In the dregs of a typical Midwest winter, in the year 1986, I was a ten year old girl with a Bipolar, Antisocially disordered mother. Every winter, my mother’s cycles became even more extreme than they were in the more temperate seasons, her highs were higher and the lows were so low I marvel at my ability to survive. My mother’s highs included a succession of days of activity, grandiose distortions that were later replaced with a paranoia that only increased with each successive day of sleep deprivation. Mother ran from the snow, ran from the inevitable solitude winter brings, ran from responsibility; ultimately, she ran from herself. I, her youngest and only child still at home, was often a favored travel companion. I was easy to manipulate, never questioning her distortions and I wanted her love so much that I never dared to argue with her edicts.
It was in the midst of this frigid, sloppy, grey winter that my mother simply did not send me to school one day, so we could run away again. That year’s destination was Miami, FL. The flight was booked, with only a few hours to spare while my Dad worked. We hurriedly packed, my mother forgetting she had a .22 in her purse. It wasn’t until we arrived at the airport that she told me she had a loaded gun in her purse. Back in 1986, one could fly with a firearm as long as it was unloaded. Before reaching security, we ducked into the last ladies bathroom where she would simply remove the bullets from the gun and flush them down a toilet. Unfortunately, for me, it did not go as planned; one single bullet was jammed in the chamber. No matter how hard we tried, the bullet simply would not come out, she said the only way to dislodge it was to fire the gun. She said I had to be the one to fire the gun, because I was a child and would never get in trouble. But then, she assured me we would do it quickly, so I would never be caught. My mother told me she would stay in the bathroom with me, and I was to fire the gun under a succession of many bathroom stalls and into the cement wall at the end of the bathroom. Gun in my pocket, I went into the farthest stall, sat on the toilet and peered under the stalls. We sat there so long, my head pounded from being upside down. We waited and waited for that bathroom to clear, but the steady stream of women never stopped. When it was getting too close to our boarding time, she called me out of the stall, and said we would have to discharge the shell another way. Saying she had another plan, she led me out of the bathroom. I followed her out of the bathroom, past shops, escalators, security guards, and through the main terminal. All the while, I carried a loaded gun, a bullet in the chamber in my sweatshirt pocket. Finally, we came to a bank of elevators accessing the main parking garage, the “expensive parking.” When we got to an elevator, she turned me around, putting her hands on my shoulders, leaning in close so I could hear her whisper and told me we had to fire the gun off the roof of the parking garage. She said there would be no one of the roof of the parking garage, said it was just like the roof of a house and no one went up there and I believed her. She said it would be a harmless prank, a secret just between the two of us, that I was never to tell Daddy. She told me we would get on an empty elevator and ride it to the top, once there I was to wait and step out directly behind her, fire the gun straight up into the air and get back onto the elevator. She stood, facing me and mimicked how I was to fire the gun. The plan seemed easy enough and it seemed far superior to shooting the gun in the bathroom on the main concourse. She said it was a small gun and would not be loud, little more than a victimless lark. Heady with the adrenaline, thinking I was being a big girl and helping my mom, I believed I was a coconspirator in a funny prank.
Once we reached the roof and the doors open, she stepped out and I followed directly behind her. I aimed the gun, directly up and fired the gun next to my right ear. The actual firing of the gun went perfectly, except it was much louder than I expected and my right ear was ringing angrily. Just as I stepped back out from behind my mother to get back onto the elevator, things went south. It was then that I saw several other people on the roof with us. They were falling to the ground. I saw a man, pulling his wife, in a full-length fur coat, down onto the slushy cement roof. I heard screams, men shouting “gun.” I saw the fear in their faces and bodies. In that moment, my world slowed, I realized what I had done. I had made these people fear for their lives. This was a feeling I knew well, my mother had taught it to me time and again throughout my younger years.
We rode down the elevator in silence, my ear still ringing. It would ring for three more days. We stepped out of the elevator and into chaos, a chaos I had just created. There were police scrambling, yelling into walkie-talkies and looking for “the shooter.” I knew I was the shooter. They were looking for me. We were able to successfully board the plane, and flew to our destination to wait for the inevitable drama that would ensue when my Dad came home to discover we were gone. My mother bought me a pair of Reebok’s, the very one’s I’d been asking for as a reward for my performance. But I never really enjoyed them very much, not with the memories of what I had to do to get them.
Long before age 10, I was acutely aware I was an abused child. I’d been subjected to playmates telling me their parents said my mother abused me, the pitying looks from my teachers, a well-meaning (poorly executing) principal advising me “just don’t do anything to make your mother mad and she won’t do this” (referring to bruises). My mother, my abuser, had tricked me. She made me, just like herself, an abuser. My child’s mind told me, “if you pulled the trigger, it’s your fault all these people are scared. It’s your fault that woman’s fur coat is ruined, YOU DID IT!” In my memories of this moment, standing in the terminal with police scrambling about me; I regretted, hated myself, for not going up to one of the officers and telling them what I’d done, what she tricked me into doing. I was ashamed of hurting people. I was ashamed of being tricked by her.
For decades, I beat myself up for not saying what I’d done, I could have gotten the relief I needed, wanted, from my parent’s marriage. But I was too ashamed to ask, because after all I too was now an abuser. Decades passed, my secret “abuser” status planted firmly in my mind. Let me rephrase that, not only was I an abuser, I was stupid too. I could never see the value my Dad tried to show me in myself, after all he didn’t know my secret, he didn’t know the “real me.” It went the same with any teachers, friends, and boyfriends; everyone’s encouragement just rolled off me because of this secret. No one could convince me of my intelligence, after all, I’d been so easily tricked by someone I had long known better than to ever believe. I couldn’t be convinced of my basic goodness because only my mother and I knew the awful thing I’d done at the airport.
What a slippery slope she set up for me, tricking me into her game. All of this came crashing down on me, my house of bent and tattered cards, this past winter; I plunged myself into a major depressive episode. My therapist referred me to a local intensive in-patient program to pull me out of my depression.
In my depression and the partial hospitalization that ensued, I have learned the human need to show ourselves grace when we make mistakes and errors in judgement; blaming yourself will get you nowhere fast! The things I have learned from this experience and the decades I kept this secret hidden, is the importance of not assigning adult logic to childhood behavior.
As I aged, my knowledge of the world around me grew. I started to use this newly acquired knowledge to convict myself of this perceived crime. In my mind, I was simply a felon that had yet to be caught and if I was ever caught, I would surely be convicted. Sure, self-blame and accepting responsibility sound a lot alike to the untrained ear, but they are chasms apart in the mind and soul.
Prior to this, I learned the importance of not “selling out,” and I defended what boundaries I was permitted, with vehemence. In my treatment, I learned to normalize, soften that particular boundary and differentiating “selling out” vs. compromise when it is beneficial to me. The therapy I received at the hospital, schema therapy, helped me see for myself that we really all do have problems and unresolved issues. Now that I could see it and had a name for it, I suddenly felt okay. Now I knew what was my BS and what was a projection. Knowing myself, it was like being given a suit of armor. I finally felt safe in my own skin.