I was not prepared to be a grown-up. I suspect that’s true of most people when they first jump out on their own but it seems like the level of support and skills that a person has varies pretty significantly. I don’t want to downplay what I ended up with. It wasn’t perfect but it wasn’t small. I moved in with a friend who was living with her husband and her parents. Her mother was very, very kind to me and was maternal in a way that I had very little context for. I talked to her most nights when she got home until her husband got home from work, when it was time for me to disappear. They had a strange relationship, one I suspect was not very healthy, but she was probably a lifesaver for me at the time. I lived in a bedroom, wondering what I was going to do with my life.
For the first several months I didn’t talk to my parents at all. A friend went to their house to pick up my stuff. They made no attempt to contact me and I was far too upset to contact them. But my brothers were still there, still in their mid-teens. Cutting all contact with my parents would mean losing all contact with my brothers and I was not at all prepared to do that. Truthfully I wasn’t really prepared to walk away from my parents either. I did not understand what had happened or what it meant. I was years away from seeing a pattern. So eventually I just went back. I never moved back into their home but I just started going back over. We never talked about it, except in passing. Neither of them ever admitted any wrongdoing. I just went back.
I moved into a studio apartment the day before my 19th birthday. I was working in fast food, forty hours a week. It wasn’t exactly an amazing job but it was comfortable in a way. I had a boss who knew about my cutting myself and who was very concerned. We had a strange relationship that I didn’t really understand. I still needed attention and affection constantly and he provided it. Twice I called him at the store when he was doing inventory and he met me after at Denny’s just to talk. Once when his wife was out of town he had me come over and watch a movie with him. He never made a pass at me, nothing ever happened… but his wife didn’t know about any of these things and I felt conflicted and strange about it. Still, I was lonely. I was at a weird period in my life. Most of my high school friends had dropped out in one way or another. I had not yet made many others. I went to work at 5am, came home and slept for a while, stayed up way too late and started over. I was depressed most of the time. I could have become a manager at our store but I resisted. For some reason I was very opposed to working weekends (not that I was doing much on them anyway) and also I had this vague sense that if I started “climbing the ladder” I was never going to leave the job. I stayed there five years, leaving at last when I decided if I didn’t get out I was never going to. I’m not great with change.
During this time I made friends with a girl whose family was nice to me. I was still desperately trying to fill the family void, although I didn’t really recognize it as that. I was in contact with my parents regularly but it never seemed like enough. My mother and I had several significant fights, my father and I talked ideas and thoughts like we always had. Most of the time I felt terrible after I talked to them but I rarely was able to make the connection. My new friend had another fiercely maternal mother and I hung out with them for a couple years. It was not a great friendship. I had met them through the church and I was very confused about a lot of things with my faith. When I went on a women’s retreat with my friend and spent the entire weekend suicidally depressed, I confessed this to her the next week over the phone. She informed me that I wasn’t really a Christian because Christians would trust God and not actually feel this way. When I admitted to her my feelings for women and some of my experiences (in no way connected to her or feelings for her), she cut me off and informed me that she did have some boundaries. It’s by far the most shame I’ve ever felt in regards to that part of my life. Their family believed shows like Bewitched promoted actual witchcraft and that Harry Potter was evil and we had some very intense arguments about these topics. Her father used horrible words for homosexuals or liberals or really anyone he didn’t agree with. But for several years she was the only friend I had and it’s amazing what you’ll put up with when you don’t have a lot of other options.
During these early years I also had an ex-boyfriend/current boyfriend. Even we couldn’t tell you when we were together half the time. He was one of the few people in my life and we carried on a ridiculously unhealthy friendship for a long time, often including various degrees of benefits. It’s one of several unhealthy relationships in my life that actually eventually changed into a much healthier and more beneficial thing but it was a long and really painful road. We were friends six or seven years in total and I still feel guilty for the level of hell I put him through. Being one of my only friends at that time was not a job to be envied.
