The summer before freshman year, I made the seismic decision to move out of my mom’s house and into my dad’s. My parents are sun and moon, fire and water, conflicting consciousnesses. The officiation of the divorce papers was a mere fraction of the war that would continue between them forever, and it was my nightmare to ever have to side with just one parent. The court order settled it all in ink: I was to live with my mother during weekdays, and visit my father on weekends.
The three extra days I spent with my mother each week were what made her quaint apartment feel like my true home. Our complex was nestled in the San Francisco Bay Area hills, in a suburb that became my entire world post-divorce. My father was less and less familiar. There wasn’t enough time in the weekend to chisel a good relationship with him, and his world in San Francisco was too urban, cold, and foreign to feel like home. The memories I had of him began to blur at the edges, little bits and pieces of his character were slowly forgotten. My mother and I, on the other hand, were practically inseparable. We knew each other’s depths and quirks. In many ways, we were the other’s transparent soul sister.
“Can you teach me how to dance?” She’d asked me on our drive to my dad’s home in San Francisco. I was listening to a Fergie song, moving my hips and snapping my fingers to the beat, and at stoplights she’d join me before jolting her hands back to the driving wheel as the signal turned green.
Memories like these, the happy times, were what I remembered when I began to pack my boxes. Moving out felt awful. An entire scene was crafted in my head—one that didn’t actually happen, but that felt real nonetheless—involving depressing images of my mother, broken and daughterless, standing alone in the cavity of our open apartment door. I imagined her refusing to let go of the cardboard boxes holding my possessions, the small victory of being able to keep them quickly overpowered by the emptiness she felt watching the U-Haul truck drive North. Although the reality was slightly less melodramatic, there were still a lot of tears. She cried when I told her my decision, and she cried when I packed my things. I felt cruel. I was a traitor.
The 30 minutes between our suburb and San Francisco stretched, and my leg bounced faster with each passing second. The clock, the passing landscape, the map on the GPS—everything reminded me of what I was doing to my life, and the air became quicksand. Regret and “what ifs” ran through me. If I were to ever return home, there would be no going back for my mother and I. She would always remember the time I’d decided to leave. We were no longer soul sisters; that tie had broken the moment I said, “I don’t want to live with you anymore.” As we exited onto Sixth Street my nails broke into the skin of my palms. My dad, looking over at me, asked if I was OK.
The air grew less homely and, although I’d taken this route many times, nothing between the skyscrapers looked familiar. The smell of urine wafted in through the window, and the shadows washing over the top of our car left no trace of sun. I loved my dad, but I didn’t have the connection with him or his environment that I shared with my mother; I think he knew this. “Are you OK?” He asked again. I didn’t answer. The car turned into his office building’s street.
Guilt gnawed at me. I’d packed as much as I could carry in a few boxes and a carry-on suitcase, but most of my stuff was still back at my mom’s apartment. Why had I left things I knew my mother would have to bring herself?—more reminders that I had left her behind and that I was moving on.
Sitting up in bed each night, slouched over with my hands by my sides, a little square of light would shine against the wall opposite my headboard, lingering there from one of the lamplights on the city street. I’d watch it until the light dimmed against the morning’s open sunshine, the square drowning beneath the sun’s cast light. The sunlight, I noticed, was dispersed in the air, not concentrated like the square, and I started journaling about it, writing first about what I noticed in the light and then how the light related to me.
“The square is dull today,” I wrote once, undated, “more circular too. Whether that means something I don’t know—but I think it does. Does it?”
I thought about my mom, too, often with nostalgia. When those thoughts bubbled up I scribbled them away, even flipping to a whole new page of my journal, because maybe I’d written something to remind myself of her. Remembering and accepting what I’d done was like dousing alcohol on a wound: It helps with the healing, but it really, really fucking hurts. I have little tolerance for pain, so, for a while, I didn’t.
“We’re going to court,” my dad told me when I asked for an update on the custody situation. I’d been feeling stuck for a while: My journal had run out of pages, and even though writing had always been my go-to release, the events with my mom were the “real deal.” I needed to talk to someone who would hear me who was not my parents, my friends, or anyone I knew. My unarticulated prayer was answered.
“The court orders that you see a psychologist,” my dad said at the breakfast table. Cheerios had never tasted so good. “To reconcile with your mom and give you some help. I’m expecting a call from the guy you’re seeing today. Also—” My dad sat across from me, “We should talk about your mom.” He began rubbing his chin. “Based on what you’ve told me about your mom now…and what I’ve seen of her recently…and what it was like when we were married…”
Narcissism, he said, was one way of interpreting some of my mother’s behavior. I repeated the word under my breath when I went to brush my teeth, and read about it in articles on the way to school.
“An inflated sense of self-importance.”
“Need for admiration.”
“Lack of empathy for others.”
“Underneath a fragile self-esteem.”
I held this information in the palm of my hand until the day of my first session with the psychologist. The second I hit the chair tears pooled in my eyes.
“Give me some background on what happened,” he said.
