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This is What a Lifetime of Abuse Looks Like

January 14, 2021 6 comments

When someone punches you most people think right away, “That’s abuse,” as they prepare to intervene or call 911 or whoever is supposed to save you from the next blow. People hardly acknowledge there are so many other ways a person can be abused invisibly and it’s so much harder to recognize those abuses until they’ve become your norm.

Some people are berated with daily insults, by acts intended to demean you, break you, pray for mercy. Then there’s the rejection, harassment, the petty games, and never ending manipulation. And mayhem, always with the mayhem.

There is a girl. Her dad kidnaps her for a summer as leverage in the divorce. No one reports this. She spends most of that summer watching cartoons at the grandma’s house.

After the divorce, the dad remarries. He doesn’t tell his new family the girl exists. He doesn’t visit the girl when he is supposed to. He pretends he has no money to help the mom. The girl sees herself being erased.

Meanwhile, the mom has changed. She is no longer a soft mom. The mom is angry all the time, at the dad who left them, the men at work who harass her, the culture who shuns her for her choices that were meant to empower her, and her own mother who tells her she is lazy.

The girl must fend for herself. She is five. She uses a green marker and writes her first story on the back of a toy piano. It is about a girl who runs away. Half the words are misspelled, but the story makes sense to her.

When the mom is mad at the girl she strips her down to her underwear and locks her in the garage. Sometimes she makes her sit at the open front door for hours so the neighbors and kids on the block will see the half naked girl. Luckily, the girl is smart and when she hears someone walking or driving by she hides behind the door.

The dad starts visiting the girl and her sister again, but when he picks them up he regularly leaves them in the car for hours at time while he plays golf. He leaves the windows cracked to let in fresh air. No one pays attention to an unattended six year old and her three year old sister in the back seat of a Toyota Corolla waiting, just always waiting.

The mom and dad like to spew vile about the other to the girl and yell when they see each other. They have each made habit of pulling the girl to the side and telling her, “If you love me, you will tell me what [mom/dad] [said/did].” The girl wants to prove her love, so she always tells, and then she gets punished because she did.

The girl and her sister spend a lot of time with babysitters, usually old Filipino “Lolos and Lolas.” One of them lives with a teenage grandson who tells all the kids that get babysat if they want to watch ‘Speed Racer’ in the afternoons the kids have to lift up their shirts or pull down their pants for “just a few seconds.” No one wants to do it, but everyone wants to watch ‘Speed Racer’, so one by one, every afternoon, they all do it. The girl tells her sister not to do it, but she doesn’t listen. The girl refuses to do it, so the grandson leaves her in the dark stairwell. She listens to the other kids watching ‘Speed Racer’ on the other side of the door. She tells no one. There is no one to tell.

The girl becomes a teenager. She is trying to figure out who she is, where she belongs. She rebels. She hangs out with her friends at the park and the mall. Whenever she doesn’t get home by 5pm, her mom wraps a 6′ foot chain around the front gate and padlocks it. The girl starts packing extra clothes, toiletries, and a journal with her school books for just-in-case days. Sometimes she sleeps at friends’ houses, other times at her grandparents’. She learns how to break into commercial buildings so she can have a place to sleep. A few times she just sleeps on the grass in the park. Her dad’s house is not an option.

Several dozen times the mom jams the girl’s belongings into suitcases and drops them off at one of the girl’s friend’s homes. Once there, the mom condescendingly instructs the stunned parents to keep her child, she does not want this girl she tells them. This always leaves the parents befuddled. They tell their children to stay away from the girl, she is trouble. It is never easy getting those suitcases back to her house.

The girl looks elsewhere for love and gets pregnant at the age of 15. For the first time she understands what love is supposed to look like. She adores her son, she has found her reason to live. But the mom is now angrier than ever. The girl has shamed her family. The mom threatens to call Child Protective Services (CPS) to take away the girl’s baby. “You don’t deserve the baby, ” she says, “you don’t know how to be a mom! You don’t know anything!” So the girl moves in with her grandparents trying to get away. The mom’s threats continue. The girl can never seem to get away from the mom’s threats, or her anger.

The girl’s sister has a much harder time getting away from the mom. At 21, she is diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and then later with schizophrenia. The girl is devastated. She does not how to help her sister, how to make her well or how to keep her safe, from the world or from her mom. The sister and mother develop a destructive codependent relationship. Lots of fighting, broken doors, car crashes, a couple fires, too. The two become “frequent fliers” with 911z The girl spends a lot of time cleaning up their messes, she is convinced it is her duty.

The girl grows up, she is now a woman. She taught herself to survive her childhood and adolescence by creating hundreds of mental drawers where she shelves anything that triggers pain. She is working on her happy, adored by her children, friends, and community. She finds comfort in her schedules and plans, in her to do lists and journals, in her controlled environment. She is thriving, despite.

She is a woman now, with a family of her own, and there is no room for pain. Negative emotions take away from her productivity and threaten her carefully structured life. She spent 25 years being sad and it got her nowhere. She makes a vow to never let herself feel sad again. At the time, she does not understand that vow is a mistake.

What people don’t know is when something doesn’t go as planned, even the slightest, she runs to her closet and repeats the words of her childhood. She is nothing, no one, a loser, unwanted, pathetic, invisible, rejected, and she will never be more than she is right now. She does not lash out at the world, she lashes in at herself. When she is finished with her self loathing routine, she shelves the disappointment in a mental drawer, fixes her face, and gets back to her life.

