After school, the bus drops me off on the corner. I walk home, pausing to grab the mail on my way in the door. It’s quiet inside and, at first, nothing seems wrong. Elena, my little sister, doesn’t get home from school for another hour. Vitoria, my big sister, is away at college. Bono, our dog, snores on the sofa. But something is missing.
My father should be home, should be standing in the kitchen, stirring sugar into his coffee, preparing for the long night shift ahead. I hear the blare of rock music coming from his bedroom. I should already know what I’m going to find but, each time it happens, I fool myself into believing that it will never happen again.
I push open the bedroom door and there he is, passed out on the carpet in a pool of his own vomit. A record spins in the Victrola. Empty, dented beer cans are scattered across the floor. I think he’s still breathing. I think I am, too.
My shock subsides and I spring into action, trying to ignore the fact that this is the most awake I’ve been in weeks. I follow our unofficial protocol: take his car keys, take his cellphone, take the booze, pour it out, turn him on his side, and turn out the light. Vitoria is usually here for this. We usually handle him together, but she’s not here and my father and I are feeling sort of abandoned. Forgotten.
* * *
If my big sister was a Greek goddess, she’d be Athena—her mind sharp as a spear, her gleaming eyes able to see through any lie. I want to call her, but I also don’t want to make her worry. She deserves a break from this dysfunction. If I was a Greek goddess, I’d be Hesychia, the personification of silence and sleep who most people have never heard of. I need Athena to fight this battle. Before I can stop myself, I’m calling Vitoria on the phone. I tell her about our father. She tells me she’s on her way home.
It feels like only seconds have passed but the clock tells me that Elena will arrive soon. I don’t want her to see our father like this. I know, I know—it’s not my responsibility to cover up my father’s mistakes, but I can’t help it. I can’t do nothing.
Elena is eleven. (Five years younger than me, seven years younger than Vitoria.) She plays the clarinet, reads Percy Jackson books, and always shares her Mexican candy.
I try to mop up Dad’s vomit with a dirty T-shirt. I turn off the record player and hear Elena’s school bus pull away. Moments later, she’s inside, asking why Dad’s truck is still in the driveway. “He’s taking a nap,” I say, which is technically the truth.
“He’s drinking again, isn’t he?” she asks. She already knows the answer. I guess Elena is not a baby anymore. Like the rest of us, she’s growing up.
* * *
When I was little, I called my father Daddy and ran to him with open arms. Now, I call him Dad and pray he stays asleep.
Before this house was ours, it belonged to our grandparents. They chose this little plot of land toward the outskirts of a small Ohio town. They cemented a trailer to the ground and settled in for twenty years. When I was little, my father bought the house from them. We moved in and they moved into the house across the street, always within shouting distance. My dad began to add a second story and a garage onto our house, but never finished the project.
Now, coffee tins full of nails line the driveway. Chunks of lumber are strewn across the lawn. A permanent construction zone, this chaotic house is the perfect metaphor for my chaotic life.
* * *
My father’s name is Ernesto, but his friends call him Mike. I don’t call him that, nor do I call him Papa or Apa. He speaks Spanish, but I’m the kind of Mexican who can’t pronounce her own last name. When I was little, I called my father Daddy and ran to him with open arms. Now, I call him Dad and pray he stays asleep.
Even though I pray, I do it with no expectations. My faith has been fading like my favorite T-shirt after I washed it too many times. I had to toss out the emerald-green garment and I’m afraid I’ll have to do the same with my religion. I used to be a big believer. I carried my Bible in a special bag and highlighted my favorite passages. I sang Steven Curtis Chapman songs and even went to church camp. I felt some great presence and called it God. Now, I’m not so sure if it was him, or just me, wanting desperately to believe in something.
Every time my father stops drinking, he goes to church and tries to fix himself with tithes and scriptures, yet he always goes back to the bottle. My grandparents cross themselves and offer us prayers from across the street, yet they never actually do anything to protect us from my father’s demons. The most religious people I know are always waiting for God to intervene, and I can’t help but wonder if they only believe in him because they don’t know how to believe in themselves.
Where is my mother in all of this? She flew north to Toledo. Her name is Paloma, which means pigeon or dove, so we should have seen it coming.
Correction—the most religious person I know is my best friend, Clara. She believes, like really believes. In God and herself and everyone else. I go to church with her sometimes, watch as she raises her hands and closes her eyes, singing like an angel. Clara is not holier-than-thou. She loves everyone, no matter what. She’s always able to find the best in others.
