On an equally exciting, yet more relevant note for this blog, I successfully participated in the storytelling event on Monday night. In the back of a Fan bar, a group holds a themed storytelling event every other month. This month's theme about secrets struck a cord with me and I stuck my neck out to volunteer to tell a story. As I mentioned previously, I wrote out my story and called on a few of my friends to help me memorize it as no notes are allowed when you tell your story. For 6 or 7 hours the day before, I went over and over it, as well as for a few hours leading up to the event. I wasn't so nervous about getting up in front of a room to speak, I was more nervous about forgetting the details of what I wanted to say. The story I had to tell wouldn't have packed as much punch if I forgot to mention the details.
I'm very proud to say that it went on without a hitch. My audience was attentive, laughed at the right parts, and looked down at their feet at all the most uncomfortable bits. I did not forget the order or the details, paused meaningfully when appropriate and soldiered on with a strong voice. It's amazing the way a group of people listening to you can cause your words and speech to transform into something more than what you had written down alone. As personal as my story was, it somehow didn't feel weird at all to tell a whole room full of strangers the secrets I had kept hidden for a decade. I guess it goes to show how much I've grown from the experience and how much I've accepted it.
An adorable older couple caught me after I spoke and was standing in line to use the bathroom. The wife hugged me, the husband patted me on the back, praising my story and asking how my mother's doing now. The other storytellers were mostly funny and extemporaneous. I felt kind of bad for bringing the mood down a bit when I told my story, but the organizers thanked me repeatedly for my story and said that it was exactly what they were looking for- something real and touching.
A huge thank you goes out to all of my friends who let me practice on them and who came to hear me speak. You all are wonderful!
I only had seven minutes to tell my story, so I could only touch on a few things from my childhood. I hope that in the coming months and years, I can focus on some of the details and flesh them out here on my blog. Without further ado, I will include the text of my story here and share it with even more people:
One morning when I was a teenager, I woke up and went downstairs to discover that a corner of my living room ceiling had fallen down. My mother explained to me that it had fallen down during the course of the night because a pipe from the bathroom had a persistent leak. I asked my mom if she was going to call the landlord to get it fixed. Before the complete question had escaped my mouth, I knew the answer. Despite my mother’s best efforts to conceal the truth, I knew the answer. There would be no landlord, there would be no plumber involved. Just like for the leak that we had in the basement. I asked her what she was going to do about the leaking water that was gushing into our living room. The bucket she had placed underneath it could barely contain a few minutes’ worth of water. We brainstormed and decided that my mother would turn the waterline off down in the basement and she would only turn it on again for us to take showers and flush the toilet. As we schemed, the carpet soaked up the leaking water and crept slowly toward our feet.
Ever since I can remember, my parents had a tumultuous relationship that was only exacerbated by my mother’s hoarding. As a young child, I would explore the extra bedroom on the second floor that was filled with relics from my brother’s and my baby days. Toys, furniture, empty bottles of baby lotion. Her favorite things to hoard though were clothes and newspapers. The room next to the laundry room was filled with garbage bags full of clothes. Baby clothes, children’s clothes, hand me downs from my cousins that were still too big for my brother and me to wear. Listening at the foot of the stairs, my brother and I heard my dad yelling at my mother to take the useless clothes to a thrift store. Their voices rose as my brother and I held onto each other, crying. As we dared to peek around the corner, my father’s anger burst and he pushed my mother down into the bags of clothes before walking away in disgust.
On the rare days when my mother wasn’t home and my father was, he used to enlist me as an accomplice on covert operation: newspaper disposal. We would gather the newspapers from her favorite hiding spots, a dark room in the basement and in the secret cubby under the seat of the wooden, antique coat rack, and load all of the newspapers in the back of my dad’s pickup truck and drive to the local recycling center like a bat out of hell. During those rides, I could barely contain my excitement and would wiggle in my seat, laughing with my dad, feeling childish exuberance for going behind my mom’s back. A few days after our secret operations, my mother would discover that her newspapers were missing and would confront my father. My dad would feign any knowledge and ask, “Newspapers? What newspapers?” while giving me a wink.
