I lost my mom a year ago. We were estranged so I had not seen her in three years. I did not even know where she lived or if she was even in the States. It is still pretty raw for me; all the unfinished business, things left unsaid, things said, and the great divide between us. This current political climate is not helping with issues of Women’s Rights at risk and body autonomy.
My mom was a severely battered woman in the early 70s. So, when neighbors complain to the police, often, the badged responses were things like, “Mr. Graves, the neighbors can hear what is going on so you are going to need to keep it down,” and “Mrs. Graves, your screams are scaring the other wives so we need you to stop screaming.” They say this to a drunk man with a knife in his hand and a woman bruised and bloody. He raped her often, so I was not conceived out of love, but violence. My mom had to be rescued to save both of our lives.
Dear old dad signed away his rights to me without ever laying eyes on me, so my mom thought everything was going to be okay from there on out. Because it was the early 70s, she felt so much pressure to remarry. When she met her next husband, little did she know that he was a monster who had eyes for defenseless, infantile, baby girls. They got married and the molestation began for me at 12 months old. I have never known innocence.
He thrived on power and control which of course he used to control and emotionally damage my mom even further so she never could even think about trying to heal. Our lives were simply about survival.
You do not need to know the horrors I went through; I did not even want to know. My brain got too good at compartmentalizing the damage. I went through periods of forgetting the abuse and pretending I had a real dad and “normal” family. I rebelled a lot against the abuse as I got older and it got much, much worse. But he had too much leverage. When I was small, pain worked. Then, I did not care about pain. When I did not care about pain, he said he would hurt my mom or that she would not love me. When my “big” brother was born, he said he would hurt him. When my little brother was born, the same thing. Then he said he would hurt my animals. By this time, I was in middle school and he would demonstrate his seriousness and begin hurting my pets until they cried. He would then explain this is how he would hurt my brothers and my mom.
All of this abuse and dysfunction escalated throughout my childhood and ate away at my whole family. Sexual innuendo and degradation was the norm at dinner. Talking about and grabbing my body parts in front of my brothers: normal. I was self-harming and fighting suicidal thoughts into high school. I made many plans to die, run away, escape all of which were discarded because his escalation of harming my family became much more believable when he really did start harming them unless I was completely compliant. I knew I had to be as obedient as my rebellious heart could possibly be in order to keep my family safe – up to and including picking out his tie and shirt, ironing them, getting the boys up and ready for school and on the bus to making his tea and toast for breakfast while my mom worked the early shift. I do not know if she ever knew about this.
I really disconnected emotionally from my family, especially from my mom, I think because inside I was screaming for help and she could not hear it. She could not hear me any more than I could see the abuse she was suffering at his hands. The only person in the house he treated well and showed any correct affection for was my baby brother.
In high school, I let boyfriends treat me like a Barbie doll because I did not, for a moment, think I was worthy of anything else. I was walking, talking meat. The actual pretty, dumb blonde. Smile, nod, be polite - especially being raised as a sex toy by one parent and with an etiquette book by the other. But the feelings of “run” grew stronger and stronger and each day seemed like a desperate struggle. I would throw myself into the things I love with everything I had to blot out the pain of life at home. Little did I know I was doing so manically.
I finally met a guy who was different. I was 16 and it was my senior year. He had a sweet kindness about him, made me laugh, liked to talk *with* me, and had a heart that had some good, old-fashioned chivalry. When I was with him, his presence, while it made my heart wild inside my chest, it calmed my mind and made me feel a peace I had never known. Of course, we fell in love. Of course, everyone said it would not last because we were so young. Of course, we did not care what they thought.
I always drew, created and found ways to be artistically expressive as far back as I can remember. I completely threw myself into art – anything I could get my hands into or onto. In grade school, everyone loved the cute puppies and horses. In middle school, I won a little class contest of “who can draw the best monster” and all the boys were wowed. I was also sought out for my unicorns and horses.
In high school when I could actually choose art classes, I thrived! I won an art award (a very big event which included schools from all over Illinois, as I remember it) at a regional show one year and honorable mentions for art and photography every year; Mom was not there. I had a couple of art shows at school, Mom was not there. I won Best Senior Artist at the senior showing, Mom was not there. That particular piece of art was framed and has an engraved plate which adorns the library of my old high school even today. I won the front cover of my local paper with my art submission, you guessed it, no one cared. And when I say Mom was not there – the family went where Mom went. I could not go on my senior art trip to the Art Institute in Chicago (a “golden ticket event”) because Mom refused to pay for it. At graduation, I saw them in the audience, I *think* I saw them a moment before I walked in but they were all gone before I could turn in my gown. So, once again I am standing in the midst of happy, bustling families who are squealing and taking pictures and I feel like an orphan.
