this is the essay that i wrote while living with my natal family. i allowed my mom to read it, but unlike my other siblings, i did not ask for her help in editing. nevertheless, it was undoubtedly greatly influenced by my anticipation of her opinions.
Ten years ago, my family’s quiet, conservative lifestyle received a shock from which I believed, at the time, we could never recover. My mom had always been interested in adoption. After watching a poignant documentary on orphans in foreign countries, she made the decision to open our home to five Russian boys, biological siblings about to be split up into separate orphanages. Not surprisingly, it became apparent almost immediately after their arrival that melding five boisterous new members into a calm, restrained household was going to mean an enormous adjustment for all of us. I am now the sixth of fourteen children. Living in a household of sixteen can be very difficult; however, watching how my parents have dedicated their lives to raising and even homeschooling myself and my siblings has also armed me with strong values. Perhaps the hardest part of my adolescence has been finding my own voice, and for this I rely upon the talents that I have been given.
Art has become the channel into which I pour my passion and energy. Mastering the technical aspects of a perspective line drawing or portrait can be frustrating at times, but it is also deeply rewarding. I draw inspiration from sources as diverse as Jon Krakauer’s “Into the Wild,” Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead,” and my own experiences of the beauty of friendship. The majority of my significant art training has taken place in Cathedral Catholic high school’s AP Studio Art class. As an artist, my goal is to tangibly represent the brightest, most fragilely beautiful aspects of human nature, which I believe to be youth, passion, and spontaneity. “The Fountainhead” introduced me to the philosophy of Objectivism, which emphasizes the power of the human spirit and the sacred nature of art, as a means of achieving personal fulfillment and sharing with others the very best that I can offer. Self expression through art has allowed me to interpret my perspective in ways others can understand, as well as fulfilling some of my longing for authenticity in my relationships. I believe that creating is one of the most deeply personal and meaningful actions that a human being can possibly undertake, whether the product of this endeavor is a painting or a family, and have found that peers often respond best to me when I open myself by sharing my talents. Coming from an extraordinary family of eight biological and five adopted siblings, I am very blessed to be able to distinguish myself through art.
Because the novelty of my large family has set me apart from classmates and friends, I may have at one point regarded it as the single most defining aspect of my identity; however, I have come to see that my unique insights, talents, and choices are truly what define me. I have been blessed in many ways, not only with a strong and close-knit family founded upon my parents’ selflessness and unwavering faith, but also with brief and treasured moments of true friendship that have illuminated my high school experience. Nevertheless, the tools that I have been given, values such as an unfailing work ethic and a religious background, are meaningless without personal motivation to grow. Though I have not always been a person at peace with myself, I can honestly say that I do not regret a single moment of God’s plan for me, and I want people to know that I love life. I look forward eagerly to this next important part of my journey, pursuing an education that offers the opportunity to develop my potential in the interests that make me glad to be myself.
and now, for contrast, this is the essay that i wrote in order to appeal to the financial aid office of the community college i have been putting myself through since 2012 for a dependency override. without it, i would not have been able to apply for a pell grant, which is the only reason i'm able to keep a roof over my head right now that does not require the tainted help of my blood relatives. some of the things i write here are hints at parts of my story yet to come, while others merely echo phrases i've already included. i think the main point that's worth noting is how much more of myself is present in this essay than in the one i wrote two years previous.
