Losing innocence is unavoidable. It’s part of the process of growing up. As you get older, your body changes and your mind shifts. You gain knowledge and you experience new emotions—both good and bad. It personally took me years to get to that point, mostly because my parents shielded me from the real world, making me believe it was an inherently threatening and dangerous place. Their intention wasn’t necessarily to instigate fear in me, but their overprotectiveness and unwillingness to let me experience what it’s like to grow up on my own made me anxious and introverted to a pathological degree. That’s why growing up I relied solely on them. In the beginning, it felt nice to be protected and cared for, but it wasn’t long before I realized that something wasn’t quite right. I had just started middle school when I noticed how most of my peers related closely to the people around them and the world in general, and I couldn’t. They spoke very freely and seemed to have an innate confidence and life knowledge I never managed to build nor live up to me. What they perceived as effortless, I perceived as challenging. And over the years, as they started opening up to new and exciting experiences, I was somehow turning more and more inward, and at the time I couldn’t possibly understand why.
It’s difficult to blame your parents for being overprotective, mainly because their behavior is oftentimes seen as loving parenting. It’s only when you become an adult that you allow yourself to blame them. You blame them for wrapping you in cotton wool, for telling you what you can and cannot do, not because they were trying to instill a moral compass or educate you on what’s right and what’s wrong, but out of fear that you might drift or break. Because if you end up failing or turning into the opposite of what they expected, it would reflect badly on them, and that’s their own worst fear. This kind of love is problematic but there’s simply no easy way to make them see how harmful it can be without accusing them of being bad parents. It’s impossible to show them how their parenting had inhibited your ability to do things independently. That said, when you’re a child, that’s the kind of attention you wish and hope for. There’s nothing better than being the center of attention, to know that no matter where or how you fall, someone will be there to catch you and bring you back to your safety net.
For many years, I was obsessed with getting my mom to hold me during long family road trips. I’d throw myself in the front seat and stretch my legs to the back, on top of Rosamunde’s. She’d run her fingers through my hair and I’d fall asleep looking at the beautiful dimmed colors in the sky as the sun set. I felt safe and loved. Even now, when I think about how my mother used to look at me with her glistening eyes and reassuring smile, I can’t help but feel like it’s all my fault. However, there’s a level of comfort coming from the fact she no longer looks at me the same way. Somehow that makes the way I view life not to mention her and dad, a bit more justifiable.
Throughout my whole life at home, each one of us was caught up in their own business. There was no real bond or family union. We simply stayed out of each other’s way unless a family matter required all of our attention—like a visit to our grandparents’ house or a family event that needed extensive planning. There’s also the typical parents-children interventions that happened every once in a while—like when I started cursing and using foul language or came home with awful grades. And it wasn’t just me. Rosamunde also had her share. For instance, mom and dad hated her second high school boyfriend and pressured her to break up with him. They also lost it when she had her belly pierced as soon as she turned eighteen. I remember her calling Frieda who had to come over and talk some sense into my mom to convince her there was nothing wrong with it. Somehow my dad didn’t care. He wasn’t really good with dealing with women problems. I was the one he was mostly concerned about and being the overbearing dad he is, he ruined my life with the anxiety he inculcated in me. That’s why I avoided him like the plague. Whenever I heard him come through the door after a work trip, I’d run to my bedroom and pretend I was either studying or asleep. That didn’t do much, though, since he’d still come into my bedroom and wait for me to acknowledge and rush to hug him — something I always forced myself to do, which also made me feel weird and cringy afterward. If I had to speak to one of them, I’d definitely go with mom. At least with her I can get my point across even though she rarely ever agrees with me. It seemed that every time I tried to make a significant decision for myself, she was ready to bring me down. I’ve noticed that aging changed both of them, though. My dad’s anger issues have subsisted and he’s become more mellow whereas mom’s obsessive protective spotlight has almost completely waned. Although I can clearly see that, my opinion of them hasn’t changed. That’s why when mom approached me last night and started a heart-to-heart conversation, I didn’t hesitate to showcase my true emotions.
“I’ve done nothing but raise you the best way I knew how,” she said. “I cared for you and loved you. I can’t for the life of me understand why you turned out this way.”
