MAY WE GET WHAT WE WANT, BUT NEVER WHAT WE DESERVE
“In every moment, something sacred is at stake.”Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel
I returned to the lion’s house with two duffle bags and the air in my lungs. I returned to the public school system where I grew-up and started eighth-grade. My mother and the Rabbi were living in the Hamptons and 4-years later I’d live with them full-time. By then I would be merely a shell of my former self.
The catalytic culprit to my drastic change in personality was mysterious to them. But, I knew better. They searched for the point of origin by zeroing on an addition, but I knew the answer was born from subtraction.
Losing my innocence was as easy as falling asleep. It happened slowly at first and then all at once.
I started High School and eight years of competitive swimming morphed from a sport to an amateur career. This was accompanied by morning practice, school, evening practice, followed by an hour of dry land practice and Saturday practice. Sunday belonged to the Lord and we claimed it as our day of rest.
It was a grueling schedule, but it was all time I didn’t have to spend in the house of horrors and I loved the water, even at five a.m. and even in the middle of a blizzard. Nothing beats the smell of chlorine early in the morning.
The lion sold his company and retired at the age of 40. You might have expected our lifestyle to become more luxurious, but his house didn’t change and neither did the Ford in our garage.
He became a day trader. We went to Wal-Mart and bought a large L-shaped desk and I assembled it in the corner of the den. He became a constant presence permanently perched on the swiveling chair like a king upon a throne. A can of diet coke rested in his hand in place of a scepter and a crown of smoke affixed to his head as an orange ashtray from The George & Dragon lay in front of him over-flowing with cigarette butts.
He watched MSNBC all day. He bought stocks. He sold stocks. He had an unshakeable certainty regarding the level of his own genius. By G-d, he was 40, alive and a king all at the same time.
As the months went on he left the house less and less. He developed insomnia. I watched him deteriorate. Then, at the end of my Freshman year, my sister graduated from high school and he threw a party.
He was that parent. The one who bought the beer and the wine coolers and who called everyone else’s parents and assured them that the boys and girls would be sleeping in separate rooms. At the beginning of the night, he gathered everyone into the garage and read them the rules:
Rule #1 – Always, always, always, use a condom
Rule #2 – You break it, you bought it
Rule #3 – Be careful with the knives, they’re very sharp (Cutco’s … it’s an Ohio thing)
Rule #4 – Don’t touch the cat, she bites
Rule #5 – Don’t go into the pantry after I’ve gone to sleep, you’ll wake me up
Rule #6 – Be aware, if you wake me up, I sleep in the nude
Rule #17 – If you eat onions, you won’t get lucky
When I walked back into the house Janis Joplin was spinning on vinyl and I already knew it wasn’t going to be just any old party. A built-in bar was lodged between the kitchen and the den and never opened during parties, but on this particular evening the lion decided he was going to serve Harvey Wallbangers. For those of you born after 1950, the Harvey Wallbanger is a mixed drink made with vodka, Galliano and orange juice.
A study conducted by the Youth Risk Behavior Survey found that among high school students 30-percent drank some amount of alcohol, 14-percent binge drink, six-percent drove after drinking alcohol and 17-percent rode with a driver who had been drinking alcohol. Our home definitely contributed highly to these statistics.
The lion handed me a Harvey Wallbanger at the beginning of the night. And he made sure my drink was never empty.
High school students who drink alcohol are more likely to experience higher absence rates and poor or failing grades, social problems such as fighting and lack of participation in youth activities, legal problems, physical problems such as hangovers and illnesses, unwanted, unplanned and unprotected sexual activity, disruption of normal growth and sexual development, physical and sexual assault, higher risk for suicide and homicide, alcohol-related car crashes and other unintentional injuries such as burns, falls and drowning, memory problems, abuse of other drugs, changes in brain development that may have life-long effects and death from alcohol poisoning.
I woke-up the next morning to my sister’s best friend pulling a guy I had been making out with earlier that evening out of my bed. I vaguely remembered him asking me if I was sure. The people-pleaser in me said yes.
My head was pounding. The sheets had come off my waterbed and my sweaty face stuck to the side of the plastic mattress. He was yelling at him that he shouldn’t have done that, I was too young. We all have a monster living inside us. And we are all responsible for what that monster does when you let him out.
No one had ever been protective of me before. Years later I would realize this is what love looks like up close and personal. And while born from an experience I would rather forget, I’m grateful that someone had an opportunity to show me.
This was long before the era of consent and no one talked about whether or not this type of behavior was right or wrong. I didn’t judge. I just knew that I felt dirty and that I was nauseous.
How can an event you don’t remember cause suffering? Before that incident, I regarded suffering as something you experienced. This loss of innocence taught me the truth. Real suffering isn’t about what’s done to you, it’s about what’s taken from you.
