The young adult novel that was not my childhood

Arctic Boulevard was a barren expanse. There wasn’t much within walking distance. There was a 7-11, a party supply store that sold balloons and stickers, a used bookstore with stacks of dog-eared stephan kings. The last apartment I lived in with my mom, the one on Arctic Boulevard, was by far the most depressing. We never even moved our furniture in, only a couch and a TV, which sat on the floor. I slept on the carpet in my bedroom, against the wall, my things in a plastic trash bag in the closet. A box of cheap laundry detergent had broken in the closet, and it covered the bag. My clothes lived in little piles around the room. I got one of the cutouts from the party supply store and put it on my wall. It was a butterfly, stupid and blue and paper.

The rest of our belongings lived in the mini-storage across the street, on the other side of Arctic Boulevard. Everything was behind one of the sliding metal doors, in a huge pile. You could climb it like a mountain, your legs sinking in to the knee. I would do that sometimes after school, rifling through boxes and barrels and trash bags, stuffed animals and clothes and Christmas ornaments, messing everything up even more than it had been before. I didn’t know how to be neat. I didn’t know how to be clean. Being neat and clean meant facing the mess, and the mess was much to big for me- it went back years and years, like layers of rock.

It had a smell. I pulled the hard metal handle as hard as I could, and the door slid up and open, back on its rattling track. A light clicked on. The world around me was cold and frost, but I didn’t give a fuck. Here was a mountain of things, mostly discarded, smelling of mildew. It was a Mess with a capital M. It was heavy. The weight of it threatened to crush my young heart. A mess that could never be cleaned up.

Sometimes I feel like I live my life in reverse. A young kid, living with a single parent, a single parent with severe mental illness who cannot take care of herself much less children, cannot clean the house, do the dishes, wash the clothes, remember to buy soap. You’d think I’d buck up and take on responsibility, the way kids in young adult novels do- you’d think I’d clean the house, cook meals, move our things from the storage unit armload by armload across the frozen street, kick open the back door to the building, washer thumping in the basement, heat and the smell of dryer sheets making my cheeks hot. It’s alright, Mom, I would say, as I filled a plastic trashbag with her old soda cups, sticky and smelling of flat corn syrup, and gathered the teabags from around her like flower heads, stuffing them into my bag. I’d yank open the yellowed blinds, crank a window to let in fresh air, sub-zero winter be dammed. Smoke would funnel out the window as if from a vacuum, a good clean vacuum, god’s vacuum. I’d gather her cigarette butts too, floating like dead goldfish in the stale tea. I’d fix her a nice soup, something simple from a can.

“You have to eat Mom, here-” I’d say. She’s look up at me with that blank face, rancid sweat smell rising off of her unwashed clothes, her liver pumping like a tired man bailing water. She’d reject the soup and put on her long quilted jacket instead, fastening the toggles with shaking fingers and walk to the corner store for cigarettes and a tall waxed cup of mountain dew, rattling with ice. I’d sneak a drink of it and run my thumbnail along the outside of the cup, watching the wax peel up. Cigarettes and mountain dew, all she ever ate. Black tea too, the cheap red boxes with the ceramic figurines inside. Monkey, horse, rabbit. I see them in junk stores now, someone has thought to collect them.

In the young adult novel that could have been my life, I attempt to care for my mentally ill mother. I wipe at the mess of my life with a gentle and tireless cloth, helping as best I can to fight the avalanche of flotsam and trash that builds up around us if we do not fight to keep it back. We have to hold it up. We have to Keep It Together. But all was not together, and my home was a reflection of that. It was, quite frankly, a physical manifestation of my mother’s mental state. Something Is Wrong, it practically screamed. Help, Help, Help. There is nothing I could have done that would have made it better, except get out, get out, get out- out of her world and into one I could start to build for myself, from the ground up like building a cabin from downed trees, peeling and sanding each log yourself, feeling the seasons come on with the bird calls, knowing you’ll have a house some day.

I climbed inside the cold storage shed, trash bags popping open under my feet. The smell of mildew and spilled ajax filled the air, stale clothes and silt-covered dishes. I grabbed a bed frame for support, where it jutted from the mess like a wrecked ship. There were few boxes, mostly it was just plastic bags, all piled and jumbled together like there’d been a natural disaster. And mental illness is a natural disaster, in its own way, a natural disaster in your head, coming out through your fingers and mouth and disordering everything you touch.

