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In the Realm of Guilt and Sorrow
Linda Rodriguez
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Now I will dare to take you into the realm of guilt, of sorrow, of helplessness, of worthlessness, of an emotion that should be remedied with the soothing voice of a friend or the silence of a willing ear.

Now, if this emotion is ignored and kept in the closet or under the covers, it can be very deadly. One dose of this emotion can send the most rational person tumbling headfirst into the fifth dimension of insanity.

D E P R E S S I O N

The word didn't exist in my vocabulary at the time I was overwhelmed with depression. I just thought I was very sad. I tried my hardest not to feel that sadness. In fact, I beat myself up anytime I even thought I was upset.

What I felt was guilt for having such sorrow and rage. I felt guilty for feeling the way I did while my mother loved me and showed her love by telling me stories, taking me places, buying me presents, teaching me all sorts of things. And I felt guilty for feeling so sad when my mother had troubles of her own.

An Explosion of Profanities

My mother had me when she was just 16. My parents stayed married only long enough to have my brother, when I was 4 or 5. As I grew up, I learned to tiptoe around my family's frequent explosions.

At my father's mother's house, somebody was always bad-mouthing my mother. At home, my mother would use the same dirty words to describe my father's family. When the two sides got together, I was usually caught in the middle.

One night, for instance, when I was supposed to sleep over at my grandmother's house, my mother called. Angry words were exchanged and my mother said she was coming to pick me up.

When my mother got to the house I heard an explosion of profanities. From the window, I watched my grandmother, mother and aunts yelling in the street and my tears just turned on like a faucet. I began to gather my things when my cousin grabbed my arm and told me, "Don't worry about it, she'll leave."

I said, "Look, she's not leaving without me. I'll just go now."

Then the cops pulled up and half the neighborhood came out in their pajamas to see what the commotion was about. That's when I descended the steps and got into my mother's van so the argument would be over.

I'd Take the Beatings as My Fault

I was always doing whatever I could to please my mother. The rare times I threw out any little hints to disagree with the bad things she said about my father's family, she'd accuse me of loving them more, or even of loving only them. This made me bawl like a baby (of course not in front of her). How could she question my love when I tried so hard to show her I loved her?

Sometimes her anger would escalate-usually after she'd been drinking from her bottle of anger-inducing "medicine." One minute we'd be dancing at a party, celebrating, and the next she'd be tugging on my already thinning head of hair.

Often, I'd take the beatings and hurtful words as my fault. Although I'd fight with kids in school when anyone even thought of bothering me, I'd take whatever my mother gave out and try to be invisible.

My Brother, the 'Bad Seed'

My brother, on the other hand, was the "bad seed." He was always fighting with everyone, including my mom. Everywhere we went, someone was always telling me how bad he was.

I loved my brother to death. I mean we were allies in the war going on around us, but I blamed him for making our mom's life harder, and this caused our own battles.

Most of the time, when my brother teased me, I'd ignore him. I didn't want to be part of the hatred being casually thrown around. But when I couldn't take it any more, I'd let every bit of rage my little body was holding explode through my fists of fury.

Once the fights started, they would go on for days and days. I guess both of us took advantage of them to let everything out while we could. When they ended, there was an atmosphere of bitter relief. But soon the tensions would begin to build again, and I'd tiptoe, again, around the land mines, paying no mind to all the negativity that was being compressed into my fragile, little body.

When I was 10 or 11, though, I became overwhelmed with all my family's dysfunction and I was filled with a new wish, to be by God's side frolicking amongst the angels. I wanted to leave the earth because everything seemed so painful.

I wanted to die, but I was afraid to kill myself. Instead, I prayed to God: "Take me already! You've taken kids younger than me." Or I'd fantasize about being caught in a gunfight. I would hear the explosion of gunpowder and feel my insides shatter.

I began to place myself in dangerous situations. I'd leave the protection of my mother's watch and go off into the park alone. I thought maybe I'd get lucky and someone would kill me.

I Tried to Die

Patience is not one of my strong points. I wanted to die right then, so one day I just said, "F-ck it. I'll do it." Everyone else caused me pain. Why shouldn't I?

The day I tried I felt like I was finally going to end all the hell. I was in the living room with my brother listening to music on the stereo real loud. We were dancing or maybe wrestling. My mother was in her room with her friends. The only light was the lava lamp with red wax bubbling up and down in its bottle prison.

My brother and I sat down on the sofa. I asked him, "What would you think if I killed myself?"

'Should I Let Go?'

I remember the look on his face asking the silent question, "What are you talking about?"

I went and got my rainbow jump rope and tied it to my mother's exercise bar. I wasn't scared; at that point, I looked at suicide as if I were just walking out the front door. What I saw was the happiness I was sure to get if I escaped the madness.

