My Ever Growing Shadow

For Mazie

My Ever Growing Shadow

started out as a small lump when I was six years old.
She’d never follow my lead or
join in on my fun.
Just laid there, smelling of baby powder and dirty diapers
except for the occasional flailing of tiny limbs
in an attempt to escape from a bath.

By the time I turned eight, my Shadow had finally become interesting.
She had grown
-though not much-
but at least She moved around now

excitedly,
energetically,
eagerly.

Even if She fell down after only
two steps
every time.

At ten, I lost my Shadow.
Separated by

walls                                                   and                                         windows,

cities               and                             streets.

But at twelve we found each other again.

Things were very different.
She had s  t  r  e  t  c  h  e  d out without me watching,
grown into herself some more.
Short, chubby limbs
had turned lean and long.
Her head marked with two waterfalls of hair flowing out above each ear.

My Shadow now moved with
ease
but never went too far.
She mirrored my movements
like
a marionette
destined to dance my  same dance.

As years passed,
my Shadow learned her own way,
her silhouette moving without mine,
and even though
my Shadow is ever growing

She will always stay
a little
smaller
and a little
sweeter

like any little sister should.

Getting Stoned

For our first Christmas together, my dad gave me a pair of bubblegum pink pajamas and matching fuzzy slippers that read as follows:

Boys Are Stupid Throw Rocks At Them

Who knew however, that in a twisted turn of fate, three years later, boys would still be stupid but I wouldn’t be the one throwing rocks at them. They would be the ones throwing them at me.

*

In the eighth grade my dad finally forced me to take the bus to middle school. Gone were the days of him driving me in each day and picking me up. My chauffer was quitting.

The biggest reason that I never wanted to take the bus until then was because of the wait at the bus stop. I was too afraid to stand there with a bunch of kids I didn’t know—especially since I was new to the school district. They had known each other their whole lives and I had no idea who they were. I didn’t know if they were friendly or nasty or if they’d ask me the standard list of questions: “Are you new here?” “Where’d ya go to school before this?” “Why’d ya move?” And no matter how many times I imagined it, they’d always be smacking their gum when asking these questions.

Simply put, I was intimidated. I saw them every day standing at the corner when my dad would drive past them to take me to school. They were a motley crew composed of an athletic brother and sister—who, I was convinced would be able to smell my unathleticism from a mile away— one tall and lanky European boy and his physically opposite short, round, Hispanic friend, and the “cool” kids, one who dressed in baggy pants with a backwards hat on with a cigarette permanently hanging out of his mouth and the other who kind of looked like Kurt Cobain if you squinted really hard. The athletes intimidated me, the two international kids confused me, but the “cool” kids scared the living daylights out of my thirteen-year old self. I was still watching the Disney Channel. They were probably watching porn.

Standing at the bus stop was like asking a tiny goldfish with a broken fin (ME) to enter the shark tank (THEM). But my dad loved me so much that he forced me to do it anyway.

So on the first day of school I was petrified to stand outside by myself amongst these kids. Fear pulsed through my veins as I said goodbye to my dad, gave another half-hearted attempt at putting up a fight to be driven to school—only to fail, of course—and pulled open my front door to see them all standing there. It was like they were waiting for me.

I put my headphones in and blasted really loud, angry music. I wanted to appear as tough as possible, even if I was wearing a messenger bag and a corduroy jacket.

As I slowly shuffled toward the corner, I could feel my heart beating in my chest. I said silent prayers to the school bus Gods that the bus would arrive early and save me from my misery. But as I stood there, time ticked away and the bus was still not arriving. With each minute that passed, I felt as though I could feel all of the crew’s eyes poring deeper and deeper into my soul. My chest felt tighter and tighter and I thought I might die from lack of oxygen.

After a merciless ten minute wait–which in retrospect is only about three and a half songs long–the bus finally arrived; relief washed over me and I hurried on the bus, lucky enough to find a seat all to myself. Finally, I could breathe easier knowing I had made it over the first hurdle—even if it was by a shoelace.

