This is an essay draft I’m submitting to workshop for Writing 201. The final version will go in the #1000speak link up either this month or next.
It takes me about half an hour to work up the courage to go into the kitchen. My parents and some of the other adults are at the table, smoking cigarettes and bantering in loud voices. I I’m 7 years old, and I hate interrupting. I’m always afraid that someone is going to be angry or that I’m just “a pest.” I work my way through the living room and linger in the doorway, heart pounding. Finally, I sucked in a deep breath and force myself over to the kitchen table.
Why am I nervous anyway? Why can’t I just ask for what I want? People do that all the time. But I can’t. I stay there, watching and listening for a lull and trying to make myself speak. A few times, I open my mouth and shut it again.
After a few minutes, I put my hand on my father’s arm.
I open my mouth again, whisper a question.
“Why are you whispering?”
I stare at the table, swallowed hard, and whisper again, “I don’t know.”
“Why can’t you talk like everybody else? You don’t have trouble when you’re playing with the other kids.”
“She’s only doing that for attention,” my aunt chimes in.
My face burns with shame. The last thing I want is attention. I just want to crawl away and hide. I wish I never had to talk to anyone.
“You gotta start speaking up for yourself. You think you’re going to get through life like that? People ain’t gonna put up with that like we do at home,” says my father.
I don’t answer him. What can I possibly say?
I try to force my throat not to tighten up.
“Oh, here goes the crying act,” my mother sighs.
“What did you want?” My father asks.
Whatever it was, I’m so mortified that I can’t remember anymore. I just want to get away. My palms are slick with sweat, and I’m having a hard time keeping a grip on the edge of the table, but if I let go, they’ll see my hands shaking.
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know,” he scoffs.
“What did you come in here for?” my aunt demands. “You came all the way in here for something.”
“I don’t know,” I whisper.
“How come it’s always ‘I don’t know,’ with you? Do you know anything?”
“I know George Washington was the first president of the United States” I say.
The adults all stop and look at each other. I’m not sure what I’ve said wrong now. I guess that’s not the answer they were looking for. It was the first thing I could think of.
I’d learned about Washington and several other figures from early American history from Bugs Bunny. Then I took myself to the school library to read more about George Washington.
“Now, see?” My aunt says. “You’re smart, you know, Rose. If you spoke up for yourself instead of mousing around and whispering, you’d get somewhere.”
I’m trying. I’m trying so hard, and no matter what I do, I get yelled at.
“Now what are you crying for? Get on out of here. Go play, you’re fine.”
“It’s time to get up.”
My mother flicks on the bedroom light, and I squeeze my eyes shut. Once my eyes adjust, I can see a trail of frost in the air as I breathe. I steel myself for the cold and I move my blankets out of the way. She’s waiting, so I go through the motions of dragging myself into a sitting position. She waits until my legs out of the bed and then shuts the door. As soon as she’s gone, I huddle back under the covers and curl myself into a shivering ball.
Our apartment doesn’t have central heating. There’s no heat in my room, and my father doesn’t like me to leave the door open.
It’s so cold.
Get up, I tell myself. You have 2 hours. You could get some homework done if you just got up.
I haven’t done my social studies homework in weeks. In Junior High, it’s easy to slide through without doing work. Normally, I wouldn’t do that. But I don’t understand these assignments. I’ve tried to ask the teacher for help so many times, but I can’t bring myself to go up to him in a room full of other students.
Twice, I’ve tried to go after class. He was alone in the room both times. I got as far as the doorway and froze.
The man’s always yelling and belittling the students. He’s never come after me because I’ve always been the “good” student.
The one thing I have, the one thing nobody belittles me over is my intelligence. Admitting that I can’t do homework feels like surrendering my entire identity.
So I HAVE to get up and do the homework. I have to figure it out!
But I lay there.
Just get up. Why can’t you get the fuck up? It’s not that hard.
I dig into my soul, scraping at the bottom for some motivation to move, but my body aches, my limbs are heavy, I’m so tired, and it’s so cold.
I close my eyes and float. Not sleeping, not awake. Aware but apart from the world.
I rarely sleep. I spend hours or days floating like this, drifting in and out of my head.
My whole life I’ve had people yelling at me to try harder, do more, be more, and I don’t want to anymore.
I’m so tired of trying. I just want to lay here. I just want to be warm. I just want to drift.
