Vital Signs Part 2 – A sort of memoir

“What a lovely year, they tell me it rained”

— Kay Jamison

I’m 13, sitting in the back seat of a car, crying and holding my cat, which is mewling piteously. We’re leaving Minnesota, my home. It’s disappearing. My heart is breaking and I cannot stop it from doing so. I don’t know what to do, what to say. I’m helpless. I can do nothing but look out the window and hug Scamp.

My parents think it’s the cat that’s upsetting me. No. The cat’s cries are mirroring my deep sadness, anxiety, and cry for help and mercy.

Unable to take the cat and my crying, Dad stops and stuffs Scamp in the only home we have now – a small trailer.

Everything is gone. A mosquito coast moment.

My Dad does what’s best for him, as usual. I know Mom is conflicted, as if the choice is somehow between him and me. Apparently, it’s no contest. I’ve never lived anywhere longer than four years. I’m a shy, awkward misfit, though I didn’t have trouble making some friends. Having to do so again and again was very difficult.

We stop at my grandmothers. Dad opens the door to the trailer and out pops Scamp; jumping, hopping, hissing and clawing. All the things I want to do. I want to hug Scamp, comfort him, but my father kicks my cat. I’m afraid he’ll kill Scamp – I’ve seen that look on his face before, so I keep myself in check. I don’t want to be the one getting kicked.

In a rush, this scene dredges up many memories all at once:

I’m maybe 4 and couldn’t find the catsup in the fridge. He thinks I’m making fun of him, not finding it on purpose. I can feel the anger behind me grow, until I sense he rushes at me. The pain explodes in the back of my head, hit when my dad’s blind rage exploded, as it often did at that time.

The worst part is the threat – knowing it could happen at any moment.

The catsup wasn’t in the fridge.

I’m living in Waterloo and remember all the anger directed at my sisters, at mom, at the sky, at everyone and likely at himself too.

We’re in a car and my dad has swiveled to swat at my sister Steph, who snapped her gum at him. I’ve pushed myself into a corner of the back seat, right against the window – looking out the glass, watching other families pass by us – wishing I was there with them, not in the war zone.

We’re walking into a restaurant to get pizza – my dad hit Steph. The shouting. The air vibrating with anger. I’m shaking. Crying.

We’re camping and my dad has been drinking. He freaks out starts ripping the trailer apart. My mom shuttles me away to let his rage boil off.

I’m bringing a bowl of water to give our new dog. It must not have had enough in it because he kicks it out of my hand, pain lancing through my fingers. Shut down, apologize – it was my fault, right? and hope the eruption passes by. Heart racing.

I’m in 2nd grade, off to see my sister Sue in the mental institution – the common room filled with shuffling, lost souls. Her look of despair.

All the moving, all the instability that it brings. Don’t they see my pain? Do they care? I know they do, but why aren’t they doing something about it.

And now Dad’s running away again, and this time from a place I love the most. The one place everything seemed calm and normal.

This is the man that loves to write, imbued in me a love of science, that can be goofy and funny. Who takes me to movies. That, together with mom and I, have done so many fun and wonderful things. Road trips and great memories. I love them, and I know they love me.

I don’t get it. So confusing. There must be something wrong with me, right? Parents protect and love, so it must be me. I must be flawed somehow. Unworthy. Or so worthy, stable and bulletproof this will all just be OK.

I’m lost in this jumble of memories and feelings until I fall asleep at grandma’s house; spent, swallowing my fear and anxiety, falling into the well of my mind – a place that is safe.

My uncle took Scamp the next day, so he disappeared too. Like my friends did repeatedly. Like Minnesota. Like my heart was beginning to.

During the camping trip on our slow trek south to Miami, I’m reading The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, desperately wishing to fall into the pages, to be anywhere but where I was.

When we arrive in South Florida, I’m on a different planet and cannot breath the new air.

And so it began: in the first year, from 13 to 14, I was a dark, horribly depressed ghost throwing myself into school, books and movies. Hiding in my room to watch it rain.

I’m alone in my house. I’m alone in my head. I’m an awkward misfit – I always was – and now the days are carved in stone; wooden and lifeless. My mind shuts down at the same time, paradoxically, I race through school. The pain and tumult in my mind is too hard to take, but somehow I do. I can’t make friends. I don’t want to.

Miami is beautiful and I hate it.

Then the year ends. I make friends with high school dropouts and disappear for weekends at a time and self-medicate.

I devise an escape plan. I graduate from high school at 16 so I can go to college back in Minnesota.

I graduate early, fill out the applications, but never send them. I can’t. I’m too afraid.

I don’t know how to live on my own. I have no confidence in myself. How would I live? And so I dive into college in South Florida that, ironically, lengthens my stay in the armpit of the country. But college is freedom and the blessed white noise of intellectual pursuits.

And then, one day, it happens – I’m leaving for Iowa State. Returning “home”, but that idea of a place and feeling is just that, a phantom and a construct in my mind. I escape, physically, but the scars are there, hidden – even to me, though I knew subconsciously all my nerves were naked wires, tender to the touch. That each emotional injury left behind its mark. That someday they would come tumbling out. And they did, 20 years later.

As Miami disappears in the rear view mirror, I realize that it was never the city I hated. It was the demon in my head, which leers and taunts me. It’s a very real entity to me. Haunts my dreams, in which it hunts and kills me – sometimes it’s a large black shark, or whirling tornadoes that chase me into a house filled with narrow passageways, which I must navigate, yet cannot. I’m trapped and fear infuses my every pour until the house crushes me. Other times it’s a milk white devil with dark black wings, sharp teeth and fetid breath.

This devil laughs at me: “Someone stronger would never feel as you do. You are weak and worthless. Oh, you have your attics to hide in, but I’m not that easily gotten rid of. You think you’ve won?! I’ll always be here. In your head, in your writing, in your dreams. In your sadness and your anger. One day, no matter how far you’ve buried me, you will learn I’m always lurking beneath the surface.”

Yes it is, but I fight. I find my heart and soul again at Iowa State, like the calm after a storm. Made great life-long friends.

I met Katniss. I could never truly have gotten to a better place recently without her. Thank god for Katniss and my wonderful children.

I can do it right. I am doing it right. I will win.

My family are my garden, my strong, soothing, steady and ever present waterfall that helps me to banish the demon, though I can see it pacing in the distance, waiting to pounce. The demon beacons and teases – lures me with comfortable chaos and dark thoughts.

The demon can go fuck itself.

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