Tales from the Diner

I have a secret. I have kept it for years. It is the kind of secret that you don’t dare tell, if not for fear of the possible consequences, for fear that no one will listen. Both outcomes are unwelcome and damaging in their own right.

My friends and I have shared this secret and all its grisly details over eager sips of coffee after long overnight shifts, our voices heightened in our rage and our exhaustion. I had hurriedly whispered conversations with my coworkers during hasty smoke breaks and bathroom trips. These were girls with whom I had nothing in common – save our employment and our secret. Sometimes we exploded. Sometimes we wept.

It is not that I am weary from this business of silence; I have not broken. But I realize now that I have no reason to let my anger lie dormant. The injustice has become unpalatable.

For five years I worked at a popular all-night diner in Hadley, Massachusetts. For five years I was sexually harassed on a near-daily basis.

My introduction to this behavior was almost immediate. Within my first month, I found myself being yanked to the back room of the kitchen, towards the walk-in cooler. After a week of my soft-spoken refusals, Emilio, a cook nearly twice my 18 years, intensified his efforts. Like a predator, he waited until the midpoint of my overnight shift, when everybody else had gone home and my manager’s attention was held rapt by the late night tv reruns.

He strode out from behind the line, blocking the narrow path between the dishwasher and the refrigerator, “C’mon, baby. Let me give you a kiss.” It was not a suggestion.

His hand, which he had reached out in some semblance of an invitation, closed around my wrist. His grip tightened with every step I dragged my feet. His fingers were snakes: coiled and unyielding. I tried hurriedly to regain my strength and my voice as we neared the walk-in cooler.

Finally, with the space between me and the cooler reduced to only two feet, I found myself: “Fuck off!” I pulled away and raced out the backdoor of the kitchen where I was met with the few lingering tables in the dining room. I searched their faces, wondering if they had heard my shout. Their expressions remained unconcerned as they giggled drunkenly over their milkshakes. I am not sure if I was relieved.

I crossed the dining room towards the front of the restaurant, my hands still shaking behind my back. I found my manager’s body draped across the counter, her unwavering stare focused on the years-old show that filled the unpopular 3 am television slot. Her laughter came out in harsh cigarette-stained breaths.

“Emilio’s such an asshole,” I tried to sound casual, “he just dragged me to the walk-in to try to kiss me.”

“What a pig,”  Jessi scowled before turning her attention back to the tv.

I was relieved to find that the incident was passed on to the senior manager, Nikos. When I came into work the next evening he sat me down in the furthest booth and asked me to recount what happened. His brown eyes wandered as I repeated my story. When I was finished, he looked back to me and said, “Well, I really do apologize for that.” It was the same practiced line he used with unhappy customers. Still, I was grateful for the acknowledgement.

The owners never spoke to me regarding this, although I presume they witnessed everything when they checked the cameras’ footage from that night. Emilio continued working his shifts.

The truth is that there was such consistent harassment from the cooks that in the next few months it became background noise. I grew accustomed to being greeted by a chorus of “mmmmmmmmm” when I entered the kitchen, complete with licked lips and hungry stares. There were days that it was more bothersome than others. Some days the cooks would be angry and tell me, “no tienes tetas,” when I asked for my tables’ food. My days were so commonly punctuated by stares and sexual comments that I wrote it off as part of my job; it was just another bad tip or difficult customer. I spent shifts coaching a coworker on the many reasons she should leave her abusive boyfriend. I told her to stand up for herself and that there was no reason for her to endure the things she had. Then I walked over to the window to pick up my food, narrowly avoiding having my hand licked. There wasn’t so much as a flicker of awareness of my hypocrisy.

After a year of working there, I found myself in another precarious situation. I had graduated to daytime shifts and worked with many of the diner’s veterans. Carlos, who was at least 40, had taken an instant liking to me. “Hey precious…” he cooed when I arrived in the morning. “For you? Oh yes, anything!” he simpered when I asked him a question. I told myself that if I regarded his flirting as being harmless, it could only be harmless. I was too new to the shift to realize that he was purposely doing this in front of the waitress he was sleeping with.

One day, Carlos followed me into the walk-in cooler and set his gaze firmly on my lips as he approached me. I could hear the prep cooks snickering outside as they turned the lights off.

Then on.

Then off.

Carlos stood between me and the door. “Can I bite your dimples? I love your dimples, Maria.

I declined nervously, his pockmarked face only inches from me.

I didn’t tell anybody immediately. Part of my assimilation into life at the diner had been realizing and accepting that things like being trapped in the walk-in sometimes just happen. When I mentioned it to Jessi and Nikos they seemed unfazed. At the moment it seemed that anything regarding Carlos was deemed as part of his relationship drama, of which I had unwittingly become a part. Days later I was asked, “If you don’t like Carlos, why did you grab his dick?” I had no idea where that rumor started. No one was interested in what happened to me. Carlos was not punished.

Eventually in my tenure I became less complacent.

On my 21st birthday I reluctantly agreed to work the 6am shift for Yael, the head waitress and my neighbor. I was greeted warmly by Marcos, Yael’s husband, who was cooking that morning. He congratulated me as his arm found its way around my shoulder, pulling me in for a hug. I reciprocated unenthusiastically. As I tried to release the embrace he pulled me closer. He relinquished his hold only when his lips had found my neck, leaving a trace of saliva that I could not unfeel.

“Elias, can I talk to you?”

The owner looked up from his paperwork expectantly.

“It’s about Marcos.”

He furrowed his brow as he agreed to speak to me in the office – a rare occurrence for the waitresses.

After listening to what had happened, he sighed. “This isn’t the first complaint I’ve had about him.”

“I know.”

“What do you want me to do?”

I stared at him, dumbfounded. “Elias, that’s Yael’s husband. They have three children. Yael is my friend. Don’t ask me to make the decision about what happens to her family.”

He nodded gravely and agreed.

Nothing changed. Nothing, unless you count the small addition to the lightswitch by the walk-in cooler, that now prevented the light from being turned off. But when had anybody at the diner ever been afraid to harass us outside of the dark?

