Intermission: Let’s Play a Little Game of Never Have I Ever

If you’ve been following my blog, you know my father beat my mom for 15 years until she and my mentally handicapped, diabetic, epileptic, and autistic brother fled to a domestic violence shelter.

You also know I started dating an alcoholic before I even moved out and that I unwittingly moved in with a porn addict at age 21. At age 23, I fell in love with a player, and then I got involved with a man who had schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. November 17, 2001 – a day I will never forget – he stopped taking all nine (nine) meds, including lithium. By 5 p.m., he told me my face was melting, and he could see bone.

In 2002, after being diagnosed with HPV and being told I needed near-immediate surgery to remove cervical cancer cells, I suffered a nervous breakdown as I left my gynecologist’s office.

After a 36-hour stay in a psych ward and two surgeries, I started taking an antidepressant and became easy prey for a man who date raped me.

Since then, I’ve had breast lumps, a cervical cancer recurrence, a forehead tumor, and leaky gut syndrome (which caused a ridiculous number of food allergies).

In 2007, my mom committed suicide, and I buried her two days after my birthday. My brother died six weeks later, leaving me familyless.

Little did I know, all of this was just practice for the drama a man and his millennial daughters would provide.

I became a Christian in early 2014 because televangelists kept saying my life would get better.

“God wants to give you beauty for ashes,” they said.

They left out the part about God wanting to burn everything to the ground first. Here’s just a sampling of what has happened to me since that day:

  • I lost my job my first day of vacation on Kauai (October 2014).
  • My cat Titus died unexpectedly and painfully (NYE 2014).
  • My excellent credit rating tanked, and my debt increased as I worked a $9/hour job because I couldn’t find anything else.
  • I lost my ability to go to my gym (i.e., my happy place).
  • I lost my ability to get my roots done for months (thank God Jared Leto and one of the Kardashians made that awful ombre look popular).
  • I lost my ability to travel (which is the only thing aside from my gym that makes me happy).
  • I had to give up having a car when my lease expired.
  • I had to walk 2.7 miles to a library and 2.7 miles home — during winter — in Cleveland – to use Wi-Fi to freelance.
  • The library had to call an ambulance for me in December 2015, and after nine hours on a morphine drip, I learned I have a kidney condition that could cause kidney failure or death.
  • I developed osteoarthritis in my hip, which feels like rusty jaws of life clamping down on my entire leg (not fun when you have to walk three miles to the closest grocery store – in the snow).
  • A few times, I’ve gone up to five days without food (the Bible says we’re worth more than sparrows and that, like birds, we are not to worry about what we’ll eat because God will supply it, but God’s idea of giving us what we need and our idea of giving us what we need are two different things).
  • I had to move from a high-rise condo on the lake to a slumlord-owned condo that’s more of a trailer park/halfway house because the guy beneath me is an alcoholic, country music-blaring redneck who was wearing an ankle bracelet when I moved in and went back to jail for a week in December, the woman across from me is an alcoholic, and the woman next to her is a recovering alcoholic. I also have mushrooms (technically, domicile cup fungus) growing along one bedroom wall.

And as if all of that weren’t bad enough, I went back to school at age 28, double majored in English and communication, graduated summa cum laude, and even though the creative writing program director (who graduated from Princeton) said I was “one of five or six of the most naturally talented writers he’d met in 20 years of teaching,” I still cannot find a magazine editing job eight years later.

But NEVER HAVE I EVER considered killing someone because of my troubles. What happened in Cleveland on Easter sickened and saddened me.

For those who haven’t heard or read the news, 37-year-old Steve Stephens pulled up alongside 74-year-old Robert Godwin Sr., told someone on the phone, “Found me somebody I’m going to kill, this guy right here, this old dude,” exited his car, and shot the father of 10 in the head for a video he uploaded to Facebook. He blamed the murder on his girlfriend and mother.

I will respect the family’s wishes by not sharing the video, but I think it needs to be shared. This is a teachable moment. People in this world have ZERO respect for life, much less death. (I won’t get into the fact that people were debating death and dignity on the weekend of the crucifixion, but it merits a mention.)

Since this video has gotten people talking, #sorrynotsorry, the following subjects need to be discussed.

First, people have sought out “Faces of Death”-type websites for years. This is what happens when people become desensitized.

Second, although thousands of people lambasted CNN for posting a story about first-person shooter games last night, they’re a problem, like it or not, play them or not. Some people are not mentally capable of handling certain things. That’s why some employers make applicants undergo rigorous screening.

And that leads me to the shooter: “Stevie Steve,” as he called himself on Facebook. According to heavy.com, he was a children’s behavioral health agency case manager.

Kinda makes you wonder who’s teaching, mentoring, or allegedly counseling your child, doesn’t it?

I don’t care what anyone says, this guy clearly has a mental illness himself. Everyone is born with a conscience. If you pull up alongside an elderly man, instruct him to say your girlfriend’s name, say, “She’s the reason this is about to happen to you,” and shoot him, something is wrong with you – and it isn’t physical. So let’s stop talking about the “stigma” of mental illness, and let’s start talking about the things mentally ill people are doing and how prescribing pills and sending them on their way isn’t helping.