But, I still needed to escape. At 16, in my senior year, I was talking to military recruiters. I wanted to go into the Marines. Mom said any branch but the Marines. There were a lot of arguments. So, I talked to an Army recruiter, I wanted to be a medic, but I needed parental consent because I was not yet 18. I was not waiting another year. He had mapped out my college plan of staying at home in isolation and slavery to him. No. If I could not get out or get help one of us would die. I went to my mom and told her point-blank the pressures and dysfunction in the house would become intentionally worse and I would fight tooth and nail unless she signed me into the military. She tried to call my bluff. It took two months.
My boyfriend, who now had happily presented me with a promise ring, said he would join too, but join the National Guard as his Dad was serving in a local unit. I wanted to be with Michael, so I switched gears. He was not just my Promised, he was, and is, my best friend. I wanted to be where he was. Always.
We left within days of my graduation. Me, without looking back. We go through our training, but we are at different posts. Away from him, my personal inner strength falters. Female service members are still not welcome, put down and demeaned daily, told we do not belong, told we cannot do the job of a man, told we are weak and, told to go home to get married and pop out babies because that is all we are good for; and still sexually assaulted verbally and to my horror – physically. I am raped by a fellow soldier. Someone I thought I could trust. Physically I was strong and could fight but inside I did not feel there was anything worth defending. I felt so much guilt and shame and for a long time and I was not even sure it was rape because I was strong and I was the one who got myself into the situation to allow such a thing to happen. I felt it was my fault. Like rape culture, misogynists say, “she was asking for it.” But, I “sucked it up and moved on” like a good soldier and graduated (without family, orphan style) near the top of my class – did I mention the tool recruiter who slid me into a mechanic slot and not a medic slot? Yeah, so there were only two of us females.
Fast forward a bit and Michael and I plan our wedding. I was *not* going to include my family. At all. I did not want the drama or the stir of emotions that would come with it. I did not want “him” there. I did not want Mom side-eyeing me in judgment: Michael would not take care of me, he would not stay with me, he was a typical guy, he was not mature enough for me, was he abusing me? Am I telling her all these good qualities to convince her or myself? (insert eye roll here) After much discussion, I agreed to let them know we were getting married but we were doing so on our own without either family present as we wanted as small, quiet wedding because it was our marriage that mattered the most. I did not do this in person because, oh, my gosh, that would have been such an eruption. So, I called, calmly explained, said it was nothing personal to either family and that we loved our families, this was just our wish. She said, okay.
My Mom and her mother got a wedding planner, cake decorator all up in my face and our wedding was an absolute freaking circus. We remember the good parts of that day and that our life is about our love, friendship and devotion to each other. I was 19 he was 20. This year we will celebrate our 27th wedding anniversary.
Three years later we finally got pregnant! I prayed and prayed for a baby boy. I cried when the ultrasound revealed a girl. Do not get me wrong; I could not love or cherish her more – it is just not possible although I do love her more every time I see her beautiful face and hear her voice. My heart just swells until I think it is going to burst and then it just gets bigger. My TARDIS heart – so much bigger on the inside. The tears came from a deep, dark fear that I would never be able to protect her or keep her from the horrors of being a girl in this man-made world. I was convinced that I knew the only two good men; my husband and the unsung hero of my life story – my grampa. Although they are Superman, each, they cannot surround her with a blanket of protection to preserve her innocence, wonder, and amazement for the world which I had observed with clinical curiosity in other children as I grew up.
I kicked into military mode and stuffed all these feelings down just like I stuffed down all the horrors of my childhood. Stuffed and stuffed until they were squeezed behind a wall I made so I could carry on being a wife, friend, and normal person expecting her first child with glee. A well-meaning and wishful façade – the dream of what I wanted. I pushed away my art. It is only with retrospect that I know I did this on a subconscious level to protect myself from the emotions my art brings and releases. Art IS the artist. I did not know that without my art there is such a void in me.
My beautiful baby, Deanna, is born. A roller coaster of drama and emotion. There were so many things I did not know. So many things about this entire pregnancy and delivery process my mom never told me. The book, “What to Expect When You are Expecting” was not yet written! During my pregnancy, my baby brother, whom I had to parent as a child, asked a lot of questions of me being ten years my junior. He was 12. Mom had told him nothing about anything about his body or girls or about – anything! So, once again, I had to step up and be his parent. I explained everything he asked at his level and his understanding. He was so excited he wanted to be there when Deanna was born and he was, but much to his disappointment, he was in the waiting room for the big show. I think it was due to our extreme disfunction as a family he did not understand why I would not want him to see certain things.
