My Second Chance
Looking at that first picture of me, sitting on the beach in the middle of Christmas break, smiling, you'd never know the truth. Even at that age, I thought I was going to die early. Not just a random "early", but at age 26. In fact, I was sure of it. My life goals in elementary school included finishing school, having a steady boyfriend at age 22, and working with kids. I didn't ever think that I would live long enough to marry, let alone have children of my own, so I put these things out of my mind.
My life growing up was like the second picture: all smoke and mirrors. My parents were both too caught up in their lives, after their divorce when I was four, to take care of me properly. They tried, in their own ways, but there's a reason for the saying that being a parent is the only important job that doesn't come with a training manual. My parents desperately needed that training manual, or at least a few classes.
Outwardly, there were no obvious signs anything was wrong. I excelled at school, had some friends, and played sports in elementary school. I was in band from sixth grade through tenth grade, and continued to get A's and some B's. I went through "normal" teenage rebellion, confused everyone by focusing on studies rather than the dating scene (part of my rebellion), and went to college.
Inwardly, however, I was a mess. I would come home to a dark, gloomy house ruled by moldy pop cans, dirty dishes, and neverending piles of laundry, which my chore list said to clean up by the time my mom got home. I would eat graham crackers with peanut butter for snack, then do my homework and chores. When I was really young, my grandma (Mom's mom) would babysit me, and she would do the chores. After she was done with them, she would sit me on her lap and turn the tv to the evening news. Yes, as a four-year-old and five-year-old, I watched all the horror and destruction, all the bad things going on in the world, in my own living room and had no say in it at all.
Things were a bit better at my dad's. No chore lists, and we did the dishes and laundry together. I had actual sandwiches, milk, and fruit to eat, and dinner was home-cooked rather than random fast food. I learned to cook from my dad, and it's one thing that I enjoy to this day. But, things weren't always that rosy. Dad was always wrapped up in his family tree work, for himself and for others, and at least every other week would drag me off to a library to sit in front of microfilm viewers and do my homework there. We would be there from the time he picked me up from school until 7 or 8 in the evening, at which time I would be almost throwing a fit at the library, telling him he needed to get off the viewer and take me home to get me something to eat.
School was my sanctuary; no wonder I excelled at my subjects. The only times I acted up were when I hadn't had a breakfast that morning or dinner the evening before. Then, most often I got sick and was sent to the nurse's office. She would get me something to eat from the cafeteria, some nice cool water, and let me take a nap for as long as I needed to.
In third grade, I remember feeling so angry one day that I got out my scissors (which had actual points on them), stabbed myself repeatedly in the thumb, got up and got a band-aid from the teacher, then went back to my desk and cut a good chunk out of my hair. When I got home, I didn't want to tell anyone what happened, and was sent to my room crying in punishment.
In sixth grade, I put fast-drying school glue (O-Glue) all over my hand. I had a habit of putting it on my thumb, letting it dry, then peeling off the "skin" and grossing my classmates out with it. That time, I was having a bad day, and did my whole hand to see if I could get the skin to be oxygen-starved and turn colors. One of my classmates told my teacher, who sent me down to the school counselor. I tried to tell her what was going on at home, but she chalked it all up to the fact that my great-grandma had died four years previously (although she somehow thought that had happened far more recently), and sent me back to class with a report.
My mom got mad at my teacher for this, and has never forgiven him. Mom claims that she tried to get my dad to agree to send me to counseling, but it never happened. Neither of them ever went, either, which my mom also blaims my dad for.
In middle school, I was one of the kids who got picked on, so I started fighting back. I became a bully to two kids, and regret it very much now. I read to escape, so much so that I wrote "I live in a dream" on my binder. I had almost no friends, no social activities, and wasn't allowed anywhere by myself.
My grandma and grandpa referred to themselves as my "caretakers" rather than my grandparents, and even signed two cards (birthday and Christmas) that way. One year, they gave me a cookbook as a present and wrote in it "For Karen, because it's Danny's birthday." Danny is my older cousin.
My dad would be at the library until late, working on his projects, so I would make myself dinner. When I was at Mom's, I still had the chore list that I never could complete, and got in trouble because of it. I wasn't allowed to use the stove at Mom's, so I ate what I could from the drawers, usually cereal, oatmeal, instant breakfasts, granola bars, and fruit snacks. Mom still doesn't get how serious the situation was, because she still laughs that one time she came home and asked me if I'd had dinner, and I said yes. She asked me what I had, and I said, "A graham cracker and peanut butter sandwich."
At this point, and many times before (yes, in elementary school as well), I'd contemplated suicide. I knew I could never go through with that, though. I asked various people about neglect and child abuse, but their answer was "No, your parents love you, and they would never abuse you." Little did they know, but I knew I was being neglected. I wish that someone had reported it then.
In high school, I had an abusive band teacher. Everyone agreed on that, and he was later put on paid leave. I had the full support of my family on that one, and many of my friends were in the same situation. I didn't feel so alone then. It was something to rally around, something that I belonged to, even if it was a bad thing in itself.
College was college, and I was away from my family for the most part. I came home on holidays and summer, but mostly didn't have to deal with them. I was mostly happy, for the first time in my life.
Then, after college, I was back at home again, at Mom's all the time. Same issues: ants crawling over me while I slept, dust allergies from the house never having been vacuumed while I was at college, dirty and moldy dishes. The electricity and garbage bills were left up to me a few times, with my minimum wage paycheck. I wanted out.
I got my own apartment, a good job, and that steady boyfriend. Life was starting to look up. Then, that boyfriend left, and my family started blaming me for things. Once again, I was overwhelmed.
This time, I made the most important decision in my life. I got on the phone at 10:00 at night and called a fellow member of my new church, who was a psychologist. I talked with her for an hour, and made an appointment to see her the next week. Walking into her office was the scariest thing I'd ever done, because I knew it would change my life.
That was when I was 23. It took three years of counseling, and now lifelong anti-anxiety medication, but I have now made it to age 30, with a loving husband and a good home. My life's flipped 180° for the better. It's a long road, and one that is a challenge every day for me. My husband and my faith in God are what get me through every day. They are my rocks, my strength.
I have a good volunteer job, and a part-time job as a sales representative (which only pays if I don't spend too much on the products myself). I have cats, which I used to be allergic to. But, most of all, I have my life to live, and live as I see fit.
It is a true gift.
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