In closing, yes, people die every day in all sorts of horrendous ways. But if an elderly man in your community is killed like this, and you can continue to share vapid, worthless Facebook posts, that says something about you, Cleveland.

My heart goes out to Mr. Godwin’s family.

Mr Godwin RIP

 

 

Chapter 10: How Domestic Violence Affected Me (Part IV: Debt and Codependent Relationships)

memory-lossBreaking up with a blackout drunk in favor of a guy who’d practiced tang soo do for years wasn’t a difficult decision. Whereas the latter would protect me if my father tried to kill me as he’d threatened a number of times since he started beating my mom in 1984, the former would wake up next to my dead body and wonder what happened. Moving in and continuing to live with the guy who’d practiced tang soo do for years, on the other hand, were beyond my control.

Cohabitation Under Duress

scared_eavesdroppingOne summer night in 1996, I made the mistake of coming home a couple of minutes before curfew. After walking into my bedroom and biting into the blueberry muffin I’d brought home from the movie theater, I heard my mom whimper. Since I’d only heard her make that sound when my father grabbed her by the throat, I froze, stared at my closet, which adjoined my parents’ closet, and strained to hear what was going on while I debated whether to call the police.

Just as I pulled my flip phone from my purse, my father grunted as he ejaculated, and my parents’ bedsprings squeaked as he rolled off of my mom.

The next day, after he backed his F-150 out of our long, gravel driveway, I went downstairs to yell at her.

“I thought he was killing you! I don’t need to hear that shit,” I said, swearing at her for the first time in my 21 years on the planet. “You know when curfew is! Do that shit when I don’t have to hear it!”

kissing_santa_clausMy mom, who’d given up sobriety to appease my father by this point in time, laughed at me like I was a little girl scolding her for kissing Santa Claus.

“It’s not fucking funny!” I said. “I’m traumatized enough as it is.”

Releasing the back of the breakfast bar stool I’d been gripping to retreat to my room and binge eat Banana Twins, I remembered her telling my father about a bad report card senior year, so he’d get off her case for a while. He’d yelled at me to come downstairs, ordered me to sit on the middle stool, asked me why I was so stupid, and when I’d glared at him instead of crying, he’d volleyed my face between his hands, hitting me left-right-left-right-left-right, as my mom bawled and begged him to stop.

“You’d better not tell him I said anything,” I warned. But apparently her wine cooler-addled brain translated this to: “Make sure you tell him about my tirade the second he comes home,” because I barely had time to curse at her under my breath, sit up on my daybed, and bring my knees to my chest before my father slammed my door into my dresser, rocking my 13-inch TV.

“Your mother told me what you said,” he said. “This is MY house. I’ll do whatever the hell I want whenever the hell I want. Do you understand me?”

“Okay,” I said meekly. I hated the fear in my voice, but it pacified him, so he went back downstairs after flipping me off.

He wasn’t done though. Just as he’d parked my car at the end of our yard and taped a “for sale” sign to the windshield the day after he’d slapped me repeatedly, he sat at the kitchen counter the next morning while I ironed a $79 silk skirt for work and told me to start paying rent or get out.

debt_behind_the_8ballDespite promising myself I would never cry in front of him again, I burst into tears for two reasons. First, because I was sure he’d kill my mom after I moved. Second, because I’d spent every cent I’d earned at Macy’s on clothes, shoes, and car payments. I also owed The Limited $1,500.

If I’d paid attention all the times my father had ranted about being in debt and realized he was partly to blame because he’d bought brass faucets and accessories for the remodeled bathroom, traded his truck and my mom’s car for brand-new models every two years, and spent thousands of dollars on his bowhunting hobby and archery tournaments, I might’ve saved money for a security deposit and rent. But I doubt it. My sole goal was to keep my mom from being killed, and that required my presence. And since my father had always threatened our lives, it never occurred to me to plan for a future. Instead, once I started working, I tried to make each day as livable as possible with pretty things the same way he’d tried to stave off his own unhappiness with stuff and filled my diabetic and epileptic brother’s bedroom with every toy he asked for after doctors predicted he would die by age 17.

my convertibleRather than teach me about budgets, interest, and negative equity, he’d cosigned for a convertible when I was 19, turning my $186-per-month car payment into a $310-per-month car payment. To decrease my expenses, I tried to trade it for something cheaper. When he found out I’d gone “behind his back” by asking our neighbor, who was a mechanic and his best friend, to look under the hood of an Escort I was considering, he stopped speaking to the guy, stuffed everything I owned into Hefty bags while I was at work, threw them in the spare bedroom, and forced me to sleep on the floor beside them until a coworker helped my boyfriend and me move a month later.

My Codependent Protector

Intentionally or intuitively, domestic violence survivors and children of alcoholics often wind up dating alcoholics, addicts, gamblers, and people who are mentally ill, immature, or irresponsible because codependent relationships make them feel needed, in control, or superior to their partner.

lots-of-alcoholI started dating Jason because it was nice to be with someone who took care of me for a change. After binge eating for years, I’d become a binge drinker to tolerate my alcoholic ex-boyfriend’s antics, and I continued to chug four or five Long Islands per night when Jason and I went to the Flats during its Mardi Gras-like heydey. Once my head hit the table, he gave me orgasmic scalp massages that melted every muscle I’d put knots in the past 12 years as I listened to my father beat and yell at my mom.

