In the fall of 2009, I finally mustered up the courage to introduce my partner to my family. As we packed for the plane trip, I tried one last time to talk her out of going. I reminded her that once she goes there with me, our relationship will forever change. I thought about how any “innocent” who’s ever gone to that place ends up seeing things they’ll never forget.
I still vividly remember taking my best friend, Shari, back to that place – my hometown of Walla Walla, Washington. It was the summer of 1999, we were both 18, and had just graduated from a high school in a tiny, historic town outside of Seattle, a town that was as abundant with coffee as it was conservatism. Shari was a blonde, blue-eyed Finnish girl from a middle-class Lutheran family. Her parents both worked exhaustingly hard, but miraculously, found the time to instill morals, kindness, and etiquette into their children. All four of the kids grew up with books as their companions, not television shows. As a child, my favorite pastime was daydreaming. I used to fantasize about having all those pretty, warm, and cozy things that other kids around me had – a father who wasn’t incarcerated on the other side of town and a drug-free mother who read us nighttime stories before tucking us lovingly into bed. I used to dream of having a family just like Shari’s.
Her parents always treated me with love and respect. They welcomed me into their home and made me feel a part of their household. They didn’t know any of the particulars about my Walla Walla family just six hours away on the other side of the mountains. They only knew that my mother, my fraternal twin sister, and my two older brothers lived there. That’s all I felt comfortable telling them at the time. I didn’t want to be judged, pitied, or shunned. Shari, on the other hand, knew the truth. It was one thing to tell the terrible truths to her, but it was another thing completely to take her on a journey to Walla Walla where my terrible truths roamed around like tumble weeds.
At 18, I naively thought I would have control of what Shari saw and experienced there. I would just briefly introduce her to my mother (hoping she was clean AND sober), to my grandparents (praying they didn’t invite my Meth-head brothers over), and cross my fingers that nothing too shocking happened. But then at the last minute I altered my plan. In addition to having Shari meet my relatives, I decided we should visit my best friend from middle school as well. He and his father were always my saviors in a time of need when I lived there. I considered them family.
We dropped by the father’s house and were greeted with warmth as always. I was completely surprised by what happened right after we arrived, however. I had thought of many worrisome scenarios that could play out with regards to my blood relatives, but I hadn’t given much thought to my unofficial family. This house had once been my home away from home. So, when the father offered my dear friend, a complete stranger to him, marijuana, I was instantly horrified. Wham-bam! Shari’s innocence gone! All I could think about was that it had been my responsibility to protect Shari; her parents had trusted me. This all weighed heavily on my conscience. I felt as if I could die from shame and humiliation. I hadn’t brought my best friend to Walla Walla for someone I loved to push drugs off on her. She was a middle-class girl from a well-respected family who had no previous exposure to drugs. Deep down, I knew Shari wouldn’t have accepted, but I didn’t even give her the chance to speak for herself. Disgust and horror took control of me. I instinctively responded, “No, she doesn’t want that! What’s wrong with you!?” Needless to say, we cut our little visit short. I thanked my absent friend’s father for his non-drug-related hospitality. We hugged each other good-bye.
This encounter had suddenly opened up a flood of conflicting emotions inside of me. On the one hand, I was extremely upset, surprised, and disappointed by what had transpired. On the other hand, I didn’t blame my friend’s father for anything. Despite his imperfections, he was still like family to me. He too had encouraged me to leave Walla Walla when the opportunity had presented itself. In fact, everyone there – my mother, my siblings, my aunts, my friends and their parents – all had helped me make my escape to freedom.
At 14, I was given a difficult choice: stay in Walla Walla with all the familiar yet damaged souls I loved, or reinvent myself near Seattle in a house full of strangers comprising my older sister, brother-in-law, and father. I had only met this sister once before when I was younger. Upon our first introduction when I was nine, I remember being in complete disbelief that this beautiful schoolteacher was my sister. She became an immediate hero of mine that day, which of course was aided by the fact she showered us with love, presents, and excursions to the county fair. Somehow this same wonderful sister had also just devised a plan with the authorities for my father, who had recently been released from prison, to live with her in lieu of going to a halfway house.
I went to visit this new family that summer after eighth grade. I wanted to get to know them all, especially my father. When I was nearing my time to return back home to Walla Walla, they surprised me with an invitation to stay. Indefinitely. My first life had offered little future, whereas the new one welcomed endless possibilities. After great deliberation and many tears, I decided to leave Walla Walla permanently. Moving away from my hometown as a teenager was undoubtedly the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make. I had to leave behind everything known and embrace the unknown. Leaving behind loved ones is never easy, even if they’re wasting away on a tragic road to nowhere.
