Morning Zen Guest Blog Post ~ Andrea Laurion
Child psychiatrists have great toy collections, and Dr. Gainor was no exception. Despite the variety, I played with the same one during every visit—a white rabbit puppet. At nine years old, I was getting a bit too old for toys, but I quickly decided that the puppet was too cute to pass up.
Dr. Gainor, a short brunette with a motherly vibe, asked me a lot of questions, and as a kid who loved to talk, I didn’t mind answering them. Unlike most adults, she seemed to listen. We talked about school and home, mostly, but she’d sometimes ask what I wanted to be when I grew up, or she’d ask what books I liked to read. She also prescribed the little orange pills I had to take every morning and afternoon.
“You know how you wear glasses to see better?” she would say. “These are like glasses for your brain. They help your brain focus.”
On one particular visit, she asked my father about his expectations for me.
“I just want her to do well in school,” he said. “Get some scholarships, go to college.”
I didn’t look up, too busy playing with the puppet. I held the bunny to my chest, stroking it gently, pretending that my hand wasn’t what kept it alive.
She turned her attention to me. “Did you hear what your dad said?
“Yep.” I ran my fingers over the soft faux fur, the bunny tucked under my chin. Neither of them knew that my heart was breaking.
His hope that I would attend college is understandable, now. Any good parent wants to provide the best possible future for his or her child, and maybe fathers like mine, who themselves didn’t go to college, feel this desire more than most. But I was a child at the time, and I didn’t understand this. He wanted me to be like the kids in my class who got straight As, who sat still at their desks and remembered their scissors on Art Day. What I heard was, “I want her to be perfect,” and I knew I never could be.
The little orange pills were to salve an itch I didn’t know I had. They made me obedient in the name of normalcy.
“You can’t pay attention to anything,” my classmates would tell me during group projects, echoing what they’d heard adults say. Actually, I paid attention to everything: a pencil dropping across the room; a dog barking outside; the teacher shuffling papers on her desk. Each little activity drew me away from the task in front of me. It seemed to others as if I couldn’t keep my eyes on my math test, when in reality I saw it all.
It was funny to me that I had to take those pills to focus, because when I was really interested in something, I was all in. Especially reading. I couldn’t start reading at the end of the school day because I would get so immersed that I wouldn’t hear my afternoon bus called over the PA system. When I saw Star Wars, a few years later, I completely understood the concept of “light speed.” My brain still feels this way when I get super involved in some activity, like reading, writing, or watching a favorite TV show.
But I was also in constant motion. My muscles were never comfortable. I would sit up in my chair, only to realize I needed to scratch my nose. And the hair behind my ears was tangled, so of course I had to run my fingers through it. Now I was sitting back in my seat and crossing my ankles, but my shoes weren’t tied as tight as I’d have liked, so I’d better tie them, and—oh no!—I knocked my pencil to the ground. Staying in one place during class was bad. Sitting through Catholic Mass was worse.
“Sit still,” my Catholic school teachers would growl down at me in the church pew.
“I am,” I said. I didn’t understand the problem. I never stood up once. So I was messing with the hymnals and swinging my feet and picking at the scab on my knee and biting my nails and craning my head to look at all the stained glass windows and making up stories in my head. My butt never left the seat.
The pills made my brain say, “No, don’t look up at the kids giggling across the room, this math test is far more interesting.” With those pills, I could sit through Mass with my eyes on the priest, watching him at the podium as he talked about Jesus embracing the little children with open arms. When I took those pills, I could be perfect.
When I took the pills, of course.
The morning one was easy. My mother was around to bug me until I popped it in my mouth. Afternoons were harder. I had to go to the front office after recess and get it from the secretary, which I forgot to do nearly every day.
“Pardon the interruption,” the secretary would call over the loudspeaker. “Andrea Laurion, please report to the office. Andrea Laurion, please report to the office.”
I would immediately drop what I was doing, rushing out of class and down the stairs. The pills were kept in a circular plastic case with a collapsible cup. Our plaid skirts didn’t come with pockets, so I’d put it in my front shirt pocket when I was done.