The night my enabler in shining armor charged into Trilogy’s ladies’ room, scooped me off the floor of a stall, and rushed me through the VIP room, down a flight of stairs, across the crowded dance floor, down another set of stairs, outside, and up the club’s concrete fire escape, where I rolled toward the edge and hurled, I felt like Whitney Houston in “The Bodyguard.”

Cohabitation killed this sort of romance and heroism because we couldn’t afford to go out anymore. And technically, I learned, Jason never could. He’d somehow sunk $10,000 of credit card debt into his computer, and it skyrocketed to $30,000 when he neglected to pay his bills on time, so his mom—i.e., one of Macy’s breakroom biddies who’d gossiped about me for years and now resented me for stealing her 25-year-old baby of eight children—paid them from their joint checking account.

In other words, I’d unknowingly locked myself into a year-long lease with a mama’s boy whose codependent mother had zero incentive to pay his half of the utilities because if the heat got shut off, he’d have to come home. Consequently, our new pastime became fighting about his 17-mile-long umbilical cord—and the Library of Congress-sized folder full of porn on his desktop.

Chapter 9: How Domestic Violence Affected Me (Part III: Unhealthy Relationships)

Girl_crush_on_boyIn high school, I envied girls who had boyfriends and developed crushes on football players and nerds who sat beside or in front of me and talked to me as they used my desk to do tricep dips or passed me papers. The year my mom said short stories I’d written to make her proud were “warped,” I fell for a skater boy who read them instead of his “Grapes of Wrath” homework and urged me to write more. I didn’t care what guys looked like or what they wanted to do with their life after they graduated. I would’ve followed them to the edge of the Earth—or their vert ramp—simply because they acknowledged my existence. This lack of selectivity—i.e., desperation for affection—and the fact that domestic violence survivors and children of alcoholics tend to:

set me up for a series of unhealthy relationships with “wildly inappropriate people,” to quote a Carrie Bradshaw spiel from “Sex and the City.”

Frankly, after growing up in my own private Guantanamo with a father who beat my mom and a mentally handicapped brother who made as much noise as possible and delighted in getting me yelled at by repeating, “Good morning,” until I got sick of saying it back and snarled, I don’t like people who make life harder than it has to be. Unfortunately, that’s who I attract.

semper fi do or die memeThe trend began with a Marine I met while working in Macy’s young men’s department at age 18. He bought jeans, complimented my smile, and asked for my phone number. After calling a couple of times from his Virginia Beach base, he sent me jewelry with cheap pink stones and a mixed tape with Silk’s song “Freak Me.” Since my father was recording all incoming and outgoing calls to catch my mom cheating on him, and he’d dragged me to his Baptist church for months after finding a Guns N’ Roses tape in my dresser, I shipped everything back with a note telling the Marine not to contact me anymore.

A few days later, I received a scrawly suicidal letter asking, “Why did you lead me so far?”

When I didn’t reply, he mailed a letter that said I should be the one who died, not him, and he’d be home for Thanksgiving.

This scared me into filing my first restraining order. It also caused me to start dating coworkers because spending 40 hours a week with them enabled me to inspect their fingernails for traces of blood or gun powder residue and ferret out personality defects in a public place. Or so I thought.

Mr. Tall, Dark, and Damaged

A week before Thanksgiving, I saw “Carlito’s Way” with a coworker my friend Angie had introduced me to during the summer with an ear-to-ear smile, sensing she’d made a love connection. He was 6-foot-5 and had the cute “Hardcastle and McCormick” actor’s curls and smile, so I’d told her I doubted this highly as we’d giggled our way back to our departments from the breakroom. But for the rest of that afternoon, every time I’d felt someone staring at me and glanced toward men’s furnishings, he’d looked away and pretended to be straightening the belt rack.

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By the time I picked him up for the movie, we’d gone on several breaks together, and he’d told me about a teacher who’d molested him and made him question his sexuality, but I had no idea the 27 year old lived with his parents—or that he’d wave me in to meet them on our first date.

After sitting stick-straight in the theater with at least three inches of space between our body parts at all times, the night ended with an awkward handshake and a nagging suspicion that my four-month-long nervousness around him wasn’t butterflies.

The Alcoholic

beware_the_guy_who_likes_80s_musicMark McCormick and I went Christmas shopping in December, took occasional breaks together the following year, and talked about ’80s music as we worked, but I continued to feel shy around him, and he remained stilted around me, so when a coworker in the mattress department dialed my extension to invite me to a manager’s Halloween party, I said yes.

Of course, Mark McCormick attended the party, too, making me feel terrible every time I caught him watching my date, who’d dressed in red horns, and me. But faced with the decision of dating someone who made me anxious, dying alone, or pursuing a relationship with the devil, I chose to keep going out with the 27-year-old mattress salesman I’d conversed with during his stint in the young men’s department. At the time, with his thus-far-useless journalism degree, disheveled hair, partly untucked dress shirt, rolled-to-the-elbows sleeves, Camel habit, and dark sense of humor, he’d seemed like the tortured-artist type.

He turned out to be an alcoholic.

