Jenny Aurthur | Longreads | May 2018 | 28 minutes (6,886 words)
On the Monday before Thanksgiving in 2004, my father went missing. I was at the Santa Monica apartment I’d been subletting to a friend while working for three months in New York City, getting ready for bed when my phone rang. It was my mother, wondering if I’d spoken to him. I had not seen or heard from my dad since he’d picked me up from the JetBlue terminal at the Long Beach Airport three days earlier. I was 30 and had returned home to L.A. from New York to spend the holiday with my family.
I’d never missed Turkey Day with my folks. Nothing about my childhood had been typical. I was raised by atheist, socialist activists who called me “Jenny Marx,” never just Jenny, after Karl Marx’s wife. They skipped religious holidays, but observed Thanksgiving, well, religiously.
Thanksgiving had solidified into a legendary event among our friends, and most years we had a full house. It wasn’t unusual for so many people to show up that some had to sit cross-legged on the floor, leaning against the living room wall. The food was so good, and the company even better, that no one minded not having a seat at the table. My father cooked for an army, and there was never a shortage of food. Our parties were lively and conversations were raucous, everyone talking over one another. We were an opinionated bunch. Current events were passionately discussed, and my parents were walking encyclopedias. Topics ranged from global warming to recent movies to the upcoming local and presidential elections. The musical selections were just as diverse as the crowd, from Dixieland jazz to gospel to classical to Dylan.
Everyone got quiet when the food was ready. We passed around two kinds of homemade stuffing — one for vegetarians and one with Italian sausage. Huge bowls of steaming sweet potatoes, buttery green beans, thick slices of light and dark meat my father carved from the 20-pound bird, fresh cranberry sauce with tart orange zest, loaves of freshly baked sourdough bread, green salad, and a ceramic pitcher of hot gravy barely fit on our dining room table.
I started having friends come over for the holiday when I was in junior high. My mother, Elinor, and my father, Jonathan, were popular with my classmates and considered the “cool parents.” During the years I was in school and well into my twenties, our house was the place to be. After Thanksgiving dinners with their own families, droves of my old pals showed up to our house. Everyone loved being around my parents. When I was in high school, one of my best friends, Leisa, was having trouble at home, and my mom took her in. Another friend, Ania, also lived with us a couple of years later.
“I wish Elinor and Jonathan were my parents,” my girlfriends would often say.
This year, though, Thanksgiving would be different. I’d been living in New York since the late summer. Preoccupied with my work, I put the holidays on the back burner. My parents and I had decided to keep it mellow for once. Eight years after my younger brother’s suicide, for the first time, it would just be the three of us.
Historically the kitchen was my father’s territory, and when I was growing up, my mother, my brother, Charley, and I were careful to stay out of his way. He loved being the king of his castle, but he pretended not to enjoy it. “I’ve been burning my ass over a hot stove for the last three days for you ingrates,” he complained, acting annoyed, wiping sweat from his forehead. He loved this yearly charade, and we went along with it, rolling our eyes and laughing.
The aromas coming from the forbidden room made our mouths water and stomachs growl impatiently. Under the pretense of being helpful, my mom, my brother, and I would wander into the kitchen and lurk over the stove and poke around. We were shooed out immediately. “Everyone out of the kitchen,” my dad said with mock exasperation. The table had been set for hours; that was my job. I pulled out and polished the prized Tiffany family silver that had belonged to my grandparents, for its once-a-year appearance. My mother was responsible for buying lilies and dahlias. She also designed beautiful Japanese-style flower arrangements that she’d made in her ikebana class. Charley was in charge of dusting and vacuuming. We liked a late dinner and by the time we ate at 8:00, we were famished.
“Now can I sit down?” my dad asked, drawing out the “now,” acting like an indentured servant finally getting a break. Collapsing into his chair with a dramatic sigh, he surveyed the bounty of food, enough for Henry VIII’s court. “Well,” he said, “if we don’t have enough we can always order pizza.”