“That looks like a can of snuff,” one of the girls once said. “Are you doing snuff?”
“No,” I answered. “It’s for my pill.”
I didn’t know, yet, that this was something embarrassing. I was honest in the way of children who are unaware that their openness will come back to shame them.
“Don’t forget to take your piiiiill,” some kids called when we walked out to recess.
“Shut up!” I yelled back. Forty-five minutes later, though, I proved them right, as my name echoed through the school’s wooden halls. I loved attention, but not this kind—not the kind that made the rest of the school wonder if I was always in trouble.
I grew to hate those pills. I didn’t want to be perfect if it meant standing out like this, and I started fighting with my mother about taking them.
“No!” I’d scream. “I don’t want to take my pill today!”
She’d bring up Dr. Gainor’s glasses analogy. “If you’re not going to take your pill, then give me your glasses,” she’d say. “Your brain needs these pills like your eyes need your glasses.”
Usually this would work, but my dad would join in the screaming matches if I was being pigheaded. And he always won.
“Take your pill! He’d thunder. “It’s that simple!” Taking the pill was simple, but the feelings that came with it were not.
My father didn’t look like the other dads, who went to work wearing suit jackets. He lived in his work clothes: T-shirts and jeans. He didn’t work in an office—never did, never would—so he had no reason to dress other than exactly how he wanted. The definition of big and tall, his hands were often dirty and his farmer’s tan a sign of mid-summer. And in place of the simple mustaches worn by other dads, my father’s trademark feature was his long black beard. I’ve never seen my father’s chin. When he’s happy, his brown eyes twinkle, just like Laura Ingalls Wilder described her pa’s eyes in the Little House books. Falling asleep at night, few things comforted me more than hearing his laughter echo through the house. He would make mental notes of our interests and surprise us with thoughtful trinkets.
He liked to take my siblings and me to the movies on days we didn’t have to go to school. We would get a large-sized popcorn and sit in a single row, passing the giant bag back and forth while grabbing handfuls. If the movie was really good, we’d tell my nine-to-five working mom about it at dinner, reciting our favorite lines and laughing over the best parts.
Nothing ever, ever got past him. I could half-ass chores with my mother, but with him, no way.
“You didn’t vacuum the whole floor. The whole floor includes under your bed,” he’d say, looking underneath my twin bed.
“Dad,” I’d whine, “it’s close enough.”
“It’s not enough. Finish the job and you’ll be done.”
My father was also the oldest of his siblings. I got my tiny, upturned nose from him, and his personality, too. Stubborn, independent, and impatient, we share the horrible need to have the last word in every argument. My mother and sister, on the other hand, are both middle children. By birth-order destiny, they were able to tolerate our tempers, egos, and bossy attitudes. It’s not surprising that I was my mother’s child and my sister was Daddy’s Girl.
Everything I know about my father, his family, and his childhood, I learned through my mother. She was the one who explained away his anger and his frustrations.
“Your dad wanted to be a veterinarian,” the story went, “but when it came time to apply for colleges, his grades weren’t good enough. So he had to go to trade school, and he doesn’t want the same for you. He wants you to be able to do whatever you want.”
My dad was away from home for half of the year, working on cargo ships, and the other half he spent playing Mr. Mom. He braided my sister’s hair, made our lunches, and took me to my doctor’s appointments while my mother worked as a nine-to-five nurse. He wanted a better life for me, and tough love was his means of motivation. I didn’t know how to express, at the time, how suffocating his expectations could be. He never used the word “perfect,” but that’s how I felt he wanted me to be.
“If you ever get detention,” he told me on the first day of fourth grade, “you’re walking home.”
We didn’t live far from school, but this threat was the cruelest punishment I could imagine. It was the height of 1990s stranger danger. No one in my class walked to or from school. Everyone either rode the bus or got a ride from their parents. To make me stand out as the one kid who walked home made the potential punishment even worse.
I tried for months to be good, to do my homework, to get to class on time, to remember the right school supplies. I would get frustrated at myself for struggling to do the things that other kids seemed to do with ease, like staying in my seat and raising my hand before I spoke. One day, all my failures collided and I got my first detention slip.
