I remember the first time that my father looked at me—really looked at me. I was in his car when my eyes caught a ray of sunlight pouring in through the windshield. He said something like, “Oh! Wow, baby girl. You really have light brown eyes!” For the first time in my life, I felt as though I was seen.
Most of my life, I’d been invisible. As first-born, I represented everything from my parent’s shortcomings to their dreams and aspirations. I didn’t know this, of course. I barely knew the story of my infancy and just how much I was unwanted. As I grew up, I’d be told time and time again that “children should be seen and not heard.” The trouble with that was that I wasn’t seen. At all.
Now, after years of searching and reaching across caverns of knowledge, I can at least, admit who I am: I am an adult child of an alcoholic and child of dysfunction. This has been a long journey and now, at forty-three years old, I am just beginning.
It seems as though all of my life’s work has just been survival.
I had to escape my limits of understanding to begin to open my eyes to years of degradation, feelings of helplessness, and ongoing victimization. How did I come to this conclusion? How do I stop standing in my own way to get to a place where I can stop blaming others and take on the role as my own parent? How do I re-program myself to see more clearly what’s right in front of me? How do I trust myself to believe in me?
The search really began in 2012. I was formally leaving a man, Carlos, who I’d spent seven years loving and who was seriously ill. I was there for countless surgeries, supporting him even as he committed crimes, did drugs, behaved badly and verbally assaulted everyone he came in contact with. When Carlos became disabled in 2009, losing his right leg to diabetes (and his will to live), I knew that I had to do something. But, it would take three years for me to change my stars and direct a new course for my life.
I left Carlos, when unbeknownst to me, his diagnosis was terminal. Although I saw that his fighting spirit had significantly dwindled, he refused to tell me how he was doing. I’d learn a lot later about how long he knew, but I can’t say that my intuition didn’t know that the prognosis was bad.
The reason for my leaving was that I had reconnected with someone I knew in high school. His name was Peter and he was great. He supported and helped me as I moved my things out of the apartment I shared with Carlos and a stream of addicts. If it wasn’t for Peter, I don’t think I would have been strong enough to go. Carlos didn’t make it easy on me.
I moved in with my sister temporarily. She was gracious in giving me some room to breathe but everything felt so strange at first. Luckily, I had Peter who kept me busy and checked in on me and took me everywhere. He opened every door and made me believe in life again. With Peter’s help, I was able to find a realtor, a woman named Grisela, who went by the name, “Grace”. She worked on an apartment right away. I signed the lease to my brand new apartment (on Grace Street) just two months after being with Peter.
Then, he died.
In a week, I was attending his funeral and moving into a new apartment that Peter had never stepped foot in—by myself. The person who told me of his passing was his aunt named, Gracie. Turns out I knew her when I lived in my old apartment. The funeral was a surreal, loving experience filled with old high-school classmates who I hadn’t seen in over twenty years. Oddly, I had stories to tell each of them relayed to me in Pete’s own words. I met many of Peter’s relatives including cousins (one of which was named, Grace).
As an ACoA, my panic was off-the-charts. But I never lost my faith. I asked God to protect me and give me shelter from the misery of mourning Peter’s passing.
God answered me, but I had to show up first. I began to go to mass every Sunday at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. The very first mass that I attended there, I had a nagging endless to-do list running through my head. My sister insisted that I come and experience what it was like to enter through the doors. I kept thinking, Yeah, right. Like some magical thing is gonna happen. All the way there I could not for the life of me get rid of these doubtful thoughts. My sister kept reassuring me and telling me to “wait, just wait” but all my inner child wanted to do was run as far away from the thoughts as my legs could get me.
There were New York City crowds—of course.
Inside, I was terrified but my sister held my arm and began to lead me step by step toward the foreboding, commanding thick, wooded panel doors that have seen more important people than me. Who the hell was I to even think that I was worthy? Who the hell was I to ask God on high who had so many more important things to do? My mind whirled in a sea of self-criticism and judgment. But even though I was skeptical, I reached the threshold. I was terrified to enter. What if nothing happened? What if I was right that God didn’t have the time? Why oh why did I bother to make this pilgrimage? I thought and thought and the image of Alice in Wonderland kept popping into my head. What if I chose to follow Peter (Rabbit) down this rabbit hole? So, like a curious, innocent child, I passed through.