This is depression but I don’t know that yet. All I know is that I’m terrified that someone will find out. They’ll think I’m lazy. Maybe I am lazy, but the thought fills me with shame. How can I be so lazy? How can I not care?
I don’t get the homework done. I roll out of bed with 5 minutes until the bus, in the same clothes I had on yesterday. I sleep in them because it’s easier than having to change. My hair is a matted mess, I don’t have on deodorant, and I haven’t brushed my teeth. I pull myself into my wheelchair and barely make it to the bus.
Tonight. Tonight I’ll do the homework.
I see my social studies teacher in the hall and my heart starts pounding. I want to run in the other direction. I grip the sides of my chair and force myself to stay still. He’s coming closer. He’s going to walk right past me. All I have to do is say his name. I don’t have to interrupt him or walk up or anything. Just say his name. Shaking, I draw in a breath and start to rehearse it.
Mr. B? Can I talk to you about the homework?
It’s not hard. Just say it.
He’s almost there now. Close enough for me to speak. Come on, say it. He’s going to walk right by, and then you’ll have to call him back. Say it!
He catches sight of me, stops, and before I can open my mouth, he’s all over me.
“I wish you’d do my homework. You got 100% on that last test. Nobody else did that well. You are FAILING my class because you won’t just do this homework. Don’t you have any self-respect? Why would you let yourself fail?”
Rage courses through me. I try to beat it down, remind myself he’s a teacher. I stare at his forehead, trying to fake eye contact.
Fuck you, asshole. Don’t say that. It’ll make everything worse.
“Say something, Ms. Fischer.”
If I say what I want to say, I’ll get suspended.
“I don’t care,” I snap.
Later, when the anger fades, I’m left with the shame. The powerlessness. The homework I can’t do.
Goddamnit, why can’t you do this? Everyone else can do it. It’s not hard!
Tomorrow. I’ll do the homework tomorrow.
I wish I could say there was a magic moment, a turning point where my fear went away and I recovered from depression. I know something changed, but there was never an “a-ha” moment.
Eventually, I got angry enough to start pushing back when parents and teachers tried to shame me.
- I fought my parents when they tried to abuse me.
- I moved out of my parents house.
- My husband abused me, and I had to fight for my life.
- I was homeless, and I had to fight the shelter system that didn’t want to meet my accessibility needs.
- I’ve fought for my education
- I’ve fought every landlord I’ve ever had over accessibility.
Somewhere along the way, my anger overpowered my anxiety.
I still hesitate when I have to knock on the door or ask for someone’s attention when they’re in a group. I push through it because I know that I matter and that my needs and wants are just as important as whatever else the person is doing. I learned that by having to fight so hard.
I like the person I am. I have never “overcome” my anxiety or depression, but I know how to manage them. I am a powerful woman who is not afraid to speak up for myself and others.
I speak for those who might not be ready to speak for themselves.
I know that everything my father said about speaking up for myself was correct–but the way he went about it, and the way my family attacked me for hesitating or showing emotions, was the worst possible thing they could have done.
I’m sure his intentions were good.
His behavior was inexcusable.
You do not berate a child. You do not humiliate a child. You do not, ever, under any circumstances lecture a child in a public hallway about “you haven’t yadda yadda yadda, what’s wrong with you?”
It took me half my life to realize that these people were bullies and their behavior was not okay. I rationalized it all by saying that “my parents were doing the best they could with what they had.” and “the teachers didn’t know what was really going on.”
I’m done making excuses for the people who made my life miserable when they were supposed to nurture and protect me.
Yes, they were only human. Entitled to make mistakes, only able to work with what they had, etc. That doesn’t make it okay.
I was going to school in the same clothes day after day. I was unkempt, unwashed, and vacant. I walked the halls like a ghost and stared into space during my classes. I know it came up in IEP meetings.
My mother would say, “Well, she has clothes and I’ve told her to take a bath, but she won’t.”
Nobody ever pressed the issue.
There were plenty of teachers who mentioned it to me in a context of “you’re alienating the other students.”
But somehow, nobody ever tried to help instead of lecture.
In point of fact there were a million reasons I wasn’t taking a bath. One was that taking a bath was (is) a trauma trigger. I don’t even like to go in the bathroom. Another issue was that I had untreated anxiety and my father literally bitched at me every time I went in the bathroom.
Of course, I didn’t expect anyone to realize those things, but I wonder how different my life would have been if someone had tried compassion instead of shame.