Sometimes, life changes. Overnight or in a split second. Nothing is ever, ever the same again. You begin to date your life “BC” and “AD.” Before the life-changing event and after it. Life has splintered. Shattered.
It’s rather like my parents’ generation asking each other, “Where were you when you heard Kennedy had been shot?” For my generation it’s “Where were you when the towers fell on 9/11?” For some, they’ll never forget where they were when they heard that the Big Bopper, Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens had perished in a plane crash, an event that inspired one of my favorite songs, American Pie.
Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry
And them good ole boys were drinking whiskey and rye
Singin’ this’ll be the day that I die
This’ll be the day that I die
Those are public events that splinter your life into “BC” and “AD.” But this article is about the private event that shattered my life into “before” and “after.” I’m not the only one. No one really talks about it, but many of us have shattered lives, before and after, one unforgettable horrible event.
For some of you, the event that changed your life may be the death of a parent, spouse, sibling or child. A car accident. A cancer diagnosis. Losing your job, your home, your health, your family, your most significant relationship. Perhaps it was a divorce – your parents or your own. Being widowed. Discovering something shocking about someone you love. An affair. A suicide. The list goes on and on.
This article has been twenty-three years in coming. My life splintered in 1995 when I was the tender, impressionable age of fifteen. I simply stopped growing up on the very cusp of adulthood. The worst part is, no one ever told me the specific, detailed truth about what happened overnight on that Autumn day.
I was a lonely teenage broncin’ buck
With a pink carnation and a pickup truck
But I knew I was out of luck
The day the music died
I went to bed one night in 1995 and my family was “normal.” I woke the next morning and overnight everything had changed. I am the product not of the fairly good pre-1995 family, but of the traumatic, mind-warping, dysfunctional, ultra codependent, narcissistic post-1995 family.
I vividly remember waking up that morning. Mom was earnestly talking to Dad. He was wearing a placating smile as he shaved and prepared to go somewhere. I couldn’t catch what they were talking about. I never could and they never explained it in any detail. Mom asked me to make two pieces of toast for her breakfast that morning. She could only choke down one. It may sound funny but that’s when I knew something was deeply wrong.
With every paper I’d deliver
Bad news on the doorstep
I couldn’t take one more step
Life “AD” was, on the surface, the same as life “BC.” Dad still went to work. I still went to school, well, until my parents pulled me out of school to completely isolate me in a batcrap crazy family. But fundamentally, everything was horribly different. Where we went and what we did and what we saw changed. The balance of power subtly shifted.
My parents spent every weekend closeted in their bedroom together, talking, talking, talking. I became a silent listener. I was always silently listening, listening, listening, waiting, scared yet almost relieved when the yelling, the swearing, the fist-hitting-furniture blackout rage began. Even while I hated the rage, expecting it was far worse than actually hearing it. It was almost a relief when their conversations were terminated by his rage. It often happened.
The stress was so acute I developed OCD to cope. While I overplucked my eyebrows and squeezed my adolescent blackheads and cysts, my parents yelled, lectured and tried to shame me into stopping. Meanwhile, Mom began pulling out her own hair and having panic attacks. Somehow, it was okay for her to have agoraphobia and OCD, but not okay for me to show signs of extreme stress. “She’s chickenshit,” Dad scoffed, “afraid of her own shadow.” Apparently, I didn’t have stress so I had no excuses for not instantly obeying them. After all, I wasn’t included in their interminable conversations about…what!?!
I was expected to look, act and behave perfectly. Happy! To not react when there was a whisper of my parents living apart, shaking my world to it’s foundations. To happily sit in the corner of the Living Room while I mourned no longer being with my classmates, my peers. I mourned being so weird, so alone, so friendless and now never having my first High School boyfriend despite their piecrust promised that I could join a church youth group. I was furious that Dad had called my kinda-sorta High School sweetheart and told him “No, Lenora can’t go to the banquet with you. She hasn’t met our requirements for dating yet.” I didn’t get a voice. I didn’t get a choice. His phrasing implied I was promiscuous and untrustworthy; he actually meant at sixteen-going-on-seventeen, I wasn’t allowed to date yet.
The birds flew off with a fallout shelter
Eight miles high and falling fast
I did consider stopping my OCD. I thought it through very carefully but picking (dermatillomania) and plucking (trichotillomania) are very much like cutting, which I never tried. They’re an out for emotions and stress that have no other outlet. They translate inner pain, which receives no empathy, to exterior pain that we can feel some empathy for. “If I stop,” I thought to myself, “I will literally shatter. Something inside will break.” So I kept picking and plucking and my parents kept shaming me. There was zero empathy for me, no recognition of how their drama was affecting my mental health.
