I don’t suppose I’ve achieved enough success in my life yet to consider mine a rags to riches story, but I can certainly say I’ve come a long way from having been a child ward of the state. Those days were an almost forgotten other world from here, way back around that bygone era when DCFS destroyed the only family I’d ever known by then. No, wait... that’s not fair...
In reality, it wasn’t the state that ruined us...
Untreated mental health issues shattered my Mother.
Acute self-centered overindulgence wrecked my father.
Abject poverty devastated us all.
Alcoholism, unchecked rage, violence, and abuse...
...sexual deviancy, moral depravity, molestation and pedophilia...
...willful ignorance, purposeful neglect, and parental abandonment...
...these are the evils that irreparably damaged the first family that formed the foundation of my life. The state department of Health and Rehabilitative Services was just there to pick up the broken pieces. I lost everyone I loved in one dire night — stolen away to “the system.”
Through the lens of maturity, and the perspective of time, I can see now that was the best thing for all of us. But even if I could have understood so then, it wouldn’t have made it any easier to sleep alone in an unfamiliar place surrounded by strangers — thankfully, I can’t remember anymore how many nights I must have cried myself to sleep... these days I can only imagine. In some respects, I became who I am today in that moment “they” came to our door and took us from our home... in other ways, I never fully recovered.
Before my world came crashing down around us, I had been raised on foodstamps, picking green bits off bread, learning to digest anything a goat can eat — a typical once-a-week dinner for our whole family was to sit down to a big pot of mac ‘n’ cheese with canned peas and weenies.* Foodstamps alone were never enough, though — not so much we didn’t still have to hit up the foodbank twice a month. And feeding isn’t all there is to caring for a family... there was the bookmobile, swap meets, toy exchanges, and free clothing drives — touring bi-monthly tri-state area flea markets were a regular staple of our routine.
*(For anyone fortunate enough to not be in the know about such things, that’s boiled hot dogs sliced into smaller sections to spread further as fractions than as whole units... even in today’s economy, the total cost of that entire meal for the 5 of us would be around $2.17. It wasn’t that good, but it was edible, and it kept us from going hungry. If you’ve ever heard anyone speak of “po-folx fare,” this is what they meant.)
If I hadn’t come to know her better later on, I might have wondered whether the reason my Mother became so fanatically religious (considering she’d been brought up on the rez) was to be close enough to local church organizations to take advantage of their donations and giveaways for the poor — or perhaps in the hopes that God would award her faithfulness with a better life. I suspect, in Mother’s case, these two angles of zealotry were very likely not necessarily mutually exclusive.
My father was an over-the-road trucker. He was often out-of-town for long stretches, and when he was back, he was generally irritable, with too much time on his hands, which — if we were lucky — he spent scouring local gun shops for gear to blow his paycheck on, drawing obscene images (the man was such a brilliantly talented artist, if not for the comic book character proportions, his work could have been mistaken for photography), or obsessively crafting WWII memorabilia. While my mother at least claimed to pine over his dearth, we all got along fine without him when he wasn’t around, and learned to keep our distance from him as much as possible when he was — though that never worked out well enough for long.
Mother often toiled away, 2-3 jobs at a time, like she thought it would earn her extra jewels in her crown — including late night and swing shifts — so she wasn’t always around that much either. But it wasn’t because she was so dedicated to supporting us she had to labor that hard just to bring in enough income for meeting our needs... no, that circumstance was mostly caused by her inability to ever find a way to hold down one job — something was always getting in the way of her success, and to hear her tell the tale (which she was only too eager to fire off at anyone who would listen), whatever “it” was, it was never her fault. Her official diagnosis was PSD (paranoid schizophrenic disorder), but more accurately, I believe that conclusion probably resulted from the masking technique of BPD (borderline personality disorder), as this more comprehensive condition is wont to mimic others, and over enough time, I was able to identify recognizable symptoms.
My brother and sister and I pretty much raised ourselves for a few years — they would get themselves up and ready for school, with me crying as they caught the bus off to their 2nd and 4th grade classes, respectively, holding onto their clothes, begging them not to go. (A favorite game of my brother’s was to pretend he didn’t notice when I threw myself on the ground and wrapped my arms around his legs to prevent him from leaving... he would pull one foot out, making a big production of going anyway — as if he hadn’t noticed me there, so he would have to end up taking me with him — walking towards the door for a few steps, dragging me along, until I couldn’t hold on anymore because I was giggling too hard.) They would both shower me with hugs and tickles and smooches, promising to be home in the afternoon, “before you even know it!,” then wave and blow kisses from the windows of the bus as it carried them away, leaving me on my own until they returned.