My response was nearly two hours of childhood regurgitation, memories I choked up of the divorce, of my mom and dad, of my relationships with other people. I got lost in the leather, and forgot that he was sitting across from me until he reached for his coffee, cleared his throat. “Sounds like your mom shows narcissistic signs. What else do you remember?”
It took me a moment. There were some memories that I’d buried underneath happier ones, but they still existed somewhere in my mind—the Bad Things. The things about my mom that confused me. When, after my eighth-grade graduation, she couldn’t remember where my diploma was, but could recall some lady in the audience telling her she looked as young as me: then 13. Or, when I was 12 and a man was catcalling me, calling me “oriental,” while Mom just chuckled, telling me to accept the compliment because I was beautiful, like her. “My genes,” she’d laugh. “You’re lucky you got my genes.”
Narcissism made sense: Not only does my mom have utmost self-confidence, she also tended to prioritize herself over others, including her own children, in ways that seemed strange to me. Virtually every word the therapist had used to describe a woman he’d never met, but whom I had known my entire life, was completely accurate, logical, eerily fitting. Yet I also knew it wasn’t just a personality disorder that made my mom who she was.
Despite our closeness, my mom never told my younger brother and I about her life before she had us. Sometimes, though, I was curious—I wanted to know her whole story. What was she like at my age? Would I have been friends with her? When my mom refused to answer my questions, my dad filled in. Her family, he said, favored boys. My mother is one of four sisters, the last girl of the bunch. Her mother bore a son soon after my mom was born, and the favoritism was always obvious as the siblings grew up. “Then she moved here,” my dad continued. “Her first husband was abusive and he dumped her with nothing. Then she met me.”
That she would put herself first made sense, when everyone in her life had placed her second, or third, or last. When my mother would ask if I still loved her as we drove home after my weekends with Dad, it was as if she needed to know exactly how much I loved her, as if she didn’t believe anyone could love her as consistently as I did. My answer (“Yes,” always “yes”) never satisfied. She’d lift the corners of her mouth a little, and continue along the road, her eyes unchanged. And now I’d placed her second. I’d placed her last. I’d left, even though I’d promised her countless times that I’d stay.
“This isn’t your fault,” I say, my dad says, the psychologist says. “This isn’t your fault.”
I was in eighth grade when Mom found a boyfriend, and at long last, she was happy. I’d always known she would date after the divorce, but I thought it strange that, even after weeks, I’d never been introduced to the guy. She’d spend nights away—somewhere, just not home—leaving my brother and I alone. If the relationship was that serious, I thought, wouldn’t we be living at this boyfriend’s home by now, or he here? Wouldn’t my brother and I have met him? There was something weird in the atmosphere; I decided to become detective.
While my mother showered in the bathroom on the other side of the apartment I scurried into her bedroom, where she kept her purse: her phone. The screen was lit with multiple text notifications from an unrecognizable number, showering her with such malicious, abusive vulgarities that I couldn’t finish reading. I became frightened of the person behind the number. I’d wake up in the middle of the night to watch out the window and write down the license plates of cars that stopped outside. Whenever my mother left to “go out with her friends,” I’d take a good look at her face, wondering if that would be the last time I’d see her. I’d beg her not to go and she’d beg me not to worry, writhing out of my tight hug and falling out the door.
That July, I experienced my first anxiety attack when, on a walk home from Walgreens, I saw a car I could have sworn had already driven by me twice. I was constantly frightened—for two weeks after finding my mom’s phone, I’d been keeping my own cell tucked in a shoebox underneath the bed. I was also embarrassed by my own physical and emotional reactions to the text messages I’d read, and the knowledge I had of my mother’s relationship. I was anxious for her safety, but too afraid of being called “paranoid,” “snoopy,” “fussy” to speak to her myself.
“I’m scared,” I’d told my father one weekend.
“Sorry?” He had just finished up work.
“What about Mom?”
I told him everything: about her boyfriend, about how she left home in the middle of the night, about my fear and anxiety. My father noticed how often I was looking at the clock during that conversation, Sunday, 4:35 PM. My mother would be picking me up soon, she’d be downstairs any minute.
“Do you feel safe going home?” he asked me.
I didn’t feel safe answering the question. I started crying. “I’m scared of going home,” I said, “but I’m also scared not to.”
“Because of her boyfriend. And because I don’t want Mom to yell at me or be mad at me. I don’t want to hurt her. And I’m scared of what she’ll do if she realizes.”
When my mom’s car pulled up, my dad left me upstairs to tell her my decision while I lay my head on a pillow, tears running along the sides of my temples and dampening the cotton. My dad, who lives on the second story of his building, was talking to her through the car window, and I could hear the sound of her voice sharpening itself, growing louder and louder as she realized what what was happening.
“Come home now!” I heard her scream. She was talking to me. I pressed the cotton against my ears. “Angela, come home now!”
I peeked out the window of my dad’s apartment, peering down at the edge of her car. Passersby were staring at my mother and her red, red face. I began to tremble: I feared and loved and hated her so much, and inwardly knew I wanted to forgive her. My dad maintained his ground and, so unfamiliar with the feeling of being stood up for, I began to cry again.
