Reality. What exactly is reality? My reality, your reality, or the cosmic universe’s reality? When you grow up in a family where reality was a clouded perception of some mystical powers that controlled your every move – you wonder how you came to be who you are today – a sane individual trying hard to make her way in this crazy world. Mental illness is no joke. Being the only sane person in a family is demanding, exhausting, and at times too much to bare. Coming to the harsh reality that you are living with mentally ill people… Well, that revelation in itself is enough to make you want to jump off a bridge. Am I strong enough to handle this? The answer was – I don’t know. This so called reality I was growing up in had now crashed into pieces – itty bitty jagged pieces. How unfair was this? I was going through my own changes – boobs (or lack thereof), periods, boys, makeup, and now this? This was not what I signed up for. All this time I thought this weirdness was normal….well, at least manageable, and now here I am contemplating ending my own life to get away from these tortured souls I called my family. The screaming, breaking of chairs against the back door, the holes in the walls, the bruises on my backside – all these rages of anger fueled by nothing, yet somehow no matter what the circumstance surrounding the outrage, I was always the reason behind it. “The devil was working through me.” That’s what my father always said. The devil and I were somehow planning my father’s demise. Me and Satan were tight like that… No really, just ask my father, he will tell you. According to him I was the reason our family was poor and miserable, the reason my brother was stupid, the reason my mother was fat, and the reason he was always angry – I made him that way. I was an evil child with evil in my eyes.

How do you wake up each day when you know your life brings misery to everyone in your family? Day after day it’s drilled into your head – “You are too loud. Why can’t you be quiet? Don’t usurp my authority,” my father would scream at me. “You are a rebellious girl! You are going to end up sleeping around with every man you meet!” Never mind the fact we were standing in line at a grocery store and I was twelve years old. None of that mattered. It didn’t matter that there was no reason for the outrage – just standing there to buy bread was enough to have him pick me a part in front of the world. I was in constant hell. My brother had now lost touch with reality completely – spending his days living, breathing, and sleeping cartoons. He would go into rages when a Saturday morning cartoon didn’t go the way he wanted. He’d scream and cry, beating himself. I was the only one who could calm him – me, his baby sister. I would talk him off his ledge, following him into his disillusion and bringing him back to a calm state. I’d done it for years – following him into his disillusions and bringing him back from his madness. I had to be strong, but I was tired, so very tired. My mother stayed out of it most the time, but soon she was no better. She would swear I had snuck out my window in the middle of the night to meet boys, when truthfully, most nights it would take everything in me not to go to the bathroom and slit my wrists. I saw myself do it so many times in my head. I could finally be free from the accusations, the yelling, and the tears. I cried from so deep within that death would have been a welcome friend. How could I sneak out the window when that thought never occurred to me? I never thought to run away. I didn’t know there was an escape other than death. Somehow I found the strength to carry on, but secretly I wanted to die. I soon became anorexic. I needed to control something, to feel the high of accomplishing something. As I watched the numbers on the scale drop from triple digits to double digits, I smiled. This was something I could call mine. This was something no one could take from me. Even when my secret was out and my father started beating me with the belt yelling “I’ll beat that anorexic spirit out of you!” I still wouldn’t let him take this away from me. Anorexia was mine. I had control over some part of my life and he couldn’t stop me. Soon the control I had over my body spilled over into my life. I wanted something to call my own outside of the four walls of our home. Soon I was sneaking out, but to get a job. As crazy as that seems I wasn’t allowed to do anything until my older brother did them first. Remember, I always made him feel stupid, so getting a job before him would just make him feel bad. Never mind the fact my brother was always in a maniac rage and refused to socialize with anyone outside of our house. No, I had to wait, but I was tired of watching life pass me by. It was time for me to fix my own broken self and find a way out – to a brighter happier life.

I knew I had a problem with anorexia and started taking baby steps to fixing it. I found getting out – being a part of the world was my therapy. I was like a bird being freed from its cage when I socialized. I felt happy and healthy being around people. I was beginning to realize my family was my poison. If I was going to get better I had to break free. My father had held me down for too long. He had controlled every part of my life – even home schooling us after I finished fourth grade just so he could teach us the ways of God, not the ways of man. I made up my mind it was time to live life – truly live.

I know the ties that bind a family are strong. Whether it’s a dysfunctional family or not, the bonds of family are imprinted on your heart and soul. The feelings are deep – the connection strong. I knew when I decided to embrace a normal life I would leave behind a piece of me, a piece of me no one would ever know or understand. Who I was all those years, my childhood – it would all be left behind to die. I had to let it go, move forward, never look back. It was for the best, but once I made that decision to walk away it meant starting over and finding out who I was apart from the craziness. It wasn’t until I was nineteen years old that I finally “let go” and walked away. Physically I may have “let go” at nineteen, but it took years to “let go” emotionally. It’s an everyday journey to move forward and not look back – not even for a second. It’s not easy. Sometimes as hard as I try to not let it, something takes me back again and I’m swept away into a dark and cold place inside….

But the life I have now, the life I fought to have – it brings me back to the present reality, and I smile because I know what it took to get here.