As the year went on, I got a little more used to standing at the bus stop. I had it down to a science. If I left at exactly 7:24 I could be the first one at the bus stop and be assured that 1) I would never miss the bus and 2) I would never have to walk toward the group of people that scared me so much. I would never have to see who I was keeping company with and could pretend like they didn’t exist as long as I didn’t turn my head. I kept my headphones in at all times and never said a word to anyone. I had my own spot where I stood each day and no one dared to encroach on my territory. We each designated our own places to stand–kind of like how dogs pee on hydrants to claim their territory–except we didn’t pee, we just became creatures of habit.

One day in the middle of winter, I walked out to the bus stop. I was the first one there as usual. The wind was howling around my head and with each gust I felt my organs huddle closer together within my core in an attempt to preserve life. I had whipped my head around to escape the wind’s bite and unfortunately caught sight of my company. No athletes or international friends today. Just me and the two “cool” kids (read: terrifyingly-dangerous-scary-and-much-bigger-than-me boys that could probably snap me in half if they wanted).

An overwhelming wave of panic washed over me. I was all alone with the two guys I was most afraid of in the world. Well, maybe the idea of Osama Bin Laden scared me a little bit more, but he was a distant fear. This was immediate.

Just like the first day of school the bus was late. Of course it was just my luck that the morning I feared for my life my rescue vehicle was running late. (I really shouldn’t have been surprised.) Each minute felt as if it was stretching on for days and even though I had my headphones in and my music was blasting I could still hear the boys’ voices. I didn’t know what they were saying, but then again, I didn’t want to.

All of a sudden, I heard one of them spit. And then I heard their shuffled feet. Frozen—from the cold and pure terror—I didn’t even turn my head to see what they were doing. But I didn’t have to. Because all of a sudden, I felt something hit my backpack. And then something hit my leg. And then a few more things hit the pavement around me.

Tiny, little stones.

I was extremely confused. Were they actually…stoning me? What was this, 400 B.C.E? I was certain I had imagined it. But I was too afraid to turn around to even confront them. And so I just stood there, turning my music louder and louder until suddenly, the bus turned down our street. Slowly, slowly, slowly it rolled its way toward my corner. It stopped in front of me and I rushed on, sat down, and bit my lip to keep from crying.

When I got home that day I wasn’t sure how to tell my dad that his one and only intelligent, talented—and at times, wacky (read: beloved)–daughter had essentially been stoned at the bus stop–NO THANKS TO HIM–so I tried to ease it into casual conversation. I didn’t want him to totally drown in his own guilt. Because if he hadn’t made me take the bus, this never would have happened.

I don’t remember his exact reaction to the news, though. Probably because it was very angry and heated. But I do know that the next day when I found myself alone with the two boys again and little stones landed at my feet, instead of being petrified, I imagined taking my dad’s old hockey stick out with me the next day and beating the boys over their heads asking if they “really wanted to mess with me?!?!” It was a crazy—and somewhat violent—fantasy but it got me through the ten minute wait for the bus.

When I got to school I immediately went to the main office and reported what had happened. I didn’t care if I was a tattletale or a loser/geek/orchestra nerd/wimp. I just didn’t want any more rocks thrown at me.

The next day, when I stood at the bus stop the athletic siblings and international friends had returned. I felt less intimidated by them than usual simply by knowing that there was safety in numbers and the two boys that had harassed me would be less likely to do it or confront me about it in front of other people.

I don’t know if the boys who harassed me ever got in trouble for what they did to me. No one at school called me in to talk about what happened. But maybe they did get talked to because I do know that it never happened again.

After that year, I never had to stand with those boys again. I heard rumors that the one that resembled Kurt Cobain ended up in Juvee and I don’t remember what ever happened to backwards-hat kid.

But I was lucky. Although this was definitely a really weird, atypical, and twisted way of bullying someone and made me feel mortified, in a lot of ways it was nothing compared to the verbal harassment a lot of kids face each day in the halls at school or even in their homes. They get teased mercilessly and called names and with cyber bullying they can be attacked even over the Internet. If there’s one thing I learned from my experience, it’s that no matter how small the incident may seem, if it makes you feel uncomfortable, and especially fearful, you have to speak up. Even if you’re afraid, it’s worse to stay silent. Bullies may seem strong and tough because they aren’t afraid to say and do some ugly things, but don’t forget, you have a voice too. And you can’t be afraid to use it.

