From a very young age, I remember being told how much my parents were affected by their own parents’ divorce. My brother and I were assured that we would never be put through that, and they would always stay together no matter what. Our living room was filled with laughter and lots and lots of hugging, and on Fridays we had “Yahtzee Night.” I felt safe in my household, and I was so proud of where I came from. I was proud to show my parents off to the world. We were the happy, fun family in my eyes.
Along with the happiness that filled our household, there was also fighting and tears. As I aged, I noticed the intensity increasing and certain behaviors by my father no longer were seen as “normal.” When he would arrive home from work, his entrance was the slam of a door. He was frequently twitching and falling asleep abruptly out of nowhere. He was abusive to all of us, physically and emotionally, and especially to my mother and me. Suddenly, Yahtzee night disappeared, family vacations were not so fun, and my brother and I spent more time outside alone than in our house with our father.
I NO LONGER HAD MY PRIVACY—MY ESCAPE—AND I WAS STUCK INSIDE, HAVING TO EXPERIENCE ALL THE TENSION, YET AGAIN. I FELT TRAPPED, AND KNEW THAT WHILE INSIDE, THINGS WOULD GET WORSE FOR ME.
By the time I was in second grade, the woods behind our house became my escape. I could spend hours back there, with just me and my imagination. I would sit back there on a giant rock way up high and accept the peace and presence of the moment. At the time, it felt like that was all I had to rely on. I would pretend I was in a completely different world—a world I had complete control over. I would take in the beauty of the trees, the openness, and the smell of the pine needles all around my feet. Not a single negative thought or emotion crossed my mind, and I was able to create my own dream out of an act of wonder. My mom would call my name from our back porch to make sure I was still alright back there, and I would drag my feet in for dinner with a slight smile on my face as my head was still in daydream village, looking forward to stepping outside tomorrow.
When I reached my teenage years, the trees behind our house were cut down, as our property seemingly shrunk and homes were built right in our backyard. I no longer had my privacy—my escape—and I was stuck inside, having to experience all the tension, yet again. I felt trapped, and knew that while inside, things would get worse for me.
By the time I was 14, the tension and arguments were no longer a difficulty we had to just “tolerate”—there was a more serious problem. I saw my parents change, losing weight from stress, not sleeping through the night, and I feared I was losing them both. The stress in my household was extreme. I was overhearing things I shouldn’t have heard, and I realized just how oblivious I was all these years to never realize how bad things really were between them.
I COULD SEE THE WEIGHT OFF HER SHOULDERS ONCE HER OWN KIDS WERE VALIDATING THAT SHE WAS DOING THE RIGHT THING. “MOM, WE WILL BE OKAY, I PROMISE YOU.”
I had grown up with a father struggling with a drug addiction, refusing to get help or even admit that he needed it; All of these years I never realized it. It wasn’t that I was clueless. I knew he was different, I knew he was difficult, but I never expected what was really going on and my mother tried her best to keep it from us—to keep it from hurting us. When his verbal and emotional abuse became too heavy, we all bit our lips, tried to stay strong, and hoped for the best as we held in our own pain. It was unhealthy for all of us. I knew my mom was fighting hard to keep us kids happy, but I soon came to understand how much she would have to let go in order for her wish to come true. I grew up that year; I grew up fast. I had a long talk with my mom. I told her it was okay for her to divorce him, and I reassured her we wouldn’t blame her. I told her it would be for the better, and we would be all be happier. I could see the weight off her shoulders once her own kids were validating that she was doing the right thing. “Mom, we will be okay, I promise you.”
There was fear behind those words as well. What would happen to us? Our “family”? Fears that any kid would have. I just bit my lip and pushed past those fears. I was facing the fact that this wasn’t healthy, we were not all happy, but we could be.
A few years later, my dad was no longer living at home. We had to visit him every other weekend, and we refused or begged not to. My mom was free of him, but we weren’t. I found it was affecting my own mental health and became very protective over my brother as well. I thought back to my childhood spent in the woods, and decided to create my own clarity just as I had then. My escape was no longer a place, it was inside myself where I was finally allowing myself to be free of tension, and I knew it was going to take some work to do so.
I had to learn how to put my foot down. I had to learn to recognize that his behaviors are separate from who he is as a person. I had to learn self-respect as I stood up for how I deserved to be treated. I allowed for us to separate, and I chose to focus on bettering myself and my mental health by no longer seeing him while I did so. My mom was with someone new, someone who treated her as she deserved to be treated and who cared for us kids as if we were his own.
Another change was soon to happen, too. We sold our home. A home I had lived in for 16 years and imagined I would be able to have my entire life. My life was packed into boxes, moving on to a brand new place and waving goodbye to the backyard and woods where my mind would wander. We packed throughout the summer and by August, we were moving into John’s house. Before this, I was yet to experience a change as abrupt as this one. I went from a family of four with one cat and one dog, to a family of six, with three cats and two great danes. I was now sharing a room and a bunk bed with a 13-year-old girl. I was too accustomed to my old living style where my only job was protection. Now, I had to live, I had to work. I was overwhelmed being at “John’s house” and not really feeling as though I had my own home. I had to learn and respect his expectations, his rules, and follow his daily chores that were all completely new to me.
THROUGH JOHN, WE LEARNED THAT THE WORDS “I LOVE YOU” ARE NOTHING COMPARED TO THE AMOUNT OF LOVE YOU SHOW THROUGH ACTIONS.
It was a shock, I remember crying and feeling stripped from the life I had known. But, through a change in perspective, I was able to acknowledge that my life wasn’t just changing, it was improving. The chores, the responsibilities, the family dinners, the daytrips—they all were what I had dreamed about having in a family, and now I had it. My brother and I were able to see through John how a father should be a role model and teach you to work hard and give back to your community. Through John, we learned that the words “I love you” are nothing compared to the amount of love you show through actions.
Change is inevitable and very difficult to accept at times. It is common to have expectations of how your life will continue to be, based on how it is in the present moment. If I have learned anything from a difficult family experience, it is that expectations do not always transcend into reality, but whatever is coming around the corner will arrive for a purpose, and the result will be promising.