It has been nearly two years since I left that job, and there is hardly a week that has gone by that I did not consider writing this. As I became more serious in the endeavour, I began to consult friends and other former coworkers. Together, we unearthed a mountain of experiences that were both horrendous and routine:

“One time Nikos made a joke about raping me.”

“One time Carlos oinked at me for an entire eight hours.”

“The other manager, Bobby, used to constantly text me, ‘show me your tits.’ He even wrote it on my facebook wall. When I told him to stop he told me I probably had gross elephantitis tits.”

“The cooks used to refuse to give me my food unless I showed them my tongue.”

“Marcos used to massage Emma even though she told him to stop multiple times and one time he bit her neck.”

“Carlos kissed my neck.”

“One of the cooks cornered me in the walk-in and when Bobby found out he told me to get over it.”

“Both the owners, Elias and Andreas, used to laugh at the comments the cooks would make about the waitresses’ bodies after they left the kitchen.”

I have always known that this behavior was unacceptable. I have understood that it’s unfair that it happened and I have wished that something had been done about it. However, I was also a young adult with no support from my family, and I prided myself on my grit. I was grateful for my reasonably-lucrative job, where I had become a shift staple, in a difficult economy. I naively accepted the entire package.

Recently, though, I’ve realized that I don’t actually owe my previous employers anything. After five years of good, full time work, they were not doing me a favor by continuing to employ me; it was only a natural business relationship. I believed that because they liked me, I must not betray them. But now I ask myself: how much could they have really liked me if they allowed their staff to repeatedly sexually assault me?

I can aver that the environment at the diner is no different today than it was when I left. My silence will achieve nothing except to protect and perpetuate the things that are allowed to happen there. I refuse to participate any longer.

Some days I am ashamed that I did not stand up for myself. It is difficult to forgive that weakness. But I am doing my best to make up for it. I am shouting now that I have the strength to shout. I am encouraging everyone else to share their stories. I have a beautiful, impressionable 16 year old sister. And for god’s sake, the lesson I teach her is not going to be one of silence.

Note: all names have been changed as a super nice favor, but if you’re interested, I’d be happy to disclose the information privately.

UPDATE 10/29: My amazing friend Jaime Young has written an account of her own experiences, which I highly recommend you read. Check it out. This girl is my sounding board and plays a very central role in encouraging others to find their voice.

UPDATE 10/30: Another waitress has bravely shared her story.  Also, I find this one particularly hard-hitting, as she explores not only the sexual harassment, but the really awful way the owners treated the waitresses. Oh, and yet another waitress has spoken out.

UPDATE 10/31: Another account has come to light, this one also exploring the verbal abuse and poor food safety. 

UPDATE 11/1: For everybody following these updates, this is a must-read account by a former manager. And this one is an account of a waitress who started working there in 2007. This is not a new issue.

UPDATE 11/2: The accounts of the terrible working conditions just keep coming.

UPDATE 11/3: And yet one more  former coworker has added her voice.

UPDATE 11/4: After an article in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, another waitress has stepped forward.

UPDATE 11/6: Another former waitress has written her account, trying hard to emphasize that nothing ever changed.

Thank you to everyone for the support. It is so appreciated.

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Shedding Skin

I am no stranger to evolution. My life is one that has often left me with no option but to adapt quickly to rapidly changing circumstances. I have twisted, bent, stretched, and squeezed myself into scenarios, places, and people before I was ready or it was comfortable. And I have wiggled, climbed, and torn myself out of these same tight spots when the need grew strong. I learned early that there are many spaces in which I cannot fit. Again and again I watched people wait to ease into some sort of conformity.  I looked on in dismay as they prayed that their very selves would shrink so that they may require less room. I saw them hope that the keyholes they were locked into would grow an inch so that they may breathe more deeply. But I know this for certain: the rocks and metal of this life will never soften and give you more room. If that is the kind of adaptation for which you are holding your breath you will surely suffocate.

Having learned this, I decided to evolve differently. I spent my childhood catching bugs. I watched caterpillar after caterpillar molt, take refuge in itself, and grow into something new. I watched my pet lizard rub against rocks and peel back an old skin for which it no longer had any use. I found snakeskin in the woods by my uncle’s house, discarded for something better-suited. I knew that molting was a requirement for survival. I feared stagnancy and understood well that nature does not tolerate it.

I imagine that as I have grown I have left old skins scattered around the state: on the front steps of my childhood home, on the floor of my ex-boyfriend’s bedroom, and even in the ocean. There are cast-off parts of me on the streets of Tel Aviv and on the beaches of the Mediterranean. Sometimes, people somehow get cemented to our current self and later they get shed too. I imagine that my mother, huddled alone in the den of instability and illness she has dug, is still clutching at my old skins, unable to grasp my core as I sloughed them off.

This molting, this evolution, is an uncomfortable business. More often than not I come out feeling bruised and vulnerable and raw. Still, I am keenly aware of its necessity. I have spent the last month peeling off pieces of dead skin. This has been a difficult round.

Miguel is gone.

There are pieces of him everywhere. Although he has distanced himself by thousands of miles, in his wake he has left an elaborate system of tripwires and landmines. My entire life is booby-trapped. I am only now finding all the splinters he left under my skin that would sting and ache for days on end but of which I could just never seem to find the source. I stopped opening closests because too many times I was surprised by clothes he had left behind. I stumbled upon an old love letter and recoiled as though I had been hit.

After these times I took showers that were too hot and clawed at my body, trying desperately to shed my skin so that I could start anew. Instead I felt like I was choking on it.

I washed my sheets last week. They had sat unwashed in the bottom of my laundry basket for nearly a month, even as I dragged my other clothes down the street to the laundromat. Finally, in an episode of shame and disgust, I loaded them into my friend’s washing machine one night. The relief was immediate. Those sheets, filled with so much sweat and cum and tears, had been heaped in the corner of room tainting my air. I had lain on them for a week after he left, miserable and repulsed, but unable to replace them.

In my friend’s apartment, I stood for a moment and watched them spin around in that soapy water, listening to the mechanical whir that somehow gave me such solace. I exhaled slowly, realizing that in washing Miguel out of my sheets he was being rinsed from my life. Nothing smells like him anymore. I can barely believe his face is real.

