I have never had very good examples of healthy relationships in my life so I guess it’s no surprise that I made poor choices with my own relationships. My first memories of my dad and mom together weren’t great. In one, my dad sits at the breakfast table reading the newspaper while my mom cooks in the kitchen, which is open to where we’re sitting. We have a noisy parrot whose cage is right next to the table and that likes to sing in the mornings, irritating my dad. He bangs on the cage with the newspaper jovially but also in irritation and yells at the bird to shut up.
In the other my dad and mom sit facing each other on the couch screaming in heated anger. I don’t remember what they were screaming about, only that they were screaming. By the time I was three they were divorced. My mother hated my dad for divorcing her I think. He was defending his boundaries because she was horribly violating of them, and she hated, railed against, and went on vitriolic tirades against him. Soon after their divorce my mother essentially let our parrot go. Or maybe one day he just got tired of the anger and tension that filled our home and flew away, just like my dad.
My dad tried desperately to get custody of me. If the courts were actually fair and unbiased they probably would have given custody to him, but back then custody was almost always automatically granted to the mother despite any evidence of her inability to properly care for a child. Thus began our peripatetic, uncertain, and bohemian lifestyle. My mother had an undiagnosed bipolar illness, came from a highly disfunctional family full of addiction and abuse, and it was as difficult a way of life as you might imagine it to be.
She never kept a job longer than a few months. She was highly intelligent but couldn’t keep her mouth shut when someone pissed her off. She couldn’t even manage to behave somewhat civilly, yelling and screaming expletives and insults. She really knew how to sling insults. Perceptive and smart, she would reach inside, somehow intuitively knowing your deepest fears and wishes, and wring the pain from your heart. Unable to control her behavior and maybe not wanting to, and a product of abuse, she used sex to get attention and what she thought she wanted. When we were kicked out of a place she would find some guy to “love” her for a little while and give us a place to stay. A folk music fan she took us to the Kerrville Folk Festival and concerts all the time and was a bit of a groupie. She wasn’t very secretive or discreet about it either, even around me, so I was familiar with the act of sex and sexual terms since the age of five.
When I was eight I feel fairly certain that I saw my little brother conceived with a married man. We had been kicked out of where we were living and he and his wife had offered to let us stay in the little trailer they had in their backyard. I was friends with their little girl. Sometime in the night I woke up I think because I had wet the bed again (I was a terrible bedwetter and continued to wet the bed till the age of eleven or so, much to my shame and disgust), and they were screwing in the bunk bed below me.
Eventually she turned her verbal abuse of my father to me, telling me that I was a spoiled selfish asshole just like my father. I became desperately afraid of this label and tried valiantly to give everything I could to prove that I was the exact opposite, never realizing until I was much older that it was her job to take care of me, not the other way around.
When I was 11 my father and I managed to convince her to let me live with him and my stepmother in California. It was difficult and not without its challenges. The mediator asked me in a session once which parent I would rather live with. I hesitated. She must have been young or unrealistically optimistic because she said that she would get my mother to promise not to hurt me if I said I wanted to live with my dad. I was also young, and naive, so I relented and agreed that yes, I would much rather live with my dad. After all, he had a stable home, food on the table, electricity, hot water, and he didn’t yell and scream insults at me. Unfortunately, the weekend of that meeting with the mediator I was scheduled to stay with my mom. She had moved to Oakland to be closer to ne while I was living with my dad. On the busride home she became angrier and angrier, and finally, as we were walking from the bus stop, she slapped me so hard that my glasses flew off my face and down the street.
But it turned out that my father’s home wasn’t as idyllic as I had first thought. When I was 12 or 13 my stepmother left my dad for the man she’d been having an affair with, her boss. My dad was devastated. Then she came back and left and came back a few times until she finally decided that she wanted to give it another try with my dad. Watching my dad go through that, I felt like it must be my fault, and I think I felt like she was rejecting me a little too. Dad, lost in the pain that he was feeling and trying to fix things with his wife, couldn’t spare much attention for me, though he did the best he could. It’s hard to really invest the time and care into healing your extremely disfunctional daughter when your heart is ripped out and pounded into the floor by your wife though.
My mother had moved back to Texas and everytime I had to go visit with her I became so anxious that I would spend the first night at her home throwing up. Every time I was supposed to leave to go back to my Dad’s was a struggle. She fought it with manipulation and intimidation as much as she could. One time she poured a beer on my head and locked me in the bedroom of my aunt and uncle’s doublewide where we were staying because she was homeless once again. Eventually, when I was 13 on the verge of 14, frustrated with and anxious from the situation at my dads because of my stepmother, and pressured once again to stay with my mom, this time with kindness and persuasion and familiarity, I decided to move back to my mom’s. That is a decision I regret to this day. It was probably the worst decision of my life.