[Author’s Note: As part of the #BareYourMind campaign, here’s a story of an Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE). Traumatic events such as witnessing parental conflict can result in long-term negative effects on mental health. If you struggle with mental illness, I encourage you to share your stories as well. Let’s work together to de-stigmatize mental health in our society by giving it a human face.]
The sounds of a shattering marriage woke me.
I opened my eyes to darkness. It was the middle of the night, the mythic part of the day a child’s mind populates with monsters. To my eight-year-old mind, the room I shared with my older brother seemed to pulse with living shadows. I lay still in my bed, holding my breath. Listening. I didn’t know what had brought me out of sleep.
There was a crash that made me jump under my covers. Then there was shouting. It was my mother’s voice. I had never heard her sound like that, high-pitched and cracking from how loud she was screaming. It was so different from the gentle, reassuring voice I knew so well.
I rubbed shaking hands up and down my arms, felt the comforting softness of my pajamas as I listened to my mother scream. I was terrified. What was happening to her? I couldn’t understand what she was saying. Then, I heard another, deeper voice. I identified it as belonging to my father. The bass murmur of his voice was a stark counterpoint to the sharp, horrible sound of my mother’s distress.
I finally found enough courage to crawl out from under the covers, and slipped onto the floor. I peeked at my brother in his bed. I could see his silhouette. He lay facing a wall, with his covers pulled up almost over his head. I didn’t know how he could sleep through the terrible sounds echoing through our home.
I stood up slowly, went to the bedroom’s closed door, reached for the doorknob. I froze when there was another crash like the sound of breaking glass. More screams and murmurs.
I held my breath, grabbed the doorknob quickly and turned it. Opening the door a crack, I saw more darkness in the hallway. Beyond that was an island of light, coming from the kitchen. I crept out into the hall. I still clutched the doorknob, an anchor of reality in the blackness that was surely filled with child-eating creatures. I inhaled deeply once, twice. Then, I stepped away from the solidity of the door and walked into the shadows.
I passed the door that led upstairs to the room my older sisters shared. That was a place as off limits to me as my parent’s bedroom, and as mysterious as the pyramids of Egypt. I moved out into the cavern of the living room. There were pools of street-lamp light on the floor. The greenish-amber illumination was a welcome friend in the darkness. It helped me fight the fear of looming black shapes that might be furniture or more sinister things.
Ahead of me was the front door of our house. It was lit with a slash of light from our kitchen, which I couldn’t see from my vantage point. Suddenly, my father leaped into view from the kitchen. He was covering his head with one arm. I caught a brief glimpse of his grimacing face. Then, two eggs followed him, one after another. They cracked open against the wall near the front door.
“Get out, you son of a bitch!” screamed my mother. I’d never heard her curse before.
My father must have spotted me, because he moved toward me. He had become one of the fearsome shadows. He loomed over me for a moment, then crouched down. His eyes were two black pits.
“You can come with me, if you want,” said the father-shadow.
Then my mother appeared in the kitchen light, her face wet and twisted into a monster’s face. In the morning, this would be the worst memory: the loving countenance of my mother transformed by depthless sadness into a screeching creature.
“Don’t talk to him!” she bellowed. “He’s not going anywhere with you!”
My father stood, turned towards the front door. He stepped over the fragments of broken dishes, yolks, and egg shells that littered the carpet. My mother continued to vent her rage at his back as he left the house and went out alone into the sickly street-lamp glow.
My mother fled back into the kitchen. I stood frozen and held my breath again, a habit I still involuntarily practice during stressful situations. After a while, I slowly walked toward the kitchen, peeked around the corner. I saw my mother weeping, and got angry at how helpless I felt.
I decided to try and make her happy. I ran into the kitchen and hugged her legs as she sat slumped in a chair.
“Don’t worry Mom, I won’t go with him! I’ll beat him up!” I struck my best boxing pose and swung at the air a few times.
My mother laughed through her tears and grabbed me up in another hug. It was a small victory in an emerging war that would tear my childhood home apart in the years to come. I was still young enough that I didn’t see it coming.
That night, malignant seeds were planted deep inside me. They would ripen into the rotten fruit of trauma someday. But what else can come of those moments when one’s parents transform into monsters in the dark?
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