Over the coming weeks, I was introduced to my dad’s mistress and began to put together that this had been a big piece of the divorce puzzle. The first time I met her was outside the context of them living together, and she was introduced as a “friend.” I thought she seemed nice. But then dad admitted she was the “friend” he was living with, and my sentiments quickly changed—for both of us.
She was not a kind person. She didn’t like having us around. She was one of those people who chilled whatever was happening. If we were laughing, we were laughing too loud. If you logged onto the computer, she wanted you off. If you wanted to watch TV, either you were watching too long or she wanted to turn it to something she liked to watch. She was sharp in her tone and grumpy most of the time. It was more than obvious that she didn’t enjoy having us there.
That vibe began to bleed over into visitations with my dad. Time spent with my dad and at my dad’s apartment (and later house) were mostly positive ones. I laughed with him, and we usually ended up doing something fun. All of the unpredictable aspects of life at home with my mom were very predictable and dependable at my dad’s. Still though, there were occasional times when his drinking would cause a problem.
I could depend on their house being pristine, and having a clean place to shower and a neat bed to sleep in. I knew I’d have a fully cooked meal every night instead of drive-thru fast food or microwavable meals. I could rely on him spending one-on-one time with me now. I appreciated the structure and discipline. I respected him for coaching me on “life skills” like the importance of quality hygiene and keeping my nails clean.
Those little things stuck with me. I needed that. It felt as close to “normal” as I had been for a
long time. That said, we would go to his house at 6 p.m. on Saturday until 6 p.m. on Sunday. So, I got 24 hours once every two weeks, totaling 26 days a year. That is, if he did not cancel because my soon-to-be stepmom wasn’t feeling well or had some other excuse why he couldn’t come that week. I was constantly trying to leverage for more time or days anywhere I could get them. I dreaded the words “Let me check with your stepmom” because I knew that was going to mean “no.” When I occasionally I got a “yes” after he spoke with her, it would floor me.
I didn’t share the troubles I was having at my mom’s house. I felt immense sympathy for her. She had been wronged. I knew she was trying, but she was sad. My mom would have her occasional bouts of feeling better and would go on a cleaning tear, do laundry and change our bedding. Simple things like having a towel that didn’t stink was such a treat. But even at my young age, I understood that she was giving us everything she had. It just happened to have highs and lows, where the lows were really causing me long-term troubles.
My dad would give me grief about unwashed hair or unclean clothing, and I would just take it on as my own failing. I felt the need to protect our family and my mom from others. I had teachers who would ask about my home situation, and I’d lie.
When my mom returned to work, the local Boys & Girls Club became our daycare all day during the summers and after school, until they closed each night during the school year. A social worker there took a special interest in me and began pulling me aside daily to talk. She knew I was a big tangled ball. I credit much of my resiliency to the time and care she invested in me. She built me up, gave me a voice and was a dependable, responsible adult I could count on and look up to. Despite the close relationship we shared, I don’t recall ever sharing those details.
At most I feel like I may have generalized things, but I remember wanting to protect my family before anything else. It made me a prisoner to my truth for a very long time.
Writer’s note: Even as an adult, maybe 12 years ago, I decided to sleep on my mother’s couch in her home. She brought out a pile of blankets for me to choose from. They had the same moldy smell, and I was flooded with icky feelings and had a panic attack. She was offended when I said that I didn’t think they had been washed. I ended up sleeping without a blanket that night and decided that was the last time I was going to sleep in her house anymore. I used to think terms like “triggered” were silly. But in my short time doing therapy now, I’ve recognized it’s a very real thing. A simple thing like a blanket was “triggering” for me. Now I know that term is legitimate.