“You never considered the fact maybe it’s because you loved me wrong?” I responded, impulsively, my words crisp and clear.
“Loved you wrong? How did I love you wrong?”
“I don’t know. What I know is that doing something in the name of love doesn’t necessarily mean you’re doing it right.”
“Then tell me: what is it that I’ve ever done to you?”
“Never mind. There’s no point…”
“No. We’re going to figure this out once and for all.”
“I don’t know! I don’t know what went wrong. I can’t go back in time and pinpoint the moment things changed. I am what I am and that won’t change.”
“But you’re ruined.”
“Well, I’m not around anymore, so you don’t have to put up with me.”
“But you’re my son. I’m supposed to look after you.”
“I’m a grownup. I’ve been living on my own for two decades now. When are you going to come to terms with that?”
I wasn’t trying to make her feel bad. I’m definitely not delusional in the sense I’m convinced I’ve suffered from a bad childhood even though the level of abuse was prevalent. Then again, when you think about it, abuse has a lot of layers; it’s not always extreme, violent and loud. Sometimes it’s the little things that define our upbringing. The manipulation and control imposed on us by our parents, the unreachable expectations they throw on us as well as their inability to allow us to grow and form our own identity and find our own path. They want carbon copies and if they don’t get what they want, they won’t hesitate to show it. It could be a simple thing they’d say or a certain look they’d give you, or a subtle change in their behavior. It’s not always about displaying hostility, but you’ll know when it happens; you’ll feel it and be put down by it. I can’t trace back and point out the day things changed because it’s a cumulation of events that shaped me—not just one definitive clear moment that turned my life around. I can’t go back and track the exact moment my whole childhood shifted. What I know is that when it did, it never shifted back. That’s when I knew it was over, that it was time for me to grow into an adult, and a big part of me couldn’t quite understand how.
Mental illness was never taken seriously by my family. When someone was depressed, we called it sadness. When someone was bipolar, schizophrenic or manic, we called it craziness. When someone was violent—a possible sociopath or psychopath, it was either justified anger or they were a bad person. The idea of psychiatric help was always considered taboo. No one wants to admit their kids are defective, that the only way for them to function and survive in this world is by pumping their bodies full of drugs or by seeing a mental health professional.
I was never diagnosed with a mental illness, and was never prescribed any medical drugs although I’ve secretly taken a few throughout the years to see how they’d affect me and if I needed them. I quickly stopped caring and decided to embrace my true self. My true self lies in dark places. That’s why when I went down to the basement to retrieve a box containing things I left behind when I first moved out, I came upon something I’ve almost completely forgotten about. Something that anyone would deem alarming and harrowing. My personal drawing album.
Drawing used to be my therapy—the only way I knew how to express myself. I used to draw at my father’s shop on summer days when my parents would drag me to the store to teach me how to run a business, something I clearly had zero interest in. Even when they pushed me to talk to a customer, I either left a bad impression or threw a fit afterward as a result of my inability to make small talk and convince them to buy anything. Of course, my parents thought I was lazy and spiteful, so they never let me leave before closing time. One day, a friend of mom’s came into the store and bragged about her new hairdo for almost half an hour. Naturally, my mom forced a smile and complimented her out of courtesy and because she was a regular customer. When she wouldn’t shut up, I interfered and told her how hideous her hair looked. I wasn’t asked for my opinion, but neither could I bear hearing them endlessly talk back and forth. Sweet talking is simply something I can never force myself to do although I know it’s the only way for people to get along with each other and form at the very least some kind of platonic friendship. After my mom apologized on my behalf, I was dragged to the back room and chastised. She threw a bunch of papers and crayons on my father’s desk and asked me to keep quiet and draw to distract myself. For the rest of the summer, that’s all I did and at the end of each day, she’d shove my drawings in a manila folder and dump it in a drawer. She never asked me what I was drawing or even bothered to look. It wasn’t until the last week of summer that I overheard one of my father’s business partners commenting about the drawings as she printed some invoices. He had just delivered some packages and as he waited for the slips to be printed, his curiosity got the best of him and he started going through the papers. They were graphic and contained dismembered naked women, each one suffering from a unique wicked death. The color red was overused to the point it bled through all of them.