For a while, dating him was fun because I was underage and never got carded at bars he’d frequented before we met. Then, he started passing out in restaurants and stumbling into the store drunk during my evening shifts because he’d seen me chatting with Mark McCormick earlier in the day. The fun officially ended when he began romanticizing the movie “Leaving Las Vegas,” and the caretaker part of my personality donned a cape and decided to save him from drinking himself to death a la Nicolas Cage’s character.

Once nagging him to stop drinking backfired because he ordered O’Doul’s and made so many faces and sarcastic remarks that I told him to get a real damn beer and shut up, I tried to distract him from liquor cravings by making out with him in darkened parking lots of hospitals, doctor’s offices, and parks, where every police officer in Lorain County saw me in various states of undress because I still lived with my parents, my boyfriend lived with his widowed mother, and neither of us could afford a hotel room until New Year’s Eve, when he sprang for a Radisson reservation to take my virginity.

ESFJLike the you-could-do-a-lot-better episode of “Seinfeld,” my interest in saving him waned after one cop knocked on my window with his flashlight and asked, “Do you wanna be with this guy?” It was his way of asking if I was being raped, but I started to ask myself the same question. The alcoholic’s erections were an instant return on investment of time and effort since I wasn’t attracted to two-thirds of his face, including the semicircular nicotine stain shading the bottom of his two front teeth like a child’s drawing of sunset, but even for a people-pleasing, self-sacrificing ESFJ, it’s hard to rescue someone you resent.

Throughout our relationship, he’d continued to drink, embarrass me in public, and call me by his sole ex-girlfriend’s name. He also complimented my intelligence and encouraged me to go to college but turned every conversation into a game of chess that segued into an argument. Coworkers constantly asked, “Are you two fighting again?”

Worse, I knew I’d never be able to pursue a writing career as long as we were together because although he likened his writing to Hunter S. Thompson’s, he’d failed as a reporter at “The Morning Journal” he called “The Urinal.”

I accepted his spontaneous proposal as I drove us around downtown Cleveland beneath fireworks our second New Year’s Eve together because I was 20 and naïve enough to think he would change, because I knew I’d need to move out soon and wouldn’t be able to afford rent on my $6.20 per hour salary, and because it would’ve been an even longer drive back to Amherst if I hadn’t.

I demoted him from fiance to boyfriend in title only after he saw me talking to Mark McCormick at a coworker’s Super Bowl party, got drunk, stormed out, and tossed the leather jacket I’d bought him out his car window on his way home. The look on his face—and potential drama at Macy’s, where I now wrapped gifts, prepared the bank deposit, and enjoyed my job—prevented me from severing ties because previous attempts had provoked slurred, suicidal-sounding phone calls. I had enough to worry about with violence escalating at home, so it was just easier to endure an occasional date even though the baritone voice that initially attracted me to him had turned into a mosquito-esque drone.

red_hair_breakup_hairTo cope during particularly exasperating evenings, I took a cue from him and drank to the verge of alcohol poisoning. This provided an escape hatch once my head hit the table, but after he deliberately scalded my scalp beneath his mother’s bathtub faucet before rinsing Long Island iced tea vomit from my hair, I cut the waist-length locks he loved up to my ears, buzzed the back, dyed the new ‘do red, and began dating the former coworker who’d tagged along on dates for months to carry him to the car and drive us home.

I hoped that since Boyfriend A was so smart, he’d catch on to Boyfriend B and bow out. I never imagined it would take eight months of refusing to hold his hand and a move to a one-bedroom apartment with the new beau. Then again, I didn’t realize I was exchanging one set of problems for another, that I would do so time and time again for the next 20 years, or that an eventual relationship with Mark McCormick would precipitate a 36-hour stay in a psych ward.

Retail Therapy (Three Ways a Job at the Mall Improved My Self-Esteem—and Why You Shouldn’t Rely on One to Do the Same)

If you lived in a small town pre-internet and f’d up your future by worrying more about your father killing your mom than your grades, you had four job options post-high school graduation: salesperson at the local mall, burger flipper at a fast-food franchise, pump jockey at a gas station, or kennel assistant at a vet clinic.

gas-station-fireSince a Newfoundland nearly raped me at Amherst Animal Hospital, I’d set my fingernails on fire during chemistry, and a food-service position was unwise for a woman with binge-eating disorder, I took a former sociology classmate’s sister’s suggestion and applied at Macy’s, where she worked. But this wasn’t an easy decision. The thought of having to approach every customer who entered my department, make eye contact, and smile was just as nerve-racking as giving an oral report had been since I suffered from low self-esteem, courtesy of:

  • stuck-up Amherst students who’d shunned or made fun of me since fourth grade
  • a father who called my mom ugly, which, I believed, made me ugly by default
  • a brother who brought home chicken pox that left a lunar crater on my cheek sophomore year
  • a complexion prone to Proactiv commercial-type breakouts before Proactiv existed to help me, and
  • a flat chest.

After tossing and turning a few nights, the only thing that got me into Macy’s training room was the infamous plant experiment in which the plant that was insulted withered while the plant that was complimented thrived. When I was 4 and my parents needed money for my newborn brother’s medical bills, my mom took me to a modeling agency that wanted to sign me until I suctioned myself to her leg and started screaming that I wanted to go home. As my mom escorted me into my first day of kindergarten, a blond boy approached us to say, “You’re perdy.” Years later, a little girl came up to me as my parents bowled in a league and said the same thing but pronounced the word properly. I remembered being happy back then.