Landslide

It was a sticky, hot and humid Saturday in June. Even though it was later in the day, the heat was unbearable. Dressed in jean shorts, a yellow tank top, and sandals I sat on my front steps waiting for my aunt. I was so eager to go that I’d been out there for a while and was growing inpatient. I was ready to get in my own car and drive there myself. (Good thing I didn’t since we know how well my Jeep handles long distance drives.) At 4:45, she finally rolled up to my grandparents’ house to pick me up. I hopped in the passenger’s side and we finally began our journey. We were headed to the Jones Beach Theater to see Stevie Nicks.

We quickly stopped at the deli for sandwiches and made sure to get extra water bottles for the ride there. If we thought the heat was stifling before, sitting in the car with no air conditioning (since my grandpa only likes to fix the “necessities” on our cars) was like entering the gates of hell.

As we began our journey, our spirits were high and we looked forward to the nice drive onto Long Island. But somehow, as I co-piloted the mission and gave directions, we ended up in a traffic jam that had us sitting in the car, inching forward-with no breeze blowing through the windows-for over an hour. We blasted the radio to try and distract ourselves from the suffocating heat but there was no escaping it. It was like a blanket smothering us. Finally giving up on distractions, we looked at each other, our makeup smearing off our faces and started comparing who had sweat more. Laughing hysterically, I showed her the back of my shirt, which was soaked through. I felt the back of my legs and determined that when I eventually stood up (if we ever reached our destination) it would look like I had peed my pants. However, my aunt, who had worn a black tank top, had completely sweat through her entire shirt, had sweat beads dripping down her forehead through her headband and had little droplets of sweat coming out of her elbows. She won.

Finally, we started to gain speed. The wind, although warm, rushed through the windows of the car and I held my arms up to dry out. The radio back on again, I sang along to some of the popular tunes on the radio no matter how awful they were.

Faster than expected, we arrived at the tollbooth to cross over onto Long Island. The lines were tremendous and with no breeze again, I immediately began to sweat in the stifling heat. As we sat there waiting to pay our toll, a big brick red van pulled up beside us on my side. The driver–an olive skinned, dark haired, handsome guy in his mid-to late thirties–stuck his head out of his window and shouted at me “You’re beautiful! You’re beautiful!” Considering I was dripping sweat at such a rate that I was sitting in my own puddle of it, I just stared at him incredulously. I guarantee that it was NOT the face of anyone beautiful. I had been stunned into silence and could only point at myself as if to say “Huh? Me?” to which he responded by pointing past me at my aunt. Go figure. I grabbed her attention and pointed in the direction of the guy in the van–I still had no words to describe the situation at hand. “You’re gorgeous! You’re gorgeous!” he called to my aunt across the barriers of interstate highway traffic, 100% humidity, my frizzy hair, and two vehicles. Unlike me, my aunt did not just STARE at this man with a crazy look on her face. Instead, she embraced her confidence and started talking to the guy and told him we were on our way to a concert. Slowly, we inched toward the tollbooth. In a last ditch attempt to totally pick my aunt up, the man wrote his number on a Band-Aid, hopped out of his van and gave it to her. Very classy. We rolled through the tollbooth and went our separate ways. I believe this was the reason we had to suffer through the heat: so our windows would be down so this guy could see my aunt and totally hit on her in the strangest place (a tollbooth, seriously?!) in order to make one of the most bizarre and unbelievable memories of my life so far.

Back on the highway with wind blowing through the car I could smell the ocean’s salt water. The setting sun streamed in through the car and I felt at peace.

After what felt like hours, we arrived to the theater. We got a parking spot and I sat on our trunk (which was surprisingly not hot) and had an eggplant Parmesan sub. I observed the others in the parking lot tailgating, laughing and joking. It really was a beautiful scene. It was as if everyone left their problems behind before they came to the venue. They were just enjoying themselves. I wanted to be more like that. Before I knew it, it was time to pick up our tickets for the show. We met up with my aunt’s friend who had a couple extra tickets and we entered the venue. I immediately got an ice cream cone to celebrate our arrival, which had taken too long.