When Michael was at work, I was barely holding myself together. I took care of my baby but not me. About a half an hour before he was expected home, I would put myself together, tidy the apartment, and if it was my turn, get some food going. The wishful façade continued, but it was shaky. When Deanna napped, I cried and cried. I had dark thoughts and hated myself. I felt more pain than ever and was self-harming again. I had no idea why. For a while, holding her close and letting her sleep on my chest helped as our heartbeats synched. I would smell her sweet baby hair and tell myself what a precious gift she was.
We would get her all dolled up and take her to see my grampa – her PawPaw. He had been diagnosed a few months earlier with the last stages of lung cancer when I took him to the doctor. The doctor told him he would not see past the next three months. He waited for more than six – to see his Deanna, his Joy. The two of them in their own world gave me such comfort it held that shaky wall up. They spoke their own language. She never once fussed or cried in his arms. She only smiled and looked deep into his eyes and he did the same in return. When they talked no one else could hear their words. I would watch them and think they could communicate because they both were so much physically closer to God than the rest of us. She so fresh from His hands to us and he so close to being received into His hands. This gave them such a close and unique bond none of us could ever completely understand. When grampa got tired he would lie down and sleep and she would sleep too. If she woke before him, she would lie there quietly until he woke – I swear it was so he could rest more. When he did wake, she would just smile up at him. During this time, I would just bear witness, silent in the periphery in awe of this tremendous miracle.
The night he died I knew it was coming. Everyone did. I let him kiss Deanna and I kissed him. Michael laid down with us in the living room to give Grandmother and Mom the final time with him. I knew the time because I could feel him brush back my hair. I looked at Deanna. She was on her back, eyes open smiling up into the darkness of the room, softly babbling and waving her hands and kicking her feet. Then she settled a bit and closed her eyes with a smile and went to sleep. He was gone. Home. Pain free.
I think this was the final stressor for my fragile wall. It became harder and harder to keep up appearances. Then “he” showed up at my door one night wanting to see “his” granddaughter! With all the warrior strength I had, I told him he did not have a granddaughter because he did not have a daughter. I told him to never darken my doorway or ever come near my daughter again or he would truly find out how far I would go to protect her.
I was losing it more and more. Convinced I could follow through on that threat of protection. Only Michael could protect her. I would only be an obstacle and weight to her safety, health, and growth. I cried more, worried more, bad dreams turned into nightmares which turned into flashbacks of my childhood horrors – then my flashbacks began to replace myself with my baby girl. I could not stop the pain of the fear or the dreams and I felt so trapped and alone and felt like I had nowhere to go and nowhere to run. The feeling of pain and shame and burden overtook me completely.
One night while my husband was at work, I put my baby to bed – she was six months old. She had her last bottle so I knew she would sleep until long after he got home. I took all the pain pills, all the muscle relaxers, sleeping pills, and every single other pill in the cabinet along with a big glass of water and went into my bedroom. I prayed. I prayed for the safety of my baby, the strength and understanding of my best friend and husband and I prayed that my Saviour would understand that I needed this pain to end. I just needed to be home with Him. I swallowed every single pill and laid down. I felt my heart slowing as everything faded into the background turning black and I disappeared. Some people would call it a dream, some people would call it a near-death experience, some people would call it a miracle. I call it: The second time my Grampa saved my life. He was there in the darkness a brightness highlighting him from behind giving him a radiance that makes me smile to this day. He looked good, healthy, but there was a sadness in his eyes. He held me and we talked. I can still feel his arms around me and the comfort it gave me. I begged to stay with him, but he said no. He said I had work to do and that he knew I was strong enough to protect and raise Deanna – that she needed me. She needed both her parents. Grampa told me to wake up – wake up!
A fresh whirlwind of hell followed with a blur of people, an ambulance, the ER, in and out of consciousness for two days in the ICU, harsh nurses saying they cannot believe I am even alive. The nurses look at me in disdain down their noses – like they could be attending more important patients who deserve their attention since I wanted to die. A real ass of a shrink telling me I am getting 5150’d -locked up with the indigence of my shoestrings being taken away. When I looked in the mirror for the first time in many days, I realized no one could even give me the dignity of wiping the charcoal off my face and neck. I was one suicide watch for two days with very large male attendants, which was scary. When I was finally face to face with primary psych – who was actually very jaded – he asked me questions until he was happy with the answers. I felt like he stamped my head with labels. One label said “dysthymic disorder” and the other “postpartum depression.” I was shuffled along to a counselor with the instructions: talk to her, read this book, do what you are told, and you can leave as early as 14 days. I am a good student so after 11 days of hard study I get another stamp that says “approved.” I am sent home with an antidepressant that makes me an automaton. I do a little fruitless counseling and try another antidepressant which does nothing positive.
