“Once upon a time, there were three very different little girls…who grew up to be three very different women. But they have three things in common: They’re brilliant, they’re beautiful, and they work for me. My name is Charlie.”
– Charlie’s Angels the movie, 2000
On the brimming cusp of puberty, me and my sisters, Katie and Liz, would oftentimes be rock stars in the latest, flashiest MTV music videos. We were doctors, nurses, and patients. We were teachers or students playing school. We were guests on our very own The Jerry Springer Show, taping live from the living room!” We were priests pretending to give the holy sacrament of flattened white bread cut to resemble communion; Holy Hawaiian Punch, our blood of Christ. Out back in the small area of woods behind our house in a small Connecticut town, we disappeared into our make-believe world. The scattered maze of crisscrossed fallen trees created the perfect stage for some of our most dramatic scenes. We once dug to China. That was messy.
One day my aunt and uncle interrupted us playing Charlie’s Angels. We imitated the super-detective ladies—we karate chopped the air while flipping face forward into small piles of slowly accumulating snow. My sisters and I used our imaginations to escape the chaos brewing under the roof of our home. Our laughs seemed not to overpower the yelling and screaming that progressively grew louder from our small, blue house. That day would be one of our parents’ last major fights. My memory is choppy, but I remember being confused to see my aunt and uncle. The cops were there too, but they got called frequently enough for us not to be overly alarmed.
My mom cried hysterically as my dad yelled in her face; police officers acted as referees between the two. Our neighbors sheepishly returned to their peaceful home across the street. My sisters and I were quickly ushered to the car with no time to even grab an overnight bag. As we pulled away in the backseat of my aunt’s car, I read the profanities spray-painted across my mom’s car and onto the walls of the garage. The faded marks remain red to this day. The silent ride allowed for the echoes of the day to haunt us the entirety of the drive. That was a messy day.
As children, we learned how to conceal evidence. For over a decade, a calendar hung on the closet door in the hallway to hide a hole. Maybe it was caused from a household item being thrown—the coffee pot or vacuum. Maybe a fist? I don’t recall what specific event that led to the hole in the door, but we covered it. The fragmented wood indented perfectly in the middle. The calendar served as a way of hiding our family’s anger: the slow dismantling of our family unit. We kept it hidden away from the outside world. But within our small house on Hughes Street, it would seep into every available crevice, including our psyches.
The chaos was normal though. Fights typically ended with my dad packing up and leaving for a couple days—not that I have a lot of memories of him being present. It was believed he traveled a lot for work, but his particular whereabouts were always questionable. I do remember when he was there, it was destructive. Toxic. Loud. Erratic. I have a vague recollection of the day he lifted our bulky, all metal vacuum cleaner and threw it across the living room to where my mom and oldest sister Katie sat in the gray, living room recliner. I’d oftentimes sit behind that chair and hide—a small, safe sanctuary. Katie recently asked me if I remembered this incident. I explained to her, I could only recall what she has talked about before.
She said, “I was petrified and I remember Mom sitting stoically in front of me.” We talked about how any of our “good” memories with dad are recalled by family photos, like fishing trips or family celebrations. I told her of the only memory I have of laying on the couch with him. But I can’t seem to decipher whether it’s an actual memory, or if my mind has somehow convinced itself that it’s from that one picture I’ve seen of us together.
Our classic family trip to Disney was anything but a happy memory. My sisters and I were all under the age of eight and the only thing we all collectively recall from that vacation was my parents incessant arguing. It started with the rental car.
“Whose brilliant idea was it to rent a convertible with three little girls and several bags of luggage?” my mother had grumbled from the passenger seat. Or when the keys to the hotel room were misplaced and caused an uproar of anger followed by awkward and strained hours of the silent treatment. It seemed the families that surrounded us had some secret recipe to remaining happy, playful, and connected. My mom would spend ten years of her life paying off the credit card my dad used to pay for that trip. He was determined to “give us the best experience of our lives.” He had to bring his girls to Disney—fulfilling society’s ideal of what the “all-American, happy family” does—the exact opposite of what we actually were. I would have traded in that whole vacation to have had the five of us connect lovingly. That was a messy vacation.
