Sometimes I’m glad my mother hadn’t been well. How selfish of me, I know. It’s not the same as being glad she lived with?schizophrenia. Still, I often feel conflicted, guilty and ashamed.
Maybe this is the primary source of my anxiety.
Or maybe it’s the primary source of my migraines. Or maybe the anxiety is. I am never sure what came first and what’s responsible for the stress my body holds onto like blubber in an arctic winter.
But this story isn’t about stress. Or maybe it is. More importantly, maybe to separate feelings, past trauma, unrealized goals, physical pain and stress, as if they are merely different colored socks cluttering a dresser drawer, is to misunderstand the drawer’s capacity for clutter.
I have been on what I call my healing journey for years now, and like a messy sock drawer, I am all out of sorts yet still contained.
This is not only the foundation of my well-being but also the crux of my grief. I would be better served to forget about the awful events of my childhood, but how am I supposed to let go of the past when I am built from it, sewn from its fabric, living proof of its madness?
When I was separated from my biological mother for the final time, I was 10 years old. I started seeing a therapist when I was 12. This was also when I went on my first diet, snuck eyeliner onto my water line in the school bathroom, French-kissed my first boy and truly began to deny my past as the daughter of a woman with serious paranoia, mental delusions and violent tendencies. I had no strategy for ignoring the trauma I’d been through and the grief that filled me as a result, only the blurry-minded clichés of putting one foot in front of the other and taking things one step at a time.
Wasn’t this as good a defense mechanism as any? I threw myself into schoolwork and sports. I looked for boys who found me beautiful or interesting or both. I discarded hundreds of unflattering outfits onto my bedroom floor and secretly cried while blow-drying my hair. I didn’t talk or write about anything I’d experienced. I acknowledged my biological family only when visiting with them for birthday and holiday celebrations.
To friends, teachers and family, I seemed like a normal teenager, albeit one who rarely, if ever, broke rules or neglected chores or homework. (I couldn’t risk being sent back to foster care. I couldn’t stand the thought of disappointing those who’d given up so much to help me.)
I thought I was fairly normal, except I’d been homeless, hungry, emotionally abused and even almost killed. Mostly, I was playing a role, that of a girl who’d recently moved to a new area, perfect life in tow.
And I excelled.
But I was also deteriorating.
In college, I battled with silent depression, only I didn’t know it. What else are we to call sessions sitting on the tiled shower floor, sobbing, as warm water washes away the sadness and makes the day seem manageable once again?
I was a super-athlete, on track to break records and win awards. And I was also the saddest person I knew, one who smiled anyway and showed the world a happy, well-adjusted fa?ade because to do otherwise wasn’t an option. I couldn’t allow myself to fall apart, not after I’d been taken in by my teacher and her husband, not after I’d spent so much time lying about who I was and how worthless I felt.
Now that I am well into my 40s, I can look back through all the years that got me to where I am. I can see my successes and failures and know I am not to blame for my mother’s illness, nor should I be ashamed that I couldn’t make her well, even though her illness is what gave me the opportunity to have a better life. I ended up in the right place at the right time, where my sixth-grade teacher was ready to step in and help out.
I think a lot of people look back and wonder “what if?” and there is no way to change the trajectory of the life we lived before today. If my mother hadn’t ever experienced?psychosis, she might have climbed her way out of poverty, unemployment, miseducation and homelessness. Or maybe she wouldn’t have. I was a child, and it was not my responsibility to fix her or the messes she made. I was a child who became an adult under the supervision of my found family, who molded me, supported me and taught me how to follow through with commitments and choose integrity over convenience. If my teacher hadn’t stepped in, I might have become a different person, letting anger and rage control me, letting myself hate my biological mom for trying to kill me in my sleep. But instead, I became myself, a woman who tries to make sense of chaos, seeks healing modalities instead of vices to calm her pain and offers hope to anyone in need of words of comfort.
In college, I started writing about my experiences with my mom and in various foster homes. Early drafts of scenes began as awkward, vague poems, but penning my truth was enough to lighten my mental and emotional burden. I then started journaling, letting my secrets, fears, joys and questions dance all over the page, and their freedom became my own. Now, more than 30 years after I left my mom standing on the curb screaming after the police car that drove me away from her, I have published poems and completed a memoir about my childhood. I’d like to think my stories are more about hope than despair. I’d like to think they hold enough truth and wisdom to help heal my past.
I wish I would have started journaling while still in my biological mother’s care. I wish someone would have told me one of the keys to survival is letting things live outside of the body. It might’ve prevented me from storing my grief and helped me self-soothe and begin to make sense out of the chaos I’d experienced.
I am one of the lucky ones who had support, safety and love after withering in my mother’s care and then while in neglectful foster homes. And anxiety and depression still come knocking. Without the turn of events that provided security and resiliency, I don’t know where I’d be. I do know that too many foster kids age out of the system at 18 and spend the rest of their lives unemployed, homeless or substance-addicted, or all of the above and worse. Maybe these individuals could be encouraged to write and find solace from the storm. It’s not a panacea, but for those of us afflicted with inner turmoil, it’s a step forward on a path toward better days.
Sitting here, writing this, I feel that familiar, old anxiety creeping in, winding its way around my brain, tightening my jaw, pulsing at the base of my skull. I wonder if it’s because I have experienced heavy things, and I am the sock drawer. The pieces of my past are the socks I hold. Even though I try to organize them time and again, they will continue to clutter my mind. They are socks, and that is what socks do when left to their own devices, and that’s OK. They make me who I am; without them, I might be clean and simple, but I’d also be empty. And I’d rather be a sock.