Checkmate: a #HoldOnToTheLight post
Today is my birthday.
I turn 43. That number in of itself is not considered much of a milestone. But, for me, it is a defining number. It truly means I made it. I outlasted all the BS that was the insanity of my childhood and adolescence.
Why does today matter so much?
Because during my senior year in high school I pretty much lost my mind. Seriously. I felt broken and could barely see a future that didn’t include just more insanity. Hope? Nope.
So I started telling all of my friends, and even those I wouldn’t have called friends, that I was going to die when I was 42. I have no idea why I picked 42. Honestly, you can look for a reason, but I didn’t have one. Or if I did, I’ve long since forgotten it.
For the school year of 1990-91, my death at 42 was my mantra. It freed me to just let go and not give two shits about anything. I’d picked my death. In my cracked brain that meant I won.
Won what? Hell if I know.
Now, you may wonder why I was having a serious breakdown at such a young age. Not that I was the first or last teenager to do so. But it wasn’t exactly stable behavior.
The simple answer?
My father was a rage monster.
Angry, screaming, “Come here you little shit!” rage monster. Chase down a hall and grab me before getting to the bedroom door rage monster. Cold, see it fill the eyes rage monster that was ready to explode at any second. Set my ass up so there was an excuse to hurt me rage monster.
My father lived for the rage. He lived to let that monster free, to justify it, to feel like he was in the right when it was time to roar with a fury that no child should be subjected to.
No direct punching or kicking or slapping. Not at first. No. It was all about the psychological breakdown and emotional violence that would cause me to say something that would then justify any physical punishment. Keep needling and pushing and yelling and belittling until I snapped and he could smile that junkie smile, knowing he was only seconds from getting his rage fix on because, oh boy, the kid just royally screwed himself.
He was a master at it.
He was also a master of letting the rage lay low, hidden, out of sight for a long while. Suck me in, make me think he’d changed, make me think I were safe. The reminder that I wasn’t safe would come as such a shock that I would be stunned into inaction for those first few, crucial seconds that would have allowed me time to run, to escape.
Like I said, he was a master.
But, one summer, the summer before my senior year in high school, he overplayed his hand. He pushed the rage too far, pushed his little game too far, finally stepped over a line that he couldn’t step back from.
That summer my father and I got into a fight in my driveway. In public. For all the neighbors to see. The abuse that had for my entire life been behind closed doors, safely shut up inside the house of horrors I grew up in, finally spilled out into the light and couldn’t be ignored.
Let’s set the stage:
Sixteen. Me. Living full time at my mother’s house (she left the rage monster when I was eleven). Summer before senior year. One of those Eugene, Oregon summers that was perfect weather and just ten kinds of magic.
I had a car, a 1972 MGB roadster convertible that my father and I were “restoring” together. His car, he owned it, couldn’t give it to me because then there wouldn’t be leverage. Even though I knew he was using it against me as much as he was using it to try to “bond”, I didn’t care. I got to use a freaking MGB roadster. I got to drive all over the place in a convertible at the age of sixteen. It was sweet.
Lots of fun with that car, lots of fun in general that summer. So much fun that when my father went out of town for a weekend, that fun spilled over into one epic party at his house. It was outstanding. Half the freaking high school was there. Shenanigans ensued. Neighbor trees may have been driven over. The back deck may have gotten a couple of broken boards. Beer was spilled on the rug. Lots of beer.
Hard to hide that.
But when my father got home and discovered that a party had happened, he wasn’t pissed about those things. No, he was pissed because someone stole his car phone. Someone snagged it from the utility room. It wasn’t an easy steal. It was a 1989 car phone. The thing was huge. It was the size of a house phone, just with way more wires and a huge car antenna. Someone must have really wanted it if they were willing to haul the box it was in out to their car.
That was what pissed him off. That was what set the stage for our confrontation. That was his mistake. He fixated on that car phone. It was a sign of status. I have no idea why it wasn’t in his car, and instead in a box in the utility room, but it was. So when it was gone, that was that. Game over. Time to let the rage monster out. It had been a while and that monster was hungry.
The pattern began as it always did.
He came over to my mother’s house (she was gone for the day) to get the MGB. Driving privileges revoked. I had a feeling it was coming. I knew he’d go after that car because it meant so much to me.
As soon as he got into my driveway he started in with the psychological abuse. Emotional abuse was hard at that time since I was a self-absorbed teenager and could give two shits what he thought. But psychological abuse always seeps into a teen’s psyche. The man knew his target. He knew how to get at me.
He threatened to call my friends’ parents and get them busted. He threatened to ruin their lives and call the high school to report as many kids as he could so they’d be under a microscope their whole year. He threatened to sue everyone and anyone for damages done to the back deck.
