I grew up in a Boston suburb and my parents had enough money to send me to college where I could live in a dormitory. Like many teens, I had a rough go of it and could hardly wait to be on my own. I counted down the days. The night before I left, I screamed at my parents that I would never come back. In many ways, I never did.
I left behind the two most adorable younger brothers you could imagine. I felt that I was letting them down. I had cared for them and had been like a parent to them, loved them because my parents weren’t really loving parents. I said goodbye to them. Maybe they never forgave me for leaving them to the whims of my parents. Maybe that’s why my brothers, now with families of their own, don’t talk to me now.
I brought a lot of stuff with me to the dorm. I brought everything I owned. I changed my mailing address, legally, that is. I registered to vote in my college town, that is, my legal address was my dorm room. I refused to call that place I once lived home. Now, it was “my parents’ home.”
The kids at college thought I was a little nuts. They all called their places home. They even said they were homesick sometimes. They called their moms and dads all the time. I never called, and avoided talking to my parents, even lied to them and withheld information.
The other kids at college formed cliques and stuff. I kept to myself after a while. I didn’t really think I fit in. I got laughed at a lot. I didn’t like the drinking and partying very much. I overheard them laughing and gossiping and saying mean things about me that I’ll never forget. I got confused about what it really means to be a friend because of the things that they said all the time. They talked a lot about the “good times at home.” I didn’t remember home being “good times.”
I lied to my parents sometimes. Why? Because I felt that they didn’t understand me anyway, so there was really no point in saying anything or going into any long stories. I just said anything I felt like saying to get off the phone quickly and get rid of them. My friends talked about how they could actually go to their parents for advice. I couldn’t do this because my parents never, ever knew me. They never bothered to get to know me since the day I was born.
I didn’t want their money, and I decided to become financially independent as soon as I could. This was a little complex in the State of Massachusetts. I couldn’t afford to pay full tuition for college. That was loads of money, of course, even back then. I had to get financial aid. But I had to have received no assistance from my parents for a full year to file for aid as financially independent. I tried to find a job and there were no jobs. I went around and around on my bike from place to place, and finally got a job as dishwasher. To keep my job, I had to do a lot of sexual politics with the manager and assistant manager. Both were married and both of their wives were expecting babies.
One night, I got raped. It happened inside the restaurant, after hours. I was only eighteen years old. No one had ever told me what this was. I had no one to go to. I didn’t know if I was injured or not. I knew that what had happened was “rough.” Was this okay? I didn’t know.
When I sat on my bike seat, I felt pain, so I went to the university’s health services. I told them a man had treated me “rough.” A person stuck some instruments in me. Another person made a disdainful face at me when I mentioned this man. “You should be more careful,” she said. The person examining me said something about swelling and about labia and about irritation. I left.
I wondered if that was what having a job was all about. Selling your body and feeling ashamed. I wondered if that was how to survive as a woman. I wondered if it was all about your body, if that was all men cared about, if that was what it meant to be an adult.
I had little jobs on campus. This seemed like a gift. I took notes for classes, typed them up, and had them mimeographed. People bought them, and they said that they liked the way I wrote them in such an organized way. I liked that I was valued for my intellectual ability and not for my body. I got paid a little for this, too. I got so good at it that they let me take notes for classes that I’d never taken before. It helped, too, to have a straight-A average. So the bonus was that I got to sit in on some new classes.
I survived the year of no money, and then got my financial aid package as independent student. Eventually, I had apartments, and commuted from another town. I had different jobs. I was fired from a lot of jobs. I wasn’t good at them.
I saw things that were wrong, and tried to speak out, and I learned that people don’t like this. I worked at McDonald’s, a place where they threw out three out of every four burgers they cooked when it wasn’t rush hour. There was a lot of waste in that place. One day, I spoke about this waste right in front of customers, pointing out that they had made these perfectly good burgers that could have been fed to hungry people in the town, and then thrown them out into the trash because they couldn’t sell them. I told the manager right in front of the customers that he should give these burgers to hungry people who could not afford food.
Right then, the assistant manager had a tantrum, right in front of customers.
I hope that any customer who didn’t have any money was able to get what they needed out of the trash that night before the rodents got to it. But more likely, McDonald’s locked up their trash real tight to keep out anyone who might rifle through it looking for food, maybe even someone with an eating disorder, passing through in the night.