I walked to the bathroom and stepped into the shower. I did not cry. When I undressed I left my clothes scattered. And with them, I know I left many old pieces of me lying on that floor.

Bad Body Days

The air has been beautiful lately. Even at my most tired, I have opted to walk to work in the early mornings and soak up the sun’s first rays peering through my neighborhood’s gold and crimson leaves. The air has also been biting on these occasions, but unable to give up the smell of the night’s rain on the pavement, I have pulled my scarves and sweatshirts from the back of my closet, and inhaled the changing seasons.

This particular time of year is usually one I find difficult. This time around isn’t especially different, although I have been taking steps to avoid the annual hibernation and shutdown I have experienced in the past decade. The frost gets in my bones and saps my already-meager supply of energy. I have written about this before: it is debilitating. So far, I am still able to get out of bed at a reasonable hour and I can laugh honestly.

By this time I have generally barricaded myself under my warm covers and turned away from an active social life, save one that exists only electronically. But I find myself participating as actively as I can in this small town where I know only a few people. I have learned the limits of my energy in this past year and in doing so I have begun to manage it as efficiently as I am able. So in this sense, I suppose this year has been different. Of course, that is not to say that my worse days do not make an appearance. This time, it is not the icy air and the falling leaves that has saddened me. Nor is it the early evening onset of a darkness that is so deep it lingers into the morning as I make my way to work, when just a month ago I could breathe in a brightening dawn. Rather, it is as I reach for my woolen coats and see my sweet summer dresses, hardly worn, that I feel a desperation to put off the impending winter.

When I am truthful, I can admit that I spent the whole of this summer in turmoil with how I perceived my body. More often than not, it was my distaste and loathing for my physical appearance that reigned over my practicality. Most days I chose to wear clothes that were ill-suited to the temperature rather than reveal whichever part of my body was causing me shame. My back was spotted with acne that I felt should have cleared up years ago. In my embarrassment, I forewent tank tops and dresses and my shoulders remained pale and unkissed by the sun.

I am unsure if the troubles I have with my physical appearance are a symptom of my emotional difficulties, but somehow they have become intertwined so tightly that sometimes it is challenging for me to decipher the feelings I am having in relation to my body. This post has been brewing in my mind for some time now. In fact, the first paragraphs have sat on pages in my notebook for weeks, but every time I attempt to continue, I stare blankly at the paper and instead flip aimlessly through my phone. Sometimes I am apt to believe that I have trouble expressing this because the feelings themselves have passed and become irrelevant. Other days I am painfully aware that the relief of these feelings is only temporary and at those times I find the things I want to write so personal and humiliating that I have no desire to do so.

Maybe also, in some small part, is the principal that has been drilled into my head: talking about one’s body is essentially forbidden. I am acutely aware of what women are supposed to look like, and like everyone else in the population, I know exactly where I do and don’t measure up. This creates its own problems; I have learned to feel ashamed about the physical parts of me that do not adhere to the model. At the same time I have been taught a distaste for vanity and whatever pride I could potentially take in my body has been smothered. In a single breath I have inhaled these ideals and as a result I have been blinded to the parts of me that may remain attractive to the popular standard. Worse yet, as much as I’d like to subvert this, I catch myself considering this The Standard. Society dictates that I am only allowed to look a certain way, but that I must never, ever take pride in the parts of me that are deemed acceptable. It is a vicious and detrimental combination.

I suppose that I can imagine I’m basically attractive. But this thought has taken years of work to say and believe, and on many days it still does not ring entirely true. I asked Miguel the once, “How long have you known you were hot?” I can tell that my questions are strange to him. I know that he doesn’t experience a physical self-loathing in the same manner I do. I watch him strut around the house completely undressed and I am stunned by and envious of the confidence that seems to come so naturally to him.

“Have you always walked around like this?” I ask, “It’s just so foreign to me.”

He looks puzzled. “But you’re naked all the time,” he says. It’s lost on him that learning to be nude in his presence has been a difficult and painful process for me. Even now, over a year after he first saw me bare and vulnerable, I always avoid his steady gaze.

“Stop staring,” I tell him.

“I’m just looking.”

“You’re inspecting.”

“I like your body; I want to learn every line.”

I know Miguel means it sincerely. Even so, I tense up. I can feel a spotlight on each imperfection. As I lie there rigidly, I recall every stretch mark, spider vein, clogged pore, and every hair. I can never stand this for as much as ten seconds before I push him away.

I wonder if he knows how much these insecurities have affected our sex life. I can think of numerous times that the moment was heavy and our sexual tension was high but I could not bear the sight of my body. As much as I wanted him, my anxiety took over. There have been times I begged for him to turn the lights out even though it was disruptive and somewhat killed the mood. There have been times I have wriggled away from him, humiliated at the thought of him seeing the blemishes on my back. Time after time I have kept my shirt on under the guise that I was cold.

Some days I sit in front of my full-length mirror and stare at myself hatefully. I have begun to carry weight on my small frame and my hips spill over the top of my jeans.  My upper arms jiggle and new stretch marks crawl down my inner thighs and up my sides. I am angry to watch my size 4 body acts as though it is a size 14. I see so many girls who are both considerably larger and more radiant. They carry themselves and own their pudge in a way that I am just not capable. I am bitter that I am fortunate enough to be a size that is supposedly attractive and somehow I still feel morbid and disgusting. I stare at the mirror and I cannot unsee the small hairs on my upper lip, the too-big pores, and the acne scars.

On these days I opt out of social activities. “I’m having a bad body day,” I tell Miguel. He doesn’t understand; he thinks I mean I’m sick and offers to make me soup. There have been times that I have felt this way but kept silent and that he has told me I look good. When this has happened I have been certain that he can see how terrible I look that day and that he is trying to make me feel better. Only later do I realize that he may have actually meant it.

That is another part of the problem: I am not able to take compliments at face value. I generally have such a poor opinion of my body that I assume compliments are in someway insincere. Most times, I feel as though I am being mocked. When I can see that the attention is genuine, I conclude that the person must be some sort of creep. I have difficulties believing that “normal” people would find me attractive, and so I determine any admirer must in some way be predatory.  I have posted nude pictures online on multiple occasions when I have felt inadequate. And in a more artistic move, I have modeled nude for a photographer friend. Always, the feedback is overwhelmingly positive. Still, I pinch my belly in the mirror and look on with scorn.

