The attached piece is 13 pages long, 1.5 space. It’s worth the read for several reasons. It’s a true story, experienced by the author, and everything can be verified with public records. It’s frightening, and enlightening. And definitely Tragic. #tragic #redemption #lifeisabsurd Also submitted to Oklahoma Writing Project Summer Institute Blog Post #1. First attempt at publishing this piece. I’ve revised it multiple times.
I really enjoy writing to the prompt of the day, but today has been no normal day, not even close, so I’m going to write about suffering, its affect on humans, and how some people who act insufferably cause others to endure suffering.
For those two of you who haven’t moved on yet, let me start for saying thanks. Thanks for listening. Thanks for your time. I know how precious time is. My full-time job as a secondary English teacher requires that I have a second job. I got a Master’s degree in professional writing in order to get a job working at the absolute bottom of the heap at a University, teaching English Comp, also known as 1113,as a part-tune adjunct. This second job is far better than the first, but now I owe the Government more money in student loans.
So I’m trying to manage five different curricula simultaneously. I know others who have gone the route of trying to teach as an adjunct part-time at more than one institution, but they get no benefits. My high school teaching job affords benefits. Not much income, but I can go to the doc when I get sick. A former professor graciously offered up an hour of his precious time counseling me on what to do with my Master’s degree.
“Less than half the people who obtain PhDs in any branch of English, whether Lit Crit, Creative Writing, or Rhetoric and Comp, wind up in a tenured position at a University after the time and money they have spent proving their expertise.” Dan clearly felt great empathy for me. He has one of the few remaining tenured, subsidized seats in the English Lit Department at my University. He was the best teacher I had, in my undergraduate work (As was David Gross, cannot neglect his influence). Someday I’ll tell you about my best graduate professor, but that’s a happy story, and we’re suffering at the moment. He suggested that my best option would be to become a public school teacher, to gain certification (which I’ve had since 2009), and to work full-time at that. I felt a bit down in the mouth, to say the least.
This is too long, and I’ve barely begun. So back to the narrative. The balance I’ve been seeking, which really represents my ability to remember which class I’m teaching at any given time, was close at hand. I had worked very hard on two curricula over the summer, not to mention shopping around a novel. (Total brag, that.) I had all courses planned out throughout most of the semester. I started learning how to post material on two different new software platforms, and had accomplished some on one of them, then we were given a holiday.
We all know about holidays. I truly believe that there are people who have holidays that look like the Norman Rockwell paintings. Ours is closer to A Christmas Story than It’s a Wonderful Life. After gifts (most of which I had purchased with a wad of foreign bills my mother gave me when I flew to Singapore to buy Christmas), Mom cracked the Vodka open. I’d like to say champagne, but that was a rare bird in Sumatra at that time. Hard liquor had a markedly stronger market in Southeast Asia in the 70’s. By the time my Mom started feeling good, my Papa became angry and left. My little brother, ten years my junior, and I played with his Christmas toys. I knew he would love the Hot Wheels cars I’d picked out in Singapore, and the little race track I had managed to find.
I anxiously monitored my mother. There was food to finish preparing, and food already ready to consume. No holiday meal in my mother’s house was ever a simple affair. It was a major undertaking, detailed down to the hors d’oeuvre toothpicks (again, from Singapore), and the festive table arrangement of unusual forms of greenery. No holly or fir, wrong part of the world. Whatever was prettiest and green was around a candle she must have been hoarding for over a year, in place of privilege in the center of the dining room table.
The oil lamps had been lit, as it was a dark day, heavy with rain, and the electricity was on the fritz, as usual. Rustin and I were growing hungry, Papa had left over two hours ago, and Mom was passed out on the sofa in the living room, amid the wrack and ruin of Christmas morning. Fortunately, we had servants, as it was “simply impossible to live as an expat in Indonesia without servants!” And it was true. So, coaxing Rustin to play with his cars alone for a few minutes, I went in to talk to the servants and see what they knew. Mom had had them double-timing for this glorious event. Fortunately somewhere in there she had communicated her entire plan, and everything that needed cooking was underway.
They were kind to me. They didn’t understand our lives, but they knew I worried more about my mother and my brother than anyone worried about me. So together we finished up the meal that only my two year old brother and I would consume (the servants were also invited to partake of the bounty of the meal). I made us plates from the kitchen, and we ate at the dining room table out of habit, large gas chandelier suspended over the long table.I promised to go outside with him after the rains moved out. He seemed satisfied wth this compromise.
