rest of our lives together, I don’t think. I was too stressful with my drama, and he was too… We gradually stopped doing things together and grew apart. I was devastated when it ended (specifically when I discovered that he was seeing another woman) but not depressed. After we broke up, for years I was happier than I had ever been.
~ When I was 36, I (my god, it’s getting old even for me, no wonder my family hates me…) became terribly depressed. Everyone assumes because I was alone, lonely. But that is not true. Health issues, money issues, family issues… I took a great deal of time off to deal with my crap at an outpatient program and left in a much better place.
~ When I was 37, my cousin Shawn, my mother’s brother’s son, who was my age, shot himself. That was one month ago.
So there you are. The Cliff’s Notes in 6 pages but it feels like only the tip of the iceberg. This rather makes it sound like my life has been nothing but a list of tragedies and episodes of fierce depression. I would not say that. Perhaps it does seem this way to others.
From writing this, it is not clear to me how much, if at all, my wanting to kill myself is related to my father. Maybe it would be a relief if it weren’t, and then I would not have to speak of him. On the other hand, reading about child abuse, I think they may be related, or tangled all up, all part of the ecosystem…
I hope I didn’t ramble too much. I feel the urge to ask you if you have a plan to go do something nice for yourself now, after having read this. Go do something lovely for yourself now.
And thanks for reading.