Eventually I had a live-in job. This was really my last job before I became mentally ill. I lived with a family and cared for their kids. This was a good thing because I felt like I was valued as a person and that I had a role in the kids’ lives. I was only twenty years old. There were a lot of kids. There were kids everywhere and I was a kid, too, in many ways. I learned many things about families and about parenting. When I thought something wasn’t right, I usually didn’t say anything. I just let someone else say something instead. The dad blamed me for things that weren’t my fault. We argued often. Maybe he thought if I weren’t there, his life would be better.
I left. I stepped on the scale and ended up with this thing called anorexia nervosa. I lied and lied and lied to everyone to keep everything secret. I ate already. I’m not really hungry. I have a stomach bug. I’m allergic to that. Of course I’ve had some, it was delicious. I’m full, thank you. I’m going out later. Oh no, I’m not on a diet, me? I just doing a study on grapefruit for a research paper. I haven’t lost weight. It’s just that these clothes are hand-me-downs.
And so on. So a year later, I tried therapy, and I found out that this wasn’t going to work real fast.
What did I do? Here’s the shocker: I was twenty-three years old. I had lived away from my parents since 1975. It was now 1981. So six years. I went running back to them.
It was very strange, and strained. We didn’t get along at all. Like it was horrible. There was no discussion of finances. Within a month they were paying huge amounts out of pocket for my mental health care. I mean wicked. So I went from taking nothing from them to them taking me in and paying full fee at a day treatment center. We had family therapy and this is all in my book. When it comes out in paperback in a month you can read it and see how trite and meaningless the sessions were, how hopelessly shallow any discussions with my parents tended to be.
My guess is that this is what it’s like for many people when they become ill. They are doing fine and them boom! Financially dependent on Mom and Dad.
I am wondering how much our moms and dads are actually delighted to have us back under their control again. I think my parents were thrilled to see me come back to the nest. I think my parents were thrilled to see me weakened and flawed. I’m sure my parents were thrilled to take away my legal financial independence and make me their little girl once more, someone who could be their little doll that they could show off to the other people at Temple. But now, I was kinda sick, and they really didn’t want the other people at Temple to see me. I was a wild one, too.
I went off again out of state after day treatment, which turned out to be a big joke anyway. It was a giant push-me-pull-you with my parents for years financially and otherwise. They joined NAMI (National Alliance for Mental Illness), which was a blessing and a curse. NAMI is for parents to get off the hook. They had this support group, where my parents learned that I had this brain disease and that it all had nothing to do with the way they brought me up or the way they treated me. All they had to do is to make sure I took my meds. They learned from NAMI ways to ensure that I took my meds. They learned from NAMI ways to get me into a hospital and ways to get me committed. They learned ways to shut me up. They learned how to support me, that is, monetarily. They did not learn how to love me. I don’t think NAMI teaches love. I never heard my parents talk about love. I never thought love had anything to do with it.
I got on disability when I was twenty-six. I would say that this is a good thing. Of course, I get very little, but it’s a step away from my parents and that was how I saw it. Getting on disability was a no-brainer because I sucked at jobs to begin with. You could give me shitloads of education and I’d still get fired. Training is not the issue. Morals is not the issue. It’s not that I’m stupid and it’s not that I’m lazy and it’s not that I’m weak-willed and it’s not anything like that. I’m super intelligent and I do make good moral decisions and I work my ass off (ask my grad school advisor) I just suck at jobs.
I lived out of state in an apartment for a bunch of years, in and out of the hospital and with this and that doctor, on meds, nothing worked, and then moved back to Massachusetts into an apartment I couldn’t afford and meanwhile applied for a subsidized apartment in the town where I currently live. This I was able to get in 1993. (I remember this because my dog, Tiger, was one year old at the time.)
Still, my parents pretty much ran the deal. They knew my therapist and had communication with her. I felt like they were butting into my business too much. I didn’t like that they knew what my meds were. Why should they? They had no medical knowledge. Why were they always complaining to my therapist about me? Wasn’t I an adult? I felt like my therapist was going along with my parents’ wishes and treating me like a child, too. They were all in cahoots.
Because I now had subsidized housing, I was now able to pay my own rent and control my finances. I had a credit card and made sure that no one declared me incompetent and that I held onto that credit card and kept paying it every month. All my medical bills were covered by Medicaid and Medicare. There was the phone bill and a couple of other bills, food, and I don’t recall what else.
