I’m about to tell a story that might seem like a sympathy necessitating sob-story, and in a lot of ways I can’t argue that. But my intention of relating the story is two-fold. First, this is the story of when I first ‘came online’ to the realities of life. Second, it is also the first time I had a real experience with mental illness and addiction.
So here it goes.
I don’t remember the age I was when this happened. I was in elementary school, maybe fourth grade, maybe older, I really can’t recall. But whatever age I felt when I woke up that morning was much younger than the age I felt when I went to bed that night.
My mother was re-married and living in an apartment not far from my father’s house. I was only slightly aware that my step-father had done ‘bad stuff’ in his past and that he still liked to drink. I cannot recall anything from that day before it was all happening around me. It is almost like it was a dream, and I just appeared in the center of it. We, myself, my sister, my mother, and my step-father, were all at my mother’s apartment. My step-father was on something and alcohol and he decided it was a good time to tear the apartment apart.
Things were being thrown, stuff was breaking, and a cacophony of screams filled my ears. My mother was trying to contain him, and she became the target of some directed violence. My sister rushed in to help and she was targeted as well. Most of this was occurring in the bedroom and I had been instructed by my mother and my sister to stay in the living room, out of harm’s way. When I heard my mother shrieking I couldn’t help but look into the bedroom and my sister on the right and mother on the left were actually pinning my step-father down on the bed.
That was when the pleas came from my mother to dial 9-1-1. It is one of those things you teach a kid in case they ever find themselves in a situation you hope they never find themselves in. The problem about teaching a kid to call 9-1-1 is that you don’t prepare them for what the phone call will be like. Questions about name and address and phone number and nature of the incident, I didn’t know the answers to any of that stuff. I wasn’t at home, and I didn’t know how to describe what was happening. What was happening?
I literally had no idea that something like that could even happen. There was never a Full House episode where Danny gets hopped up on ludes and beats the shit out of DJ. This was the first violence I ever witnessed that was perpetrated by someone other than a cartoon coyote. And it was real violence. Someone could’ve been severely injured, or worse. And I was completely powerless to help.
My sister is a tough woman. She lets very little slow her down, she speaks her mind, asks what she needs to know, and flat out leaves if she needs to. My earliest memories are her protecting me from my parent’s divorce. And looking back, knowing the woman she is now, it is not hard to imagine her taking charge bringing down a man twice her size and making sure I was protected all at the same time. But she could not have been older than 13 when this happened. And while I couldn’t see what was happening in the other room, I am certain she took a shot or two, hard ones, I bet. Yet, she has never once mentioned it to me.
Time sort of jumps forward again to when the police arrive. I don’t recall much more violence, but maybe there was even more than before. I don’t recall how the police came into the apartment, but I do remember them pepper-spraying everything in sight. My eyes burned all night long. They had their billy-clubs out as well. They were familiar with my step-father, he had something of a record before this. And he was a big man, although probably not much bigger than I am now. They maced him good in the bedroom and handcuffed him while he was trying to shield his eyes. They led him outside, and by that time more police had arrived.
Just as the sun was begging to set on a rather beautiful summer night, my step-father was being driven off in the backseat of a police car. Two other cops stayed with us as we began to move a lot of my step-father’s stuff outside onto the grass. He wasn’t going to be coming back inside that apartment.
My, obviously very concerned, father showed up at some point in this mess too. We went home that night and I am not sure what my mother did. What could you do? Decision making was never a strength my mother possessed. She implicitly trusted anyone all the time. She liked to surround herself with people that she could ‘fix’, even though her track record showed not a single victory. I found out much later that my step-father was into hard drugs, especially opiates, although I doubt he was on them when we were around. He was always a kind of jovial guy. But you hear that a lot about addicts, don’t you? ‘He was so funny and caring when he was sober’ or something to that effect. The problem with addicts isn’t when they are sober though. My step-father was the first addict I ever had a relationship with, and this event was the first time I understood what a substance abuse could do.
If the timeline in my head is correct, my mother did leave him after this incident but he was still around while he completed his 12 step program. I remember he got arrested again not too long after because he had blown out both driver’s side tires and continued to drive on the rims until a cop noticed him, and then noticed how drunk he was.
It wouldn’t be much after that when my mother would move yet again and start dating yet another project, and my step-father would be found dead in a motel room with his girlfriend, a fifth of vodka and an empty bottle of pills. And I suppose that ends the story. A direct line between the incident in the apartment and his suicide can be made rather easily. Not too many instances of such direct cause and effect have ever availed themselves in my life.
I’ve told this story a handful of times and each time the listener’s response is to tell me how awful it was and they can’t believe I experienced it and blah blah blah. The truth is, I was in the other room. The worst part for me was when the cops showed up and caught my eye with some pepper-spray. It was a rattling experience, you never expect the people in charge of taking care of you to try to harm you. But I was never really in front of that, my sister shielded me from it again, like she always did whenever anything went sideways around me.
So for that reason it isn’t really a painful story for me, so much as an eye-opening one. It was a big day in my life, one of those landmark never gonna forget it days. It changed how I viewed the world, especially adults. It changed how I trusted people. And it made me realize I needed to be much more on my toes for when real life would finally come my way.