Therapy is torture.
You sit on a couch and tell all your secrets to a stranger that couldn’t care less. The only thing shackling them to the chair is the one-hundred-dollar copayment pending on your checking account. You get sixty minutes to translate the storm inside your head - sixty minutes. And when you finally feel like you’re getting somewhere, like you’ve applied enough pressure to pop the lid of the jar so tightly sealed you had to ask for someone else’s help, time is up. You’re dismissed. So, you schedule another session - just to rinse and repeat.
That’s why when I go to therapy, I lie. It’s counterproductive, but I don’t need therapy. I just need someone to listen.
I sit on Valerie’s couch with my right leg crossed over my left. I shift my weight and bring my left leg over my right. A moment later, I place both feet on the floor.
“Comfortable?” Valerie asks, a smile on the ends of her lips.
“Almost impossible in these pants,” I answer, shifting once again. “I don’t know why I thought pleather would be a good idea.”
Valerie chuckles. “Well, they look very stylish.”
Lying to Valerie is routine.
Today is May 11th. It’s been five months since our last session. If I wasn’t in such need, I would’ve never scheduled another appointment. Therapists are masters of confusion, asking just the right number of questions to leave you more distressed than when you arrived. With the added threat of the timer, of course. Valerie is no different.
Her jet-black blowout hangs down her back as she fiddles with a piece of teardrop-shaped plastic on her desk. I hear a low “beep” and see the thick fog of an oil-infused mist.
“Ah. Doesn’t the room feel better?” Valerie asks.
The answer is no, but I allow her to take my silence as agreement.
My hands are shaking. I ball them into fists and suffocate them in my lap.
Valerie leans forward in her chair. “Great to see you today, Nadine,” she says. “It’s been a while. How are you doing?”
LIE, LIE, LIE
The digital timer on her desk counts thirty seconds since the start of our session.
I answer her question. “Good?”
She raises an eyebrow. “Are you unsure?”
I clear my throat. “No. I’m good.” Lie.
We meet eyes as Valerie looks up from her notepad. “How long has it been now?” she asks. “The estrangement from your mother?”
Jesus. We’d barely gotten past greetings. “My birthday makes it five.”
“Do you still speak to your dad?”
“On occasion.” Lie.
“When was the last time?”
“My birthday.” Lie. The last time I spoke to my dad was his birthday almost a year ago. Truly, I spoke to myself. He just breathed into the receiver.
Valerie lets out a breath and sets her notepad flat on her lap. “How does it feel when you talk to him?”
“You aren’t being honest with me.”
“What do you mean?” I ask.
Valerie flips through her notepad, palming the highlighter yellow pages until she lands on the one she desires. “On December 12th, we had a conversation where you said you hadn’t spoken to your dad in six months.”
I inhale like I’m about to blow into a balloon.
“Just now you said the last time you spoke to your dad was your birthday,” she flips for dramatic effect, “August 9th. It doesn’t add up.”
“Thank you,” I say.
“I can’t help you if you aren’t honest with me, Nadine.” She lowers her eyes to my lap. “I noticed your hands are shaking. Are you feeling anxious?”
“No.” I bury my hands further in my lap, curling my fingers over the back of my thighs.
“Did Mother’s Day trigger it? I know that was this weekend.”
Our first session was devoid of any strategy. I sat on her couch and sobbed for an hour - incoherent, inconsolable. And when my time was up, she squeezed my shoulder and held open her office door. She had another session in ten minutes.
“Whatever I told you about my mom was a lie.”
“You didn’t lie,” Valerie says gently. “That was a traumatic experience. Avoiding it is only hurting you.”
My face is wet. I wipe my tears with my wrists.
“What are you feeling?” she asks.
I cast a look at her timer. “I feel like we only have twenty minutes left.”
“Then be present with me for twenty minutes. What’s on your mind?” She leans all the way forward, a box of tissues in her outstretched hand.
I pull a tissue from the top of the box and bring it to my eyes. It shrinks into a small useless wad.
“I shouldn’t have called the police on my mom,” I tell her. “It just made things worse.”
“You don’t think you did the right thing protecting yourself?”
“This narrative,” I say. “It doesn’t matter if it was the right thing. There is no moral compass in an abusive household.”
“So, you admit that you were abused?”
I ignore her question. “I shouldn’t have involved the police because there’s no point in denying fate.”
“And what is your fate?”
“To live with the fact that these people are my parents. Nothing I do will fix it.”
“And how does that narrative help you?” she asks. “How does it help you process that night with your mom?”
Sixty minutes on the timer. Our session is over.
I rise from my seat on the couch so that we are eye-to-eye.
“I would like to continue this conversation,” she says on my way out. “Can I schedule you for the same time next week?”
I nod. My last lie. There is not enough time in the world for me to tell Valerie what’s on my mind. All that matters is that I feel a little bit better than when I came. My hands aren’t shaking.
An abusive household is a life sentence. You never escape. You begin without agency, your life defined by the identity of child. It’s normal for your parents to want to hurt you the way that their parents did. Everyone wants power. It isn’t anyone’s place to intervene because abuse that doesn’t leave a mark isn’t abuse at all. If the lights are on and food is in the fridge, there’s nothing to complain about. As a child, handicapped by your youth, all you can do is dream. Dream of being old enough, powerful enough to leave, and have somewhere else to go. Dream of freedom. When you finally get to that magical age of EIGHTEEN, it’s lost all its glitter. Leaving home is like moving prison cells. Freedom was just a delusion you allowed yourself to aspire to. You’re broken. You can’t fall in love or seek out a forever family because your parents follow you everywhere. You’ve developed scoliosis from the weight of them on your shoulders.