At some point I found a new church with my brother. We started in a small group and met one of the associate pastors and his wife. I adored them immediately, although I kept a certain amount of distance. I belonged to that small group for about six years. Something happened about four years in that changed my relationship with my parents. I started realizing that when I went to J and R and told them about my ideas or my thoughts or whatever it might be, I would come away from talking to them feeling amazing. It was remarkable. They made me feel like I had really good ideas, like I could do things. I remember one time in particular I went to them with an idea and came out so excited that I immediately called my parents to tell them about said idea. I talked to my mother for about ten minutes and, when I got off the phone with her, I wanted to die. I remember that distinctly. I just sat there in the car, wishing I was dead and wondering why this was. Why did my own parents not believe I was capable of accomplishing anything? Why couldn’t they be happy for me? Why didn’t they think I was smart? I was trying so hard and it didn’t matter. Why didn’t it matter?
The truth is that I still can’t exactly answer these questions. As much as I’ve studied my parents and tried to come away with answers I cannot explain to you why they seem clinically incapable of giving me positive feedback, why they are perpetually negative and hurtful. I know that realizing it made it worse. Suddenly I noticed it all the time and I couldn’t understand how I hadn’t seen it before. It was literally everything I said, everything I was interested in. My mother was the worst but my father also could not seem to manage being supportive. I got to the point where I would literally prepare to tell him something and I would say “I need you to not say this. I need you to say this instead.” And he would try, I could see that he was trying, but still he could not manage to say the things I needed to hear. He couldn’t even seem to comprehend what I was looking for. Being around them started to feel like drowning. All of the air being constantly sucked out of the room. I felt like nothing I did was ever good enough, could ever be good enough. Despite all of our years of talking about ideas, I knew that I was entering ground that was unsafe. I wrote in an earlier post about the first time I tried to talk to my dad about feminism, the first time I realized just how much of the world was untouchable to him. I was working so hard to grow and change and be better, heal, be okay and it was a threat to them, it was a judgment on everything they’d taught me.
You see, I spent my life believing a lot of fatal lies but this one was the one killing me right now – I thought I was supposed to save my family. Everyone swept things under the rug, no one wanted to talk about anything, no one would even admit that they saw anything was wrong. I didn’t understand, I literally did not grasp, that maybe they knew that things were wrong and were choosing to ignore them. I thought they must actually not see them because how could you see things like that and pretend they weren’t there? My father wouldn’t do that, couldn’t do that. I was the only one who could see and there must be a reason. My whole family, extended family included, seemed born blind. So if I was the only one given the gift of sight I must be intended to use it. God must have given it to me for a purpose and surely that purpose was to save my family. Except I wasn’t saving them, they were drowning me.
My parents know they are broken. They feed off each other’s brokenness, they give each other alibis, they protect each other. But they didn’t protect us. They didn’t protect me. And one day the realization that I wanted something more, that I desperately wanted a life beyond the dark little cave they’d made for us, became the strongest thing in my life. I quit my job, I went to school full time, I did my first practicum at the dreaded Planned Parenthood (See my series on that experience), I did things that terrified me, I was open and honest in all the ways I spent my whole life being taught was suicide. And it turned out there was no place for my parents in this life. That in order for me to move forward, I needed to do it with people who supported me, who actually liked me, people who believed in me. There is no more toxic force in my life than my mother and father when I let them in. It sucks. I wish it wasn’t true. I wish I had parents who actually loved me and who supported me or who could cheer me on. But I can’t change them anymore than I could save them.
I don’t want to be scared. I spent my entire life surviving and as it turned out, I was fairly skilled at it, but I don’t want to survive – I want to thrive. I want to make a difference, I want to love people without being afraid, I want to be honest and passionate and face my problems head on. I want to love my life. I just don’t have a place for people who don’t want those things for me. Walking away from them was one of the hardest decisions I ever made. I know they’re bitter and angry and they don’t understand. But I know it was the right thing to do. When people are determined to go down, sometimes you just have to save yourself.