Growing up near Venice Beach, I considered Los Angeles the ultimate paradise and never imagined moving away. But the yoga company where I taught sent me to New York City in the fall of 2004. I was newly single after an eight-year relationship ended, and the city was the perfect antidote to my heartbreak. I was thrilled for the change.
I had held onto my rent-controlled Santa Monica apartment — “They will have to rip this place out of my dying hands,” I used to say — and sublet it to a friend. She was out of town that week, and I got to sleep in my old bed. Still, I couldn’t wait to get back to the East Village after the holiday. When my mom called me, looking for my dad, I wasn’t too concerned. “He’s done this before,” I said, trying to comfort her. I reminded her of the time he had a mini midlife crisis and out of the blue took off for Sedona, Arizona, without telling us. I was sure that wherever he was, he would definitely be back by Thanksgiving. It was a sacred holiday that we all looked forward to. Besides, I was bouncing off the walls with the anticipation of returning to my new city, the greatest city in the entire world, and I refused to accept the possibility of anything getting in the way of my plans.
On the Monday before Thanksgiving in 2004, my father went missing. I was at the Santa Monica apartment I’d been subletting to a friend while working for three months in New York City, getting ready for bed when my phone rang. It was my mother, wondering if I’d spoken to him.
The apartment in Santa Monica was just up the hill from where my parents lived. Wednesday morning, in between errands, I pulled up in front of their place. “It’s me,” I announced with fake cheer, letting myself in. It was late morning and my mother was still in her bathrobe, never a good sign. She was sitting in her usual spot, on an antique wicker chaise. Her long legs were stretched out. I noticed her toes twitching nervously. “Still no word?” I asked. I tried to sound nonchalant and casual but my temples were throbbing and my jaw hurt. “Nope,” she said, almost whispering. Her green eyes had a look of panic, and I could tell she hadn’t slept. “What the hell?” I asked, going for irritation, masking the worry I was beginning to feel. The timing was cruel. This Thanksgiving would be seven years without my brother and finally the holidays had been getting easier.
In 1996, a couple of weeks before Thanksgiving, tragedy cast a shadow over my family when my little brother Charley jumped off a freeway overpass a few blocks from where he lived with my parents in Venice Beach, ending his life. He was two years younger than me.
This was not Charley’s first attempt. Five years earlier, when he was a freshman at Reed College in Oregon, he’d had a psychotic break. He got into his car, closed his eyes, and drove off a steep cliff. He walked away without a scratch. After that first episode, there were others. He slit his wrists and tried overdosing on pills. He even stabbed himself with the dull blade of his Swiss Army knife and missed puncturing his heart by a hair. My parents had always struggled financially, and treating mental illness put them at the edge. Multiple doctors prescribed every drug cocktail imaginable. Charley was diagnosed as schizophrenic, psychotic, and bipolar. There were traces of madness on my father’s side of the family. But nothing like what had been happening to my brother.
Fortunately, I had already moved out. I was living with my boyfriend and working full time at a Hollywood talent agency. My family had always been very close, and I received regular reports on my brother’s condition. In a constant state of dread, I called my mom every couple of days. “So, what’s the latest?” I would demand. As hard as I tried, I couldn’t hide my impatience and irritation. I was in my early 20s and I didn’t have the tools to deal with a mentally ill brother. I’d had my life mapped out already, and this was not part of my plan. While I knew my frustration and lack of compassion were selfish and bratty, I didn’t know how to cope. I tossed off unhelpful suggestions like, “He just needs to start doing yoga.” I’d recently discovered a studio in Santa Monica, and I was certain yoga could solve any problem.
“Why can’t the doctors figure out what to do with him? Isn’t that their job?” I griped when my father called.
“Jenny Marx, please don’t be a jerk,” he said. He lived in a constant state of worry, and he wasn’t having it from me. “We are all doing our best.”
Years later I realized my dad had felt responsible for Charley’s illness and was beginning to internalize his shame. Our weekly family dinners were often canceled, and when they did happen, everyone was pretty miserable. With each of us scrutinizing my brother’s every move, the get-togethers that I once looked forward to had become quiet and awkward. I was ashamed that I couldn’t be more helpful and positive, and I started to avoid my family and pushed it all out of my mind. I couldn’t handle watching my baby brother change from a beautiful boy who was my best friend and ally into a nervous, zombie-like teenager with hands that shook.