The woman tries to stay away from her parents and sister, but these family reprieves never last long. They are family after all, and the woman has taught herself that family is everything and unconditional, a value she holds onto dearly and has given up so much for in its belief. They come to the woman with promises to be good and the woman always believes them, letting them back into her life. But some things don’t change. By the end, the police are usually involved, someone is hospitalized, and everyone is crying. The woman runs to her closet, repeats the self loathing routine, shelves the sad and its accompanying memory in a mental drawer, and makes dinner.

The woman focuses on her marriage, the love of her life, the man who will take care of her forever. She thinks. Or maybe not.

There are signs, small ones, big ones. Signs that point to the husband does not love the woman or his life with her as she so badly needs to believe. There are the drugs he does not stop using, that he rages for when he runs empty, and the alcohol he drinks in excess every night. There was that time he left her with an armed burglar, just completely forgot her and the kids, leaving the woman on the other end of a gun by herself.

And in the early years, there were the gazillion physical fights and yelling matches, which the woman eagerly engaged in. The woman hurled the best below the belt insults, she learned from the best. Eventually the fights stopped, as did all communication between the woman and her husband. The woman was changing, she was trying to be better. But maybe she was trying with too little too late. The husband rejected her attempts at change. He rejected her, but still he stayed. The woman misreads this as hope. The husband drank, and smoked, and seethed, isolating himself in the garage every day.

There was that night with the hammer and that look in his eyes, a look of unmistakable disgust and hatred for the woman. The husband rebuffed her attempts to try. His indifference to the woman’s tears and her shameless begging oddly reminded her of her father. And then one day the husband left. The woman walked into the garage and saw the graffitied walls. “Fuck you.” “Fuck this family.” “I hate you.” The husband had been communicating with her, she just wasn’t listening. The woman goes into her closet, carries out her self loathing routine, then shelves her pain. The next day she starts law school. She will make herself survive this, too.

The woman is exhausted. She believes she is good, and smart, and strong. A survivor. She is a helper and loves so hard. She helps everyone, especially the vulnerable, because she knows what it’s like to have your pleas ignored. She prides herself in her reliability, her loyalty, and her fierce love for her inner circle and to the strangers who need her. But still there is something missing and she can’t figure out what.

She has spent a lifetime downplaying the gravity of her trauma, minimizing her pain, and denying her abuse, thus enabling her abusers. She has shelved all her pains, at first so she could survive the moment, and later because she didn’t know another way. Too much time has passed since she processed her pain, she doesn’t even think she remembers how, she is terrified of trying. She has spent decades working around her abusers, making her life work around her abuse. She can’t even imagine a different life.

But everyone has a breaking point, maybe this is hers. The woman is at an impasse. She is coming to find she can not move forward – not without looking back; not without acknowledging what has happened to her; not without opening those mental drawers, processing what’s in them, and then letting them go.

The woman is trying something new. She is rewriting her values and priorities to include herself. Please root for her, she needs it. This will be the hardest thing she has ever done. The woman is trying to love herself first.

Categories: Uncategorized

Practicing Family

April 11, 2020 4 comments

I don’t think family is everything, I think it’s the only thing. Everything else is just noise, and accessories.

I disagree with Merriam-Webster. Family isn’t just a noun, it’s also a verb, an action you practice when you’re showing your highest loyalty, selflessness, and greatest love for someone, all at the same time. And not unlike love and hope, some days family, and the practice of it, feels like a double edged sword.

Some people practice what I call “family lite,” with conditions and limits to how far they’ll go. I’m Filipino and most of us go hard, driving ourselves nuts along the way. As long as I consider you a part of my family tribe, then no limits, no conditions, and we all rise and fall together.

I am the self proclaimed matriarch of my nuclear and extended families. The glue that holds shit together, the one you consult when you’re in a bind, and the one who encourages you to do what you’re supposed to be doing. I’ve got the spreadsheets and legal documents to prove it.

My family is decked with mental illness, diabetes, high blood pressure, and dementia – heavy on the mental illness. That’s before we talk about the eccentric personas and strong Asian influence. All that said to correctly imply the depths my loyalty and love – my sense of family, are often tested. Some weeks family feels more like a metal chain, as opposed to a boastful necklace, heavily clanking around my neck,  the chains soldered in loyalty, love, and an Asian culture that shuns nursing homes.

I am writing this in the era of COVID chaos, but honestly, I could’ve written this last year, primary difference being right now I have the time to reflect on my life.

I am sheltering in place with my two 19yo daughters, my grumpy 71yo aunt, my sister who has just started trying to rebuild her life, a mother with dementia, and seven dogs. No need to gasp at the mention of number of dogs. That’s my pack and believe me when I say they are the easiest of my family tribe.

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Quarantine shenanigans.

My mom’s degree of dementia varies each week. On a good week she can take care of her personal hygiene, didn’t set a kitchen fire, and tells random stories over and over in an hour. Last month she was  installing locks on her kitchen cabinets because she believed the contractors remodeling her home were stealing her foil pans. She also likes to jam her unsolicited opinions on everyone, on repeat because she forgot she just did it ten minutes ago. These last two weeks she can’t find 90% of her words, needs to be spoon fed, keeps hugging the toaster, and I just bought her the most dignified looking adult diapers I could find.

