On the day after my graduation, my mother sent me a text message.
How did graduation go?
Last August they’d asked me if I was going to graduate that spring. I said I didn’t know, and that was true. The last they’d heard, I wasn’t graduating until 2018.
I figured out I could graduate in May. I wasn’t going to tell them, though.
To be perfectly honest, I did not want them to know.
I did not want them to be at commencement. It had been bad enough dealing with them at my brother’s. Me dressed in my suit and tie and the spare (that’s what I called my second-oldest brother) running up to me smirking. “Who are you and what did you do with our sister?”
I’d almost hoped they wouldn’t recognize me.
Things had only gotten worse since then. That last Christmas in a house full of animosity where I texted my brother get me out of here. The following Christmas they didn’t even ask if I was coming to visit. They sent me safe gifts, most of which I donated. I didn’t even eat the chocolate they sent me, instead giving it to my roommate’s boyfriend.
That Spring Break I planned a visit, mostly because I wanted to see the cats and my younger brother. I asked one of my best friends to come with me; he was excited to see the cats. Once the day rolled around, though, I panicked, and shamefacedly told him I was not able to try and see the cats, after all. We went to a park instead, and then walked around town; my fear was such that we had him walk between me and the window of the bookstore where the spare worked.
A year before my graduation I made the mistake of visiting them on Mother’s Day. I was only there to see my little brother in a show; I had no desire to see the others. I’d hoped to pick a day they would not be coming. But of course the only day we could go was they day they were going.
My mother wouldn’t even let me talk alone with my little brother, instead encroaching on us every time we tried to separate from the family. The older brother and I managed to get the younger one into the car with us when we drove to Old Mexico for lunch. We talked freely then, but the whole time feared the subversive backlash. Anything we said during that short trip could, if repeated, be used against us. The mere fact that it was the three rebel children riding together was enough to earn us cold shoulders, snide comments, and another log in the fire of suspicion that built and built, steadily smothering possibilities of future times spent together.
We met up at the restaurant, miraculously receiving only a few sharp glares as we rejoined the group. At the table, my little brother sat next to the oldest one. I let them have that; they didn’t talk as much as we did. But of course, then, I was sitting across from the mother.
She would not stop talking. I would not look at her. She mocked me openly when I did not respond submissively and sweetly. I was far from submissive. She asked me how my cat was doing.
I showed her pictures of Callie, but let out some remark that I was surprised she cared enough to ask about her.
“She’s your cat, of course I want to see her.”
“You didn’t seem very interested in helping me get her,” I said.
The mother became defensive. “Well, you have her, so does it matter?”
“It matters to me. I want to know why you didn’t help me.” I’d asked her to be my reference for the adoption application; I was loathe to ask favors, but she knew how good I was with the animals. She’d refused, saying she felt she would be betraying the cats that lived at the house.
“I didn’t want to hurt Kitty’s feelings,” the mother said. “She loves you so much.”
“She won’t have any idea I have another cat. You wouldn’t let me take Kitty. Of course I had to get another cat.”
“But you got one without my help,” she said. “I don’t understand why you’re so upset.”
“I’m upset because you didn’t care about helping me. You decided not to do something that was really important to me. You decided it was more important for you to say no to me than it was for you to help me.”
She sputtered for a few seconds. “Why are you so upset about this?”
“Why was it more important to say no than to help me?” I shot back.
The entire family was watching us. Staring. I was afraid my father was going to interject angrily, but no one said a word.
They were too afraid.
I don’t quite remember but I’m pretty sure no one hugged me before we left. Except maybe the younger brother. We stayed in the garage playing with the cats and talking about the play. I was so anxious I was shaking the entire time. As much as I wanted to see my cats, I wanted to get out of there more. I wanted the older brother to stop chilling with the fam and get me out of there.