What happened then, I cannot explain. Even as a writer, all of the most amazing, stupefying, imaginative, technicolor words cannot describe it. Do you know that hush sound that one makes when you have to catch your breath, the hollow noise of your footfalls in an empty room? The sound of enlightenment in movies when the hero opens a chest of buried treasure that lights his whole face with knowledge? Those instances and cinematic moments pale in comparison. All around me, the world was the same but somehow a cavern—no, a well had been opened in my heart. It was all I could do to keep from crying as I walked further inside, the nave led me down the aisle to the great apse of the cathedral. All thoughts had vanished. Nothing occupied my brain but a single-word: God. It echoed in every corner of my body, it rang in my head like a bell, it resounded over and over again even as I tried to hold on to one thought from the moment before. There was nothing. I glanced up incredulously at my sister in that moment and she said, rather matter-of-factly, “Now, do you understand why I come here?” I did. I really did.
The change in me was immediate. I attended the Broadway play, “Grace” which opened that year. I personally performed (and retired) Peter’s favorite song on karaoke night. I washed away my sadness in the Long Island Sound. I began to read my poetry in an eatery waited on by a hostess whose name was Grace. I went on a trip to Chicago to visit a friend, who’s only daughter is named–you guessed it–Grace. But mostly, I remembered him, I honored him, and I celebrated his life.
On December 31st 2012 in the middle of Times Square, I let him go.
A year later, Carlos died and once again I was thrust into mourning. But this was sadness of a different kind. It was filled with regrets and guilt and the recurring pang of abandonment—sound familiar? I still didn’t realize just how co-dependent I am until I stripped off every label I could give myself of caregiver, lover, wife, friend, mother, daughter…I had gotten lost somewhere. Was I really any of those people? Was I only bits and pieces in the patchwork quilt of my life attempting to fill a gap for all that was lacking in my upbringing?
Who was I really?
I was a girl. That is, I was born a girl and I did identify myself as a feminine spirit. But that girl that once was so full of hope was marked with responsibilities that didn’t belong to her. Early on, she took on roles that were never meant for a child. She was given jobs and expectations and hopes that were not hers.
Trauma is a strange thing. I found myself in my kitchen making a tuna sandwich when it happened: the haunting, negative voice of Carlos sprang up. It said, Don’t forget to cut the onions small…small ya hear me? Eh, forget it. You don’t know how to do it. Get out, get out! Let my daughter do it! I shook the voice out of my head. I took the tuna out of the can and put it in a plate. Then, you gotta put vinegar in it. And I said, out loud to myself, “I don’t like vinegar in my tuna!” I put some light mayonnaise on the tuna. But while I was stirring it in I heard, Oh my God, light mayo? Light?! You know Hellman’s makes Real Mayonnaise, right? Oh Jesus, now it’s gonna be dry. I hate tuna when it’s dry. You gotta add more. But I just ignored the voice until my sandwich was onion-free with Light Mayo. It was the most perfect, satisfying sandwich I ever ate. Why? Because I made it and managed to stop listening to that terrible voice that I’d heard for seven years straight. It was a voice that I once blindly believed and trusted…it was the voice of someone I once loved.
I tried therapy early last year to finally address the voices in my head and the negative thoughts. Unfortunately, after four sessions, I wasn’t getting any better. It wasn’t until my sister suggested the ACoA that I was able to discover what ailed me.
The revelation came with a startling admission to my waking self. I am the creator of a cycle of misery because I am an adult child of an alcoholic and a child of dysfunction. It is the same person that ignored years of abuse because she really was helpless back then. How can that little girl grow up if she was never given any tools?
Inside, I began to strip away the fantasy from the reality piece by piece. I had to admit that I am still that little girl. I am the little girl that was forced to learn self-defense, stealth and how to hold a gun at the age of seven. I am the girl who was frequently abandoned by both of her parents and taught to raise herself. I am the girl who couldn’t call the police on her dad…because he was a policeman. I am the girl who watched her father accidentally shoot a hole in her parent’s apartment wall. I am the girl who fled her family home because of years of fear, abandonment and abuse only to pursue it in those she loved. I am the girl who lived with a womanizer, a drug addict, and a petty thief.
So how do I stop self-flagellating and ask God to take over? How do I gain knowledge and tools that will help me recover and thrive? How will I learn to protect and parent myself and trust my own instincts and actually act on them?
Well, for me, InTheRooms.com has been my saving grace–in particular the ACoA meetings. Despite the occasional technical glitches, this online resource has been invaluable in allowing me to navigate all of the feelings I am working through one step at a time.
This is the first painting I made to cope with my grief and loss. It serves as a daily reminder that I’m more than just a pair of eyes that was more a witness to my life rather than a participant. But I have confidence that I am starting to fill in the blanks and fill in those empty spaces. I hear tell that one is always an unfinished canvas. But I’m still here. And you, dear reader, are still here. That’s gotta count for something.