We entered the stadium and found our seats. We had no idea where they would be and boy were we surprised when they were only one level up from the orchestra seats! They were perfect. As we sat waiting for Stevie to come out I found myself feeling so content, surrounded by people that loved the same music as me and my aunt and who I imagined to live lives that I wanted to emulate more of. Before I knew it, the sun had set and it was time for the concert to begin.

Stevie came out dressed in a beautiful, exotic, black corset and skirt with a flowing shawl over her shoulders contrasting against her long blonde hair that blew in the ocean breeze. She was stunning and her voice was mesmerizing. It was rugged and rough and just cut right through me. She commanded the stage with such ease. Without a fancy light show or dancers, like many popular artists have today, there were no distractions from her vocal and musical performance. It was simple, yet so powerful. I felt calm as her music washed over me like the tide. The music absorbed through my pores as I swayed to the music as the same breeze that was kissing Stevie’s skin kissed mine. I could not have felt any happier for those two hours.

I’d been to plenty of concerts before seeing Stevie but somehow, this one signified a shift in my life; a transition from insecure girl to young adult, grieving daughter to college student. It helped me imagine the life I wanted to lead. It had truly been a perfect combination of things. The venue: Long Island-where my dad lived for a time-and where the breeze washed away any worries. The music: so rock and roll and pure (no matter how cliche that may sound). And the company: my aunt, whose outrageousness can only make me smile. It was as if the stars all aligned for me to have this experience to remind me of the power of music and it’s ability to make someone feel, in the words of one of my favorite books, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” infinite.

Happy Birthday Dad

Looking through an old journal, I found this poem dated April 11, 2009. I wrote it for an English class and gave it to my dad for his birthday that year (May 2nd). He turned 54. He had just been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer earlier that winter and I wanted to give him something that would show how much I loved him. He passed away when he was 55.

As a kid you weren’t always there for me
but you came when I needed you to be.
A move would never come easy to us
but we muddled though it all with small fuss.
You were finally there for everything
from summer, to fall, through winter and spring.
And even now that things have changed so much
I’ll always be there for a hand to touch.
I guess I know the place where I feel best
and that’s next to you, where I’m truly blessed.
When we’re in the car with music playing,
song after song, our arrival delaying,
the sun shining brightly on our faces,
trees pass by, seeing so many places.
No words are spoken but we’re both content
knowing where we’re going and where we went.
We’re a team, always and forever, Dad.
Everything will be okay, don’t be sad.
Together we’ll get through it all I know
because we’re a team, forever we’ll grow.

My Family Confession

While I’m the first person to pretend that everyone’s family is perfect besides my own, the reality is that we’ve all got problems and there is no “perfect” family. Some people don’t even consider their biological relatives their family. Instead, they choose their family to be close friends that they love and care for throughout the years. Families are filled with varying personalities, often with many conflicting ones. Some families, like mine, can be ravaged by mental illness.

Yup, I said it. Mental illness. Two words most of us avoid using and cringe upon hearing.  Images of the mentally ill are of those that sit in wards of mental hospitals rocking back and forth and muttering to themselves or of people so deeply depressed they don’t get out of bed. Often, people with mental illness are thought of as lazy, irresponsible, and just plain crazy. But while these images and stereotypes pervade our culture, the face of mental illness is actually much more common than that. People who suffer from mental illness get up and go to work each day, stand next to you at the supermarket and pick their kids up from the same school as yours. The woman in the above picture is a face of mental illness. That woman is my mother.

From a young age, I knew something was different with my mom. She often let me stay home from school even when I wasn’t sick, would become very sad and cry some days and would fight and yell with my grandparents the next. Sometimes, she would disappear for weeks at a time, leaving me in the care of my grandmother. One time, before she left for one of these periods I asked her where she was going. We stood in in front of the refrigerator, staring at my white socks against the red linoleum floor. Leaning over me she simply said, “To become a better mom.” And being that I was only a kindergartener, I replied excitedly, “Oh, so you’ll be able to know when I want a Kit-Kat bar before I ask for one?!” A small smile, easily misinterpreted as a grimace, flashed across her face and all she said was, “Mhmm” and walked away. I never questioned it again.

