For as long as I can remember, dad called me mouse. He said I was so quiet he never knew when I was there. I tiptoed from room to room, looking for places to hide. The clothes hamper perhaps, or up in the magnolia tree, but I never thought of myself as quiet. The thoughts in my head were so loud I never realized I was supposed to be speaking. I preferred imagination to reality, but school was lonely.
It wasn’t until 4th grade when I realized making friends probably involved speaking. Conversations swirled around me all the time, but I only half heard them. By the time I realized I should say something, or interact in some way, the moment had passed. I couldn’t figure out how to be part of things. One day I was sent home from school early with a fever. Mom picked me up and we were buzzing down the highway in her red VW bug with the windows rolled down while she smoked a cigarette. The car couldn’t go past 55 without the whole thing shaking violently and she was pushing it. I kicked my sandals off onto the floorboard and the vibrations tickled my bare feet. I stared out the window chewing my lip and thinking about the problem. Maybe it was because I was sick and tired, but I finally decided I needed help. For me to confide in anyone was a huge deal. I just didn’t do that. So I began to explain slowly. To her credit, she showed no reaction. Foot up on the dash next to the steering wheel and arm hanging out the window she looked straight ahead and casually blew a line of smoke at the windshield. I could tell she didn’t want to scare the mouse and was debating a response. Soon the problem tumbled out of me faster and faster while I tried to make with her to understand the desperation and hopelessness of the situation. My brain might be broken I said. Whatever mental disorder I seemed to have kept getting in the way of being normal and making friends. I couldn’t figure out how to stop being absorbed in my own thoughts long enough to pay attention. It was too hard. My heart was a lump in my throat. The words had been jumbled up so long they came out in half sentences. Finally I stopped and waited. I needed her to understand and have a solution. I wanted to cry, but I didn’t. Until she yelled at me.
Mom had listened intently asking the occasional question until I was done. A long moment passed after I stopped speaking. I leaned toward her waiting for a solution begging for her to say something genius that would fix this. She waited thoughtfully, then squinted her eyes and took another long drag on her cigarette. Quickly as if she had made a decision she blew it out in a frustrated puff, smothered her cigarrette in the ashtray, then COMPLETELY let loose on me. “ARE YOU KIDDING ME? That’s the dumbest thing I’ve EVER HEARD! You’re telling me YOU CANT CONTROL YOUR OWN MIND?! Do you think I can control your mind for you? What do you think I can do to help?! I can’t fix this for you! YOU’RE THE ONLY PERSON WHO CAN FIX THIS. If you want to talk- TALK, if you want to stop daydreaming all the time- do it dammit! LISTEN TO YOURSELF! You’re not stupid. FIX IT! YOU CONTROL YOUR MIND!”
I was frozen; Shocked. My mom wasn’t much of yeller and only cussed in dire situations, like when she dropped the cast iron skillet, or there was a rat in the house. Here I had poured out my heart and pleaded for help. I was pretty sure something was wrong with my brain and she was telling me to get a grip. She had not an ounce of sympathy and to make it worse- she was my last resort. If she couldn’t help no one would. It wasn’t the reaction I had expected to say the least. I cried all the way home. When we got there she pulled up into the driveway, jumped out of the car, grabbed her purse and slammed the door leaving me there to finish crying.
This sounds as harsh as I write it now but my mom was a strategist. Neglectful, but never intentionally mean. I didn’t realize it then, but she had given me exactly what I needed. She had freed me. As I sat in the car by myself I realized no one was going to come to my rescue. I had to save myself. She said, “No one was going to fix me, but me”. The next weekend there was a slumber party at friends house. I was only invited because she invited all the girls in class, but I was determined I was going to make a friend. I failed, but I took big steps towards it, and little by little I forced myself, through a sheer act of self discipline to take control of who I wanted to be. It was hard; but that year, I was voted class president.
Looking back now, I often wonder if my mother was talking to me, or herself, but that’s a story for another day.