On Graduation Season

Sandwiched somewhere between the anniversary of my high school graduation and the anniversary of my college graduation, I look back on that time in my life with scant nostalgia. This open letter to my parents is to fill them in on the ceremonies they weren’t alive to see.

Dear Mom and Dad,

My sister and I have been known to joke about what it would have been like for one or both of you to have a Facebook. We could picture Mom duck-facing and peace-signing in the selfies she would have posted, with nothing but the utmost sarcasm and irony.

But since you both passed away within three weeks of each other in 2006, I doubt either one of you would have even heard of the social media platform.

Whatever the case may be, my account has been alerting me in the past few days to the anniversaries of my high school graduation (Class of 2012) and my college graduation (Class of 2015). I know you would have been proud, Mom, to see me finish with an International Baccalaureate diploma after you dropped out of high school. And I know you would have been no less proud, Dad, to see me walk away with a Bachelor of Arts after you dropped out of community college.

Regardless, my memories of school are tinged with a bittersweet edge, at best. It didn’t help that I developed borderline personality disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder from growing up for the first twelve years of my life with two parents who had terminal substance use disorder, compounded by being born with bipolar I disorder. The behavioral health challenges didn’t die with you, Mom and Dad, not even when Grandma and Grandpa gained legal guardianship and provided my sister and me with the adolescence you wanted for us.

On the contrary, my chronic mental illnesses will overcast the rest of my days.

All of which is to say, even though I won prom king in high school, I never felt a secure embrace of popularity. On the socioeconomic spectrum, I might have landed closer to “preppy” than many of my classmates, but I wasn’t a jock like you were, Dad, with the shelves of athletic trophies lining the wall in your basement until Mom tore them down in a furor.

For starters, I was gay – my peers may not have known it at the time, but they no doubt suspected it, what with my effeminate accent, mannerisms, and tastes.

Indeed, I only won prom king because I was splashy enough to perform the choreography to Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” in front of the entire school at the pep assembly for the dance.

No, they might have voted for me because I made a spectacle out of myself, but they didn’t “include” me because there was little else for them to enjoy about me. Many a time, I ate my peanut butter sandwiches in a corner of the library because there wasn’t a seat for me in the cafeteria. No less frequently did I cut my wrists at home because I hadn’t been invited to some party or other on the weekends. Even at the grad parties I was invited to in the wake of prom, my peers would turn their backs on me and ignore me as if I were someone dead.

I don’t blame them, though – with my untreated mania, I can acknowledge I left an obnoxious scent trailing behind me at every off-campus excursion I invited myself to, name-dropping the members of the “upper crust” I’d been hanging out with or attempting to make clumsy conversation about pop culture references. As though that weren’t vainglorious enough, I also neglected what few “true” friendships I had in what proved to be my futile pursuit of more.

But, in all fairness, my crush was part of that crowd, and falling in love with him marked the first time I accepted my queerness. No longer did I wake up in tears after a sex dream. No longer did I stare for hours at photographs of Megan Fox on Google because the other guys in class said she was hot, trying to force myself to see what they saw. No longer did I pray for God to make me straight, because my crush helped me realize: how could the best thing that ever happened to me be wrong, when it inspired me to become a better person, one who “deserved” him? Assuming there is a God, wouldn’t he want to make me gay so long as it brings out the best in me? If you were already prone to manic episodes, wouldn’t you be that much more desperate for your first crush’s attention, too?

Which brings us to my first bout of depression, the one that would set the tenor for my undergraduate years.

It was sometime between the first semester and second semester of senior year at Littleton High School. I woke up in the middle of the night when it hit me that, unless we attended the same college, I would most likely never see my crush again. It felt as though the hollow in my chest had gone a corpselike cold, and my broken heart was radiating those chills throughout my body. It wasn’t until more than a year and a half later later that I could identify the symptoms for what they were, but at the time, it was but the first of many sleepless nights from 2011 or 2012 to 2018 or 2019, when I was at last prescribed with atypical antipsychotics.

