Content Warning: abuse, neglect, poverty, insects, rodents, suicide, depression, dieting, body shaming and bullying
This was a very busy and consequential decade of my life. I'm sure that's true for most of us. We are changing rapidly and our education is laying a foundation for whatever we do in our future. I'm also sure I'm not the only person who was adversely impacted by my family's problems. There are many such stories about the ways your family's dysfunction or abuse can damage your psyche and your ability to prepare for your future. This is mine.
I'm going to split this into multiple posts. Even so I'm condensing quite a bit.
While Mom and I still lived in our trailer at Shady Acres Trailer Court, I was still enjoying the last bit of my childhood. There were a few troubling incidents but for the most part I was still having fun, making friends and reading great books.
For awhile Mom was dating my dad. This was as weird as it sounds. He broke up with my stepmother and I guess Mom was simply there, someone familiar. I went to one baseball game with him and it was so awkward I gave up talking to him and hung out with other kids there, competing to catch errant balls for a reward. It wasn't long before they had an argument and split up. Of course he disappeared from my life again. I learned not to expect much from him.
My mom had a mild heart attack and I was the one to call for an ambulance. Doctors decided it was her birth control pills, taken to even out her cycle, that caused the blood clot.
Her mood was volatile during this period and there were a few times where she had meltdowns that resembled a two year old's tantrum--throwing things, yelling, stomping, and generally out of control behavior. This terrified me. She'd had these tantrums throughout my life but these were far more extreme. Things were broken. She often ranted at me because some small action of mine was blamed as the cause of her behavior. This theme would later be echoed by my abuser and I fell for it because of these earlier experiences. Both people were saying that my behavior was so difficult to tolerate that this acting out was the only way to cope. Even if I didn't consciously agree, the idea sank in and took root, affecting my self esteem.
During this time, ages 10 through 12, I was often on antibiotics for what I now would consider post nasal drip from my allergies. Mom would latch on to any symptom I had and get a doctor to agree that it was something more serious and that intervention was needed. I had surgery on my ears to install tiny drainage tubes. She would also wake me up in the middle of the night for a dose of antibiotic so they'd be spaced out in four precisely timed doses. I was told at one point that I had rheumatic fever and had regular blood tests which registered an elevated SED rate, whatever that meant. I never heard a doctor say I had rheumatic fever, by the way, so I don't have accurate information about my childhood medical history. Doctors have passed away and I doubt records exist now. I was only able to get hospital records from the hospital in my home town.
I was told not to run or play vigorously because of this illness and so I was turned from a very active child into a more sedentary one. I was given a note for gym class to have someone run the bases for me in softball--which caused resentment and ridicule by classmates.
I was being taught that I couldn't trust my body even if it felt ok to me.
As the Viet Nam war began winding down the ammunition plant my mom worked at began layoffs. She had worked up to Government Inspector on the most dangerous line and was very proud of that. It was a horrible blow to her self esteem and to our life and finances. She couldn't find a comparable paying job in time to save our trailer or our car. Both were repossessed, though she managed to dodge the men trying to take her car for awhile.
I was still in sixth grade when we moved from the familiar trailer court to the edge of town in a house on 17th by two cemeteries. There was no trash service and everyone simply threw their trash into a large gully. The rat population was delighted by this and they thrived--and invaded our home to also eat our dog's food at night. We put out poison and one died inside the wall, causing a horrific smell for weeks.
My mom subsided into a deep depression. One day I discovered a will she'd written and I realized she was suicidal. I had no idea what to do about it other than try to cheer her up. I had long been taught that her moods were something I had to watch out for and try to change if I could.
Early in the summer we moved again. Mom had met a man and started dating him. He owned a house he wasn't living in at the time and we moved there. Mom settled in and began painting it. I got a large attic-like room at the top of the stairs. That was the summer I slept all day, watched Star Trek re-runs in the afternoon and went out walking all over town in the middle of the night. I've told that story elsewhere.
Just before I was to start 7th grade (Junior High School, 71/72)) Mom had a huge fight with this guy and was so angry she yanked the phone right out of the wall. This was in the days where the phone company owned the line and it wasn't something you could just snap out of the phone jack. It was mounted on the wall and hard-wired in. The phone company could charge you for that. Next thing I knew we were packing up and Mom had found a funky little house on the North side of town, N 12th, which had a hole in the floor and no shower or tub. Grandma helped to lay down some linoleum and paint the walls and we moved in. We had no money for heat at the time. Mom had a job with Motorola in Quincy IL and so she was commuting through that winter, never quite catching up on bills. We didn't get heat until late November. Her depression returned and I began to suffer from depression also. I was dealing with a new school, a funky house with no way to take a bath or shower, worried about my hygiene, and we had cockroaches. I had a huge phobia of cockroaches caused by a traumatic experience so I had difficulty sleeping. I was terrified they'd crawl on me at night.
At school I dealt with gym class and showers. Ironically, that year I WANTED a shower but not in front of other girls and not using the teeny tiny towel we were handed. Yet I did try to soap up and actually get a bit cleaner. I remember being cornered by my locker as I tried to dry off and get dressed quite often. I dreaded gym class as a result.