Sometimes, I wish I could love like that. Other times, I’m grateful that I can’t. Clara can see past all of the flaws of this small town—the DUIs and factories and barren cornfields and rusted machinery and manual labor and overdoses and the same faces every day and Taco Bell and McDonald’s and Wendy’s and divorces and demolished elementary schools and failing high schools and Steel Reserve and Bud Light and letters from jails and Newports and Salems and Camels and smokestacks and trains against a flat, gray sky—and love it anyway.
I can’t. I dream of getting out of here. I dream of a better life even as I wonder if I’m worthy.
* * *
Where is my mother in all of this? She flew north to Toledo. Her name is Paloma, which means pigeon or dove, so we should have seen it coming. After she and my father divorced a few years ago, she met a man, an older white guy. They’re engaged and she’s pregnant with another baby girl. Elena and I stay with her every other weekend.
Before, I would tell Mom when Dad started drinking, and then Elena and I would move to Toledo, switch schools. Toledo does offer more opportunities than Fostoria, but I stay here for my father. He needs us to look after him. My mother doesn’t.
* * *
In an attempt to distract myself, I work on a painting. I’m painting a landscape on a canvas that’s larger than my bedroom window. Mrs. Moffett, my design teacher, has a habit of hoarding art supplies. She keeps the fresh plastic-wrapped oil pastels in a locked cabinet and gives us a bin of tiny broken ones to use instead, but when I hang out in her room during lunch time or after school, she gives me free rein of the art room—including the new supplies. I’m not a very good painter, but Mrs. Moffett says that my art is meaningful and that I have an eye for pattern, whatever that means.
On the canvas that’s in front of me now, I’m painting a cloudless sky above a lush meadow. I bought some plastic flowers at the dollar store and I plan to glue them into the meadow. I’m getting slightly frustrated, though, because the painting is not turning out how I’d hoped.
I steal my dad’s lighter and burn holes into the canvas. While I watch the fabric melt away into smoke and ash, I don’t think about my father passed out in the other room. I don’t think about my sister driving down the highway. All I think about is this thing that I am creating and destroying.
When I paint, I see my problems differently. For a moment, they aren’t problems anymore, but inspiration. I uncap the tubes of acrylic, squeeze the pure colors—orange, scarlet, fuchsia—onto a Styrofoam plate, and mix them with my muddled emotions. The glide of my brush across the canvas soothes even my worst anxieties. If I mess up, or if my painting turns out ugly, that’s okay. I’ll burn it, paint over it, begin again. Here, I am free, with specks of neon green drying on my jeans and wild ideas swirling around my head.
The truth is, I’m procrastinating by painting this meadow and sky. For my AP US history class, I have to make a video, write an essay, or create a piece of art about the Civil War. Obviously, I decided to paint a picture. The only problem is the painting was due last week and I still haven’t finished it. It’s a portrait of two soldiers: one in a gray Confederate uniform and the other in a blue Union one. One of the soldiers is bleeding out and being carried to safety. The nametags pinned to their chests show that they have the same last name. (The implication being that they’re brothers at war with one another.)
The Civil War painting sits in a corner of the dining room. There are cobwebs growing around it. I have to paint the soldiers’ faces and the details on their uniforms, but for some reason, I just can’t. It’s like as soon as I have to do something, all the joy and imagination are sucked right out of it. I’m trying to work up the motivation to work on the painting, since it’s worth a good chunk of my grade and I need good grades if I’m ever going to make it out of here, but the more I look at the picture, the more I hate it.
* * *
Vitoria arrives in a chariot disguised as a Ford Taurus. I hear the crunch of tires over the gravel driveway, pulling me out of my self-pity. Vitoria makes dinner and makes sure that Elena does her homework. She tells me about the classes she’s taking: Taiko drumming, abnormal psychology, conceptual art.
I feel like I can breathe now that she’s here. I’m grateful for her, returning when she didn’t have to, because if that were me, away at college, away from this sad little town, I’d never look back. We take turns checking on Dad while he sleeps. I wonder if he’ll ever get better and stay that way.
* * *
The next day, I wake up at six a.m., catch the bus at seven, and arrive at school just before it begins. At lunchtime, the cafeteria noise is a welcome distraction. I sit with Clara and Alicia. We have a conversation over wilting salad and oil-based cheese, but I honestly couldn’t tell you what it was about. There is a feeling of dread that’s been snaking its way through my gut all day. It’s all-consuming, commanding my attention and never letting me look away.
History is the last class I have each day. By the time it rolls around, I’m exhausted. I hunch over my notebook, keep my eyes down. If I look at Mrs. Kitchen, I know she’ll ask me about my missing assignment. She starts tapping away at the SMART board. She received some technology grant, so now we spend most of the class waiting for her to figure out how to use the new cameras, laptops, and SMART board, rather than actually learning, you know, US history.
