Growing up, our house was always considered to be the nexus of neighborhood discussion.
I would often take note of the anxious glares from our neighbors: the pitying expressions on their faces; the whispering that would ensue whenever my brothers and I walked down the street together. They had obviously heard the yelling, seen my mother’s tantrums on the front lawn, and witnessed my grandparents constantly arriving at the house to clean up the messes (sometimes literally and physically) that were made.
Our everyday life became the epicenter of drama and dysfunction, quite regularly put on public display. We weren’t just the local cuckoos on the block; we were a feeding ground for locals’ criticism, gossip, and speculation. We were the Boo Radleys of the bay area. We were neighborhood entertainment.
I frequently relate these scenes as reminiscent of the old Scooby Doo cartoons. I imagined that sometimes these people would walk by the house, too afraid to actually ask what was going on, and instead utter to one another under their breath, “Hey, is that the old Jones’ house? I hear it’s haunted.”
As a child, I viewed every one of these locals as prospective heroes. I would wait expectantly, hoping that some courageous bystander would take action, intervene, and would ultimately rescue me from the abuse and insanity that I was forced to endure. I prayed that someone would hear the screams and shrieks from the outside, and like the cartoon, a team of code-breaking geniuses (Mystery Incorporated) would show up, rip the rubber mask off of my mother’s head, only to reveal that it wasn’t my mother at all. Instead, my real biological mother had been held hostage somewhere, and in all actuality the villain had been the disgruntled store clerk from the deli down the street.
“I’d get away with it, too,” the cantankerous clerk would sneer, “If it wasn’t for you darn kids!”
They would then untie my real mother from the basement of the bodega. She would come back to us, loving and ready to become the compassionate, selfless, nurturing parent that I had always fantasized about having.
(cue Lifetime movie sappy, loving-family song)
In opposition to what my reverie as a child had been, Mystery Incorporated never came to the rescue and my mother was still my mother. When I was seventeen I fled the scene of the crime.
I packed my stuff. Moved out.
Never looked back.
Today I’m going down for my annual visit.
In the sunshine state, underneath its superficial appearance of wispy, swaying palm trees and cotton-candy sunsets looms a thick film of darkness. Going back to Florida now to revisit some of the charred remains of my tumultuous history, I think of that house in very much the same way as I had before I left. Its very presence is melancholy, dark; an erect skeleton of painful memories that shelters the remains of my shattered childhood. Only unlike the Scooby Doo crew, there is no team of hungry investigators waiting to crack a code or capture the monster that resides within this place. Instead, therein lies the beast, the black soul of my former life, having only remained quietly dormant until I show up again. It’s a feeling that arises just by going into that house that freezes my bloodstream and sets fire to the entirety of my esophagus.
I used to have gut-wrenching stomach aches. They began in early youth. Time after time again, I would lie in the fetal position on the floor in fits of sweats that saturated my body to the point of having to wring the dampness out of my t-shirts. I clung to the toilet for support, writhing in misery as my intestines seemingly wrapped around one another like a cobra coiling itself around its prey. My yelps were purposely muffled, as I knew that my mother could not emotionally handle dealing with the pain that she herself had inflicted upon me. It would frustrate and enrage her, and I would force myself to assume the position of being “the strong one” in order to keep her in a safe emotional state. Instead, I did everything in my power to reduce my whimpers into whispers, ones that got lost in the distant echoes of the bathroom. I believed that if I sat doubled-over long enough, the agony exuding from my middle would subside, and I wouldn’t have to worry about getting her upset. I could make it go away if I sat long enough. I could protect her from ever having to take care of me.
Unfortunately, sometimes the pain was too much, and inevitably she would discover me hugging the frigid tiles of the bathroom floor, bloody-lipped from biting hard enough to where I wouldn’t cry. She would panic, scream, and demand that I get into the car. Then she would angrily drive, barking at me the whole time that I was eating too much chocolate and that “this is what I got” for it.
I remember all of the doctors and their sympathetic frowns at the hospital. They would run tests upon tests, checking me for ulcers, cancers, and gastric reflux. They would at last come back shaking their heads, baffled. Defeated, they would sigh, “Well, it looks like it’s nerves again.”