Around the age of seven, I remember chasing my Mom’s car halfway down the street. I ran desperately after her, convinced she was leaving for good. It typically wasn’t my mom that left after big blowouts with my dad. I cried hysterically for hours curled up in a ball under the covers of my bed. My imagination running wild as to what our lives would be like being stuck there with just dad. Who would he project his rage on now? Would he get just as angry at us, for…God knows what? The underlying anxieties accumulated, layering themselves on top of the emotional rubbish from the last episode. It’s similar to the way one snowflake turns into a light layering, which in turn accumulates inch by inch until you’re waist deep. One erratic episode turns into another resentment, into yet another unresolved issue. A child growing up in such an atmosphere flips face forward into the snowbank, and does what? Is she then, in that moment, faced with the reality of the depths of psychological damage from growing up in such an atmosphere? Of course not. That happens years later, after the solace of a wooded area out back no longer protects her and her two sisters.
I have a single memory of holding my dad’s hand that didn’t come from a captured moment behind a lens. It was the time my grandmother begged, then bribed, my sister Liz and me to go visit my dad in prison. It was a couple years after my parents’ divorce was finalized when I was around thirteen or fourteen. I recall everything about the experience being cold. The metal seat I sat on, cold. The air of the open building, cold. The tall ceilings and metal beams above, cold. The plastic covers of the fluorescent lights were filthy, giving off a dull light to an already depressing room. The smell of the room was pungent with despair. My leg, covered by my skinny jeans, felt cold against the metal leg that went down the center of the round table. My dad sat across from the three of us. My grandmother planted directly between my sister and me. My dad reached out his cold, sweaty hand and loosely held my fingers. We didn’t know the specifics of the charges against him, but we had enough information to assume it had something to do with a domestic dispute with his girlfriend at the time. His pale, chunky fingers seemed swollen. Perhaps I had never looked at my father’s hands so closely, but they were ghostly transparent. I let no more than a couple seconds pass before I pulled back my hand and tucked it quickly between my thighs. Even my demeanor of that day was cold. A chill that takes a lifetime to shake.
Katie and I often take smoke rides along a reservoir in our hometown. We roll a joint as a way of connecting. The other day we were driving and we started comparing our “crazies.” She lit the piece with three clicks of her red lighter, inhaling deeply.
“I literally overthink everything he says,” she said as she passed me the joint. I reached for it without looking away from the road. I twisted it a few times between my thumb and index finger, then lifted it to my lips to inhale. I held it there for a minute, then exhaled and coughed. “Me too. I create the most ridiculous stories in my head about what he ‘probably’ means or ‘meant’ to say.” I took another hit. She nodded and said, “I make myself so anxiety ridden, I don’t even know how to calm myself down.” I passed it back to her and looked at her briefly. “Why do you think my phone is shattered? I threw it down the stairs the other night because I got so mad at him for not coming to see me because ‘I felt alone.’” She took a longer puff. We continued looking aimlessly at the winding road ahead. I watched her turn her head towards the pitch-black water.
There’s a small picture in a teal frame I keep in a junk drawer. My sister Liz had it buried in the bottom of a box she once brought back home from college. The snapshot captures a moment of time so entirely at odds with the memories of my father. It is of me, my father, and Liz doing facial masks together. It was taken at his girlfriend’s house—the one he had cheated on my mom with after eighteen years of marriage. The same woman who sent him to prison. I remember liking her because there were virtually no rules or supervision when we went to stay with them. I felt so guilty for my fondness towards the woman who had caused my mom to spend so many nights crying in the bathroom.