I stepped up to the rope and wrapped it around my neck. Then I hung onto the bar like a monkey. I looked at my brother and asked, "Should I let go?"

I did a little. My eyes bulged and my head grew very warm. My little fingers were slipping.

"No!" my brother yelled. He took a giant step toward me and wrapped his arms around my waist. He lifted me away from the gravity that was pulling me to death.

I wrapped my arms around him, squeezing him, holding onto life. For the remainder of the night we sat, with the speakers pounding, in the red darkness, electrified and shushed at the same time. All the while my mother never even peeped out her bedroom door.

The colorful rope dangled from the exercise machine for a day or two before my mother noticed. Looking back, I think I left the rope up there to swing its mischief in the open air because I wanted my mother to ask how I was doing.

I had figured I would just tell her I was playing Indiana Jones, but when she did ask, I told the truth.

image by Karolina Zaniesienko

She couldn't believe it. She held my shoulders with my arms pinned down as if I were going to fall from my own words. Seeing her upset upset me, and my tears flowed.

My Hospital Getaway

The next dagger to her heart would be if I told her how much she was hurting me. So I blamed it all on the petty fights I duked out with my brother. Even then I knew that was a pathetic cop out.

My mother took me to a therapist who asked me questions like, "What emotion do you feel mostly throughout a day? Do you tell anyone how you feel? Who makes you feel this way?"

I wanted help but I didn't want to let this stranger in. I gripped my slithering demon and pushed it down to my toes. I was determined never to let it out, because to talk was against my code. She suggested that I stay as an inpatient in the psychiatric ward.

I stayed in the hospital for two weeks. For me, my cornerless room-with its door wide open, with the cameras watching my every move, with the voice through the intercom in the middle of the night, with the nurse feeding me my happy pills, with the time sheet on the clipboard with the last time scrawled on it that I was alive and the next check up time in the box next to it-was a get-away from the world that made me try too hard and made me hurt too much.

I went to one-on-one therapy, and group therapy with 10 other "suicidals." Still, I didn't want to let anyone into my emotional cave. I wanted them to help me from a distance. So instead I just gave them crumbs. I would tell them a little bit, then leave them with a million questions to answer for themselves.

My Anger Seeped Out

The choice was ours to talk or just to sit there for the time allotted. Many times, silence was my better friend.

But during my quiet time in my un-private room, I began breaking down my own walls. Sitting on that crisp-made bed, with the therapists' questions floating in my head, I began to see that my family's constant conflicts had a lot to do with how I was feeling.

It wasn't easy to see. I'd been building my walls for so long that there were just so many layers blocking my vision. Besides, my walls were made of metal and brick. But as I allowed a little bit of those layers to be chipped away, my anger began to seep out.

The day I really let it out started with an innocent visit from my mother. I had made a special card to show her I was improving, but when we were left alone, once again I became the garbage can for her emotions. Mami said I was so stupid for needing to be in the hospital while I sat quietly listening.

Explosion

After the visit, I sat on my bed trying to suck back my tears. Then my sadness turned into the familiar rage. I looked around. This wasn't my room and this wasn't my home. I felt like I would never be home because my heart belonged nowhere.

I grabbed the card I'd made and ripped it into the tiniest pieces. When I was through, my floor looked like a bag of confetti had busted all over.

Next I stripped my mattress of its sheets and pillow. I threw them all in a messy pile on top of the bed and on top of it the stuffed animal my mother's boyfriend had bought for me. I wanted to rip that, too. I wanted to get rid of everything that had to do with my family.

Then one of the staff members walked in. I sat down on the bed with a smirk on my face, catching my breath, smoothing my hair. She said, "Why did you do this?"

Time Out in the Rubber Room

I shrugged and sat there with the coolest mask. I was a pro.

"Well, you have to clean this mess up. You know that, right?"

"No," I spat.

"Why not? This is your room and you made the mess."

The next words slipped out unexpectedly, surprising us both. "'Cuz I don't feel like it. I'm not cleaning nothing."

She said she was going to put me in the rubber room for a time out. "I'm not going anywhere," I said. It was one of the first times ever I had talked back to an adult. It felt good, and also scary. Finally, I gave in and said, "Fine, let's go."

I was placed in a room that was all rubber, with a window that looked out onto a brick wall and a rubber ball in the middle to take your anger out on. Being in that room made me insane. I wanted to break the stupid ball so I tried. When I couldn't, I tried to destroy the room.

I Howled Loud and Long

I scuffed up the floor with my sneakers and tried to break the windows and walls. Then I just lay on the floor and started howling. I kept my howls loud and long.

