“My mother is gifted with forgetfulness. She calls it a gift, anyway. It is a unique ability to simply forget the bad stuff.”
Don’t Look Back
My mother is gifted with forgetfulness. She calls it a gift, anyway. It is a unique ability to simply forget the bad stuff. The massive, hotel-room-wrecking fight we had in Aspen when I was fifteen? Gone. The time I fell asleep at the wheel on the 405 freeway? Nothing. Maybe it is a gift. There are certainly some things I wish I could forget. But there are also some things I desperately wish she could remember, because I cannot forget them and she is my last link to that past. Instead I am alone in my memories.
My father has a lot of problems. Had? I never know if I should refer to him in past or present tense. How do you characterize a loss that may or may not be permanent? I find myself switching between the two, never certain. Sometimes an old fear creeps up, that if I refer to him in the past tense I will make it come true.
When I was eleven years old, the weekly trip to McDonald’s was still an acceptable adventure. Simpler times, before all-too-illuminating documentaries. On this particular drive-thru day, I was in the backseat of my father’s car, him at the wheel and his off-again, on-again girlfriend in the front passenger seat, her enormous mane of blonde curls floating around the headrest like a yellowed cloud. It was the middle of the afternoon, not really a normal meal time, but my father resented having to bring me back to my mom’s house before dinner, so he liked to squeeze in the extra meal out of spite.
They were arguing. They fought a lot, and I can’t remember what this one was about. But all of a sudden, his hand was on her thigh, gripping it tightly just below her clinging skirt, his fingers creating white halos in her pale skin. She stopped talking so abruptly that I quit tracing hearts in the window to look forward at them.
“Mark, you’re hurting me.” Her voice shook, but it was firm. She kept staring straight ahead. It wasn’t the first time something like this happened, and it wouldn’t be the last. Not by a long shot.
“Not until you apologize and we settle this.”
Three seconds of silence. The heel of his hand dug into her thigh. Her skin was becoming a vivid red.
“Ok. I’m sorry. It won’t happen again.”
His hand retracted and he stroked her skin, as if he could erase the marks that would become a bruise within hours.
And just like that, it happened. A second of blind rage welled up in me and I made a wish. I wished that he would die. Almost immediately I took it back, closed my eyes and angled my face towards the sky, begging not to be taken seriously. I didn’t mean it. But for years afterward, every time he went missing on a binge or was hours late to pick me up, I felt real fear that my wish had come true.
There are things you learn as the child of an addict, specifically a bipolar alcoholic. You learn to be an adult, no matter how old you actually are. You learn to lie. Scientists estimate that children tell their first lies around age three, but I feel like I was born a liar. I’ve even made it my trade. The lies I told as a child were of a very different variety, of course. But most importantly, when you’re the child of an addict, you learn to keep secrets. For example, I didn’t tell my mom when he pushed his girlfriend down the stairs, her son screaming in the background. I didn’t tell her about the times he had no food in the kitchen, or the nights I woke up at two a.m., alone in the apartment. Why? I had learned long before that no one could help, that no matter what I said, what lies or truths I told, things wouldn’t change. Better not to cause more fighting.
Halloween 1998. It was my father’s turn for the holiday this year, but at home I had a new baby sister, dressed as a pumpkin, and I wanted to go trick-or-treating in my fantastically festive Santa Monica neighborhood. By that time my mom’s house was a legend in the area, garnering thousands of trick-or-treaters every year. I didn’t want to miss out, so my mom said she would ask my father if he would let me stay at home this year. He could even have an extra weekend. My presence had become the currency that bound them together, a seemingly never-ending begging and barter system.
At this point in my story, do you think he took kindly to my mom’s request? Of course he didn’t. His yells carried though the house, up the stairs, and to my room, where I was lying on the bed and staring at my ceiling, hoping he would just leave. My mom managed to shut the door in his face, but then he began pounding his fists on the wood, making the doors shake on their hinges. It went on like this for nearly half an hour, him yelling through the shut door “Elizabeth, give her to me!” while relentlessly banging his fists against the door. Luckily it was still too early for trick-or-treaters. As he continued his onslaught, my mom called the police. When they interviewed me, they asked if I ever saw my father drinking. I told them yes, even though as a child I wasn’t completely sure. I thought it was my chance for freedom. But nothing changed. The next weekend, he picked me up as usual, screaming at me in the car for getting him in trouble. As if an eight-year-old girl is ever to blame for such things.