Then he sealed his fate by threatening me. Nothing new. I always lived under the shadow of his threats. But that time was different. He said he was going to call the police and have me arrested for the theft of the car phone unless I told him all the names of the kids at the party. He said a couple nights in jail would be good for me.
This was 1990. Reagan and Bush had been reigning supreme for a decade. Cracking down on kids, sending them ff to rehab or wherever, was part of the Baby Boomer playbook. The idea of a kid going to jail for something that stupid felt very real to me. It scared the shit out of me, which it was supposed to do. What it wasn’t supposed to do was scare me so much that I fought back.
Needling me, threatening me, the words of hate and anger never stopped that afternoon as he screamed at me to pick up the hard top for the MGB and put it on the car. I have no idea what specific words he said, but he finally said the wrong ones.
I shoved that hard top at him and his eyes went wide. He was five-eight. I was six feet. I outweighed him by a good forty pounds. I was not small. He knew that and the second I saw the realization in his eyes that I was bigger and he was justifying what he was about to do as simply defending himself, I knew it was all over. In that split-second, I knew.
Life was about to change forever.
He shoved the hardtop back at me and knocked me down. I pushed it out of the way and came up fast. I lunged at him, tackling him about the waist. That was the end of it for me. I may have been bigger, but my father had a lifetime of fighting experience. I was in a headlock and incapacitated before I could blink.
But my mouth wasn’t incapacitated. Nope. It kept going, it kept fighting, and it had learned from the master. All those years of emotional and psychological abuse that was always a precursor to the physical abuse, well, that was training. I turned everything I’d learned from him right back on him.
He didn’t like that. Oh, no, the rage monster was not happy with the angry truths being spewed at him by his only son.
In the back of my mind I knew what I was doing. I knew I was playing a very dangerous game, but I also knew it was a game I could win. I knew I could win it because I had watched my neighbors step onto their porches as the screaming had started. There were witnesses, something he had made sure were never around for the past sixteen years.
So I pushed, I needled, I used every trick I had learned until his rage monster consumed him and he started to slam my head into the garage door. Over and over and over. He kept slamming it until I was so sweaty that I slipped free from him, falling onto the driveway concrete, shredding my t-shirt and my elbows. I looked down at the blood on my arms, I felt the lump forming on my head, and I smiled.
I couldn’t help it. The pieces had finally fallen into place for me. The board was set and all I had to do was execute a few moves and the game was over. If my calculations were correct then I almost had him in checkmate.
Of course, he was still there, still dangerous, his fists balled, eyes wild, ready for round two. Then a neighbor shouted something. Who knows what it was. I don’t. Blood was pumping in my ears and I was hyper-focused on the enraged man standing over me.
He snapped out of his rage so fast it was dizzying. He shouted back at the neighbor, acting tough and outraged that anyone would dare interfere in a family affair. But it was over. He’d lost the upper hand.
I don’t remember him leaving. I only remember being alone in my driveway, bloody, bruised, and filled with adrenaline. None of the neighbors came to check on me. Yelling from porches was how Americana rolled in 1990. I was sixteen. I probably deserved it.
I do remember getting up and going inside to call my mom. Was she at work? Maybe. Her employment was scattered and sketchy, so I have no recollection of where she was. But I called her, told her what happened, and she rushed home. She saw me, the white t-shirt stained with dirt and blood, and like always, was ready to curse my father, but nothing more.
Oh, but I had a plan. There was no way I was going to waste what had happened. A maternal curse was not enough. Not that time.
I insisted we call the police.
My mother made the call, the sheriff’s deputy came over, and the second to last move was made. Checkmate was within my grasp.
I had expected to file charges, but the deputy, in his experience and wisdom, asked, “Does you father follow rules?”
Strange question, right? What the hell did that have to do with anything?
Except it was the perfect question to ask because my father did follow rules. Appearances were everything. He was in sales, so perception mattered way more than truth or reality. Rules helped keep that perception in place.
The deputy advised against filing battery charges, which I was informed was a hard one to make stick when it was a parent versus a sixteen year old boy my size. It wasn’t some trailer park mom slapping her toddler around in Fred Meyer. This was a middle class professional that was four inches shorter than me and forty pounds lighter. The story could be turned fast.
No. Charges filed could bite me as hard as they bit my father.
The deputy said, “A restraining order on the other hand…”
My father followed rules, so to slap him with a restraining order, which didn’t require a trial, to slap him with that was almost worse than him being arrested. A restraining order meant he couldn’t get near me without consequences. I know for some that doesn’t mean a damn thing, they’d break that restraining order and get revenge. But I knew my father. He’d go insane, but he wouldn’t break the order because then he’d be in the wrong. In his mind, I was in the wrong. Not him. Me.
