Sometimes, you’re just fine (or really, really good at pretending to be just fine) and it all catches back up to you. At least, that’s what is happening to me right now.
If I had to pinpoint the feeling(s), it’s pretty simple…I’m tired of feeling that no one understands. That I’m alone in so many ways. I guess anyone could say that, and a lot of people other than me probably do. As a foster alumna, you are set apart early and it gets in your head one way or the other that you’re not like the “group”, whatever that group may be, you’re not a part of it. I don’t think I ever ‘fit in’ to foster care either, though.
It might have started when I posted a high school photo of myself on Facebook. The picture is one of my senior portraits, and I got a lot of feedback on it. How ‘2000s’ my style was, how cute my braces were, how lame senior pictures were, memories people had of me. I took a closer look at it–probably shouldn’t have–I began to see so much more.
The fiery, outspoken personality I guess I have a reputation for didn’t exist back then. I had two roles, child and mother. I was completely broken, lost, terrified, confused, clueless. A total kid. And yet some part of me dug in and told me to watch out. Be careful. Stay safe. Take care of myself. Survive. That’s what the girl with braces was thinking about, day in and out…survival. I loved my braces, but I cringe at remembering the dentist whose assistant loudly and embarrassingly noticed the lice in my head when I was sixteen. She refused to touch me.
And then time rolled back. The same thing happened at a talent show I decided to enter in my first foster home. I was fifteen and had no friends, no family, nobody really, but signed up for the show and my foster mom took me to get my hair done. The lice was constant and in most foster homes I lived in, and the hairdresser was disgusted with me. Maybe that’s why in my senior pictures, despite hating short hair, I agreed to chop off my prized possession, my protection. I was so tired of lice shampoo and sores on my head. I remembered sitting on my bed in my aunt’s house, reading a book. I was hyperfocused, way into the story, and imagine my shock when a huge, bloated louse fell from my hair and onto the page I was reading.
I had asked time and time again for help. Getting rid of lice isn’t easy, especially when foster kids come and go like stray cats. Nobody bothered to look up information. A caseworker kindly bought me “clarifying shampoo” which she was sure would remove the bugs. Someone else gave me some dandruff shampoo. A school nurse took me out of school, pissed that no one was fixing the problem, and I stayed out of school for two months. When I came back, I had to make up some ridiculous health problem lie so that no one would know the real reason.
But my not fitting in doesn’t just account for the bugs on my head; I didn’t fit in way before that. Just the other day I half-humorously told a story about the day my mom dragged me out of bed because she heard the bus coming. I was wearing a flannel nightgown, and she stuffed the nightgown into a pair of overalls and pushed me out the door. When I told the story we all laughed, but I remembered more than that image.
I remembered that I desperately tried all day at school to move in a way so that no one would see the nightgown, but it kept coming untucked. The kids all made fun of me and asked me loudly and stupidly WHY ARE YOU WEARING A NIGHTGOWN, ARE YOU DUMB. Instead of telling the truth, as a kid you have to bluff and make up some dumb excuse. Just like I had with the lice. The truth was too embarrassing; the people who are supposed to take care of me don’t care like your parents do. That day, I went to the bathroom mirror and saw the stuffed, ridiculous looking overalls, the lace-fronted flannel gown with bows and cuffs on it, my unwashed face and unbrushed teeth and completely greasy hair. I was so overwhelmingly ashamed of everything that I was.
Allyn has the habit, as maybe a lot of people do–to wear a shirt and pants for one day, at work, and throw them in the dirty clothes. Not only is this not dirty to me, it’s enraging to me. I had to wear the same clothes for seasons at a time. Washing clothes in the summer was a “breeze”. Handwash in the sink or outside, and then hang to dry and hope a storm doesn’t come in the middle of the Tennessee summer. Clothes washing in winter, in fact, ANYTHING in winter involving water was a bit more complicated.
Our pipes would freeze, and most winters we would be completely waterless from November until March. Our spring was down the road, and it involved walking down the icy road, tumbling down a 70 degree angle slope to the ravine, getting the water in gallon milk jugs, and then lugging it back up the muddy, icy, slope and back up the road home. Those gallon jugs of water were everything. Eating, drinking, washing dishes, washing yourself and hair and face. If the power was out, which it often was due to ice storms, your water stayed cold (or got at best lukewarm from being over the wood stove.) How do I explain to my husband that his first world washing habits are infuriating, and I wish he’d go carry water from a spring for a full season while wearing the same pairs of pants so he knows how much it affects me? He will never understand.
