Behind Locked Doors

My brother was in high school now while I was back at the middle school.  We now had different school schedules, which meant I saw less of him.  The high school started earlier, plus he had to be out extra early for the bus.    However, there was one time every week that I could count on seeing him for an hour, and that was at family therapy.

My brother had done a little stint in the juvenile detention center the previous summer.   He and some friends took some things that they should not have, and in classic style, asked my brother to “hold the stuff” when they heard the sirens coming for them.  Five miles down the road, “Juvi” was not exactly a positive character shaper.   His sentence of three days had been completed with our agreement to see, as a family, a therapist connected to the juvenile detention center.

“Bob” was a heavy set man, graying at the temples, an African American who had clearly seen a lot in his days.  We would all assemble in his office, once a week or once every two weeks depending on the scheduling of my parents.  He would sit with a small steno pad and take notes.  My sister and I would sit together on one side.  My mother would sit nearest an ash tray; she smoked five or six cigarettes during each hour long session.  My brother and father were usually on the other side.

Bob would ask us questions.  He would ask my parents and my brother mostly questions and they would mumble out some answer.  Bob would write it down.  My sister and I mostly were silent unless asked something directly.  If therapy was supposed to mean talking, there wasn’t much going in these sessions.    The biggest points were that my father blamed my mother for my brother’s behaviors because she wasn’t around enough.  My mother blamed my father because she had to work to earn more money because he’d cut his level of financial support to us kids.  My brother blamed them both for not teaching him to better control his impulses.   Nobody was taking a lot of responsibility for the mess we were finding ourselves deeper and deeper these days.

It was finally suggested that as a temporary help to control my brother’s impulse control and remove temptation for him, we install combination locks on all of our bedroom doors.  My brother had been stealing cash from my mother’s purse and from us girls as well, so it was agreed that we would lock ourselves up until my brother’s therapy helped him learn the lessons that he blamed my parents for not teaching him.   I was relieved that I would be able to have a little more sense of security in my room, but realized that it was kind of nuts that we had to install locks to keep family members from stealing from us.

Family therapy was so divisive that we stopped visiting my father for overnight visits once we started therapy.   He started counting the hour long complaint filled sessions as his visitation, and we started to see less and less of him.  It was a classic case of negative reinforcement; every time he saw my sister, brother and I something negative happened, so he started seeing us less and less.  Ironically, it was at this critical time when we needed his presence more, not less.

We were standing right at the top of the slippery slope, and I could sense that the conditions were right for a quick trip down.

We All Need The Human Touch

It was easy to do.

It was easy to allow myself to slip down the slope of starstruck crush.   I knew it was happening and I allowed it.   Looking forward to listening to Rick Springfield’s music and gazing into his poster paper eyes for the meaning of life was a bright spot in those early fall days of 1983.   My little transistor radio from fourth grade had been replaced with a multifunctional clock radio, which I had embellished with glittery stickers in the way that only teenage girls can do.  I positioned the dial to WHYT and was often rewarded with the synthesized tones of Rick Springfield’s “Human Touch”, which was popular in that moment.

The song’s refrain, “We’re all scared and isolated in the modern world,” was just one of many that reached out and grabbed me and let me feel like I wasn’t alone in the world.  If this great looking man with the fantastic California life could write words like that, then he must be some kind of special person.  He loved his mum, lamented the loss of his dad, and I was quite sure that this guy didn’t have a brother who punched holes in the walls.

I started buying the teenage magazines to learn more about him (remember, this was in the days before Wikipedia); I saved my lunch money to get more and more copies of Bop and Tiger Beat.  Even the ones I could afford weren’t enough, so I employed a sneaky system of pulling out articles about Rick from other magazines and slipping them into the ones I would purchase.  I would end up with six or seven colored pin ups and posters with the purchase of one magazine if I did well.

I had my Panasonic tape recorder that I’d gotten for my birthday in 5th grade, and I added Rick’s breakthrough  “Working Class Dog” to my tape collection.  That was the one with his #1 hit song on it, but I was drawn more to the ones that never hit the radio, like a song that talked about seeing the scared little girl inside the woman he was interested in.  I loved that so many songs talked about seeing beyond the outward exterior of a person.  In the glory of my early teenage awkwardness, I took it as a sign that if I ever did meet this guy (and frankly, I figured it was destined, since it was so obvious that we were perfect for each other), he would be able to see deep inside me and know that I was special.  I didn’t really believe it myself but I was sure he would bring all of that specialness out of me.  Sure of it.