We got the restraining order the very next day. I was told it was the first non-spousal restraining order for a minor against and adult ever in Oregon. Or maybe just Lane County. I don’t know, but the judge explained that what he was granting was way outside the ordinary.
Yeah, welcome to my life, judge. I’d never known ordinary for one single minute when it came to my father, no reason it should start in the court system.
He was served.
I got the phone call from him five minutes after the deputy that served him left his house.
He screamed, he cursed, he threatened, he went on and on and I listened. I listened because I wanted him to string out that rope. He was hanging himself.
When I couldn’t take it any longer, I yelled that he was breaking the restraining order by calling me. He didn’t care. I yelled that his phone records would be searched and he was fucked. He hung up before that last word was out of my mouth.
Then only a couple weeks later, school started.
Despite my victory, I was emotionally drained and I walked around in a depressed, bitter, ready to nuke the world funk. I wanted to destroy anything in my path or just sleep and ignore the world.
Yet, surprisingly, considering my behavior, I had support.
Teachers and administrators had been informed because they had to be in case my father came around school. Suddenly all my years of acting out, all my angsty rebellious BS I had been known for made sense. It was out in the open.
But it was only a beginning. There was one last move to make.
I had to come to terms with it myself.
Some teens may have hurt themselves, possibly even permanently. I’ll admit, my ego would not allow self-immolation or suicide. But picking my own death year? Oh, hell yeah, I could do that. I reveled in it. It made me dark, but quirky. I was very social (remember the party that started it all?) and being too dark would have crimped my social game.
The 42 thing encompassed all my self-hate without any real self-harm.
The school year continued, I tried to ignore thoughts of my father, and the Earth kept on spinning.
Then life went on, years passed by, I did some serious soul searching and deep introspection to fix the darkness, and I promptly forgot about my 42 promise.
It took years to come to grips with my childhood. Many, many years. But it eventually happened. And on that day, when I looked back at all the pain and fear and terror I had endured, and my only reaction was to shrug because shit happens and I knew I was lucky to have gotten away, well, that was the day the last piece was placed and it was finally checkmate.
That was the beginning of the end.
Except it turns out, it wasn’t the last piece.
I was married. I had kids. I was writing for a living. I had so many reasons to live.
I turned 42 and the memory of the idiotic self-prophecy of my own demise hit me like a freight train.
I sure as hell didn’t want to die at 42.
I could have laughed it off, but I’m a writer and I know the power of words. Words I said over and over for almost a year of my life. Yikes.
So, for the last year I have been looking over my shoulder. Until today.
Today that last piece is truly, finally, in place.
Today is my birthday. Today I turn 43. Today I am born again.
Checkmate, motherfucker. Check. Mate.
I want to say there is a moral to this story. I want to find some way to wrap it all up with a neat bow. I want to hand out a life lesson here. But I can’t. Life is way too complicated for that kind of tidiness. Especially when dealing with the complex mess that is abuse.
What I can do is say that I was extremely lucky. While I was unlucky enough to endure what I endured, I am beyond lucky that I am alive and happy and have an amazing family. I am thankful for that everyday of my life. It gives me perspective.
On the scale of domestic abuse and child abuse, I lived in the range where I never fully feared for my life, but I was always in fear for my safety. That is a fear many can never escape. No restraining order can wash that away. It stays with them forever and as much as they try to get rid of it, it’s stuck. That haunting pain and fear manifests itself in so many destructive ways, ways well beyond an innocuous invention of a death date.
That’s why so many organizations need your support. When you are done reading this, before you close the tab or go back to Facebook, please take a second to check out some of the organizations listed below. Not everyone gets to write a novel and expel their fears and demons. Not everyone is as lucky as me. They need help with slaying the rage monsters in their lives. I had lots of help which I am grateful for. Maybe someone will be grateful for the help you give.
About the campaign:
#HoldOntoTheLight is a blog campaign encompassing blog posts by fantasy and science fiction authors around the world in an effort to raise awareness around treatment for depression, suicide prevention, domestic violence intervention, PTSD initiatives, bullying prevention and other mental health-related issues. We believe fandom should be supportive, welcoming and inclusive, in the long tradition of fandom taking care of its own. We encourage readers and fans to seek the help they or their loved ones need without shame or embarrassment.
Please consider donating to or volunteering for organizations dedicated to treatment and prevention such as: American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Home for the Warriors (PTSD), National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), Canadian Mental Health Association, MIND (UK), SANE (UK), BeyondBlue (Australia), To Write Love On Her Arms and the National Suicide Prevention Hotline.
To find out more about #HoldOnToTheLight, find a list of participating authors, or reach a media contact, go to https://www.facebook.com/groups/276745236033627/.