There were brief periods of relief, when a new drug seemed to work. Charley even tried going back up to Oregon and attempted attending school again. More often though, it got worse. He was in and out of mental hospitals. Sometimes he went willingly. One afternoon the three of us — mom, dad and I — went to an enormous county hospital in the South Bay. Charley was pleasant and lucid, and we hijacked a rec room and played pool and table hockey.
Then there were the times he refused to go and had to be forced into the psych ward. I dreaded those hospital visits. Even the fancier hospitals depressed the hell out of me. Patients dressed in faded blue hospital gowns sat in metal chairs, their glazed-over eyes staring up at a television. “Judge Judy” and Devry commercials blasted, and after 10 minutes I questioned my own sanity. My parents went every day no matter what. After one especially bad episode, my boyfriend, a huge source of support during those years, went with me. A nurse led us into the private room where my brother was strapped to a bed, staring at the ceiling, heavily sedated. “He tried to escape last night — ran straight into the glass doors by the front desk,” the nurse explained. She sounded tired and bored. This kind of thing happened regularly.
Charley heard voices. He was convinced that he had been born into the wrong family and that he was actually a Prussian prince from the 19th century. He talked in what I considered to be an affected style of speech, throwing in a “thus” and a “thou” and calling me his “dearest sister.” His behavior enraged me. I couldn’t help myself and yelled, “Seriously? What the fuck are you talking about?” Maybe it was some sort of backlash to his delusions of grandeur. “Stop talking like that! Who do you think you are, Little Lord Fauntleroy?” Charley never fought back. He just looked at me, or rather looked through me, and said nothing.
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Sometimes my brother became fixated on material things. He liked expensive things, like accessories. A Lucien Picard watch he saw in a magazine became the object of his obsession for weeks. He even made a photo collage of the timepieces and taped it on the wall above his bed, next to his treasured Salvador Dalí melting clock print. After weeks of begging, my dad caved and bought it for him. Two weeks later, we got together for dinner. My father made lasagna, one of our favorites. Charley wasn’t wearing the watch. “I gave it to a homeless man on the 3rd Street promenade,” he explained, as if it were a normal thing to do. Through clenched teeth, his voice straining to sound calm, even curious, my dad asked, “Really? Why did you do that? I thought you loved that thing?”
“Yes, I did,” Charley replied. “But I was told to give it to this man.” He was referring to the voices in his head.
In 1996, a couple of weeks before Thanksgiving, tragedy cast a shadow over my family when my little brother Charley jumped off a freeway overpass a few blocks from where he lived with my parents in Venice Beach, ending his life.
It was hard for me to locate my compassion for him. About to lose it, I stood up and walked away from the table so that I could breathe. I so wanted to be helpful and kind, but my frustration and feelings of helplessness made me tense and nasty.
At the other end of the spectrum, Charley had manic episodes and would go weeks without sleeping. He chain-smoked and paced for hours every night, making my parents anxious. Other times, he was tamped down from so much medication he could barely keep his eyes open. During Hell Year Three, my mother who’d always preferred alternative medicine over Western interventions, said defiantly, “I am going to take him to see my Chinese doctor.” My dad insisted Western doctors were the answer. Nothing worked long-term, and in the fall of 1996, five years after his first attempt, Charley woke up on a crisp morning in November, climbed on his bike, rode 10 blocks past porches with carved pumpkins and baskets of multicolored gourds, and arrived at the overpass overlooking the 10 freeway, and jumped to his death. He was 23.
Despite our crippling grief over Charley’s death, my mother, father, and I rallied. A couple of weeks after Charley’s suicide, my father cooked a turkey and our closest family friends came over. The air was thick with sadness and I felt as if I was suffocating under a wet wool blanket. I couldn’t taste my food, but I managed a smile when my dad made his standard joke about ordering pizza. Laughing to keep from crying was a survival skill I’d learned early on.