“Who drew these,” he asked, his jaw half-dropped.
“My son. Why?” my mom replied bluntly and without a care in the world.
“Kersten, these drawings are disturbing. Your son needs mental help.”
I was right by the door when I heard him say those words. You’d think this is the moment that changed everything. The moment my mom would freak out and have me sit down so I could explain to her what they meant or go as far as enrolling me in intensive therapy. Shockingly, though, she remained indifferent—oblivious. She always knew I was fascinated with macabre elements, scary stories and horror movies. To her, the drawings were just a result of that—my way of entertaining myself. Or maybe she chose not to see it—or believe it.
“Oh, they don’t mean anything. He’s just a bored teenager.”
The inward children are the ones that need to be paid the most attention to, psychiatrists say. They’re the masterminds. The ones who grow up to become serial killers and rapists. The ones who end up committing mass murders or suicide. No matter how marinated they are in unconditional love, constant affirmation and encouragement to do the right things, their sense of empathy and remorse might be corrupted or completely lacking due to inherited or environmental factors. I looked at the drawings a second time and tried to understand what inspired them and I couldn’t. Was I too, a serial killer in the making? If not, then what interrupted the possible transformation?
My inner desire for self-destruction is like a starving wolf urging to be fed, and no matter how much you give him, it’s never enough. He wants more. More chaos. More mayhem. The process of destroying my whole life had to start at home, and there wasn’t a better occasion to speak up than at my parents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary.
“I’m not sure my speech will be as heartfelt as my sister’s, so bear with me as I don’t really do this often. Actually, I don’t think I’ve done this before. I thought about writing something down to make things easier, to make my thoughts somehow more concise, so I don’t ramble and drag this longer than it should. But when we write things down, we tend to filter ourselves. We avoid mentioning certain things, and have the tendency to embellish everything…” Everyone was staring at me with a confusing smile, wondering where the hell I was going with my speech. My parents and Rosamunde seemed to be staring at nothing. I never spoke up about how I felt before, at least not like this and not in front of my entire family. Even though none of it was pre-planned, I knew what was about to come out of my mouth. The closer I got to revealing the ugly truth, the more tongue-tied I got, but I kept pushing forward until my big revelation. I could anticipate everyone’s uncomfortable reactions, but there was a bitterness inside me that needed to be freed. I wanted to get it out. I wanted to ruin it all.
“I’ve always looked back on my early childhood years and felt nothing but gratitude and happiness. There are many things about it I terribly miss. Our home, my neighbors, my grandparents. I miss playing soccer and track games with my friends. We had the best times and I was heartbroken when life eventually pulled us apart. Growing up was both exciting and devastating, but for the most part it made me sadder as I allowed myself to get trapped in the sandpit of remembrances, reliving my favorite memories over and over again in my head to fuel myself with enough hope to get me through the present. I never allowed myself to process negative emotions as they were disruptive and only caused me harm, but then I learned to embrace them and that gave me a particular kind of strength…” My bitter words were slowly approaching like a nauseating burning feel rising from the tip of my stomach and up to the back of my throat.
“What I found to be quite odd, in my case, is my inability to recall good memories as easily as bad ones. Like for instance, every time I went back in time to try and remember something nice and happy about being a kid, I always had to force my memory to skip past the first image that popped into my head. The image of my father standing above me with his belt endlessly coming straight at me—at my body, my face. All of me. It was his way of knocking what he perceived as my undesirable and punishable behavior out of me. I wasn’t the most pleasant kid back then, so I guess I deserved it.”
“Felix,” I heard someone whisper. My mother. It sounded like a warning. It was too late, though. The damage had already been done.
“After that, I feared my father and tried to avoid him as much as I could. With fear came curiosity, though, so I started to watch him, catching small glimpses of his secret life—mainly the fact he couldn’t control the urge to look at every woman walking down the sidewalk during our car strolls, or the time I borrowed one his travel bags and found a pack of condoms in one of its pockets. I’m not sure if he ever crossed the line. Maybe he never did. Although I grew up to realize men’s sexual desires could rarely be tamed, that’s not what I knew back then.”