This was the postdivorce/preincarceration period of time. We look so happy in the photo. You wouldn’t know from the picture the depths of our desire for healthy love from this man. My dad is shirtless, looking somewhat disoriented. Now I know he was heavily medicated on prescription drugs. The beginning stages of an addiction to legal narcotics, among all the other substance abuse problems my dad has had throughout his lifetime. My sister Liz sat directly next to him in her silk pajamas with little pink and red hearts. I leaned into my sister from the far right wearing my favorite purple-striped tank top. I saved money for months in order to afford that shirt from Limited Too. All three of us have pieces of the translucent mask peeling from our faces. I sometimes wonder why Liz had thrown this picture into a box of junk. Is it because the look of our excitement being with dad broke her heart? I can relate. The photo used to lay flat next to the drawer, but it hurt too much to look at. I make sure to keep it buried underneath hair clips and bobby pins and lipsticks and rings. I can’t seem to throw it out either. I guess we all heal in our own time.
After spending many months in therapy, many years separated from my childhood, I started to recognize that it wasn’t my fault I had become so emotionally cold towards the world. My insecurities and lack of emotional control did not arise out of nowhere. I know the exact session it all started to click. I sat frustrated on my therapist’s plush, purple couch, the type of furniture you would expect to see in a Victorian-style home. I felt especially alone and unloved in this moment, as if not a single person on this earth could fulfill this deep-rooted hole in my heart. I spoke slowly, letting the hiccups of hysterics work their way out in between words. “I think the only way my sisters and I learned how to survive our childhood was by escaping and pretending to be elsewhere….” She sat quietly in her chair a few feet across from me, nodding slowly. We didn’t say much after that. The safety of her small office, with slanted ceilings and subdued lighting, reminded me of the days I would hide as a child. I wiped my tears with an already too-used tissue. She sat just as silently, making sure to meet my eyes every time they looked toward hers. We had been working towards this realization for months.
About a year after my epiphany in therapy, Katie and I sat in our large rental jeep during one of the final evenings on our trip to Hawaii. My sister Liz had planned, paid for, and created daily itineraries for our family trip to Oahu. She had surprised my mom with the invitation for Mother’s Day and extended that to Katie, Liz’s girlfriend, Claire, and myself for a nine day trip. It had been a dream of my mom’s to see Hawaii, and here we were. The cotton candy skies gave hint of the early evening. We headed out on the open road away from our rental house towards the more populated areas of Upper Island. Five minutes down the road, our heads turned toward each other with a nod, and she pulled the vehicle over. We exited, climbed onto the sides, and popped off the two-piece top. I couldn’t help but think, Let’s air out this stifling tension that has been slowly building these last couple days. The cool evening air would help clear it out. She pulled the vehicle back on the road and we continued. We didn’t need to speak. Our silence said enough. We didn’t know where we were headed, but we wanted to be out.
Moments later, we started to hear and feel the patter of light rain. We quickly pulled back onto the side of the road and scrambled to get the top back on. We laughed uncontrollably as the pouring rains drenched our bodies from the sweet Hawaiian skies. The two-lane roadway allowed for my seat on the passenger side to be the perfect outlook. I looked longingly at the endless fields of tall grass that stretched until they met the bottom of the mountains. In that moment, I wanted to go back and hold that sobbing little girl curled up in her childhood bed and whisper in her ear that it would all be ok. I pictured the three of us propelling ourselves to the top of Mount Ka’ala’s peak to release an exhaustive scream at the top of our lungs, and then allowing the water to wash away the weight of all our sorrows.
The other day, I rolled over and stood up as a twenty-eight-year-old with the strength of a Charlie’s Angel. I had gotten myself out of an abusive, oftentimes violent, and completely unstable relationship I had somehow found myself in. (The cycle of domestic abuse had crept its way out of my memory and into my life. The reminder of that scared young child, hysterically crying in her bed reappeared so many years later.) How do you even begin to unbury and heal the pain evoked from such experiences? I suppose we let our spirits break just a little bit, and we use our powerful imaginations to raise us to the top of mountains and scream until it feels just a little better. Or we schedule our therapy appointments. And even when it is the absolute hardest thing we do, we show up, and we continue to heal.