My father returned some time later, disheveled, smelling of alcohol and something else I couldn’t identify, and wasn’t sure I wanted to. He kissed me on the forehead, picked up my little brother, who had passed out after one tour through the garden, and carried him to bed. Mom had long since refilled her glass and then promptly passed out in the bedroom. (Yes, that sounds weird, but our house could only draw enough energy to run one window unit at night. No lights. So we all slept in the same bedroom).
I was reluctant to go to bed. I found one of the novels my cousin Glenda had sent to me over a month ago from the States. (I had seen the return address on the package before Mom hid it). I immersed myself in the story of a people who created a society on an alien planet. Marion Zimmer Bradley saved my life so many times. (Thank you, Glenda! <3)
I start with this strange preface of sorts to what I want to write about, both because I want you to understand that weird families are all I’ve known, and because I think I’ve begun to realize I cannot endure any more drama on this level.
Every dysfunctional family has an enabler. That’s me. I’ve been extensively trained in this role by both my mother and my first husband (yes, I see the connection).
Several years ago my current husband made known his guilt over not caring for his mother, and wished he could find a way to do so. He is an only child. I foolishly suggested that we could buy a larger house, and she and my daughter, who was about to start college, could live in for as much time as they needed. Both satisfied with the benefits for our beloved family members, we moved forward with selling out existing home, and locating another.
Not only was it far more expensive than anticipated, packing and moving remained to be done. It was left primarily to me and to a young man who had done occasional labor for me on other projects. And we closed on the house we were selling a week ahead of the house we were purchasing, so we had to store all our belongings and stay with friends until the new house was purchased. Then we (read “I”) moved all the stuff from the storage unit into the new house. Summer in Oklahoma is miserable, with hot winds blowing from the southwest, and a blistering sun that frequently brought the temperatures up to and above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. I thought this might kill me, especially as classes at my school started in one week.
We’ve had rough patches, off and on for the last six years. One patch was so bad that my MIL moved back to the south, from whence she had come. But then she returned, because the people who were assholes when she left had remained so. The daughter tried college, then dropped out without telling me. Later she moved out, coming by to pick up things, and then fleeing as quickly as possible. Finally she told me she was living with her boyfriend. “Well,” I thought, “that’s life.”
Then she came home, and she was a hot mess. Some things had happened to her a few years earlier of which I was wholly unaware. The theory is that this trauma caused her latent mental illness to come front and center and make itself known. The first time I took her to the psych ward we went to this inner-city hospital and waited for ten hours for a bed to be found for her. She spent about ten days that time.
Every time I drove 45 minutes one way to visit, she clearly made me understand that everything she was doing she did to shorten her time in the facility. She was not using it to find her feet and get her meds straightened out.She had learned that if she was compliant, they would allow her to leave. The doctor there prescribed a drug for her that nearly killed her because of her intense allergy to it.
The second time (I think), she was in the orthopedic surgery wing of the hospital until they rebuilt her tibia and fibula. Her car broke, and the telephone pole broke, but it did not quite crash down on her car and kill her, so she succeeded in making what for her seemed a desperate situation (obviously) into an even worse situation. Once her wound had stabilized, they moved her to the only facility that would take someone in a wheelchair. Oh. My. God. It was a One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest sanitorium-style facility. It was horrible. And her doctor refused to speak with me, even though she had not only given permission, but had requested that he do so. His soul is black, and he will eventually reap what he has sown.
Every time they change her medication, new demons pop up. It’s bloody unreal. We are all suffering because of her suffering. But I thought we had a plan to help her gain independence, and that everyone in the household was on board. I was mistaken. The MIL doesn’t believe in mental illness, and whispers in a judgmental tone, “she is just such a good actress!” I want to break things. Really.
And the last three weeks had been so wonderful, because no one had tried to provoke anyone into an inappropriate emotional response (you get to learn a new language with mental illness, too. It’s great!), and the one under scrutiny was managing to adjust to a job while maintaining her chores at home. She is like a small child. She cannot see logical consequences of her actions, and sometimes she totally flips her shit and lays into someone. It was the MIL most recently. The child was not in the wrong, but her actions were inappropriate. She grabbed the Wicked Witch’s wrists and accidentally cut her with her fingernail. She thought the woman had the remotes for the TV, which she had been denied, hidden in her car — Really.
The Witch hollered at her to call 911, so she did. She called 911 on herself.
Tell me, do you think someone would choose to live like this? Mental illness is real.
She just wanted to watch TV, and it was her turn. The Wicked Witch called her fat, lazy, a slut, and for the piece de resistance, stated that she stank. When I heard this I was frozen. My heart iced over immediately and refused to converse with the mind. The mind wasn’t sure what to do, but we do have some good friends who have suffered vastly more than we, who care for my daughter. The friend told us to take her to the hospital. It was better than jail, for someone who is mentally ill, and perhaps the MIL might not press charges.
