Darkness Is a Cannibal

I remember walking up the stairs to Robert’s apartment, determined to end the hateful stalemate that was immoveable, static, a mountain or a moon, and I walked up the stairs trembling and I would end it. I would end it if I died.

I remember most of it like snapshots, the way you remember things that happened when you were a very small child.

I remember the police walking up to our door, and why? Could it have been just because my daughter Abbie was at my house and her dad, Robert, was angry about that? It seems unreasonable, but then everything was unreasonable.

I remember opening the door to them, the way they stood back, one on each side of the door, hands hovering over their holstered guns. One officer asked, “Do you have any weapons?” and I answered, “We’re Mennonite,” a ridiculous answer for what felt like a ridiculous question.

I remember my stepson taking his little brother into his room, trying to protect him from seeing police in the house, and is that a memory, or is it a hope? The police said we may not close any doors, and that may be invention, too. I was underwater, breath held, heart paused, and one officer asked Abbie, “Are you OK to be here? Are you safe here?” and she glared (did she?) over his shoulder and said yes, yes, she was safe, she was fine, and they asked to see papers. They wanted to look at papers with signatures and official seals: is she mine? Is this girl flesh of my flesh? Is she my heart, my soul, my waking and dreaming life and all the hopes and heartaches I have lived? Did a judge, a lawyer, some official person declare her to be so?

Many days or weeks before, but maybe after, I called my son Jacob. It was December, his 18th birthday. “I never have to see you again, Mom. I’m never going to talk to you again. I don’t have to anymore and you can’t make me,” and the world was flat and I was flat and you were flat, too, and the phone burned to dust and someone was there, but who? Who was there? Someone held the parts together because the parts stay together and life goes and we are not flat, except we are. We are flat and so very, very sad.

Later, but not much later because I was leaning against the window in my bedroom and the window was very cold, and I rested my forehead against it and felt the coldness and the coldness kept me tethered to the flat, flat world, and Jacob was on the phone, in my ear, and his voice came out to me but it was carrying his father’s words. I don’t know most of the words anymore. I heard them 1,000, or 10,000, or maybe 1,000,000 times, if you count how often I heard them while I slept and when I made dinner and while I drove, but I don’t remember all of them. I heard them on a little silver flip-phone, and over a Palm Centro, and on a Droid X, and on a Samsung Note and occasionally even face to face. I heard them and they stabbed me all over, each one a tiny piercing needle and I cried until I was a husk of corn, stripped, withered, ugly. Wasted. Useless.

I remember walking up the stairs to Robert’s apartment, determined to end the hateful stalemate that was immoveable, static, a mountain or a moon, and I walked up the stairs trembling and I would end it. I would end it if I died. I would end it if he killed me. I hoped he would kill me. I hoped he would kill me 9 times and burn me down, flat me on the flat earth in the emptiness of life without them. I would die, I would hurt and I would die and it would be so right, so holy, a most perfect thing. I would not live without them anymore. I would not look outside to see some official person with a weapon or a clipboard come to decide about me. I would not watch for the cars with the official seals on them because he hoped I would lose not just the two children we shared, but my other children as well. I would not cry myself to sleep Jacob Abbie I want you I miss you life is empty everything hurts come home come home come home to me I love you so much and I’m flat and everything is burning and still I go to the grocery and pay the gas bill and watch cartoons with your brothers and where is the ground? Why does it buck and curl under my feet this way? I can’t love you this way. I can’t. I can’t. I’m flat. We’re all so flat; there’s nothing but the hate he cultivated and the hate has made us all flat.

I remember hearing my husband murmur to our youngest son, “Stay here with me. Mommy has to cry for awhile, but she’ll be OK,” and our little boy’s voice, angry, asking, “Why are they so mean? Why don’t they come back? Don’t they love us?” and I covered my head with pillows.

I remember walking up those apartment stairs the most. Crumbling concrete stairs, itchy gray wool socks on my feet, and a mild Albuquerque winter day, and I knocked on the door. Robert came to the door and I was ready. I would push my way in, force an end, stop the stalemate and surely one of us would die or sleep that night in a jail cell, but I would end it. I would breech this unbreechable thing with a broken jaw or a pair of handcuffs. Finally, I would see it through to the end.