For two years I had a job doing telephone surveys. Everyone, that is, shrinks, make a big deal out of this job. It was part-time and it was in my thirties and it was meaningless. I’d sign up for three shifts per week, that is, twelve hours. An hour and twenty minutes to commute to work. Two hours before the shift begins, I get a call that the shift is cancelled. This happened all the time. After a while, I started to suspect that they were calling people that they were paying more per hour, that is, the people who had worked there longer (like me) and telling them not to come in, lying to them, just having the lower-paid workers come in. Shit politics. No, I didn’t say anything. The real reason I left was that I was so depressed that I was incapable of continuing working. Period.
Shrinks would harp on me and harp on me about this job. Why don’t you go back to being a telemarketer?
I would tell them, telephone surveys, not telemarketer. I would also want to smack them. Is that all they thought I was good for? Is that what I have my MFA in Creative Writing for? Telemarketing? You fucking assholes. Why don’t you go call people and sell your drugs.
Anyway, I never went back to that job, and left the therapist that was in cahoots with my parents. All my care was centered at one hospital after a while, and my dad got real sick with cancer. I took this opportunity to distance myself from them because they were pretty much into their own thing anyway. I was really really sick and they were incapable of listening or caring. My dad said he felt frustrated like I did, having a disease that never went away. That was one rare time that we connected. He was real sick and every now and then my mom would call me and bitch and moan about how she hated changing his diapers. I was real sick but she never knew about me. My dad saw me and asked why I was so skinny, and said maybe something was wrong with my metabolism. My dad died on April 10, 1997.
Our family pretty much fell apart after that. I talked to my mom in the morning on the phone but it was kind of stupid. I didn’t want it to be this “mom and me” thing, seeing as I was her nearest relative. No way was I going to be pals with her or even try.
Wonder of wonders, I did get better, when I turned forty, very suddenly, and wrote my first novel, went back to school, and did many things. There hasn’t been much communication between my family and me. So I guess you could say that I am independent in that way. I cannot say that this is entirely by choice.
My mom fell one day. This was back in February, and it coincided with the day I went into the hospital, or just about that time, the first week of February. There was a lot of family stuff going on then. I may or may not have talked about it here. I got calls from my brothers about my mom. I told them I can’t deal with this, I’m about to drop dead. I didn’t hear from them after that. One of them I got a message from about two weeks later, and apparently he hadn’t heard me when I had told him I was headed for the hospital. Apparently he didn’t think it was very important that I was about to drop dead. The other one I heard from maybe the night before last. So I guess he didn’t think it was very important to stay in touch with a person who is hanging on by a string, either. He patted himself on the back and washed his hands clean of me.
If I had my way, I would have loving brothers. I would have brothers that I could call up and talk to like they were my brothers and not feel a lot of pressure like I do now. I feel like I have to impress on them that I’m a certain way.
Since my mom’s fall, things have been better, I think. She didn’t hurt herself. They didn’t find anything wrong. She’s just old. I think my brother Phil really likes that she’s weakened and needy and dependent and helpless. He is a person who likes taking charge. He’s been able to take over her finances completely and found her unpaid bills in the nick of time (condo fees, electric bills, etc). I’m impressed. It’s sad that it had to take something like this…I will not say more.
Families change, I guess. I don’t know if anything I’ve said has anything to do with forgiveness. Sometimes I get scared when I think about seeing my mom again and I ask myself if I dare or not. I’m scared she’ll call me fat again. I’m scared that the words will stay with me forever and I won’t be able to erase them. People have told me that she’s my mom, duh, go see her, but venom is venom is venom and if a weakened, sick, frail old lady tells me I’m fat….
No, I’d like to remember her the way she was when I last saw her. We were in Starbucks. She had forgotten her hearing aid. Again. Not that it ever made a difference cuz she never listened to begin with. We had a meaningless conversation. And then it was over. I didn’t take off my jacket and she didn’t take off hers. It was December. And she didn’t call me fat or talk about eating, food, exercise, or weight, or put me down. It was all very brief and she didn’t hear what I said or see that I was skinny or know that I was suffering from the illness anorexia nervosa. She went her way, and I went mine, and that was the last time.