Okay. I cannot live this way. I get along with my husband quite well, and for the brief period when both MIL and the daughter were gone, we had a wonderful interlude. We’ve never had time alone. We’ve always been giving care to someone.
I am personally exhausted. My father left us when I was fourteen. I lost my mother when I was about 45. (She’s not dead, merely estranged, with occasional bursts of communication). I’m about to lose my daughter, as well.
Life is nothing if not challenging, and our loss of over $1500.00 a month income has had a profoundly negative affect on our lives and ability to function, as well. It’s all on me, nobody else will deal with the money. I am tired. I want to stop being in charge. I want to walk to South Padre island. No, I’ll crawl there on my knees, as if to a great shrine. I’ll gain employment as a teacher in nearby San Isabel, and I’ll live on the beach. And my heart will heal, and my soul will be soothed by the balm of the ocean. I fear I will be alone. What man wouldn’t choose his mother over his wife? Especially when the wife comes with baggage in the form of a girl child, almost 24, and an ex-husband who should probably be in prison.
The house needs some TLC. I have to dust the walls. Gather up the small nick-knacks that have sentimental value, and pack them away.Leaves less to dust, some of moving prep done. Don’t know where we’re going. We might want to take an apartment for a while to decide what we want. And will I be a “we?” I don’t know. He has only wavered a few times, when Sarah was clearly just being a brat, being lazy, but she has stepped it up and that bitch better never talk to my daughter that way, or there may be some spitting and cussing a’coming.
I can’t fix her, but nobody is trying harder than she is. She was just fired over a stupid incident. It could have been contested, but she just said, “Mom, let it go. If they will fire somebody over so little, I don’t want to work there,” So I kept my mouth shut, but I’m not done with that issue.
She works really well with little kids. She lights up around them, and they love her. I hope she can find her niche in life. I’ve looked so long for mine, through so many rich experiences, and maybe I’ve found the beginning of the next layer of life experience.
I sat this morning and sobbed. I felt pressure in my chest at the screams that wanted to be let out but which I refused to allow escape. I hiccoughed a couple of time, with sobs. Tears washed my face. I cannot fix my daughter. I cannot take on her suffering in exchange for a better life for her. I would that I could.
But I can’t take on the constant drama thing. It’s disruptive to my productivity. I have to be productive. I have things to do, yet, what with the bees and the monarchs and all the sea life being endangered by man’s actions. We have not been good stewards of “this earth, our island home.” And those aren’t the only things that I worry about.
After seeing my daughter safely ensconced in a facility designed to treat people with her particular illness, I came home to a sad house. Stella, my daughter’s dog, was missing everyone very much. Husband had left for work, daughter is in hospital. Wicked Witch is locking herself in her room every night, because she’s afraid of us.
I have promised to not physically threaten her. (She’s 78, for God’s sake!) But my words are regularly sharpened and oiled and there are so many that will flood over her, like starlings picking seed from the newly mown field, that she will be so confused that she will not know how to respond. She will go with bitchy, and I’ll respond in kind.
Those concrete abutments look more and more tempting as time goes by.
The following is not a lovely poem exhorting the reader to think about how they consciously or unconsciously punish people they interact with. It’s not a personal story about how I’ve been punished or not. It’s about how our society punishes the least among us.
In a previous life I worked criminal defense as a legal investigator working for attorneys who defended those charged with crimes. Some of them could pay for their attorney, and some couldn’t. The same attorneys worked both kinds of cases, with the same amount of energy and care.
The “clients” were much the same, as well. Most of them had little education, almost all had nothing beyond high school. Many were persons of color, and many were indigent. Sociologists and educators have both discovered that children of poverty have a different set of priorities, they learn different attitudes towards authority, possession, and requirements.
Most distrust authority, because their parents and likely their grandparents, and so on, for generations ad infinitum, have been taught to not trust authority. They aren’t typically helped by those in authority, but instead are found lacking. Since they don’t have the list of attitudes, possessions, and requirements that middle-class and upper-class children grow up learning, they suffer failure as they struggle to maneuver life, including in a classroom.
They don’t know what the right choice is. They make the choice that they feel is the only one they have, to follow where their parents’ lead. If their parents dropped out of high school, they did not have a feeling of success associated with education, but instead a vague feeling of having been sorely used and abused by people who didn’t understand the ways of poverty. They teach their children to sneer at authority, as the attitude of disrespect is the only power they believe they have in the situation.