My aunt is how those old people stereotypes come to exist. She stands watch behind curtains and keeps tabs on who parked too close to our driveway. She’s convinced that neighbors are swapping out our garbage bin because ours is “cleaner.” They’re not. When the kids were younger and had friends over, she would arrange the pantry and refrigerator so that she could tell what was eaten and deliver angry oral reports in the morning. She also asks 30 questions a day and needs the answers repeated at least twice.

My sister, well, you’ll have to read My Sister’s Keeper for that story. I will say it’s always challenging to be a part of a support circle for anyone trying to get back on their feet, especially when mental illness is involved.

And to keep this real. I’m no picnic. I’m more like a fancy dinner party with a five course meal, a dress code, serving MD 2020, where I sit at the head of table holding a bullhorn in one pocket and a bottle of Lexapro in the other. I’m an alpha and a perfectionist. I seek control in lists and plans. I have written apocalypse plans, danger passwords and all my kids have “go bags” in the trunks of their cars. I think a mile a minute and extra AF.

 

My 19yos are going stir crazy during this quarantine. Their plans to move out together have been postponed, first with the holidays, and then with COVID. But as the days needed to shelter in place increase; forcing them into online classes; robbing them of their young adult social lives; and, as the number of daily antics my temporary convalescent home residents pull off rise, I can see my daughters’ patience dissipate and their agitation grow, and understandably so. It’s the same slight of attitude I sense from their older brothers when I tell them to take my mom or aunt to do groceries, visit my sister, or help me move a giant piece of furniture (pre-COVID).

Here’s the thing. I get it. I really do. But I don’t feel bad for my girls. And yes, I realize most of their friends and our non-Asian community don’t have to shelter in place with convalescent home residents. But that’s because we don’t exercise family lite, it’s not a luxury afforded us. We family hard. 

It’s trying times right now and tolerating family is part of that. Some days that looks like laughing for days, family movie night, and talking about nothing and everything over dinner. Other days it looks like inconveniently living together a while, telling my aunt you have no idea why the grass is greener on the left side of that tree for the third time in a row, ignoring my sister having a conversation with herself, and following my mom around the house turning off all twenty lights she turns on every hour. And that’s what practicing family looks like.

Like I said earlier, family isn’t everything, it’s the only thing. I  won’t let my kids forget that, not now, not ever.

 

 

Categories: Uncategorized

The Second Half

Don’t laugh. I think I’m having a mid-life crisis or maybe a self-identity crisis. Whatever. I just know my head is all *&$#ed up.

Before now, I lived my life according to a disciplined rhythm. Kids, work, school, shower when I have time, wash dishes between loads of laundry, feed dogs, rinse, repeat.  And even with all of its flaws, and there were many, I loved that life with all of my being. I knew exactly who I was, and how important I was.

But now, now I just feel lost. Change can do that to you, make you feel displaced, uncertain.

When the kids were younger we each had assigned kitchen seats, but when we ate out it was every man for himself. The kids always fought over who got to sit beside me. Sometimes there was shoving and tears and I would have to negotiate deals to keep the peace. The memory of my kids treating me as a prize worth fighting for is a marker in time when their lives were tightly intertwined with mine.

But eventually kids grow up.

With high school graduation behind them, and following their older brothers’ leads, my two youngest children are moving out in August. Then it’ll just be me, a bunch of rescue dogs, and a grumpy aunty I take care of. No daily family dinners, the wipe board menu gathers dust above my refrigerator, and there’s  no need for assigned seating. I can sit anywhere I want. But the kitchen table that once barely fit a bustling family of eight feels too big for me now.

It feels like only yesterday I had a crash course in grappling with understanding who I was after being someone’s wife for 16 years and suddenly not. I got over that, eventually. But this, this seems bigger, the pain much deeper. I mean, after 27 years of parenting, who am I now if I’m no longer a mom?

People tell me, “It’s your time now, Maria. Do what you want – travel, eat out, date.” But that concept of taking care of just me, eating alone at the restaurant of my choice, and traveling to places only interesting to me, that’s all foreign to me. I’m not a saint, I’ve just never done that before, put myself first.

As a woman, a mother, putting myself first doesn’t come naturally to me. I have to put a lot of thought into what a life like that is supposed to look like and even then when I envision myself doing it, I feel my brows furrow and my body retreat, as if to say, “I couldn’t do that. That’s too weird.”

When my kids were young, I spent hours just watching them: sleep, eat, play, run around the house like maniacs. I adored them and felt such pride in simple moments like that. I gave them life and in turn they gave my life clarity and a deeper sense of purpose. Those kids were the foundation to the first half of my life, my world.

As the kids got older and started spending more time away from home, creating lives outside of mine, I found myself staring at pictures of them on my phone, admiring them through social media’s lenses and the family pictures we took at birthday dinners. I felt a different pride, at their growth, their beauty, their independence, and the authenticity behind their smiles. I knew then life was changing, and faster than I wanted.

But I knew this day was coming. I tried to prepare for it. I went back to school, got my undergrad, then my law degree, all so I would have something of my own, something I could lean into when it was time to let the kids go. And in theory it sounded so perfect in my head, but in practice not so much. Now I have to learn how to do two new big things at the same time – live like a single person and learn how to lawyer. It’s quite the ride right now.

