I come from a long line of crazy women. When I was young, I thought all families were like mine. When I was old enough to spend time away from home, I began to recognize that my family was different. Long before I had the language to describe the ways in which the women in my family were shaping me, I observed the ways in which they affected each other. These mothers and daughters and aunts and sisters traveling together like a murmuration of starlings: a fluttering of bodies, moving separately but also as a single unit. Where one went, they all went. They shared a fierce loyalty, a deep and abiding love for one another, and the same wicked sense of humor. Some of my fondest memories are watching them together, at one kitchen table or another, smoking cigarettes, drinking iced tea and laughing the same contagious laugh.
I also remember watching as they tried to sooth their own hurts with the same faulty set of coping skills that had been failing them for years; each battling anxiety, depression, mania, self-harm and substance abuse. The thing is, I’ve seen movies, so I know that the 70s were a time when psychotherapy was fashionable. Not for us, though. During that time, my family stayed as dysfunctional as ever. In the early 80s, we all got “Born Again” into a kind of religious fanaticism with which I was previously unfamiliar. This experiment into religious fervor didn’t last forever but it did last long enough to leave me with a very complicated relationship with both Jesus and my mother. It would be years before I recognized that much of this behavior was born from generations of undiagnosed mental illness.
In every story, there are crucial moments that set the stage for what’s to come. Milestone moments, whether large or small, become foundation stones on which the rest of the story is built. One of my earliest memories is the one I think of as my, “This Is Who We Are!” moment. I sucked my thumb a lot longer than most children and this self-soothing habit was always accompanied by my beloved blanket, Silky. I carried it with me everywhere. One day, it simply disappeared. When I realized that Silky was missing, I was distraught. After school that day, my mother took me to the Piggly Wiggly near our apartment to buy groceries. Sitting in the front compartment of the shopping cart, I was tearful and clingy. Finally, without much fuss, my mother reached down the front of her skirt and pulled out her nylon slip. As we shopped, I happily sucked my thumb and held onto her slip, which was now hanging, quite obviously, from the top of her skirt waist. She didn’t scold me. She didn’t take that moment to teach me a lesson. She simply understood that I needed something and she gave it to me, in the only way she was able.
I could write a novel about all the ways my mother loves me but I would have to include all the ways we have failed each other. Like the other women in my family, we were not always equipped to be our best selves. In my twenties, I entered counseling, for the first time. It’s a bit funny to me now but, at the time, I honestly didn’t think I had a problem. I started counseling because I wanted to understand my family. When I made poor choices, I attributed them to learned behavior. When I felt out of control or paralyzed with fear, I blamed it on my familial experiences. I still saw myself as a product of my family’s broken parts. I didn’t yet understand that we are all made up of the same broken parts; the pieces that history leaves behind, after life has rubbed away the sharp edges.
It has taken many years for me to begin to understand my family, and also to understand my place in it. Some of us have entered therapy or treatment. Some haven’t. Some of us have a name for the things that live inside our heads. Some don’t. We’ve all moved forward and we kids, the siblings and cousins, are now the adults. Our stories, and the secrets we kept, have taken many years to process. There is something so fundamental about the ways in which we wrap ourselves around our own past; the ways we guard the tender parts with our own flesh and bone. I have kept these secrets for so long that I have taken them back into my body. They have become as organic a part of me as my own beating heart. My past has shaped me. It has informed my view of the world around me. From my mother, and the other crazy women who have loved me, I have learned that if you don’t have everything, you still have something. Every hurt doesn’t have to be a life lesson. Sometimes, you simply give what you have. It isn’t always enough but it doesn’t always have to be. That kind of generosity can be humbling and if you’re lucky, it can make you a better person.