We incarcerate more people than any other nation in the world. There are people languishing in prison for lack of availability of a particular socialization program they are court-mandated to attend, but which isn’t available at their particular incarceration facility. Or they are serving out a sentence in lieu of paying a fine, because they are poor. They can’t get out of jail until their fines are satisfied.
Our prisons are full of women and men of all colors, but persons of color and women statistically receive harsher sentences. Women in particular are reviled in the state of Oklahoma, where we give women harsher sentences than men who commit the exact same crime.
And there is no such thing, in this state, as rehabilitation. There is a prison out in western Oklahoma, where the wind truly sweeps down the plains, called Granite Reformatory. There is nothing reforming in the crumbling edifice, bur there is a great deal of punishment.
I visited a man there who was a witness in a case I was working. He was elderly, close to 70, and he had congestive heart disease as well as arthritis. He could not walk unassisted. The guards forced him to walk down two flights of stairs to the basement to talk with me. When we were finished, instead of signaling the guard by pressing a buzzer, I helped the man back up the stairs to the general common area. The guards came quickly over to make sure he was not doing anything untoward like, I don’t know, trying to escape? That man’s only escape would be through death. They spoke harshly to me for helping him up the stairs. I left as quickly as possible, so I didn’t say something that would get me in trouble, as well. As I walked out, I turned to say farewell to the man I had met, and his eyes smiled at me. My small kindness didn’t go unnoticed.
Do people not understand that those that they incarcerate are going to get out of prison some day, and live among us? Would it not be better to 1) not incarcerate nonviolent offenders, and 2) provide actual training programs in prison so inmates might learn skills that would help them get work when they get out? Could we teach them new expectations of the world, and how to function in it, so that they would not return to the insecure place they left? If the only thing they learn in prison is how to commit other crimes, or are so traumatized by violence and abuse from both guards and other prisoners, they will come out prepared only to repeat their failure.
Private prisons require the communities who are awarded their business to maintain a certain level of occupancy, so that they receive the income from the State or the Federal government that will represent a profit. That means that the community is invested in arresting, convicting, and incarcerating as many people as possible. Does anyone else think that is insane? That means they are invested in keeping the poor poor, so that they are good candidates for their facility. They don’t care if kids drop out of high school. “They weren’t no good nohow,” they say. Fresh fodder for the prison machine.
Why do we feel the need to maintain the puritanical heritage we were cursed with, when we, as thinking animals, and not just able to think, but to think about our thinking, higher cognitive behavior allegedly not available to lower species of animal? If we are so far above the other animals, why don’t we act like it?
The lock was easy to open with a credit card. She let herself in, and eased the door closed behind her. The girl stood still, calming her breath and listening for noises in the house. It felt empty. It’s external appearance had been one of slight neglect, a hint of peel to the paint in places.
The kitchen was on her left, and held nothing but saltine crackers and canned tuna. “Thanks, Grandma.” She started rummaging through the drawers for a can opener, and finally raised up with one in her hand only to see a person standing across the kitchen, watching her.
“Who are you?” the young woman asked.
“I think I should ask you that. This is my grandmother’s house, and you’re not my grandmother.” She put her hands on her hips and raised her left eyebrow.
“I’m so sorry,” the girl stammered, “I didn’t know you were coming.” She shifted her weight from one leg to the other every few minutes. “Your grandmother, they just took her to the hospital, she had a heart attack, they thought.” She kept rubbing her hands together, as though they sought activity, and would have to make do with each other until the woman decided what she was supposed to do.
“I’m just the home health aide. I come three times a week, and this time I had to let myself in.” She shook her head. “She had fallen in the hall, and her head had apparently struck one of the bronzes she has there.” She hesitated, then said, “Well, I’ll be on my way.” She gathered her supplies and her purse and scurried out as quickly as possible.
Maura didn’t know what to do. She should call her parents, but it had been three months since she left home. She’d been rotating couches, including Grandma’s. She wasn’t going back to that, she couldn’t.
She hopped up on the counter and ate the tuna out of the can with a fork. The saltines helped cut the incredibly fishy taste of processed, canned tuna, but Grandma couldn’t afford the albacore in water or olive oil. She got the store brand, cheapest available. But she always tried to help Maura. She offered for Maura to move in with her, but Maura gets queasy when she thinks of living anywhere her parents could find her.
As she hopped down from the counter, she heard the door open very slowly, oh so very slowly, and she knelt behind the bar in the kitchen, invisible to the person coming in. Her heart was beating so fast that she was afraid whoever it was could hear it. She concentrated on relaxing by controlling her breathing.
