Friday, September 30, 2016
I’m watching my sister unravel and it is unpleasant. That's Sandy in the picture above, holding me on her lap.
My parents adopted me when Sandy was fifteen, and she moved out and got married when I was four. My childhood memories of Sandy involve a lot of yelling. Of course, yelling was, and still is, a big part of my family. My dad yelled a lot, Sandy yelled at her husband, at her three kids, at me, at everybody. She shouted in conversation sometimes, and still does. It seems like she was always angry. And still is.
I remember learning to tell the difference between Sandy’s relaxed-happy and scary-happy. Relaxed-happy was safe; it meant she felt good and would be friendly and fun to be with for a while. Scary-happy was a big smile on an otherwise tense, angry face, an attempt to appear happy when, in fact, she was furious about something and could blow at any second. I first learned to identify relaxed-happy and scary-happy in my dad, who went through the same cycles regularly. But the thing was, you couldn’t always tell. It was never entirely safe.
When I was a kid, I reached a point where I refused to ride in a car if Sandy was at the wheel. She expressed her anger through her driving, and being in her car at those times was terrifying. She would peel out, drive like a lunatic at high speeds, slam on her brakes, take stupid risks. Wearing seat belts was not required by law then, but I always wore them if Sandy was driving. She often did this with her own kids in the car. So did Dad. I remember a number of times riding in the car with Dad at the wheel when someone, say, cut him off, or something—at least, that was his perception—and he got angry. Whatever our destination might have been, it quickly took a back seat to sticking it to that S.O.B. in the other car. Dad would stomp on the accelerator until we caught up with the person and he could exact his revenge by cutting in front of the guy and slamming on his brakes, or something.
When she’s feeling good, Sandy has always been excessively generous and will do anything for you. When she's feeling good. That can change pretty quickly, though. Just like Dad. Those good periods have grown much farther apart over the decades in my experience with Sandy, and these days, I honestly can’t remember the last one. She’s always on edge now, a possible threat, like dark clouds moving in off the horizon with possible tornado weather to come.
She talked to me a lot when I was a kid and told me everything. I didn’t say much, just listened. She talked about her husband, with whom she fought constantly, sometimes physically, for all the years they were married. She told me about the guy she was having an affair with. And she told me when her doctor-of-the-moment urged her to get therapy. She told me a few times about being directed to therapy by her doctors. She tried a couple of therapists but never stayed with them long. Instead, she went on living as she always had, getting angrier and angrier. She did not have a problem, to hear her tell it. The problem was everyone else. Her doctors didn’t know anything, therapy was a waste of time, her husband was an asshole, and at every turn, she was the victim of the stupidity or carelessness or perceived malice of others.
I was not exempt. Growing up in that family, where the primary emotion was anger, followed by fear and guilt, left its mark on me. I've struggled with anger throughout my life because it has always been there, waiting to spring out. I’ve engaged in a few screaming matches with Sandy. But I recognized it and have been working on it my whole life. With awareness of the problem, it gets easier to deal with until one has finally adjusted to life outside the poisonous bubble of the Garton family. Awareness is vital. This time, though, when Sandy started screaming, something different happened. I’ll get to that in a moment; it’s why I’ve written this down.
Telling people off seems to be the closest thing to a talent that runs in the Garton family. My paternal grandparents did it, Dad did it, and oh, boy, does Sandy do it. A lot. Always has. Mom congratulates her and never fails to be supportive of her efforts. She’ll sometimes say to me, “Oh, Sandy gave it to him good.” Sandy’s current husband used to be a laid back, easygoing guy. These days, she brags about how he told off this or that person for whatever reason. “Boy, he really set that guy straight!” He’s also been having heart problems. All these years with Sandy apparently have taken a toll on him.
But lately, it has gotten worse. Just as it got worse for Dad in later years. As time went on, he retreated more and more from the world and holed himself up in their little house and hardly ever left. He died in 2010, and it was only then that I learned just how bad his condition had become.
There used to be a narrow pass-through between the side of our house and the work shed Dad had built. When I was little kid, it was possible to walk all the way through it, but by the time I was in high school, it was packed full of boxes and barrels that Dad stored there, all packed in tightly. When Mom and Sandy cleaned out the pass through after he died, they discovered that those boxes and barrels were filled with garbage. Just wadded up paper and old plastic bags and...garbage. He had been hoarding it for reasons only he understood.