So I set up my walls with my pin ups, kept my radio on the right station, made a shrine on my dresser of all of my favorite memorabilia, and walked down the road of unrequited crush.  For now, it filled the hole that was being created by angry family therapy sessions, longer and longer stretches between visits from my father, violent outbursts from my brother,  and my own insecure processing of all of it.   I felt good about Rick instead of bad about myself when I listened to his music, and at that point…I was willing to make the trade.  Ironically, the “Human Touch” was what I was withdrawing from as I headed deeper and deeper into my fantasy world of Rick Springfield.

In Which I Give the C’s an A+

Music became a dominant force in my 8th grade year.

Some of it was by accident.  When I was scheduling for the year, I discovered that I could avoid gym class if I enrolled in choir as well as band in my last year of middle school.  Now don’t get me wrong, I loved music; I’d been playing my flute since 5th grade and I planned on continuing that indefinitely; I loved the feeling of creating music from silence, I loved the feel of the flute in my hands, I loved being a part of a disparate group of students from every walk of life coming together for the same thing.  We had a band teacher, Mr. Cardeccia,  who was on the young side but thoroughly devoted to what he did.   Plus, Mr. C.  was cool; even though he taught at our middle school, he was the director of the high school jazz band.  The high school jazz band was the coolest thing you could aspire to as a student musician.  I loved music.

But if I’m being honest, the reason I enrolled in choir during 8th grade was more about my fear of athletics than it was about any great love of singing.  I knew I wasn’t a great singer after my small part in the 5th grade musical, “Annie”.  My friend Kathleen had gone on to the middle school choir and sang solos at all of our concerts (normally the choir and band performed at the same shows, so I would see her).  I had a definite aversion to trying things I sensed I wouldn’t be good at, and it was coming into sharper focus by my thirteenth year.

I’d taken gym under total duress the previous year and hated it.  I never met any of the presidential benchmarks.  It might have been during my third attempt at serving in volleyball or the way the other students never passed me the ball during basketball, or the way neither of the gym teachers ever seemed to know who I was; regardless, it wasn’t my thing.  I was given a mortifying grade of B and lamented how it was killing my grade point average.

So I joined the choir.  The teacher was new that year, Mrs. Catanese.  She was youngish, and friendly.  Everyone seemed to like her.  I was ready to try and learn how to be a singer with her.  I knew I wasn’t naturally talented at this either, but I knew enough about music from playing it that I figured I could give it a shot.  My friend Dawn was employing the same strategy as me, so we were in class together.  This was unusual, because while Dawn was extremely bright, she hadn’t qualified for the gifted program I was in, so she was never in any of my core academic classes.

In Mrs. C I found a teacher eager to take a student who wanted to learn to sing, even though she didn’t have a lot of natural talent, and move her forward.  This was the exact opposite feeling I got from my previous gym teachers.  With them, I’d felt as if once they realized that I wasn’t naturally athletic, they were not interested in showing me that with hard work, anyone could gain a certain level of fitness.  I worked harder in choir because I sensed Mrs. C wanted me to do well and thought I could do it.   I didn’t notice the stark contrast at the time, but I knew that I’d definitely made the right choice in electives that year.

It is amazing what one person’s faith in you can motivate you to do.

Headaches and My Mother

My mother had a lot of headaches that year.  When we’d gone to Grand Rapids the year before for Christmas, my mother had spent nearly the entire four day sojourn in bed at my Aunt Maurine’s house asleep.  Everyone said it was a migraine.  It was scary to watch her helpless in bed like that.  I’d never seen an illness that could debilitate you for that amount of time and make you so incoherent.  I didn’t know how we would get home if she couldn’t even sit upright.

When we finally got home, my mother started seeing a chiropractor.  The doctor said that she was having compression on her discs, and he recommended traction for her.  I never really did catch up on what exactly was involved, but she came home with a contraption that she hung from her door, and it helped her be put in a position that helped her discs move back into proper place.  Also, from time to time, she asked me to walk on her back, which was an odd thing.  It seemed like that might hurt, not help, but she always seemed to feel better after I did it.  I was asked to do the job because of the three of us, I was the lightest.

My mother was also medicating a lot.  She would take little pink over the counter aspirins…Salernos or something like that.  Then she moved onto Excedrin.  I hated having those in the house, because when I had to take one for the occasional headache I would get, they were ridiculously hard to swallow.  Finally, my mother went across the Canadian border with some friends and bought some medicines that weren’t exactly legal in the United States.  I don’t exactly remember what they were, but they were likely something similar to Tylenol 3, a combination of an over the counter pain reliever and a more powerful prescription pain reliever.  I worried about the fact that she had to take the Excedrins at least every day, but at least it kept her upright.