What about the basics. The ‘baths’ in the metal tub in the living room. The “bucket” aka our toilet, which was an actual five gallon bucket with a blue toilet seat lid on it, prominently sitting in a room where me and sometimes four of my older siblings slept. The holes in the floor, the rats, the roaches, the sleeping outside, the sleeping in trees. The lack of basic kitchen appliances for years, my parents getting a locked cooler to keep food away from me because I ate too much. The labor. Going barefoot in summer until my feet were stiff and calloused, and working in winter in sleet and ice, breaking my knuckle skin trying to get frozen water to break so the animals could drink. The cavities I got that weren’t treated, the buck teeth I got made fun of for having by everyone from my classmates to my dad.
My parents paranoia. I wasn’t allowed to have sleepovers. I wasn’t allowed to see anyone outside of school. No school events. No field trips, even prize field trips I’d earned for being the top reader in the school–even when the counselor offered to pay for my mom’s ticket so she could chaperone. I wasn’t worth that. They couldn’t expose me to the world. When we eventually got a phone, they took it with them when they left the house. My teachers snuck me dollars here and there to go to the basketball games that happened during school, because my parents orders were “she can go to the library and study instead of watch sports.” I had to pretend like I wasn’t interested so my friends stopped asking why I never went to other games that weren’t during school. They refused to sign the permission slip for D.A.R.E. and I never got a stranger look from a teacher. They refused to let me attend sex ed.
I never had any fashionable clothes or toys and had to pretend like I wasn’t interested in those either. I was fascinated with CDs, and a girl caught me gaping at one (it was Hanson) and she and others began laughing at my ignorance. I wasn’t allowed to watch the tv shows everyone watched. I was completely disconnected. They were reading babysitter’s club, and all I had were my mom’s encyclopedia’s from the 1970s. I don’t mind the latter one bit, but you try being a twelve year old and striking up a conversation about a group of tribal masks and their roles in African culture because you were reading “A” the night before. So much of me as a kid was hiding who I was from school, and closing inward when I was home, because I wasn’t allowed to be around others.
A lot of the good of my childhood is also the bad. Wandering around in the forest by myself or taking care of my animals are some of my happiest memories. But I didn’t have the safety or the privilege most kids did, and not only was I looking out for my own safety in the wilderness, but I had to watch my pets suffer a slow death, or be killed or beaten by my dad. I saw a lot of death, and the most traumatizing was my pet donkey, Taco.
He was old when we got him, but after he’d aged a few more years, he laid down one day and never got up. I went and visited him for days, begging him to drink water or eat. I asked my dad what was wrong and I remember his shrug– “he’s old.” I asked if he could shoot him. He didn’t want to. I asked if he would maybe get back up. Probably not. Then what would happen? All I wanted was some kind of mercy for him, but no one was interested. He was a fair hike from the house and I had to abandon my school work and other chores just to spend time with him. One day I stayed as long as I could. The August sun turned the strangest orange I’ve ever seen, and the whole world got still. The other horses and dogs stayed away from us. I put his big soft head in my lap and just cried and talked to him. He struggled to breathe. I remember watching his stomach contract over and over. I knew I would get beaten if I stayed out past the sunset, so I kissed him a hundred times and said sorry a hundred more, and walked home crying. I laid awake in bed all night crying, wishing I could be with him.
When I came back the next day after school his eyes were grey and he was still. I asked my dad if we could dig him a grave. He laughed and told me it was pointless. We still had to go give water and food to the other horses, so every day was punctuated with going to the pasture and seeing his body first bloat up, then get infested with maggots and beetles, finally caving in, the skin washing away with rain. He became bones. When he noticed this, my dad was really pleased and he took the skull and hung it on a tree. I visited that property in 2018, but everything–the pasture, the road, the tree–was entirely lost to wilderness. I can still see everything exactly as it used to be.
If I had only been exposed to nature’s cruelty I’d probably be more well-adjusted, or at least calmer, than what I am. I always offhandedly joke about my dad’s craziness or call my mom a bitch. The reality of living with them wasn’t a joke at all. The strange neglect I endured as a child–no dental care, poor healthcare, old dirty clothes and your typical stoner-foodstamps luncheons–was overlapped with dizzying emotional and mental abuse.