On my 13th birthday, December 2, 1971, I came home to an empty house where every dish was dirty. Mom didn't get home until later in the evening. I was fed up with the house and everything in it and I rage-washed every dish. I don't even recall what there was to eat. I'm sure on the weekend we went to someone's house and had cake but I can't remember that. Just the endless dishes.
Around this time mom had gone on diet pills. Yes they gave out speed to help women lose weight. Even my teen-aged cousin got some! It was the 70s. Watching family members go on and off diet pills with all the symptoms they had did not inspire me to do the same.
Later in the year Mom went into the hospital for a full hysterectomy. She had had previous surgeries on her ovaries for cysts. Now they were just taking out everything. Given her history of Munchausen's syndrome, I have no idea if it was warranted or if she talked a doctor into it. She was good at that. But this time it backfired. It took years for them to get her hormone supplements into the right balance for her and she went into the deepest depression she ever experienced (that I witnessed anyway). She went on welfare. In the summer before I started 8th grade (1972), we moved again as she lost the house (she had been purchasing it because monthly payments were cheaper). Now we were across town on Timea Street near the corner of 7th street in a white duplex. Again Mom painted (boy they really let you paint rentals back then, at least in Keokuk) and we settled in. I had a room upstairs and had to adjust to the sounds of a busy street as my main windows faced it. The walls were a swimming pool aqua, the floor gray-painted wood. At some point I got an overhead light bulb to match.
As my mom's depression deepened and she abandoned house cleaning and cooking altogether I mostly stayed in my room listening to my radio and reading. I visited my grandparents at their farm every chance I got, to escape the gloomy atmosphere and squalor. It was during one of those visits just before 8th grade began that my mom attempted suicide. By chance her father, Grandpa Glen, came over to see her. She wasn't expecting him. The odd behavior of her dogs made him ask the landlord to let him inside to check on her and he called an ambulance. My grandparents brought me to the hospital and her glassy eyes shocked and scared me. I felt guilty that I had so obviously been avoiding her company and wondered if I made her feel worse.
That was the year I began writing poetry and short stories, trying to deal with my questions and feelings. When I wasn't in my room I was visiting friends or going next door to borrow a phone to call friends. My mom's phone-yanking incident prevented us from getting a new phone line because she owed the phone company money. I had some very kind neighbors who never seemed to mind me knocking on their doors at random times in the afternoon or early evening to use their phone. I guess they identified with being a teenager and were sympathetic to what that's like without a phone.
I dieted heavily that year (72-73), aided by the filthy kitchen and lack of cooking by my mom. I'd gained weight eating maid rites while visiting with the young woman who worked in the evening. Looking back I think I had a crush on her. Since mom worked late and commuted that year I'd often gone to see Grandma at the Gold Bond Stamp store where she was working, get a little cash and then go eat Maid Rites (loose hamburger meat sandwiches). I weighted 180 or so and hated my body. Plus a year of body shaming after gym class had taken its toll on my self esteem. For most of that year I ate only school lunches and the occasional one slice of bread ketchup sandwich at home if my stomach hurt. I lost 30 lbs but was ultimately frustrated that I could not drop below 150 lbs no matter what I did. Walking to school and back and up and down stairs plus gym class was plenty of exercise. All the weight I thought of as excess was from my waist down. Once I hit puberty I was always a size smaller on top (at least) than on bottom. Sometimes two sizes different. In December of 1972 I turned 14.
I recall being quizzed by the "mean girls" regularly about what I was, or wasn't, eating. I held my starvation dieting like a shield though it did no good. I received no social approval, only disbelief and scorn that would make me redouble my efforts to starve the weight off.
I didn't make the connection but I began to get dizzy going up stairs and nearly passed out. Mom was oddly excited and made an appointment at the University of Iowa hospital for a full work up. They did everything from IQ tests to blood tests, an exam and probably psychological testing. Nothing explained my dizzy spells though mom's theory was epilepsy. That's why she was excited--it would be a serious thing to have and that would bring attention. I didn't understand it at the time but later I began to realize she had some weird investment in me being very ill.
Our dining room ceiling fell in and when our landlord, who lived in the other side of our duplex, came over to see it we couldn't hide the filthy state of the house or the cockroaches we'd apparently brought from our old home. We were evicted. He was furious and cussed Mom out. We found a nice apartment on the other side of town, 7th and Grand, a converted Victorian house turned into apartments. Our landlords lived across the street and also my soon-to-be 9th grade English teacher. (I'm so bad with names that hers escapes me but I borrowed books from here quite often.) Aunt Pauline lived next door to our landlords so I visited her regularly too and I had friends a couple of blocks away. I talked Mom into giving up all but one of her dogs and promised that if there weren't so many I could help her keep on top of housework. She had a friend who could take them in so she'd be able to visit them.