Devastated, my mother had no choice but to return to work. She was an urban planner for the City of West Hollywood. My dad, who’d always bounced around from job to job to pay the bills, didn’t want to return to his most recent position as a copy editor at an accounting firm. “There is no human being more boring than an accountant,” he’d always told us.
His real passions were painting and writing, and instead of going back to his old job, he wrote a book proposal about Charley’s deterioration and decline. He was given an advance from a publisher and spent the next few years on this new project. He pored over his late son’s journals, interviewed his girlfriends, and met with some of his teachers, going as far back as junior high. He was desperate and determined to make sense of my brother’s life and death. The manuscript, The Angel and the Dragon: A Father’s Search for Answers to his Son’s Mental Illness and Suicide, was published by a small indie press in 2002. Writing gave my father a purpose. Unfortunately it didn’t give him answers.
Now, eight years after Charley had taken his life, on the night before Thanksgiving, my mother and I sat at her dining room table, eyeing each other warily. My father had been missing for three days. We both wondered the the same thing: “Could he have?” Neither of us said it aloud. If there was anyone who knew the damage done to the ones left behind, it was my dad. “It’s me and you against the world,” my father always promised me. But the odds were against him. In a 2005 article in the American Journal of Medical Genetics entitled “Family Genetic Studies, Suicide and Suicidal Behavior,” David Brent, a psychiatrist at the University of Pittsburgh Medical center, said, “A first-degree relative — a parent, sibling, or child — of a person who has committed suicide is four to six times more likely to attempt or complete a suicide.”
In the early ’70s my parents were members of the Communist Labor Party, a Marxist-Leninist organization that focused on the struggles of the working class. They moved from Los Angeles to New York to Chicago, where they were assigned to live in poor neighborhoods and work in factories so they could form unions. There were party meetings and study groups four or five nights a week, and Charley and I were dragged along and thrown into a room with the other “red-diaper babies.” My mother denied this later, but I clearly remember being left alone sometimes. I was left to babysit my brother when I was 9 or 10 years old. I hated it when they went out without us, but occasionally their meetings went very late. I would throw a fit, convinced they weren’t going to come home. After they left I would stand in front of the living room window trying not to cry while Charley clutched my hand and looked up at me. I had to be strong for him. I would watch each car as it drove down our street, and I prayed it was them returning home and that they weren’t dead, as if I’d had a haunting premonition.
In the early ’80s my parents left the Party. They had become disenchanted with the endless power struggles and infighting so they threw in the towel and we moved back to Los Angeles. This began the first period of relative stability I’d ever known.
While I don’t doubt many daughters have good relationships with their fathers, I was convinced mine was extra special. He gave me hilarious nicknames like “The Griz,” short for Griselda Gruesome. He called me his rug rat and sugar plum.
When I was well into my teens, he pulled me into his lap, saying gruffly, “I need a hug from my girl.” He then pretended I was too heavy, groaning dramatically in an accent that was supposed to sound like that of a Russian peasant, “Big girl, strong girl. Good for pulling plow!” He liked to cook, and we both loved to eat. He made me beef stews, lasagna, pot roast, spaghetti and meatballs, and linguine with clams. He baked his own bread and perfected the art of hummus. “Just add more garlic” was his solution.
“The girl sure knows how to eat,” he always said proudly, even when I started bringing boys home.
“Dad! Stop it,” I begged, mortified.
He never stopped. We all laughed, and every friend I brought home, including boyfriends, fell in love with him. He was warm and funny, and he made everyone feel seen.
When I was little I thought I was in love with my father. Sitting in the front seat of his car, I propped myself up on bent knees. I tried to make myself taller, hoping that if anyone saw us, I looked more like his girlfriend than his daughter. Checking myself out in the rearview mirror, pouting my lips, I made my best Lauren Bacall expression. He was the smartest and most handsome man in the world. Before Google existed I called him to answer questions about everything. When I was old enough to vote, he advised me on the seemingly endless California propositions. “Absolutely no on 184,” he insisted. “This three-strike bill those bastards are trying to pass is a blatant example of the racism in this country.”
