A week into my underemployment at a grocery store this summer, a freshly tattooed 20-year-old in the deli department borrowed a pen from me in the bakery after showing me his forearm-long tribute to his grandfather and telling me he was tired from playing softball with his family before work. Maybe 10 minutes later, he returned it with an, “I brought it back!” like he was proud of himself.
“You seem like a nice lady,” he said, handing it to me. “I don’t want to do anything to change that.”
Six weeks later, I’m still marveling over that statement because he’d only borrowed a pen, but he realized how profoundly his actions might affect other people. If everyone thought that way, my life would’ve turned out a lot differently. But the fact is, people suck. Most suck because they’re selfish; others suck because they’re evil. That’s why God wiped out entire nations in the Old Testament and sent Jesus down here to show us how to live in the New Testament. It’s also why he allowed my parents and boyfriends to break me to the point I was diagnosed with PTSD, had a nervous breakdown, nearly killed myself one Christmas morning, and became a Christian 12 years later. God wants me to depend on him, and he has a purpose for me to fulfill. Unfortunately, that purpose involves everything I’ve been through, including constant betrayal – because some people are a constant problem.
How My Parents and Boyfriends Caused PTSD: One Blow After Another (or Non-Stop Trauma, Drama, and Treachery)
The acronym PTSD usually conjures the image of a shell-shocked veteran or car-accident victim, but I’ve learned that people can blindside you in a wide variety of ways. For example, in March of 1999, my mom confessed to cheating on my father – twice – with his best friends as she sifted through jewelry boxes and handed me sentimental-but-otherwise-worthless pieces she wanted me to have in case my increasingly violent father killed her now that he’d found out about the second affair. She’d denied the first one since 1984, when he began beating and choking her.
Two days after her confession, I sensed something was amiss in my own home, so I drove there during my lunch hour and discovered the mama’s boy/porn addict I’d been living with since my father forced me to start paying rent or get out in ’96 had packed his things and moved, leaving me with rent and utilities I wouldn’t have been able to afford on my $19,500-per-year salary even if my landlord’s son hadn’t jacked up the rent when he inherited the house.
I started dating my attractive, funny, and intelligent boss the last Friday of the month, when he strapped the mama’s boy’s mattresses to the roof of his car and moved them to my new apartment, but over the next three-and-a-half months, the player flirted with waitresses in front of me, took a bank teller two buildings from the office to a dinner-dance because he couldn’t be seen with his secretary, and supposedly fell asleep that night before he could call me as he’d promised. Days later, when I spotted a lipstick-stained wine glass beside an un-lipstick-stained wine glass on his kitchen counter, he told me his neighbor had borrowed them.
Knowing how previous trust-related conversations had gone, I bit my tongue anytime he mentioned the mid-July wedding he’d be attending stag the night before he moved halfway across the globe for work for three months because I didn’t know whether he’d RSVP’d before we started dating, he said he’d stop by on his way home, and I didn’t want to break up before his trip. But after he called me from the reception table where some guy asked, “Is that your girlfriend?” before yelling, “He’s flirting!” and then stood me up as I waited with cake-flavored shimmer powder glittering the cleavage of my negligee, I spent the rest of the night wondering where he was and why he hadn’t invited me to say goodbye at the airport with his other friends and family. After all, I was no longer his secretary. I’d moved on to one of Cleveland’s largest law firms, where I was paid $8,000 more per year and treated with respect. No one would dare walk up to my desk to tell me that my blue nail polish had inspired him to masturbate while fantasizing about me touching myself as one of his colleagues had. [#metoo]
Still shimmering, I went to the library at 9 a.m. and fired off an email for him to read once he landed.
Monday morning, I had one of my own. My eyes flicked past excuses (“I didn’t come over because I still had packing to do”) and conjecture (“the fact you would send such an email tells me your dating opportunities have increased tenfold at your new firm”) to the words that mattered most: “I think I like my sort of freedom.”
A week later, with that sentence and all the perversion attorneys at my old firm had told me about Japan ricocheting inside my head, I turned 24. Six days after that, my father got wasted after work, drove home, and ordered my mom to give him my address. She didn’t have it, but she’d denied cheating on him for nearly two decades so he didn’t believe her and beat her so badly that he went to jail for the weekend. Between collect calls commanding her to bail him out Tuesday morning, she packed everything she and my brother owned, and a secretary who’d given me $1,000 in March so I could move on from my own train wreck helped us cram everything into a storage unit before they fled to a domestic violence shelter for 30 days.
From age 9, when my father first held my mom off the floor by her throat, to age 24, when he was arrested, I’d watched her deteriorate from this:
Despite desperately wanting to move from Cleveland, Ohio, where seasonal depression rolled in with heavy cloud cover every September, to a sunnier climate, I’d stayed here in case she needed me even though she’d neglected me from age 4 onward to care for my diabetic, epileptic, and mentally disabled brother. Confirming that I’d made the right decision, she said, “I can’t keep going without seeing you,” the winter I had to keep in touch by phone because my father, who’d forbidden me from returning to the house, kept taking time off from work, preventing me from visiting.
When she T-boned me the following spring by admitting she’d lied for 15 years, I automatically shifted the blame for her affairs onto my father’s former best friends because she had low self-esteem. Her stepfather and priest had sexually abused her when she was a kid, and her husband constantly called her ugly – she was easy prey, I thought.
But after she and my brother left the shelter and rented rooms from a divorcee who’d recently started driving the school bus my mom had worked on since my brother started riding it in the ’80s, she repaid my sacrifice and devotion by telling me she missed my father, starting fights, and, later, advising me to see a shrink because I seemed “so angry.”