He was 10, she was 8... I was 3.
I popped across the large lot over to the elderly neighbors who owned the land we lived on, snacking on kumquats from the bushes in their front yard, knocking on their door to be let in for an individual cereal box or a pop tart (which I feel pretty sure they probably kept around just for such occasions) and morning cartoons. The 2BR/1Bath sharecropper’s shack we “rented” from them for the upkeep on it had been converted from a chicken coop when they’d become old enough to retire from active farm operations. After breakfast, I took my dolls, and my books,* and followed my cat out into their orange groves, the two of us wandering together for the bulk of the day... it was easy to lose myself out there in the serene stillness and quiet beauty of nature.
*(Mother had become overly ambitious about my pre-K home education once she’d recognized how smart I was as a young child, and had taught me to read before I could speak — though I was already talking up a summer storm by the time I reached 3 — but I almost never went anywhere without my favorite books.)
When I got hungry, I ate fallen fruit off the ground because those were the ones I could reach — I developed a strong, instinctive sense of what was too far turned, a taste for slightly rotten oranges, and an iron constitution — though sometimes my brother or sister packed me a bologna-n-cheese or PB & J to carry along, because if my father was passed out at home, it was never a good idea to be nearby when he came to. Whenever I had to go, I would simply squat, making use of leaves and grass for hygiene materials. On days he was on the road, though — which were preferable — I could hang around the house, watch Sesame Street, use the facilities, and make myself mac ‘n’ cheese, ramen, sandwiches, cereal, or toast (which about comprised the extent of my “cooking” skills in the kitchen, but that’s far more than can be expected of most 3-yr-olds).
My excursions out into the wild with my best friend came to an end, though, when my father murdered our cat — he grabbed him by the scruff, yanked him into his car and held him in his lap, got up to highway speeds, then tossed him out the window — I know about it, because he did this with my brother in the car. I can only imagine how traumatizing that must have been for my brother — I think the intent was to intimidate my brother, to show what could happen to him if my father got too tired of him, as he was tired of caring for my cat. I didn’t find this out from my brother until years later, after I’d spent weeks and months back then crying over missing him, calling outside and at night for my cat, never knowing where he’d run off to, wondering why he would leave our home, desperately hoping he would return.
My father was a drunk. He routinely deliquesced into his knock-off lazy-boy, mostly naked, watching reruns of Hogan’s Heroes, while scratching his balls... when I was little, I would have sworn he had three stomachs, and at least two necks. To this day, the smell of cheap yellow beer takes me back to dark, sticky, sweaty places, with hot, rancid breath dripping off bristly whiskers, stumbling flab rolls, and fumbling fingers.
My father frequently beat us. With his hands. With his belt. With the matchbox car racetracks my brother got for Christmas. With a freshly cut twig from a young sapling skinned of bark to the bleeding green underbelly, until it whistled in the air like a pan-flute, cracked like a whip, and welted skin bloody with the barest touch.
Well, no... that’s not quite true... he beat my siblings — especially my brother, the only other male among us, a natural threat to my sire’s totalitarian authority. For me, his only biological offspring — his darling prodigy, his perfect creation, who could do no wrong in his eyes — he spared the rod, and spoiled the child... he just “loved” me “a little too much.” My sister’s role was so much worse, though, as he and Mother often weren’t home at the same time for too long, and, you know... a man has needs.
My brother took it upon himself to save us — he knew he wasn’t strong enough to confront all 400# of my beer-induced-rage-filled progenitor himself, so he determined to run away — his “grand liberation plan” to form a band along the lines of the then very popular KISS, earning enough money as a rockstar to swoop back in as the valiant returning jukebox hero made good, and bust his sisters out of that toxic environment. Pinching together every penny he had, he hitched to a neighboring town, and got as far as a 24-hr highway truckstop diner, where he had just enough to buy a coffee, before passing out in a booth, exhausted from the road, and the stress of it all. Waitresses changing shifts hours later discovered him numb to the world with his icy cuppa joe well past a gradeschool kid’s curfew, and when one sat down to hear his sad tale of two sisters trapped in the abusive clutches of a monster, DCFS was called, and the jig was up.
