1. They Are Coming To Get You
Mostly, I remember the door crashing in and three men in white looming over me. Then I remember my mom, wild-eyed, black hair flying behind her, racing to the bathroom at the end of the narrow hallway. The bathroom door held steady as the men pounded on it. My sister was at the end of the hallway somewhere and in my mind I see her ducking into the doorway across the hall as my mom dashed to get into the bathroom—I am not sure if my sister is in the bathroom with my mom because the men fill the narrow hall and I can’t see anything but them. I remember hoping that wherever she was, my sister was out of the way of their huge feet and enormous arms that were swinging in every direction. The men are big and cumbersome like giants lumbering in the small apartment. They engulf the small space, the three of them and they are pounding on the door while telling my mom, “we are here to help.”
The next thing I remember is sitting on the hood of my dad’s green Chevy nova. He is standing next to me, leaning on the car. We’re silent as we watch the three men pull my mom down the stairs. She is struggling and screaming still wild-eyed. I think how strong she is. I am impressed that even though it is three to one and she is bound in a straight jacket, they struggle to contain her. She is strong even though her arms are tied down tight on her chest. Other men are telling me they are here to help. “She needs help.” They say, “Your mother needs help. We are the good guys here.” Good guys, I thought, are not supposed to break down doors that don’t belong to them. Good guys don’t push moms to the ground with big knees. I don’t say this because I am scared they will take me too. I nod and try to look as strong as my mom. But I keep my eyes down on the shiny green paint and trace circles with my index finger.
I try not to feel like I betrayed my mom. But I did. My dad told me to tell her I wanted to go to a movie. He told me which one so that the time would be right. I should have known something bad would happen. I think I did. But without understanding the knot in my stomach when I told my mom I wanted to go see Xanadu that afternoon, I thought it was just another weird feeling in a series of bad moments that seemed to be part of being a kid. So I didn’t say no to my dad. The plan, I found out, as I was sitting on my dads green Chevy Nova watching my mother being dragged from her apartment, had been for my sister and I to be here when the men came to take her so that she didn’t do anything “stupid”. I wondered what he meant by “stupid”. What would be a stupid thing to do when three men break down your front door and drag you out of your home in a straight jacket in front of your two daughters in the middle of the afternoon? I thought that was stupid. Not right. I thought her fighting and yelling was smart. I didn’t say this. Just thought it like I thought about my feeling bad for telling her I wanted to go to a matinee. I never remember my mom saying anything specific about being under surveillance. But I remember checking the car and my bedroom for bugs and trying to pull the bathroom mirror off the wall to make sure there wasn’t a camera behind it. It was clear we were being watched and recorded. That we had to be careful. I felt bad because she had been trying to be careful but I tricked her. I wonder if I knew deep down what was going to happen. I don’t think so. But I wonder. I think that maybe I was even told what was gong to happen in some obscure adult language like, “We are going to help her,” that I could choose to ignore and pretend not to hear like the angry words that got thrown around like dishes and sometimes furniture.
My sister and I adapted differently to the screaming, the slammed doors, the thumps and bumps in the night. She acquired the survival skill of invisibility. I have seen her shimmer then turn transparent when the fighting started. Like an apparition, she would be there one moment and the next she would be gone. She learned this skill along with the fine art of hiding in concealed corners and undetectable nooks and crannies from our uncle who sought her out whenever he was around and she was alone. That day she used her powers and I have no recollection of where she was while I sat on the hood of our dad’s car, or how she got out of the apartment. Fear narrows your focus to what you need to notice to survive while simultaneously heightening your senses. I remember the shocking white of the men in suits, but not what their voices sounded like. I remember the heat of the sun soaking through my leg as I sat on the car, but not what I was wearing. My sister remembers everything. She could tell me what we were both wearing that day, what day of the week it was and probably the name of the hospital they took our mom to. My memory is less exact, my stories more a combination of fragments, sensations, imaginations and a desire to share the essence of “what was” rather than a listing of “what occurred”. What I remember, as I sat on top of the sun-warmed car, watching the men lift my mom, legs kicking, body wrangling as they tightened their grip and shoved her lengthwise into the back of the van, was thinking, “Well, I guess she was right, they are coming to get you.”
