My mother was diagnosed with Huntington's Disease when I was very young. I spent my formative years watching her deteriorate and wondering when/if it would be my turn. It's a genetic disease, and the specter of contracting it hung over my head all of my early life. After high school, when most of my friends were moving away to college, I was seized by a complete inability to act. Whenever I went into public, I imagined people were staring at me, making fun of me. I was incredibly self conscious to the point of being frozen. When I tried to go into crowded places, a light-blind terror took over and I couldn't do it. It wasn't a question of making myself do something I didn't want to do. This fear was more powerful than my desire to say, buy some new toothpaste, or go to a movie. I hardly left the house for two years. And when I did, I imagined people were hovering around me, whispering about my hermitic lifestyle.
My father and brother, both of whom I lived with, didn't know what the word agoraphobia meant. My father didn't actually believe in mental illness.
I don't blame him. My father was of a different generation. He was fifty when I was born; he grew up during the Great Depression and dropped out of high school to work and help support his ten siblings. He fought in World War II, lost a brother there, and worked hard the rest of his life when he got back. He started a farm with another brother and barely scraped by, and had to subsidize his income by raising fish, livestock, selling gravel, growing grapes for the wineries in Altus, and anything else he could think of. He'd seen his wife, my mother, overcome by sickness until he couldn't care for her anymore and had to put her in a nursing home, leaving him with a teenaged son. He dealt with it by working sun up to sun down and drinking.
As my mother's condition got worse, my father drank Kentucky Tavern bourbon like this: He started early, an hour or so after dawn, down at the Fish Shack (the main building of the farm) with a big glass of Dr. Pepper, the kind of glass you get at a gas station usually called a "Big Gulp" or something like that. He poured in a finger or two of bourbon and filled the rest with Dr. Pepper. Then he sipped that for an hour or two.
Once it was gone, he poured in four fingers of bourbon, the rest water, and sipped that. By the end of the day, it was two fingers of water, the rest bourbon.
My uncle, who was later diagnosed with cirrhosis, had practiced a variant using water and vodka. After he was diagnosed, he would take old, empty vodka bottles and fill them with water. Then he'd mix them the same way he had with vodka; a couple fingers from the vodka bottle, the rest water.
This was only during the winter months, after the crops were laid by and my family turned to our secondary means of income which was raising and selling catfish and buffalo fish. My father, uncles and brother cleaned the fish and drank and talked during breaks. In the evenings, and long into the night, they stood around, drinking and telling dirty jokes. When I was younger, I'd stand around with them trying to urge my father to come home.
"I need a ride," I'd say.
"Walk," one of the other drunks would say. "It ain't far."
Which was true, and though I was a little afraid of the dark and the coyotes, mostly I was afraid, like my father, of being at home, alone with my mother, who was slipping into dementia. It would often be eight, nine o'clock in the evening before we finally made it home. She would have given up waiting for us and gone to bed.
It was funny, at first, hearing all the old drunks telling stories, but as I grew older, the jokes stayed the same, and they weren't funny anymore. I stole sips of people's drinks but they all tasted watered down and cheap.
During the summer, we farmed. My father carried a cooler full of Budweiser beer in the back of his truck. He threw his empties back there, too. Every few weeks, my brother and I bagged up all the aluminum cans and sold them to a recycling place for a few cents per pound for spending money.
* * *
With my mother's condition, my father became a single parent, except that he had to take care of his wife as well as us. He was an affectionate man. He called me Honey and frequently hugged and kissed us on the cheeks. Once, my sister asked him about our American Indian heritage and he told her we were of the Black Feet tribe, because we always stepped in cow piles. He told her that her Indian name was Little Mini Ha Ha.
When he was drunk, he could be mean and pigheaded the way a child can be when you try to make him clean his room. I think he felt guilty, and me standing there, urging him to go home didn't help things. After Mom went into the nursing home, he sobered up and stopped spending as much time with his buddies, most of whom he hated the sight of when he was sober. He started to see them as wastrels. Several of his buddies were on disability, but still worked odd jobs under the table. They lived to drink, rarely read anything and knew little of current events. My father had always prided himself on his knowledge of world events. As he sobered, he filled his new free time with reading and projects, putting as much distance as he could between himself and his old life. But his friends still hung around, reminding him of who he'd let himself be.
This was a time of change, for my father and myself. I worked on the farm as a young teenager but my father saw no future in it for me. "Ain't nothing worse than being a farmer," he told me, "except maybe being a cop or a politician. But that ain't saying much."
So I stayed home and sat with my mother. When Mom went into the nursing home, it left a gap in my life. And I also felt guilty that we couldn't handle taking care of her ourselves. My father felt the same way, I think. Maybe that's why he let me stay home, after graduation, without working.