Dejected and ashamed by my inability to control my nervous system, I would shrink into the seat of the plastic-covered table, yearning to disappear. I had actually hoped that they would discover something - some wild, parasitic disease that was consuming my digestive tract - so that I wouldn’t be faced with the fact that I was so profoundly affected by my unstable environment.
Every time we arrived at the hospital, I had prayed that they would find something in me — something that they had overlooked from the previous visit that could be easily remedied with a pill or a quick operation. Something that gave me an answer, and that was fixable, tangible. Instead, it was the same stress-related reaction replayed over and over again. And on demand, my mother would assume the role of the perfect parent, suddenly feigning concern to the doctor and rubbing my stomach in front of them so that they would see that she was doing everything that she could to help. Once in the car, she would grow cold again, igniting a Marlboro Light and warning me with vehement hatred in her eyes that I’d better not miss another day of school for “this crap” again.
Years later I ran away to New York City which became my savior - my very own personalized Mystery Incorporated. I fell in love with its exuberance, its enigma, its eight million variations of its eight million stories of its eight million inhabitants. Upon moving to the city, I faced an all new challenge in endurance — one that required an imperative mastery of survival skills and the uncompromising ability to quickly acquire some sort of monetary allowance, or at least during that time to earn enough dough to buy a few packages of Ramen that would last through the week. After years and years of undergoing the struggle of being a starving artist in the city I finally completed my degrees and achieved some sort of financial stability. Post-experiencing this process, I had earned myself a spot in what I had always imagined to be the very apex of personal accomplishment: I had become educated, worldly, passionate, and ultimately, free. This is the life I live now and what I know it as. Since moving away, my former life seems but a microscopic stain on my progress; a miniscule bruise left behind that has faded over time, yet can still appear visible if you look closely enough.
Those scars always seem to resurface when I go back.
Upon realizing that I was officially returning home today, the pains in my lower abdomen begin again, subconsciously, almost as if through the aching my body was trying to warn me of what was to come (the mind is indeed an elusive and powerful thing!). Over time I’ve learned to tame the pain simply by retraining my thoughts. I know that this time there is an escape, should anything happen. No, it’s not the Mystery Machine, but it is a 2005 sunshine-yellow Kia, rented temporarily from the Enterprise agency at the airport. I’d like to fondly refer to it as “the getaway car.” When I was younger (and extremely broke) my trips to Florida were much more frugal. A car rental would’ve seemed like a distant luxury. By not having a car when I came down, I would be forced to rely on having my brother come and pick me up from our mother’s house whenever she would become abusive and out of control. I can still feel the feelings of being trapped inside of that same house where so much chaos had ensued and then, being an adult, again, reliving the same nightmare over and over with no reprieve, again without a way out.
Over time I’ve learned to forgive my mother and to chalk up her mistakes as being involuntary byproducts of her mental impairment. Through therapy and mindfulness I’ve developed the confidence to create boundaries when I visit, such as time limits, supervision, and ultimately being equipped with a vehicle so that I can leave if/once her behavior becomes aggressive. I’ve also ritualistically rehearsed “exit lines”, positively thinking, and visualizing us having humane interactions with one another without fear of an explosion.
This, in essence, is what empowerment can be accurately defined and measured as. Empowerment is derived from choice, freedom, and from living through events that build character and make you appreciate life in a way that is profound. Getting away, creating a foundation of healthy relationships, a purpose-filled existence, and knowing that it’s always waiting for you back on the other side. Confidence is the architect of empowerment; this being constructed over years of appreciating your wins and maintaining the constant drive to be better than the life you lived before or who you were yesterday. To inspire others around you, to aid those in need of your help. To ultimately live, love, and to be the facilitator of your every wish.
I’m going to Florida.
I’m going to Florida acknowledging the fact that there’s a dull throbbing in my lower abdomen, yet also assured that it will eventually go away, because it always does.
I’m going to Florida not as a hopeless case of damaged goods ruled by insidious insecurities, but as a proud fighter who is still amidst solving some of her own life’s mysteries and graciously reveling in the learning process.
I’m going to Florida and I’ve protected myself by renting my very own getaway car (cue mustache-twirling-villain music) aka The Mystery Machine.
I’m. Going. To. Florida.
Growing up, our house was always considered to be the nexus of neighborhood discussion.
I wonder what they would say now.