Possible trigger warning with mention of behaviors and depression
Chapter 2 – Welcome to the Real World
“Being born is like being kidnapped. And then sold into slavery.” – William Shakespeare
I was born too soon. The doctors had set a random date for my mom’s Cesarean section, even though I had given no sign that I was ready to enter this world. I must have been quite content floating around in my mom’s womb, surrounded by warmth and getting nourishment as needed. Who the hell wants to leave that for the cold operating room? But on January 21, 1967, at 8 a.m., I was abruptly pulled out, slapped, and introduced to what must have been my first sense of the unfairness of the world.
I grew up in a fairly typical household. Despite people often thinking that the youngest child in the family gets all the perks, I’m not convinced. Being the youngest in the family had its disadvantages. I was subjected to relentless bullying from my older sister, and I had two older half-brothers who also knew how to tease. My much older half-sister from my dad’s side, whom I rarely saw, stayed out of the fray. The result of all this pestering from others was the gradual grinding down of my self-esteem. By the time I was four, I decided I wanted to kill myself. Now, how a four-year-old gets an idea so severe is one of those unexplained mysteries we may never solve, but that was my plan.
I discussed this idea with my fully functioning, alcoholic father, who asked how I would accomplish such a goal. Being a scientist, he was all about method. In asking my father, who was not psychologically inclined, I was seeking a compassionate response that might make me feel better. I told him that I thought jumping off a cliff would work. I wasn’t sure where to find cliffs, but I was sure they existed somewhere, because I had seen them on TV. Instead of offering sympathy and some comfort, my dad merely let me know that I would get hurt if I embarked on such a leap. Well, that was no good! I was trying to get out of the pain that I had endured in my four short years on earth. Hum, well, I rationalized; I would use a ladder then. Of course this resolved the going-to-hurt issue, but completely ruined both the actual jumping part and also the much needed “splat” at the end that causes death, my ultimate goal, to occur. When I related this to my dad, he just laughed.
I don’t recall any further discussion on the topic, which today strikes me as odd. I think things were different back then, and children weren’t encouraged to talk about feelings or fears. Being the youngest in a very vocal family often left me unheard anyway, and I think I was in grade school before I actually finished an entire sentence. I grew up speaking half-sentences, because my relatives were too impatient to wait for me to finish. My siblings and parents were loud, smart, talkative and impatient. I, on the other hand, was contemplative, reserved and often dreaming of other, better places. I ultimately concluded that the best solution was to just swallow or push aside any feelings or fears and move on with what I felt was my sad, insignificant life.
Although I eventually managed to hold my own, the effects of those early days persisted. Even now, if I’m under stress, I stammer and hesitate when I speak.
By the time I was six, I was overweight. Looking back at old pictures, I would say that I was chubby, if that. Everyone else called me fat, though. This surprises me, because the way I was teased, one would expect to see an obese person in those old pictures, not someone who could almost pass for normal. It’s possible that I was using food to help squelch all of those uncomfortable feelings, but in any event, I never felt full. I was always fixated on food, and I didn’t understand the art of living, apart from that of eating. Everything I did related to food. When planning to go swimming with a group of kids, I was focused on exactly what candy bar I would buy after we got out of the pool. If one of the parents in the neighborhood took a group of us shopping, the candy section was the first part of the store to catch my eye, and I always made sure to save some cash to buy a little something to munch on during the car ride home. Spoiling dinner never seemed to be a problem, because no matter how much candy I ate before dinner, there seemed to be enough room in my stomach for a full meal when my mother, a native of France, called us to the table with a shout of “a table!”, French for “come to the table.”
Despite our occasional fights, my sister and I liked to spend time together. We had separate rooms, but on occasion I would drag my mattress off my bed and into her room for a mini-slumber party. I would bring my stuffed Snoopy dog, my pillow and a snack that I had hidden in my pillowcase. My snack was usually a package of large Sweet Tarts – two oversized servings of the hard, not chewy, version of the treat; one cherry and one grape, each approximately three inches in diameter and wrapped in cellophane. My sister and I would talk until late into the night. When I was convinced that she had fallen asleep, I would reach into my pillowcase and pull out the Sweet Tart. It seemed that no matter how quietly I tried to unwrap it, I always woke my sister, who would ask what the noise was. “Nothing,” I would reply, hoping she believed me, but she knew I was eating snacks I wasn’t supposed to have. On those nights, she would never rat me out. Instead, she would ask for a bite. Satisfied, she would turn back over and fall asleep again, leaving me to finish my forbidden candy in peace. She never seemed obsessed with food like I was.
