Since the start of the pandemic, I have had plenty of time to be alone with my thoughts. Thoughts of who I am, thoughts on my experiences, and thoughts on the current state of my mental health. I know I’m not alone in this. For those of us dealing with past traumas, this quarantine is only making it easy to ruminate in how hurt we are and how deep the scars go. I can’t help but be angry right now about some past experiences.
When I was a young teen, my parents began a very long and very-turbulent custody battle for my two step-siblings that has affected me in ways that I am still coming to terms with as a mid-twenties adult. It was a pretty ugly legal journey. My step-father’s ex-wife was very cruel and pitiless to both her children, so my parents decided to step in to try to remedy the damage she had done before their lives were forever altered. She was downright emotionally, mentally (and possibly physically) abusive to her children, yet she retaliated aggressively to the idea of the kids coming to live with their dad. And when I speak of retaliation, hers came in many forms – harassing emails, slander, bogus calls to Child Protective Services saying the kids never ate at our house, etc.
My step-sister and step-brother had been so manipulated by their mother, that they did whatever she commanded out of desperation for her affection and approval, so the retaliation sometimes came through them by her guidance. I have memories of lamps being destroyed by scissors, household items being broken into pieces, and items of sentimental value being stolen or ruined. It was stressful, but I was able to cope with the stress when I reminded myself that it was for a good cause – that our family was trying to save these kids from more trauma and to hopefully provide a better future for them.
But the stress took a turn for the worse while I was home visiting from freshman year of college during the holiday break. We were already very much aware of how intense the ex-wife’s wrath could be… but that December it hit a tipping point. One afternoon, while the family was doing yard work in the backyard, my car’s passenger-side window was smashed to pieces. I was distraught because I was a broke college student and it was not going to be a cheap fix. It was even more upsetting when the glass specialist looked at the damage and made it very clear that this was not an accident. With the patterns that the glass had broken, the angle in which the glass shards had fallen, etc…. someone had to have slammed something like a baseball bat into the window several times over with the intention of breaking it.
Of course, it was obvious who the mastermind behind the break-in was. In the days leading up to it, the emails had gotten more and more savage and were even vaguely-threatening. But, we couldn’t be sure if she had snuck through the woods by our house and up our driveway herself or had someone else do it – whether it be a boyfriend or one of the kids. The kids would almost always disappear somewhere whenever asked to help with chores (with that day not being an exception to that) and they were nowhere in sight when the window-breaking would’ve happened. But, we avoided placing blame on anyone and tried to convince ourselves that this was part of the battle of life and that it would someday be a distant memory that led up to things getting better, for us and for my two step-siblings.
Not too many days after, I was up late one night watching TV in my room. As I turned off the TV and rolled on my side to face the window, I thought I saw something move outside my window in the dark. I squinted my eyes to see what I had thought was probably an owl or a possum walking by (my room was in the basement, so my window was at ground level and there were constantly little critters scrambling by at night) but the familiar sight of a camera light flashing made my blood run cold.
Realizing someone was outside my window watching me, filming me, I froze and stayed as still as possible – I was so scared of who was out there and what they might do to me. I thought of my siblings snoring in the next rooms and my parents upstairs, not sure how to get to them without the person outside realizing it and possibly breaking in the window and attacking. What if they have a gun? Who are they? What do they want? I lied there motionless for what felt like hours before the flashing camera light stealthily moved away from the window and into the darkness.
I was in shock for what felt like forever and I honestly don’t remember what happened after that – I might have fainted, there in my own bed, terrified that someone had come to hurt me or my family. There wasn’t anything to do, as we didn’t have cameras around the house and we didn’t think the police would come out to investigate something that did not end up in actual violence. So, I did my best to move on from that night. It was sometime later that year when something made us aware of the possibility it had could have been someone sent by the ex-wife (it’s been so long, I honestly couldn’t tell you what it was that made us think this). It was another one of those “we couldn’t ever prove this, no matter how strongly our gut tells us we are right, so we can’t do anything about it” moments that we had become all too familiar with during the custody battle.
The custody battle went on for years… and ultimately led to nothing. Our final big showdown in court looked like a slam-dunk and we were ecstatic that it was finally going to be over. We had a great lawyer, the ex-wife had sent hundreds of emails incriminating herself of vindictive behaviors, had even posted a video online of her verbally abusing her son, and so much more. Finally, all the anxiety and stress of the past 7 years was going to be worth it and the kids were going to be out of that environment!
But right before our court date, the lawyer met privately with the ex-wife, then completely ghosted us. Stopped answering emails. Wouldn’t reply to calls. Just, gone. My parents showed up on the date of the meeting, not knowing what was going on. The lawyer was indeed there, but acted completely disinterested in his clients, failed to adequately present the case to the judge, and subsequently wasted our 8 years of heartbreak in just a couple of hours. The straw that finally broke the camel’s back was the fact that my step-sister, who had been manipulated by her mother her entire life, was willing to tell a judge that she hated our family and never wanted to see us again, citing off a very-rehearsed list of reasons why.
I remember that day vividly – I was standing in the kitchen of my small, apartment-style dorm while my roommates were watching TV when I got the call after the court appointment. I was already deeply depressed, and anxiety-ridden from a completely different recent personal trauma that had left me feeling destroyed, but as always I had kept it to myself and put on a happy-go-lucky façade for everyone around me. As my mom described to me what happened, that’s when it hit me for the first time.
I was ANGRY. No, I was beyond angry – I was grieving the lost time I could have been a normal teenager, the time I could’ve felt anything but ill from anxiety, and the time I could’ve felt safe from car window smashing and the camera watching me outside my window. I remember falling to the kitchen floor and screaming, ripping my hair out, clawing the skin on my arms until I drew blood. My poor roommates just stared in panic, not knowing what the hell to do with this crazy person on their kitchen floor. But I didn’t care anymore. My whole life, I worried what others thought of me but now I couldn’t give a shit. I was experiencing an emotional breakdown. I was so angry, I was hurting.
For 7 years, we had gone through so much heartbreak that had all been for nothing. This made me angry. My stepsiblings were 7 and 9 when the custody battle started and by then they were teens, and their mother’s emotional and mental manipulation had already done so much damage that there was no point in starting over. For years, I had been terrified to seem anything but functional – because lawyers and judges and child advocates always look to the siblings to determine if a parent is fit to take over custody of a child – until I was so riddled with anxiety that I couldn’t eat without throwing up and my hair was falling out while most of my friends were out having fun, going to parties, dating, having new experiences.
But I never told anyone the extent of my anxiety and I tried to be brave for my family. This isn’t for me, I had told myself, it’s to save my brother and sister. I loved them like they were my own flesh-and-blood siblings, only to be punished for it at every twist and turn.
It has taken many years to pick myself off of that kitchen floor, and occasionally I still find myself there. I don’t speak to my step-siblings anymore. The older sister is now 20 and disappeared from our lives a while ago, while the younger brother just turned eighteen and has gone off to do his own thing. I see people online talking about how they are using the COVID-19 crisis to reconnect with estranged siblings and I think about how nice that must be, to be able to push away from being angry inside and to grow from it… but I am still as angry as I was the day I got that phone call. I’ve spent so much time being angry at their mom for being a manipulative monster, at them for ultimately choosing her and for pushing us away, at my own parents for trying to get custody in the first place. But most of all, I am angry with myself for being so consumed with hate.
To those of you who are also struggling with pain and anger from the past while stuck alone with your thoughts during isolation, I do have some words of wisdom I am finding helpful right now from my favorite poet, Kahlil Gibran, that I hope will bring you some peace as well:
“Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.”