I am practicing. I have given up on the hope that my breasts will ever grow and I have found positive aspects of their size. I am trying hard to look at the jagged purple marks on my legs and hips and to say, “yes, those are my stretch marks. Those are my stripes.” I want to glance at the little blue veins popping up on the back of my knees and thighs and feel unphased by them. I am trying to accept that I am aging physically and to think of all the weathered women I have known and how glorious they were in all of their experiences and laugh lines.  Certainly there are things that I could try to reverse some of my flaws. But generally they are expensive and ineffective. It has become more important to me at this point to ease out of attempting to attain physical perfection: instead, I want to look at my body with a forgiving eye, and then a loving one. None of this comes easily to me, but I am grateful to know that Miguel is a safe place for me to struggle through these lessons. Our bodies are so much a part of our identity and it is cruel to be unaccepting of them. For me, it is a big first step to be outing my struggle in this way. But sometimes when things are said out loud they lose some of their hold on you. And now, I am going to go easy on myself.

Letters to Colin (4)

Part 4:

In eighth grade I got depressed. Hardcore in-your-face depressed. I specifically remember that it was in March, right before I turned 14 that the heaviness started to hit me hard. I remember because this was at the time that we went to war with Iraq and I was furious. It was the first time I really paid any attention to politics and although I wasn’t particularly well-versed, I knew that I was unhappy with what was going on. I remember nonchalantly mentioning something to my mom about how stupid I though George Bush was and being horrified to learn that my thoughts and opinions had veered off the path of my family’s. It’s not that I ever considered changing my opinions, but at a time when I was feeling pretty disillusioned already, it was a hard lesson to realize that you are a black sheep in your family, even more than you initially thought. The entire experience was very distressing to me, and although now I know it wasn’t the real problem, I kept telling everybody, “It’s the war. The war is making me depressed.”

I found solace in a friend I met in a Lord of the Rings chatroom, back when chatrooms were still a thing. His name was Seth and he was 32. It’s weird for me to think about that now, because Miguel is nearly 30. I’m not sure what I would think if he was conversing daily with a 13 or 14 year old online, and truthfully I don’t know what was going on in Seth’s head, but he was a great source of comfort to me. He lived in New York and had been depressed basically his whole life. He told me I needed to “learn to embrace the things [you] cannot control,” and told me I was wise beyond my years. I felt like, for maybe the first time, someone was really seeing me. My friendship with him felt profound. He gave me music recommendations. I printed out most of our conversations and reread them when I was feeling on edge. I was once having a conversation with my mom and how miserable I was feeling. I don’t think I ever told her I was depressed. I didn’t trust her. I don’t remember the specifics of our conversations about it, but I do remember that they were jerky. There were no connections; no understanding or empathy. She could see my angst as clearly as the day, but she did little to help it. I was barely allowed to see my friends outside of school and although I was 14 my bedtime was still 8 or 8:30. One time I tried to wear pajama pants to school and my mother grounded me for three full weeks. I spent most of my eighth grade year not allowed to use the phone or leave the house. I don’t think my mom had any real interests and hardly had friends anymore, so I was also condemned to her house-bound lifestyle. Anyway, we were once talking about how “angry” I was or something and I quoted something that Seth had said to me. “Where are you getting all of these quotes?” And then she forbade me from speaking to him anymore. It was devastating.

Sometime during this, I developed a pretty hardcore anxiety disorder. A compulsion, really. This isn’t something that I’ve ever really told anybody, but it’s very important to the story. Miguel doesn’t even know this (yet). Do you know what trichotillomania is? It’s basically compulsive hair-pulling, especially in situations of extreme stress. At some point during this terrible year I noticed that some of my hair is a very different texture then the rest of it and began pulling it out. I don’t know why. It was just a thing. But it got really, really bad. I had a really huge bald spot on the top of my head and another behind each of my ears. I didn’t even notice that I was pulling so much hair until much later. By then there was really nothing I could do about it. I always wore my hair up, but as the hair began to grow back it would poke through in these weird clumps of short hair. It was so humiliating and terrible that even now (a full decade later) when I wear my hair down I check the mirror before leaving to make sure I don’t have a bald spot.

This is incredibly important for a couple of reasons:

1. This is one example of how damaging my experience was at the time, even though the effect was mostly superficial.

2. When my hair was growing back my mother would make super mean comments about it. She never asked me if I was okay or what happened or what was going on with me so that that had happened. Instead, if my hair would part because of the regrowth she would sneer, “Oh, I see you have your SPIKES OUT tonight.”

3. Soon, my mother also had a bald spot. For a little while I wasn’t sure if she was just sick and so her hair was thinning, but I’m pretty certain that she also started pulling her hair. This was the first real evidence of my mother’s mental illness, although I have never said this out loud. I really, really believe that she saw there was something wrong with me and that she mimicked my behavior. She’s supposed to be the sick one, you know. More on that later.

As the last few months of the school year went on my disposition grew progressively worse. I was close friends with Delilah at the time and she was in a similar state of angst. Admittedly, I think we worked off of each other. At first we thought it was funny to wear all black because we were essentially becoming the people our families had warned us about. We already felt so detached that it seemed like a good fit to just go for that. We were unhappy and pale and wrote angsty poetry. We questioned the concept of normalcy and listened to Rammstein. I threatened to shave my head or dye my hair pink and my mom told me she’d kick me out.

Towards the end of the year I had my eye on a cute boy named Will. Delilah had the same idea. She moved faster than I did and they “dated” for about three weeks. I was jealous and felt betrayed but said nothing. I still remember the note that she wrote when she broke up with him. It said, “I do know that I don’t love you. How can I love you when I don’t even love myself?” I don’t know what he said.

