Unorthodox and Unhinged

Tales of a Manic Christian


Broken Toys, Childhood Nightmares & Grownup Dreams

I have never put much stock in dreams. I am not into Freudian analysis of a bygone age. Aren’t dreams just the random firing of brain waves in your sleep? Your brain showing midnight movies to lull you through the night? And we don’t recall most of these fleeting REM sleep snapshots, right?

So, what’s in a dream?

Well, I grew up in what many would have called a dream house. My dad was a doctor, the Chief of Surgery at Greater Southeast in D.C. My mom, a stay at home mom. We had the nicest furniture and the nicest cars.  We wore the nicest clothes and ate the nicest food.  We had household “help”: Nan and her daughter Cornelia cleaned our house and did our laundry. Cora came once a week just to iron. And Sonny, (really Mr. Simpson) stripped and polished our hardwood floors. Floors that were covered with Karistan carpets.

But inside 5408 24thAvenue, the fairytale fractured. There were six of us kids, just nine years apart from the oldest to the youngest. And there was a ton of chaos within our walls. Not just the Brady Bunch kind of chaos. What I would not have given for the Brady Bunch kind.

My mom was a stay at a home – but not what you would call available. Either manic or dark, my mom tried to drink away her bipolar moods. She was either sky high shopping till she dropped or in her bed days on end behind the bedroom door. Delightfully, I remember her once spending $1000 on Hallmark Halloween things. But, I remember just as well, my father screaming obscenities at her as he flushed her valium down the loo.

My mom was a bipolar alcoholic housewife. My dad a raging workaholic who was hardly ever at home.

God bless them, my Grandmother Cady who lived with us, cooked and cleaned and got us off to school. And my barely elder sister often read to us and put us to bed. But this was not supposed to be their job – especially not my sister’s — just four years older than me.

A bit of a nightmare, if you are a little kid. So, middle child me did my best to hide, to be ever so good, not make a fuss. It was safer that way.

 A brown nose in parochial school, I would stay after class to clean the nuns’ quarters, so I would not have to go home to all the yelling and screaming and name calling.  I was ten years old.

And I had dreams. Recurring dreams. All set in my growing up home.  I will tell you about one.

In my house we had a basement laundry room which sported a double washer & dryer set. Huge, it was equipped with multiple clothes baskets and ironing boards. There was a “toy shelf” built into a back wall.  Stacked with puzzles with missing pieces, board games without all the cards, baby dolls missing an eye or without any clothes, these broken toys belonged both to all of us or to no one at all. 

I dreamed of snowdrifts of laundry piled high in that basement. And just like snow, I dreamed that I tunneled through it to build igloo forts.  But while hidden in the snowy mounds, somehow, my mom scoops me up with a load and tosses me into the dryer. Tumbling and screaming, “Please, let me out. Please, let me out.” But no one could hear.

Growing up, I dreamt it again and again. Not really a dream but a nightmare and a metaphor for more.

And once upon a time, in 1972, this middle child herself became great with child –  totally smashing and fracturing my family’s fairytale façade. Such a scary house of cards.

And I got myself out of that house. I got the child in my belly outside of that house. And through an adoption agency I found in the Yellow Pages, I found her a house that I thought was safe and happy and secure and good. Where she could grow up and live happily ever after.

I thought and believed at seventeen that by placing her, that I had saved her. And in 1972, it was the best I could do.

And I have never really told this to anyone before, but after her birth I began to have dreams — recurring dreams of a baby in a basket. A baby I lost. A baby I could not find. A baby crying for me. A toddler lost at the mall. A child left at the playground. And it was all my fault. 

Nightmares, really. Nightmares which I wish I had confessed long ago.

Reunited with my first daughter, with hindsight I have learned so much. I thought I had escaped my nightmare so, she could live a dream. And while she is happy, healthy and whole – happily married and a great mom of three, I have learned from her about the complicated and deeply felt conflicts of adult adoptees. Being cut off from half of who you are, an adoptee’s life is not always an easy road. It has lifelong repercussions for mental health, relationships and work. 

As it does also for first moms like me.

I have no time machine. I wish I did but I do not and I cannot undo what I did decades ago. But I believe in redemption in the here and now. As her first mom, I am just as much her forever family as her adoptive mom. Different, of course, but physically and viscerally connected from the start. She is my first daughter. Her children are my grandchildren. My children are her siblings. My brothers are her uncles. My second cousins are her third. And I hope and pray we will never separate again.

It is not a fairytale. But it is a f*ing gift.

For me this is not an either/or proposition, it’s my celebration of both/and.

So, to heal the past and create a different kind of future, I am reading books and going to conferences and taking a deep dive on my therapist’s couch. I have signed up with Saving Our Sisters – a family preservation group and I have volunteered to be a “Sister on the Ground.” 

Click here and take a look if you would like to find out more about what they do.

 “We are such stuff as dreams are made of…” Shakespeare said. I choose now to dream better dreams, loftier dreams, dreams filled with possibility and hope. The nightmares be damned.


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The Bartender Kid, the Bipolar Mom & The Bishop

people who drink old fitzgerald

I learned to make Old Fashions in 1965. I was nine. My father taught me by the book. A red hardbound cocktail cookbook, kept on the shelf behind the bar in our basement.

