It was a random Thursday morning when I walked into the back office of the school library that I worked at. The library assistants were running away from the office, talking about how the school was probably going to close down due to the virus. Student aides like me were wondering if we were going to be getting paid during what we thought then was going to be a two week break. During my dystopian literature class, students talked about how colleges in Chicago were already closing down because of the virus. In psychology, we talked about how it may affect our class projects. I was lucky enough to be doing my class project on the last day of school, so I didn’t have to write an essay at home.
When I got done with my classes, my boss told me to write my timesheet for the next two pay periods. At the end of the day, I sat at a table in the back of the library with the rest of the student aides. All of us were talking about throwing a party, and what everyone was going to do with their new free time. I joked around with them, but all I could think about was how I was going to survive in the motel room my mom and I just moved into.
Moving to the motel was like putting a band-aid on a bullet wound. Our last apartment wouldn’t renew the lease, and we couldn’t find a new place in time. We moved to a hotel first. When the hotel became too expensive, we moved to the motel. The day school closed down made me realize how scary our situation was. I knew I had to come up with a plan because now I was relying solely on my credit card. Everything felt like it was falling apart and begging for me to fix it. My mom’s license expired. She kept getting pulled over for driving too slow or driving all over the road. On the last day of school, I came to the motel to find her with the police. They kept telling me that she needed help and that she seemed like she was drunk. My mom didn’t want to go to the hospital because it would be another bill we would have to pay. We now know that these were signs of how bad my mom’s health was.
At the time, it felt like I was losing my mother when I needed her the most. I didn’t want to face the reality of my situation, but I knew I had to get out of that crappy motel. I started calling all of my friends and family. No one would let me stay with them. The friends who did have room said that their parents wouldn’t allow it because of the virus. Most of my friends didn’t have the room, however. One of my friends said I could sleep on her couch for a couple of days, and another friend of mine said that I could stay at his place, but he had 6 people living with him at the time. I was scared to go there because of the virus going around. I cried so much that day; I felt so disgusted that all of my friends were witnessing how desperate I was. We had nowhere to go in Illinois.
I started to reach out to people who lived out of the state. I called my grandmother earlier that day to get some advice. She told my aunt everything that was going on, and my aunt told me she would take care of me, and that she would help me pay for rent if I could find a friend to say yes. I told her that I couldn’t find anyone and asked if I could stay with her. She told me no because she had a roommate living with her at the time. It was heartbreaking to hear her say no, because I thought that she would instantly say yes to my question.
I had only one person left to call. I’m going to call her “Gloria.” I knew her my whole life. She had a son around my age that I grew up with. She was funny and felt like a second mother to me, and knew how to do my hair and make me laugh. When I called her to see if I could stay with her, she immediately said yes, even though she was taking care of her mother and we were going through the start of a pandemic. She said yes, which is something my own flesh and blood wouldn’t do. When I arrived, I was full of nerves and excitement. When we got into Gloria’s car, my mom was so excited to see her old friend. However, I could tell from the expression on Gloria’s face that she wasn’t happy about us being there. Something felt off. I blamed it on how quickly everything was happening. I tried to ignore it and focus on how I could help Gloria.
The second day was the first time I pissed her off, the first time I heard how loud she could scream, and the first time I felt the fear she could put in someone. As I write this, I try to think about what it was like, but all of the moments of her being angry at me have blended together. When the fight was over (or, more like when she was tired of yelling), she expected me to be over it as soon as she was. She wanted me to shake off her abuse like it was water when it felt like every fight was a step closer to me drowning.
As I tried to figure out how to keep my head above water level, the world was turning into something I had never seen before. The news started to talk about a lockdown and how we were in a global pandemic. At that time, lockdown felt like it could be forever or two weeks. Nothing was for certain. Gloria was the same way. Some mornings she could be so kind and helpful, while other mornings she woke me up by screaming at me and telling me how much she regrets letting me come to stay with her. No one would believe me about her because she would change the way she talked when she addressed them.
Gloria and my mom didn’t have as much of a friendship as I thought they did. Gloria had a lot of anger about the decisions my mom made in the past and hated that my mom wasn’t there for her when she was homeless. She thought my mom didn’t have enough sympathy for her. She screamed at my mom more than she did at me some days. You could see the effect it was having on my mom; she slept whenever she could and hid in the bedroom whenever she could. One time, my mother told Gloria how she was feeling depressed, and Gloria just laughed in her face. I tried to help them go back to the way they were when I was a kid. Gloria and my mom were one of the first models I had of female friendship. However, Gloria couldn’t let go of her anger over the past. My mom could never remember Gloria’s rules.
I wanted to survive, and it felt impossible if I kept trying to protect my mom. The only way I could survive was if I pretended that Gloria was my mother and leave as soon as my aunt would allow me to come over to her house. My aunt wouldn’t let my mother come with me due to my dad’s side of the family’s dislike for my mother. When I left Gloria’s, it only got worse between she and my mom. It even got physical at some points. My mom decided to run away one night. With the help of nurses and social workers and a bus driver, my mom was able to get to Chicago to stay with her sister.