It feels as though I’m grieving the end of an era, the end of being a mother as I’ve only ever known, and a version of myself I’ve since outgrown. The first half of my life is over and I’m feeling the pressure to figure out what I want the second half of my life to look like. And no lie, the struggle is real. It’s hard to grow, to let go of who you once were, especially when you feel like you just learned to appreciate that version of yourself. 

I should clarify that I’m not so foolish as to believe this place I’m standing is anything less than a blessing. I know it is. Raised 4 good kids – check. Got my law degree and finally passed the bar – check. Survived the first 40 years of life’s obstacles without losing my sh*t – check check. I did good. But still, endings are often as sad as they are joyful and new beginnings scary as they are exciting. And that’s where I am now, standing at the halfway point in my life, trying to convince myself to let go of my yesterdays long enough to see the horizon holding my tomorrows.

And that’s a little bit of terrifying. I have to navigate this second half alone and find a way to be comfortable with that. I have to learn a new normal, absent kids or a husband. I already know it’s going to be a bumpy road, with plenty of trial and error moments, and epic fails. Beginnings are full of those. I have a lot to do, a lot to learn. I don’t feel ready. But I have to believe that the next half of my life is going to be even better than the first. I have to trust this process of growing and evolving. I’m not lost, I can’t be, this is just transition. I have to keep moving, forward always forward.

Okay, one breath at a time, inhale, exhale, and here I go.

Categories: Uncategorized

The Single Parent’s Anthem

January 14, 2019 12 comments

I’m the one who explained why you left, the one who dealt with their anger, their frustration and tears.

I have defended you because it’s better than telling them to give up on you.

And because it hurts less than hating you.

I have paid for all their flights to see you, and even some of yours, so you saw them at all.

I reminded you to call them on their birthdays, to text them during their bad weeks, and then pretended I didn’t.

But I am the one who has been there, since day one and every day in between.

I’m the full-time mother, the part-time father, their financial advisers, their #1 fans, their Lyft service, their advocates, their therapists, and their life teachers.

I planned all their birthday parties and checked off their Christmas lists.

I reemed them when they missed classes, praised them when they got As, and consoled them when they didn’t get the grades they thought they deserved.

Then I helped them look at colleges, filled out their financial aid, and edit their college applications.

I signed their car notes, reviewed their leases, scheduled all their appointments, taught them how to budget and even cook themselves dinner.

I have had the hard conversations with them, the ones about sex, heartbreak, adulting, and how to care for their mental health.

I watched and hurt with them for every single disappointment they’ve had since you left, and to be honest, even all the years before that.

I have taken all of their calls, including the scary ones that came in after 2am.

I picked them up, literally and figuratively, when they were lost.

I taught them about love and loyalty, and also what bull shit smells like.

And while you complain about child support, I creatively find ways to pay the other 90% of their expenses you think you shouldn’t have to cover.

I am the ride-or-die parent, the real-deal-superwoman-single mom, who has sacrificed much to give them lives that don’t lack, despite your absence.

So, when you ask me with callousness and undeserved annoyance, “What the hell do you want,” my simple answer is this –

Be a good dad, a better man.

Respect the mother of your children.

And show some gratitude that while our children may carry your name, they bear all of my heart.

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Categories: Uncategorized

Chasing Hope

I’ve been pretty good about checking my expectations with dating, so much so that I have none. You meet, have dinner, drinks, and hopefully there’s some good conversation to go with it. And you cross your fingers the guy looks like his pictures and pays the bill. To be honest, dating has become a drag and at 43 in the last year plus I’ve actually weaned myself off. I’m happy to Netflix and chill by my damned self.

But several weeks ago, and absolutely at random, I met someone. He came out of near nowhere, wasn’t at all in my wheelhouse, but there was something about him and I thought there was a click. He said there was a click. I felt it, so I believed it. The conversations, and everything that came with, were great. For a little bit, it was euphoric. And I was, for the first time in a long time, hopeful. Read more…

Categories: Uncategorized

Tonight I Finished Law School

After 4 ½ years, tonight I finished law school. I’m thankful for 4 amazing and loyal kids who sacrificed a lot to get me here, 7 faithful dogs who waited well past their bedtimes until I got home safely from class, an employer I love that worked with my schedule so I could attend school, and the dozens of family and friends who played an active role in supporting me. That kind of love humbles me to my core.

I used to say that I lived my life backwards. I had my kids in my teens and early twenties, but didn’t get my undergrad until my 30s, and now my law degree in my 40s. You could say I gave the first half of my life to my kids and former husband. I don’t regret that, but I have since given myself permission to live the rest of my life for me.

I was wrong about living my life backwards. I took the path I was meant to, lived life the way God intended me to, and it may have taken me a while to get here, but I know I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be and not one minute late.

Look out world. I’m aiming to make my mark on you and I am one determined woman. Just look at my track record. Single moms, raise your glasses. And cheers to me.