I cried in front of the entire class when it happened. Everyone laughed at my overreaction, even my teacher, while I fizzed with embarrassment. But it wasn’t detention or the humiliation of crying in front of the class that filled me with dread. It was the punishment that would follow my punishment.
Detention itself was uneventful. For one hour after school, I had to write, in my best cursive handwriting, five ways in which I would improve so I wouldn’t receive those demerits again. My mind was on the walk home from school the entire time. I couldn’t believe I had to walk alone. I wasn’t even allowed to wait for the bus by myself, and yet he wanted me to do this. The world could take me! Then he’d be sorry. Then he’d miss me. Then he’d see that this was a huge mistake.
My heart lifted when I saw my father through the school’s glass doors. He wasn’t going to going to make me walk home after all! He’d come to school to pick me up.
Before I could say anything, he took the backpack from my back, opened the passenger seat, and put it inside. He shut the door again.
“All right,” he said. “Start walking.”
My mouth fell open.
He scowled and his voice got louder. “This is not a surprise, Andrea. I told you this was going to happen. Don’t act like this.”
I whined and pleaded for a few more minutes, but it was no use. He had zero sympathy.
The other detention attendees were now leaving school, walking to waiting cars and getting inside. It felt like everyone was watching us.
“Fine,” I sputtered, and turned to walk in the direction of our house, the fringe on my denim cowgirl jean jacket fluttering with every step. I started to cry.
And I cried the entire way, my feelings a mixture of shame, anger, and self-pity. Big, fat, pitiful tears that ran down my cheeks and onto my Peter Pan collar. Why couldn’t I have a normal dad who picked me up from detention like everyone else? Why was he so mean? Why did he hate me so much?
All the while, my father drove extremely slowly beside me, watching me. I never glanced over my shoulder, but I could hear the motor behind me. I walked past familiar sights, which looked different from this new perspective: the day care center I sometimes went to after school; Cameron Court, where I played basketball in the summer. I turned right from Prospect Street toward Pittsburgh Street, which took me past the library, two gray stone churches, and up the hill toward home.
“I hate him,” I thought. “I hate him so much. He’s the worst dad in the world, and he must hate me, too, to make me do this.” My heart burned with resentment. I made up my mind: I had no choice but to run away at the first opportunity. Clearly, I could no longer live in that house. He obviously didn’t care about me. I would be doing him a favor by leaving. I wasn’t good enough for him and I never would be.
When we were half a block from home, our house within sight, he sped up, thinking he would meet me there.
“This is my chance,” I thought.
I turned on my heel and sprinted in the opposite direction for two blocks before I stopped to catch my breath. The house next to me was missing a length of drainpipe, allowing water from an earlier rainfall to splash from the roof onto the ground. I put my head underneath the stream.
“This is how I’ll take a shower on the streets,” I thought. I was a nine-year-old in a Catholic school uniform, and I really, truly believed I would never go home again.
I heard a screech of tires from behind me, and I turned to see the family minivan roar up the street and pull to a stop right next to me. My eyes widened with shock. I was too frightened to move. He was looking for me?
“Get. In. The. Car.” He spoke between clenched teeth.
Before I got in, I saw it. I didn’t believe it at the time, because I thought fear was an emotion that disappeared well before adulthood. But I now know it for what it was. Past the anger, I saw his fear. He was afraid of losing me. Me, the imperfect mess.
At home, he screamed and lectured for hours, his anger filling the house.
“Why would you run away when you were so close to home?” he shouted. “It’s not like you didn’t know where to go, Andrea.”
“I don’t know!” I yelled back, over and over, too embarrassed to say that I’d wanted never to go home again. I was often expected to explain my impulsiveness, but my ability to articulate my tangled feelings got lost somewhere between my heart and my throat. I hurt all the time. Didn’t they understand that?
A dozen detentions would add up, over those early years, for my typical indiscretions: tardiness, talking out, forgetfulness. Despite all that, and without discussion, I would never again walk home from detention.
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Andrea Laurion is the author of one of the essays in the book Writing Away the Stigma.