Creating My New Normal

On Route 138 on the way to school drop-off, we drive past an abandoned, broken-down house. It is out of place amongst all the other homes that are alive, old or new. This one has been left empty, battered by Boston winters with no one to care for it. Most of its paint has fallen off, leaving the skin of the house bare and exposed. The windows aren’t broken, amazingly. The structure, I imagine, was once that of a cozy, comfortable New England-style home. But somewhere, sometime, someone didn’t or couldn’t care for it anymore and now the old house is haggard, grimy, and lonely.

“Does anyone live there,” asks Lilly, my eight-year-old daughter.
I say no.
“Do homeless people live there to stay warm?
I tell her maybe, but it’s probably not safe.
She goes back to her book.
Lilly will never know the feeling of being forced out of her home, or the constant anxiety of being the new kid at each school, or the sadness of saying goodbye.
But I knew it again and again.

When I was a little girl, I didn’t sense the absence of stability and safety. Lacking them was my normal. But I did know what was present: fear.

I feared my dad hitting one of us. I feared my dad’s hand wouldn’t stop with just rubbing my back when he tucked me in at night. I feared my mom wouldn’t wake up at all one day. I feared being the new kid in yet another small town, getting made fun of, always an outsider, and I feared that if I did make a friend my dad would move us again, unannounced. When my dad was even-tempered and fun, I feared the anger always festering. I feared seeing my dad choke my mom or seeing my nine-year-old big brother stand in silent servitude, berated for doing whatever silly things kids do. I feared the school bell ringing that it was time to go home. I feared I’d wake up to the smell of Old Spice.

Because my dad moved us so many times, my ages, school grades, and schools mix into a mutt of memory. But I can connect these fearful events to where I lived:

The small white house in the country off the quiet gravel road where . . . The brown house down the loose pebbled driveway that was barricaded by the Evergreen fortress where. . .The basement near the busy street, where . . .The garden apartment somewhere in Idaho where . . . The corner house in Burlington, Washington with the loft bedroom where . . . The blue house with the sunken living room in Blackfoot, Idaho, where. . . The apartment in Twin Falls, Idaho, where. . .The apartment in Mt. Vernon, Washington, where. . . The trailer on the outskirts of Oak Harbor, Washington where. . . The warehouse my dad lived in, with the bed in the middle of the concrete make-shift room where. . .

I also drive past the set of lights by Crowell’s Groceries and Liquor store every day that I drive my kids to school. Over the years, I’ve noticed an older man walking on the gravel to this liquor store. He might be in his 60s, but his weathered face, perhaps from years of a hard ridden drinking life, could pass for 70. Today, he has on a thick coat, unbuttoned and tattered. He walks with his head down and his mouth set in a grim lock, but not like he is mad or ashamed. I see a deliberate man, his specific purpose, addiction, forcing the pace and vigor of his steps. I know he is going to the liquor store because I’ve seen him many times before—even in snow and ice—walking back with a slower, but still meaningful pace, holding a brown crumpled bag under his left arm while his right hand holds the 12-pack. It is 7:45AM. My thoughts pause when we drive by him. I’m sure he has a story.

I have my own story. When I was 13, smoking pot and dropping acid gave me temporary amnesia to my dad’s abuse and an artificial disregard for how sad and alone I felt. By 17, I had sunk chin deep in a tar pit of drugs, snorting crystal meth daily. The high from pot didn’t last long enough for me and acid’s hallucinations scared me. I liked the world inside of crystal meth the best. Snorting meth led to smoking it, from a pipe or aluminum foil, and eventually to shooting it up. I lied, stole and cheated for drugs. Any trace of hope was exterminated by my own hand.
When I was 20, my story almost ended with an intentional drug overdose.

Today, even with 25 years of recovery, I still feel a twist in my gut in the fleeting moments that I remember that Trish, what her normal was. Most days it’s like she never existed, but when I see this man’s walk, I remember her.

When I became a mother, I finally recognized the stability and safety that my childhood lacked. The most important absence, second to my mom’s absence, was the tight-knit safety of a trusted community— extended family, neighbors, friends, church members and teachers. Creating and belonging to a trusted community comes with quantity and quality of time: days, months, years, a variety of activities, impromptu visits, difficult situations, silly situations, seeing how people react under pressure, when kids act up, when people are happy, or sad, tired or grumpy—consistent and repetitive interaction with like-minded people to create a community—a safe, trusted place of belonging.

My dad made sure we didn’t have any of this. I make sure my kids, Lilly and Sam, do.

I love the simple, or even mundane, act of driving my kids to school. That drive, as routine as it is, reinforces for my kids, Lilly and Sam, the stability, the safety, and the predictability that they have in their lives and that I so desperately lacked in my own childhood. For my kids and for me, our mundane drive to school is normal–it is my new normal–and that is because I chose to create it. It mirrors what I learned when I made my second critical choice on my journey to success: that duty can transform into efforts of joy. I found joy in the ordinary all those years ago when I moved in with my sister and her family, and I find it now, every day, in the joyously ordinary act of driving my kids to school.

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