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Categories: Uncategorized

This is 42

 

This is what I know.
There’s life after the kids grow up and your marriage ends.
It’s never too late to be what you might’ve been.
If I miss a deadline at work or get a bad grade so I could spend more time with my kids and dogs, I’m still winning.
Dating and meeting new people lends me hope.
I can still make the right guy melt.
A room full of books, a pen in my hand, and a fresh sheet of paper under my fingertips is still my church.
You find your truth when you own the extent of your worth, the breadth of your capacity, and the impact of your roar.
When it feels right, lean in. Always.
This is 42. Happy birthday to me.

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Categories: Uncategorized

An Ode to Weeds and Tantruming Dogs

IMAG2281On this morning’s walk with the Fab 5, we were forced to stop several times as each dog tried to graze weeds and my girls and I tugged them away. At one point, and with the indignation of a collective set of 5yo children in the toy aisle, all of the dogs simply refused to move.

Instead, they all stood there looking at me, leader of their pack, heads tilted and suspicious eyes demanding to know, “Why? First, you tell us we can’t lick our butts, then not even our own privates, and now you say we can’t eat weeds. We deserve to know why!!” So, on the side of the road, and in the rain, I launched into a tirade against weeds.

Weeds are a source of frustration for homeowners who have a life outside of grooming their front lawn and a false sense of superiority for homeowners who think a bright green lawn, free of weeds, is synonymous with a perfect life. (Lies!) Weeds are a steady source of revenue for HOAs (kind of like those failure to make a complete stop tickets are for the city). Weeds like to taunt grass, their self superior and goody-two-shoes cousins, by reminding them how much taller they are than them. And some weeds are even poisonous to dogs, like the ones Dexter ate last year resulting in a $2000 emergency vet bill I’m still paying off. So, no boys, weeds are a lot of things, but they’re certainly not dog food.

And yet, despite the logic in my lecture, and ironically with the stubborness of a patch of weeds that refuse to bend into submission, the dogs retained their stance, unpersuaded by my words, and still staring me down like the enemy. It reminded me of the good ole’ days at my house when my kids and instigating younger brother dubbed me the ‘Fun Police’. So, like a parent succumbing to defeat in the Target toy aisle, I pulled out treats and bought their temporary obedience, and we got to finish our walk.

If this lawyer thing doesn’t work out, maybe I’ll just become a professional dog walker.

 

Categories: Uncategorized

My Sister’s Keeper

August 21, 2016 6 comments

Earlier this month I was in San Francisco helping my mom move. My sister was at the house, smoking up a storm and leaving her cigarette butts everywhere. At night she’d have loud, animated conversations with herself and left the house for hours at a time, but no one ever knew where she went. A police officer once told my mother she was a regular in the Tenderloin district, a high crime area in San Francisco and frequented by the city’s homeless population.  One morning she returned with a pair of new baby shoes and clothes that she must’ve bought, or more likely stole, from a shop in the Mission. She handed them to me and told me to give them to our daughters. I thanked her and promised I would even though our girls are 15 years old. It never gets easier seeing her like this, but sometimes I just go with it because there’s not much else I can do.

One morning I went into the room she was staying to close the door. She was snoring softly and I watched her sleep from the doorway. I was tempted to lay next to her just like when we were younger, when we were 6 and 9 and built forts out of blankets and slept under them together. Or like the countless times in our teens and early twenties when we would fall asleep next to one another talking about nothing and everything  the night before. I wanted to pretend for just five minutes that everything was okay, that she wasn’t sick, but instead I softly closed the door and let her sleep.

I’m a strong woman. And I can get over, and through, a lot of things. But not my sister. No matter what I do, I can’t seem to get over her. I don’t know that I can. Believe me, I’ve tried. I moved 1700 miles away. I started over. I talk to her. I bargain with her. I plead with her to try. And every time she doesn’t, I hurt with her. I hurt for her. Because until the end of my days, wherever she is, and however well she is or isn’t doing, my sister will continue to mean the world to me. My love and loyalty are hers, always and unconditionally.

And that doesn’t mean I condone how she chooses to live, it only means that I love her despite it, despite what she does and has put our family through, and despite her mental illness. It means the ties that bind family are real and for as long as I am strong enough to, I will forgive her, for who she is and isn’t, and what she’s allowed herself to become. And that even now, after everything she’s done, even in my moments of frustration when I don’t think she deserves it, I still love my sister with everything I’ve got. I don’t doubt for one second that had the roles been reversed she wouldn’t have done and felt the same for me. I know she would. It’s what the best of sisters do.

My sister’s battle with mental illness has been a vicissitude of emotional, physical and financial highs and lows, and she hasn’t ridden the waves alone. My family has spent the better part of the last 14 years never knowing what to expect from her, never knowing if she’s safe, if we’re safe, if the most recent episode will be the last, or if it’s possible for them to just keep getting worse.

A minuscule glimpse of the lows of my sister’s mental illness includes: the time she took her three year old daughter from foster care placement and led the police on a televised five hour police chase along the west coast; the several times she was detained at a random airport thousands of miles from California because she was removing her clothes in one of their terminals; the half dozen times she sat cross legged at a busy crosswalk trying to direct traffic; or even the time she was found at 5am wearing shorts in 45 degree weather and digging in the neighborhood dumpsters. That’s just a minuscule glimpse. I’m saving you from the worst stories because those stories hurt too much to tell.

My sister’s episodes come in waves that last anywhere from weeks to months. Similar to many others whose lives are affected with mental illness, she doesn’t take her medication. In her case, she chooses not to. She’s in and out of mental health facilities and only takes her medication for as long as the involuntary psychiatric hold lasts.

