Family Ties

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~ Morning Zen Guest Blog Post -  Camille Chidsey ~ 

I wake up in a bed I don’t know. Yellow lights, soft sighs, and three girls lying nearby on the same stiff mattresses. Everything is institutionally white: the bare walls, the tightly tucked sheets, the low ceilings, and the grizzled carpet. The sheets feel like sandpaper, rough against my skin. Memories float back, hazy and fleeting. I see ambulance lights, pills lined on cold bathroom tiles, your face in front of me as I pushed them to the back of my throat and swallowed.

This wasn’t the first time I had been in an ambulance. Once, as a child, I remember my mother on the phone, the curly beige cord looped through her fingers, twisted around her wrists. She leaned against the doorframe cradling the phone between her neck and chin. It was a sultry, summer day and she batted at me impatiently as I clenched her knees, straining for her attention. I remember crying when she told me to go outside and play. Leaning over, she swiped me, hard, against my left cheek. I was startled by its sting and started shrieking as she eyeballed me, unblinking and hateful. I remember the screen door creaking and her hand on my chest as she pushed me down the steps. I reached out for her, wedging my hands between the door frame to stand up. My mother whipped around, looked into my terrified eyes, and slammed the door as hard as she could.

I know it wasn’t an accident. She could get away with harming me; for a second no one was watching. The blood rushed from my third knuckle; part of my left middle finger was on the ground.

I don’t recall sirens from when I was four or when I was twenty; I remember the ground. Chilly white tiles when I was older, blazing cement when I was younger. “Pick it up,” my father screamed, like it was my fault. As an adult, they told me my finger didn’t detach, that a slice was lopped away, but no more. My mother shrugged when I asked and my father claimed the tendons held on. Years later, before he died, I took a chance and asked my father what happened. I will never forget his expression: he looked me in the eye, the gin translucent in his glass, and said clearly, “Yeah. It was hanging off. I held it in the ambulance so it wouldn’t fall.” Only a handful of times do I remember my father looking deeply ashamed in relation to my mother, and that was one. I never told my sisters. I don’t think they would’ve believed me. Although memory is fickle, even if I imagined the result, the part that mattered was my mother’s indifference.

The real story is this: The doctor reattached my finger from the third knuckle, but they couldn’t save it all. The tip is missing, the soft fleshy pad darker than the rest. Sometimes my knuckle twists and pops, and I envision a bloody stump on the hot cement. I remember feeling nauseous staring at the ambulance’s ceiling, an oxygen mask over my face. At home, I laid on the brown carpet, looking into my father’s brown eyes. My mother wasn’t in the ambulance; she was barely in the living room. She sat to the side, smoke curling towards the ceiling, calm and aloof. Her betrayal is fused into me; I’m reminded of it every day when I play the guitar, comb my hair, slide my fingers into gloves for harsh Michigan winters.

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Those who struggle with mental illness live in a constant state of vulnerability. The systems designed to protect us sometimes take advantage of us in the worst ways. My mother enabled my illnesses, but she couldn’t have prevented mine—or hers. So I did what I needed to do to begin healing: I left. Suffocated by untold stories and unanswered questions, I moved to Pittsburgh, a city I’d never been and didn’t know a soul. I don’t regret anything. I want to believe that happiness is not found in the bottom of a wine glass, that joy is not linked to luck. I brought my stories with me to channel heartache into art, to make a positive change in the community and in myself. I still struggle with feeling like happiness is expendable, that a finite amount of it exists in the universe. But as the lump in my chest dissolves, I recognize there is mercy in chaos and opportunity in redemption.

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Camille Chidsey is the author of one of the essays from Lee Gutkind's most recent workshop on "Writing Away the Stigma."

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