By then, I wasn’t angry. I was livid – and not because she was letting my father “walk all over her” by refusing to fight for the house, as she surmised in her journal.
When she first left him, I told myself she only missed him because they’d been together for 26 years. I figured that would subside a little more each day as she came and went as she pleased without him checking her odometer. When it didn’t, I tried to keep in mind that she was probably suffering from Stockholm syndrome or something similar. Why else would she miss someone who’d pointed a gun at her and made her beg for her life?
But as summer turned into fall, and fall became Christmas, resentment set in as she bemoaned the fact the court had ordered him to stay away from her for three years and wondered who he was taking to a wedding reception in Pennsylvania.
“Are you f_cking kidding me?” I had to restrain myself from shouting one day. “Your cheating caused all of this!”
It had also ruined my childhood and, by the looks of it, my life. Despite scoring at a 12th-grade level on proficiency tests in seventh grade, I hadn’t been able to concentrate in school because, as a child with a vivid imagination, I kept picturing my father hanging my mom from a deer hook and skinning her alive as he’d threatened. Since that’s the scene I expected to see when I walked in the back door every day, trudging past two police cars in the driveway at age 10 had only reinforced this fear. Consequently, I graduated with a 1.7 GPA and no real goals because my Xanax-popping father had also stood in the driveway, yelling that he was going to burn down the house with my mom, brother, and me inside of it. Aspiring to be or do anything seemed pointless considering it was only a matter of time before he killed us in a murder-suicide.
Since graduation, I’d been filling the void of a college education, fulfilling career, and loving husband with meaningless jobs, unhealthy relationships, and Krispy Kremes. I devoured dozens to stifle these thoughts because I didn’t want my mom, who’d stopped drinking from 1982, when her mom drank herself to death to escape her own abusive marriage, to 1996, when my father forced my mom to “party” with him, to start drinking again out of guilt. So, like a typical dysfunctional family, we ignored the real issues – i.e., drinking, cheating, lying, and playing the song “Friends & Lovers” on repeat for years like she had a death wish – and we fought about other things.
The day I showed up with newly highlighted hair, she said it looked better before I spent the $150, so I “took off in a huff,” according to her journal.
Since I’d taken off in a huff, she didn’t tell me when my brother went to the hospital with bacterial pneumonia for five days.
When I got mad about that, she didn’t invite me to his high-school graduation party.
In response to a note asking if she was trying to alienate me the Saturday I drove 25 miles to visit them only to find helium balloons, streamers, and other decorations while they dined at McDonald’s, she reminded me that my father used to leave her dry-erase board messages like, “Tell your boyfriends to stop calling and hanging up on me,” before he went to work and said she’d been praying for me because I was becoming just like him.
Meanwhile, as she earned $19,000 per year as a bus aide, took on a hectic lunchtime grill-cook position between shifts, and wondered how she was going to pay $1,227 out of pocket every month for my brother’s prescriptions, my father, who could’ve just taken his $81,000 salary and the woman he’d gone to Maryland with the Thanksgiving weekend after he heard about my mom’s second affair and moved on with his life, set out to make my mom pay for her infidelity for the rest of hers. And since the court had issued a no-contact order, he began by harassing anyone who might vouch for her in court as he fought for legal guardianship of the son he’d always threatened to kill by withholding insulin.
September 1, 1999 – one week after my mom and brother left the shelter – he called her only friend – i.e., his most recent best friend’s wife, the only friend the wife of a controlling abuser is allowed to have – to tell her that my mom was an alcoholic who’d slept with all of his friends. My 46-year-old father, who’d attended church most of his life, taken theology classes, and sang in the choir, also said she’d given herself all her bruises.
He called my mom’s boss at the bus garage to provide the same information.
September 21 and 22, using the phone number he’d found while ransacking my mom’s purse for my address the night before she fled, he left voicemails instructing me to tell her that he wanted to see my brother.
“My lawyer said she can call me without violating her restraining order,” he lied.
When he didn’t get a reply, he called me again a week later. This time, I made the mistake of answering the phone, thinking it was someone I’d just been talking to.
“It’s your dad,” he said, jarring me because he’d disowned me the day I moved out, I hadn’t heard his voice since he’d called me the week after my 23rd birthday to take a paternity test, and I’d never thought of him as a dad. I’d been calling him Billy Bob behind his back since I was 19, not knowing he’d tapped the phone. “I’d like to take you to dinner so you can get to know me.”
I furrowed my brow and shook my head like he was crazy. There was no way in hell I was meeting him anywhere or letting him pick me up. Now that my martial-artist boyfriend had moved to Columbus and he was about to lose half of the pension that had prevented him from divorcing my mom after walking in on her and his best friend when I was 4, I was more afraid of him than ever. Monday through Friday, as I left for work at the same time every morning, I descended the stairs facing the parking lot of my poorly chosen apartment building and wondered if he was aiming crosshairs at my head or heart through the glass.
When I replied that I knew enough about him, Dr. Jekyll turned into the father I was familiar with.
“Remember that time I yanked you down the steps and you peed your pants?” he asked.
“Remember me telling you I had just walked into the bathroom and I’d be down in a minute?” I asked.
“I don’t give a shit,” he said. “When I say move, you move.”
“Not anymore,” I said, angry that he would gloat about such a memory. “Is there anything else you wanted?” I didn’t want him calling me again. Ever.
He made a “kh” sound in disbelief or disgust and said, “You’ve got a hard heart, girl,” before repeating what he’d said the previous summer about knowing where to find him if I changed my mind and hanging up on me.
As though he’d cursed me, every guy I’d dated resurfaced, giving me opportunity after opportunity to prove him wrong.