I somehow always got the sense that I was different (not normal, at least). Even when I was a young child, people would compliment me, tell my parents what a mature, responsible, and respectful young girl I was. I liked being complimented and my parents liked having their method of parenting complimented as well.
I was a good kid, so clearly my parents were doing a good job, right?
The answer to that question changed from day-to-day. Some days everything was wonderful and I felt loved and cared for. Other days, I would go to school and just sit off in a corner by myself, frightened of going home come the day’s end. Even so, I always did my work, said “please” and “thank you,” and was generally kind in an effort to garner positive attention from my teachers.
As far as I remember, I was always well-liked by my teachers because I didn’t cause problems, I was competent, I did all my work, and I was polite. I loved it when my teachers came over to my desk to help me with something I didn’t understand. They would show me, let me try it, and encourage me even if I messed up. For a while, I used to cry every time I made a mistake because it wasn’t okay for me to make a mistake. I would be berated endlessly or called stupid or lazy, and that was really hard to hear as a 7 or 8 year old. I am grateful for my teachers through elementary and middle school. They really cared about me and my learning.
At home, it wasn’t so simple. I learned to stop asking my parents for help at a young age. I did my homework right when I got home from school. Sometimes my mother was home by then, sometimes not, but I had my own little routine. I would make myself a snack, grab a big glass of water, and then go to the dining room table to do my homework because I wasn’t allowed to do it in my room.
Mom would usually get home an hour or two after I did. She would come up the stairs and the first thing she would do was go into the kitchen and pour herself a glass of wine. “Hi, Mom!” I’d say whenever I heard the door open. Usually I could tell what sort of a mood she was in by the way the door was closed. If it was slammed, I would know there was trouble brewing. If it was closed more gently, she might be doing all right that day.
If she was doing okay, she would greet me (but still go to the kitchen first) and ask how my day was. At first I would tell her about what art projects we did, what we learned, but at some point I realized that she wasn’t listening, nor did she really care. So, I learned to just say, “Fine,” regardless if the day had been fine or not. Dad never asked me about my day, nor did he make an effort to find out how I was feeling.
Looking back on it, that dining room table was a sort of bubble, a space I went into and did my homework on and everyone seemed to ignore me. It was as though I was hidden or obscured from my parents, at least until the drinking started.
Then the real trouble began.
It took an hour or two and then my mother started becoming this monster I didn’t even recognize. “Why haven’t you done the dishes yet?!” she’d snap at me. I’d look up from my homework and show her that I hadn’t completed my work, and it was her rule that I do my homework before doing anything else.
“I don’t care! Go do the dishes!” she’d say, grabbing my pen and book from me so that I was unable to continue with my work. I’d get up and go to start the dishes when she’d begin to add on more and more chores as a sort of punishment for not having done the dishes first thing.
“Have you taken out the trash yet? You know tomorrow’s trash day so why haven’t you done that yet? What are you, stupid?”
“Well, I was going to finish my homework and the dishes before-” I tried to explain.
“NO! Go and take out the trash RIGHT THIS SECOND!” she interrupted, grabbing the dish from my hand and shoving me toward the stairs so that I could go and take out the trash.
At that point, I would sigh audibly as I grabbed the trash. I couldn’t help it as by that point I would be quite frustrated and growing angry with her. “Did you just sigh at me?!” she’d scream then. “That’s it! You are going to write I will not sigh at my mother one hundred times on a piece of paper so you’ll learn your lesson! You’re so selfish, not wanting to do even the most basic of chores. You know other people would kill to have the life you have? And you’re just so ungrateful!”
With my back to her I could safely roll my eyes and head down the stairs, taking out the trash. Often I would spend an extra few minutes outside–not because there was anything to do or look at–but because it meant I got to be away from her.
Eventually I would come back inside and move to finish the dishes, but she would already be doing them most of the time. “Because you can’t even do the dishes, I’ve had to do them myself!” she’d bark, another glass of wine next to her as she worked. “Thanks,” I’d mumble and usually I’d have to repeat that a few times because she’d claim she couldn’t hear me.
Finally I would return to the dining room table, using a scratch piece of paper write I will not sigh at my mother (or some variation thereof) one hundred times. That usually took a while, but eventually I’d finish and I’d show it to her. She’d look at it for a moment, usually pretty intoxicated by that point in the night, and then she’d simply wad up the paper or tear it in half and throw it in the trash can. “Let that be your lesson!” she’d tell me.
The first few times she tore up my paper, I would cry. She’d call me a baby for crying. Eventually, I simply stopped feeling anything. I handed over the paper, she tore it up, and I moved on with my life.
Outside, it would usually be dark by then and I’d frown, regretting that I hadn’t finished my homework in time to go outside and play. I’d finally return to the table to finish my homework in silence, hoping not to be noticed again.