In those last few months, my mother had gotten much worse. My brother had left the year before and not long afterwards our benefits had been cut off. Rent, utilities, food. It all came from the state. $900 a month for a family of three. After my brother left, our mother neglected to fill out the proper paperwork, the paperwork to let social services know that she had one less dependant, so they could adjust her benefits. As a result, we lost everything. Our life support was gone.

There was no way she could have filled out that paperwork. At that point, she couldn’t even read. If you called her name, she didn’t respond. She sat, kneeling in her room, elbows on the floor, her face inches from the softly glowing radio dial. The radio murmured quietly and she murmured back at it, lost in her world of voices and colors and strange, terrifying hallucinations, all of it fitting together in a way that you and I will never understand. On the carpet in front of her, amongst cigarette ashes and strands of her long black hair, were sheets of paper where she scrawled her delusions out in tall, flowing script, free-writing out her strange world, ordering it. Pinning her word salad to the page.

That last year, my freshman year in high school, was the year my mother stopped beating me. We were pretty much physically matched at that point- my mother; aging, emaciated, insane, long grey patches sprouting in her black hair, and me- hungry and small, my growing body trying to get through puberty with what little I could forage for it. One day we were fighting and we ended up on the carpet, with her straddling me, choking me with her long, thin hands- I punched her in the face and she shrieked, jumped up hissing, spit flying from her lips, her eyes wide with hellfire and psychosis. She never tried to hit me again.

I climbed to the back of the storage unit, and began digging through stacks and piles of papers, photo albums and old junk mail. I wasn’t sure what I was looking for, I just knew that we were going to be evicted soon, I felt it coming like the forest animals sense an earthquake. And I knew that this was it. We had no money- no money to pay our rent, no money to pay for the storage unit. The unit would be locked, all our things would be lost. I was leaving for Colorado, my mother was giving up her parental rights and my grandparents were adopting me. My mother would be homeless, lost, dead. God only knows. If there was anything I wanted to keep, any photos, mementos from the last 14 years of my life, I would have to get them now.

I found a dog-eared yellow folder of papers, dusty and scrawled all over with my mother’s loopy handwriting. I opened it and flipped through the pages, grainy Xeroxed documents from long ago.

What’s this? I said, and held one of the sheets in my hand. A diagnosis. A diagnosis from a psychologist. For me. For seven-year old me.

PTSD. Post-traumatic stress disorder. The documents said that when I was seven years old I had seen a psychologist, and that I had been diagnosed with PTSD. I remembered none of this. In fact, there wasn’t much of my childhood I did remember, before about nine years old. The memories start suddenly at nine, like the beginning of a movie- the year the three of us, my brother, myself and our mom, went to Colorado to be near our grandparents for a while.

I was about to start fifth grade. I enjoyed making star-shaped dolls out of scraps of fabric, chasing the cat, and feeding rolls to the player piano in my grandparent’s parlor. My favorite foods were pizza, salad with ranch dressing, and canned olives. In the morning my Grandmother would comb my hair, clean the dirt from under my nails, and send me off to school, dressed in one of the outfits she had bought for me. She would also help me brush my teeth, which I had never done before. My mother was there, too, she had an apartment across town. It butted up against empty dirt lots and an irrigation ditch. There were lots of large, friendly insects there, that I could collect and play with- grasshoppers and praying mantises. I had a pink and grey ten-speed and a battery-powered radio I hung from the handlebars. I liked to make my hair into the tightest ponytail possible, and fasten it with a giant white bow-clip. We stayed for a year and then went back to Alaska- back to cold and dark and filth and decay.

Memories. This is what it’s like to have memories.

The time before my ninth year- is blank. I know we were in Alaska. But where did we live? Who knows. Did I have any friends? Beats me. What were my teachers like? What schools did I go to? What toys did I like to play with? I have no idea. The few memories I have are the stories I tell myself over and over, the out-of-context images like junk-store photographs, a few handfuls of paper I’ve pulled from the dumpster behind my brain, enough to fill a quarter-shoebox. I’ve gone over and over these images, again and again, and always it’s like I’m looking at someone else’s life. They are there but they are fading- they are worn from being held, losing true feeling like dried flowers fading on a windowsill. I can count them on my fingers-

1. I come home from camp (but what camp? Where? How old was I?), clutching a banana, and burst into tears. I liked camp, and don’t want to be home. At camp people were friendly and cared for me and gave me food. Distraught, I run upstairs to my room and hide. (My room was upstairs? Where did we live?)