One day, before I had any idea of how bad things had gotten, my father found himself homeless. This unfortunate development repeated a few times over the course of my childhood, but this was the first. Even now, I do not know the circumstances of his sudden eviction, or those that followed, but I remember those times more clearly than I would like. Of course he didn’t tell my mother about his newly nomadic state when he picked me up for his weekend. The streak of selfishness that ran through his blood prevented him from thinking about what was best for me, his only child.
After picking me up from my mom’s house, he drove for hours through Los Angeles traffic, hands beating a tattoo against the steering wheel, all the way past the airport. I sat in the backseat, quietly humming along to the Radio Disney drifting through the speakers and counting the billboards we passed. It was dark by the time we pulled into the Best Western parking lot. I stayed in the car while he went inside to book the room. Enough time passed for me to fog up the entire window with my breath and then trace the path of the raindrops sliding down the other side of the glass. This was, of course, when it still rained in California.
He pulled open my car door and ushered me quickly towards the motel, sans umbrella. We raced through the rain to a covered walkway, and I rushed to keep up with him as he bounced along towards our room. When he found the door, his hands were shaking, so I used the key and held open the door as he strode inside.
The moonlight could not make it through the single window. Instead, the only illumination in the room was a thin sliver of blue and yellow neon light from the sign towering over the motel, and it fell on a cigarette burn in the bedspread of the twin bed closest to the door. It was big enough to stick my whole finger through. This seemed like a bad sign, but the novelty of this adventure had not yet worn off. I still trusted my father to be the “fun parent,” the one who let me stay up late watching Game Show Network and had no rules about candy consumed before dinner.
My father dropped the bags on the carpet and began to pace through the room, moving quickly from one end to the other and dragging his hand along the wall. He turned on the lights and a bright yellow glow filled the room. As I sat on the marked bed he went to do the same, quickly rising and pacing once again. Finally he stopped and looked at me, forehead bunched up over his nose, glasses sliding down so his eyes were halved by the frames.
“Wanna go somewhere?” He shook his shoulders up and down. “I don’t like being cooped up.”
“Not really.” I looked at the clock—it was already past my bedtime, though I wasn’t about to tell him this. His frenetic energy was contagious, but not enough to make me want to leave the room. I continued my examination of the bedspread, and because my head was down, I missed the moment he stood up on his bed.
The springs shrieked in protest as he began hopping, crouched over so his head wouldn’t collide with the ceiling. I had never seen a grown man jump on the bed, and the absurdity of it made me laugh.
“Come on, Sweetie, jump with me!” He sounded breathless, and so excited that I couldn’t deny him his request. I started jumping on my own bed, laughing as I hit ballet poses in the air. I turned around slightly with each ascension, observing different parts of the room, until I finally noticed the cheap printed painting mounted above my bed. In shades of blue, yellow, and pink, it showed people gathered on a beach. I stopped jumping to look more closely at it, fascinated by the different groups of people and their activities. Finally I noticed a dog hiding behind an embracing couple, seemingly chasing its tail. My finger grazed over the figures. My face must have been very close to the glass, because my father noticed my distraction.
“What are you looking at?” He jumped over to my bed, the sudden dip from his landing making me lose my balance. As I righted myself, I showed him the dog, hiding in the corner. His grin was wide as he grasped my shoulders.
“Do you always see stuff like that? Do you always notice the smaller things other people don’t see?”
I wasn’t entirely sure what he meant, but I had been known to quietly observe, my mom often remarking on my habit of appreciating the patterns found in the everyday. I said yes, I did try to notice everything I could. My father’s excitement was palpable.
“I do too! You’re just like me!” He began jumping from one bed to the other, back and forth with a puppy-like energy, spouting out words of how alike we were, how I was his daughter through and through, that I was just like him.
My mother has a fair amount of luck, or good fortune, whatever you want to call it. Two months after going into hiding with me when I was a baby, she met my dad, Daniel. A stepfather in the technical sense, a dad in every way that counts. My mother was not even divorced yet, but she had found the man who would become the love of her life. They went on to have my two sisters (half in name, full in feeling), and with them I had, and continue to have, a real family. In a sense, my childhood was a double life. I know in that way I am lucky, too.
Another thing about my mother—she’s a planner. That woman is as strategic and practical as they come, sometimes to a fault. One school break in my senior year of college, when we were driving home after family dinner at our favorite Japanese restaurant, my youngest sister, Lydia, elected to go in the car with my dad, and my middle sister, Rachel, and I were in my mom’s car. We started talking about the melancholy that sometimes settles around Lydia. She will occasionally turn inward, a light despair or anxiety taking over. I say light because it truly is—my sister will watch Harry Potter, or Disney films, in the dark in her room, refusing to emerge. But it never lasts for more than a day, if that. I call it melancholy because that’s what it is—a mood, and therapists have confirmed this. My mother, in her forgetfulness, seems to have forgotten what depression is actually like, the all-consuming nature of it. My sister has some genuine problems, she is a sixteen-year-old girl after all, but depression is not one of them.