For that reason, my academic career at Colorado State University was an unhappy one. My journalism major and film minor should have been three of the most fulfilling years of my life, spent studying the critical theory I’m so passionate about and sharpening my talents to the end of contributing as meaningfully as I could to that body of work.

Instead, Fort Collins didn’t agree with my clinical depression any better than Mexican food would have agreed with the food poisoning I incurred from one of our family trips to Casa Bonita, Mom and Dad. Old Town may have inspired Disnelyand’s idyllic Main Street USA, and the city as a whole may have been ranked among the happiest places in the country, but during my late teens and early twenties, I wasn’t ever in the mood for it. Yes, people moved from miles away just to wake up every day to the view of the Rockies, but those mountains provided the backdrop for the worst moments in my life. It wasn’t enough for me to go thrift shopping for flannels and Toms on College Avenue to feel less like I was wandering through a living death. Unless you were twenty-one or older, there was almost nothing to do on the weekends except crash house parties, and it wasn’t until after graduation that I overcame the experience of growing up around your alcoholism, Mom and Dad, and tried my first drink.

Not that liquor would have been a healthy method of coping with my sickness, anyway.

You’re the one who instructed me in that lesson, Mom. Although I was still too young to understand your condition before you died – not that I would have been qualified to pathologize you, anyway – my hypothesis is that our family doctor misdiagnosed you with unipolar depression, then catalyzed a manic state after he showered you with antidepressants. To be sure, the Xanax and Tramadol you indulged by the handful would nudge you into a psychosis unlike any I’ve ever witnessed in anybody else who’s gotten high in front of me.

Only schizophrenic tendencies could have compelled you to start eating burnt spaghetti with your fingers at dinner one night, slurring that “Mommy’s fine” while marinara dried in your hair.

As a result, I’m sure you would have appreciated the manic cycle that chased me throughout high school, and the depressive low that entangled me throughout college. More important than graduating from my education, I have since taken my first steps toward graduating from my disabilities. I am currently stabilizing the climate of my emotions with Abilify and Lamictal. I am also enrolled in a weekly dialectical behavior therapy group for my borderline personality disorder – in fact, we meet tonight. It is to both of these regimens that I owe my motivation and discipline to complete a Master of Arts degree in creative nonfiction at the University of Denver with a perfect grade-point average this past November.

No, Mom and Dad, you didn’t get to see me graduate from LHS or CSU (or DU, for that matter), but I’m beginning to lead the life you would have wished for me, and I felt triumphant enough for the three of us when, medicated and regulated, the State of Colorado certified me in the personal essaying that reminds me of your most dynamic, nuanced, holistic, and balanced characteristics.


On New Beginnings

With Mother’s Day 2023 come and gone, I find myself reflecting on what a complicated time it can be for some. This is for everybody who didn’t have anyone to celebrate yesterday.

Dear Mom and Dad,

It seems only fitting that the idea for this new blog series would occur to me yesterday, on Mother’s Day. My sister and I celebrated the weekend with your mother, Dad – the same grandma who took us in and raised us according to the tearful wishes you expressed to her over the phone, Mom.

But there was still a seat at the table where you should have been, as there is for so many who don’t have mothers, or who don’t have mothers deserving of recognition.

With that said, welcome to my blog.

I was twelve years old when the two of you passed away in 2006, so I have no memory of whether the three of us had even heard of “blogging.” All I know is that Mom saw a story on the news once about MySpace and warned me never to make an account with them, which isn’t even to mention the time you both walked in on users cursing at me in a video game chat room I visited on Grandma and Grandpa’s computer (which they didn’t know I was logged onto at the time).

Well, not only do I have my own computer now, but I also have my own website.

And as you can see, I dedicated much of it to writing about film.

I look back with pride on my journalism major and film theory minor in undergraduate school, partly because I know you each wished for me to go farther with my education than either of you did, and partly because some of my favorite moments with you involve the movies we watched together. Mom, I can remember you weeping during Pearl Harbor as you told me about the grandfather you were closest to – the war veteran who inspired your fascination with history. And Dad, I can remember the family going out to see Revenge of the Sith, only to glance over at you and see tears in your eyes by the light of the silver screen as you watched your childhood come to life one more time.