He was 12, she was 10 — I was 5.
I remember Mother calling us all to her and issuing a tearful farewell, explaining why she had to leave (I never recalled the details, other than frantically, angrily, desperately pleading against her retreat), and I remember the child welfare people being at the door to collect us... for the first half of my life, I’d believed this was one recollection of the same night — it wasn’t until decades later, in my 20s, my brother clarified for me those events had been 2 years apart. Our mother had responded to being confronted by my brother about what my father was doing to our sister by first furiously accusing him of lying and beating him, then making herself the victim (because somehow, whatever it was, it was always about her), deciding she was too beleaguered to deal with it, and walking out on us all. We’d already endured two years of fluctuating between either fending for ourselves on our own, or surviving abuse without any maternal buffer of protection before my brother made his drastic attempt at a heroic rescue.
I’d had memories of Mother being gone, of missing her, of wishing she was around — but my toddler brain had squeezed the gaps together, and I’d just since rationalized she’d always been working during those absences. That revelation of the truth hit me with the kind of hard-knock shock to the system that reframed my entire perspective on much of my life up to that point. My brother also shared with me, part of Mother’s argument during that heated confrontation was to explain to him, my brother “just didn’t understand” my father, as he had no idea what that man had been through... then she told him a sob story about the nightmare of his grueling tour in Vietnam, leaving my brother dumbfounded and appalled, not because of the horrific nature of the tale, but because he knew it to be total *8@77$#!%*. Outraged, my brother cleared the air for our Mother, by informing her — that wasn’t my father — that was Chuck Norris in Missing in Action!
Mother subsisted her entire disturbed life in a dodgy relationship with the truth, but that was primarily due to the effect of a condition resulting from her psychopathy, because she was able to lie to herself so convincingly, she then believed her own lies, which thereby effectively became her truth. The same cannot be said, though, of my father, who was merely an expertly opportunistic manipulator of her vulnerability and trusting, gullible nature — as he was with anyone whose convictions could be twisted to meet his ends. I know there are some who would say he had a condition, too, as alcoholism is a disease — and, let’s not even go there with pedophilia — but I’m not one who is of the mind to slap a medical label on inexcusable behavior in order to wipe the slate clean... people still have choices to make... no one gets a free pass.
My father was a racist and a bigot — Archie Bunker, without the “charm.” He was the first to introduce me to the term “light in the loafers,” and although I understood the gist of who was being referenced (that is, I got folks like Jack Tripper and Liberace without really knowing what that meant), it took me years to understand what a man’s choice in footwear had to do with any of it. I remember once getting berated and cuffed for being “limp-wristed” as I walked into a Kroger — my short, stunted arms and hands carried in the position they fell most naturally then, like a kangaroo — because I looked “like a faggot,” and what would people think???
I recall retelling off-color jokes I’d heard from him, which never returned a word of dissent. By the time I got into school, I remember absentmindedly doodling in the margins of coloring pages the swastikas I’d seen around our house on the model airplanes he built, because I thought they looked cool, but not one of my teachers raised an alarm — though a counselor bothered to call attention to pictures of bunnies I’d drawn... apparently, their clawed hands holding Easter baskets were somehow thought to possibly represent boobs. (???!!) That was Florida in the 70s, though — priorities, you know — by that time, thanks to foster placement, “the state” knew entirely too much about the world I’d come from, and they never let me forget it.
The family that adopted me a few years later turned my world around in a mostly positive fashion — at least by elevating my social status to a respectable middle class, anyway — though, while the potential for my future certainly became brighter for that reason, there were enough damaging issues and destructive conflicts of a different kind in my new family, it might be a stretch to say I was completely out of the fire at that point. I do remain forever indebted for their willingness to take me in, sharing their home and their love, for becoming a permanent fixture of stability in my life, and for creating an environment in which I could thrive among them as one. There isn’t any merit in comparing heartbreak, obviously — and yet, even so, the overall impact of my adopted family experience was not inconsequential enough to be overlooked on the roadmap of my life.