Finally, after about a year of varying levels of discomfort, my mother seemed to feel better.  She wasn’t spending entire weekends in her bed, with us creeping around the townhouse like rats scurrying to find a quiet corner.  She kept up her visits to her chiropractor, and her weight continued to climb, but her headaches seemed more manageable.  I was glad.  It was bad enough to be worrying about our finances and whether my mother stayed out too late with her girlfriends, but taking care of my mother when she was sick was a role reversal that I wasn’t quite ready for at age 13.

Starstruck

It was the fall of 1983.  It was the early days of cable, microwaves, and leg warmers.   My mother was working downtown, so her arrival home on most nights was sometime around 8pm.  My brother was in and out; mostly out, to the relief of my sister and I.  My sister was getting ready for her first year of college and busy with her friends; they were either all over at our house, or all at one of the other friends’ house.

I started 8th grade that year.  I would normally come home from school and flip on the TV do have on while I did my homework on the sofa.  If it was earlier in the afternoon, I’d watch my sister’s soap operas; she’d already hooked me on them when she was around.  I was never home in time for Days of our Lives, but sometimes I’d catch the end of Another World.  Always, always, I’d be home in time to watch General Hospital.

It was a big scandal earlier in the year when Rick Springfield left General Hospital to concentrate on his music full time.  I’d watched him as Dr. Noah Drake, of course, and he was attractive and all of that.   But I also liked Tony Geary and Tristan Rogers just as much.

But one day, when I turned on MTV after GH was over, I saw Rick Springfield’s new video.  And suddenly, I was seeing Rick Springfield in a whole new light.  No longer was he the clean shaven, playboy turned doctor in a button down.  Here was a certifiable Bad Boy with a scruffy chin and tight jeans singing about S E X.  The song was called “Affair of the Heart”.    I was instantly smitten with this rock star.

I’d already owned some of his music; the Success Hasn’t Spoiled Me Yet record was in my collection, played from time to time on my Holly Hobbie turntable.  I pulled it out and started examining every photo, every groove on the vinyl until I couldn’t stand it any more.  I walked the next day to the Perry Drug Store around the corner, where they still sold vinyl records and now tape cassettes.  I plunked down $8.99 for the “Living In Oz” tape cassette and raced home.

Once I heard the song, “Souls”, in which Rick sings about finding his soul mate, a girl who he seemed to be talking about from the inside out and not about her hot looks or body, that was it.  I was full on INTO Rick Springfield.  His music spoke to me in a way that I likened to a boy paying attention to me at school, like he was singing purposefully just to me.  All I needed to do was turn on the radio, or the TV, and I could fly, soaring on the belief that this man was there for me.

I know it sounds crazy now, but back then?  Back then it gave me a reason to smile, and I leapt towards the chance.

Girl Stuff

I was spending the night at my friend Dawn’s house when it happened.  Finally, when it happened.

Like I’ve said before, no one in my house was talking to me about my body changing, and as 11 blended into 12 and as 12 blended towards 13, I was really beginning to wonder when it would all kick in.

My friend Dawn got her period at age ten.  The boobs followed shortly thereafter.  And she was prepared for it.  Her parents were the kind that used the real terms for every body part right off the bat, so much so that apparently when she was four or five and saw a pregnant lady, she asked her when the baby would be coming out of her “bagina”.

No one was talking to me, though, so I’d ride my bike the three or four miles to the public library across town to spend hours in the Health and Lifestyle section figuring out what exactly was going to happen to me and when.    I coerced my mother to buy me some training bras;  I think she actually sent my older sister to do the deed with me.

I read magazines at the library too, going through Seventeen magazine trying to decide if I was going to use pads or tampons.  There was a new kind of tampon that was being advertised that was perfect for young girls (aka “virgins”).  I knew my sister never used them, but I was sold on tampons.  As a very insecure person to start with, I couldn’t imagine the horrible embarassment that could possibly come from having dribbles and leaks off of your pad.  Plus, everything I read talked about Odor.  What if I smelled like blood when I had my period?  The many avenues to mortification all seemed related to the blood escaping my body.  Tampons seemed like they just made sense.