Around the same time I had to stop speaking to Seth, I began to seek solace in my Uncle Adam, my mother’s brother. There was no particular thing that happened to lead me to this, but he was amused by my 13 year old self tromping around in combat boots and we somehow we connected. My uncle was perhaps also the black sheep of the family, and although we never discussed it outright, I gathered that we aligned ourselves politically. I met Adam’s girlfriend, Emily, and her three children. She lived in the white house right next to the elementary school, where my childhood friend had lived when we were much younger. Emily also took a liking to me and from time to time I would babysit her kids, all of whom were witty and interesting. Emily also introduced me to her friend Alena, who lived on Conway Street on the Buckland side, right next to that old reservoir and down the road from Cricket Field. But now I’m getting ahead of myself.

Towards the end of my eighth grade year, Delilah and I took a turn for the worse. I don’t know if that’s fair to say. We took a significant turn. One night Delilah smashed a bottle and dragged the jagged pieces against her forearm. We had never done this before. Hearing about it chilled me. I decided to follow suit and began scratching my wrists with safety pins. I wore long-sleeved shirts in the hot June air and was constantly terrified my mother would see. I was uncomfortable with the whole experience, really. It was fun to listen to angry music and be bitter and wear all black, but self-injury was a new line to cross. Finally, I decided to talk to Delilah’s sibling, Aubrey, about it. I called them up and confessed what I knew. They were receptive and concerned and I spent the rest of the night feeling sick to my stomach.

To my relief, Delilah quickly forgave me and life continued as normal. I felt like I had talked her off a cliff and although there was maybe a little residual tension, it was negligible. My cuts healed up, as did Delilah’s. On the last day of school we and a bunch of other friends piled into a van and rode to the house of our friend Jeanne to celebrate the start of vacation. Halfway through the afternoon Delilah took her leave and sat outside in the yard. When I went to her, she refused to speak to me. She barely spoke a sentence to me the rest of the party and soon it was time to go home. Hurt and confused, I left. For weeks and weeks she screened my calls and returned none of them. I was utterly devastated.

My already-shaky mood plummeted. My mother met some guy named Jeff and we spent most days at his house somewhere near Barton’s Cove. He was a fairly standard redneck from what I remember; exactly my mom’s type. He had a son just a little older than my sister, who would have been only four at that point. I resented the time we spent there, but truthfully I would have resented time spent anywhere. I was miserable. I don’t know how aware my mother ever was of this. I think she was so interested in Jeff that she didn’t notice. Or maybe she was just too unequipped to really deal with it or even understand the depth my of unhappiness. I remember that we were on the way to Jeff’s house once and she asked me if I was okay. Or what was wrong. Or something that only barely touched the tip of my iceberg. I’m sure I brushed off her question, unable to properly express myself and also certain she would not understand. I wasn’t so far off: she never asked again. By the end of the summer her relationship had fizzled. He told her they were better off as just friends and she was pretty heartbroken. Although I’m well aware of my mother’s own dysfunction, I wonder how much of a damper it was to their relationship to have an angry teenager around all the time. I actually feel really sad for my mother about this one. I remember that she had this cattail thing we found on a walk that she had carved “Jeff #1” into one day. It’s really painful to have to throw stupid little things like that away and in hindsight I really do feel for her. She stayed in bed for a couple days after they broke up. I think my grandmother may have come to the house and sternly told her to get herself together. I feel for her.

I spent most of my time sitting in a tree and listening to music. I had discovered Nirvana and Tool and Stabbing Westward and the melodies and lyrics spoke to me like nothing I had ever experienced. I wrote endlessly: mostly lyrics to the songs I had fallen in love with, but also a few terrible songs of my own. I also kept a journal on the family computer and I wrote in that pretty avidly. My friends had grown weary of my constant lamenting and one or two of them also began to detach from me. I had little social life at all, save for one friend who lived down the street from my grandparents. We shared poetry we had written and talked about books. One time, in a fitful need to speak to someone who would understand me, I emailed Seth. I had no time to write a proper email, as I was fearful my mother would catch me. Instead, I attached the word document that held all my journal entries from the summer. I spent the next three days in a heightened state of anxiety, terrified my mother would somehow find out I was writing to Seth and using my email, which had also been forbidden. What happened instead was at least as bad.

One day towards the end of summer I got the call I had been wishing for, for months. A missed call from Delilah flashed on my grandparents’ caller ID. I was elated. Hurriedly, I called her up. My heart pounded. “Hey, what’s up?” I was tentative, afraid of exposing my excitement. It became clear that this was not a social call. Her voice was hard; steely. I asked her if she was angry with me, annoyed, furious. In reply: “I hate you.” Her words hit me in the gut. They sat with me and sank me. She told me to check my email and hung up. Frantically, I got on the computer when I got home. I was anxious in all directions: afraid of what the email would say, afraid of getting caught, afraid of learning what I had done to deserve this hatred. In truth, I don’t remember what the email said. I don’t think it answered any questions. Certainly, it didn’t justify the sudden disposal of our friendship. I recall only that Delilah had decided randomly to check my email and saw that I had recently corresponded with Seth. She read my entire journal. She knew everything. She knew my pain and still loathed me for a reason I could not find. What’s worse was that she knew I was going against my mother’s word by speaking to Seth and I spent the rest of the summer paralyzed by the fear that she would sell me out. I was so blinded by my hurt and fear that I hardly even noticed how invasive and terrible it was for her to log into my email. But then, we never notice these things until much later, do we?

Letters to Colin (2)

There wasn’t really a lot else that happened during my middle childhood. My mom eventually got off the smack. I asked her about it once when I was older and she explained that my grandparents always assumed that once they took me away my mom would realize that she was destroying her life and get clean so she could have me back. Apparently it did the opposite; once she lost me she lost everything and there was no point to getting back on track. She told me that we used to high five or cross our little fingers together or something because we were a team. I don’t remember that, but I believe it and it makes me sad.

When I was in second grade I noticed that my family wasn’t normal. We were young and basically everyone had a standard nuclear family at that point. Plenty of divorces and hardships came later, but when we were only 8 I felt like I was the odd one out. Although I hadn’t seen my father in years, I was in touch with my grandparents on his side of the family and they gave me his number. I’m not sure what they expected to have happen…they were also only barely in touch with him. I called him up one night while I was still living at my grandmother’s house. He answered and as I didn’t recognize his voice, I asked for him by name. I told him who it was and he asked me, “Marie who?” “Your daughter,” I told him. He mumbled, “I’m sorry,” and hung up. Wailing, I tried to call him back. My grandmother stood nearby and furiously got on the phone. His roommate answered and told her that my father wasn’t there. She shouted at him and I don’t remember the rest. That was my first heartbreak, I think. And the first time I can distinctly remember feeling unwanted, although I don’t think I could have put words to it at the time. And that became a pretty rampant theme in my life.