If I can find people who are nice to me, I’ll be okay, I thought.

And ultimately, retail restored my self-worth and changed my life in three long-lasting ways.

First, Retail Enabled Me to Give Myself a Makeover

cat_t-shirtFrom fifth grade through high school, long before Target entered northeast Ohio with fashion-magazine-worthy designer collections, my parents took me to Kmart to buy back-to-school clothes. Worse, my mom sometimes shopped for summer clothes solo, so anytime it was warm, I was forced to sport leopard-print T-shirts or tops adorned with almond-shaped eyes and glittery whiskers because the only thing she knew about me was that I liked cats.

I knew she meant well, so I felt bad for making her cry during an emotional—and probably premenstrual—tirade at age 13. But her realization that classmates were taunting me prompted her to take my Christmas wish lists a little more seriously since, despite raising me with an abuser like her father, she’d always wanted me to have a better childhood than her own.

Unfortunately, as the Fresh Prince said, parents just don’t understand. So instead of popular-and-pure-white Princess Reeboks appearing beneath the tree that year, I eagerly opened a Reebok box to a pair with peach stripes because “they were prettier.” Then, because social isolation had turned the girl who’d walked on wooden cable spools with a friend in her former neighborhood into a klutz who frequently “forgot” her gym clothes to get out of having to participate, I bumped a bottle of red paint during art class, and it spilled onto my left shoe. Not only did I regret ruining a present, but every time I tied my laces, the stain reminded me of the locker room scene in “Carrie.”

With those memories fresh in mind, I used my employee discount to reduce the price of Nine Wests and spent the remainder of every paycheck on classic pieces from The Limited. I also taught myself to walk like a model via mirrored pillars throughout the store, hoping my hips, pretty clothes, and high heels would divert attention from flaws.

Twenty years later, I still get compliments on those clothes, my taste in shoes, and my walk, which inspired a boyfriend to put Pet Shop Boys’ “Domino Dancing” on a mixed tape—and possibly prevented me from being assaulted on the street. When you project confidence, you look tough, “and a tough target never gets picked,” self-defense expert Tony Stengel told Oprah in the ’90s.

Second, I Flourished as an ESFJ

Sunflower Breaks ThroughAs 16personalities.com says, “ESFJs love to be of service, enjoying any role that allows them to participate in a meaningful way, so long as they know that they are valued and appreciated.” I’ve enjoyed helping people since my third-grade teacher gave me dopamine rushes by letting me fetch the gym closet keys from the principal and redecorate her classroom, but I couldn’t do a damn thing to help my mom. So you can imagine my elation when the assistant store manager promoted me from the sales floor to customer service, where I:

  • balanced the registers and vault to prepare the bank deposit
  • sold Ticketmaster tickets
  • resolved customers’ complaints
  • answered phones
  • made change for sales associates
  • paged stock guys, and
  • announced Lancome bonus gifts over the PA system while wrapping vacuum cleaners in flimsy tinfoil bridal registry paper.

I smiled the rest of the day when customers I’d made Martha Stewart-esque bows for in the past told me they’d waited for me to return from lunch or break instead of settling for someone else’s handiwork. Consequently, I left that job knowing I needed a creative career that provided both positive feedback and a variety of tasks that would distract my brain from whatever might be going on at home since there was nothing I could do about it at work anyway.

Third, I Made Friends

When you feel good about yourself, people enjoy being around you, so I attracted a diverse cast of characters, including:

  • a flamboyant 50-something-year-old gay guy who took me to a wedding reception as his date because I was “the classiest woman” he knew
  • a guy with strabismus who could see straight enough to win drag races at Norwalk Raceway and strapped me into his passenger seat one weekend
  • an adopted drug addict and troublemaker who looked like Jose Jalapeno on a Stick and became my drinking buddy
  • a Valley girl-sounding nursing student who did coke and turned me onto bronchodilators to stay thin
  • a mild-mannered black woman in the lingerie department who kept me sane while I was stuck across the aisle in children’s, and
  • a feminist college student who read me an abortion story I’ll never forget.

miranda_in_hawaii-copyI had no shortage of interesting people to talk to, but old-timers Jude, Joan, and Betty were my favorite. All three are long gone, so I sometimes wonder if Jude’s looking down at me, still disapproving of my dating decisions by running his hand over his face and saying, “Oh, for heaven’s sake.” I’d like to think Joan, a spunky 67 year old who’d divorced an abusive husband and regaled me with road-trip tales from her 20s before moving back to Nevada, and Betty, a pocket-sized, silver-haired southern belle who divorced an abusive husband and moved back to South Carolina, watch over me with a smile as I travel by myself. If it weren’t for them, I never would’ve had the courage—even after meeting men who’d f’d up their own future, expected me to restore their self-worth, and made me want to run far, far away.

The Risks of Basing Your Self-Esteem on External Factors: Some Advice for the Selfie Generation

A 24-year-old woman told the Guardian that if she only gets two likes for a picture she uploaded to Instagram, she wonders what’s wrong with her. Another millennial said she deletes selfies that garner less than 140 likes “because I think I probably didn’t look good enough for my followers.” I wish women could see how sick that is. But little did I realize in my late teens and early 20s that basing my self-worth on my appearance, job performance, and friendships was like building a house on sand because:

An illness would later cause half of my hair to fall out in two weeks’ time.