My mom was quick to inflict black and blue bruises up and down my arms with a lightning ninja pinch any time I disagreed with her — because she saw any argument from me as a personal affront, lacking respect for her authority. She regularly slapped me in the face, or beat me with the belt I’d saved up my allowance to buy her for Mother’s Day (leather, ornately embossed with intricately dyed flowers, engraved “Mom”) until I was old enough to fight back, and strong enough to make her stop for good — I was 12 then. No pre-adolescent should ever find themselves in a position to get into a knock-down, drag-out, blow-by-blow brawl with any adult, much less a family member, but after 5 years of assault, 3 years of administrative custody, and nearly 5 years of battery justified by “tough love Christian parenting,” I’d had enough of violence, and I was done with it.
Mom is the adult child of an abusive alcoholic, resulting in severe codependency issues, and an extreme lack of self-esteem, to the point she needed to impose her every meticulous whim upon every movement of every individual susceptible to her control, as she otherwise questioned their love and loyalty, because she had no belief she was worthy of either. As a non-blood relation, I was less trustworthy than most in this regard from her perspective, as I had no genetic predisposition or contractual obligation to love her. (After years of soul-searching, this is what she admitted to me about why her love for me was conditional for so long, and this personal epiphany was what allowed her to grow enough to finally build a healthy relationship with me.)
And, because I hadn’t grown up in that environment, I hadn’t yet learned — as my brothers and my Dad had — how to “handle” her by the time I came to them. (To this day — as my husband came to conclude on his own through observation, before he even knew any of this backstory — my Mom now lives in a peaceful, comfortably placated alternate reality, partially because through a lot of personal growth on her part, she’s progressed enough to have put a lot of the need to control others behind her, but also not insignificantly because everyone associated with her life has been well trained in how to “handle” hher.) It took some time (and some distance) for me to also grasp the unspoken rules of “handling” my Mom, as well, but basically, it amounts to recognizing, with her, there are quite a few more sensitive subjects than most people have with the potential to result in a volatile reaction, so therefore these must be considered taboo, and kept off the table — stick to the general guidelines, and stay out of trouble zones, and things usually work out okay... also, the older she gets, the more she’s learned to let go, the more mellow she is, the less she cares about a lot of it, and the easier it has become to get along... which I’m so relieved by, and proud of her for.
My Dad had been raised in a much more relaxed environment, which pretty much had effectively only a few general rules, more or less amounting to: Trust God, love others, don’t be stupid. Mom claimed she resented his lack of hands-on involvement with raising us — and this was the singular constant sticking issue between them that frequently threatened to damage their relationship — but he remained emotionally unavailable throughout my preteens and adolescence. I believe that has more to do with her overbearing attention to particulars about every tiny detail of my life, from what I thought to the way I breathed (I do really wish I could say I was exaggerating about this, but I promise I’m not), which left him so out of his depth, he had no idea how to be of any help, and so he left it all up to her — one less thing for him to “handle.”
Mom frequently challenged him to redress his level of participation in the corrective actions she imposed upon their kids. But, if it had been up to him, there probably would have been about 20% of the total discipline enforced throughout our lifetimes for all five of us — at about 5% of the severity. For that reason, I suspect all of this was just the song and dance acted out between them for the purpose of allowing her to play the role of the overworked, unappreciated martyr... although him being the type who avoided conflict at all costs and effectively “checked out” didn’t help the situation any, I’m sure.
Though nothing I experienced in this healthier setting compared in magnitude to what I lived through during my formative years, by far the worst injury was being disowned as their daughter, “for the good of the church.” They would tell you it happened differently, I imagine, probably touting something about my “choices,” asserting I was the one who left them,* while downplaying it as irrelevant anyway, because, after all, they’ve since come around from that prolonged period of estrangement (around 8 years), and we’ve all moved on from there. That is, as much as we are able to, anyway... some things are harder to get over than others.