2. Let’s Do The Thorazine Shuffle
She is at the end of a long corridor shuffling towards me, listing to the left, her spine a study in arches. Shoulders rolled forward towards the tile floor, lower back undulating outward, her head tilted sharply, like her body, to the left. Her fingers are tightly curled, claw hands attached to forearms, which also curl into her body like she is folding in on herself in slow motion. Florescent lights beam smudgy light on her as she shuffles down the hallway. She is not looking at me. She stares at the dirty beige floor like it is holding her up. She is stiff. Hardened as if her muscles have frozen around her bones and are refusing to thaw under the buzzing lights. I expect to hear ripping as she steps, tearing of frozen muscle from bone. Instead I hear the shuffle of her slippered feet dragging along the floor, swooshing heavily in my direction.
She sits down awkwardly, dropping her body into the hard plastic chair next to me. Up close, her face is pulled in like her shoulders, fingers and arms. Facial muscles tightened back to one side in a sneer. The corners of her mouth are wet and her soft white skin is puffy and glistening. She is drooling. She draws a claw across her moth and tries (I think) to smile. It is difficult to tell. She leans into me, her lower body sinking exaggeratedly into the chair as she thrusts her upper half towards me. I resist my initial impulse to pull away. It takes a few moments for me to realize she is trying to talk. Her mouth working furiously left-right. Puffs of breath, then small sounds, then finally faint words begin to tumble out of her curled and chapped lips. She asks how I am. “I’m fine.” I say. She says she is sorry. I wonder exactly what she is sorry for. It seemed to me like I should be telling her I’m sorry. I think this but I am not sure how to say it. I know what I want to say but the words don’t feel big enough. So I put my hand on her shoulder. Her muscles are tight. Scary tight. Wound up, knotted like the slabs of frozen beef we’d get on Sunday mornings from Alpha Beta’s frozen food section. It is not a strong solid muscle. I want her to feel strong but she feels rigid. Frozen.
My mom leans closer in to me, her head teetering, neck veins popping and says, “Cristien, I know I am crazy. I know I am not ok sometimes. But this place, this medicine they give me. It makes me crazier.” I look deep into her eyes. Her clear, sharp blue eyes. And I can’t say anything. Words will not push past the concrete block in my throat. I want to smash the walls. I want to punch through three feet of cement and plaster. I want to be solid like Wonder Woman even thought I hate her American flag outfit and she is way to skinny but I am 13 years old and she is the only woman super hero I can think of. I want to lasso the whole stupid building, doctors and all, and smash it on a mountainside. I want to rip the doors off their hinges and take my mom out of here so we can go to breakfast at Denny’s like we used to on Saturday mornings. I want to shake her. Shake her until she stops being stiff and frozen. Shake her until she can walk and talk and smile.
I think all this as I stare into the clear sharp blue of my mother’s eyes. And because I can’t punch through three feet of cement and plaster and fly away with my mother out of the beige cell she has been put in by big men who keep telling me “We are the good guys here, Cristien, we are here to help”, because of all this I can only nod. I feel her frozen shoulder under my fingers and I keep looking into her eyes and two small words escape past the cement block in my throat and make a mad dash through my lips. “I know.”
3. Medicating Ourselves To Madness
Looking back, I realize I should feel lucky that my mom wasn’t given a lobotomy, which was used wildly by psychiatric hospitals until chlorpromazine was introduced in 1954. Or be glad that she wasn’t given electric shock therapy, introduced in the 1930’s and still in widespread use to this day. I should, I suppose feel lucky that she was just given Thorazine, which is in fact cholopromazine, a “chemical lobotomy” with brutal side effects including, twitching or uncontrollable movements of your eyes, lips, tongue, face, arms, or legs; tremor, drooling, trouble swallowing, problems with balance or walking; seizures, black-outs or convulsions, jaundice , unusual thoughts or behaviors (which I thought was what the drug was supposed to stop), urinating less than usual or not at all (um, that can’t be good…), slow heart rate, weak pulse, fainting, slow breathing or breathing may stop altogether (that can’t be good either). But, I don’t feel lucky my mom received a chemical lobotomy. I feel, angry, even bitter sometimes. It is after all, a bitter pill to swallow.