Someone opened the door and asked me if I was ready to come out. I just spit out my, "No." When the staff member closed the door I threw the ball at it and some more madness was released.

I was in there for a long while howling. Finally I calmed down and came out.

Afterward, while picking up those stupid little papers in my room, I thought about what I'd done. Usually, at least around adults, I knew how to be the nice, respectful, goody, goody girl. I was shocked that my rage had burst out of control, and that I had let it flow the same wild way my brother usually did. It made me discover the strength of my own feelings.

When my two weeks were up, my mother came and took me home. My stay at the hospital had spoiled me and I wanted to see that my mom cared as much about me as the people in the hospital did. When I didn't see that, and the fighting continued, all I knew was that I wanted to go back to the security I'd had there.

The Little I Let Out...

Instead, I learned how to numb myself again, but this time I tried to tune out everyone else's pain, too. My mottoes became, "I Forgot," and "F-ck it." Sure, sometimes when I numbed out the world, I numbed out myself, too. But usually I just tried to enjoy my life.

Once in a while, for brief moments, I'd let the slithering demon out of me. We moved around a lot in my first year in high school, and I began to say, "Who cares what the kids in school know about me? I'm probably moving again." So while I was talking to some kid about basketball or whatever, I'd slip in a few heavy, personal tidbits.

Some of those kids became my friends, and the little bit that I let out made a difference. I didn't feel as alone as before. It was a beginning.

When I thought things were looking a little better, life as I knew it was crushed. My brother accused my mother of abuse. I guess he was tired of getting beat all the time. As a result, I got separated from my family and put in the foster care system.

After my suicide attempt and my time spent in the hospital, I had begun to accept that there were real problems in my family, and that those problems were hurting me. But the fact that my family could be separated completely shocked me and threw me back into denial.

image by James Faber

So instead of holding my mother responsible for beating us, I blamed my brother. Why did he have to be a punk and tattle on my mother?

I, on the other hand, would do anything I could to keep my family together. So I told the courts that my mother never beat us. Instead, I said she punished us in healthy ways to teach my brother and me some discipline. And I told myself that my mom wasn't so bad. She stretched her dollars for my brother and me; she never let us forget that we were her reason for living. I thought that if I really believed what I said, somehow we would be able to stay together.

But that wasn't good enough for the courts and so they ruled that there would be no more Mami for me. Instead I would be sent to New York to live with my maternal grandmother, who I'd seen, like, what, a good five times in my life.

I Wanted to Be Numb

For the first few weeks that I was in New York, I slept all the time, trying to make the days go by quicker, knowing that tomorrow Mami would call for me to come back home. Even after I was enrolled in high school, I made no friends for several months because I believed that soon enough, it would be time for me to leave.

After a while I realized that I wasn't going home any time soon, but that didn't change things very much for me. School seemed pointless since I didn't have my family anymore to push me to work hard, and I started failing classes that I could easily have passed. I slept in most mornings and strolled over to school during my lunch period. I didn't want to try with anything. I just wanted to find a way to go back to feeling numb.

Over that year, though, I began to realize that I didn't have the super-strength it took to make myself go numb on demand. I would break down whenever anything reminded me of my family, which was often, and tears would well up in my eyes.

I'd Party Till I Dropped

And when the worst of my depression lifted, I began to watch how the other kids enjoyed interacting, and I didn't want to be the only sad sack anymore. I wanted to get rid of my endless depression. I didn't know how I was going to do that, but I was going to try.

I started out trying a little too hard (it was more like trying to forget.) By the summer, all those things that I didn't get myself into when I was younger became my pastimes. I started drinking, cutting school and partying 'til my body couldn't take it anymore.

I also began to make my voice heard. I'd always respected adult authority, but I wasn't willing to give into their tyranny anymore. So when my grandmother would demand that I be home at a certain time, I would flat out defy her. I would yell, "Are you trying to insinuate that I'm out there smoking crack or prostituting or something? I go to the parties to dance and have fun." I'd flip the script on her and say, "Do you want me to be in the house all day like you?"

I knew I probably shouldn't talk to my grandmother like that, and it wasn't really her rules that bothered me. But it was easy to yell at her, because I never really knew my grandmother, so I felt liberated to speak my mind. And I was just so tired of my years of silent submission.

When I was out being wild and rebellious, I did feel better. At least I was out enjoying the life of a teen, asserting what I wanted and breaking free. But when I was home alone again, whatever time it was that I got home, I would remember that I still had unsolved sadness. And I knew that if I didn't deal with the pain that was there, I would wake up a miserable old woman years from now, b-tching about how life had f-cked me over.

In Therapy: I Told Half-Truths

But dealing with that pain wasn't easy. It meant opening old wounds, and sometimes it felt like pouring salt on them, too. In the long run, though, it helped me to shake hands with the truth.