I had a car, but it was a heap that rarely worked. Every time we took it to some shade tree mechanic, it ran for a day or two, then broke down again. Without a reliable car, it was difficult to find a job, or so I told myself. On some days, my father would urge me to find a job nearby and walk to work, on others, he would talk about the dangers of the world.
"You can stay here as long as you want," he said to me, and so I did. My father never asked me to leave, or openly asked me to do much of anything. Maybe he was avoiding the situation, though my sister told me once that he'd said, about me, "He's had a hard row to hoe."
* * *
My home town was like this:( )
Wynne had eight thousand people, a Wal Mart, some rice fields and a multitude of mosquitoes. There were a couple factories but how long could one expect to work in one before it shut down and moved overseas? I remember when we got a McDonald's, and people were so excited you'd think the food was good. When I was in high school, the thing to do after school was go to Sonic and sit in the parking lot, then drive down the street to the bowling alley, turn around, and come back. For fun, kids parked in the Wal Mart parking lot. And drank. And smoked pot. And did every drug imaginable. And had lots of sex. There was nothing else to do.
When I was growing up, Arkansas was the leading producer of crystal meth. Little Rock was among the top three cities for violent crime, and the Mississippi delta was home to one of the highest teenage pregnancy rates in the country. Arkansas was forty ninth in education under Governor Clinton, and, when laws were finally passed making testing for teachers mandatory, some of my teachers chose, or were forced, to retire.
To succeed in my hometown meant to leave it. This was the lesson drilled into us early and often. Go to school, get good grades and get a scholarship to college. Short of being a teacher, there were very few jobs around that required a college degree. So college equaled moving to Little Rock or Memphis for work.
Wynne was founded when a train car fell off the track. They stood it back up and made it a station. It's a railroad town that stole the county seat from Wittsburg nearly a century before when using rivers to transport goods fell out of favor. Why go down the Mississippi, then up the Arkansas to get from Memphis to Little Rock when you could now send freight straight through on a train? Wittsburg was now just a handful of empty buildings huddled on the banks of the White River. They served as a reminder of the fickle nature of prosperity. After I got out of high school, the buildings were torn down because they were being used to house methamphetamine labs.
But, railroads had gone the way of the river boats. My father would talk about how when he was a young man, he would ride the train in to Memphis for the day. My brother talked about riding it down to New Orleans to see the Super Bowl when he graduated high school in the '70's.
Now, the station had been turned into a flea market on weekends. Trains came through, but they didn't stop. I could hear their lonesome whistles down the hill from my father's house as they headed for Memphis, maybe saying goodbye to this old town, or maybe just telling someone down the line to get out of the way.
I talked about going to college, but my father was against it. He didn't want me going too far away, and really, neither did I. Maybe if he had forced me in a particular direction, I might have moved that way, but probably I would have resisted. I could do anything in the world.
I imagined that as soon as people noticed me, they'd hurl abuse at me. It was an odd sort of narcissism; the idea that random strangers had nothing better to do than this. Though sometimes, I wasn't just being paranoid. I had long hair; it grew down to my shoulder blades and on more than one occasion people I'd never met would yell at me to get a hair cut, as though I were personally offending them. Once, a policeman pulled my friend over while I was with him.
"You taking your girlfriend on a date?" The cop asked, though I had a full beard.
An aunt, seeing me in public once, remarked that she was surprised to see me wearing shoes, and that they must be uncomfortable to me. She lived down the hill from us, and it was her eyes I thought were on me whenever I went outside after this.
I was never diagnosed with agoraphobia. The thing about agoraphobia is it's hard to make yourself go somewhere to be treated. I didn't go to a psychologist until I was in college, and by then, I had worked through the hardest part of it. I went anyway and talked about my family. I never spoke of the terror I felt, still some days; the jolt of suddenly realizing you're standing on ice and it is tilting you towards the darkness and cold of the water, and you can't move.
I had needed time to make sense of things; I'd needed a break. My father didn't know what to do with me, so he left me alone. He just tried not to make it worse. Slowly, I'd pulled myself out of that mire and ventured out into the world. It had just taken me longer than some.
It was not a happy time, in that house, and I knew on some level at least that autonomy was a step in the direction of happiness. If you control your own life, you can make it as good as you want.
Really, what I wanted to ask my therapist was why wasn't everyone like me? A person could go through life and do everything he or she is supposed to do and end up in a nursing home not even knowing his or her own name. So why bother? Why not just stay in bed? Maybe they all just didn't know, or maybe they already knew what I'd finally learned after two years of hiding; that nowhere was safe from change.