I wasn’t so bitter when my parents announced they were getting a divorce when I was seven years old. I was happy, or at least not distressed in the typical sense. I didn’t feel responsible or guilty like many children do. I felt relief, hope and some sadness of course, which sat quietly next to a bigger feeling of excited anticipation. I was relieved to not be in the middle of the chaotic, angry, mess of a marriage my parents tried to hold together as young adults. Sad that they were both in so much pain and hopeful that things would get better if they lived separately. We were all scared of my dad so it seemed like a good idea for the three of us to live alone. It wasn’t. You see, coming from the horrific abuse my mom came from—a frontier family living in a small A-frame house in the middle of vast wilderness in Alaska. A home where her four brothers learned the fine art of drinking, stuffing and beating up their own shame mercilessly at the expense and safety of the women trying to survive in the same small A-Frame. A home where the women learned to eat their shame and rage along with that of the men’s in stoic silence even as the bruises faded. This is where she same from. From this family, where my mother’s face was rubbed into vomit spewed by her brother on a 3-day bender, trying unsuccessfully to loose himself over and over and over. From this family where women were treated like dogs, literally at times, made to eat dog food and drink from the red plastic bowl on the kitchen floor on all fours, “like a bitch.” No telling what her brothers endured having learned from their father this kind of inhumanity. From this family, I have no doubt our household would seem manageable, nice and even civilized. But when things got rough and my mother called her mother for help, she was told to lie down like a doormat and take it. “Like a dog. Like the bitch you are.” I imagine my grandmother saying to my mom in-between long drags on her Pall Malls. I know she was also talking to herself. Talking to her own shame of not being able to protect herself or any of the young girls she brought into this world. Her shame nestled deep next to the pain of knowing exactly what they would endure. The generational legacy of women holding pruned and work worn fingers over each other’s mouths while clamping their own lips tightly shut.
When my grandmother flew down from Alaska to “take care of things”, I remember thinking at last my parents will stop fighting. I could not have anticipated what happened. My mother bashed through generations of feminine survival with a tried and true tactic of women everywhere. Instead of hitting me and my sister, slapping into us her shame of not being able to keep us safe from the very things she still won’t remember, instead of lying down and taking it, like a dog, she went crazy. And I love her for it. I really do. It was hard at times. But that is not what this story is about. This story is about the crazy response I saw people—adults, men, doctors, professionals, healers, and helpers—have to what I saw as a reasonable response to being made to eat dog food, dodge flying fists and absorb angry words that tear into your flesh and cling to your soul like bitter burs. My mom fought back the one way she knew how, her anger and shame channeled into a paranoia of being under constant surveillance—not that odd of a concern for sexual abuse victims who are acutely aware that they are in fact being watched and monitored by those in power.