Originally, my then-girlfriend was going to come with us. A few days before, however, she’d gently broken up with me. In the end, it was better. I couldn’t imagine the shitshow that may have resulted from me bringing a girl as my date. When I’d emailed them to let them know she was coming, there had been no reply. No one asked why she wasn’t there until halfway into lunch.
That was the last time I set foot on their property.
The last time I entered that vicinity I stayed in the car. My roommate was taking me to see my little brother, and we were going to visit a park in the area and hang out. It had taken weeks just to plan the visit and get the parents to agree to it. The emotional distress that went into bargaining with an abusive family through my guiltless younger brother felt like torture. Some days I just cried over the fact that it shouldn’t have been like this. It shouldn’t be so hard just to see my brother. He was 18; he shouldn’t be controlled by his parents so severely, even if he did live in their house.
Families shouldn’t be so fucked up that it takes subversion and flat-out lying to get them to agree to a visit between two legal, adult siblings.
The night before the visit I slept on the couch, something I did when I was really stressed and anxious. I had nightmares about being trapped in that house. I’d been having a lot of them lately. There was panic at the thought of once again being trapped under their control. Often the dreams involved me staring out my old bedroom window, wondering how hard it would be to climb down or how quickly one of my friends would be able to come rescue me.
That morning I woke up crying and texted my roommate I can’t do this. I was terrified of going back there. My panic was such that I illogically believed simply driving to that house was enough for it to suck me in and never let me go.
My roommate came into the living room to talk me down. She told me that if I really didn’t want to go, she wouldn’t make me. But she didn’t want my brother to be disappointed, and she didn’t want me to regret not going after putting so much work into making this happen.
“I’m not going to let them do anything to you. I’ll face them off myself if I have to. But I promise nothing bad is going to happen.”
I listened, and we took the trip. I texted my brother when we were five minutes away telling him to wait for us in the driveway, not wanting to spend any more time by that house than we needed to. I didn’t even want to step out of the car. I was hoping we could grab him and drive off before either of the parents saw us and came over. As we pulled in I saw my brother with his shoulder bag, standing by the front steps. I motioned him to come over. I saw the mother coming, seemingly out of nowhere. I felt the panic rising again and willed my brother to walk faster. As he got in the car, my mother knocked on the window. My roommate cast me an apologetic glance as she rolled the window down.
“Hi,” the mother said.
I think I may have nodded, or said the word back.
She asked me how I was. I responded vaguely. I said something about the garden. I can’t remember. All I remember is making sure I cut it off as soon as possible and my brother telling me that one of my comments would make her happy. That helped me relax, just a little bit.
The visit was great; I hadn’t seen him since the performance. We went hiking, took pictures, shared stories, and went out to eat. The ending was marred with him mentioning that he felt it necessary to come up with proof that he was not blindly following in my footsteps. To come home commenting that something about the visit was off, so the parents could walk away assured that he was not too attached to me. He’d already lied to them about not talking to me. Apparently, the mother hawked over his shoulder sometimes when he was on the computer. Most of the time he had to message me from his tablet in his bedroom with the door closed. When he wanted to call me, he usually went into the garage.
When we went out to eat with him I ordered a frozen margarita. We decided to tell them that I’d asked him to take a drink of the margarita and he refused. Make it as if I pressured him and he warded me off, because it was that important for the parents to see him pushing me away. They would never stop considering me a bad influence. There was no redeeming me in their minds. We had long since given up on that. The only thing to do was fabricate scenarios that would make them feel better about him.
There was little contact for a while after that. Occasionally my mother sent me texts. The only time I responded was when she mentioned Fannie Flagg had a new book out. The two of us had had something of a book club while we both read Fannie Flagg’s books; I couldn’t help but ask more about it. All of a sudden, I missed our friendship so much I felt willing to try again.
I kept my distance, though, and continued my silence. Going back was too painful. I had such little faith that anything was going to repair what was left of our relationship.