As Deanna turns one and is walking and learning new words daily I am really starting to see the world through her eyes; with wonder and joy. I am still depressed, although I am not really aware or understand, yet, this abstract concept; I delve into her learning and her world view. I embrace it. My world will not be her world. I completely throw myself into this idea as a personal crusade.
I say to hell with pills and counseling simply because they are not working for me and, at the time, they were taking me away from my family. The library, always my friend, is now my best friend. Deanna and I spend hours and hours there. She is in her favorite spot “reading” book after book while I am in the next room over absorbing every definition that has to do with depression, every clinical study on child abuse, discovering the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), stats and studies on rape and domestic violence and start putting together my own paper database of sorts. Dr. Phil was not a household name back then but apparently, we had a similar idea: “you cannot fix what you do not acknowledge.” So, my thought was if I could identify the dark thoughts, “wrong” thoughts, diagnoses, the pervasiveness of all these evils, then I could face them head-on and actually confront and battle them.
I decided several things at this juncture: my daughter will not know abuse and neglect (not that she had so far), the cycle of violence would stop at my watch, I would help other women and children who have been affected by this awful plague and I would go back to school to help in this life mission.
The time I was getting my Associate’s was packed with work, parenting, partnering with Michael, working (sometimes three jobs at once), volunteering at a domestic violence shelter, tutoring, and working with a special needs child in a program through the state. As I was days away from graduating with school honors and Phi Theta Kappa honors, activity was especially high. I was riding a bright whirlwind of purpose and mission and focus. I had been accepted to the U of I with scholarships and glowing recommendations from several of my instructors. I planned on starting in the fall. Things came to screeching halt when I was doing my daily dash to the library and my sweet little girl with her Winnie the Pooh backpack stuffed with snacks, crayons and books gave me pause. She was starting her own school in the fall. As she is saying “hi” and other personal greetings to staff and students by name my grandfather’s words came back to me: she needs me – she needs her mom. We were already like peas and carrots – the librarian kept a special spot for her to color and “study” while I was studying. The computer lab monitor kept an extra chair for her so she could sit next to me and when there was an open computer, he would open up a fun alphabet game. Every instructor allowed her in class because she sat like an attentive student and “took notes.”
Deanna was so excited for our next adventure at the “big” school – the U of I – because sometimes I would have to pop over and use that library or visit one of the psych buildings or even let her participate in a study to help the students there. My heart just sank. When we drove back to town after school that day I drove to her new school. We talked a long time about how she was actually going to get to go to her own school in the fall. Being such a bright and smart child, she did sit quietly and think it over. She cried. It melted and broke my heart when her beautiful gold-flecked eyes looked into mine as she told me she wanted to go to school with me. Knowing she would understand, I told her that since she helped me so much in my school it was my turn to help her in school. When she graduated school then we would both go to college together. I am smiling as I write this--she made me pinkie promise I would go to college with her.
I am not going to say everything was storybook and picture-perfect, but we were involved, invested and happy. Michael and I did everything we could to support Deanna in school and at home. We made sure that she saw loving parents and felt love. We did family-oriented activities, volunteer work and she was very active in her school and church and did very well in school. We were extremely proud parents and could not have felt more humbly blessed with our Deanna.
Her junior year, 2012, a series of traumatic events happened to me, and my world crashed in on me. Honestly, it happened to my family as well, but I was too broken at the time to recognize that. The depression was so deep I could not get out of bed, let alone leave the house. I wanted to die. Fighting and kicking and crying and screaming I was taken back to see psychiatrists and counselors and I did not want to go through that whole farce that I had experienced years ago for nothing.
Something was different with the mental health system. Even through my fog of worthlessness, I could see this – and I was a literal guinea pig for this new system. Mental health triage with rounded and blended care – a team of professionals – MY team. I had a doctor who spoke with me about what I was feeling and going through and discussed meds he thought would help and why. Another member checked in with me daily to see how I was feeling and if I thought the meds were working. Another member helped schedule my appointments and then helped me remember to go to them. Another member was my counselor who I could talk to and helped guide me through myself and why the events had affected me so deeply and profoundly. I was starting to come out of the shadows. Starting to understand that wall I built and why and then see why it broke. I am still struggling but I know the names of my demons and naming something is powerful in a battle.
