I remember like it was yesterday.
In 2007 I was MatLab coding in the 5th floor computer lab of Tulane’s bio-engineering building just like every other student in my program. It was a near meditative zone of whirring CPUs and click clacking of keyboards with the occasional half-hearted joke and stifled laughter. Then my phone buzzed and I stopped breathing. Panic came at me like a freight train. I was tied to the tracks, paralyzed by fear and expecting the worst.
Caller ID said it was my mom. One small breath of relief. One notch down on the panic scale. I walked out of the computer lab into the hallway. Always afraid to answer but more afraid not to, I picked up the phone. She spoke. Another notch down on the panic scale. It was really her. At least, what was left of her. Hopeless, depressed, beaten down, but alive. I still had a mother, in there somewhere.
“Is everyone okay?” I asked the same question first every time. “As good as they can be.” It was all I needed to hear. The panic was temporarily replaced by numbness. I felt nothing as she shared the latest stories. She talked about the fighting. Nonstop fighting. My thoughts jumped to the next time the phone would ring. Or the time after that. Or after that.
Would it still be her calling or would it be someone else relaying bad news? Would I still have a family? Would they turn into a statistic? He terrorized them in person. Through them, he terrorized me from afar. Why had I gone so far away to school? Why didn’t I do something about it when I was still there? Why couldn’t I stop this from happening?
I hated the feeling of being helpless, hopeless, constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop. I wanted it all to be over. From my spot in the hall I could see outside to the back balcony. I walked up to the door and stood with my head pressed against the glass while she talked. For a minute while I stood there, I wondered what it would be like to fall. One quick jump and then I’d fall freely, quickly, into the darkness, into non-feeling.
Then I thought about my beautiful younger sisters and my feisty three year old nephew. They were living through his insults and threats every day and they were strong. I could, I had to be a good example of life after him.
The next day I went to Tulane’s ERC and met with a counselor. I explained I was there because my mom and stepdad were getting a divorce. Her first reaction was to ask if I was I worried I would miss him. After gagging a little, I believe I said, “No, I won’t miss him. She should have done this years ago. I’m worried he’s going to snap and kill them all.”
After her initial shock, I explained his escalating verbal abuse, recently diagnosed borderline personality disorder, and weekly trips to the shooting range to maintain his federally-trained sharpshooter status. After a few weeks of my visits I think she was almost as scared for them as I was.
Her suggestion was to cope the way I always had before, through my “flight to education.” I got the best grades of my undergraduate career during my senior year when I was simultaneously taking 18 credit hours, writing a thesis, and working over 30 hours a week. I saw my counselor once a week for over 15 months.
During the weekend of my Tulane graduation, he finally moved out of my mom’s house. Talk about breathing a big sigh of relief. My family was here in New Orleans to celebrate with me, but it wasn’t just me we were celebrating. We made it through that year together.
It took a while, but over time I gradually stopped having minor panic attacks when one of them called. Our family continues to grow and although drama is inevitable amongst so many bull-headed women, we’re as close as we’ve ever been.
My mom is by far one of the strongest, smartest, hardest working, and most resilient women I know. Without her example I wouldn’t be half the person I am today. Speaking of today– Happy Birthday, Mom. I love you and I’m proud to be your daughter.
P.S. If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of jumping, I recommend:
- You are loved