All those times when he sent official people to my door: nod, nod, no sir, no weapons, yes ma’am, we have food in the kitchen, see? No sir, we don’t spank, yes ma’am we have a pediatrician. We are good, do you have that in your official papers? I am their mother, do you see here where the judge signed? Do you see where some official person with an important title said that these are people I have permission to love? Do you see this seal? This date stamp? This envelope, this name, this signature? I have no weapons, nothing useful except this phone, this hateful phone and these ears to hear and these eyes to see and my regret to keep me awake at night.

But the memories. I remember opening the door, so many times. I remember answering the phone. I remember mistakes, recriminations, allegations, and the cold, cold window against my forehead, and the world dark on the other side, and darkness is a cannibal and hate is a ravenous monster and they ate connection, cohesion, coherence, and left me with these snapshots. I moved the mountain. I breeched the unbreechable, and when I celebrate, I also cry, and I am more whole and more broken, both. I read and sleep and walk and wish that Robert could hurt, and pray to forgive. Forgive him, forgive them, forgive the nameless others, forgive me.

Because I always opened the door.

Behind My Eyes

I start a load of laundry, take the boy to school, pour a cup of coffee, put the dogs out, answer email.

I fold a load of laundry, make some phone calls, drink another cup of coffee, sit at my desk and write a few listless words that won’t go where I want them to go.

I drink more coffee, let the plumber into the house, fold more laundry, stare at the listless words.

I have little notes on my desk, reminders of the things that, if I could do them, would make me happier, or so I believe…

Tell the truth no matter what.

Give yourself a fucking break.

To thine own self be true.

I breathe.

What is the story, the first story, the one right behind my eyes, the one clogging up all the other stories?

The not-an-answer comes back: I’m tired. So tired.

On the heels of the not-an-answer comes the familiar diatribe: Other people survive. Other people live with worse traumas, larger griefs, more pain. They get the fuck on with it. They create. They work. They move on.

I breathe again.

Give yourself a fucking break.

Do something new, something that will rattle the script and force a change, anything to break the stalemate.

I walk the dogs, call a friend, eat a bowl of rice, say a prayer.

I sit at my desk and the story right behind my eyes is the same as it ever was:

I want my kids I want my kids I want my kids I want my kids I want my kids I want my kids.

I want my fucking kids.

I want them.

But here is the terrible truth: no matter what he did, no matter how terrible it was, he wins.

He has my children.

I don’t kiss my integrity goodnight, or drive it to school in the morning. I didn’t buy my integrity a prom dress or teach it how to drive.

My integrity is a cold and heavy stone when my kids’ beds are empty. Not something in which I take pride, but something I drag behind me everywhere I go.

I’m OK. Really and truly, I am mostly OK. I sing, sometimes, when I do the laundry, and I enjoy the coffee, and the little boy and the less-little boy and the husband and the dogs are lovely and warm and they make me so happy and grateful that I sometimes weep.

Until I sit down to write and the story right behind my eyes is the same as it ever was:

I want my kids I want my kids I want my kids I want my kids I want my kids I want my kids.

I want my fucking kids.

I want them.

Withouting

For context, you might want to read this first.

You know what sucks about being sad? Besides the sadness, I mean.

It’s the all-consumingness of the thing.

(Spell checker doesn’t care much for the word consumingness, to which I say get over yourself, spell checker! I have bigger problems than you!)

No, what really sucks about being sad is the way it uses up all my energy to live my life around it. Do the laundry without getting overwhelmed by the fact that none of Jacob’s and Abbie’s clothes are here to be washed. Make dinner without crying into the soup because Jacob and Abbie are almost never here to eat with us. Watch TV/read a book/go to the movies without becoming despondent because I don’t know what Jacob and Abbie like to read and watch. Enjoy the family who is here without succumbing to obsession over who is not here.

That’s a whole lot of withouting.

The thing is, when life goes really, really wrong—when it diverges dramatically from even the vaguest expectations—the disorientation is powerful. Up? Down? Where? Who? Gravity works sideways and the sky turns bile green. Eating makes me hungry and sleeping makes me tired.

But then, worse, is sometimes I’m OK. Or worse yet, I’m happy.

What kind of mother is happy when her children have rejected her so violently?

I won’t answer that. I won’t touch the question, because I know it’s OK for me to be happy. I know I won’t save my relationships with Jacob and Abbie with my misery, but some primitive part of me rebels. The same mother-instinct that compelled me to respond when my babies cried; to protect Abbie from the girls who bullied her in 3rd grade; to find Jacob on that awful night last year when no one knew where he was; insists that I must stay unhappy. That instinct is hard-wired, fundamental, and very, very hard to resist.