As I got older our relationship changed. I went to college in Los Angeles, not far from where I grew up, and we had weekly family dinners. School and romantic relationships became my primary focus. I had a therapist once who, observing my trouble with boys, reminded me of all of the times my father had left to pursue a political cause. “You had very little stability growing up. Your father was rarely around, and kids need a strong foundation at home,” she said, drawing parallels to the unavailable men I always chose.
When I was little I thought I was in love with my father. Sitting in the front seat of his car, I propped myself up on bent knees. I tried to make myself taller, hoping that if anyone saw us, I looked more like his girlfriend than his daughter.
When I was in my early 20s my father admitted his previous ambivalence: “It wasn’t until you were about 10 years old that I began to appreciate you. That’s when you became a real person to me.” Perhaps he thought I would appreciate his confession. Maybe it was an awkward attempt at an apology. Whatever the case, he saw me as smart and independent, and my future was looking good. I’d graduated from a UC school and had immediately gotten a position at the best Hollywood talent agency. Whatever guilt he may have felt for not being a solid presence when I was a kid, it was okay now. “I’m proud of my girl,” he would say, hugging me hard. Being admired by him was huge for me. But finding out that I hadn’t been a priority to him during my formative years planted a tiny seed of resentment.
In his defense, my mother had made up her mind to have children, leaving my dad out of the decision-making process. It was the ’70s and she was 29, old to start having kids. Like a lioness, she got to work. “I picked your dad because he had good genes,” my mother told me when I was in my teens. Remembering those words years later, I find the irony undeniable. She claimed she didn’t care what he wanted. “When I got pregnant with you I let him know he could stay or go. I was going to have you, no matter what.” He was 22, practically a child himself, but he was madly in love with my mother. She was stunning with her long legs, blonde hair, and green eyes. She’d been married twice before and had been a social activist for years. Two years after me, Charley came along. I was almost 12 by the time I realized my parents never officially married — they had a common-law partnership — adding that to my growing I-am-not-like-other-kids mental list.
My dad came and went in and out of our lives. My mom had, after all, told him she didn’t need him. It wasn’t true. She struggled to do it alone and felt resentful and abandoned each time he left us. Out of loneliness, a desire for revenge, or probably both, she started having affairs. One night, when I was 7, I couldn’t sleep, which was typical for me. I padded into her room to climb into bed with her. The head of a man I recognized, a friend of my parents, shot up. I gasped and rubbed my eyes. “Go back to bed, Jenny Marx,” my mother whispered. The next morning there was no sign of this man who was not my father. I was heartbroken and missed my father, but also confused. Had I been dreaming? Soon after that I developed crippling asthma, which plagued me for decades.
Being a single mom with a full-time job was the sacrifice my mother made when she pledged her allegiance to the Party. My tiny family of four was at the mercy of the various revolutionary uprisings taking place all over the world. Of course it was the man, my dad, who got to leave for months at a time, often with a one-way ticket. I begged him not to leave each time he pulled out the Atlas to show my brother and me where he was going. I was too young to fully grasp what was happening, but I knew something wasn’t right. I’d always been more emotional and overly sensitive than girls my age, and I absorbed my mother’s stress. Some nights, when she thought I was asleep, I would leave my bed and tiptoe down our long hallway to find her, hoping I wouldn’t find another man who wasn’t my father in the house. The front door would be open and I could see my mother, sitting on the stoop by herself, smoking a cigarette and crying quietly. Seeing her cry scared me to death. Maybe my father wasn’t coming home and she didn’t know how to tell us.
Although I consistently convinced myself that my father was dead and never coming back, he always did. After six months in Ethiopia during the overthrow of the emperor, Haillie Selassie, he returned with handmade African jewelry for my mother and tiny carved animals for Charley and me. The following year he left again, this time to Texas to help make a documentary about Cesar Chavez, the famous labor organizer. Eventually, though, he always came back.