He had become more violent than usual and tried to strangle my mother at one point, clawing her neck and throat badly, cutting her with his nails. She lied to everyone about the injury—remember, kids, always protect the abuser!—and didn’t tell the truth until after he died. He had no friends. Even his oldest and closest friend abandoned him before the friend died. Why? Because my dad treated people like shit. So does Sandy. They respect no one and do nothing to earn anyone else’s respect, although they certainly demand it from others. I don’t think they know what that word means. People don’t like to be yelled at, ordered around, and treated like a child. That’s how Sandy treats other people. And she’s going down the same road Dad traveled.
Now, I have realized, Sandy is coming unraveled. Her oldest son abruptly moved out of town with his wife and children some years ago and cut off the family, returning none of their calls. Sandy insists that this is the fault of his wife, who she maintains is pushy and bossy. If someone told her that her oldest son was a spineless, pussy-whipped idiot who did everything his wife told him to do, she would immediately be ready for a fight. But that’s what she chooses to think of him. It’s a bad idea to suggest that perhaps Sandy’s lifetime of tantrums might have something to do with it. No, no, it’s his wife! She's to blame! Sandy didn’t do anything wrong. But that “anything wrong,” as far as they’re concerned, does not apply to screaming at people and behaving like a giant, frightening toddler, all behavior that is perfectly acceptable in my family as long as it comes from the family's chief abuser. I don’t know exactly what happened between Sandy and my nephew, I am unacquainted with the specific details, but I know Sandy and her behavior. I know how she treats people, and I know how she explodes and takes no prisoners when she doesn’t get her way. I’m sure there was a lot of yelling and screaming involved, the bulk of it no doubt coming from her. My nephew is probably the smartest person in the family because he just walked away from the insanity. Good for him.
Sandy has been banned from the office of one of my mother’s doctors for throwing a tantrum and yelling at the doctor. Getting banned from a doctor’s office is not something that happens to a stable, mentally healthy person. One might think it would give her pause, that she might take stock, engage in a little self-reflection. But, no. Damned doctor didn’t know anything, anyway.
When my mother was in the hospital earlier this year, Sandy barked orders at hospital employees as if they worked for her. As we walked back from the cafeteria one day, she spotted a little water on the floor near a drinking fountain, stopped, turned, and shouted down the corridor, “Somebody come clean up this mess!” I wanted the floor to open up and eat me. When she stopped walking, I went on and picked up my pace a little so people wouldn’t know I was with her. But if, at that moment, I had suggested that she not shout in the hospital, she would have said, “I didn’t shout.” She would have said that instantly after shouting. I’ve seen her do it. That’s how things work in Sandy’s world, and you’d better go along with it or you’re out on your ass. The thing is, I can think of a lot worse things that could befall one than being kicked out of Sandy’s world on one’s ass. That’s kind of a plus.
These are only the things I know about. Who knows what else she's done? This kind of thing used to be only occasional, but not anymore.
The last few times I spoke to her on the phone did not go well. I made one of the calls, but the other two times she called me. The calls were very short because Sandy was already angry. None of them lasted a full thirty seconds, and all were mostly her shouting at me before hanging up. The last time, she shouted, “You can fuck off and die!” And I decided that was the last time it would happen. Hanging up on people is something Sandy does with great regularity, and that particular time was, I concluded, the last time she would ever do it to me. I stopped taking her calls and refused to talk to her on the phone.
Sandy never has to face any consequence for her behavior, for the way she treats people. She is insulated by her enablers. She gets angry and yells at somebody in a store, walks away, and goes home to the enablers, who always assure her that she is right and everyone else is wrong. She did not take my refusal to talk to her on the phone well. She and I spoke on the phone so rarely and so briefly that I don’t think it would be noticeable to either of us if we stopped altogether. In fact, it wasn’t until I stopped taking her calls that she began to call me more frequently.
Mom finally asked me why I wasn't answering Sandy’s calls and I told her, “Because she’s never known how to behave on the phone and I’m tired of being screamed at and hung up on.” This, it turns out, has been the source of a lot of anger in Sandy. Apparently, it has been eating at her.
I was supposed to get something for Sandy while I was in town recently, and I stopped at Mom’s to pick up the money I needed for the purchase. Mom said that Sandy no longer wanted me to do it. When I asked why, Mom said, “Because you won’t talk to her on the phone." And, because my first answer was absolutely unacceptable, she asked again, "Why won’t you talk to her on the phone?” I said, “I’ve told you why.” She said, “But that was a long time ago!”