Still, as highly as I continue to value the cinematic arts, my life is not the same as it was when I last blogged here in 2020, and my writing will reflect that. Between then and now, I studied creative nonfiction at the graduate level, and I learned the science of the memoir and the personal essay. One of the most crucial lessons a student can grasp is the difference between “critical” writing and “creative” writing, and though critical writing may be faster and easier to master, creative writing is the more “artistic” alternative.

And what is our chaotic and painful existence without the structure and significance of art?

The year 2022, in particular, left a taste of that chaos and pain in my mouth bitterer than any I had ever known before, when I was date-raped, mugged, and left for dead in the slushy gutters of downtown Denver last February. You aren’t here anymore, Mom, to protect me – to the extent that the office at my elementary school called you a “helicopter parent.”

It is for me to protect myself now.

And the best way I know how to make a setting for those flashbacks and intrusive thoughts in my mind is the creative nonfiction that leaves behind a world more beautiful than I found it.

Since graduating with my Master of Arts degree in December, I have grappled with what to do next as a blogger: I challenged myself to write daily “flash” essays; I pushed myself to compose weekly posts about none other than blog marketing itself; I even attempted to publish a monograph on Lady Gaga, as though writing about music weren’t tantamount to dancing about architecture.

But what I taught myself through all this trial and error is that I have a story only I can tell about life’s greatest greatest tragedy, and that is death itself.

Because when it came for you, Mom and Dad, it took two people unlike any I’ll ever meet again.

However, in all honesty, if you were alive today, Mom, I don’t know if I would have spent Mother’s Day with you this year. I nurse as much resentment toward you as I do nostalgia for the only mother I’ll ever have, thanks in no small part to the nights I went to bed with an empty stomach and a racing mind, or the bruises that flecked Dad’s body when he took his shirt off at pool parties, or the time you told me you didn’t like me.

Not that Dad was the better parent, slurring at me about how stupid I was with breath that smelled like hand sanitizer when he wasn’t snoring among the half-full vodka bottles in the basement, or – maybe worst of all – declining to defend us from you.

I may be in therapy today because of your parenting, but I hope this open letter can reach even one person who needs to hear the importance of making peace with the truth about who their mother is – knowing that it did would help me make peace with mine, because if someone is reading this, whoever they are, heartache need not take up any more space in their life than a room makes up a house. For if one fails to accept that their mother is part of them, then they could find themselves swallowing opioids by the fistful like you did, Mom, three weeks before my Dad drank himself to death just to kill the demons inside him, too.

No, I might not have been able to save either one of you, and that could be why I drank until I blacked out in 2022 – because I couldn’t justify my own existence unless it was enough for somebody else’s; but is it possible for this post to do what I couldn’t do when I was a child in 2006, and knock the pills out of one person’s hands, or yank the bottle away from the lips of another?

As with the revolution this personal blog is undergoing so I can reconcile it with what happened last year that changed me forever, sometimes we must radicalize our relationships with our mothers, Mom, like you never did with yours – the grandma you didn’t want us to end up with in the event that you couldn’t be there for us anymore. You wouldn’t accept her for the Cluster B personality-disordered abuser that she was, and the way she rejected and scapegoated you not long before you died, casting you out from her flock like the proverbial black sheep, is what killed you in the end. Since you were, during your most impressionable and formative years, dependent upon her care, you believed her capable of love and empathy even though she had the capacity for neither, so you blamed yourself when she acted without concern for your own behavioral health. The family you found in Dad, and the family you created in my sister and me, weren’t enough for you because, in more ways than one, you were your mother’s daughter.

So now I must live without that closure I could have otherwise forged with you, because we’ll never know what would have awaited us had you chosen to live without your mother in your life.

Wherever you are, Mom, I pray this Mother’s Day was a lesson in what you meant to us during what little time we got to share with you, and how we longed for you to realize you could have done better than the woman it was your dying wish to shield us from.

Indeed, having enjoyed the most catharsis I’ve felt from this site in the past three years, I can promise the life our mothers give us – for better or worse – is worth the fight.