Sabrina was 19. She lived in LA with only her mother, who was also in the final stage of a very rare form of cancer, and had just lost her ability to even walk. Sabrina and her brother were the only ones really around to take care of her, but her brother didn’t live there so the weight of the responsibility fell on her, and had been so for the last couple years; leaving her with no time, energy, or will to properly take care of herself. She doodled nervously in the sketchbook in her lap discussing the details of how all these things had affected her and had brought her to now being clearly far older than her age. She had been in the day program for some months to no avail before sent here after collapsing there. She didn’t really see any people or have any relationships other than one a couple years ago, the nature of which garnered too much disapproval to last. She felt extreme guilt about being in treatment instead of at home taking care of her mother, who had only a few months left to live; blaming herself for being selfish and not simply “just eating” so she could be well enough to make up for the help they could not afford not having insurance, barely able to even afford medications to ease the suffering of her mother’s slow passing.
But regardless, Sabrina was still the most animated and entertaining of us, often going off on long rants about the enormity of the universe and how much that freaked her out. I can recall only a couple other people whom I have come across in my life who could actually make me laugh so much. But like all of us, when she was dark, she was very dark; and it was reflected all throughout her sketchbook, which once looking through was every corner full of brilliant macabre sketches very similar to Shawn Coss.
It was a particularly sobering hour of hearing her account, but her story and the soul with which it was relayed stood out to me more than most others’, particularly the love that was evident between her and her mother; in the way she looked and how she spoke about her mother, and the pictures I later saw- Though also because I personally did not understand the type of connection.
Shawna slowly paged through the weighty photo album I reluctantly had sent from home, acting as though she was legitimately interested or intrigued by remnants of my seemingly irrelevant childhood photos.
“What do you see Kat?”
“A little kid….”
“Yeah, but it’s you.”
“No shit Shawna.”
“Hm.Do you remember this?” she pointed to a picture of me with my parents when I was about 6.
“Nope. Should I? That’s too young to remember.”
“Actually, it’s really not for most people. How about this? Any of it?”
“Nope. But it’s obviously right there, so I don’t really need to remember.”
“Hm.” she continued through each page, as though looking for something. “Interesting.”
“Interesting? Looks to me about as boring as it gets. Just an All American Family.”
“Perhaps it would appear so, but in over twenty years of doing this with clients I’ve never seen this kind of dynamic before that I’m seeing in most of these pictures. ”
“like what? Like the energy or reading eyes or something?”
“Huh? No I mean in every picture, all the way back to as a baby, you look not only terrified, but are either trying to get away from your mother or look like an entirely independent entity from the rest of the family- you only look present when you’re with your brother, and even here he looks a bit stand-offish and detached as well. Look, here and in every picture you’re faced away from your mother, ever when she’s holding you.” she turned another few pages. “But it almost looks like you’re trying to avoid eye contact, which is particularly interesting considering the significant role eye contact with the mother plays in the development of the prefrontal cortex and limbic system. Furthermore, and even more interesting is how those parts of the brain are implicated in mood and thought regulation, interpretation of reality, and general will to live.
I laughed. “Well that would explain a lot. But if there’s one thing we can agree on, it’s that when it comes to parents, you get what you need and then get the fuck out. I don’t think she scared me so much as maybe just disgusted me and constantly made me feel like she was gonna give me an ulcer or something like that. But now that I’m an adult- and not even a functional one at that- I understand now why parents are always in a bad mood, yelling and stressed out.”
“Not all parents are like that.”
“But it’s not a family if you’re not throwing shit at eachother,” I laughed facetiously. “OK, so maybe I learned that not ever family is like that in my early twenties. But when I first started dating Caden and spending time at his house, I eventually said to him that he and his family could stop pretending to be nice and like eachother just for my sake. He claimed that that was how they actually were most of the time, and I didn’t believe him until a year or two later when I never saw otherwise. Like they would sit around and watch tv, and talk to eachother and laugh, or even play lame- ass board games or video games, and looked like they actually enjoyed each other’s company. Needless to say, I started spending a lot of time there. But it felt foreign, because it felt safe.”
“Your family didn’t play games together? What about watching TV?”
“Hell no games. And watching TV was used as a punishment for me because I thought it was absolutely mindless, boring, and I just didn’t want to be in the family room. I don’t know why. But not that I’m complaining, but my brother and I realized when we were in our twenties that not only did our family not get along, but mom didn’t play with either of us once our entire childhoods- even with my spotty memory, it’s consistent with his. But dad played with us often, but then mom would get mad and we’d have to stop because we were loud or roughhousing.”
“Seriously? Well I know what you guys are going to be doing next family visit then, playing a board game.” Shawna had made at least family visits essentially mandatory for me, because I didn’t care to see anyone.
“Oh God no Shawna! That sounds awful… But really it wasn’t just the not wanting to be around mom though, or her being all business- she really was legitimately busy, I think like most adults. She started and ran her own company from when she was my age, a “Forever Florals” bouquet preservation business, it was hugely successful and she did work for all kinds of celebrities who would come over. So we spent every weekend and many weeknights in the back seat of the car, begrudgingly dragged to wedding after wedding. I remember there was never anything to eat those nights but Ritz crackers and granola bars, so I never ate one again. But then she blew out her back when I was maybe 10 and was in bed for nearly a year, wearing this gnarly back brace and sometimes walking with a walker. She had to sell the business not long after that, and retired when I was 11.”
“Oh wow- is she OK now? I mean, she looked OK.”
“Well you of all people should know that looking OK means little to nothing. But yeah, she’s been fine for almost a decade. It took a bunch of doctors who all couldn’t figure out why she was in so much pain until a Dr. Grossman noticed that she had no vertebral disks at all in various places- just a minor detail for so many doctors to somehow fail to notice. But she had a double or triple spinal fusion and after recovery, her back is good.”
“OK, I’m glad to hear that. So, what is the first memory you do have?”
“Easy. I was seven and I was being wheeled into the operating room, because I had to have double abdominal hernia surgery. My brother had just given me a plush ladybug he had gotten from the hospital store. I can see the oxygen mask on my face, administration of the bubblegum- flavored anesthesia, and looking up at the surgeons wondering how long it would be until I would be asleep. But I guess the red ladybug was the first thing I remember in life.”
“Two hernias at only seven?? What in the world from?”
“I don’t know. They said probably congenital; but maybe from always carrying things that were too heavy for me. I haven’t as much as thought about it since then. But then I got another hernia when I was an adult, a different kind though. I’ve had a couple practitioners suggest that perhaps something with my digestive system got messed up with the procedure, but I think that’s unlikely. ”
“I’ll bet. What seven year old carries things that heavy? But you had the two from in womb.”
“Funny, five minutes ago you said you always felt like she was going to give you an ulcer or something.”