In contrast, I can honestly attest with assurance, I’m quite certain nothing I could have done in this world would have ever made my original Mother not claim me as her own. (She directly vowed as much, herself, which, although I believe her, is still ironic, coming from someone who didn’t have any qualms about deserting us, and who later in life told me she didn’t love me anymore because I refused to lie to a judge on her behalf when she was arrested for beating me, even though there were other witnesses — but that’s another story.) There’s not much worth pining over in that world of “what if,” though, as I’m sure if I’d hung onto any more than incidental exposure to Mother’s world, I would have found it much more challenging to maintain any appearance of “normalcy” in this life. But she was the one who’d stipulated, when signing away her parental rights, that I could only be adopted by a “Christian” family, though I later found out, she was apparently quite livid when she learned I’d gone to a “Protestant” home, and not a “Pentecostal” one — so, all things considered, I suppose it could have been worse, and I’m thankful the agency didn’t give too much weight to her wishes, as I probably dodged a bullet, there.
*(They sat me down for an “intervention,” in which my Mom did most of the talking while my Dad held his hands in his lap and kept his eyes on the floor, as she explained my actions had rippling consequences in association with him being an elder in the church — ordained according to scripture, in which the Bible clearly defines an elder as, “husband of but one wife and father of all God-fearing children.” Since it was obvious to them and any casual observer from my way of life at the time I could no longer be considered a god-fearing child, my Dad would have to be disqualified from the eldership. Because there were only two elders in the church at the time, that would dissolve the eldership, as one single man cannot put himself in a position of power over the church, and that would then leave the church without leadership, which was an unfair position to put the believers of that congregation in — and so, therefore, if I didn’t change my ways, they would have to disown me as their daughter.
For the record, I wasn’t living a particularly “sinful” life according to their religion at the time — that came later, after I discarded the institution of religion entirely as a result of this “threat,” and now no longer have the same concept of “sin.” No, their assertion of my “non-god-fearing” nature was due to my willingness to be outspoken in my open questioning of certain elements about total indoctrination, because I’ve never been one to merely accept at face value everything I’ve been spoon-fed, no questions asked — that’s just not who I am. I was 17.)
I write the story of this firsthand knowledge, not at all in the slightest to re-experience any portion of the painful scarred wounds of these calloused memories, but to capture whatever benefit the study of such moments in our shared family history might harbor to offer my son, before the ability to recall any of it has escaped from my mind. Proofreading out loud to my husband — as I do — I expressed surprise at finding myself choking in places, but Minion countered, wondering why I wouldn’t naturally expect that. That answer is because I would have thought by the time I’m more than halfway closer to 50 than 40, none of this should be raw anymore... and my loving partner wisely and gently reproached me with, “It may be in the past, and you may have put it behind you — but you will never get over this.”
It’s really remarkable, how resilient children are... it’s truly amazing what we as humans can be capable of bouncing back from. Most importantly, though, it’s critical to recognize how much kids pay attention to every specific detail and every minute aspect of each new life experience. It’s crucial to notice not just what they’re learning, but how... especially during those moments when we’re not intending to teach.
Many folks who place gratuitous stock in their “credo” believe the best way to instill their own standard of principles in their young is the good ol’ fashioned way — by bible beating it into them — the “tried and true family values” of Judeo-Christian ethics, passed along through the teachings of the good book. I may have spent decades around religion, but that’s not how I became who I am. It took me getting to this week of rumination in my life to come to the realization, most everything I now consider an inseparable component of my integrity, I have learned by experience — through the mistakes of others — by vigilant observation, and by clinging tightly onto what not to do.
My family was poor; my father lacked self-control...
...so I’m slow to splurge, careful with spending, an unabashed bargain hunter and dogged deal finder, decent at home crafting, great with repurposing, always appreciate the value of materials, treasure lost and tossed aside things, cherish what we have, and have an ingrained understanding of how to let it all go when necessary, because after all, it’s just stuff.
Mother couldn’t keep a job, because she couldn’t get out of her own way long enough to tow the line and work for someone else. I may be cut from the same cloth as she was, but I can make and honor a commitment to an employer. So far, I haven’t found a permanent business partnership to settle down into, but I do regularly have clients asking to get me back into repeat contracts, because I know how to go above and beyond the parameters of the project laid out for me, to meet and exceed expectations, to fulfill my obligations, and to keep my promises — when I say I’m going to do something, I find a way to get it done.
Our parents left us to our own devices...
...so I became efficiently independent and self-reliant, and though I still crave personal space and require alone time, I learned to make the most of every quality moment I am able to share with those I care about.
I was shown kindness by people with no responsibility to me...
...so I try to extend random kindness to others as often as I’m able.