I didn’t return home that weekend but my younger brother did. Back in the apartment, my dad handed me a cup of tea, telling my stepmother to watch over me when it was time for him to return to work. A few weeks later, I went home for the last time and packed my bags.
The weekend before the start of freshman year I was preparing for my first day of high school, when my brother got back to my dad’s after spending the week at my mom’s.
“I have pictures,” he mumbled, his phone clasped tightly in his hand.
My dad looked at them first, and then my stepmother took a glance. I was in the dust, confused.
“Don’t show them to her,” my stepmother whispered, but my dad had already turned over the phone. My mom was smiling in the picture, looking off at the person taking it—probably my brother, saying something funny. And there was a bruise on her cheek. The blues and blacks were all it took for me to start crying: She was still dating her boyfriend. The enmity I had for him made me want to tear at my skin, curse at the world, pray and pray to a higher power I didn’t believe in. I wanted this man to face the worst. He didn’t deserve her and she certainly didn’t deserve this. My dad snatched the phone away as he noticed my jaw tensing, and my breathing quickening.
Monday brought school, and school brought piles of homework and a constant influx of work, scheduled appointments, classes, settlements, and freshman events kept me so busy that I learned to forget what had happened over the summer. I made friends and made an effort to paste a smile on my face. My new positive personality was strengthened by having moved to an entirely new neighborhood. No one here had met my real mother, and no one at my new school was someone I’d known while I lived with her.
“When I think of you I think of your smile,” a new friend said.
Good. That was what I wanted.
When thoughts of Mom came, I drowned them out. I fit extra teeth in my grin, wrote, scribbled, chatted with friends about unrelated matters. But the stress of schoolwork was pushing thoughts of her out from under me. Usually, my weekly checkups with my mentor opened with a “how are you” and, from my end, a simple “I’m fine.” Until one particular day, my grief began to spew. He remained quiet as I spoke, finally responding when, after hearing what I had to say about my mother, he began telling me about his own parents, ending with a few remarks about his own mother’s death when he was in college: “Your mother is still alive, at least.”
My hands curled into fists; there was that familiar feeling of my nails puncturing the skin of my palms. What could I have said? The contempt and frustration I felt regarding my mother, the stress I had accumulated during the months I’d spent fearing her face and the very thought of her, dissipated.
My grades declined gradually and I spiralled back into guilt: for moving in with my father, for throwing away an opportunity that some didn’t have with their own mothers. My pain was not even remotely close to the pain others experienced. Who cared if I felt unsafe when I was with her? I should talk to my mother about meeting her boyfriend. After all, she was my mother. And she was alive. My mother was on earth and I was taking her for granted. I had to stop being selfish.
After months without it, I returned to my light journal—the same one that I used to describe the square I obsessed over during the days after my move. I stared at the light square again that night. And it looked different than it had before.
“The light,” I wrote, “looks different. Like someone moved it or something. Because I didn’t move my wall, or my room. But I kind of like it this way. Because now I don’t have to crane my head back so much just to see it from my pillow.”
Gradually, I allowed myself to admit that I liked my new life: stable and safe. Yes, my mother was alive, but she was also a source of my unhappiness. For years, I’d spent my life as a daughter mothering my own mom. I’d been taking care of her, making sure that she did “the right thing,” looking out for her when she left the house because I was scared for her safety. My mother was alive but her pain made anger, sadness, and frustration part of my daily existence. Leaving her helped me experience normalcy in a household, with a father and a stepmother who loved and defended me.
My experience of taking the initiative to moving out, and of realizing the emotional cost of living with my mother was necessary, important, unique, and not to be compared—as my mentor had—to a completely different situation. That summer between eighth grade and freshman year was one that I struggled through, and that pain was real. Recognizing my own pain made me write more, and schedule more sessions with my psychologist. It was my own agency that had helped me get to the place I needed to be. Pain is meant to be felt so that the hurt can be acknowledged—and later, healed.
There’s a quote by the scientist Carl Sagan that reads: “It is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.” Here, wise ol’ Sagan refers to confronting scientific truth, but these words can apply to pain, too. Sometimes, it’s better to rip off the Band-Aid and air the wound.
As I write this now, I must admit that I still have trouble really living, even though it’s been two years since I moved out of my mom’s. My mindset oscillates between an enthused, “WHAT’S NEXT, WORLD?!” and missing her. My life as it is now—new friends, school, family—bleeds with thoughts of my old one—a time when my younger brother, mother, and I still lived together, in the quaint apartment among the trees in the hills. I still wonder if she’s OK, I still wonder if I can fix her. And convincing myself that this train of thought is silly is taking longer than I thought it would.
I remind myself of the light square on my wall, and how much clearer it looks now that it has shifted position. It reminds me that self-care is essential, not synonymous with selfishness. These reminders help, even though they’re still just that to me, reminders, and not quite truths, not yet. I know acceptance will come, and the day will arrive when I can let go of the guilt I feel about saving myself. I just need to wait. And once my wounds have closed, perhaps I’ll finally look my mother in the eyes and tell her everything—beginning with this piece of writing.
The universe might be hard to grasp, but it’s not impossible to do so.