In my family, the most important job my mother has is to protect the abuser. For a long time, it was Dad. When I was growing up, if I ever said anything about Dad’s habit of dragging me around by the hair or beating me, her response was always the same: “But he loves you.” When I mustered the courage to suggest that there might be something wrong with Dad, she said, “How can you say that? He loves you!”
Now Dad is gone and Sandy is carrying on his legacy. After screaming at me, “You can fuck off and die!” there was never any apology because that would require acknowledging that it happened. Things like that don’t really happen in my family, and if you bring them up, you will be told that nobody knows what you’re talking about, that never happened, you must be confused.
And now, when I arrive, Mom immediately begins to set up the situation. Sandy is angry because I stopped talking to her on the phone. That is the problem here, according to Mom. That is the core problem that needs to be addressed, nothing else. It’s not Sandy’s behavior, which resulted in my not talking to her on the phone—that doesn’t even come into it as far as Mom is concerned. Sandy’s behavior is not an issue, it is simply something we accept, something we deal with, like the weather or gravity. Just like Dad. I have disrupted this system by reacting to her behavior and pointing it out—not to punish her but to prevent myself from being screamed at and hung up on anymore, but that’s irrelevant to Mom—and she greets me upon arriving by making sure that I know I am the problem here. Mom has always been very good at her job of protecting the abuser.
I went out to the RV in the back yard with the intention of having a conversation with Sandy. But the word “conversation” does not have quite the same meaning to most people that it has in my family. Most people think of a conversation as a friendly exchange of information and ideas conducted in a civil manner—and that’s all I wanted. In my family, though, a “conversation” is the exact opposite of all that in every conceivable way. They seem to enjoy shouting at each other. I do not. Maybe it’s a genetic thing, I don’t know. (Remember—I was adopted.) Anyway, in the RV, I told Sandy I was happy to pick up her item in town. The exchange went something like this:
“Why won’t you talk to me on the phone?” she says.
“You know why.”
“No I don’t!”
“Yes, you do. I won’t talk to you on the phone because I don’t like being screamed at and hung up on.”
“That was a long time ago,” she says, her voice getting louder.
“Just earlier this year, Sandy. It’s happened before that, though, and it’ll happen again, but only if I let it. And I won’t.”
“When did I ever hang up on you?” Louder still.
Keeping my voice level, never raising it, I say, “Sandy, there’s a word for what you’re doing right now. It’s called gaslighting. I don’t appreciate it.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. Big deal, I hung up on you once and I told you to fuck off and die. YOU HURT MY FEELINGS!” This was shouted loudly.
“How did I hurt your feelings?”
“With what you said!”
“What did I say?” I honestly don’t know what she’s referring to. In our most recent phone calls, I had no time to say anything in the seconds she spent being angry and then hanging up.
“I don’t remember.”
“Well, if you don’t remember, it must not have hurt you very much.”
Then she begins screaming, at the top of her lungs, over and over, “YOU HURT MY FEELINGS! YOU HURT MY FEELINGS! YOU HURT MY FEELINGS!”
That’s when I realize that she’s not just angry, she’s falling apart, here. She’s going full-tilt Bozo with all the lights, whistles, and sirens. All because she was forced to face a single consequence of her obnoxious behavior.
I say, “Sandy, this is why your son left. This behavior right here. Nobody likes this and they’ll take it only so long before—”
She screamed, “HE LEFT BECAUSE OF HIS STUPID WIFE!”
She has been standing in the tiny kitchen, but now, she comes around the counter toward me. That makes me nervous because she’s sometimes violent, and she’s a big woman, a few inches taller than I, six feet, and...just big. And extremely angry. I think describing her as enraged would be appropriate. From that point on, everything she says is screamed as loudly as she can and I’m unable to understand all of it. Her face turns so purple, it seems her head has been replaced with an egg plant. The veins in her forehead pop and the muscles in her neck become rigid and pronounced as she continues to advance, backing me toward the door of the RV, screaming and screaming.
She is completely unhinged and it’s a frightening thing to see. There used to be a time when I could have a civil conversation with Sandy, but for a long time now, I’ve stuck mostly to small talk because if I say something she doesn’t agree with or doesn’t want to hear, she gets angry. Instantly. And loudly.
Suddenly, there in the RV, she starts screaming about other things, unrelated things, dredging up old complaints—and then she screams something that really drives home to me the fact that she is much worse than ever before.
“You say Dad beat you, but you’re just making that shit up, it’s all in your head, because you’re FUCKING SICK!”