I was 15-years-old.
The lion told me he hoped I learned my lesson. I should be more careful in the future. Don’t keep drinking just because someone is handing me drinks. Learn how to count my drinks and know my limits. He told me I got what I deserved.
Was he referring to my hangover? Did he know what happened? I don’t know, but either way, I believed him.
Truth is absolute. Sometimes hard, occasionally cold and in this case more painful and more destructive than any lie.
My waterbed took up almost the entire room and it became an everlasting reminder of that evening. Every time I opened my bedroom door it hit me hard in the gut. Life can be a mean drunk that way. It never knows when to stop punching.
It wasn’t long before the lion left town and left me alone with a couple hundred bucks and a college kid who slept over. The next day I walked into my room and I knew in my heart that I couldn’t sleep on that bed one more night.
I ripped at the blankets and stripped away the sheets. I threw the pillows on the ground and stood next to the frame staring at the bare mattress trying to catch my breath. The water in the mattress swooshed back and forth as I pondered what to do next.
I wanted to drag it into the bathtub and pull the plug, but it lacked rigidity and I couldn’t maneuver it out of the frame. I pulled and tugged and lifted with all my might. I was drenched in sweat by the time I gave up and just pulled the plug. I figured if I got a little bit of water out, I’d be able to lift the mattress and drag it into the bathroom. I didn’t care how much water I spilled, I just needed this monstrosity of a reminder out of my room. Water kept spilling over the wood frame and soaked the carpet below until I was standing in a puddle.
I was making a mess and it was clear I needed help. We had family friends who were incredibly handy, but more importantly who had always been there for me in the past and I picked-up the phone and dialed their number.
They came over and had me get a hose and showed me how to syphon the water out the mattress, through the hose, and out the window in my bedroom. They also brought over a shop vacuum for me to use to get the water out of the carpeting and a few fans to help circulate the air in the room so the carpet would dry. They were real live life-savers. They are the part of the story that reminded me of the good in people. I’ve always been fond of heroes who don’t wear capes.
After they left, I got the power drill out of the pantry and started taking the screws out of the frame to the headboard. I carried the headboard down into the basement and it felt like I had removed a knife that had been lodged in my calf. I went back into my room and took apart the bedframe and carried it down into the basement. It was like pulling another knife out of my stomach. I kept unscrewing the base and the chest of drawers built into the frame and carried the last few pieces’ downstairs.
I went back into my room, which was now almost empty. I stood in the center staring at that empty room motionless for at least twenty minutes. I was trying to figure out if what I had done was “right” and I didn’t have an answer. I thought I would’ve felt more relief. The only thing I knew for sure in that moment was that I was about as strong as a mule and twice as stubborn. And I decided it was better to be roughly right than precisely wrong.
There was one last knife lodged deeply in my chest. It pierced my heart. I had been certain that once I removed the last of the bed from my room that I would be able to remove that knife with ease, but it didn’t budge. It hadn’t shifted a single inch.
It remains today. A large piece of shrapnel I’ve learned to live with and work around. It’s covered in scar tissue and most days I’m not aware of its presence. Men have never quite appeared the same to me. I’ve also spent the last 20-years praying to G-d to make me a lesbian. So, I speak from experience when I tell you that just like you can’t pray away the gay … you can’t pray it in either.
I got myself an air mattress at Bed, Bath and Beyond and assumed when my father got home he would either buy me a new bed or let me move the one from the guest bedroom into my room. When he asked what happened I told him it broke. He knew I was lying. He didn’t press me about what happened. He didn’t hit me. But, I wasn’t allowed to have a bed either.
I slept on that two-inch air mattress every night in the years that followed. Each night before crawling into bed I’d re-inflate it and it became the physical reminder of what had been taken from me that night. Acutely painful and ever present.
Pain is one of the true costs of living, but just like love … it’s also a divine reminder that we’re still alive.
Do I wish I had just kept that waterbed? No, I do not.
When you do something to put yourself back in charge it’s important to remind yourself that you are not less, but rather more powerful on the other side. That’s when you’ll feel better. Because life’s struggles are how you discover and harness your true power.
Just remember the light is always the way up. G-d always wins. And there’s always at least a little collateral beauty to be found in the breakdown.
Check back next week for Chapter Four when we explore a permanent solution to a temporary problem.
The goal is to shed light on the current epidemic of narcissism in our country. It is also my most sincere hope that this story will help people who are survivors of abuse or suffering with mental illness to find not only solace, but salvation.
Bonus points if it also sparks a national dialogue about how the prominence of this destructive personality trait is shaping future generations, altering the fabric of our culture and impacting our society as a whole.
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