I was on the metro one day when I heard this Nelson Mandela quote. A man was ranting, speaking to no one and everyone simultaneously. I was close enough to hear. And close enough to know he smelled like the sewers after it rains. Metallic. He said Nelson Mandela was never truly imprisoned because for all twenty-seven of the years those white people had him behind bars, his mind was free. Because it’s only when someone reigns over your mind, that they own you. Like a master owns his chattel.
I peel my socks off and press my weight against the front door, twisting the locks and pulling on the handle until I know it’s stuck.
The floor is cold. I forgot to turn off the air conditioning before I left. It takes all of ten steps before I am in front of a cracked leather futon, falling onto the couch and sinking with the exhale of the cushions. I switch on a fifteen-inch television screen. The chatter of a game-show host allows a much-needed distraction from my thoughts.
The television, and the cable plan I don’t pay for, came with the apartment. As did the hard-shelled insects that live in it. They do the dash at the flip of the kitchen lights and burrow themselves behind the stovetop before I can slip the shoe off my foot. I’ve had to kill a few with my hands. Google’s offered remedies, but none of them work. My building’s pest control says I should relocate.
The television isn’t enough to distract me. I pull out my phone, sifting through unanswered emails, text messages, and social media posts. I read through a Twitter thread about whether black men are genetically predisposed to cheat, an argument via quote tweets over the best entree in the Walmart freezer aisle, and a trending tag clowning a foreign prime minister’s declaration of nuclear war. My eyes begin to burn, and it’s gotten so late the room is damn near pitch-black but I’m laughing. Genuinely. I cling to the feeling until my phone screen goes dark and it’s just a piece of metal in my hands.
I roll off the couch and flip on a light. I plug my phone into an outlet. The screen shows the battery symbol with a red bar at the end. Dead. It’ll be a minute until it turns back on.
My stomach makes a sound like a clogged toilet. I stalk the kitchen, surveying the pantry as if checking one last time will make food appear. My refrigerator is empty apart from a molded case of strawberries and a glass jar of artichoke hearts.
My phone screen lights up. I work my fingers until a Chinese food order is out for delivery. I set my phone back down on the charger. I’m not quick enough to catch the cockroach that scurries beside it.
I pull a garbage bag from underneath the sink and clear out the strawberries and artichoke hearts. I knot the bag and set it by the front door. I lift my phone from where I left it on the counter and a call comes in as it’s in my hands.
I let the screen go dark. A banner notification tells me I missed the call.
In Maryland, I’m a different person. I have a job working at a Fresh Market cash register, an active lease on an apartment, strangers whose faces I smiled in enough times to be considered their friends. The past is just an idea. I don’t have to be my parents’ daughter.
My phone vibrates with an incoming notification. My food is outside.
I put on slippers and walk to the door.
I’m young, maybe nine years old. My hair is braided into plaits that hang below my chin. I’m tall enough to reach the knobs of the stovetop. I turn them until each one is set to high and lay a roll of paper towel against the wire coils. It’s so late that my parents sleep silently in their bedroom. As the kitchen fills with smoke, I do not wake them. Instead, I open the front door and shut it tight behind me. I picture my parents’ bodies burning as I walk away from the house. I hear my mother scream - “help me!” and keep on walking.
I’m young again, sitting in the back seat of my mom’s car. The leather strap of a seatbelt holds me back as her tires turn with the curve of the highway. I throw a tantrum in the back seat, bucking and screaming until she has no choice but to turn her head. At that moment, we collide with a vehicle. Her gray seats become purple with blood. I sit unharmed in the backseat, kicking the head that rolls to a stop beside me.
I’m eighteen as of six am that morning. My hair is in thin braids that curl in the shape of the foam rods I wrapped them in. I’m tall enough to look down at my mom. Big enough to be stronger. We stand together in the kitchen, just like that night. She walks towards me with the knife, and I push her so that she falls on her back. The knife falls out of her hands, the hilt sticking out from underneath the oven. I pick it up and point the blade toward her. Her eyes go wide, and she tries her best to escape. But I’m quicker. I plunge the blade into her stomach. Again, again, and again. Until we’re both covered in the mess that is her innards. My dad stands frozen, hands to his face.
I turn the knife on him.
I’m eighteen as of six am that morning. My hair is in thin braids that curl in the shape of the foam rods I wrapped them in. My neck is wet with blood. A police officer leans my mom over the dining room table, gripping her wrists until they are locked within metal rings. Her body shakes with tears I can’t hear. The officer pushes her to the front door, past my father who has fallen to his knees, arms raised to a portrait of Jesus Christ on the wall.
BETWEEN A ROCK AND A HARD PLACE
Orphans never choose their fate.
Exhibit A. Car crash. Metal intertwined with metal so that it becomes a mosaic of car parts. One vehicle is still intact, the drunken operator stumbling from behind a car door only to fall to their knees. The front bumper of their Jeep Cherokee has reduced a car to a fraction of its size, crushed it like a soda can littered in the street. They can’t see, but the corpses of two parents sit inside.
Exhibit B. Death by gunshot. Cold metal burns hot with a speeding bullet, one for each parent. It’s not a masked intruder or vengeful acquaintance, but the other parent that chose this fate. Twice, so a jury didn’t need to be consulted.
Exhibit me. Assault with a deadly weapon. A parent presses a knife against their child’s neck. They whisper the infamous “I brought you into this world and I can take you out” line through clenched teeth, emphasizing it with the ridges of the blade. The other parent is within earshot and eyesight. The perfect accomplice. Unbeknownst to both, the child has already called the police.