Sunday, January 26, 2014

Choked

"I don't handle success well, but I handle adversity exceptionally well." —Bubba Sparxxx

I'm no big fan of Bubba Sparxxx or anything. In fact, I'd never heard of the guy until I listened to an interview with Bubba Sparxxx on Bullseye with Jesse Thorn a few days ago. But the statement above made me stop in my tracks (I was walking my dog while listening) to write it down.

It's poignant for sure, but it hit close to home, too.

"I Handle Adversity Exceptionally Well"
What Bubba Sparxxx said was in reply to his growing up a rural southerner, who later in life saw a moderate amount of money and fame, and subsequently lost it all. They guy has been up and down his whole life, and he manages the latter with more grace, I think was the point.

We can't resist the story of a celebrity who came from little to nothing, the self-made man, and I think we're even more intrigued by those who blow their wad and lose it all. The public and the media pounce on a celebrities' ability to fail at handling their own successes.

What hit close to home for me was the part about handling adversity exceptionally well. But I think the two are related. It's easy to treat success like it's nothing when the adversity was everything.

Adversity of Violence
I always imagined any success I might have as a writer would come from my adversity. I thought I'd write extensively about growing up poor in a violent household with a drug addict parent: my mother's second husband, who's now her ex-husband. I'll call him Macbeth.

The only brief yet accurate way to describe the period in my life when I lived with Macbeth, which was around seven or eight years all told (roughly age 9 to 16), is to say a lot of fucked-up shit went down.

Macbeth was unpredictably violent. He'd snap about seemingly nothing, like the cap on a two-liter bottle of Pepsi not being tight enough or being too tight, and he'd take out this rage on my mother, my sister, or me. My sister and I got the brunt for the petty stuff. My mother took her abuse over idiotic fears of jealousy. Either way, it was always about control.

Neck-grabbing, choking, or sometimes just being picked up by the neck and held against a wall for a few seconds were Macbeth's go-to punishments for me, and usually, they were what I was trying to avoid anytime I sensed trouble abrewing. When he picked me up by my neck, he'd simultaneously hold me up by my waistband with his other hand so as to not actually put my life in danger or leave any bruises. Those conciliatory actions, in addition to statements that would come hours later like, "You knew I wasn't really going to hurt you," kept us from squawking too much. The message was always, "Don't make a big deal out of nothing," "It's not that bad," "Other people have it so much worse than  you."

We'd also hear that old saying that would always came off as only a half joke, "I'll give you something to cry about."

Humiliation
Macbeth humiliated us with less violent acts, too. My sister once took too long a shower, so the next day, he forbade her from showering with the door closed. She was fully a teenager at the time. Sometimes he'd humiliate us for no god-damned reason at all. When I was 12 or 13 years old, he literally bit my ass, more than once. Another time he took off his belt, grabbed me by one arm, and said, "Let me show you what my father used to do to me," and then proceeded to smack me, not really all that hard, on the ass with his belt, while I struggled to get away and only went around in circles. I must have looked like a chained up donkey.

There was no point to most of these punishments other than to humiliate us and remind us who was in control. If I fought it while it was happening or said anything back, I'd probably end up in the choke position again, which again, was the number one thing I was trying to avoid. I'd put up with it for a few minutes and then be on my way to laying low on in my room.

Any money anywhere in the house disappeared. You could hide it in books, clothing drawers, tampon boxes, pockets, backpacks--anywhere--and it would disappear. He'd hide his own stashes of drugs in hollowed out nooks above the kitchen cupboards, beneath a floor panel under the couch, and even once in some part of my little sister's crib, according to my mother.

Anything of immediate cash value, like electronics, went missing, too. Macbeth himself would disappear for hours or days at a time, and we never knew when he returned if he'd be high and calm or red-faced with rage and painfully jonesing.

Choked
To give myself a whole lot of credit, I dealt with it extremely well. I knew it then, and I know it in hindsight. I had an exceptionally clear understanding of what was happening and how severe it was. I also knew that we would have put all our lives at risk if any of us had said the wrong thing at the wrong time. Child Protective Services interviewed me once, and it was easy enough to leave the impression that, sure, things weren't great, but I was making it through intact. I didn't want to ever be separated from my sisters and mother.

When my older sister and I moved out and left home (we graduated high school at the same time), my heart sank to think that I would be leaving my two little sisters behind. They were five and six years old. I didn't trust that my mother could protect them fully and completely without us because she was barely surviving herself. But at the same time, I knew I had to look out for myself and get the fuck away from that house. I had to trust that they'd figure out a way to leave. I had my chance to go, and I certainly wasn't going to blow it.

For my mom and sisters, it did end rather dramatically, with my mother jumping out of a two-story window and landing on the hood of her car, and driving to the police precinct in the middle of the night. She came back for her girls with the cops in tow, I think--I'm not clear on the details exactly.

I didn't even know she had escaped and was leaving him until well after the fact. I got a phone call from my older sister a few weeks later that went something like this:

"How are you holding up? Have you heard from mom lately?"

"What? What are you talking about?"

"Didn't grandma call you?"

"No."

"Ugh. I can't believe she didn't call. Grandma was supposed to tell you that mom and the girls are living with Bill and Laura..."

I cried hard that night, suddenly resentful and feeling selfish that I was 600 miles away in a dorm room in North Carolina. My suite-mate heard me, and after I got off the phone, she asked what had happened. She later told me she assumed someone in my family had died. I had to explain that it was a lot more complicated than that.

Shaped
Getting through those years undeniably shaped who I am. The clarity I had during the roughest time of my life is the "handling of adversity exceptionally well." I'm much more proud of that than anything else I have done. I cling to that pride more vehemently than the pride of another other "successful" moment.

Nothing I have ever done since has been "hard" in comparison. Nothing seems to mean as much. And to some extent, I don't take other "successes" totally seriously as a result.

People pay me to write about technology and my organizational skills. BFD. That stuff just isn't important. I love what I do for work, but if I stopped doing it today, it'd be no great loss to me or anyone else. It's just not important, and it's not worth too much seriousness.

I still think there might come a time when I write more seriously about the turmoil of living with a junkie, but at the same time, it's well behind me and I don't necessarily want to have to relive it again and again, the way I would if I were to, say, write a whole book about it. And I don't want to dredge up the past for all the other people involved who have long put it behind them, too.

It can be therapeutic, but only when I have the power to turn it off and stop talking about it when I choose.

1 comment:

Leigh Duffy said...

I wanted to share another point of view on this: "It's easy to treat success like it's nothing when the adversity was everything."
I remember recounting the "can't close the bathroom door" punishment to a therapist years later. I told her that not only was the door left open, but he'd come and go as he pleased and once even brought in his young son to use the toilet. She called it sexual abuse. I really didn't want to call it that and not because I was ashamed but because I didn't want to minimize the real abuse others fall victim to all the time. "It's not like he was staring or anyone was doing anything dirty." And she said something along the lines of "not looking away is doing something dirty."
Anyway, I wanted to share this memory because I don't think I'm good with adversity at all. I've downplayed this and many other incidents for years. To be fair, I am not good with success either, downplaying many since they are not as impressive as other's (ahem...) (so they're not real successes).

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