My father was a cruel to animals...
...so I have spent a lifetime rescuing those who needed the most care and love.
My father was a drunk... so I don’t partake — and neither does anyone I’m closely connected to.
My father was violent, and abused our affection... so I’m slow to strike, and quick to cuddle.
My biological parents were both wholly incapable of speaking with anything resembling even a kernel of truthfulness to it... so I can sniff out BS from 13 miles away, and I have a strong moral imperative to be direct, honest, and up-front in every interaction of my life.
Mother left us... so I never got good at walking out... even when I should have.
My father was a racist, a bigot, and a misogynist... but I believe people and places are made better by diversity in gender, culture, and identity, and I strive to paint my surroundings with the kind of varied tapestry that more deeply enriches my life and those peripheral to my world.
My father was a bully and a tyrant, and there was nothing any of us could do about it...
...so I learned to speak up for those who can’t speak for themselves, to protect the weak and defend the vulnerable, and to fight against abuse of power.
Mom beat me... so I learned to stand up for myself.
Mom was overwhelmingly domineering and crushingly high-handed...
...so I learned to prioritize the important things in life that can be controlled — like my thoughts, my words, my choices, my actions, and most anything related to myself — and to never lose a moment of my life over trying to control anyone or anything outside of myself, which about covers most of the rest of everything else.
My dad was emotionally unavailable and uninvolved in parenting me and my siblings...
...so I married a man who is committed to be an active figure in our son’s everyday life.
My parents disowned me over religious differences...
...so I learned to think for myself, and to seek and find my own purpose and direction in life, without the need for guidance from a loosely interpreted, cherry-picked set of rules that has been debated over for centuries.
I have experienced a lot of repeating patterns throughout my life — beginning with childhood, and bleeding into adolescence and my young adult days — I kept running into a lot of the kind of noxious “love” that hurts, that has no healing, no heart, and no hope, because that’s what I knew best. I floundered for a while, trying to find something that worked, by “looking for love in all the wrong places” ...kissing too many frogs that belonged back under the rocks they’d crawled out from. But through a long period of trial and error — including plenty of mistakes of my own — I have worked to break the cycles of dysfunction, and I’m so very grateful to testify, I finally got there... eventually.
The Vedas teach us, the questions asked of us feed into our internal programming, whether they are initiated by someone else, or whether we internalize them ourselves. When a question is posed to the mind, the subconscious will find an answer for it, to solve for “X,” laboring in everything we do, whether we are proactively cognizant, otherwise occupied, or even while we are at rest. If you wonder to yourself, “Why am I so ugly,” your subliminal self will decipher this puzzle for you, presuming, according to your inner guidance, that you are indeed ugly, it will give you an answer, showing you all the reasons why you are so ugly — just as you presented — to satisfy your inquiry.
For this reason, I take great care in what kind of programming my words and actions present to our son’s self image and sense of worth. Every night since he was tiny and whenever he is overly flustered, I repeat to him a mantra of traits about his character that make him special and unique — it continues to grow and expand along with him, just as the nature of his essence does — these words have a calming effect on him, because he understands instinctively, these words together belong only to him, and to no one else. I am careful never to ask of him, “What is wrong with you???,” because I never want him to wonder that about himself.
Whatever’s wrong with any of us, it had to begin somewhere. “That’s just what I was taught,” is no excuse for holding onto ignorant, backwards ideals, because whatever gets passed on to any of us, we always have the choice in whether or not to accept it. “That’s just what I was taught,” is merely where it starts... it’s our responsibility to choose where it ends.
Ignorance, intolerance, hatred, selfishness, bigotry, and greed are the flames of a fire that has been raging since the dawn of man... but it’s a fire that must be fueled and fanned to spark new life into itself — we have always had the power to snuff it out with every new generation. What is wrong with me might be the result of just what I was taught, but may I never be so caustically costive as to rekindle a flickering ember and breathe a fresh glint into that blazing inferno of human frailty — may I have the strength to hold my ground. And though I cannot hope to cure the ills of all mankind, I can cap the outward ripple from the tendril that has engulfed me... so for my part, at least, may just this strain of evil be stopped — here, and now, with me.
LJ Idol | Season 11 • Week 27 - Topic: “VALUES ARE LIKE FINGERPRINTS…”
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