I didn’t really know it until about a year ago, but I think I was a pretty unhappy child. I remember crying a lot. Too much, I think. I wrote a song in fifth grade about my fire burning out or something, which is sort of standard adolescent angst, but it got to me sort of young. I “ran away” when I was little too. Basically that meant that I would pack a bag of cookies and a box of bandaids and go sulk under the tree across the street. Otherwise, when I was feeling heavy, and I have felt that way ever since I was quite young, I would climb a tree or sit on a big rock and just feel the sun and the wind. I liked to imagine I was Pocahontas. One time I heard someone describe someone else as being a “free spirit” and I wanted so badly for someone to see that in me too.

My mother was around, eventually. She visited me and took me along on her trips to the methadone clinic. Sometimes she lived with my uncle in Colrain. Sometimes he lived with me and my grandparents and cleaned the house for money. She might have had friends. She worked a night job and eventually got her own place in Shelburne Center. I visited on weekends. I remember that I told her once I only wanted to visit every other week. I’m not sure why I decided that. It must have broken her heart.

She had a dumb boyfriend at the time. His name was Bill and he was a straight up cliche redneck. He was dumb as rocks and drank too much beer. He knocked my mom up too, which was a surprise to everyone because he had declared himself sterile. Turns out he just thought that because he wore really tight jeans. The two of them broke up before my little sister was born and I was sad to not be able to go to his brother’s farm anymore. After Michelle was born my grandparents relented and let my mother have me indefinitely. I don’t think the custody was officially changed for another year, so I still had to have my grandparents sign all my permission slips for school, and I think my mother is still bitter about that.

I think it was only about 5 months later that we moved into the house in Buckland. I remember that it was on one of the very first days I was in fourth grade that we moved and I couldn’t find the right bus and I cried. We moved into a ranch house off of Elm St. It was a tiny dead end street called Harmony Lane. It was like some kind of terribly ironic foreshadowing. You can’t make this shit up.

Letters to Colin

Have I ever really told you my story? Grab a coffee; it’s a long one.

My very oldest memory is from when I was two years old. I’ve since figured out that it was probably in December of 1991. My parents were getting divorced. We lived in a condo in Turners Falls and I still remember where we had the kitchen table, the bookshelf, the couch. The kitchen, the second bathroom. This night I was playing next to the bookshelf that stood against the wall between the dining room and the living room. My parents were at the kitchen table across from each other and the light was dim. My mother stood up, I think she was crying. My father stayed seated. She walked towards me and I remember that I must have been very small, because as she came to me I remember only seeing to her thigh. In my memories she was wearing shorts, which doesn’t make sense if this was happening in December. Maybe it was just an earlier fight. They are dysfunctional people. Likely, they were fighting all the time.

I don’t have really any memories of my dad after that. I’ve tried and tried for years to come up with something. Sometimes I think I remember playing with him in the big raked-up pile of leaves in the fall, but as I’ve grown older I’ve become more aware that that memory is fabricated from a certain set of photographs I’ve gotten my hands on. The pictures didn’t wake anything up; they just put an idea in my head. I can remember one other time I saw him as a small child and it was after he moved out. He came by to visit me and read me a bedtime story. I was being difficult, as kids always are at bedtime, and I remember him scolding me with my full name: “June Marie Billiel!” This has stuck with me all my life and I’m not sure if it’s because it’s the first time I understood that that was my full name, which is sort of strangely profound in itself, or if it is the first time the tone in which my name was being said was harsh enough to stick with me. Maybe both.

I’m pretty sure that my mom used to tell me that my dad never ever came to visit me after he moved out. She’s close to right, if my memory is to be trusted. But I remember this one time pretty clearly. But who knows, maybe he was just there to pick something up or to fight with my mom or to sign a divorce paper. I guess I always just assumed he was there to visit me, even though I don’t have any real reason for thinking that.

Next I remember going to the courthouse in Greenfield. I think that was the official end to the marriage.

Somewhere along the line my mom met this guy named Eric. My grandmother told me that I used to call him Dad. We drove down to Florida with him and a cooler full of sandwiches and lived there for almost a year, I think. I have no idea what he did for work or how my mother met him or anything like that. I remember very little about him, really. I vaguely remember his face and I remember that he used to take me fishing out in back of the condo we lived in. Sometimes we had to run back inside the house because there was an alligator that would come by and hang out on the beach from time to time. I’m pretty sure we never caught anything. One time I was holding a cracker in my hand and a duck came over and bit my finger. Another time we walked along the beach and I found a coconut and took it home and painted it. I kept that damn thing for years, even after we had moved back to Mass and even after I moved to my grandparent’s house. Now that I have to be careful about acquiring too many things it seems insane to me that my family let me keep packing it and bringing it everywhere.

We were in Florida for hurricane season too. Eric and my mom duct taped up the windows and the sliding glass door but somehow my mom still thought that she should bring me to preschool the next day. Of course my school was closed, and I still have the image of her running up to the building while I sat in the car so that she could read the sign on the door. Seems stupid to me now, and dangerous too. Who knows what she was thinking.

Anyway, things were fine with Eric as far as I knew as a four year old, which is admittedly not very far. One day he and my mom got in a fight. He threw her through the screen door and I was standing right in the room. She got back up and came inside and told me to call the police. As she got back up Eric shoved her into this little desk my grandfather had built for me. I asked my mom what the number to the police was because I didn’t know about 911 yet and Eric came over and ripped the phone straight out of the wall. Next I remember my mom checking out the huge gash she had up her legs from being thrown into my desk, but it was days later. Did the neighbors call the cops? Was Eric arrested? Why else would we have still been in that house? I don’t know. I don’t even remember sound from that time. I remember only that I was supposed to call the police and I imagine that my mom yelled it at me. But I’m sure there should have been screams and that Eric would have been shouting too but I can’t recall a damn thing. Was I afraid? I don’t even know what I felt, although I’m sure it’s in my head somewhere.