In kindergarten, I was the kid who was always picked last, or if lucky, second to last. I was last in races, too. Others saw me as completely nonathletic, even though I walked about mile to school and back almost every day. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy sports. On the contrary, I loved kickball and swimming and playing on the playground. I just hated playing with the other kids who were quick to criticize my slow pace or lack of coordination. Although I didn’t always succeed, even at a young age I was putting pressure on myself to try to perform or look good in front of others.
Some will say that the youngest child in a family gets coddled and spoiled. I would say that it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. Not only was I the youngest in my family, I was also the youngest in the neighborhood. Being the “baby” of the group naturally set me apart from the others. I didn’t have many real friends and became a loner very early in my childhood. I did have one friend in the neighborhood who was a year older than I was. Our being younger allowed us to form a bond, but because she was still slightly older, we were in different classes in school. It was a treat for me to be able to play with her as time and our schedules permitted, and spending time with her led to what I consider some of my best childhood memories.
In addition to being constantly criticized for having a chubby body, I was also teased simply for being my age. Occasionally the others would allow me to participate in their activities, but I had to endure their demanding orders and cruel comments– not a fair or pleasant compromise. Most of the time I was forced to sit on the sidelines and watch, hoping that I’d one day be old enough to join in all the fun and games.
I didn’t learn until I was in my mid-twenties that during this period in my life, some much older kids in the neighborhood had tried to force me to be their “porn star” by demanding that I pose in provocative positions and expose myself while they took pictures. Even today I have no recollection of the incident, except of the dress I wore that day. It was one that my mom had made for me. She said I had worn it that day. Apparently I was forced to lift it up for the camera. When my mom saw the pictures, which I never saw, she broke down in sobs. She told me that I looked vacant and she could tell I had been coerced into doing it. How could I repress something I assume was so extremely traumatic? I’m not sure, but this all this came out during my second hospitalization for anorexia. However, once again, nobody ever talked to me about the incident at the time.
While I still have no recollection of the event, I have discovered that as upset as my mom was at the time, she didn’t know how to approach the topic with me. Having grown up in a severely abusive environment as a child, her main focus was how to simply survive, not how to effectively communicate. When I was growing up, most parents didn’t openly discuss feelings, emotions or problems in the household. In the case of my home life, better methods of communication were not encouraged until later.
This wasn’t the last time I would be taken advantage of. I believe that these incidents contributed to my increasing sense of powerlessness, and ultimately led me to try to regain power through other means. My sense of helplessness was increased by the fact that my dad was a binge-drinking alcoholic. Life with someone who drinks is miserable no matter how you slice it, and my life was no exception. I witnessed him harass my oldest brother, make a fool of himself in public, and torment the entire family with his verbal abuse. The contrast between his professional life as a well-respected theoretical physicist and the mess he was at home was tremendous. It's hard to believe that he served as the chairman of the physics department at the University of Colorado given his drive to drink.
When I was twelve, my father kicked me out in a drunken rampage. I could hear him yelling at me that I was stupid and retarded as I ran for my neighbor’s house. Even though he didn’t physically abuse me, the threat of it was always there. The threat of verbal and emotional abuse was a given. He scared me, and at times I hated him with every fiber of my being. My siblings and I never knew what to expect when it came to my dad’s behavior. We used to have to call home and ask our mother if it was “safe” or “clear” to bring a friend home. “Is Dada drunk?” was the question we continually posed.
My sister began keeping a diary when she was eight, and it is filled with page after page starting with, “Dear Diary, Dada is drunk.” Rare were the days that we had any respite from his unpredictable behavior. I sometimes wonder if I would have felt more loved by my dad if he hadn’t been drinking. It’s hard to say, because I never got to know him away from his addiction. I also didn’t know that many years later, I would recreate this pattern of chaos in the partners I chose. Sometimes what is familiar is more enticing than what feels good. I’m convinced that the love I had for my dad wouldn’t have been buried under so much anger and disappointment had he been sober more often.
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