I didn’t tell them about the name change. I was waiting until it happened, until most of my documents were switched over and they couldn’t do anything about it. The night before my hearing, my mother texted me How’s it going? I felt exposed, as if she somehow knew everything. I didn’t reply. I panicked, hyperventilating and considering self-harm. I managed to stave myself. I slept on the couch that night, too.
My name change was successfully legalized. I was talking to my counselor about when and how I should tell them about the change. She recommended I wait until things were relatively smooth between us before breaking it to them.
“Are you going to tell them about your gender, too?” she asked. “They’re kind of intertwined, and they may ask why you changed it.”
“I don’t know.” Part of me wanted to come out; maybe the huge reveal would give me a bridge back in, or maybe they would be so outraged they would disown me entirely. The most likely reaction was that they would pass it off as nonsense, not replying and assuming I was once again looking for attention. To be a special snowflake, like I was trying to when I told them I had depression and anxiety, or that I was gay.
Part of me wanted to just get it out and over with. The other part felt they did not even deserve to know.
I steeled myself and waited for that moment we’d talked about in counseling. Around the time I was preparing myself to come out to them, I became embroiled in a fierce argument with my father about how I was going to file my taxes. On top of his refusal to let me file my own exemption, they’d neglected to tell me that I’d been taken off the family insurance. Thanks to that, my prescription had been delayed almost two weeks, causing me to miss days of medication. Then for three months I was not insured, and had to dish out more than 80 dollars to pay for my pills. I could barely afford it; I ended up skipping an entire script to avoid the charge. Even though I tried to phase myself off slowly, the withdrawal symptoms left me constantly exhausted and even more disorientated than usual. Just as the withdrawals reached their peak, my new insurance finally kicked in. As I phased myself back into the medication, withdrawal symptoms mixed with reuptake symptoms, leaving me miserable for several weeks.
If I’d known about the insurance earlier, the whole ordeal would have been avoided.
In addition to the medication problems, I now had to spend hours battling my father about the taxes. It very nearly turned into a legal altercation, as my father insisted on claiming me as a dependent. I stressed to him that it simply was not legal for him to claim me. He denied this; his oppressive insistence, along with intimidating voicemails I refused to return, caused me to question myself again and again. I spent hours on the phone with the IRS, and hours on hold; I filled out pages of paperwork to reconcile my father’s fuckups. I was frequently in tears. I skipped classes to do the work or have nervous breakdowns.
This went on for months.
I did not tell them about my name.
Even as I told my friends, professors, and counselor these stories, they continued to question my decision not to invite my parents to my graduation. Once again I questioned myself; once again I spent hours deliberating over my choices.
My older brother and I tried to plot to get my little brother to my graduation without letting the parents know that’s where he was. We crafted an elaborate pretense that fell apart when the parents simply were not interested in letting him go. To top it off, they refused to pick up my brother at the train station when he’d planned to visit.
My older brother was at my graduation, though I didn’t want to see him. My little brother was not. My parents were not.
But the day after my graduation, I received a text from my mother.
How did graduation go?
They’d known the entire time. They wouldn’t have come if I asked them. They simply did not care.
The emotional turmoil I’d gone through on their account had almost killed me, as I once again visited the treatment center when I was planning suicide during these altercations. And they hadn’t even wanted to come.
Out of all this, though, came my freedom. I’m on my own health care plan; I’m independent from them on my taxes. They have no access to any of my legal accounts and documents, as the name they have me under no longer exists. They don’t know where I live or work. They don’t know my role in my community or my status as a queer person. They no longer hold power over me. The only thing I need to do is protect myself emotionally.
But they have no power over me, and it finally feels like I can breathe.
Every year at Halloween I would go as a witch. I’m not sure exactly how the tradition started—it was probably just something cute my mom came up with. Or maybe it was because even then they all secretly thought of me as a bitch. Maybe it was some prediction for how I was supposed to turn out later in life. Or maybe it was just because they finally had a girl—“girl”—and wanted to latch onto gender roles as soon as possible. While my brothers ran around in bedsheets and Ninja Turtle masks and the dragon costumes that I occasionally stole to wear as pajamas, every Halloween I eagerly donned my black dress, striped tights and floppy fake-satin hat. I clutched my purple broom in one hand and my bag of candy in the other and skipped through town, confident that I was the cutest girl anyone had seen that night.