I got a C in math after years of being a straight A student–my teacher had taken leave for a baby, and was replaced by an old hag who legitimately hated all of us and changed our textbooks in the middle of the year. What the fuck is a circumference? I got the C right before Christmas, and didn’t tell my parents. When I returned to school, the teacher immediately contacted them and informed them of the grade so the day I got home from school–the first day I sported a fresh, cool (offbrand) Tomagotchi toy–I had to hand it over to my dad. He threw it in the fire. He threw my Christmas presents in the fire. He threw every book I owned in the fire. He threw my artwork in. My writing.
I was forced to sit separately from the class to “focus” because nothing says focus like having twenty other children’s eyes on you as you fidget against a wall. He would go through my backpack and destroy anything that wasn’t homework every day when I got home. Famously, I wrote a sci-fi story about time travel, inspired by a Star Trek and this really cool magazine we got about different American decades, and he read the whole story page by page and ripped it into tiny pieces. After he read it, he told me it was shit. All this was accompanied by him telling me I was acting stupid, because he had no problem with algebra in school and I should just do it and quit complaining.
My mom liked just about anybody better than me. She fawned over my little sister, and once puberty hit she took a lot of opportunities to tell me that I was fatter than she’d ever been. Less flexible. She had done marching band, she was a drummer and she knew how to clog and she was in beauty pageants and she was the prettiest girl in school. Every photo I have of her shows her in some gorgeous, well-put together outfit, smiling happily. I think my mom was the worst “mean girl” in my life.
The only bras my parents bought me were sports bras, the only clothes they bought me were boys clothes. I stopped wearing shorts after my parents saw stretch marks on my thighs and balked, asking me if I was pregnant. I didn’t dare tell them I’d gotten them on my chest as well. I found out at school that other girls had them, that they were normal. And when I told my parents they were normal, they just insisted I was too fat and needed to eat less. My saving grace came in the form of my great uncle giving my parents some clothes, a black trench coat among them. Kids at school called me goth and vampire and thought I was either a devil worshipper or weird and edgy, and teachers accused me of going through phases and “this isn’t who you are.” But I could finally cover up and have some sort of defense. I didn’t have to show off the boys jeans or baggy shirts or saggy bras.
Around the time I got put in foster care, I had a journal. I had to have a journal; I didn’t have anybody to talk to. Even my closest friends at school still had doorknobs on their doors, running faucets, and a room with a desk, or at least a kitchen table to do their homework on. I slept on a bench in the kitchen that my dad later chainsawed in half and threw out the front door, so my tales of home were met with bewildered stares and sympathy from anyone and everyone, friends included. My mom read my journal and got incredibly upset that I said I hated her. My dad was upset that I kissed my boyfriend–my first kiss, at age fifteen. Both of them glossed right over the entry where an older boy kept exposing himself to me on the school bus every day.
So, when I got into foster care and all the other girls had parents who bought them Hollister clothes, or allowed them to drink and party with their friends, I could not have felt more out of my element. The foster parents had these gross “fix it” mentalities and insisted I call them mom. Or, they forced me into doing mundane tasks I hated like making my stupid bed. (To this day, fuck making beds. I don’t tie my shoelaces after I take my shoes off.) They thought surely their perfect normal little lives would convince me to straighten my act up and stop being weird and sullen. They were all disappointed. When I talked about my family, the disdain and smug superiority shone through their demeanor more frequently than any kind of compassion or empathy. So I stopped talking about it and got defensive. I don’t give a fuck that you have a mortgage and electricity. Like good for you. I’m sixteen right now. Obviously I didn’t need it for fifteen years.
I moved four different schools. I had countless foster homes and foster sisters. Permission slips were my bane; foster parents can’t sign them as they’re not a legal guardian. After explaining to the teachers over and over that they needed to contact my caseworker, I just stopped going. I had bouts of what turned out to be disassociation and was drug tested, repeatedly. No one knew that I was fighting off an uncle who was molesting me or coercing me into having sex with others. That I wore the trenchcoat because having other kids be afraid of you and leave you alone is way better than having them make fun of your body. I half pretended to hate “girliness” because I actually did hate it, but the other half was to answer the question of why I looked so disheveled and poor. As a kid, that’s your defense. Just like with the nightgown. I choose to look this way. For whatever reason, it gets you less hassle than the truth. Not to mention, no one had ever taught me how to fix my hair, but the massive sores and scabs from the lice made it impossible to wear up.