A Midwest summer’s night

It was another muggy summer night in the Midwest. The window was open, but for what reason she wasn’t sure. The air was sticky and humid, not the slightest bit of wind was coming through that screened in window. The loud hum from the box fan was always a welcome sound. Not sure what it was that comforted her. Maybe the sound helped lullaby her pain, to help her keep her mind on just that moment – the stickiness of her skin, her damp hair clinging to her face and neck, her little torn night gown with its faded pink hearts. At five years old she had so many burdens on her tiny little shoulders. She didn’t understand them; she didn’t know they were burdens. She never knew it was heartache she felt. All she knew is that it was hard to fall asleep most nights. It wasn’t just the heat that kept her awake. She never understood why she couldn’t fall asleep. She would lay there staring into the darkness until all she could see were hundreds of little red dots. It reminded her of a television channel on the old tv’s that had nothing playing on it, and all you saw was what her daddy called “snow.” She would close her eyes so tight hoping they’d disappear, but they were still there. They were always there. Why wouldn’t they go away? After awhile she got used to this happening and even tried making them change colors because red was getting boring. Anything to keep her tiny mind from wandering to more grown up things – like, if there was money to pay the electric bill that month.

When you are a child everything becomes a game. Somehow everything becomes less painful when you make believe. Imaginary places, imaginary things – these were the things that got her through. She had a brother only fourteen months older than her. Having someone so close in age made for some fun times, as well as some knock down drag out moments. Even though she was the younger sister, she was always the one who took care of her brother. He was never quite right. It wasn’t until a few years later that all the madness and insanity inside him began to take form. He was an odd boy – very shy, withdrawn, and talked out of the corner of his mouth – never making eye contact with anyone for more than a few moments, except for his family – he was always most comfortable around them, especially his baby sister. At 6 years old he had just finished kindergarten and despite social awkwardness he was moving on to the first grade that fall. His sister was quite opposite. She was talkative and outgoing. She was upset when he was going to kindergarten and she had to stay home. “Why can’t I go to school too, mommy?” she asked pouting and crossing her arms. “Because you can’t read yet,” her mommy said, hoping this would suffice her. Being the stubborn little girl she was she marched over to her little stack of golden books in the corner of the dining room and picked one up exclaiming, “Yes, I can read, mommy!” and she began to read aloud knowing very well she was making up words. Her mommy laughed. “Nice try, but you also need to know how to spell and write your full name, and you need to know your phone number and address by heart before you start kindergarten.” “Then teach me,” the little girl demanded. Her mother smiled and said, “Well, you also need to learn how to tie your shoes, so let’s start with that.” Her mother was gentle and sweet, but never had much self worth and married the first man that showed interest in her. The little girl’s father was a rare breed… he was crazy to be blunt. He believed he was a prophet of God called to speak to the masses. He was a dreamer. He believed one day God was going to raise him up. They would be millionaires, and as a family they would travel the world ministering the gospel. He sat around every day playing his guitar and singing his songs to God. The thing was – he was very talented. He wasted his talent chasing after a dream that would never come true. He spent hours playing his guitar, praying, or reading his bible. He ignored the fact he had a family to take care of. He wouldn’t allow his wife to work, so the little girl and her family lived off the government.

They lived in the projects, but the little girl just saw it as home. This is where she grew up. This was all she knew. To her standing in line at the soup kitchen every Wednesday was fun because at the end of the meal they would go to this big window were a lady would hand them two brown bags of groceries. You could always count on a brand name cereal like Lucky Charms or Trix. Plus, there was always a pack of bubble yum for the little girl and her brother. The little girl was never ashamed when on the middle of every month her mother would give her and her brother a one dollar food stamp each, sending them through the grocery line to buy a small piece of candy for twenty five cents, so she could get the change back to buy freezer bags or feminine products for herself, since they had no cash. And you most certainly can’t buy those things on food stamps. Sometimes she would send them through the line twice just to get enough change, if it was feminine products she needed. Back in those days you would get booklets of food stamp and you would receive back change if the total didn’t round up to the exact dollar, unlike now where you use a card and the amount is deducted. Since things were always tight they rarely ever had cash, so the little girl and her brother knew the drill and went through the line, handing their one dollar food stamp to the cashier. The cashier always gave one of two looks. The first was a look of compassion and the other look was disgust. It was a few years later, when the little girl began to grow up that she grasped the full understanding of the situation. To her at the time, it was normal. It was normal for mommy and daddy to stay at home and not have jobs. It was normal for daddy to stand over her bed in the middle of the night with a belt and spank her for not doing the dishes, or for not folding the laundry, or for grinding her teeth. It was normal to wonder if they would eat tomorrow, or what was in that can without a label that they were given from the shelter.  Could it be peas or fruit cocktail, there was only one way to find out – open it. Powdered milk was milk, government cheese was the only kind of cheese, and spam was meat. This was normal. This was life.

So, as she lay there trying to find some comfort in the heat of that summer night, she thought about how she would be starting kindergarten that fall, and maybe she could make a friend. She so wanted friends. Her father was very strict and wouldn’t allow her to go to or have sleepovers. She wasn’t allowed to be a little girl. Being a girl seemed to be a sin to her father, and even worse, as the years went by it came to prove that turning into a woman was the ultimate sin, but that story is for another time. She wanted to see what was out there? Did everyone’s mommy and daddy act just like hers? To her, life as she knew it was normal. The burdens on her tiny shoulders were normal, but yet something inside her knew there was something more out there, and dare she imagine – better. As she lay there she heard the train whistle in the distance – even through the loud hum of the box fan, and she smiled as her eyelids began to droop. Life was beginning for her and it wouldn’t be an easy journey, but even at her young age of five, she was already strong enough to handle it.