I still remember the recipe. My mother’s favorite. Equal shots of bourbon and water (Old Fitzgerald preferred.), sugar water boiled on the stove, bitters, and a slice of orange. In a Waterford glass.

I was quite the little bartender, and so were my siblings. Besides Old Fashions I could whip up a Tom Collins or a Gin & Tonic, on command, no problem. And when commanded, which was often, I would fetch my parents a beer from the fridge: Heineken for my mother, Lowenbrau for my father.

And in 1965 when I was nine the nightmares began. This one in particular:

My mom and I are alone driving down a highway in the sky. The sky is bright blue and the sun shines bright. We pass through fluffy marshmallow clouds. The highway is a thin ribbon with no beginning and no end. Just one lane. No shoulder. My mother is passed out drunk behind the wheel of our Plymouth station wagon. Somehow I slide into the driver’s seat and take her place. I clutch the wheel I can barely see over to steer. One tiny mistake left or right, and we crash into the abyss.

I wake up silently screaming.

My grandmother makes breakfast, my older sister packs our lunch, and my mom drives our carpool to school. A bit embarrassing to a nine year old, my mom often just threw her raincoat over her nightgown to get out the door and to get us to school on time.

Now my mom under the best of circumstances was not the best of drivers. Having learned to drive with a stick shift, she still drove the automatic with two feet. Clutching, breaking, we were never sure what she was doing.

She always drove under the speed limit, even on the interstate. She told us she only drove as fast as she felt safe. I remember slinking down in the back seat as cars whizzed by, drivers honking and flipping us the bird. I was both mortified and terrified that somebody would crash into us.

Miraculously no one ever did.

I was never aware that my mother was ever drunk when she was driving. But I can’t help but think that with all the medication she was on – prescribed and not prescribed – along with the Old Fashions, that indeed sometimes she was.

My mother loved us most dearly and never would have intentionally put us in harm’s way. But most sadly now I believe unintentionally likely she did.

Like my mother before me, I too am bipolar. And like my mother before me, I too am a terrible driver. I have no sense of direction and I am easily flustered behind the wheel. Even with Google Maps, I can get lost in my own backyard.

And while I do not share my mother’s addiction to alcohol, flights of mania have had me fly down the highway at rocket speeds. And in 2005 one very dark Sunday at the crack of dawn flying down I95, I fell asleep behind the wheel. My car crossed three lanes of traffic, crashed through the guardrail, rolled over twice, and landed on the shoulder on the opposite side of the road.

My roof was caved in. My windshield shattered. My front end folded like an accordion.

I could have been killed. But more horrifically I could have gotten other people killed. Someone’s loved one. Someone’s mom. Someone’s child.

All because I thought it so important that I get to church in time to preach on Stewardship Sunday. Even though I knew that my new combo of meds made me exceedingly drowsy — I thought I could shake it off by rolling down my windows or turning up my radio. I thought of pulling over a few times, but my bad judgment prevailed.

The impact of the crash woke me up. When the police arrived, they had to force open the driver’s side window. The officer leaned in and said, “Lady, are you all right?” I responded, “I’m fine, officer, but I have to go church.”

Blasphemy. In the name of God, I risked everything. In the name of God, I jeopardized the lives of God’s children. Innocent lives. A mortal sin — if there ever was one.

I was charged with reckless driving. But because my impairment was medicinal and not alcoholic or narcotic, the charges were dropped. It did not hurt either that I wore a clerical collar to court. I never wear a clerical collar. Blasphemy compounded.

All the mitigating circumstances did not mitigate the fact that I was responsible: Responsible for taking care of my illness. Responsible for my medication. Responsible for choosing to get behind the wheel of my car.

And so was my mother.

And so is Bishop Suffragan Heather Cook — held responsible in the hit and run fatal accident in Maryland that cost a 43 year-old Baltimore bicyclist his life.

All the circumstances are not known, but what is known is that she was charged four years ago of drunken driving and drug possession. She pleaded guilty to the first and the second charge was dropped. Her record was expunged in exchange for future good behavior.

Truly tragic from every possible perspective.

All over Facebook folks have been chattering. A prevalent sentiment expressed by clergy and others is that the bishop is just as human and prone to human frailty and sin as anyone else.

This I tragically know is so. There for the grace of God go we all.

Alcohol use and abuse is pervasive in the life of the church – at receptions, conventions, meetings, and meals. And it is too often ignored or excused and at great cost.

Alcoholism –along with alcohol abuse – is an illness, an insidious illness. An illness the bishop may likely have confessed to and for which hopefully she sought treatment. But her failed recovery likely cost the cyclist his life and untold grief for all those he left behind.

Possibly she was rushing off to church like I was. Very possibly under the influence and very possibly with her judgment impaired, she chose to get behind the wheel of her car — just like I did.

And she is just as responsible. No mitigating circumstances can mitigate that.

I pray for the Bishop’s recovery. But I pray more for the life that cannot be recovered and for those who grieve an unspeakable loss.

There for the grace of God go we all.

Therefore I implore you, sisters and brothers, this New Year’s Eve, to not drink and drive. Do not let a friend drive drunk. Toast the New Year with sparkling cider. Be the designated driver. And this very night you might save a life.

And please, dear God,  grant us the wisdom and the courage and the presence of mind needed to so make it so.

JoaniSign