Worse, what if writing brings me joy, but I believe I don’t deserve joy? What if I think I deserve to be punished?That instinct is also a piece of what keeps me away from my computer and the stories I love to write. How can I write about the latest news in pediatric mental illness, or that funny thing Brian said, or my grandma’s story of the time her sister was hit by a car, if I can’t think of anything but Jacob and Abbie?

What a tangled, ugly knot. The woman with the letters after her name says I should try that thing people in 12-step programs do: act as if.

Does it hurt that I’m alienated from Jacob and Abbie? Fuck yes it hurts. But what if, for part of everyday, I acted as if it didn’t? What if I just set the pain aside for awhile and let myself think about something else?

Do you think the sky would be blue again?

The Transcendent Familiar 4: Give Yourself Away

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 3.1 (except it’s less of a part and more of an interlude)

We all grow up with rules.

I’m not talking about the regular rules that our parents speak aloud – no running in the house; don’t sing at the dinner table; if you wear your tap shoes in the house you’ll scratch the floors and you don’t want to know what will happen next, young lady!

I’m talking about the underneath rules, the ones that make it impossible to get along with your in-laws because you don’t know their rules and they don’t understand why you don’t know them because they make so much goddamn sense and everybody knows this is how people with an ounce of common sense/human decency/intelligence behave and what the hell is the matter with you?. They are so deeply ingrained that we can’t see them without a shock of some kind – a family crisis like an addiction, divorce, or someone deciding to go to therapy.

The most important rules in the family in which I grew up are tightly related:

  • Thou shalt not be needy.
  • Thou shalt not seek attention.
  • Thou shalt not feel sorry for thyself.
  • Thou shalt blame thyself for all things.
  • Thou shalt solve all problems with guilt and shame.
  • Thou shalt seek to absolve thyself of misdeeds and mistakes with perpetual regret.
  • Thou shalt seek to absolve thyself of others’ misdeeds and mistakes with perpetual regret. (See previous rule, “blame thyself for all things.”)
  • Thou shalt cultivate shame vigorously, hanging thyself on all available hooks.

Of course, these are not the rules my parents intended to teach me, but they’re the rules I learned.

Hence, I don’t know how to talk about my marriage to Robert because I don’t have much practice. If your familial tradition causes you to scream internally, it’s all your fault how could you do this you are such a goddamn loser what a waste why couldn’t you make it work what is wrong with you, it’s damn hard to take a step back and start sorting out the parts that are not your fault.

I’ve been sitting on this story for weeks, unable to find my way in. The internal screeching is loud, insisting that I rise above; take the high road; be the bigger person.

Also, every time I think of something that happened in our marriage that hurt me, I think of something that I did that, somehow, caused me to deserve it. This should probably come as no surprise since that’s how Robert and I fought when we were married, except that back then I was saved the effort of thinking of the thing I did that was worse than the thing he did because he did that part for me.

Clear as mud? Yeah, it doesn’t make much sense to me, either. How could it? I make sense of my life with words and stories and I have denied myself this story until now.

Since Robert moved out on July 4, 1997, I have carefully engineered a neutral narrative of the relationship that was central to my early adulthood. I have said, “We were far too young to get married,” “We brought out the worst in each other,” and “We didn’t have the tools we needed to make our marriage work.” I’ve spoken about my first marriage as if it happened to someone else; stripped it of its emotion and meaning.

To be clear, I am in favor of dignity and integrity. I’m proud that, post-breakup, I didn’t go out and talk trash about Robert to everyone who would listen. The cost, though, was the truth. In telling the story of our marriage in neutral terms over and over again, I denied myself the healing that comes from telling my story. My truth.

And you know what I say about he truth: it ain’t about the facts.

My story doesn’t match Robert’s, but that doesn’t make it wrong. It only makes it mine, if I will claim it.

My story begins with the rules that shaped my psyche. To say that I arrived at my first wedding (all of 22 years old) with low self-esteem would be an egregious understatement. More like the weight of my shame was roughly equal to that of a Volkswagen I wore strapped to my back.

I viewed my life not as something to be lived, experienced, and enjoyed, but as an exercise in contrition. Every moment was an apology for my very existence; every aspect of myself (body, mind, spirit) in dire need of reformation.