Anytime I tried to contact my parents, such as for Christmas or birthdays, I was warned about getting pregnant…this, they said, was my motive for running away from home and “ruining them” financially. My mom screeched at me that I was going to get pregnant and destroy my life. My dad wouldn’t even talk to me. This went on for years and years.
So it’s been on my mind. I can’t express these things to people. Why would I even want to? What good comes from it? I can say ‘I feel alone’ or ‘I feel misunderstood’ just as easily as anybody else. I don’t know what other people go through, I just know that opening up on any level causes the inferiority complex to sniff around. These people–friends, enemies, coworkers, mentees, therapists, the fucking delivery drivers–all have a sense of normalcy in some realm of their life that I cannot begin to comprehend, yet feign every single day. I chose to fit into this society, and some days I really regret it. I feel like it’s too late to go back on my choice, and I also don’t really fancy the alternatives: become a drug addict convict who dies alone, or a number of similar statistical outcomes.
But I’m tired. I’m so tired of feeling bad and not being able to articulate why. It’s not that I can’t–clearly, I can–but it’s not socially appropriate to spill this shit when people ask how you’re doing. Fine, Barbara, I’m fine. Wow, Alex sure is touchy today. Oh, she’s always like that. A lifetime of catching up in society and I’m still behind. I’m too hard, I’m too aggressive. I’m too snobby. I’m 31 and still at least ten years away from owning a house on my own, half due to financial reasons and half due to fear of settling down. I’m a mother and I’m terrified of damaging my son, while also acknowledging the horrible irony that no matter what fucked up shit I do to him he’ll seek my approval like I did and still do with my own parents. To take care of him properly I have to be in this society. I have to pay taxes and have a job and function with other people and not fail. And I don’t love any of that, but I don’t mind it either, but I do mind feeling so hopelessly alone while I do it.
I mind when people ridicule my accent because they don’t know what the fuck I had to go through in my quaint little Southern life. I mind the awkward glances between people when a friend slips and calls my father in law “Dad” and I aggressively correct him, because that title holds far more weight than any marriage relationship would ever hope to accomplish. I mind when people tell me to be nicer when someone has a shitty or sexual comment I didn’t ask for, because that child and that teenager had to clam up and be silent and survive, and I’ll be god fucking damned if I’m going to let anyone ever have power of touch or suggestion or emotion over me again. I mind when I try to so hard to relate to what my rich, happy, stable friends are struggling with and I have to inwardly roll my eyes and stifle the voice that’s saying, fucking really? You have no idea how good you have it…because their problems are valid too, but my own experience makes me so, so incapable of relating to most issues in any meaningful way. I mind this void of compassion and true understanding that’s filled from time to time with hugs or people telling me how they admire me. I don’t want to be admired. I want people to understand. But they can’t do that without feeling this, what I feel. It’s not possible to be understood.
Another foster alum friend contacted me tonight. He was excited about an idea he had, of throwing a “success” party to celebrate his coming into, as he put it, the middle class. I immediately understand what he meant; I was thrilled for him and promised I’d come. This small communication reminded me that despite how alone I feel, there are others like me who have witnessed the darkness of family and humanity, and gained a set of superpowers they never wanted because of it. Screw marriage, who cares…but his transition into the world that he was never a part of was something he wanted to celebrate and it is absolutely worth celebrating in a huge way.
One of his comments stood out though, and it’s what prompted me to write all this. We consider ourselves similar in that we chose to walk the path of society, to fit in a place we’ll never fit in, to work hard to always be behind the norm–for a lot of reasons, I’m sure, but we both know the challenges that come with our path. The words he chose to use were,
At first I just read we’ve won, and pondered on that. I guess we have. We have friends in all walks of life from all backgrounds, and just like an octopus we’ve blended in. Well, enough to have homes and jobs and relationships and hobbies. It’s what I always wanted as a kid. But, we’ve also ‘won’. I think we both acknowledge the futility of that statement. Why did we have to fight at all? Why did we have to suffer, who would have helped us if we’d lost? And what does winning mean?
Right now, for me, it means at the moment I have a roof over my head and my son is well taken care of. But times like these, the void in me expands and it feels like it covers my skin, so that even the thin veil of normalcy I’ve built up over the years can’t hold the emptiness. “Winning” simply means that I can feel all this and not wear that trench coat anymore. I have done it long enough that I will continue to fake pleasantries, pay credit card bills, smile and nod at whoever I need to smile and nod at, and answer “I’m fine” with only minimal bitchiness.