As much and often as I wish I could find a legal loophole to force her to take her medication, and even when I think those meds might just be what saves her, I realize that whether she takes them or not or accepts treatment at all are supposed to remain her choices, not mine or my mother’s or the numerous doctors who’ve treated her over the years. No, as hard as it is for me and my family to accept, how my sister lives her life, for better or worse, is her choice and all we can do as her family is hope she finds the strength to eventually choose the life she deserves. Ultimately, managing her mental health has to start with her wanting to be better and then doing what it takes to make that happen. She’s either going to save herself or remain unsaved.

As I prepared for my mother’s move to Texas, and since my sister moving with her wasn’t an option unless she proved she could take her medicine regularly and consistently, we arranged for my sister to live in an assisted living facility in the Bay Area. The week we were supposed to check her in she vehemently refused to go and literally ran off. My mother and I flew back to Texas before we could find her. We eventually found out she was, and still is, rotating sleeping from one relative’s house to another some nights, with whomever is willing to help and tolerate her for the night, while other nights no one is quite sure where she sleeps. We have no idea where she spends her days. So it’s fair to say that my sister has consequently just joined the close to 6,500 homeless people living in San Francisco.

That it’s all come down to this breaks my heart. I would go to the ends of the earth for my sister – the ends of the earth. I would do more for her than most people would be willing to do for a sibling, for anyone. And I, and my mother, have done exactly that. Numerous family members and a handful of her friends have tried to help. Still it’s not enough. She has to want to save herself, but she doesn’t want to, or maybe she doesn’t have the mental capacity to decide that she does. I don’t know. I only want my sister to be happy, safe and healthy. I wish I could help her find that, but I don’t know how.

I have a lot of days when I pine for my sister, the sister I knew growing up, the girl I used to tell all my secrets to, the one person who never judged me because she understood me, the sister who was once the only person in this world I trusted and could rely on. I have yet to know anyone else I can trust and rely on more than I ever did her. She was always so bold, incredibly funny, loyal and just fierce. I see her boldness in her daughter everyday. She was my “ride or die,” the best one I’ve ever had. I miss my sister, I miss her more than you can imagine.

My dear friend and mentor, Denise, once told me, “I don’t have wise words or sound advice for next steps.  I would only remind you that no one loves or will love your sister as much as you and your other family members.  You guys are always her first and last hope.  You may not understand her illness and it may distance you from her from time to time, but at the end of the day, somewhere at the essence of our humanity, down at the place where God’s creation is a work, she is yours and you are hers.  I’m not sure what that this love is supposed to look like after repeated bad episodes and months of erratic behaviors, but surely it’s there and it will always be extended toward her and calling her home.”

In my moments of despair, I cling to the wisdom and hope behind those words. And when I lay my head down each night I pray. I pray that somewhere beneath the haze of my sister’s mental illness she can still feel the breadth of our family’s love. Between the bouts when the chemical imbalance in her brain undermines the logic in her mind, I pray she has moments of clarity, however brief, when she’s aware that she is not alone, that she is loved deeply and missed dearly. We have not given up on her. Her life matters, it is valuable and it matters. And God help, may she never stray so far that she can’t find her way back home. Until then, my family and I will be here, waiting, full of hope, so much hope, and always with arms wide open.

One in five Americans live with mental illness. Please help change the way the world sees mental health. Take the StigmaFree pledge. 1) Learn about mental health issues. 2) See the Person and not the illness. 3) Take action on mental health issues. Click here to learn more.  And if you’re in Texas, click here. #OkaytoSay #EndtheStigma #LetsTalkAboutMentalHealth

**Folks, don’t forget I gain a large portion of my readers by word of mouth. If  you like what you read, if I made you laugh, even cry, please do share my blog post. Forward it via email, Tweet it, Like it, Facebook post it, talk about it.** Much love, MS

Christmas 2004 016

Christmas 2004

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Let’s Keep It Real

April 10, 2016 9 comments

One of the many disadvantages of divorce is that, like a deer in headlights, you find yourself thrust back into the dating pool – but now you’re near middle age, carrying a lifetime of baggage,  your body bearing the battle scars of carrying three children, and worst of all, you have to navigate how to date in this current era of online date shopping. It’s all pretty darn overwhelming.

After 18 years of being with the same man you’ve dated since you were 19, it’s hard not to feel ill equipped for this new world of single ladyhood. Few friends can relate because everyone else your age is happily hitched. (Mind you, some days, that feels like added insult to injury.) So you have a lot of internal dialogue to walk yourself through how dating is supposed to work. (Much like the rest of my life.)

The first thing I learned was I needed to do a bit of an overhaul on my wardrobe. I was now in marketing-self mode and all my mommy khakis and baby doll tees were no longer sufficient for going out attire.  The cute and sexy clothes section of my closet grew from a corner to near half. And I upped my shoe game exponentially. (DSW is very happy with me.)

Next lesson – how to sign up for these dating sites. The dos, don’ts, and better nots. Read more…

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The Business of Fixing Broken

February 6, 2016 12 comments

Once upon a time I was married to the love of my life, but then he left, and there went life as I knew it. Up until he left I had just spent an entire year carefully and methodically planning how I would maneuver through my life’s next big chapter – law school, which I’d known even then would require a fine balancing act juggling family, work, school and a commute that would make your head spin. I was excited, scared but excited, and ready. I’d already drawn up color coded schedules and posted them all over the house. I thought of everything. I had it all figured out, at least I thought I did.

