No one breaks on purpose.
How far back in time do you have to go
to find the thing that broke
I knew the day I found my mother sitting alone at the dining room table, staring at nothing, that something had broken inside her. I knew even though I was only four - that more than genes passed down - because when she broke, I broke, too. Maybe it’s like fine china, like a jagged line that cracked down the center of her and because I was holding her hand, it just continued down the center of me, too. Me, too. They say that when a husband leaves his wife, he leaves his children, also, even if he just moves down the block, even if he never actually leaves them, even if he’s at all the games and recitals. I don’t know about that, but I know something broke in my mother when her mother died and my father left all in one week and it was just the two of us, standing there, stunned. My mom at twenty-eight with everything she thought she knew in pieces - without her mother to help her figure out the next right step - and me at four, holding her hand and looking up at her, needing her to have all the answers.
I know that when I tried to fix her in all the years that followed, it broke me more and made me feel I wasn’t enough, and worse - that I was stupid to think I might have been enough. I know that later, way later, I was drawn toward people who made me feel the same way. Stupid to think I might have been enough. Can you really fix a break if it began inside someone else? If I glue myself together, but the thing that caused the break is still in rageful pieces, will I ever be whole, healed, shiny, strong? I wasn’t strong in my teens. When that guy grabbed me in the stairwell, I fought and got away, but I wasn’t so lucky the next time. My no was meaningless and the fact that I’d said no was meaningless, too. Even my mother didn’t believe me, so what can you do? Even my mother didn’t believe me. How can you not be broken further? She knew I was not ready for the world, she must have known, but she threw me to the wolves, anyway, because she figured I’d have to learn how to fight my own battles eventually. Or because she didn’t know how to save me. Or because she thought maybe the best thing she could give me was her rage, like some kind of twisted shield I would turn outward instead of inward.
I should have been fighting those battles with my own father, he might have been - probably was, certainly was - the cause of the break. He makes me sicker than any of the guys that came after because he should have cared and he should have known better. He was pushing fifty when he made me his confidante. What fifty-year-old man sobs in the arms of a four-year-old and thinks that’s normal or okay? I should have mattered to him, but no one mattered to him more than he mattered to himself. So I was shattered instead, and trained at the knee of a man who taught me all the men matter and all the girls should be gorgeous and skinny with big breasts and small asses and a sweet smile, ready to help. Rest in peace, Dad.
If you’re a twenty-seven-year old man and a fourteen-year-old child has a crush on you, your job is to walk (run) away. You would think this goes without saying but you’d be wrong. This happened right under my mother’s nose, at a restaurant she managed during the day and you managed at night. I guess you want to congratulate yourself because you didn’t let things go “too far” but I am now the mother of a fourteen year old daughter, and I can tell you with absolute confidence and disgust, anywhere at all was too far and you are nothing more than a pig with a red Camaro. Though you probably drive a different car today. My mother sent me out on a date with you for my fifteenth birthday because she thought my crush on you was cute. I guess she thought she could trust you. I guess she thought you were her friend.
You (me, we) go out into the world and we’re taught the same lessons over and over again. I remember that oppressive office with the pipe smoke and your smug, shitty tone, telling me at sixteen how I was turning your history department upside down. Question: how are you paid to be the head of a department, how is that your job description when you blame a sixteen-year-old for the outrageous behavior of the grown men you hired? Allow me to say now: fuck you, sir. I had no words to defend myself, no way to say you’re talking to the wrong person, because there I was, sixteen and mortified, and there you were with your beard and the patches on your jacket elbows and your stupid pipe like you were some exalted scholar, some big shot member of the academia instead of some nobody at a tiny private school known for catering to rich, not-very-bright students. God I’d like to kick you in the nuts, and I’m not violent and you’re probably dead or close to it. I didn’t even tell my mom about you, because what would the point have been? She probably would have taken your side.
I don’t know how you go out into the world as a girl and have any hope at all if your mother is unavailable to you, whatever the reason. Maybe you get lucky and you have a strong aunt, or your mother’s best friend steps in. Mother-loss is real and it leaves a gaping hole full of all the things you absolutely need to know. And mother-loss is harder to comprehend (but certainly not harder to face) when your mother is there, but not there, or sometimes there, but usually not. Or when chardonnay is a higher priority than you.
Maybe you’ve noticed I’m calling all of these guys you, and that’s because they’re all the same dude and they don’t matter. They don’t get a name in my story. You who called me a “replaceable hole” and then sent me a friend request on Facebook years later, you who told me I wasn’t hot enough for you and you thought you’d end up with a supermodel, you who lied about every last thing, you who kept treasures from my childhood you swore you’d return, you who didn’t get in the line of fire to protect me, you who took advantage, you who doesn’t understand the sacrifices I made for you but stands in judgment of me now, you who took what you wanted even when I begged you to stop. Begged you. Some of you actually are the same person, and none of it matters because I have an answer to one question, and it’s probably the only one that matters:
We go back in time as far enough as we need to figure out when and where the break happened, and then we do whatever we need to do to put ourselves back together. We stop moving toward people who like to live inside our jagged lines and chip away at them, cruelty by cruelty, and we head toward the ones who think the brokenness makes us more beautiful, more wise, more full of empathy. The ones who can see how hard we worked to get strong, to find our voice, to say no when we need to and yes when we want to. The ones who understand no matter how hard we fought and how strong we are, we still need and deserve to be treated with care, with some tenderness. I recognize at some point or another that I have grown into a wild woman who has tried to prepare her daughter for this world, and who is ready to roar on her behalf at any moment. And that I’ve raised a son who will never break anyone because he doesn’t have it in him, he is not made of that hardened, toxic stuff. I recognize my mother’s broken pieces are part of what made her her, and me, me, and I forgive her for them. I gather them together when she can’t anymore, I sweep them up and carry them safely in my heart, in a little corner that’s the shape of the words: it’s okay, Mom, I understand now.
There is no me without my mother, and for all the things she wasn’t, there were so many things she was. She was fierce and frightening if you crossed her. She was calculating when she needed to be. She found a way to keep a roof over our heads when no one else was there to do it. She was funny and she could be really kind and generous, occasionally to me, always to her friends. She lit up a room. She was not to be trifled with.
And no one breaks on purpose.
Come As You Are is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
If you’d like to meet me in real time to talk about any of this, I’ll be here 2/9/24 at 11:15am PST or you can wait for the Come As You Are podcast version. If you’d like to meet me in Portugal in June, we are more than halfway full, so please reach out soon, it’s going to be incredible!