For as long as I can remember, I have been living a prolonged nightmare of emotional abuse. At eighteen years old, I was forced out of the family home in which I’d grown up, and since then I have lived twenty-one different places. Within a span of two years, I’ve moved between four different states and at least a dozen cities. My travels have taken me wherever I could find a job that would accept me, considering the lack of work experience that came as a byproduct of being raised in an extremely conservative, sheltered upbringing, or wherever I could find a homeless shelter that had an open bed to offer. As a human being, this rootlessness has hurt me in many ways, though it has also provided me with a wealth of experiences that color my art. I have felt the indignity of unemployment as I frantically filled out hundreds of applications, adding my small voice to the multitude of candidates vying for even the most menial position in today’s economy. I am currently living in a spare room belonging to my elderly aunt, who is extremely unstable and treats me with a level of criticism, judgement, and paranoid suspicion that makes being a guest in her home the equivalent of breathing an atmosphere comprised of pesticide. My aunt has been determined by psychological evaluation to suffer from Narcissistic Personality Disorder, and is a hoarder, so, wedged in between her boxes of clutter that are piled to the ceiling in every room, I wake up at night covered in insects and huddle with my scant, battered art supplies, waiting for her to build up her supply of rage to the degree that she’ll explode into a violent tantrum. I cannot move out, as things stand, because I cannot find a room elsewhere within my financial means. Though I’ve been told I have a great artistic talent and am extremely intelligent, and have been encouraged by supportive individuals in my life to pursue my education to its fullest extent, I’m at a point in my life at which I’m honestly faced with contemplating shelving my pursuit of a college degree in order to take on a second job. I already work full time, but am still barely able to support myself and unable to afford rent given the expenses of simply sustaining my body. My dream of becoming a veterinarian is being stifled by a poisonous atmosphere tainted by the shadows of a truly horrific childhood, and by the crushing stress accompanying the brutal reality that my my aunt’s house may be the only thing standing between me and sleeping on the street.
I used to wonder as a little girl if my family was poor, not because we ever wanted for the latest electronic gadgetry, or because money was a frequent topic of serious discussion. In my hazy understanding I associated the word “poor” with the feeling of having my mom come home from the mall with new outfits for all my sisters except me, because I was chubby and wouldn’t look nice in cute clothes anyway. Poor meant lying awake at night, listening to my brothers scream as my mom beat them with an old metal tennis racket a few rooms away, grappling with the concept that, as my mom told everyone, they deserved it because they were immoral and had no consciences. Growing up, I learned that I was deprived of things because I was bad and didn’t deserve them. My brothers ate cold beef stew out of a can for every meal, seated at a separate table from the rest of the family that faced in the opposite direction, because at ages five, eight, ten, and thirteen they weren’t upholding the family values and therefore had “chosen” rejection and alienation. I was on a diet every day of my life since long before I hit puberty because I didn’t have the self control my prettier, blond sisters seemed born possessing. I learned that pain was a sign that I was working hard, that if I wasn’t inflicting suffering upon myself then I could expect to be punished. My mom’s reaction to my manic depression, the way I flinched at loud noises or when people touched me, was always a combination of embarrassment and rage. When I was fourteen, my mom put the entire family on a diet of eating freely only once a week, on sundays, when we’d gorge ourselves on everything we’d restricted out of our extremely parsimonious meal plans the other six days of the week. I followed this regiment for two months, lost thirty pounds, in the end too sickly to consume anything at all and gaining my only nutrition from chewing gum balls, and have ever since been engaged in a struggle against malnutrition that has caused me to be plagued by petite mal focal seizures and left me sterile. Along with my “A-B-C’s” I imbibed that I was ugly, stupid, lazy, irresponsible, and would be unwanted and alone my entire life.