“You might as well stand up, Maura, I know you’re here,” said a voice rough from smoking and whiskey. She wasn’t sure how the whiskey could hurt a man’s throat. She wondered why they were so frequently paired in conversation, as well as in real life. “Move slowly, child, so we don’t have to treat you like a psycho, okay?” The acid voice of her step-mother cut through the acrid smell of greasy tuna.
Maura stood, lifted her arms, and pointed a gun directly at her step-mother.
“You will not treat me like anything. You will allow me to walk out of this house and never see you again.” Her voice grew stronger the more she spoke, supporting her resolve. “Neither of you will ever be able to touch me again. Nobody will ever touch me again, if I can help it.” She vehemently spat the words out.
“Maura, you don’t have the guts to shoot me. Stop acting the fool, girl, and get your ass out to the car!”
Maura slowly sighted, took a deep breath, let it halfway out, and…
Wait until the darkness comes, the bones are going to shake. Don’t wait in here, they come alive, your soul they want to take. The bone chapel stores the bones, of those from long gone …
My friend has been dying for several months, that we know of. We don’t know how long she has known, how long she put off going to the doctor. But she’s gone and done it, she died this morning at 3:30 a.m. Damn it! I wanted more time!
This woman, oh my goodness, this woman was amazing. She was funny, and brilliant, and generous. Kind. Helpful. Did I mention funny? Woman could make me laugh until my sides ached, and tears ran down the sides of my face. And SHE said she was pleased to be MY friend! Crazy woman! I was the lucky one, she was willing to be my friend.
At the moment I cannot tell if I’m in the eye of the storm, or if it is just coming on. Perhaps it is moving out. All I know is I have endured so much pain and stress in the last 18 months that while I feel her loss like a physical hole in the middle of my body, it just seems like a continuation of the ongoing suffering. I was hoping the storm was passing. I’m not sure it ever will.
The cyclone of guilt twisting my gut over all the evenings that I told her I couldn’t meet her at Barnes & Noble to talk about books and life because I had grading, or I had writing, a deadline approaching. That’s time I could have cherished in memory. The memory I have isn’t worth recalling, of grading 150 papers over Fahrenheit 451, or having to meet a writing deadline, because those really are DEADlines. But not dead like my friend is dead.
The thing is, I love storms. The smell of the earth receiving the rain, the sizzle of the lightning, and the way the hairs on my arms stand away from my skin. They make me feel alive.
Metaphorical storms I can live without. I promise. There’s a passel of new stuff coming over the horizon and moving closer every minute. Some of these things I asked for, others I was forced to take. How long can it last? Will the new things improve my life, as I hope, or will they merely weigh me further down?
I don’t know any of the answers, all I have are questions. As Nick Cave says, “…and we call upon the Author to explain.”
“False! Tricksey! False!” Gollum accused Sam. Frodo turned on his friend, his mind clouded by the malevolence of the ring burning his skin, hanging around his neck. Frodo sent Sam away, and he went away for a distance, but could not give up on his friend because he knew his friend needed his help, and was being affected by the burden he bore. He understood that while Frodo’s behavior was not acceptable, it was the result of a psychological burden he struggled to carry.
When the effects of a serious mental illness or disease of the mind make the person affected unpleasant to be around, it’s hard to accept that it’s not just a choice to be an asshole. Loved ones, family and friends who are trying to support the ill person in their treatment, frequently need breaks from the person, but that makes them seem antisocial.
I want my loved one back. I want her to care about herself as much as I care for her. But I doubt my ability to raise her again. Two obvious observations could be made at this juncture: 1)well, you did such a fucking fantastic job the first time, and 2)I’m exhausted. I can’t raise anybody else. I’m no longer the fixer. I’m not the enabler. I’m tapped out. I supported other family members as a child and younger adult to a great extent, and I’m simply done.
Real life, for me, has not looked anything like a Norman Rockwell painting. Some of the awful experiences were my choice, others found me powerless to affect a change. Every moment of each of those experiences has added another layer of understanding to the lens through which I view life. I would take her affliction as my own, could I make it so. Watching a loved one suffer is heart-rending.
But the ability to live with someone whose temperament is so dramatically mercurial, and who seems to thrive on drama, is not one I possess. I left her father because he was only happy when he was stirring up shit. I like peace in my life. I want to do my work, enjoy life with my husband, and appreciate each moment we find ourselves in. I cannot live with someone who causes drama, even if it is a part of their disease.
She must actively seek independence, because we will be forced to leave this house at the earliest opportunity, to get from under the tremendous debt. This should force the two other adults in the house to step up their game.