I get crabby in the afternoon. Maybe my blood sugar is low, I don’t know. The first half of class goes according to plan. I sit quietly, take notes, and don’t draw any attention to myself. Twenty minutes remain. I daydream about the nap I’m going to take on the bus ride home. But just when I think I’m in the clear, Mrs. Kitchen turns to me.
Her glasses slide down her nose. She looks at me, suddenly narrow-eyed, and launches into a lecture, “I already gave you an extension on your assignment. Where is it? How are you going to make it in college? If you don’t turn it in on Monday, you’re going to fail. AP classes are designed to be more rigorous than regular classes. Everyone else turned their projects in weeks ago. You already had an extension. How are you going to make it in college? If you don’t turn it in on Monday, you’re going to fail. AP classes are designed to be more rigorous than regular classes. Everyone else turned their projects in weeks ago. How are you going to make it in the real world?”
I try not to slide down in my chair as her words repeat themselves and these seconds stretch into an eternity. My skin gets hot and my vision tunnels. Suddenly, I can’t breathe, can’t speak, can’t move.
* * *
When most people talk about their first time, they’re usually talking about sex or kissing. Not me—I’m talking about the first time my world ended and was remade in a matter of minutes. Later, I’ll learn that doctors call this a panic attack, but I don’t care what we label it, I just want it to end.
I try to run from it. I get up and run out of the room, down the green carpeted hallway. My legs lead me to the bathroom, where I enter the last stall on the right and lock the door behind me. I fall to the tiled floor, still unable to catch my breath. My insides churn. It feels like I’m going to split open and all my inner ugliness and chaos is going to come spilling out. I don’t know how or why everything crashes down all at once.
After a few long minutes, a small quiet begins to surround me as my heart rate slows. I am exhausted. I peel myself up off ground, pausing to cool my hot face against the white ceramic wall. I feel like I’ve been through a war and, as I see in the warped and scratched-up mirror, I look like it, too. My eyes are blood-shot, nose swollen, cheeks flushed red. How can that girl with the disheveled black hair be me? How can I face Mrs. Kitchen or any of my classmates ever again? What has happened to me and if it happens again, will I be able to survive it?
The last bell rings. People flood the hallways. I try to blend in with them. Every face looks unfamiliar. Do I know these people? Have I known them my whole life? Clara stands next to her locker, talking to a friend from choir. She waves at me from afar. I trudge over. Numb. Nothing. Clara’s smile turns to concern when sees my tear-streaked face. She pulls me into her arms and asks if I’m okay.
How do I answer that? I should be okay but that’s the worst part of it—I know that my freakout in Mrs. Kitchen’s class was an overreaction. I know, logically, that I’m not dying, but I feel the closeness of death, nonetheless. I think these words but do not say them. So much of myself exists only in my head. I wonder what Clara would do or say if she could hear my crashing thoughts.
I don’t answer her question and she doesn’t press me. That’s why I love her. I only tell her that I can’t go home right now. My father can hardly handle his own emotions, let alone mine, too. Clara invites me over to her house, which is just down the street. As we walk, the sunlight shocks my eyes, making me squint. My eyes feel hot. I have a throbbing headache and dry mouth. A bird lands on a telephone pole. The song it sings sounds like it’s mocking me.
Clara unlocks the front door to her house. Her mother greets us with a shout from the kitchen, where she is mixing sugar and cinnamon for apple crumble. The first time I came here was eleven years ago, when I was five. We sit on the sofa and watch TV. I know I shouldn’t, but I start to make comparisons between Clara’s home and mine. The sofa is upholstered in soft velvet, not food stains and dog hair. The living room is filled with the scent of a pumpkin candle, not mildew and cigarettes. And look at that, the roof is completely intact.
Clara’s mother bakes the apple crumble. She serves me some on a plate and I devour it, realizing for the first time how hungry I am. I don’t even really like apple crumble. I don’t have much of a sweet tooth, preferring the intense heat and acid of watermelon suckers and tamarind candy. Maybe what I’m really hungry for is domestic bliss—a mother who hangs family portraits on the wall, a father who drinks one beer after dinner and that’s it. But there’s no point wanting something I can’t have. Some people have much harder lives than me. I should be grateful. But the knowledge that everyone else is also suffering—it doesn’t make me feel any better. It only makes me feel worse.
* * *
There’s something lovely about getting lost in the wilderness of my own mind. I hate the word depression, but this villain needs a name.
