Like many children of divorce, I tried to fill in the blanks with why my parents split up and what my involvement in it was. I naturally associated my Department of Child Services (DCS) case with my dad as the “beginning of the downfall” between them and why my dad left, and even possibly why he drank. As an adult, I know that’s not the reason.
My mom was either not working or working a part-time schedule. Either way, she fell into a very deep depression for what felt like forever. It seemed like my mom, who had been strong and dependable, was completely absent. She wouldn’t get out of bed. I remember multiple times trying to get her up, or even wake her up, and she refused to leave the bedroom. She wasn’t bathing and barely ate.
I learned how to become independent very quickly. My 4-year-old younger brother was oblivious to what was happening. Meanwhile, I learned how to get us ready in the mornings, how to forage the kitchen to simple foods we could eat, etc. This newfound independence peaked when my brother started kindergarten, and I was in fourth grade.
We walked to school most days, and I would help get him ready. I felt a sense of responsibility to get him to school and to his classroom, then pick him up after school and walk him home. When we arrived home, my mom would be in bed most days. That started an after-school routine of snacks, TV watching and occasionally homework.
One thing we did not spend much time doing was cleaning. My mom had always done the cleaning, and it just wasn’t something I had ever really had to do. I remember my mom would be upset when she was seeing how messy things had become, but I think it only made her more depressed, feeding the cycle of depression.
In years to come, the cycle of depression resulted in a home that was filthy most of the time. Dishes would pile up in the sink and mold. She also had (and still has) a weird habit of throwing garbage in the sink. So, you’d have gross dishes with food left on them, molding, combined with soggy garbage. I remember her deciding we were better off just throwing all the dishes away rather than trying to tackle them—on more than one occasion.
The bathroom became moldy, specifically the tub. It got so gross that no one wanted to really shower in it. So, we were taught how to wash our hair in the sink. I preferred to keep my hair short because I felt gross when my hair was long enough to fall into the drain, as many times there was wet food and remnants inside.
The house was also in constant disarray. Basics like clean clothes, a clean place to shower, consistent grocery shopping and personal grooming were all a game of roulette. My home life as I had known it had descended into unpredictable chaos, and my dad was completely absent. I was really struggling with his absence. I had always had a special bond with my dad, feeling like our personalities were more similar than my mom’s. I was struggling with the pressure of new responsibilities, plus fear about how my mom was coping. My dad had always been a source of comfort and protection before then, but this was when I really needed it most.
Having to wait every other weekend was already an excruciatingly long period of time at my age, only to find out that he sometimes wasn’t going to take us. After one of his stall-outs and cancellations, my mom saw the impact it was having on me and called him. I remember being in their bedroom and sitting on the bed listening. She told him how upset I was becoming not seeing him and that I missed him.
If his living situation was why he was cancelling, she said, then she would rather him see his kids than let that be the reason not to. I didn’t understand it at the time, but what she was referring to was her suspicion that he moved out of our house and into his mistress’ home. I remember being concerned about what she meant by his “living situation.” Where was he? Did he have somewhere to live? Had he moved far away?
A week or so later, we had our first “visitation” in a crappy hotel. It was dark and tiny, with a single bed, a TV and a dresser. I remember feeling upset and angry at the same time. I couldn’t believe my dad was having to live that way, and the level of empathy I was feeling was almost overwhelming. I didn’t know who to be angry with—I just was. Although I was relieved to get to see my dad, the situation was so overwhelming. We didn’t discuss anything too heavy. When I returned home and expressed my sympathy for the sad situation my dad was living in, my mom once again circled back to her original belief. She knew my father was not really living in that hotel.