A distracted Volvo driver would ruin my runway walk for six months by forcing me to limp and then cause osteoarthritis that generated swear words with every step years later.

volvo-injury-causes-you-to-limp-for-six-months

A scary lump would crop up overnight.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

A sudden, severe wheat allergy would turn my complexion from this:

clear_complexion

into a two-month breakout like this:

wheat_allergy

and a year-long scar like this:

wheat_allergy_scar

Nor did I realize that future employers would lay me off, twice while I was on vacation, or that technological advances would rob friends of any manners they once had.

you_can_update_your_status_but_cant_text_me_back

It was a long and painful road to get there, but I’ve reached the point that I no longer care what people think and say about me. Don’t get me wrong. I appreciate compliments as much as everyone else. But sharing embarrassing stories and photos may help others overcome their self-esteem issues, and I’d rather be remembered for empathy than vanity. Besides, as T.D. Jakes once said, “You’d be surprised how sexy ‘nice’ is.”

Case in point, inspirational speaker Nick Vujicic, who was born without limbs:

married her:

nick_vujicic_wife

So remember that the next time you’re stressing out about filters, angles, lighting, and likes.

Intermission: How a Teen with Low Self-Esteem Wound up Working Retail (or My Short Stint as a Kennel Assistant)

childhood_pets_pooh_and_scrappyAs a child, I aspired to become a vet because bad things always happened to my cats. Some disappeared, leaving me to wonder whether my father drowned them in our pool as he threatened with every litter. Most were killed while crossing the road in search of better food than the cheap kibble he bought. Others suffered. For example, Pooh’s tail was partially severed one day while I was at school. Did my father slam it in a door? Did our redneck neighbor’s children chop it with the hatchet they kept in a tree trunk? I don’t know. But when he turned around after trotting down our gravel driveway to greet me at the bus stop as he did every day, I burst into tears and nearly threw up when I noticed three inches of bare bone above the rest of his orange tail, which trailed along behind him like a wedding dress train. Instead of taking him to the vet to have that part detached humanely, my father stomped on it, prompting Pooh to run and abandon three-quarters of his tail.

happy_dog_vet_hospitalWhen I applied for a job as kennel assistant at a veterinary hospital after high school graduation, I envisioned myself prepping pets for surgery–i.e., placing the little anesthesia cone over their muzzle while humming “Rock-a-Bye Baby”–and then handing mended pups and kittens to grateful children.

Since nothing in my life has ever gone the way I hoped, I hosed poop and urine from kennel floors and tried not to get mauled.

I started my job July Fourth weekend when apparently every family in Lorain County dumps its dog at a kennel to keep it from freaking out during fireworks. In groups of six, I led 81 dogs to chain-link kennels behind the hospital. Once they were allegedly caged, I went back inside to spray, mop, and squeegee the indoor kennels before bringing those six inside and escorting another group out.

During my few weeks as kennel assistant, I learned that Chihuahuas can dig a hole really fast and run even faster. I learned that German shepherds will tell you they prefer to stay inside on a 90-degree day by gripping your wrist with their teeth as you attempt to attach a leash to their collar. And I learned why a coworker warned me not to let a tall, black Newfoundland named Kody–short for Kodiac bear–get behind me.

“Grab his collar close to the side of his neck and lead him like a horse,” she said.

everything-happens-for-a-reasonUsually, I did. But like the guy who goes into the factory to work a little overtime and gets sucked into a lathe by his sleeve because his mind drifted for a second, I took one step ahead of Kody because he was lumbering slower than usual on a morning that I had a migraine and desperately wanted to escape the nonstop barking and howling. Spotting an opportunity, in slow motion, just like a horror movie, Kody reared up on his hind legs, towered over my 5-foot-8 frame, and pinned me against the door.

I never asked what veterinary assistant Melanie Seal was doing there so early–perhaps she was prepping the little anesthesia cone she would later place over a pet’s muzzle while humming “Rock-a-Bye Baby”–but if she hadn’t come along and wrangled him, I would’ve given birth to a litter of puppies a couple of months later.

Knowing my father would’ve threatened to drown them, too, I quit the next day.

Chapter 8: How Domestic Violence Affected Me (Part II: Loneliness and Low Self-Esteem)

Comedian Louis C.K. once said men are “the No. 1 threat to women. Globally and historically, we’re the No. 1 cause of injury and mayhem to women. We’re the worst thing that ever happens to them.” You don’t have to convince a domestic violence survivor of that, but we still want to be loved. So like a lot of women who listened to their father beat and berate their mom, I entered the dating world with a couple of eating disorders and a short, pathetic list of parameters: My boyfriend would never hit me, call me names, or embarrass me in public.

Other than that, since it was the ’90s and I’d seen “Singles,” I resigned myself to settling for someone who blessed me when I sneezed and loved animals because, as Louis C.K. also said, some people are so ugly that no one ever kisses them or has sex with them.

“Nobody touches their genitals their entire life,” he said. “They just wash it and then they die.”

For years, I thought that would be me.