After I while I wised up and realized the only one who cared how I looked was my mother.
When the youngest of us turned twelve we stopped going trick-or-treating, my family still made a pretty big production of dressing up to have dinner on Halloween. I got older too. Wiser even. One year I went as a witch with jeans. That happened to be the year I didn’t give a shit about making anyone happy on Halloween. I really was a witch that night, if you believe my mom. I let myself be snarky and didn’t monitor every single little thing that came out of my mouth. I played the games my little brother invented for us that were supposed to be Halloween themed and let myself be a sore loser and say out loud if I thought my brothers were cheating. I sat sprawled on the floor and threw my hat on one of the chairs. I didn’t even bring out the broom that night but left it hanging, draped in fake cobwebs, by the fireplace.
My family was apparently scandalized at my newfound autonomy. They were shocked that I was not letting everyone walk all over me, as I had done for the past, what was it then, eighteen years?
That winter was the winter my Dad said without hesitation in front of my little brother that I was the most self-centered person he knew.
I did not want to spend another Halloween at that man’s house.
Counselling told me to try again. To make an effort (as if I hadn’t for the past two years I’d been at college). So I tried. I faked happy. I put away the witch costume but that doesn’t mean I changed their perceptions. To them this was a costume. This person. This face. This suddenly-okay sibling. Suddenly interested in what the others were doing. Suddenly not getting into arguments with the father figure every meal.
When that didn’t work I put on another kind of costume. I was as gay as I felt like I could be. I dressed in loose baggy clothes and didn’t take my hat or shoes off inside. I wore rainbow bracelets and scarves. Some days I amped up the jewelry and other days I went around in jeans and a hoodie. I sat on tables and yakked about myself. If they didn’t want to talk to me, I’d talk to them. I chattered nonstop. I made gay jokes. I made romantic, very non-heteronormative comments about female celebrities. I corrected pronoun usage and added endless strings of what-ifs to discussions.
They really hated that.
So I went back to being quiet. Put on the costume of the broody twenty-something. It wasn’t that hard as it was right around my first breakup so I told myself that was my excuse. But less and less I considered that place home. Less and less I wanted to go back. More and more I looked for reasons to not be there on Halloween, which was coming up, and which was normally the only occasion I felt okay spending with my family.
But my little brother was so excited about his costume, and all of his cool ideas for our family-only party. I thought maybe it was worth a shot. Maybe I’d have fun. Maybe it would turn out okay in the end.
He wanted to dye his hair blue, since mine was purple. I wanted us to be hair dye buddies. He was working through his own identity crisis at the time, so maybe sharing a piece of a costume would strengthen our bond.
But of course any similarity to the rebel older sibling was a symptom of my negative influence. My mom quickly intervened and temporary hair chalk was used instead. They did it before I came. I brought a bottle of blue Manic Panic I’d purchased especially for the occasion, excited at the idea of a bonding experience with my favorite sibling. My mom flipped shit, yelling at me about cosmetics and cancer, how could I be so insensitive after Uncle John’s three golf-ball-sized brain tumors, she didn’t care if I’d been dying my hair for months, I could get cancer if I wanted—she didn’t care about that—but how dare I bring it into her house—how dare I threaten her family.
Once again I avoided my little brother’s eyes bulging in astonishment, mumbling at him not to retaliate as I bent my head to my mother’s verbal abuse. With my mother acting as a gargoyle over my shoulder I looked up each individual ingredient to see if they were cancer-causing. After finding them all to be FDA approved my mother sniffed and walked away without a word. I looked to my brother, who shrugged, and said his costume would be okay with just the chalk. Besides, he had rehearsal in the morning. He wasn’t sure how his director would feel about a blue-haired news reporter.