I had some help to get me started. When I came to New York, my grandmother hooked me up with a mental health program that worked out of my new high school. Having my therapist, Donna, in my school was convenient and gave me a reason to actually make every appointment (unless I cut school).

Donna was a pleasant person and earned a bit of my confidence by letting me know the rules straight off the bat. She let me know that it was my choice what I told her. She also let me know that everything I said was basically between her and me, and that she wasn't going to call in the snooperific authorities.

I was still suspicious, though. Besides, I didn't always want to deal with reality. As a result, I gave her some of the same flowery stories that I was used to recounting. Other times I'd tell her a little bit about what went on, but never the whole truth.

For instance, I admitted to Donna that my mother did hit me and my brother, which I hadn't admitted to an outsider before. But I would never tell her about the severity of the beatings. When she'd ask me more, I'd just say, "Yeah, she used to hit us on the butt."

Forced to Face Reality

And occasionally I'd tell her about some bad times, like one time that my mother spit some extremely foul language in my ear. But then I'd deny it was even a problem. I'd say, "Oh, that's just the way we did things."

Most of the time Donna would ask, "If everything was OK, then why did you attempt suicide?" It was that question that stuck in my head and it was that question that kept forcing my eyes open to reality.

After my sessions with Donna I would feel an outburst lurking right under the surface (and only a bottle of Absolut could ease my mind). Donna was digging up all my feelings and it took a lot of effort for me to shove them back down.

So the next year, when the therapy program and Donna moved out of the school, I decided that I would make a change, too. It was only one stop on the subway from my school to see Donna, but I felt that if I made the effort to go that one more stop, it would be like admitting that Donna had influence over me. I was not willing to say that therapy was doing much of anything for me, so little by little, I just stopped going.

After I left Donna, though, I began analyzing my problems for myself with the same questions that she had asked me. And without Donna there, there was less reason for me to lie about what had happened. I'd worked so hard to convince Donna that my stories were real, that in some ways I'd convinced myself. But when I was on my own, I had no good excuse to deny the truth. I didn't want to recycle the confusion that I was raised with and deposit it in my own life or the next generation's. I wanted the vicious cycle to end with me.

'I Only Have Control Over Me'

So when I went out and got drunk or high or just partied all night, I began to question the reasons for my actions. On my way back home I would wonder what my life's final destination was going to be.

The flowery answers that I had given Donna were the foundation on which I built my analysis. I asked myself, "Why was I inclined to give those pretty stories?" and more so, "Why did I believe in them?" Sometimes I'd ask if it wasn't really better to believe my lies. But then I'd feel the sadness and anger inside me, and my answer would be no.

After a while, I admitted to myself that my mother wasn't the best in the world. I loved her, but her beating me while she was on an alcoholic blackout wasn't the best parenting technique. And yes, her life was hard, but maybe she could have kept a little bit of her sorrows to herself, or at least waited until I was older. As a little child, I'd had to take on more than I could handle.

I'd started to accept that when I'd been in the hospital, but going into foster care had forced all that honesty out of me.

When I began to accept those things again, I also started to realize that I couldn't control everything that happened around me. I wasn't responsible for or capable of making everything just peachy. When I was younger, I had taken all my family's emotional baggage and believed that I could resolve their issues. That I couldn't was one of the major reasons for my depression.

I began to say, "All right, my family doesn't get along. If I've done all I can to help them and they still have conflicts, that is where I have to leave the issue. I can't control their world. I only have control over one thing, which is my life and me."

This Story: A Message for My Brother

That helped me calm down and get more in control. I started to be less wild than I used to be. For several years I wasn't a very good student, but now I've successfully finished one semester of college. I am the product of my environment, I can't deny it, but I'm learning to construct instead of destruct.

I still get depressed sometimes, but I know how to deal with it a little better now, which includes looking the reasons for my depression in the face. It was actually during a bout of depression that I was inspired to write this story.

A couple of months ago I got a call from my mother. She said my brother was in trouble and had been threatening to take his own life. I felt desperate to get in contact with him. That old urge to save my family returned to me. Then I found out that a friend was looking to make her own ending because she felt so truly alone. I gave a try at counseling her, but I felt like my words only went so far. Then another of my close friends was entertaining the idea of not existing. What was I supposed to do and what was I supposed to think?

That's when I decided to write my own story. I hope it helps my friends and my brother a little when he wants to walk out that door, like I once almost did.

Are you a caring adult looking for more stories to help your youth? Go to HeretoListen.org, a resource for the front-line staff in schools and community based programs to help teens who are struggling with difficult emotions.

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(FCYU-2001-03-02)

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