In the Beginning, There Was Abandonment

My parents couldn’t afford to send me to preschool, and my newly wed and new-to-Ohio mom was so lonely that they wouldn’t have sent me anyway, so for the first four years of my life, she served as my only friend and teacher. We played at the park, she taught me how to read and write, and I followed her around the house, filling the void my father left while he worked at Ford all night and slept all day.

After we moved to Lorain and her OB-GYN clamped my brother’s head too hard with forceps, causing brain damage, diabetes, and epilepsy, she peeled me from her leg, laced me into roller skates, set me on the sidewalk, and instructed me to go make friends.

heart_name_pin_80s_mirandaFortunately, Forest Lane was full of little girls who occupied my time while my mom cared for my brother, fielded long-distance calls from family members about her suicidal mother, and drank. Three became constant companions. When Emily and I weren’t tucking ourselves into aerodynamic peroxide-blond balls and coasting down the C-shaped slope at the end of the street with the wind hitting our teeth, Kay and I tended daffodils we’d planted in the front yard of a fire-ravaged house we’d explored. If Emily and Kay were grounded, which was often, Kelly and I walked her Irish setter or sat atop the sun-warmed transformer box in her yard and talked about important matters, such as the heart-shaped pins at Spencer’s that were emblazoned with every girl in the neighborhood’s name but mine.

The formerly shy child who’d adhered herself to her mom’s hip, forcing her to gimp through the grocery store, even became a Brownie when a black family bought the house behind our duplex and invited me to attend the Girl Scout meetings it held after “Good Times” reruns. But I needed more than camaraderie and the merit badge my father earned for selling the most cookies.

The Making of an ESFJ Personality

miranda_millerAt school, I learned that I love attagirls, so I became even more of a people pleaser and rule follower than my mom had raised me to be. In exchange for my goodness, teachers put me in charge of the class when they left the room, and my third-grade teacher, Ms. Danicki, trusted me to fetch the gym closet keys from the principal each week, which made me feel special and valued.

I don’t know whether word spread after I told my kindergarten teacher that my mom shook me so hard that I fell and hurt my arm or if Ms. Danicki just sensed that I didn’t have anyone hanging my artwork on the refrigerator at home, but when seasons changed or holidays neared, she handed me a stack of construction paper and a stapler and let me redecorate her classroom. Likewise, I was too young to know about liver cancer, but I could tell from her yellow skin and the brown semicircles beneath her eyes that she was sick, so I helped her as much as I could. “A”-filled report cards praised my manners, imagination, and compassion for others — presumably compassion for her but regardless of what she meant, kindness soon became my downfall.

My Rapid Descent from Teacher’s Pet to Pariah

While I was getting what I needed from other people, my mom was fulfilling her needs with my father’s best friend. So the summer before fourth grade, when flashbacks of walking in on them apparently became unmanageable, my father uprooted my family from Forest Lane and dumped me in the Amherst school district, where compassion wasn’t part of the curriculum. Not only did administrators ship my brother via short bus to a poverty-stricken city 10 miles away because special ed teachers didn’t want to deal with all of his disabilities, but the all-white student body taught me that even though the fire whistle telling black people to get out of town still blew at 6 p.m., the people who lived there were not equal.

As I got older, I realized that I’d been demoted from popular new girl to outcast because I’d befriended the obese, greasy-haired girl with the lisp and the mothball-scented girl who wore cameo necklaces and cardigans. But when I was 9, I couldn’t understand why everyone else stopped talking to me. I was nice and anytime someone needed a pencil or sheet of paper, I was the first person to share.

Once my father started holding my mom off the floor by her throat and calling her a slut loud enough for neighbors to hear, I spent so much time curled up in the nurse’s station with a stomachache that ostracism didn’t matter as much. And eventually, being ignored became preferable to the alternative.

The Bullying Effect

moms_calendarAfter the mothball-scented girl moved, and I severed ties with the obese girl because her creepy older brother handcuffed me to a kitchen chair he’d carried to his bedroom to give me birthday spankings, my cats became my only friends. This would’ve been fine if they hadn’t died in quick succession while crossing the road—and if I hadn’t gone to school with Scott Foster who thought it was funny.

The umpteenth time I arrived at my desk unable to stop sobbing because the sound of a snow shovel scraping Puffy off the cement as I waited for the bus stayed stuck in my head like song lyrics, he stopped calling me Miranda Panda in favor of Miranda Miller Kitty-Cat Killer. Every time he said it from that day forward, I remembered the many friends my mom buried in our back yard and got teary.

But at least he and I had a history of chasing each other during recess. When Rebecca Russell broadsided me by yelling across our sixth-grade reading class, “Hey, Miranda, will you go with Mark?” and followed my answer with, “See? Even Miranda doesn’t want to be your girlfriend,” I spent the rest of the day wondering a) why she’d picked on me when we’d never spoken one word to each other and b) why unattractive people were automatically popular just because their parents could afford Forenza sweaters.

If anything good came out of how I grew up, it’s that I would never treat people the way I was treated. But by the time I graduated from high school and started working at Macy’s, I was so eager to talk to anyone who would listen that I immediately attracted the wrong men—and my loneliness, low self-esteem, and compassion compelled me to stay in relationships with them far too long.

