Tuesday, June 17, 2003

Three Fell Into the Cuckoo's Nest

Whenever it becomes obvious to someone that I am behaving awkwardly about something most people take for granted, I jokingly explain it away to people by saying that I was raised by wolves. This statement is not fair to my father, who did the best he could with a bad situation, but there was only so much he could do. Even with the best of intentions, a lot of things fell through the cracks.

For example, after all these years, simple things like inviting someone over to my home still seem foreign, since we NEVER had company at home growing up. Well, not on purpose. If some hapless person came by the apartment and assumed, as people seem to do, that it would be normal to be invited inside, we would do everything in our power to keep them outside. For one reason, the place was usually a sty, since there were four packrats living in a two bedroom apartment, and cleanliness often fell by the wayside. But the second, and more important reason, was that my mother was in there.

Mom was mentally ill, and had been my entire life. I never knew the woman that my grandmother and aunts described, the intelligent, vivacious dancer with a beautiful singing voice. The woman I knew was a paranoid, unkempt, chain-smoking schizophrenic, who alternated between moments of clarity, where she cried because she wasn't able to mother us the way she wanted to, to moments of complete selfishness and delusion. From catatonia to screaming and slamming pans against the walls, we lived through it all together in that small apartment, and our dark humor was the only thing that got us by.

Very few people knew about our secret apartment life, because we were resilient, humorous and friendly in the outside world. My Dad was the cheeriest guy you'd ever want to meet. Very few people knew about the mad harpy he had to go home to, or all the pressure that his poor sickly heart was under. My brother was a funny fat kid, who escaped the house as often as possible. I was cheery like my Dad, did well in school, and avoided bringing friends home by making few close friends. I didn't even realize that I never spoke of my mother as a child, until one fellow grammar school student told me that she thought my mother must be dead, since my father was the only one who ever came to school, and I never once mentioned a mother. I was ashamed that we had this crazy person in our home, that we had to protect from the world. It was too difficult to describe to other little kids, especially since I wasn't completely sure what was going on myself, so I would just work around the issue in every way possible. I didn't realize what a good actress I was becoming, showing one face to the world, and living a completely different emotional life.

I know that there are people with horrible stories of abuse to tell, and I try to keep our family life in perspective. It's not like we were being burned with cigarettes and molested, I completely understand the difference. We were loved and cared for, and occasionally other dysfunctional family members would try to pitch in and help my Dad out. But the emotional wreckage that was borne over years of living in that complicated situation is still coming up in unexpected ways, informing the ways my brother and I behave at work, in relationships - in ragged self-esteem issues galore.

How I wished that Dad was able to be a selfish bastard and have her committed to some institution! I know that it wasn't an option, considering the quality of the "institutions" available and the guilt that he would have felt denying his marriage vow of "in sickness and in health", but damn, the consequences of three people walking on eggshells around one mentally ill person for years on end are still being felt, years and years later. Basically, my brother and I were raised in an insane asylum from which there was no asylum.

Sometimes now, when my brother and I are alone, we laugh as we reminisce about the insanity we lived through. It's something that we do alone, because experience has taught us that people think that we are exaggerating our experiences, or they try to pooh-pooh our feelings about them. Worst still, they feel deep pity for us, or think that we are cruel when we indulge in some black humor about the situtation. Hey, it was laugh or go crazy, and we did a little of both.

I'm open with most of my friends about my upbringing, because I've learned that my mother's illness is not my shame, but I don't go into details with very many people. Most people really do not want to know about it, and I don't have that great a need to ruin their nice day with my moldy old classics, like "The Day Mom Was Writing Out Her Suicide Note When I Came In From Playing With My Friends", or "The Day Mom Was Talking On The Phone With Grandma, And Accused My Father Of Molesting Me." Whew boy, those sure are classics, but since she is dead, and that was my former life, there is usually no reason to tell people these disturbing things. (Oh, except for the entire internet, that is. LOL)

J knows the parts of the story that I think are pertinent to his understanding where I came from, and to understand when sometimes old ghosts come back to haunt me, but I haven't even told him those two old chestnuts, because it was bad enough that we had to go through that stuff, no sense putting the details of these mental images into yet another brain. We do sometimes talk about the (now) funny OCD things she used to do, like the incessant counting of things, the way she would yell at people who would call on the phone during the "wrong" hour of the day, the complaining about mundane noises, like clocks ticking, birds chirping and planes flying overhead (because they were signals that THEY were plotting something against her and her family), and a host of stories about her insane friends that would come over and make our family life so very special. Apparently, I've learned the knack of telling these stories in an entertaining way, because the few who I feel comfortable telling them to will usually howl uproariously along with me. Now, some of the stories are quite funny, because they are so absurd. You can't make this shit up. Well, I guess you could, but I'm not.

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