When my mom moved back to Illinois, she learned that she had early onset dementia. She called me that night after her doctor's appointments. I remember crying to my aunt as she held me. Days later, I felt relieved that we had a name for it. I also felt guilty for not noticing it sooner. It helped her get disability income, which meant that she no longer had to work. Shortly after, I moved back to Chicago to help us get our own place. I now work as her home assistant. Things aren’t perfect, but we are fully independent. I no longer rely on abusive people like Gloria or for family members to come to save me.
During the pandemic, many people had to move back to toxic homes or live with toxic people. Homes that took a lot of us emotionally and changed the way we act, and homes that didn’t let us feel safe or loved in. We were locked in these homes while we watched the world go mad. Some of us survived it, and some of us are still going through it. When I was living with Gloria, my safety depended on knowing how she would react and what would make her happy. I had to watch her face when she talked closely. I had to think over and over about what I would say before I would say it out loud. I had to be ready for anything I’d say to have the wrong effect on her. You can’t just turn this off once you exist in that situation, you bring this habit into the relationships you build after you exit that situation.
When you are trying to predict what someone is going to say or trying to predict how they react, it makes communicating hard. I stopped replying to friends’ text messages because it took too much time and anxiety to figure out what to say back to them. I ghosted so many people because I thought I was getting on their nerves, even though most people don’t talk to people who get on their nerves. I don’t want to make people angry at me, however, I know now that my safety doesn’t depend on them liking me or being happy with me. I don’t have to please everyone. If they react badly, I can now protect myself and distance myself from those people. I am not a punching bag that anyone can use. I am a human being who can stand up for myself. I remember this when I need that extra boost of confidence in myself. I remind myself of how much control I have over my life.
I am thankful that I had a place to stay, but I do not believe I stayed there for free. I didn’t pay with a monthly check. Instead, I paid with my love and my pain. I paid in emotional labor. During the pandemic, many of us were accepted into homes of people who didn’t know how to properly welcome someone into their homes. It could be extended family members, parents, old college friends, or romantic partners. They allowed us into their homes when we needed a place to stay. We stayed with them when they were scared about the world closing down and when they could no longer run away from their emotions. We sat next to them when they needed someone to talk to. I did that for Gloria. I sat next to her as she cried about her dead loved ones. I sat down looking at her as she yelled at me. I stood there next to her as she screamed, yelled, and cried, as she held the knife in her right hand. I sat across the table as I took slow bites of food as she kept looking over at me. Her face told me that she thought my fear of her made me a coward. The value of emotional labor isn’t understood in our society. We value money and power over emotions. We weren’t taught to realize how rare it is when someone listens to you cry or scream. We ignore how taxing it can be when you are giving a part of yourself to a person who doesn’t value your feelings.
I wish I could cuss at Gloria over the phone and tell her how much I hate her. I wish I could tell her how much she took away from me. I wish I could call her and tell her how she hurt me, how much fear she made me live in. I imagine her telling me that I am in control of my emotions and that it isn't her fault I feel that way. She actually told me that one time. Gloria is a hurt person. Her life is filled with people who loved her while abusing her. People who were supposed to love her, but instead chose to take from her or run away from her. A lot of people say “hurt people hurt people.” I would like to add something to that iconic kinda-cheesy line: “people who don’t recognize their own hurt can’t recognize the ways they have hurt you”. So the phone call I wish I could have with her could never help me heal my scars because she doesn’t know how to aid her own. If someone can’t reflect on the pain they've caused, they will think you are insane when you open up to them about your pain that was caused by them. That’s why Gloria believes that only I am in control of how I let people make me feel. In some situations, what she said could be correct. However, if someone was kicking me in my stomach, it wouldn’t be my fault that my stomach hurts. It would be theirs. The same applies for emotional abuse.
She reached out to me once to talk about some of my mail that came to her address. I felt like she was trying to see if I could accept her back into my life. She didn’t want to apologize for what she did, but I think she missed me. She missed the good moments. When I saw things from her side, there were good moments. From her side, it looked like we were forming some type of mother-daughter relationship. For me, I was just surviving. I was using words like “I love you,” and “thank you,” to avoid the terror and pain she could throw on me. I made sure to keep the conversation polite and didn’t send her my new address. We will most likely never speak again. My aunt once joked that Gloria and I will reconnect someday when I am older. People who weren’t in the situation may have a hard time understanding the way you may respond. I have decided that Gloria will not get anything out of me for the rest of my life. I don’t give any parts of myself to people who have abused me. Not even my anger.
I can’t say that a part of me doesn’t want revenge, or that I haven’t imagined myself winning a Nobel Peace Prize and Gloria having to read about it on her iPad as she eats eggs that she knows will never be as good as mine. I think all of us want the people that hurt us to know what they did was wrong. You may even want them to miss you or be jealous of the life you are living. However these days, I am ready to leave Gloria and her pain behind me. I am working on bettering myself and properly healing and closing the wounds she caused.
About the Author
Carla (she/her) is a Harper Community College student who loves fashion, reading, and writing. She is just starting to explore her spiritual side with tarot cards and crystals. She believes writing is one of the powerful tools we have in this world and can be used to tell the stories they are often hidden. She loves fashion and trying to learn to show her love in a way that doesn't hurt Mother Earth. Her main goal is to leave the world a safer place than when she came into it. Taurus Sun. Aquarius Moon. Sagittarius Rising.