Nonetheless, something did break inside. Back then I didn’t know the word for it. “I’m shellshocked,” I thought to myself. That World War I term was the closest I could get to giving PTSD a name. All I knew was that it’s impossible to take driving lessons from your dad when you’re terrified of his temper, shell-shocked by him. But Mom wouldn’t take “no” for an answer when I tried to explain this to her.
Oh and as I watched him on the stage
My hands were clenched in fists of rage
I became jumpy. Extremely responsive to sound. I became scared. Scared of pissing anyone off. Scared of expressing emotions. Scared of asking questions. Scared, scared, scared. Fear became my normal for the next twenty years. I was terrified of everyone. Other drivers on the road. Business contacts. My fellow employees. My nice boss. Life was spent just waiting for someone to explode in rage in my face. It wasn’t until I met my super-calm husband that I calmed down and developed personal strength.
‘Cause I saw you dancin’ in the gym
You both kicked off your shoes
Man, I dig those rhythm and blues
Music was my outlet. Klezmer, to be precise. In the half-morose, half-cheerful Yiddish songs of Jewish mourning, rejoicing and hopefulness, I found outlet for the “intense” emotions inside. “Intensity” was the only word I had for the sensation of pressure inside. Now, I call it “anger,” “hurt,” and “trauma.” Even though I was thirty-one before I was “allowed” to move out of that fucked up home (religious brainwashing, fear and their neediness kept me close), I always clung to the hope of a better tomorrow. A life and home of my own.
Do you believe in rock and roll?
Can music save your mortal soul?
And can you teach me how to dance real slow?
Then came a memorable afternoon I’ll never forget. An afternoon that cemented my dysfunction. I’d spent hours in my bedroom, listening to my parents voices rise and fall in one of those conversations in the room next door. Dad had promised me a game of lawn croquette when the “talk” was over. Pretty soon the volume in the next room started to increase. I sat on my bedroom floor, my hands balled up in fists, both hoping for the fight to just “happen already” and also hating the rager in the next room. Wondering when and if I should ever call the police.
Finally, the storm broke. The rage started. Then a door was kicked out, shards of broken wood scattered across the hallway. And the man who did it angrily ordered me outside so he could fulfill his promise of playing lawn croquette with me.
I didn’t want to go.
I was terrified of him.
I was furious with him.
I loathed him.
But you don’t defy and further enrage someone who has just kicked out a door.
So I slapped on a smile. Tried desperately to not act scared. Chattered away like a happy little magpie. Over time I even convinced myself I was feeling “fine” emotionally, After all, none of this was about me.
Being so inauthentic does something to your soul. Permanently. It’s the final cementing of your character: you are a codependent, self-abandoning, shattered, traumatized, perpetually smiling, trying-to-be-funny actress who never responds to the actual reality of life. I call it “Living Symbolically.”
In a coat he borrowed from James Dean
And a voice that came from you and me
Now, twenty-three years later, that day in 1995 when everything changed is still the defining moment of my life. I’m still sifting through the wreckage of those years. Trying to find the Black Box that will tell me the truth. Oh, I think I’ve found it. The brainwashing, the mind control, the blindness have all fallen away to reveal all kinds of long-forgotten, much suppressed, sometimes shocking memories that simply don’t fit the “happy, perfect family” narrative.
But I’m still trying to separate the scapegoating from the truth. I denounce my dad’s televangelist-like despicable claim that “You and your mother are bringing me under demonic attack.” It’s helped to realize that, as soon as I got away from my parents and married my husband, suddenly I didn’t feel like a bad person any longer. So many of “my” problems simply evaporated. So did my OCD. I didn’t change. My environment did.
‘Cause the players tried to take the field
The marching band refused to yield
Do you recall what was revealed
The day the music died?
If your life, like mine, shattered and splintered beyond repair into a “BC” period and an “AD” period, I understand. You are validated. Very, very validated. You may simply be the innocent victim, the scapegoat, the projected-upon, the distraction for frantic narcissists whose False Personas were shattering, for control freaks who were losing control. You were the victim forced to look and act perfect while life was spinning crazily out of control around you. The person who was never paid the respect of even being told the truth. The bloody, honest, damnable truth.
Perhaps they reasoned they were trying to protect me. What bullshit! They were trying to protect themselves from the authentic fallout from whatever the truth really was. Truth is always better, in the long run, than secret keeping. If I’d known the truth long ago, I probably would’ve moved out many years before they gave me permission to move out. If so, I would’ve suffered much less and, frankly, I would not now be nearly as angry and resentful as I am today.
Yet you live with the wreckage. You’re not the person you would have been otherwise. You’re still picking up the pieces. Mourning what could have been and who you could have been…if only, if only.
A generation lost in space
With no time left to start again
I know how you feel. It’s NOT you. It never was. It was them all along!
Bye, bye Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry
Them good ole boys were drinking whiskey and rye
Singin’ this’ll be the day that I die.