We left after that, although I don’t know how quickly it happened. When we got back it was winter. My grandparents owned the place we had lived in Turners and apparently it was just the same as we had left it. I don’t remember having to move any furniture back, although that could just be a flaw in my memory. I do remember that as soon as we got back we had to shovel all the snow off of the deck and I had this little red shovel that in retrospect was probably useless, but I helped my mom all the same.

Eric showed up again around my 4th birthday. I was sitting at the kitchen table eating dinner or cake or something and my mom had gone upstairs when he peered through the window and waved at me. I ran over to let him in and then I have no idea what happened. I never saw him again though, as far as I can remember.

Next my mom became a junkie.

There was this guy named Russ. I don’t know where he came from, but my mom always pegged him as the one who introduced her to heroin. I’m not sure when or where or how it started, but I learned later that my mom has always had a thing for painkillers, although I don’t actually think she’s entirely aware that she abuses them. Anyway, she used to tell me that even the first time she shot up she had a high tolerance, and I suspect her previous opiate misuse was to blame.

Our lives quickly descended into madness. I can’t even really piece together everything that happened in a real timeline, but I know that for a couple of years our lives consisted of driving to Holyoke late at night and sometimes crashing on random people’s floors. We bought groceries with bad checks I wasn’t allowed to answer the phone anymore because there were always bill collectors and maybe even cops calling. I don’t know if the police part is true, but as a little girl that’s what I thought was happening.

There were always people in our house and sometimes I’d come downstairs in the morning and my mom and a bunch of people would just be passed out on the living room floor. One morning I came down and the news was playing while Russ and my mother dozed in front of the tv. I woke my mother up and asked her if I could change the channel. After she said yes I changed the channel to cartoons and Russ abruptly woke up. He snapped that he had been watching the tv and smacked me across the face. Hard. Truthfully, I don’t remember his hand connecting to my cheek, but I can say with complete certainty that that’s what happened. I have a memory that immediately proceeded this: my mother running with me up the stairs trying to get away from him. There was yelling and when we got to the top of the stairs and Russ was still behind us so my mom turned around and pushed him down the stairs. My mother is a small woman, especially on an opiate binge, and Russ was not a small guy. I think this was the kind of adrenaline-fueled Mama strength you hear about. Mom locked us in the bathroom and although I don’t know how we got out or we got Russ away, I can remember her sitting on the toilet, just peeing and crying.

The next time I saw Russ his arm was in a sling and he told me he was sorry for what happened. But just because Russ was gone doesn’t mean the smack was.

Everything else is a bit foggy. I have mostly glimpses: my mom shutting her bedroom door in my face with a syringe in her hand; driving hours and hours back and forth from New Hampshire to buy cartons of cigarettes and back down to Holyoke to sell them for enough profit to get a fix. We had something like 100 tag sales to help with this new found expense too. A few lovely pieces handmade by my grandfather were lost this way.

I had some shitty kids to play with nearby. There were two kids whose dad sometimes went to jail who lived next door to me. The girl was a little too old to really care about me, but the son, Matt would often play power rangers with me in the woods behind our houses. There was a little frog pond across the street too. There was this super old tiny graveyard and then down behind it was the pond. Sometimes I would catch frogs and then bring them home and put them in my kiddie pool. One time I came home and couldn’t find the frog that had been happily swimming around when I left. I asked Matt if he had seen my frog and he led me to two cinder blocks. He lifted the top one up and showed me the remains of my frog that he had crushed. To this day, this makes me feel sick to talk about. I’m still not sure if this was just classic destructive boy behavior or if this kid was a little sick, but if I listen to my gut I have to say it’s the latter. Maybe it’s that I’m older and jaded now, but when I look back i just think the whole cul de sac was poisoned.

I also made friends with an elderly lady at the end of the row named Margarite. After I lived with my grandparents sometimes we would go to the condo and do work on the house. I went to visit her each time and then one day someone told me she didn’t live there anymore. I don’t think anybody explained to me that she, or really that anyone, died. But somehow I am sure I knew. Maybe I could smell it. Maybe it was just the air. Too still.

There was also a lady right next door who I befriended. Her name was Gina and my mother hated her. I learned later that she was a social worker. Go figure. She was a good one though.

One weekend I went to my grandparents’ house while my mom went off to party. I’m told that she asked when she should come pick me up and they told her that I was going to be living with them from then on. I don’t know how I felt about this. I have a vague idea that I asked my grandmother a few times when mom was coming back and she kept telling me I would be with them, “a few more days.” Then I was meeting the principal at BSE and he gave me a stuffed panda bear to hold overnight before my first day in kindergarten at my new school.

I don’t believe the whole transition could have been as painless as I remember it, but who knows. During dinner one of the first nights there I confessed to my grandparents about some of the goings-on with my mother in the previous week. I guess they must have been quizzing me, but I only really remember talking to my mom on the corded kitchen phone after dinner and telling her, “I told Gram and Gramp about Wednesday,” and apologizing. She told me it was okay. I guess she must have known it was a lost cause at that point.

That’s enough for tonight.

Melancholy

Depression is a lonely thing.

Even now, in a generation that is becoming more and more vocal about the issue, I find that I– and presumably others like me– still safeguard our ailment and rarely allude to the severity of our experiences. My best guess as to the reason for this, is that despite the barrage of awareness campaigns that have begun to sweep the internet, there is still an underlying attitude of discomfort– a recoiling– towards any type of mental illness. If someone is not suffering from some sort of trendy or movie-style horrifying and intrusive disorder like DID their ailment tends to be overlooked.  For most, depression and anxiety disorders are seen as noninvasive maladies. Maybe this is one of the biggest disconnects. Let me say this: depression can be downright crippling, whether or not it is visible.

