"Ninety-nine loaves of bread and a hundred and six pies. I’ll always remember that figure! I’d come home and there would be a note [from my mother] saying she needed some time for herself. She’d be gone for weeks, to some resort or someplace to recover. I’d skip school to take care of the restaurant and bake past midnight for the next morning’s customers. I was twelve."
Teresa was still a young teen when she bought a one-way ticket to Prescott and fled home. She had to leave. Her father was killed when she was three, and for many years, she was molested by her step-dad. Her mother divorced him, but everyone blamed Teresa for breaking up the family.
My older brother ran away. My younger brother got into drugs and was sent back to our stepfather. My mom became addicted to Valium and tranquilizers. I felt responsible and guilty for everything.
The losses a child endures are rendered more ruinous when compounded with parental neglect and exploitation. In the absence of someone to provide understanding and comfort, Teresa alone attempted to make some sense of what was happening to her. Yet she was still very much a child, and a child’s world is bound by limited insight. So she crafted a set of explanations for her troubles in which she was the central protagonist and the one to blame.
It was my fault. I shouldn’t have told my mother I was being molested. I’m responsible for the family falling apart. That’s what I told myself.
Our desire for a sense of order—for explanation amidst patently irrational and cruel circumstances is so powerful that children, as well as adults, will create reasonable explanations for unreasonable events. Teresa found that there was only one adult who would understand her despair. Unfortunately, he was no longer alive.
I used to fantasize constantly about him. We didn’t have pictures of my dad around after my mother remarried. One day I stole this picture of him from my grandmother’s house. I used to talk out loud when no one was around. I remember telling him, “I don’t understand why you’re not here.” It was really painful. I also couldn’t understand why he didn’t come and save me. I thought that for sure I’d see my dad if I died.
Just as children create magical friends in which to confide, Teresa imagined her dead father's ever-available ear. It provided comfort and at least a marginal experience of belonging to a family. But these fantasies provided only an illusory sense of connection, and the more she entertained the conversations with her father, the further they pulled her from the living. At fourteen, her losses were sizable, her disappointment great, and she was quickly losing faith that this world held any promise at all. Slowly but progressively, Teresa withdrew from life by entertaining the possibility of her death. She had constructed and nourished a lethal equation: that in death there is solace and connection; in life, there is only despair.
One day, when babysitting a neighbor’s infant, Teresa looked away, just as the baby fell from low counter top. Although the baby was fine, Teresa was badly shaken. To compound matters, she glanced out the kitchen window to spy her mother having sex in their car, with the deliveryman. The surreality of having a private view of her mother’s sexual activities served to shatter all remaining hope. Immediately thereafter, Teresa attempted suicide.
Tomorrow - Teresa – Part Two: Leaving home, and dissolving the family trance.
Waking Up, Alive is now Available on Kindle