2. My brother John and I, eating chunky peanut butter out of the jar with a fork. We keep the jar in the fridge. I hate peanut butter, but I’m very hungry.

3. I think we had furniture for a while- nice furniture like bunkbeds and toyboxes- and then we- didn’t?

4. A white apartment building. We’ve been evicted, we have to move again. I’m crawling around on the floor, sobbing, pretending my mother has died. It makes me incredibly sad to think my mother has died, and for some reason I often pretend she has. It makes me cry inconsolably. She’s asked us to “pack” our things, so I’m stuffing my toys (a doll? Some other stuff?) into black trash bags.

5. We get taco bell and wade in the creek. There are salmon in the creek, and long insects that live inside sticks.

6. Canned corned beef hash from the food bank. It sits in our cupboard, unopened. I am afraid of it.

7. Stealing other kids’ school lunches. Getting caught.

8. A pet bird. I think it died?

At 14, I stood in that storage unit, and looked down at the papers I’d found. I dropped them to the floor. I remembered next to nothing of my childhood, and now I knew why.

I kept digging, hoping to find some pictures I could take with me to Colorado. I was devastated to be leaving Alaska, everything I knew, and the close friends I had finally found. But the time had come to leave my mother. I was moving towards an age where my mother would become less of an abusive monster in my mind, and more of a human being with a horrible illness. I was moving towards an age where there would be distance between us. I was moving away. I was separating myself from her world and leaving to claim what was rightfully mine- a normal life. Four walls and a floor. Limits to the known universe. Order. Not that any of those things actually exist, but we have the right to look for them. And run from things that might destroy us.

And I was moving towards a place where someday, there would be forgiveness. A peace inside of me, black hate falling off like a broken rubber band. But not yet.

I used to tell people, “Yeah, my mom is crazy, but she is also a terrible person. And a real bad parent. An all around monster.” And maybe that’s true. But she’s also human. A human possessed, but nonetheless human. And stranger things have happened- like war, genocide, organized religion. In some ways my mom was just acting out one little piece of the world, passing on a little something she picked up somewhere- in school, in her genes. Wherever. She’d jumped off the diving board into the great Pool of Adulthood and hadn’t managed to learn to swim- she’d sifted all the way down to the bottom, along with pieces of scrap metal and cellophane from cigarette packs, had two kids along the way and woke up in a low income apartment complex, her hungry kids gone off to fend for themselves, hair knotted for lack of combing. And she DID wake up. She woke up for moments, for hours, for days. She stood up, she opened the windows, the pain and horror fell from her face. She could talk again. She could hear you when you spoke. She could fill out paperwork to keep the rent paid, she could clean the apartment so we wouldn’t be evicted- again. In these moments she was like a whirlwind- cleaning, shopping, making plans. No more hallucinations, no more violent psychosis. No more word salad.

In these moments it felt like I really had a parent. And it made my heart sing with joy. Because I loved her. And when she felt fear, I felt fear. And when she was awake, and would look down at me, and I could be close to her, it would seem like nothing had ever been wrong at all, and her manic optimism would assure me that nothing ever would be, again.

I found the photo album I had been looking for, a heavy padded book upholstered in green and white flowers. Inside were Xeroxed portraits of dead relatives, some school photos of John & I, and even a picture of my mom and I together- I looked to be about three and was balanced on her hip. She was smiling. Her teeth were huge. The photos were all out of order- stuck under the cellophane pages as if at random. Filed away by an amateur historian, a feeble attempt at making order from something that made no sense whatsoever.

I stepped out of the storage unit and pulled down the sliding metal door, hearing it rattle and meet with the cold concrete. The light inside clicked off, leaving me alone again, in the dark.

4 thoughts on “The young adult novel that was not my childhood

  1. Carrot, I wish your mom could have been the person I knew before she became ill! I love her too.

  2. Carrot,

    Thanks for writing all these stories. It wakes me up to hear how different other people’s lives have been.

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