Stairway to (not) heaven

My parent’s house is beautiful. It is very large- around 4,000+ square feet. I was very lucky to grow up in such a nice house. I had my own bedroom with a huge walk in closet. My younger sister and I shared a big bathroom and had our own separate living room, furnished with couches, a computer desk, a closet full of games, and a TV for us to watch MTV and play Nintendo. I had a very privileged upbringing and am grateful for that.

However, as my ex-husband used to sarcastically say about my family: “big house, no problems”. I have often jokingly referred to my childhood home as The House of Horrors (The Simpsons reference!). Hidden behind the three car garage and perfect landscaping were secrets. My dad was successful at a very well-paying job. My mom was able to stay home with us and was a volunteer at our school. Our McMansion gave the world the appearance of a perfect family. This was far from the truth.

My sister and I were talking about our childhood memories last night, which we seldom do. I wonder why we don’t talk about it more. My sister said something about just how truly traumatic it was for us. We talked about our nightly family dinners, without a doubt the worst part of every day. Our mother would make dinner and call my sister and me to to the kitchen. Then she would either get my dad or ask/force one of us to call him to the table. He always was drunk and he always was nasty. I feel like I have blocked a lot of this out, but my sister remembers it all so clearly. She said that I would eat as fast as possible, like I barely chewed my food. I did this so I could be excused from the table. I still eat so fast to this day. My parents would inevitably end up screaming at each other (mostly my dad yelling at my mom) and my father would throw things and leave the kitchen and before long my sister would be sitting alone at the table. She is admittedly an emotional overeater and she thinks it stemmed from this.

Where my sister vividly remembers these dinners, what I recall the most is the stairs in my parents house. There are actually two sets of stairs- the front and the back. The first is more grand, it starts in the entryway of the house and you see it as you walk in the front door. My sister and I were not allowed to use the front stairs because my parents wanted to keep them clean. We used the back stairs (I know this makes us sound like hired help lol). They were located on the side of the house and led from the garage door up to our playroom (which is the living room that belonged to us). Basically, you could walk in the front door, go up the front stairs, go down the hallways where the bedrooms were, end up at the playroom, go down the back stairs, go down the hallway into the kitchen and then turn down another hallway into the front foyer where the front staircase was. It was a giant loop. I’m explaining this in detail because completing this loop became part of my survival mode. When my father was drunk, he often chased us. That sounds really peculiar to write, but I am not sure how else to explain it. He would literally run after me and I 100% believed that if he caught me, I was going to be hurt. So if I talked back or ignored him or didn’t do exactly what I said I was going to do, he would quickly stand up from his spot on the couch in their living room, which was attached to the kitchen. That was my cue to run. I would take off towards one of the staircases, which provided a nice escape route through the house. He usually gave up very quickly, his point simply being made by the threat itself. He just wanted to instill fear and he was successful.

A lot of other memories involve the stairs. I remember my sister and me sitting at the top of the front stairs, listening to my parents fight. There were times the red and blue lights of a police car would illuminate the front foyer and we would “spy” on my mom answering the front door to convince the officers everything was fine.

One time we were all in the main family room and I told my dad I was going to go upstairs to get something from my bedroom and would be back in five minutes. Like a typical teenager, I must have gotten distracted by something and stayed in my room longer. When I returned, my father was angry and determined to teach me what “five minutes was”. He made me follow him to the back staircase, where I stood on the landing and faced the blank wall. He set a timer for five minutes.

There was the time my mother came home and found him lying on the tile floor at the bottom of the front stairs. He was very drunk and fell. I have always wondered if for one, terrible moment she believed he was dead and if she felt a fleeting sense of overwhelming relief. He was very alive, though.

Sometimes when my sister and I talk about these things or I write about them, I feel guilty. My dad has been sober for over two years and seems like a different person. His role as my niece’s “Papa” could not be more different than my experiences of him as a father. I have been struggling a lot about the past vs now. I am obviously glad that he is not drinking and is not the monster he used to be, but it is still hard to reconcile who he was when he did these terrible things to the gentle-ish giant he is now.

My sister and I talk a lot about my parents selling their house and how it is simply too large for them to live in alone, especially since they are in their 70s now. My sister said they need to find a home that is just one floor and my gut reaction was to think “how will mom get away from him without the staircases?!?!?” It is just so crazy how it has been so long since I lived in my childhood home and yet these memories feel so vivid in my mind.