Once I left Walla Walla, my new life unfolded with love, safety, and success. This transition wasn’t immediate or effortless, however. What was immediate, though, was the fact that as soon as I moved away, I was able to be myself. I didn’t have to worry anymore about someone recognizing me as “Carol’s daughter” or “Heidi’s twin” or “Danny and David’s little sister.” In Walla Walla, I had never had the chance to just be me. The reputations of my family members in that place overshadowed my own existence. In my new town, on the other hand, I would never again have to sink into my chair when a math teacher accidentally called me by my twin’s name or when an art teacher looked at me with pity upon realizing who my relatives were. I would no longer be guilty until proven innocent. This new feeling was both exhilarating and healing.
I naturally feel very comfortable talking about my past, but I’ve learned over the years that others aren’t as comfortable. I’ve learned to hold back. Many seemingly innocuous inquiries into my childhood, if answered honestly, beckon an almost immediate and ubiquitous silence to spill over the room. W-h-o-o-s-h! Just like that and everyone becomes uneasy, flushed, and over-attentive to my every move. When I was younger, I had always, in a very matter-of-fact manner, talked about the irreversible realities of my life. As an adult, I now struggle with whether I should feel embarrassed or ashamed that I grew up on welfare, or that my mother, the first person I ever loved, is also a junkie, or that my father, the kindest person I’ve ever met, is also a convicted murderer. My family life has always been complicated to explain. Routine questions such as, “What did your mother and father do when you were growing up?” or “Did you ever go to private school?” have the potential of, as you can imagine, dampening the mood. I have actually had people innocently ask about my family history, and then immediately change the subject to the weather when they don’t like what they hear.
As I prepared for the inescapable trip with my partner, I wasn’t worried that she would find out about my family. I had already told her everything there is to know about them. From previous experiences, though, I knew that it was impossible to fully prepare anyone for the trip to Walla Walla. Keeping this in view, as we finished packing, the reality of taking the woman I fell in love with to that place sickened me. My mind spun out of control. Just one thought of Walla Walla, and boom, I’m there – melancholy and pensive. I worried that my partner would see glimpses of my former, fragile self. She might see me remain stoic as I spend time with my family only to watch me crumple to the floor in an emotional heap later behind closed doors. She might meet questionable friends of mine with whom I now have little in common, but we are forever bonded by memories or pain. No matter what she was destined to see, I secretly knew it would cause her to look at me and subsequently us differently.
“You’re definitely going to Walla Walla with me then?” I finally asked, breaking the worry-filled silence.
“Yes,” she said.
So, there it was. I had to accept that my hidden and former wounds would soon be on display. I had no choice but to unlock the door to my secret dungeon. The first person I had done this with was my best friend, Shari. She was the first “outsider” in my world of hurt. Even years afterwards, I used to beat myself up for taking her on that trip. That is until Shari made a confession. She admitted she had been upset with me that day, but not for what I had assumed. She explained that she had been hurt I didn’t think she could take care of herself. She had been offended that I had tried to shelter her. In the end, she thought the whole experience had actually made her and our friendship stronger. Just like those types of experiences had also made me stronger.
It was this last revelation that helped me understand what was really lurking in the shadows. This dark presence was the reason why travel to my hometown specifically had become increasingly painful – the reason why I questioned my own strength each time I prepared for a trip. I finally realized that I’m afraid to go there because I’m afraid of the day I’ll have to face my mother’s death. Over the last decade, I’ve watched a beautiful woman transform into a lost, shrunken soul who looks more like Tolkien’s Gollum than my mother. She’s not able to conceal her toxic lifestyle like she had previously; she’s slowly and visibly dying. I can’t detach myself from this reality any longer.
It appears that like many of my fears – abandonment, rejection, failure, driving, and public speaking – the idea of death also distresses me because it runs counter to my desperate need for control. All of these things fall outside my ability to process and organize chaos; they’re all unpredictable and all leave me potentially vulnerable – a feeling I try to avoid. I grew up in chaos and my Virgo personality helped me survive by controlling whatever fell within my means to control: morals, choices, friends, religious beliefs, school standing. For some reason, I find it difficult to resist the temptation to control because it’s been a comfort in my life for so long. I guess in many ways, I have been guilty of projecting onto others my own inner turmoil caused by a perceived loss of control. After all, I was once in their potentially vulnerable place. I used to be the “innocent” who even my flawed relatives had sheltered. Each time I returned to that place after moving away, I would find a family that was even more tragic than the previous time. There was no way to control what did or didn’t happen there. I always felt helpless and overwhelmed in their presence.
I now finally understand that I fear for everyone who goes to Walla Walla with me because I still fear for myself. I know firsthand that every visit to this town of sorrow promises an unpredictable and gut-wrenching scene. I know I have a lot to work on in order to find closure with my past, but it’s the unstable present and future that scare me the most. I hope I continue to be strong enough to face all of these fears, and that someday I learn to let go of my need to control. In the end, both fear and control are just extra baggage on my road to happiness.