I steadied myself and turned my attention to my own costume. I was going to be Watson. Dr. John Watson, from Doyle’s classics, moustache and all. I blew up snapchat with costume selfies. The hat. The coat. My parents didn’t even flinch at the fake moustache. I was pretty proud of myself.
I never wanted to be a witch again.
Dr. Watson lived for maybe an hour before I had to take him off to cook. My beloved doctor demolished by gender roles. So much for my newfound freedom; so much for sticking the finger to everything Halloween had stood for until this point.
I was a girl again and had to do what girls are supposed to do. I may as well have been wearing the floppy hat and clutching the broom, red-faced and chubby-cheeked, following my mother like a clueless duckling waiting to fall into the water.
My parents sent me a package for Christmas.
I deleted the text my mom sent me telling me about it and tried to forget. It came a few days later. There was a box and a padded envelope. I took them to my apartment. I felt so angry holding them. And at the same time I felt guilty. I felt real shame. That here was a set of parents sending me gifts when I hadn’t sent them anything. Parents who were willing to give me things while I was planning to separate myself from them for good.
I dropped them on the floor and walked away to take off my jacket and boots. I considered leaving them untouched. Seeing that name on the address label—the name they still called me, probably always would—the name I thought I wouldn’t have to think about, the name that shouldn’t have belonged to me anymore if things had gone right. I walked back and ripped open the envelope. Inside was a money pouch decorated with passport photos of other countries. I opened it, thinking that maybe they’d left me some cash inside. But they hadn’t. Of course not.
I opened the box. A bunch of wrapped gifts lay inside. I took the top one out, noticing the tissue paper and ribbons that my favorite gift shop always used. The thought just made me angry. I wasn’t thinking in pictures but feeling in memories when the flashbacks came. All the times I’d gone in there buying things, shopping with my parents. The time I went in with my friend who came to visit me over break because I was panicking in the house for the four weeks I was forced to stay with them. The time years before when I went in with my mom to buy a present for my dad, and when I snapped at her just a little she threw the gift back at me and stormed out the door like a wounded high school mean girl. The times I’d walk in by myself when I was let out of work early to avoid going back to the house.
I put the gifts back in the box and shoved everything into my room, which was already littered with dirty laundry and leftovers from the semester. They stayed there for a while. Thinking about them made me angry. And also guilty. I felt so ashamed that I was begrudging gifts from my family. Didn’t that mean they still thought about me? That they actually did care? How ungrateful was I to want to remove myself from that? I thought back about the things they’d done. And they times it seemed like they might have loved me.
Maybe I was wrong. Maybe the abuse was all in my head. Maybe I was just an ungrateful, naïve, attention-seeking nobody influenced by a few books and opinions.
A conversation with a friend reminded me of the things my parents would love me to forget.
When they told me not to tell anyone I was gay, and forced me to cut off contact with the support group I was talking with.
When my father berated me for writing a letter to the governor advocating for environmentally friendly policies.
All the times my mother shamed me for embarrassing her in public—scolded me, shunned me, for things like forgetting my phone number when ordering a book and being too busy to help my brother when we were volunteering at a theater. For asking for rides to work and my internship. For asking my little brother if he needed help with his math homework.
I remembered my father standing in the kitchen facing me and my little brother and saying “I can’t believe you would be influenced by the most selfish person I know” and turning to stare me full in the face because that person was me.
All the times my parents locked themselves in their room or the office for hours and hours each day and how many days we went seeing them only at meals.
The passive-aggression surrounding each individual chore in the house, the tension and fear when doing them was wrong and not doing them was worse. How helping without being asked was something to be ashamed of because the smallest thing would be done wrong and nothing was worth being thanked for; but how waiting to be asked just showed how ungrateful, spoiled and entitled we were as children. The genuine anxiety that went into every load of dishes and every basket of laundry.