What I didn’t plan for was my husband announcing he was leaving me the day before school started. I didn’t make a plan for that. Now in hindsight I probably should’ve seen that coming, but I really didn’t, not then. That week leading up to his actual exit and flight back to California, 1700 miles away from our family and the life we built together, my children and I watched him angrily pack as many things as he could as though he were trying to wipe our home clean of not only his presence, but his existence from our family for those last 18 years. It was horrible. And painful. Two decades of my life, hard work, and devotion were coming undone and for all the mastery I claimed in problem solving and running a solid family ship – my life had fallen from underneath me and there was nothing I could do. I was floored, and utterly broken. Read more…

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Dear Dads Everywhere

January 30, 2016 2 comments

I wouldn’t call my relationship with my father close, but we’ve worked on it more in these latter years. He saw my recent posts on Facebook indicating I was in town and asked me on a lunch date today before I head back to Austin. Nothing fancy, a simple lunch, but lovely just the same. He’s never asked me on a date before, but said, “..every once in a green moon, we shall have each other for a date..” which lent inference to me that we would be having more dates. At the end of our date and before he dropped me off at the airport he told me some things contrary to the man I’ve known him to be in the past – hard to please, not very affectionate, and rough around the edges.

The exact content of what he said is private and just for me and him, but all you need to know is he revealed his sensitive side, he expressed a deep pride for me I didn’t know exist until then, and he acknowledged me in a way I don’t remember he’s done before, ever. It was all quite sweet and made me think, “It’s never too late to try to do better.” (And quite frankly that sentiment applies to all aspects of life, not just in the repair of relationships.)

So this all got me to thinking… Read more…

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Life Lessons My Dog Taught Me

My youngest dog, Dexter Jax, is a Pit Bull Labrador mix, at least according to the rescue I got him from last September. Poor guy was a stray bearing physical marks of abuse and it was evident people frightened him. My other dogs always favored my kids or my ex, but if you met Dexter you’d know within minutes that he’s my dog and I’m his human.

Dexter is very special to me. I don’t know if it’s due to the sad circumstances he came to me under or if it has more to do with the time frame in my life he arrived – two years after a divorce that knocked the wind out of me and neck deep in trying to reinvent myself whilst trying to figure out what that was even supposed to look like. Honestly, it doesn’t matter, I’m just happy he’s here.

It’s a funny thing the lessons he’s taught me since he arrived, some of which I knew at some point in my life but carelessly let myself forget or just stopped believing. Here are a few of those lessons.

Read more…

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Curling Irons and Training Bras: The Glories of Tweenhood

Last summer I sent my girls to California and they came back to Texas with boobs. Mind you, little boobs, okay, mosquito bites, but still, boobs nonetheless. Now if that’s not a warning sign my girls are growing up, then the discarded toys replaced with Claire’s and “I Love Justin Bieber” accessories sure are.

I gotta’ say the most amusing thing about watching them grow up as of late is the pace, or rather the response with which each girl is treating the changes that come with adolescence. One girl has taken the oh-my-God-what’s-happening-to-me approach, whereas the other couldn’t be more welcoming. I’m not sure who I should be worried about more.

On one side I’ve got a girl who thinks she’s 11 going on 23. Her bathroom counter is littered with a curling iron, a hair straightener, four different perfumes, and a variety of fragrant lotions. She just wrapped up her exploratory hairstyle phase, too. Believe me, if I didn’t love my kids so much I’d tweet the pics of some of her hairdos for public entertainment. Read more…

A Private Room…For Dogs..To Do What?!?

October 19, 2011 8 comments

As if four kids wasn’t enough we also have four dogs, all boys. Feeding them, keeping their shots up to date, and buying them toys costs us a pretty penny, same as our kids do, but they’re worth more than the trouble they get into so we keep ’em around. Hmm, same as our kids do. *Insert pic of light bulb turning on above Maria’s head here.*

My secret favorite dog is Hogan, a sweet lil’ Dachshund Chihuahua mix, whose daddy, I’m convinced, is not actually the chihuahua his mother has led everyone to believe, but rather the much more good looking  Doberman Pinscher “player” from around the way.  Hogan maintains the never-experienced-a-shelter-mentality, innocent and loving. He’s constantly smothering people with dog kisses, which wouldn’t be so bad if his breath didn’t smell like a fish container.  Read more…

Kaleidoscope

I realize it’s been a while since I’ve posted on this blog. I haven’t stopped writing, just nothing I’m ready to share with anyone outside of myself, for now at least. It’s proving to be a trying year for me and next year doesn’t look any less trying, but I won’t complain because I think we all have those years. I read a saying the other day. It said, “Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass, it’s about learning how to dance in the rain.” And that’s what I’ve been busy trying to do.

Here’s an older piece I’ve written but never posted. When I feel lost and unsure, I read it, and it reminds me why I keep trying.