Two years later Michael is scared and worried and feels helpless. Deanna has moved out and who can blame her? She needs a healthier environment. It cut deeply, but I wanted her to be okay. I was suicidal, depressed, and I hit my limit after days of serious spiraling. One day, I just get up and get dressed thinking I am going to get in my car and end it all. As I walk out of the house, Michael wants to know where I am going and if I am coming back. I tell him “I don’t know,” as I leave. Lord, I cannot even imagine what that did to him.
Something or someone – I like to think it was my grampa, again watching over me – changed my course. I did not get into my car. I walked. I found myself not more than a block away from where a dear friend works at our local counseling center. She is an ordained minister and a licensed therapist. I just stand in reception asking for her. As we talked, we found a flaw in the system of my team approach. My psychiatrist had left, and being the head of my team, I seemed to have been a bit lost in the shuffle. I was on two meds that were intended to be short term – for 6 months, monitored. The long-term effects of these particular drugs cause deeper depression and suicidal ideation if not actual suicide. These were notes in my chart that seemed to be missed: these two meds six months only.
My friend got me back into the mental health triage. It has been altered a bit and I am placed with someone who specializes in meds and the chemical effects in the brain and has extensive schooling in psychiatric health. I am paired with her and a counselor. I see both on a regular basis. What was additionally different this time was the diagnostics. I actually went through a battery of tests to verify and conclude diagnoses. My meds are closely monitored, and any changes made are in small single steps to better see what is or is not working. Oh, my gosh – logic!
Since 2012, not only did I realize that I cannot fully take care of anyone else if I am not healthy, but I also have embraced the simple fact that mental health is health. I also realized that part of the void in me was me thinking I had to set aside everything I loved in order to take care of my family. I thought having my art was being selfish because it took time away from those I love and cherish. But the simple fact was and is: if there is a void because I am depriving myself or punishing myself, I am actually hurting my family because they really are not getting ALL of me. So, if art, my passion, is not part of my life, I am not living my full life – no matter how hard and how passionately I love those around me.
I start drawing again. I am very timid and shaky and shy about it. The more I do the more support I get and the more complete I feel. In 2016 I put a humble piece of art into a show. The first show since high school. I am so nervous, anxious, excited, and scared. Here I am putting in this little drawn thing that is surrounded by “real” art. I am afraid to show my face because, inside, I feel like I am going to be found out as a fraud because the show is for Artists – not sketchers, doodlers, and drawers. But, truly, I am overwhelmed by the acceptance and support of the art community and everyone involved. All the kindness and compliments swirl around me and bolster me. All the time that damn little demon inside says I do not deserve it.
My piece at my first art show does not sell. Michael says he is happy it did not because he loves it and wanted to keep it. It is part of his Star Wars collection – of which he is very proud. Honestly, it reminds me that I did it. I started again and I am going to keep on.
Soon I am accepted, by jury, into a vendor market day to show and sell some of my art jewelry. These are the same group of kind and supportive local artists from my first baby step. To my shock, I actually do very well. I received the same wonderful kindness. It is just so hard to accept, but I humbly do. And these are people I truly like and would love to spend more time with. Again, it is one of these great people who point me in the direction of a beautiful art gallery in Decatur and suggests I apply to become a vendor! What? Me?
I research this gallery, this business, and I am truly intimidated – this place is fantastic and filled with such a variety of beautiful, thought-provoking, and original art! Again – “real” artists. I must credit my husband and daughter helping me believe in myself once again. I AM an artist.
I apply and await a juried decision. You could have knocked me over with a feather when I was told I was accepted as a vendor! I absolutely love creating things – making art for people. I love that people stop and look at my art and are moved enough by my creations to want to keep it! Since then I have been confident enough to do two more shows and will be doing another vendor event in the fall. I “art” every chance my body will allow me.
So, my reality is: my brain has illnesses. I have illnesses. I do not have the ability to hold down a job because I cannot sit for too long, stand for too long, lift, bend and other things I could do without thought when my body was strong – but I am working on it. I have depression, anxiety, agoraphobia, panic disorder, bipolar disorder, PTSD, traumatic brain injuries from so many concussions from childhood abuse, bad hips and knees from the abuse and terrible migraines. I can be laid up for days or weeks sometimes. I am a wife, mother, nana, survivor, and artist. And, I am just getting started.