Robert concurred, which probably explains why our marriage sort of worked in the beginning. We agreed that I was broken and he was the savior who could have married a better woman but chose me instead. Repairing my faults – depression; tendency to gain weight (though at the time we married I had never been truly fat); messy habits; inability to cook; love of books and reading; devotion to made-for-TV movies; interest in politics; affection for very long showers; desire for education; and refusal to even try to understand why Robert and so many others thought Seinfeld was funny – would be my project. By conquering them I could become, if not worthy, at least acceptable.

So we moved into our lives, the contract signed and sealed but unacknowledged. My flaws were my demons to conquer if I was to earn my place in the home of the man who deigned to marry me.

He had done me a great favor by marrying me, so I set out to make the best of it.

And then there was this:

I had finally done something right, after all.

Robert and I both fell extravagantly, unreservedly in love with our Tooter (no one called him Jacob until he was three). He was pure light, all soft-sleepy sweetness and milk-drunk joy.

Our love for him was so large, it erased everything else. For a time, I was (almost) everything that Robert and I thought I should be.

For a little while.

Part 5

Proud/Sad

My eldest son, Jacob, played his first solo show last Friday.

My husband and I took the rest of the kids to hear him and we had a nice time, or as nice a time as any 40-something adults can have in a large crowd of teenagers. There is deep joy in watching our teens circulate among their peers. Abbie, my 15 1/2 year old daughter, ran into some boys she knew from school and spent the time flirting with them and bragging (oh-so-subtly) that the guy on stage was her brother. Spencer, my 14 year old stepson, hung out with some of Jacob’s friends, eager to test his social prowess before he officially starts high school in August. Jacob took the stage and although he was visibly nervous, he performed wonderfully. The audience was caught up in the off-center humor with which everything Jacob creates is infused.

Of the hundreds of things that Carter’s illness (bipolar with psychotic features, among other things) has robbed from us, one of the saddest is the tempering of joy. I try very, very hard to be in the present, but I’m rarely 100% successful. I couldn’t help thinking that Carter will probably never enjoy the social successes that our other children have achieved. His heart is as generous as any of his siblings, but his illness too often covers his kindness. He wants to make friends, but his bizarre conversational tics and habits scare other children.

So I’m proud of Jacob. Wildly proud. Warm from my head to my toes proud.

But also sad.

Carter, in the past year or so, has become increasingly aware that he is different. Most of the time, he’s caught up in his own concerns—the hallucinations, delusions, obsessions, anxieties, and compulsions that propel him through his life—but lately, in his more alert moments, he knows that most people don’t struggle like he does.

That awareness tears him apart. It causes me to have a bizarre not-quite-wish that he was just a little sicker—sick enough not to understand what he doesn’t (and likely won’t ever) have: play dates and sleepovers, parties and performances, teams to join and extracurricular activities to enjoy. Friends that everyone can see and hear. Confidence, contentment, and fun.

As he gets older, we are less and less able to prevent his dawning awareness and the violent self-hatred that results from it. His siblings are so much older than him that he has, until recently, not compared himself to them. They were Big Kids who did Big Kid Things, vastly different from the things that he did. At 8 1/2, 6 1/2, and 5 years older than Carter, they were almost a different species. Lately, though, there are questions. “How old was Jacob when he had a sleepover the first time?” “How many friends did Abbie have when she was the same age as me?” “Was Spencer scared to go to school when he was in second grade?”

I always knew that Carter’s innocence (about this one thing, at least; he’s innocent about so little) wouldn’t last forever. I knew that my basic explanations (Everyone has a hard time with some things, and this is what’s hard for you.) wouldn’t hold water for long. It’s sort of like teaching my other kids about reproduction. At first, I gave vague descriptions of babies who grow in women’s bellies like magic beanstalks, or some such. And at first they were satisfied. Eventually, though, I had to talk about eggs and sperm, and how one got in contact with the other.

That was a piece of cake compared to this, because as much as teaching my kids about sex was a little uncomfortable, it was a natural thing to be doing. I was explaining a normal part of life to kids who would one day experience it (much as I don’t want to even consider that!). But Carter’s illness is a perverse twisting. A wrongness. A misery-creating beast.

My husband and I talked long, long into the night last Friday, contemplating all that Carter suspects, knows, and fears. We discussed what to tell him, and how, and when. How do we help him understand the reality of his illness, while helping him remain hopeful? How do we teach him to let go of expectations that are tied to what everyone else does, and grasp at goals that are within his reach? Will he be relieved or devastated?

I don’t know, and sometimes that’s the hardest thing. I just don’t know.

I’d shrug if I could stop imagining Carter’s pain if I get it wrong.

This post originally appeared at Hopeful Parents.