In the car, my mom said something about how I never feel that downward pull, that I am stronger than that, as if it is possible to lift some weights for your brain and overpower depression, no problem. Normally I keep my thoughts to myself, but this time I couldn’t hold it in any longer.
“Well, we all get sad sometimes.” For a moment I felt breathless. My mother was frowning as we moved swiftly along Sunset Boulevard. She doesn’t really understand sadness without a reason.
“What does that mean? Do you get sad like Lydia?” Just as rapidly as the impulse had come along, the urge to confess fled, and suddenly I didn’t want to talk about it. I said as much. The rest of the car ride passed in near-silence.
When we got home, she didn’t shut off the car as usual. She asked my sister to take in our bag of leftovers and said she would come inside in a minute. Before I could open my door, she placed a hand on my forearm. I angled towards her, trying to prepare for the concern, the questions. I had never told her about my own depression, had become such an expert at hiding it that no one in the family had ever asked. I thought this would be the moment.
“Honey, I have to say I’m concerned. You can’t just talk about ‘feeling sad’ and not expect a conversation.”
“I know.” This was it. I took a breath, prepared to tell her that I was more like my father than she imagined. She spoke first.
“You know we have a lot riding on you in our will, we’ve made you responsible for your sisters and our house should something happen to us. Really it’s a business concern. I need to know that you’ll be able to handle everything.”
I exhaled slowly, keeping my face still. A business concern? My mental health was a business concern?
“I know, Mom. I was just sharing an opinion. Don’t worry.” With a nod and a quick pat on my arm, she got out of the car and went into the house.
I knew that my mother lost her own mother before she turned thirty, which forced her to be practical. I knew, too, that she escaped an abusive husband, which made her a survivor. But in that moment, I was so angry. I had been so close. I expected her to ask if I was okay, or at least dig a little deeper. She just can’t go there with me. Of all her children I am the only one with a direct connection to depression. How can she forget that? How can she forget the blood that runs through my veins?
To check the box, or not? It had taken me a long time to muster up the courage to visit the NYU Health Center for my insomnia. I had only come because an acting teacher, upon finding me asleep in the aisle of the black box theater after a 36-hour stretch of wakefulness, had demanded I do so.
So in the first semester of my sophomore year, I sat in a plastic chair with the health history form they make every student fill out before an appointment. I had arrived at the questions about mental well-being, the ones that were the most difficult to answer.
- Do you feel down, depressed, guilty, or hopeless?
- Do you have trouble sleeping?
- Have you gained or lost significant weight?
- Do you have thoughts of suicide, or of hurting yourself or others?
These are terrifying questions to even consider, let alone answer “yes” to. I had come to the Health Center because I couldn’t sleep, got no more than two hours a night, in fact, and the questions surprised me. I did not dream of hurting anyone, including myself, in any way, but I had been feeling so empty. Because of the sleep deficit, I often lacked the energy to get out of bed and make myself food, no matter how hungry I was. Everything felt hopeless, but I hadn’t thought about that feeling until presented with the questions. I checked the first two boxes.
“I think you’re depressed. Do you think you’re depressed?”
The doctor, a brusque woman in her early 40s, clearly had no time for my floundering. I had never considered that I might be depressed, so how could I answer her? It made sense, in a way, but I didn’t want to admit that. I didn’t want to be like my father.
“I don’t think so.”
“I think you’re depressed. I’m sending you to the Wellness Center.”
I waited over an hour in the Wellness Center, only to be given an appointment four days in the future. At that appointment, the therapist spent the entire hour asking invasive questions.
“Was there abuse in your family? Did your father ever hit you? Were you around drugs? Do you feel detached from your siblings?” And on and on it went.
At the end of the session, she diagnosed me with dysthymia, a sort of low-grade, long-lasting depression. I had cut my father out of my life several years before, but still I couldn’t escape him. Actually, for the first time, I missed him. In a time of feeling so alone, I felt that he might be the only one to understand. Sometimes I still feel that way.
The hardest part is the wondering. Wondering if he could relate to me, if he has something to teach me. If he’s gotten better. If he’s dead. I have so many unanswered questions, and while part of me wants to know, a larger part is still the girl, too afraid to sit in the front seat of the car because her father might think of her as an adult. It’s a constant back and forth between the belief that he would understand and the knowledge that I am better without him.