Unsurprisingly, my parents divorced when I was eight and my mother and I moved to a rental the next town over while my brother chose to stay with my dad. The first year or so, my mother was a dutiful working, single mother. She cooked and cleaned, planted flowers and mowed the lawn. Gradually, however, things stopped being done. I began to feel ashamed and stopped inviting my friends over, retreating into the shadows along with my mother. The laundry piled up on the dining room table, junk mail and newspapers were piled up under chairs and furniture, microwave meals became the norm, the litter box wasn’t cleaned, the trash was never taken out, my mother’s room filled with clothing so that the piles were even with her bed and eventually covered her bed in its entirety. She began to sleep on the couch with her newspapers for a pillow. I wrote out my own chore list, sure that an extra pair of hands around the house would get it back to tip top shape, but my mother did not want my help. She never taught me how to wash dishes, cook, do laundry, or iron my clothes. She insisted on being the one to do all of the housework even if she was mentally incapable of doing it.
When the ceiling fell, I became dependent on my mother for water. She never taught me how to turn the water on and off, so when I took my showers and flushed the toilet was dictated by her. She would yell to me when she turned the water on and I would jump in the mildew covered shower while she ran back and forth downstairs with the bucket, dumping what water she could catch from the waterfall from the pipe outside in our backyard. It was impossible to catch all the water though and our entire living room carpet, wall to wall, soaked up all the extra water. The carpet was constantly wet. Yellow mushrooms and rust colored mildew began to grow in patches on the carpet where we rarely walked. The cardboard boxes and newspapers that sat on the living room floor soaked up the water too. The boxes would collapse and deteriorate, sprouting more mushrooms.
As my teenage years wore on, I became more and more cognizant of how screwed up my home life was. Despite my awareness and shame, I kept my mother’s problems a secret and guarded our squalor as best as I could. After all, it was our home, so I too was a part of the problem. Escapism was my favorite method of coping. Boyfriends, religion, art, reading, friends, and school all lent themselves to keeping me distracted from my environment and the deep depression it caused me. One summer in high school, I joined the summer staff at a Christian resort near my hometown and spent the whole summer working and living at the resort. Thinking that perhaps my absence would allow my mother more time to clean and fix our house, I was stunned when I returned home to the same shit hole I had left. After staring at all of my things I had moved back into my cramped room, wondering where in the world they could possibly go, and visiting the bathroom to discover that maggots had infested our toilet, I had my first true panic attack. Swearing in between heavy breaths that I would leave her and move in with my dad, my mother knew that they were empty threats and went downstairs to let me cry out my anxiety alone. My mother could not face the fact that her daughter was suffering from depression because it meant that she would have to admit that she too was suffering from depression and she was not that weak.
I threw myself into my schoolwork. Honors classes, AP classes, editor of the yearbook. As far back as I could remember, I not only hated living with my mother, but I hated the town I grew up in. If I could manage a high GPA, the ticket out was mine. Out of state college would be my saving grace. After years of all nighters, extra credit, extra curricular activities, part time jobs, and research papers, I applied to college as a top member of my graduating class. Stupidly, I only applied to one college and a competitive one at that. I have never been so anxious as I was during the two months I waited to hear a response. As each day passed, I convinced myself more and more that I would be not be accepted to my college of choice. I would have to stay in my small town for another year, taking classes at the community college with half of my high school class and continue my life of squalor with my mother. With heavy bags under my eyes and a raging headache, I came home after spending hours at the library researching a paper to discover a large, manila envelope sitting on my desk addressed from the college. I ripped open the envelope, ripping my acceptance letter at the same time. I ran downstairs, crying and screaming, and embraced the only person there with me: my mother. I was finally, finally free.