20 years later

991f7ce879874417ebcdc4a69bea1f80

Yesterday was my 39th birthday (how is that even possible?!?!).  It made me recollect one of my earlier birthdays…my 19th to be exact.  That was probably one of the worst birthdays- no, actual days- of my life.  Weeks prior, my father assaulted me and was arrested and the police issued a restraining order against him on my behalf to prevent him from coming near me or to the house.  His court date was set afterwards and coincidentally landed on my 19th birthday.  I was pressured by my mother and my father’s lawyer to drop the assault charges, which I did, and after going to court, my father was cleared and the restraining order was dropped.  After staying in a hotel by his job for several weeks, my father was allowed to come home.  I do not remember (or chose not to remember) the exact details of that day.  I remember walking into the courthouse with just my mom.  I can recollect speaking to my dad’s lawyer, but not having to actually speak to the judge.  Most of my memories of that day are fuzzy.  I can’t even really remember what happened when we arrived back home as a “family”.  Did my mom make my favorite vanilla cake with chocolate frosting and M&Ms?  Did my mom, sister and dad stand around the table singing “Happy Birthday” as I blew out the candles?  Did my mom sign my birthday card, “Love, Mom and Dad”?  I really don’t recall.  I just remember it REALLY SUCKING.  That is a juvenile way of describing it, but when I think about that day, that’s how I felt…it just sucked.  It was awkward and forced and I was conflicted and confused.  I loved my dad, but he physically attacked me and most of the time we all just acted like nothing happened.

It is weird to think about that day.  Sometimes it feels like it never actually happened…like it was just a very realistic nightmare, yet it was one of the defining moments of my young adult life.  It is hard to believe that it was twenty years ago.  It is not something I dwell on often, but I do think about it every year on my birthday.

Memories…

memories

Now that my father has been sober for over a year and a half, sometimes I struggle with writing this blog.  I started this in order to deal with the things that my dad currently did…the nasty emails, the horrible voicemails, the dreaded family holidays.  I tapped into memories occasionally, but so much was still happening when I started writing this that I very much lived in (and had to deal with) the present.  I find that now I have a tendency to think about and reflect on the past more often.  Doing so has brought up events that I have not thought about in many years.  There have been times when my sister and I talk about things that my father did when we were growing up and they just feel unreal…like hearing incredible stories from someone else’s life.  It is almost like having to still deal with him protected me from having to remember the past and now that he isn’t actively doing anything all those memories are flooding back.

My dad was such a belligerent drunk.  He was scary and threatening and violent and intimidating.  He bullied and harassed and screamed and threw things.  But when I think back to my childhood and teenage years, what I think about mostly is the psychological abuse he inflicted on us.  He did such bizarre and strange things. He recorded phone conversations…I thought I was so cool to have my own phone number and phone in my bedroom as a teenager, until I realize that he had an extension of it also installed in his office, where he would listen to my calls.  I don’t remember ever getting a piece of mail that was unopened.  I have almost an obsessive need to check my mail now as an adult…like I have to get to it before someone else does.  He followed my mother, sister and me.  I remember coming out of school as a senior in high school and finding a note on my car that I was “parked crooked”.  You know that song…”it always feeeeeels like somebody’s watching meeeee”…yea, that was my life.  I told my boyfriend the other day how I had gotten into an argument with my dad and then stomped away, like a 16 year old girl will do, and locked myself in my bathroom to take a shower only to have my father kick down the door.  There was just never any privacy.  If we slammed our bedroom doors, he would take the doors off the hinges.  If he was especially angry at night, he would remove the spark plugs from my car so I couldn’t leave for school in the morning.  Even when he wasn’t home, it was like I was on constant high alert.  I dreaded the sound of the garage door opening announcing he was home from work- I would get a pit in my stomach knowing he was home.  Any semblance of peace in the house was gone as soon as he walked in.  And on the days he was “normal” and didn’t drink, it was almost even worse, because I never knew what to expect.  At least when he was drunk, I knew what was going to happen.