At the time I was embarrassed, ashamed and wanted nothing more than a mom like Mrs. Eskaville. Diane, as she insisted we call her, was a raven-haired goddess of a mom, always in perfect make up and never sweaty which was weird to me because in the 100-degree heat of California summers I almost never stopped sweating. Her pressed pant suits and sharp high heels made her look like a movie star, as did the cloud of Channel No5 perfume that always surrounded her. My mom smelled like Channel No5 as well, but when I smelled my mom I also smelled her history, her perfume mingled with her complicated story and our familial struggles. Diane just smelled like Channel No5 and Sauvé shampoo and I loved her for smelling uncomplicated. It made her feel safe. I didn’t want to be her, or be like her two daughters, mini versions of Diane who seemed to be trying too hard to grow up too quickly which made no sense to me as I wanted nothing more than to just be able to be a kid. I was also an epic tomboy riding horses, building forts, constantly sweaty, dirty and sunburned. I had no desire to try to wear pantsuits and certainly no use for high heels, but I longed to come home to Diane Eskaville and her freshly baked cookies. Of course, I didn’t feel worthy of her; the legacy of the family bitch did not escape me. But I could let myself dream sometimes. Let myself escape the reality of instable, chaotic madness for the sterile Stepford housewife world of consistency and stability. Sometimes in my fantasy world I would feel a sharp pang of despair because I believed I betrayed my mom by wanting the fantasy. I understood she made a choice. That even a Stepford wife would snap. You cannot, after all, make a person be a dog. I understood that her descent into madness would never be cured by medication that tried to make her a sterile version of herself rather allowing her to be the complicated messy survivor she was. And, just as I loved her for being a strong survivor, there were moments when I, along with the rest of society, hated the survivor because they force us to see and acknowledge the very things they endured. I feel lucky my moments of anger at my mother never transformed into pathologizing or calling her ability to survive ‘symptoms” of anything other than what they were: fucked up behaviors coming from a fucked up mom from a fucked up family living in a fucked up world trying to cope in fucked up ways. Fuck.
4. The Power Of Denial
Fuck. It’s complicated. But not that complicated. If a 13 year old girl can see the transparency in the pharmaceutical company’s message delivered by a white man with a soothing voice, serious white coat and dignified gestures designed to simultaneously put you at ease and put you in your place, why are we still beating the medicinal mantra of magic bullets?
The man in the white coat, now dressed in a Men’s Warehouse casual suit and clogs no longer sits behind a desk, but in a backless rolling chair stethoscope dangling around a button up shirt or REI smart wool pullover and they believe in the magic bullets they are prescribing. Their sincerity is real and the message simple: We are here to help alleviate your suffering and we know how. That the actual science does not back up their claim is of little consequence, a small cog in a much larger machine. A machine that ate my mother up and spit her out, a shuffling, drooling, twitching ghost of her former self. It’s a complicated mess. It is our mess, my family’s mess but also our national collective mess and I want some help cleaning it up.
My mom wasn’t suffering from a brain chemical imbalance; she was suffering because she was being abused. Her serotonin did not make her more vulnerable to disconnecting from reality, that’s a reasonable response when your reality is unbearable. Her behaviors, while unpredictable, were a reasonable response to the predictable reproduction of violence and abuse.
As a nation we have a long history of blaming the victim. We minimize their stories, diagnose their survival strategies, prescribe pills for their pain because it seems easier than acknowledging the horrific reality of sexual abuse. We pathologize feelings and blunt curiosity because the truth is seemingly unbearable, even as those who bear it find ways to do so with astounding dignity. We are being told with checklists and 5-minute Internet surveys that we are a nation of depressed and serotonin deficient citizens in desperate need of chemical regulation. I don’t want a regulated volk—personally I’d rather have an army of men and women who aren’t so numbed and regulated that they aren’t pissed off that fucked up shit happens, angry that their friends are being hurt and are willing to try to do something about it.
5. Still Crazy
My mom is still crazy but she doesn’t drool and the right side of her face is in sync with the left side of her face. And when she smiles, she looks happy. This matters. That she got to this place mostly on her own rather than a miracle drug or chemical re-balancing is not a minor issue. People move through their pain. We heal with or without our (or other’s) consent.
Her healing has changed both of us. My mother and I have learned to tango cautiously around each other dipping and swaying like clumsy bulls that have finally learned to not stomp on one another and have achieved some kind of bull-like grace. Perfection is over rated. Grace is not flawless perfection, it is the grounded confidence that there are and always will be flaws that make us human, make us vulnerable to learning and acting on hateful ways of surviving, but also allow us to be unbelievable complex enough to un-learn these things, and this means so much more than polished, airbrushed sterile role models inflexible in their demand for unattainable perfection. Grace contains both dark and light pain and healing, disillusionment and hope, like the sad and angry edges of my mother’s smile.