“That’s enough,” dad irascibly said, his tone loud but not enough to intimidate or scare me.
“Of course, I was still a minor when all of that happened, and both of them made sure, although unbeknownst to them, I stayed heavily reliant on them which guaranteed my lack of independency and responsibility. I was so frustrated I wanted to hurt both of them, so I started stealing. Dad used to collect euro bills in his drawer and deposit them at the bank once they reached a hundred. He obsessively counted them every night, so I knew taking a couple of them every other day would drive him mad. I remember the day he finally became suspicious. I was standing by the bedroom door watching him go over the money countless times. When he noticed me there, he just glared at me, and I didn’t react. I just walked away. I knew he had no proof and that accusing me of stealing would’ve only created more tension between us. He started putting the money in a locked drawer him and mom shared, but it didn’t take me long to locate the key they hid in the pocket of one of his coats. Since mom was partially to blame for enabling his violent behavior by looking the other way, I also stole from her wallet. Anyway, that was my payback. Oh, and I peed in his beer once. Sorry if that’s too much. I could go on, but I’ll let Rosamunde speak. She’s much better at lightening the mood…”
Rosamunde’s attempt to fix the damage I’ve induced with her kind words of praise couldn’t erase the impact my speech left on the attendees’ faces. A firm hand with sharp nails gripping my right shoulder immediately got my attention. It was my mother. She looked down on me with a lot of contempt and disgrace.
“Come with me”, she said, the words viciously spelled out. I knew I was in deep trouble. It was time to pay the consequences. But I wasn’t going to let her scold me like she used to.
“I’m actually comfortable here”, I said, nonchalantly.
“Now”, she ordered. I got up carelessly and tried to remain indifferent toward our guests as much as I could until we finally made it into the hallway. She waited for the waiters to pass us before speaking.
“What’s wrong with you?!” she started.
“What do you mean?”
“Stop this. You just smeared the name of your entire family. Are you aware of that?!
“I’m sick of hiding behind a facade.
“No, you don’t get to do this.
“You mean, tell the truth?
“Making your father seem like a monster. You don’t get to take one bad thing and twist it out of proportion—not after everything we’ve done for you.
“Twist it out of proportion? Everything I said was true.
“Nonsense! Your version of reality is distorted. You don’t know what’s real and what’s not. You need professional help.
“I see what you’re trying to do here, but guess what? It’s not going to work. Not anymore.”
“I’m not trying to do anything. You want to convince yourself you’ve suffered from a bad childhood? Suit yourself. But this is more than what we’ve bargained for. You’re no longer welcome here.
“Great. I’ll start packing.”
“This isn’t a temporary goodbye.”
“I got your point.”
“Look at you. Nothing. No reaction whatsoever.”
“What do you want me to do? Plead for forgiveness?”
“You have absolutely no regard for how deeply this is going to affect us. Your father is an old man. He will never recover from this.”
“You wanted answers. And now you’re punishing me?”
“I don’t know what I was thinking. I shouldn’t have let you a utter a single word. I’ve totally misjudged how spiteful you really are. Don’t let us see you when we get home.”
As I walked outside the building, I heard loud heels clattering on the stairs behind me. It was Rosamunde rushing to give her two cents. When I made it clear I wasn’t interested in hearing her, she violently grabbed my arm and blocked my path, something she never dared to do before. My bitter speech had pushed all three of them to their boiling point. I did this to them so they could finally allow themselves to hate me without any holdbacks.
“Who the fuck are you?” She yelled in my face.
“Your fucking brother.”
“No. You’re a disgrace.”
“Easy for you to say. You didn’t go through what I went through.”
“Oh, shut up. So dad hit you a few times, so what? Everyone gets hit at one point in their life.”
“You certainly didn’t.”
“That’s not the point. I know many people who’ve had it way worse than you did, but they grew up—moved on. They’re not resentful like you are. You’re just looking for a reason to justify your miserable existence. But that’s not on us. That’s on you.”
It took me a while to grasp the gravity of my action. I’ve destroyed my only link to my roots, dismantled my whole reality, disrupted my entire world. Who am I fooling, though? I wanted this. Somehow my downfall is my ultimate freedom.