One of my most vivid memories was my mother, sister and I going to Costco on a weekend when I was about 17.  My dad seemed fine when we left.  When we came out of the store a couple hours later, my father was parked in his carnext to my mom’s car in the parking lot.  At that time, Costco was almost an hour away.  It was like he couldn’t stand to not be involved in whatever we were doing, or he didn’t believe that we were where we said we were.  Obviously he was drunk, so he could not drive his car home.  My mother initially asked me to drive him home.  I had my license but there was no way I was driving alone with him for an hour.  Eventually, she agreed to drive him home in his car and I would drive myself and my sister home in her car.  I started to drive away and came to a red light to exit the parking lot.  Unbeknownst to me, my father ran after the car and completely scared the hell out of my by opening the driver’s side door and pulling me out of the car.  I screamed for my sister, who was 13 at the time, to get out of the car and quickly tried to open the back door to get my purse.  My dad jumped in the driver’s seat and gunned the engine with me still leaning into the car.  He then proceeded to pull out of the parking lot with the back door open and my frightened sister still in the passenger seat.  I screamed and yelled and my mom tried to chase them on foot.  Luckily, for some reason, my dad stopped after driving just a few feet and I was able to get back in the driver’s seat.  I remember just leaving and not even caring what happened with my parents; I just wanted to protect my sister and get us out of there.  I drove directly to my boyfriend’s house so we didn’t have to go home for a few hours.  The weirdest part about this memory is I vividly remember seeing a police officer’s car in the parking lot and kept wondering why he didn’t help us.  I even called my sister to ask her about this and she remembered it exactly the same (and mentioned it was one of her most vivid memories).

That is a more extreme depiction of what we dealt with growing up, but I have so many stories like that.  It’s weird how the mind works- I had not thought about that in years, but memories like that keep coming back to me at random times.  It is like now that my mind isn’t being violated by a constant barrage of daily crap from my dad it finally has a chance to recollect these old events.  I’m not entirely certain that this is a good thing at all, but sometimes when I tell someone a story like this and they are incredulous about it, it makes me proud that my sister and I survived all that craziness and became the people we are today.

You can’t spell families without “lies”

The other day I jokingly said something to my mom about writing an online blog about my dad and she completely freaked out. I explained that it was anonymous, but that didn’t make a difference. She said I should not tell people things about us. So, I told her I wouldn’t (see…lies come easily in our family!)

When things started getting really bad with my dad’s drinking, there was an unspoken rule that my sister and I were not supposed to tell anyone what was going on. I am still not sure of my mother’s reasons, whether she was ashamed or just in denial. The lies were not always about my dad, but were oftentimes to my dad. As many children of alcoholics know, the less ammo you give them, the better off you are. To this day, we still constantly tell him “white lies” about the stupidest and most trivial things (again proving that abnormal things become very normal in an alcoholic family).

What my mother could not prevent was the neighbors calling the police. This started to become a regular thing by the time I was graduating from high school. My mom is so amazing as a mother, but she is a classic “battered wife.” During the summer, when my father would start screaming, she would run around their huge house closing all the windows so the neighbors would not hear him. My mother is friendly to everyone she meets and many of the neighbors really liked her and were genuinely concerned for her safety. I don’t blame them for calling the police- my dad sounded like a freaking lunatic and the more she tried to calm him down, the louder he got.

A few times, the calls were coming from inside the house (duh). My younger sister would call 911 and wait long enough for a dispatcher to answer and then would hang up. I have to give the cops in my hometown credit…within minutes, two or three officers would pull into the driveway. One time, my dad was so drunk, he mocked my mother saying he was going to call the cops and pretended to call 911…but he actually did (I actually think that is hilarious) and sure enough three police officers were at our house minutes later.

Here’s the thing. If a woman is being abused, but lies and tells the police that everything is fine when they come to the house, there isn’t anything they can really do. They would check out the house and talk to my dad while my mom reassured them everything was fine. My sister and I would sit at the top of the stairs watching and wondering how my dad never got in trouble. We didn’t understand why my mom protected him. As much as I adore my mother (we talk every day and see each other most weekends), I do have some resentment towards her that she didn’t get herself and my sister and me out of that situation.

When I was 18, my father was threatening my sister in her bedroom. I was (and still am) very protective of my sister, who was 15 at the time. I stood in between them and told him to leave her alone. He promptly leaned back and headbutted me in the face. That may have been the only time my mother called 911, though I am still not sure if it was her or my sister. Ironically, the cops had already been to the house once that day on a noise complaint from an anonymous neighbor. This time, my dad was arrested for assault. I think I have blocked a lot of that day out of my mind because I hardly remember going to the police station to do the paperwork. The result was a list of charges against him that were automatically filed by the police. They probably had a big donut celebration afterwards that they finally had a reason to arrest him. I am sure it must have been frustrating for them to come to our house and know that a woman and two teenage girls were being abused by a drunk asshole and not being able to do anything about it.

I will save the rest of that fun story for another blog, but I will say that afterwards my mother begged my sister and me not to tell my grandparents or any other family members about what happened. Of course, secrets like that have a way of coming out and eventually everyone close to our family knew about it. I am happy to say that these days my mother is much more honest with other people about my father and his alcoholism, and more importantly, she is honest with herself. And if I still tell “white lies” here and there, I guess I can just blame it on the alcohol 😉