All of the physical and emotional abuse practiced by my family built to a climax in high school. The various forces pulling at me suddenly because too much to bear. I was warned by my family that I had to perform at a level of 110%, that I needed to take all of the hardest classes and earn the highest grades possible or I wouldn’t be accepted to a top gear college and my life would be over. At the same time, I was physically and mentally ill, barely holding myself together and trying to torture from my shattered physic flawless results while running on meager allowances of eight hundred, four hundred, or even just two hundred calories per day. My regular meal of choice because a Starbucks Venti Americano with twelve extra shots of espresso, and I thought nothing of going four days without sleep because if I took a break I’d be exposing myself to accusations of laziness from my mom and sisters, against whom I, as the family’s ugly duckling, knew I’d never measure up. I worked myself into a constant state of frantic distraction, always on the edge of insanity, terrified I’d slip and achieve less than perfect grades. I was grounded for a period of thirteen weeks straight at one point in high school because I got a B in one class. Fun was a foreign concept to me; I actually thought of myself as a character in a novel, living a theoretical life while all my friends belonged to the entirely separate realm of reality. My family had a strict policy by which we did not divulge private information about our affairs to outsiders, but I found that I was crumbling to such a degree that I could not keep wondering glances from other students and from administrators from swinging hesitantly my way. It must have happened at least four times, the cycle of events by which I’d be called in to meetings and questioned, deny everything and insist I was fine and wanted to be left alone, then my defenses would gradually be broken down under repeated pressure. I’d end up pouring out my heart in an incomprehensible deluge of shame, self loathing, and terror that my parents would find out I ultimately wasn’t good enough to be worth their time. I’d beg the school nurse or counselor not to tell my mom I’d come to them, to somehow help me without involving the angry god at home who was riding me into the ground. For a short time, grudgingly, not understanding, they’d hold out against ethical or even legal pressure, then they’d fold and after a cheerful intervention in which my parents would smile and assure the administration that everything was fine and I was just over dramatic and put too much pressure on myself, in which I’d cower silently in my chair dreading the moment these outsiders no longer shielded me from my mom’s wrath, all hell would break loose. I was repeatedly broken down into a thousand pieces and from the rocky foundation of my mom’s promise that this time only she would forgive me and grant me a second chance, but one more toe placed out of line and I’d be banished from the family forever, I would rebuild my world.
Eventually, when I was only a few weeks away from graduating high school, my mom really did kick me out, as I’d known she would inevitably do since I watched my brothers being packed up and shipped off to military school in disgrace. She wanted me out of the house so badly that she actually convinced my school’s principal to graduate me without my having to take any final exams. In some ways, this was a mercy because my brain had shut down to such an extent that I have no doubt I would have failed any test put in front of me. My final week of living at my parents’ home was a horror, a waking nightmare of hiding in plain sight at school where I couldn’t talk to anyone under threat that if I “went crying” to people there and caused a fuss I’d be prevented from going to college at all, and hiding under my covers at home where I wasn’t even allowed to speak to my siblings for fear I’d spread to them my depravity and corruption. My parents paid my college tuition to Pepperdine University, the most conservative, sheltered campus they could find, for one semester before the university medically suspended me because I was so sick that I was racked by at least ten seizures per day and in constant danger of having a heart attack. This single semester’s tuition was literally blood money, paid out in trade for my silence, in the wake of my desperate suicide attempt that I felt was the only way I could possibly atone for all of my sins.
Today, I come in the door from a twelve hour shift at work, physically drained, and listen to my aunt scream and cry because she doesn’t understand why I don’t want to hear her sing the praises of the mother I haven’t seen in two years. My aunt regularly tells me that I’m manipulative, inconsiderate, immature, and that I live a charmed life for which I am simply ungrateful and complicate because I refuse to accept my perfect family’s unconditional and selfless love. A large part of what is keeping me going is a yellow dog, living at the shelter where I work, for whom I am responsible because each of us is the only thing the other has. I would sleep in my car, which I must hide from my aunt because she repeatedly reminds me that I’m oblivious and incompetent to learn to drive, only then she might not show up to give me a ride home from work. I must grovel and beg her to do this because the busses from Santa Paula to Ventura stop running at about 5 pm and I don’t get off until 6:30. I don’t yet have a driver’s license, having never been allowed at home to learn to drive because my mom told me I wasn’t good enough. My aunt reinforces this sentiment, and daily reminds me of the ultimatum she’s given me, that come September 1st I will no longer get any rides from her. She wants me to quit my job, though she isn’t in any way prepared to offer me any financial support. I wear my shoes until they rot off my feet, until the soles literally crumbled away as I’m walking. I’ve been so dehydrated that I dug through a trash can to find an empty plastic container for anti-acids, which I used to drink water from a public restroom sink at a gas station convenience store because I couldn’t face begging strangers to buy me a bottled water one more time. I’ve been picked up at a bus stop by an old man who placed his hand on my thigh and offered me forty dollars to watch him masturbate, and felt torn by the voice of the Twelve Step Program in my head reminding me that I’m pouring everything I’ve got into improving my circumstances the clean, responsible, right way, and disgust at my own cowardice in being unable to do it, when that forty dollars could have furnished me a room for the night or paid my cell phone bill for two months. I’ve lost friendships because other people my own age don’t understand someone who won’t make it a priority to buy a smart phone. I saved for months to buy, smog test, insure and register my first vehicle, and am now begging friends and acquaintances with driver’s licenses to allow me to practice with them as my chaperone, so that I can eventually get my own license and secure the ability to drive myself to work. At this point, I am afraid to commit myself to shelters that would provide me a temporary escape from the domestic situation in which I can no longer realistically force myself to function but would place more rigid limitations upon me that would inhibit my pursuit of a responsible, productive, meaningful life. I am not interested in languishing my days away watching television and have never had any inclination toward drugs. I desire to find constructive ways to utilize my time in order to advance my career and make a difference in the world. My goal is always self improvement; I do not want to be taken care of, but pour every ounce of energy and determination I can muster every day into finding ways to forge my own path forward. I have learned that allowing anyone to help me is giving them permission also to exert control over and abuse me. Like the little girl I used to be, who flinched away from every touch, I feel a hand on my shoulder and steel myself for the anticipated blow to descend.