By the time I was 18, I was desperate for therapy. I’d been dragged to family counseling for years and had hated it. But my first breakup was so bad I had to skip a full semester at UCLA, and I dropped from my usual weight of 135 to 118. I was hospitalized for bronchial pneumonia and my asthma was off the charts. I felt as if I was trying to breathe through a cocktail straw. Finally, this “gift of desperation,” as I came to think of it, led me to my first therapist, a small and round woman in her 40s. She made parallels between my destructive romantic endeavors and my relationship with my father. I didn’t want this information. I wanted to know how to get my boyfriend back. I would get irritable and annoyed the way she always referred back to the way I’d been raised. “What does he have to do with how I’m feeling now?” I wanted to know.
“You didn’t feel safe growing up,” she said. “Your home life didn’t provide the stability you needed. Your father kept leaving and now you are unconsciously recreating those familiar scenarios even though they made you unhappy then and they make you unhappy now.” I wanted to disagree, but her points were valid.
What she said made sense, but I resented her for changing how I felt about my wonderful, smart, funny, and amazing father. To me he’d always been a superhero, a revolutionary trying to change the world. Now I noticed his emotional limitations. When I tried to talk to him about anything regarding my feelings, he became awkward, uncomfortable, and was unable to answer. All I wanted was an ear. Reluctantly I accepted that our bond was limited to the realms of food, political debates, and humor. That’s the danger of putting someone up on a pedestal; eventually they’re bound to fall off.
Thanksgiving 2004 arrived and my mother and I sat in a Polish restaurant in Santa Monica owned by old family friends. We picked at our pierogis. My father had now been gone four days.
“Of course he’ll be back,” we said, trying to soothe each other.
The following Monday, exactly one week since the first phone call I’d received about him missing, the phone rang. I was in the bathtub on the phone with a guy I’d just started dating in New York. I asked him to hold and clicked over to the other line. It was my mother’s best friend, calling me from my parents’ place. My father’s body had been found near the Angelus Crest, 50 miles outside Los Angeles. He had jumped off a cliff; his body landed in a deep brush, hidden from view from the search parties that had started to look for him days earlier.
My father had suffered silently through my brother’s mental illness and the years of grief that followed Charley’s death. He’d hid his own depression. When I looked back, I considered the signs I might have missed. The three of us, my mother and father and I, were survivors. It never occurred to me that my father could kill himself. My mother died three years later, almost literally of a broken heart; the death certificate said, “heart failure.”
My mother had been devastated when my brother died. “A mother never recovers from losing a child,” my therapist and other people had told me. As long as she still had my father and me, she managed. My mom had always been a hard worker. When I was a kid she’d gone back to school to get her master’s degree in urban planning, which led to her work for the cities of West Hollywood and Culver City. She’d always been active in local politics, but with my father gone she threw herself even more vigorously into staving off the gentrification descending on her neighborhood. When a Pep Boys store announced it would be building a huge eyesore around the corner from her, she went door-to-door with petitions to rally the neighbors. It took almost a year of protesting but that big-box store was never built. She also helped to protect the local wetlands from being destroyed.
My father had suffered silently through my brother’s mental illness and the years of grief that followed Charley’s death. He’d hid his own depression. When I looked back, I considered the signs I might have missed.
She went to a support group for people who’d lost loved ones to suicide and had a special Day of the Dead party every November 1st, which was also the anniversary of Charley’s death. Mom was 100% WASP, but she celebrated the Mexican holiday by ordering dozens of tamales and holding an open house. Her friends showed up with photos of dead loved ones while my mom provided colored construction paper, ribbon, glitter, stickers, glue, tissue paper, doilies, magazines, and whatever other art supplies she could think of. She invited me every year, and I dreaded the anniversary. “I have plans,” I always said. I wanted nothing to do with it. It took me a long time to understand my unwillingness to participate in her grief. We had opposite ways of handling our pain. She overshared; I was private. “I just lost my son,” she would announce to the checkout woman at Trader Joe’s. I wanted to disappear when she said things like that. Her grief took up so much space, and I felt as if I didn’t have room for my own so I shut down. “Make sure you have three children,” she always insisted. “That way if you lose one you still have two.” I’d never been sure if I wanted children, and this infuriated me.