At first glance my life is far from alluring or impressive. There are no trophies that adorn the mantel of my fireplace. I haven’t any certificates set in matted frames boasting my prestigious credentials or latest tangible achievements. I am not gifted with extraordinary talents nor am I even the least bit good at any sports requiring running, dunking, or serving. I have not traveled the world, I have never even stepped foot off this continent. I would say I’m just a simple girl, humble of the great things I have yet to accomplish and aspire, but still grateful for my life’s daily mediocre triumphs. Read more…

Exhaustion

March 24, 2011 9 comments

I’m not a morning person, never have been. In fact, I have a love hate relationship with my snooze button. I need her, rely on her, religiously check on her just in case, but every morning I blindly smack her quiet for that luxurious ten more minutes of sleep. Who am I kidding? I set her for 6:30, but shush her half a dozen times before my husband has to coerce me out of bed with coffee at 7. And that’s on a good day.

The worse days entail me waking up to my fourteen year old standing above me citing I have fifteen minutes to get dressed and out the door. Better believe I’ve long since given up fixing my face and hair unless I can work that in while I warm up the car. I usually focus on just trying not to wear the same outfit two days in a row and some weeks I don’t even manage that.  Read more…

Letter to my 17 year old self

November 19, 2010 5 comments

Several years ago a few friends and I practiced an exercise where we each wrote a letter to our 17 year old selves, words of advice so to speak. It was awesome, very self-reflective, and showed us just how much we’d learned and been through in the previous decade. I encourage you to try this yourself. Here is my letter.

Dear Maria,

I know you feel alone, like you’ve just lost the rest of your life because you have this baby to raise, but I promise you – it will get better. Just ride this time out, it doesn’t seem like it, but this time will only equate to a very small portion of your life. And your life is far from over.

You will learn to be a good mom. It takes time and I know you are unsure of yourself right now but you will learn.

Finish school. Go straight to college, even if it’s only part time. If you fail a class because you’re having a hard time juggling work and your son, ask for help from the family and take the class again. Make it work this time. Just don’t stop going. You’ll regret it if you don’t.

Get a digital camera as soon as you can afford it. Take a lot of pictures. Those digital pictures are going to last a lot longer than the 35mm film. Honest.

You will find the love of your life.

You haven’t even met half of the people you are going to meet in your lifetime. Don’t worry.

You are going to make a million more GREAT memories that you don’t believe you can- but you will! Just be patient.

Save some money in a secret bank account. Make it an IRA plan that you can’t access so easily.

Save more money for AJ sooner, college will be around the corner before you know it.

Spend less time worrying about your weight. You’re not fat.

You are beautiful. You have great cheek bones, smooth skin, and a sweet smile. Enjoy your youthful beauty for as long as you can because when you get older you will regret that you never realized what you had.

Practice safe sex.

Don’t have sex with your girlfriends’ ex-boyfriends, it complicates things.

Cherish the group of friends you have in your 20’s. They will be the best you ever have.

Don’t drive drunk.

Accept your mom for who she is. She’s crazy but don’t ask her to change, don’t expect her to. She doesn’t have to and she won’t ever. The sooner you accept that the sooner you can make amends with who she is to you.

Don’t be sad  about Dad. I know you think he doesn’t love you, but he does. It’s not about you. You didn’t do anything wrong. Some people are just broken.

Hold onto every moment with your baby sister. Make every memory with her last longer. Love her. Take care of her for as long as you can. Forgive her.

Control your temper. Don’t get so angry. The world isn’t out to get you. Think before you react. THINK FIRST. Revenge doesn’t fix anything.

Don’t sweat the stuff people do to you, life really is a circle. You get what you give.

Get into jogging, or running, or walking in the mornings. Make it a habit.

Write it all down. All of it. Everything you feel. Everything you’re afraid of. All of your secret hopes you don’t want anyone to know about. Write it all down. Hide them if you have to but just write it all down. Your own words will serve as your record that you actually did it, you went through it, you got through it. I know you’re afraid people will read what you write but that’s okay. When you get older you will want them to.

When you are 22 you will go through some things that make you question yourself. You will ask this question everyday for several years. The answer is yes. Yes, the tears will stop. Be strong.

Throw less house parties. They are not worth the headache.

Buy a hybrid car as soon as they are available. I’m serious. Don’t worry about how they look. It won’t matter soon enough.

Go ahead and take those risks. They won’t always pay off, but when they do, they will pay off BIG.

Take care of your credit.

Don’t talk back to Grandma. Just listen to her. You don’t have to believe everything she says, you can pretend. She won’t be around forever and you will regret the times you fought with her.

You don’t know who I’m talking about yet but- he will come home. He will.

Don’t be angry when your kids act just like you, they are doing it because you are what they know.

Don’t get angry when your kids don’t act like you, they are their own people. They’re not you. Let them be who they want to be.

Last piece of advice. Remember this one because you will question this time and again for decades to come. Things are going to work out for you. You will be okay. Don’t let your fears stop you from trying or you’ll miss out on all the successess in store for you. Don’t stop trying. Your life is worth it. You are worth it.

Love,

30 year old Maria

P.S. Don’t overanalyze this letter. It’s not a map of your future. It’s just some advice from someone older and wiser.

Why I write comical satire

Wouldn’t all the crap in my life be experienced in vain if I couldn’t share my family’s dysfunction with others so that they, in turn, might gain some consolation in knowing at least their lives don’t exceed the lunacy I encounter everyday?

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