The hearts pounding because you never knew if the silence from the parents was because of something you did that they’re just not going to mention. The whispered conversations behind slammed doors.
My mom ranting about me to her mother on the phone every Sunday; the unsettling number of times she vented to me about my dad’s parents, pitting me against them and him, even when the family took the thirteen hour drive to visit them. She always found time to pull me away and tell me all the awful things about my dad’s family. How it all rubbed off on him, how much she hated him. And how much I should hate my oldest brother for being like him. And yet despite that demanding I be sweet to his face, thank him for each tiny service as if it wasn’t his obligation as a parent to provide for us. She micro-managed my every interaction, told me who to be at every turn, yet still found reasons to blame me for everything that went wrong.
The tone in my father’s voice when he accused me of using feminism to promote my gay agenda. His refusal to talk about my sexuality or my two relationships with women. His voice when he called me to yell at me about my email telling them I’d started taking medication. Asking about every detail of my life, insisting my illnesses were all in my head, that I was stupid and naïve for believing the doctor when he prescribed the medication. Demanding to know why I never told them anything anymore. I retaliated. “Do you really think I feel safe with you after how you handled my coming out?” He denied saying the things that he did. I remember him saying them. That he didn’t believe I had a right to get married, that if I was gay I could never have my own family. That most gay people were bad and flaunted their sexuality. That night on the phone I threw statistics at him about transgender suicide and homeless LGBTQ youth. “But none of that is you,” he told me. “You’re choosing to be oppressed.”
Throughout the next few days I opened the presents one by one. A jar of coconut oil. A stick of lip balm. A book about opera. A pair of thick striped socks. I left them lying in my room. They were all things I needed or liked. I felt so ashamed. It meant they knew me. They knew what I wanted.
But then I realized they never bothered to ask what I needed.
They sent me a money bag as if that made up for all the times they refused to give me money. They gave me lip balm as if that would heal the wounds left by their words. They sent me coconut oil not knowing I’d bought one earlier that week with the groceries that ate the last of my paycheck. They gave me socks as if that was the only comfort they cared to provide after twenty one years of abuse.
The gifts they gave me were safe gifts. They were the things I always wanted, the things I would never say no to. They came from stock facts about me. That I like to cook, I like opera, I like cool socks. Things they always knew. That almost everyone who knows me knows.
They never bothered to ask me what I wanted. And they keep refusing to give me what I need.
I’m not going to feel ashamed because of that. I’m not ungrateful. I’m not selfish. I’m not naïve.
I’m more of a person than they ever let me be.
I don’t have to like their gifts. I don’t have to be grateful for them. I don’t have to be guilty I didn’t get them anything. I don’t owe them anything for pretending they know me.
In the end the most liberating thing for me is how wrong they both are. My dad said I would never have a family of my own. My mom told me I’d never know what it was like to feel the unconditional love towards a child. But it’s the other way around.
I have a family now that’s more real than mine with them ever was. A family of people who love and support me for real and who know what I need and ask me what I want.
And I know the unconditional love towards a child. I feel that for every kid I’ve ever worked with. The fierce desire to protect. The patience to work through their most trying moments. The energy to see them day after day and always bring a smile to the table no matter how hard my day has been. The sadness when they walk away without saying goodbye. The comfort of knowing that no matter what happens, the love we shared will never, ever go away.
I almost feel sorry for my mom. She doesn’t get the comfort of knowing that. She blew it with me. And she doesn’t get to see the joy in my kids’ faces when they run up to me squealing my name. And she’ll never feel the swell of joy I get when I know how much I mean to them. And they’re not even my own children. I can’t wait until I have some of my own.
My parents didn’t send me those gifts because they cared. They sent them because it was an easy thing to do. They want to reel me back in. A consolation prize. And that’s exactly what abusers do.
It’s been a year since I set foot in that house and I’m never going back.