Even though my mother was the original health nut — carob and sesame candies were considered a special treat when my brother and I were little — her body was always breaking down on her. She suffered from debilitating migraines and developed adult-onset diabetes. After losing her son and partner, her physical decline was rapid. I was living in New York but I called her every day and visited her in L.A. as often as possible. I still had no idea she was as in as bad health as she was, and her death came as a complete shock. For the next four years, I went on a self-destructive rampage.
Just before my mother’s memorial service a friend gave me a card. I started to put it in my purse. “Open it,” he said. “You’ll be happy you did.” Inside were three pills. Each one was taped to the card and circled with a different color highlighter identifying the pill. They were Vicodin, Valium, and Xanax, the zone-out trifecta. I laughed and hugged him. “Oh my god thank you,” I said. “You have no idea how much I need these.” He did know. I’d always loved pills. As horrible as this is to admit, the first thing I did when I got off the plane in L.A. after my mother died was go straight to her house to look for her painkillers. But they had been flushed down the toilet by the paramedics who’d come to take her body.
I always wanted to be altered. I was 6 years old when I discovered that if I spun myself in circles I could make myself dizzy. I twirled as fast as I could until I fell down giggling uncontrollably. I loved the feeling of being out of my body. Then came sugar, my first real drug. After school, my mother still at work, my brother and I rifled through every pocket in the house, hunting for change. We took our booty and skipped to the corner store to buy Jolly Ranchers, Blow Pops, Lik-M-Aid sticks, Hershey bars, and Hostess cupcakes.
I learned to read when I was very young, and by the time I was 9 I was a full-blown bookworm. Books gave me an escape from a home life filled with uncertainty and tumult. “Little Women,” “Anne of Green Gables,” and “A Wrinkle in Time” were always hiding on my lap under my desk during boring math and grammar lessons. When I was 12, I read “Gone with the Wind” in four days over Christmas break.
Growing up in L.A., it took only one wrong turn to be taken in by a group of girls that introduced me to alcohol and boys. In a period of a month I went from an AP student in the Gifted and Talented Program to an insolent new waver with the worst haircut in history. I started sneaking out and going to Hollywood nightclubs. I bought my first fake ID at a Westwood poster shop when I was 14. My parents didn’t know what hit them and they had no idea how to control me, so after a few failed attempts of grounding me, they decided to trust me. I brought home good grades and teachers liked me. “She’s a good girl,” they always reassured each other. “She’ll be OK.” And, somehow I was OK.
This was the ’80s. Drugs were everywhere, and I wanted to try them all. I was completely unafraid. Or stupid. I missed my junior high school graduation party because two friends and I were given hits of acid and we went to the mall instead. Doctors injected me with adrenaline during the acute asthma attacks I started having at 7. The first time I tried cocaine I loved it.
“Jenny, do you prefer to go up or down,” a friend once asked me.
“Yes, please,” I laughed. “Anywhere but here.”
By some miracle I got into UCLA. I started living with my boyfriend, and for the next 16 years I never spent more than a week single. I joked that I was a “vine swinger,” and there was always someone waiting in the wings. Alcohol and drugs only played a minor role in my life during my 20s. My boyfriends consumed me, and they provided a container. I was able to hide there when my brother got sick. And then there was yoga.
I’d always loved the feeling of escape that exercise gave me. I especially loved swimming. Something about the repetitive back-and-forth across the pool coupled with the flip turns, reminded me of my whirling dervish childhood episodes. Yoga did something new. I had to slow down, pay attention and focus. I ate, drank, slept, and thought only about yoga. “If everyone did yoga the world would be a better place,” I preached obnoxiously to everyone. I cringe recalling how I tried to convince my parents that Charley could be cured this way too.
Not long after Charley died, I left soul-crushing Hollywood to become an instructor. It was after my father died and I returned to New York that my teaching career took off. I was grieving and feeling guilty for leaving my mother, and my drinking and drugging also took off. I led a double life, and it was a thrill ride. I enjoyed being seen as “spiritual” while I was behaving so badly in secret. I was asked to lead teacher trainings, which allowed me to start traveling all over the world. I loved being in New York, far away from my family tragedies. “You have to be like a shark in New York,” I told my mom over the phone. “If you stop moving you die.” She was happy I was doing something I loved. She didn’t want me to know how sick she was getting.