The other day I mentioned my depression in passing and my boyfriend shocked me: “You never talk about your depression.” He’s spot on. I was stopped in my tracks, bewildered by the truth in his words. I have been aware of my own difficulties for years, and suspicious of them years before that. I have always pretty readily and casually alluded to my depressive spells in the company of both acquaintances and friends. But the truth is that I rarely delve deeply in my explanations. I think I have always assumed that those who are close to me will witness the alteration in my behavior and moods and thereby understand my varying states. I’m learning now that this is of course unreasonable and like everybody, I need to start speaking more frankly about this.

Today I woke up at eleven. I could have gotten up much sooner. I should have, too. But some mornings greet me with a certain heaviness that I still can’t properly describe. I can’t say for sure if it was triggered by the intense talk I had with Miguel a few days ago, or if it is simply something that lurks and lingers within me. Maybe neither; probably both.

I have what feels like mountains of work to do: emails to write, phone calls to make, laundry, cooking, cleaning. When I write this down I am aware that these tasks are standard. I understand that they are basic and universal. But somehow I find myself completely incapacitated and the weight of these simple chores sentences to me my dark basement bedroom where I sleep fitfully and accomplish nothing. Miguel noted the other day that I am good about giving myself days off when I feel like I need them. I agreed with him, deciding that I was too unequipped to be able to explain that in truth I never give days off. The days that I spend in bed watching tv shows on Hulu are not days that I have designated as easy going vacation days. They are days for which I had many plans. Whether or not I do anything is irrelevant to the amount I feel I need to do. There is always something for me to do. There is always something I am not doing. I am almost always shame spiraling.

I suspect that my shame spirals are at least half of the reason I stay down once I begin to feel heavy. I haven’t yet been able to forgive myself for the way that I am and it makes it difficult to recover from those trying days. Sometimes I don’t pay a bill on time and my only instinct is to hide from that bill. Other times I get an email or a phone call and I don’t return it as quickly as I should. Sometimes I don’t do the laundry. Sometimes I forget to make an appointment. Or get gas. Or make lunch. Or write a blog post. Or anything. Any one of these can send me into a whirlwind of guilt and a suffocating sense of uselessness. I’ve tried to explain this to friend in the past and so few people truly understand it. I am not reluctant or resistant or even lazy. In my mind I am constantly failing, and whether or not that is accurate in real-life standards is completely off the table. In every ounce of my body I know that I am a failure and I know that I should be better: I should be more responsible and organized and stable. The truth though, is that I am not. I am overwhelmed by this realization and the guilt and shame of it leaves me despondent.

In my years of dealing with this I have gotten better at coping with it. Sometimes dragging myself into the blinding brightness of the sun is all I need. I feed myself better when I can muster it and sometimes I honestly just need a nap. I try to laugh. I try to go out for lunch with a friend. I call someone I miss. My ups and downs have been recurring for over half my life at this point and I am finally starting to feel like I have begun to hone my skills in combating what can quickly turn into self-destructive behaviors.  But depression isn’t always that predictable, and it’s certainly not always so yielding. Even now, familiar as I am with the symptoms and cycles, I find that it slinks along behind me and I become aware of it only when I become the victim of its brutal hold on my throat. I choke and retreat to my bed, forgetting to eat, crying myself to sleep, and utterly unable to express myself.

Sometimes I get mean. I become hateful and resentful and lash out at my boyfriend, in spite of his unwavering support.  I can see the mess that I become and I am ashamed by how morbid and pathetic it is.  No matter who I have to support me during these experiences, I always feel like I have no one. I grow bitter when I am told that I am loved because the words drip of sarcasm and mockery. My experiences prove to me again and again that those I rely on will ultimately disappoint and abandon me. I spend the last of the energy I can summon on attempting to will away those around me so that I will not have to endure the fallout of being left once more. My emotional pain becomes so severe that I can’t move and I feel like every bit of me is also physically injured. I feel it straight down into my fingertips and although I lay silently, somewhere in my head I howl like a wounded animal.

I’ve recently decided that the very worst part of falling this hard is that I lose all my outlets. I get so tangled inside my head that become unable to articulate through speech or through writing. This doesn’t happen to me every single time, but when it does it is horrifying. Long gone are the days when I wrote angst-filled poetry and drew pictures of razor blades and angels with bloodied tattered wings. Gone too, are the days when I could hide in my room and drag a blade along the supple skin of my leg when things got too bad. I have outgrown this. The fact that I still have days so bad that I feel desperate enough to consider it is almost too disgustingly shameful an admission. I’m not 14 anymore. I haven’t cut myself in 8 years. Besides, how could I ever hide such a thing from someone who sees my bare skin on a daily basis? If nothing else, this is truthfully what most likely keeps me from regressing in that way. I am always toeing the slope to that shame spiral.

I look for other outlets too. It’s no real surprise that when I can’t pick myself up my relationship suffers. Specifically, my sex life. Nearly every day for the past week I have come home from work, masturbated, and gone to bed. Yesterday, as I was about to engage in this new routine, it occurred to me that I wasn’t even sexually frustrated. I wasn’t satisfied, to be clear, but I was also not seeking an orgasm as an end to any type of arousal. Jesus Christ, I thought, is this really the only way I can experience any sort of pleasure right now? After that I masturbated and went to sleep.

I get suicidal too. This has been a very, very well-kept secret for years. When I was in an abusive household as a teenager, still cutting up my legs and writing in a journal I freely admitted when I wanted to die. After I moved out my life improved to the degree that I didn’t experience lows that bad until years later. Feeling that I wasn’t supposed to struggle with that in my adult life, I tucked it away and never told anybody until I realized how important it was that I said it out loud. The truth is that suicidal isn’t exactly the right word. I don’t plan to kill myself. I don’t write suicide notes. I don’t fantasize about how life would go on without me. Sometimes I wish I would die, but even those impulses are fleeting. I drive to work and wish I would get in an accident. Some days I hope I don’t wake up. I can say with certainty that I will never act on these thoughts because they are nothing more than flashes in my mind. The business of dying right now is too inconvenient, really. Too messy. I don’t even want to die, exactly. It’s just that I wish everything would just stop.

note: it has taken me two months to write this. today was the first day i felt like i could write in the last 6 months. i am not proofreading this and i will not edit it because writing it at all in the state im in is nothing short of a personal triumph.