I began 9th grade, the 73-74 school year. With my friend Carolyn I was studying Eastern religions and in particular we wanted to know more about what George Harrison was into. That led us to ISKCON and in the summer of 1974 I found an address on some incense and wrote to the organization to buy Krishna Book. We also read and re-read A Soul's Journey by Peter Richelieu, an account of a man taught to astral travel and visit levels normally only seen in one's afterlife. It was a very attractive picture of life after death. We were enchanted and wrote a lot of poetry together about these ideas.
The new apartment had cockroaches--I despaired of escaping the damned things--but they sprayed and managed to get rid of them. I was so relieved. I got permission to paint it. It had been yellow with white trim and gold carpet and that was nice but Aunt Gin had a red and black carpet she used to use in her bedroom that she didn't need anymore. I pictured white walls, red trim and that red carpet speckled with black. I thought it would be dramatic and hey, I was a teen. I painted it myself and did a good job. I used masking tape and cardboard to mark off areas I wanted to paint red.
In the Spring of 1973 fights with my mom had gotten physical and just as I had felt the previous year, I wanted a foster home. This time I called social services without talking to any family members first so they couldn't interfere. I'd been told previously that my mom might kill herself if I didn't stay and take care of her. I was taken to the County Home, a place for indigent elderly people with one wing for problem teens--mostly those who got into trouble though sometimes teens like me with difficult homes. Eventually we had a court hearing and I was so miserable at the institutional setting of the County Home I asked to be returned to my mom. My father didn't attend which was painful--he simply sent a statement that he would abide by the court's decision. No offer to take me in, no visit, nothing. Anyway I figured I had more freedom to see my friends if I put up with my mom's moods and tantrums.
As school started in September of 1974 I was getting more and more excited about ISKCON and I found out that George Harrison was coming to St. Louis on tour. I hatched a plan to go and to stay overnight in the Hare Krsna temple in St. Louis. I even asked my Dad for money for the concert ticket. (I think it was only ten bucks!) Here was the set list: https://www.setlist.fm/setlist/george-harrison-and-ravi-shankar/1974/st-louis-arena-st-louis-mo-23c48067.html
My fate was sealed when I set foot in the St. Louis temple for the first time. A wonderful scent wrapped itself around me, consisting of exotic spices and incense, a scent I tried to preserve in my suitcase for as long as possible after I returned home. The devotees were so cheerful and kind, and the women wore beautiful saris that seemed so elegant compared to my own clothes. The temple room was beautiful and the Gour-Nitai Deities on the altar were stunning. (In the various branches of Hinduism, God is said to enter into the form of Deities that are made according to scriptural instructions and then “installed” with the correct ceremony and prayers. This is said to be His kindness to allow us to serve Him.
I could barely tear myself away to go to the concert. One I arrived I was surprised that the devotees weren’t attending—I hadn’t yet learned about their practices of distributing literature—so I went in alone, a little overwhelmed by the crowd. I found my way to my seat, high above the stage and far enough away that George Harrison was almost ant-like. I didn’t care; I was in the same room with him, breathing the same air, wrapped in my teenage awe and fervor.
After the concert I made my way back to the temple and went to sleep in the women’s quarters, waking up early the next morning for the services and class. I was so sad that I had to leave; I had such a good time.
My life became increasingly about serving Krishna and I was even more impatient to go back to the temple, permanently. Carolyn and I found a book by journalist Faye Levine entitled, The Strange World of the Hare Krishnas, about her stay in the New York temple. While I wondered if I could handle the austerities of getting up early in the morning (3:30 a.m.) and the many other activities of temple life, I was fascinated by the total absorption I imagined in devotional service to God. Surely it wouldn’t take long to achieve pure devotion to God if I lived like that every day! Look at how “Krishna Conscious” I felt after one short visit to a temple!
I was having more conflict with my mother than ever. She was increasingly disturbed by my involvement in Krishna Consciousness and my new dietary restrictions. I had become a lacto-vegetarian and she was convinced that I was not getting enough protein even though I drank plenty of milk. In retrospect, it amuses me that she never worried about my extreme crash diets when I probably wasn’t getting enough protein. She took me to a doctor so he could tell me that my internal organs could be consumed by my body to meet my protein needs! We were fighting more and more and at times she became violent. I was more anxious to leave home than ever.
I dropped out of school, tired of the bullying I had tolerated for years and seeing no reason to subject myself to it. I was old enough finally (I’d turned 16 in December of ’74) to make the choice. I was hoping my mom would get tired of the fighting and let me go. Finally, in June of 1975 after a violent fight where she hit me with a desk phone, my mom told me that I could go for two months and if at the end of that time I wanted to stay, she would sign over custody to the temple president. This was my grandma’s idea and they were both thinking that I would get tired of it and get homesick.
Two months later Mom changed her mind and brought me back. I was 16 and I was willing to fight to get away from her this time. The temple helped me start court proceedings and I was given my own lawyer even while I remained in her physical custody. She moved to Missouri to avoid the court's jurisdiction but in Missouri I could leave when I turned 17 in December of 1975--which is exactly what I did.
To be continued. I am not proofreading as I write these so I'll probably do a sweep through for that after they are all finished.