By the time I was ten she had returned from her latest stay in a rehabilitation facility. (By this time I had learned she was going away to places for people with mental health issues. It wasn’t until several years later that I learned she also suffered from an addiction problem. Which leads me to ask, which came first, the chicken or the egg?) Despite whatever progress she had made in the weeks she was gone, things fell apart when she came home. Within five days I had moved in with my dad permanently. The first few years of living separately, we barely spoke and when we did it always ended in an argument of epic proportions, the only result being my tear stained pillow.

As the years progressed, our relationship fluctuated. We’d see each other occasionally if she came to visit my grandparents on the weekend but other than that, I never saw her. Sometimes we got along really well and other times we were ready to wring each other’s necks. (This depended on whether she was sober or not.)

Within the last couple of years, while living with my grandparents and being in closer contact with my mom since my dad can no longer act as a buffer, I have witnessed the pain and anguish she suffers from her illness. One morning she’ll be happy and by the afternoon she can be raging and screaming over the littlest thing. It hurts to watch someone that you are supposed to look up to be at the mercy of a disease they can’t control. All you want to do is help but there’s nothing you can do, especially as a daughter. Your mother is supposed to take care of you, not the other way around.

Now that I’ve learned that it is not my job to take care of her, I tend to stick to the sidelines now, watching my whole family unit as a whole. Stepping away from the family, I can see traces of mental illness throughout it. It’s not just my mom who suddenly became mentally ill like one person in a family may get a rare physical condition. Others in the family have illness themselves, just not to such a severe degree. And therefore, the person who suffers the most is usually told to “man up” or “get over it” or is kept hidden away as an invalid, not spoken of amongst friends or other extended family. Mental illness is stigmatized as being something that we should be ashamed of and something that should be kept secret within a family.

I’ve even struggled with this. I am not ashamed to say my dad got cancer and died but I am very reluctant to share my mother’s story about her issues with mental illness and addiction issues. The distinction, it appears, is that my dad did not choose to get cancer and that somehow my mother chose to have a mental illness and addiction problem. But this is wrong. My mom did not choose to have mental illness. She wants to be happy and functional more than anyone in the world. Mental illness is not something that individuals can control. People who suffer from these diseases don’t choose to be this way. They are people, like you and me, with good traits and bad- which makes it so hard to be close to them because it would be so much easier to consider them a complete villain and  eliminate them from your life. But because they are human, they are not all “bad”. Despite the screwed up things they may have done they still do good things that redeem them in some way-just like the rest of us. But because they are stigmatized with the label of mental illness, they must suffer being judged almost every day of their lives.

This is why I’m finally speaking up. The more we pretend there is no problem, the more it gets ignored, and the worse it becomes. My mom suffers from mental health issues and so do others in my family. I’m not ashamed to say it any longer. By revealing the truth to their lives, I want to give them dignity by saying that their lives do not have to be kept hidden like a dirty little secret and they do not suffer alone. Which leads me to say that I have my own mental health issues that I deal with myself.

After going through many traumatic events throughout my life, I suffer from anxiety. It wasn’t until this year that I came to acknowledge it and address it as such. I won’t go into much detail as I’m still learning how to cope with it, but I do know what it feels like to be unable to control your own thoughts. Every day I am doing a balancing act of controlling my thoughts and therefore maintaining my mental health rather than succumbing to the negative and toxic thoughts that stream through my head.

And so I end with this. I know how mental illness can affect a family’s dynamics. I see how its unpredictability can destroy relationships. But I also see the resilience these families have– that no matter how rough and messed up things get, we manage to pull together and love each other regardless of our mental state. Because first and foremost, we are a family. And we love each other no matter what.

You Need Me Man, I Don’t Need You

Last semester I was lucky enough to see Ed Sheeran in concert-probably at the last small venue he’ll ever play-and I also took a class on Deaf Culture. So when my roommate recently showed me this video I immediately knew I had to share it. Great song and I love the incorporation of sign language. It’s a beautiful language and seeing Deaf Culture being supported by such a great artist is awesome. Enjoy!