Heading home, I follow the railroad tracks for several miles. I walk slowly, bogged down by a heaviness I cannot shake. My father might be sober when I get home. He might not be—I have a difficult time caring at the moment. Stepping over potholes, cutting through fields of grass, this sadness is romantic in a certain way. There’s something lovely about getting lost in the wilderness of my own mind.
I hate the word depression, but this villain needs a name. It’s what happens after the panic attacks: me sinking into this deep ocean of wanting to die or to at least sleep for a hundred years, that’s how tired I am. The sun in the sky is calling me lazy, weak, a delicate little flower who withers at the first sign of frost.
It’s wrong to romanticize depression, but I don’t know how else to cope with it. Clinging to the few beautiful fragments of this very ugly thing may be all that’s keeping me alive.
* * *
My sisters are sitting in front of the TV, eating chips and hanging out. I hear the shower running in the bathroom. Dad must be in there, trying to wash away his puke and shame. I heat some leftovers and eat them, hoping that my sisters can’t tell that there is something different about me today. I drink a glass of water and my exhaustion finally catches up to me. There’s an emptiness in my mind where the motivation and energy should be.
All I think of is sleep. I lay in bed, pull the blanket up to my shoulders and imagine that I’m buried beneath the earth, fully at rest in the cool dirt with the mushrooms and worms. As I drift off, a quote by Edvard Munch, one of my favorite painters, floats to the front of my mind: “From my rotting body, flowers shall grow and I am in them and that is eternity.”
* * *
It is night when I wake, all shadows and dim light like my memory. Two a.m. The house is quiet, everyone asleep except for me. My body is a bag of sand. I drink a glass of water in the kitchen in the dark when my father flips on the light switch. “What are you doing up?” he asks.
He looks like he’s back to normal. Thankfully, his binge lasted only a few days instead of weeks or months. He stares at me and I know that I need to ask him for help. I look at the ground and let the words tumble out, “I had a panic attack today, I think. I think I need help. I need medication.” Tears spring to my eyes. I only want to be balanced. Dad furrows his brow, a pause long enough for me to have a million thoughts.
“No child of mine needs medication. Read your Bible. Pray for strength. And go to bed. You have school soon.” He turns the light off. Conversation over. I’m left standing alone in the darkness.
I stay awake for the rest of night, knowing that I’ll regret it in the morning. If my father won’t help me, I’ll have to help myself. Laying on my bed, I turn on my laptop. The screen illuminates my face with its bluish glow. I open a new tab and I’m down the rabbit hole, searching:
Anxiety causes, anxiety symptoms, anxiety disorders, fight or flight, flight or fawn, fawn or fuck, self-diagnosable, SSRI, SNRI, MAOI, carbamazepine, citalopram, social anxiety disorder, disorder, SAD, seasonal, comorbidity, genetics, stress management, excess, blushing, trembling, stammering, illness of lost opportunities, onset during teen years, self-presentation, self-conscious, self-concealment, thoughts, distortion, eye contact, escape, avoid, no contact, amygdala, clinical depression, alcohol dependence, traumatic, perfectionism, neurotransmitters, fear, trauma, seek help, Hippocrates, bashful, suspicious, fear of humans, excessive, insufficient, shame, embarrassment, social phobia, social inhibition, social isolation, social rejection, low mood, low energy, pain, nature or nurture, atypical, melancholic, catatonic, double depression, family dysfunction, burden, narcissistic, refuge, gravity, risk of suicide, self-harm, delusions, hallucinations, counseling, medication, exercise, seek help.
* * *
It may seem like it came out of nowhere, my panic attack earlier today, but that’s what gets me—I know it’s been building up and up and up inside of me for years, until it all burst out at once.
I have always been an anxious person. I avoid people, things, and ideas that push me out of my comfort zone, just like my father does. He’s a skilled guitar player, even better than Slash and Hendrix and Santana combined. He really could have been a legend, but he was too nervous to perform in front of an audience. The only way he could muster up the confidence was with booze, and we all know how that turned out.
Reading the Wikipedia page on anxiety is like reading my family history: alcohol dependence, isolation, low self-esteem, substance abuse, family trauma. For someone who struggles so much with his own mental health, you’d think my dad would be a little more understanding.
I search for natural ways to ease my depression and anxiety. Some websites suggest exercise, sunlight, journaling, and therapy. Of these four options, there is only one I can turn to in the middle of the night—journaling. I dig underneath my bed, pushing past dirty socks and forgotten art projects until I find my old journal. I haven’t used it in a long time. Most of the pages are still blank.
One day soon, writing won’t be enough to help me cope with my depression and anxiety. I’ll have to turn to therapy, medication, meditation, acupuncture—anything that will provide a bit of a relief. But for now, I open my journal to a fresh page and try to write myself a brand-new day.