Sandy and I always had one thing about which we could commiserate: our dad. Like me, Sandy often said she grew up in fear of him because it was difficult to tell when he might blow. His anger and violence were terrifying, and she has talked about it openly my whole life. She has said countless times that he used to pick her up off the floor by her hair when he was angry. He did that to me, too. A lot of hair-pulling, kicking, punching.
But now, I’m making it all up. And I’m sick. She did not live with my parents and me, of course, because she had a family of her own to worry about and yell at, so she’s hardly an expert on my childhood, just as I know only what she’s told me about her own. But reality-grounded details like that are unimportant. What’s important is adjusting the past to fit her present. How could Dad have been a bad person when Sandy has virtually become him? If Dad was bad, Sandy is bad, and we can’t have that.
By now, she’s standing so close, her bloated, purple face consumes my entire field of vision. And she’s still screaming, veins standing out on her forehead, eyes bulging. She tells me to get the fuck out and never come back, then launches into her final tirade, screaming like a lunatic, “YOU’RE BIPOLAR! YOU’RE BIPOLAR! YOU’RE BIPOLAR!” Over and over.
Looking back on it (it happened yesterday as I type this), I can see how funny it is. I see the irony of Sandy having a full-blown screaming breakdown and shouting at me—or at anyone, for that matter—“YOU’RE BIPOLAR!” again and again. I admit, it’s pretty damned funny. But it wasn’t at the time. It was quite upsetting and by the time it was over, my whole body was shaking and I was breathing as if I’d just gone for a run. Watching her come to pieces was scary and exhaustingly stressful.
I’ve been standing on the porch, staring in open-mouthed horror at Sandy as she screams at me. I finally walk away from the RV. Mom is coming out of the back door of her house. I ask her if she heard all of that (I have no doubt that the entire neighborhood heard it) and she says yes, and I say, “I hope you remember it,” because my family does more writing than I do simply by rewriting every day of their lives to suit them after the fact. Mom says, “Well, I don’t know what you said to her.” And that tells you everything you need to know about my family.
My sister, a rather large 68-year-old woman, was melting down, coming completely unglued, screaming her head off in a purple-faced rage while I remained perfectly calm. But Mom had to find out what I said first before she could come to any conclusions about the situation, and apparently she believed my sister, the woman shrieking like an escaped mental patient, might be a reliable source for that information. I, of course, could not be trusted, so she didn't bother to ask. Sandy’s behavior was, to my mom, perfectly acceptable, and she assumed there was probably a good reason for it. Mom was doing the only job she has really ever known.
At that point, I simply got the hell out of there without another word.
I’ve always been aware of these problems, but it wasn’t until Sandy’s engorged face was about an inch from mine and her breath was hot on my skin as she bellowed like a bull and screamed like a banshee that I realized exactly how sick she has become. She’s already lost a son, and I’m certainly not going anywhere near her again. At this point, I’m taking her illness very seriously and staying away. Frankly, I’m afraid of her.
I’m not crying victim here. I’m fine. In fact, I’m feeling pretty good about this. When it happened, my emotions were not engaged. Not at all. I felt nothing. I did not start yelling back at Sandy. I have in the past. I may not share their crazy-tainted blood, but being raised in that household, with all the yelling and screaming and beating and crazy religion, was enough for me to simply absorb some of their insanity. But this time, I remained distant, disconnected. I did not allow Sandy to drag me down into her insane, angry maelstrom of mental chaos. And I can’t tell you how happy that makes me. All I did was stand there and watch as she completely and noisily lost her shit.
It might not sound like much to others, but for me, that’s a pretty big victory. None of my buttons were pushed. Sandy didn’t even have access to them. Nothing she said got under my skin. I remember only two clear thoughts going through my head as Sandy put on her little show. The first was, Holy shit, she really is crazy. The other was, That's not me. I'm not one of them.
I’m not looking for pity, I’m just writing about it because that’s what I do, and I needed to get it out. My readers have been the best therapists in the world, whether they’ve known it or not. If you look back over the fiction I’ve written in the last thirty-plus years, you’ll find this stuff. It’s all there in one form or another, scattered throughout my novels and stories. But I’m not writing that kind of fiction at the moment, and I’m working on a deadline, and I just needed to quickly get this on some pages where it could be read. Thank you for indulging me by making it all the way to the end of this thing.
Some of the horror fiction you read comes from more than simple imagination and has roots buried in some real toxic soil somewhere. This is a glimpse of mine.