One thing, throughout my journey, has remained a constant, and that is my desire to earn a college degree. Education has not been a given in my life but something that I’ve had to throw all of my strength and determination into pursuing. When the situation in my family escalated to an unbearable level, I chose to get out, because I knew that if I did not do so I would not live long enough to have a future in which to invest. I have been beaten and starved but I am not a victim. Throughout everything I have kept my faith that allowing my family to restrain my potential by using money as a tool of control to keep me dependent would only limit my growth. The only way that I can be in a position to truly take care of myself and contribute to the lives of others is by attaining a level of education necessary to find a meaningful, lucrative career. I am working on making my life fruitful, and education has been the vehicle that has kept me moving along the road to success. No matter where my journey has taken me, I have continued taking college courses, achieving straight A grades and a consistent spot on the Dean’s List. Moreover, one of the reasons I am so good at my job is that I have an indefatigable energy, and thrive on the opportunity to put in the grunt work to make my goals a reality. Besides maintaining a 4.0 GPA, and acquiring the confidence essential to earning the respect of pit bulls confiscated from illegal dog fighting rings, many of which animals are of a far greater stature than I am, in the past year, I have had the amazing opportunity of being a featured artist in the Ventura County Museum of Art’s Day of the Dead exhibition and in this establishment’s ArtWalk display. I have self published two books, and am currently in progress working on my next novel. I am determined to pursue my education to the highest degree possible, and I see myself in the future serving others and finding personal fulfillment as a Veterinarian. I believe this is possible for me despite my circumstances because I have not allowed any contingency to hinder my progress for long. I’ve been told that I won’t find a relationship and am hindered from other opportunities because I don’t present myself well, but the fact that I don’t wear make up, I cut my hair short and must wear clothes stained by bleach from sanitizing dog kennels, is all a consequence of the fact that I choose to devote my time and energy to taking tangible steps away from the nightmare in which I’ve been trapped since the day I was born. I am an open book. I may not come across as confident, but anyone should be able to see that I am determined, even if sometimes the only way I can motivate myself to keep limping forward is to tell myself I’m working to someday provide a home for the yellow dog that I’ve fallen in love with at the shelter. I used to be afraid that if I told my story CPS would go knocking on my parents’ door and the angry god at home would come find me and hurt me for daring to besmirch her name. Now I know that, just as my mom could remain callous to my physical suffering by not allowing an ounce of my pain to penetrate her conviction that everything she did was for the good of the family, the people I tell over and over in scholarship applications and government officials will only see that my emotional scars have not left me with any visible physical disability and that all the neighbors who ever shared a street with my family can only testify in glowing words to my mom’s saintly generosity. My mom used to threaten me as though it were a fate worse than death that if I didn’t work hard enough, all I would be fit for would be community college. Now I’m pleading for financial aid because even the expenses associated with a semester at a junior college cause my heart to clench inside my chest. This is who I am. I am doing this on my own. I may have living, financially secure, biologically related family members, but that does not mean I am not independent or that I have a family. Right now I may be sleeping in a bed at night but that doesn’t change the fact that I consider myself homeless.
13 August 2013