Chapter 7: How Domestic Violence Affected Me (Part I: Sound Sensitivity & Eating Disorders)

At the risk of riling up the self-righteous writers of nearly 2.6 million articles that surface when you click Google’s autocomplete suggestion “stop blaming your parents for your problems,” the domestic violence I endured as a child affected my adulthood by shaping my personality and impacting both my physical and mental health. For example, much to future door-slamming neighbors’ dismay, I became super sensitive to sounds. I also developed eating disorders.

An Aversion to Noise (and the Oak Ridge Boys)

Afraid that my father would choke my mom to death or that my diabetic, epileptic, and mentally handicapped brother would die from a seizure and get me in trouble, I honed my hearing so I could listen to what was going on downstairs and across the hall while I lipread “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” episodes on Nick at Nite.

When you can hear a dog whistle, electric saws, sanders, and drills are a million times more annoying than usual, but as my parents renovated our century-old farmhouse for a decade, I also braced myself for a scream. Anytime my undoubtedly red-faced father shouted, “HOLD IT,” I thought for sure he was about to run a circular saw across my mom’s fingers. It was a fair assumption since he’d already broken a couple.

As if the foregoing, his undiagnosed intermittent explosive disorder, and his obnoxious yawning, stomping, and country music, which vibrated my pillow via 3-foot-tall speakers, weren’t enough to fray my nerves, he kept my brother, Bo, from bothering him by buying whatever he wanted and then exiting stage right to mow our 4-acre field.

While I attempted to do homework, Bo, who not only blared the Game Show Network every hour he was awake but cheered and clapped for contestants, entertained himself with:

    • fisher-price-popcorn-popper
    • Super Simon
    • Operation
    • Hungry Hungry Hippos
    • three incarnations of Teddy Ruxpin because the loquacious bear developed lockjaw
    • a Yamaha keyboard triple the size of the synthesizer in A Flock of Seagulls’ “I Ran” video, and
    • Commodore 64’s “Clowns” game, which alone explains my 1.7 GPA.

Anorexia: A Potential Eject Button

I stopped eating the day my Aunt Mary visited from Pennsylvania to see how my parents were getting along after police officers coaxed my mom from a bridge to a psych ward. As she entered the back door I held open, she looked my mom up and down and said, “Anna Marie, you’re nothing but skin and bones.” She then glanced at me and said, “You’re skinny, too, but you’ll never be as thin as your mother.”

Until that point, I hadn’t realized it was a competition.

As I wasted away, felt faint, and fit into mini skirts my anorexic mom had worn in high school, I remembered reading that people starved to death. This little light bulb overhead became the goal. I’d thought about killing myself before but feared pain. I also didn’t want to screw up and become a burden to my mom, who already had to take care of my brother 24 hours a day. Anorexia seemed like an easy way to escape the noise and violence, plus I enjoyed having control over something — especially my own fate since my father was going to kill all of us sooner or later.

Eventually, guilt set in. If I died, there would be no one around to keep an ear on things, and he might follow through on his threat to hang my mom from a deer hook and skin her alive.

So I started eating again, and soon it became hard to stop.

Binge-Eating Disorder: The Silencer and Coping Mechanism

Food turned into an addiction for two reasons. First, as mentioned in “Everything Happens for a Reason (or Why I’m Like This),” I learned not to step between my parents at age 9, when my father shoved me against the refrigerator he’d choked my mom against and told me to shut my mouth or he’d shut it for me. But the older I got, the more tempted I was to tell him off. Sugar helped. Instead of intervening in tirades, I inhaled Little Debbies that I hid from my brother in a dresser drawer.

Second, as Christian speaker Joyce Meyer said in her book “Good Health, Good Life: 12 Keys to Enjoying Physical and Spiritual Wellness,” “Food is reliable. … Anytime we feel emotional pain or spiritual emptiness, whether through sadness, depression, or boredom, we can easily reach for food to numb the pain or fill the void.”

By the time I began binge eating at age 17, a country full of snack cake-filled Costcos couldn’t anesthetize the pain I felt, but the words “spiritual emptiness” weren’t part of my vocabulary. I believed in God, but for some reason he’d ignored prayers to protect my mom and keep my cats out of the road. Likewise, the 24″ x 36″ picture of Jesus’ face at the foot of our steep pine steps failed to prevent my father from yanking me down them by my wrist even though Jesus was looking right at him. As far as I was concerned, the framed Bible verses mounted among deer heads and hooves on our wood-paneled living room walls meant as much as the words printed on the newspapers stacked next to the rabbit cage.

Since the women I’d met from my father’s side of the family all weighed around 300 pounds, I guess it’s a good thing that he’d threatened to burst into my bedroom and beat me in the middle of the night like his dad did to him because I started lifting weights to be able to fight back long before I could drive to Dunkin’ Donuts. But shoveling a dozen crullers and cream-filled doughnuts down my throat in one sitting a couple of times per week was clogging my arteries, doing as-yet-unseen other damage, and depleting my energy.

To combat sugar crashes — and remain upright in general since depression runs on both sides of my family, or more likely, everyone gets depressed due to how they were raised — I listened to ‘80s new wave dance music nonstop. The fact that I still do probably pertains more to what actress Wendie Malick said in a Coastal Living article: “They say you spend your life trying to recreate the place where you were happiest growing up.” For me, that’s tucked inside song lyrics I sang before my mom had her first affair, my father began beating her, and I became a cliché.