My mother died in July 2007. I went to L.A. to clean out our house. This meant going through everything that belonged to my brother, my father, and her. I started seeing a psychiatrist who gave me antidepressants and antianxiety meds. No one thought twice about all the pills I took. “If your life looked like mine, you’d be on four types of medication too,” I’d say to shut up anyone who questioned me. I didn’t grieve; I took drugs and I drank — a lot. I had no choice but to work, and yoga was how I made my living. So I kept teaching and traveling. One boyfriend nicknamed me the Keith Richards of yoga teachers. I felt unstoppable and kept pushing myself.
There’s a parable about a frog in a boiling pot of water on a stove. The frog doesn’t know it keeps getting hotter and hotter until it’s boiling and then it’s too late. I’d always thought that as long as I showed up for work and paid my rent, I could do whatever I wanted. Plus, I told myself regularly, I’ve survived two family suicides and my mom is gone. I want to do what I want to do. And what I wanted was to completely obliterate my senses. Maybe I was trying to kill myself. A review of my behavior back then would certainly suggest I was. I drank myself into blackouts a few nights a week and took any drug anyone offered. I had unprotected sex with strangers and let anyone into my apartment. A part of me wanted to die. But a bigger part of me wanted to live and in December 2011, I got sober.
There’s a parable about a frog in a boiling pot of water on a stove. The frog doesn’t know it keeps getting hotter and hotter until it’s boiling and then it’s too late.
My Jungian analyst, Patricia, told me once, “It’s up to you now, Jenny. What your parents — and their parents before them and theirs before them — didn’t bring into consciousness, it’s now your responsibility.” Her eyes told me how heartbroken she felt for me. My jaw ached from the efforts to not cry. I cried anyway. “It’s not fair,” I said, sobbing.
“No, it’s not,” Patricia said. “You’re right. Life isn’t fair.”
Hearing those words, I found myself laughing through my tears. “That’s exactly what my father always said,” I told her.
“Rest assured, adversity will come,” I heard someone say once. In my opinion this is one of only a few absolute truths. It’s taken some time and it has not been easy, but nowadays when I reflect on my family story, I can see it through a new lens, and rather than feeling like a victim, I acknowledge how much strength and resilience I’ve developed as a result of these tragedies. My “story” is what has made me who I am and, most of the time, I like myself.
In the wake of all this loss, what has enriched my life even more than self-acceptance and an increased capacity for self-love is how much my heart has had to soften. Since I was a little girl I’d seen myself as hard edges and sharp angles. I spent years resenting my brother when he was ill. Why couldn’t he just “snap out of it” I wondered. I’d felt abandoned by my father when he took his own life; I made his suffering about me. I’d been frustrated by my mother’s paralyzing sadness and inability to ask for help and admit how sick she was. I had judged all of them and the way they “mishandled” their lives.
I am different now. The “you should”s have become “have you considered?” Instead of anger and frustration when a friend is going through depression or having suicidal ideation or stays in an abusive relationship, I find myself responding with compassion rather than reacting with judgment.
For as long as I could I masked my pain by altering my state of mind with sugar, exercise, fantasy, drugs, and alcohol. All of that stopped working and I had no choice but to change my perspective and let go of my old survival methods. I don’t need to be right or know what’s best for everyone anymore. Walking through life’s fires and sitting in the discomfort of the unknown with less fear has made my life more joyful. I look at challenges as opportunities rather than obstacles, and what a relief that is.
When I was going through a breakup I thought I’d never recover from, my mother said to me, “Breakups are hard, but sometimes they’re necessary, and you come out stronger on the other side of them.” I’ve come to believe the same is true for breakdowns.
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Jenny Aurthur is a yoga teacher and writer who lives in Brooklyn. She’s working on a memoir called Warrior Pose, from which this is excerpted.
Editor: Sari Botton