So, I was ready.  Friend after friend started menstruating, but I seemed hopelessly behind.  I knew that it could happen as late as fifteen, but as my 13th birthday approached, I was starting to worry.  I laid in my supply of Light Tampax, pads (for the night, since Toxic Shock Syndrome was in the news then) and waited.

I was at Dawn’s house when it finally happened.  I woke up before her and was waiting for her to wake up before going to use the bathroom.  It always felt weird to be up in someone else’s house before them or their parents, even though everyone knew I was an early riser.  As I waited, I realized that it felt a little wet “down there”.  I worried that perhaps I’d had an accident.  I lifted the blanket, looked down and realized.

It Had Started.

I woke my friend, who was all congratulatory glee.

Looking back on it, it was a good thing that it started then.  Dawn talked me through the tampon explicitly and without shame, unlike anyone in my own home would have been able to do.  I was a woman.  Finally.  Just in time for the start of 8th grade.

Try, Try Again

I was always looking for the quick fix.  Who isn’t, I guess.

Since I’d figured out that stealing stuff wasn’t going to make me cool or hip in the eyes of my peers (to be fair, I was swiping Smurf figurines and Barbie furniture as a seventh grader, instead of makeup and leg warmers), plus it was a little scary to be wondering If This Was The Time I’d Get Caught each time I did it, I decided there had to be something else I could do to fit in with the kids at school.  I wasn’t going to dumb myself down for attention; I liked being smart and the feeling of accomplishment I got from being right or first.  Besides, there were plenty of smart, cool kids.  A bunch of them were in classes with me.

I thought at first it had to be my family situation; everyone at school knew there was something going on with my brother, though they weren’t sure what.  We couldn’t be more different, more distant, and it was no secret he’d had that unexplained six week long absence the year before.  But there were plenty of kids whose parents weren’t together (maybe none of them had a gay father but it wasn’t like anyone actually knew that about me).  What WAS it about me that kept me on the outside looking in?

I decided it had to be my weight.  I’d always been on the thicker side of normal, but I did balloon into chubby preteen awkwardness around the time we’d moved.  Still, most of that was gone as my height finally started to kick in; I was still short, but not crazy short.  Even though I’d slimmed out some, the mindset of being the chubby girl with glasses was firmly with me, and I figured I’d solve the problem with contact lenses and a diet.

My mother wasn’t about to let me get contacts until her prescribed moment of readiness:  age 14.  I was stuck with the glasses for a while yet, but I could do something about the weight.  Weight was all we talked about at home anyway; my mother had gained a fair amount of weight since her divorce, and my sister wasn’t stick thin either.  Lean Cuisines and microwaves were starting to be popular, as was the Grapefruit Diet and the Cabbage Soup Diet.

I had an easier solution:  anorexia.  I read books about it, watched after school specials and figured that I’d just try it on for size until I could get my weight to a place where I could be wearing 1/2s instead of 5/6s.  And let me say that I KNOW that this is being written very lightly, and understand that I don’t take anorexia lightly; I know it is a real disorder that is serious and affects many.  I get that.  I do.

That being said, I was a complete and utter failure at it.  I couldn’t make it happen.   I really did have the perfect setup for it; there was very little supervision for me at home, no regular meal times, no one paying attention to my eating habits whatsoever.  I could have totally slipped through the cracks and had a real problem.   I got so HUNGRY, I couldn’t stand it.   I hated the feeling, I couldn’t fight against it.  I tried drinking water to stave it off, I tried eating just one small bit of something to stave it off.  Nothing worked.   I ended up eating and eating to fill the emptiness that I’d created, literally as much as figuratively.

Then I figured, I’d try bulimia on for size.  (Same caveat as before, I know it’s real and I’m not being flip).  Except that I have really, really small hands, and never could reach down far enough in my throat to trigger the gag reflex.  So then I tried my toothbrush.  I still couldn’t make it happen.  Finally, I figured out that ipecac syrup was vomit inducing, so I tried that.  But again, I couldn’t stand it.  I couldn’t stand the feeling that came from the syrup and my stomach churning before the vomit happened.  I was a hopeless loser at bulimia, too.

I finally gave up.  I gave in to the fact that I was going to be a little heavier than my friends, and lived with it.  I wasn’t happy and my self esteem hovered just above the waterline for most of my 8th grade year, but I accepted that I wasn’t going to lose weight.  Instead, later that year, I started writing about a fictional character who was able to succeed in losing weight because of anorexia.  In the story, not only did she become thin, but everyone noticed and felt horrible for not realizing how miserable she was.

My story was similar, except for that I didn’t lose weight, and no one noticed.

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