It’s 4am and I can’t sleep. Neither do I have the energy to do anything. For a few hours, I cat nap, listen to cooking shows on YouTube and occasionally doom scroll TikTok. On the outside, it likely looks like I’m ‘doing nothing’. Oh, but if you could be privy to the thoughts that endlessly scroll until it’s 4am again.
‘Why?’ was probably the most echoed word in every anxiety episode day in and out for weeks. Then I talked to Chewy’s mom in December, who gave me a jaw dropping ‘I’ll tell you what you can do with your kids’ speech. Then it was ‘what’. What in the hell has Dee been telling everyone to achieve this level of hate at my disabled sons. I haven’t spoken to Tommy or Lily since October and I had even sent Lily a message about hearing the truth from me. No response. Whatever fantasy Devon has woven, it isn’t based on the truth or in reality. It took me a long time to really digest that the ‘why’ and ‘what’ doesn’t matter anymore. What matters most is the safety and security of my children. Still mildly curious though I know if I ever heard what the bullshit was, my first response would probably be, “…and you bought that?”
In a previous blog, I had mentioned that this version of my niece is my mother. This has given me a couple of processes that deserve a mention because in the midst of so many negatives, I have some positives and some that I struggle with, as strange as that may sound.
The first is that I have a stronger connection to my mother, specifically the person she became after she moved home. The patient and understanding caregiver for the sons when they were babies. I had thought that ma’s cancer diagnosis was her motivation for trying to make amends or attempt reconciliation but as I’m going through my healing journey, I am glimpsing elements of hers. Even as I visited on weekends as she deteriorated from cancer treatment, I was not exactly sad that she would pass. The stuff that happened in my youth has always been a presence in my life, even to this day. At the time that she passed, now nineteen years ago, I feel like I just wanted to be the shoulder to lean on and a ready ear to listen because no one else showed up for her in the hospital when she was sick and then dying. I know she had a few visitors, but none of my siblings were ever there when I was and even though my brothers knew when I went home to visit, they never joined me. Sally was taking care of the babies so she didn’t visit much or either. Tommy never went and didn’t even attend his adopted mom’s funeral.
Since we were kids, I knew it would be me to take care of ma when she needed the help, just as ma was there for her mom in her final years. Looking back, I suppose one could argue that it was my duty, but it wasn’t a duty that I resented. We had a bond that wasn’t really parent/child. It was probably more in tune with the camaraderie of survivors. After her passing, her sisters shocked my siblings with a few things about ma that I had already known and none of them did, for example. I may still have some of her secrets.
Therapy has helped me to see that people in my life have had unrealistic expectations and entitlements about me for the bulk of my life. The only immediate relative who wanted a positive and healthy relationship ended up being my own mother and she’s gone. Sally has spent years claiming that she doesn’t know why I was hurt and cut contact with her. She knows. It’s just not important enough to apologize, take accountability – grow. That doesn’t even account for her responsibility in the accident that paralyzed Lio for life. Jared asked me for sexual favors and rather than apologize, played it off as an ‘oops’ and I very much noticed that ‘I’m sorry’ on his behalf never entered our interactions after that. As far as I know, Patty still wants to kill me. Lily has always invalidated my connection to my brother Tommy. Granted, ma was the one who adopted him, but he had been my big brother since I was 14 -35 years now. He and ma went to college together and after she dropped out, I went to the same college while he was still there. We worked construction and odd jobs together for a long time too. But Lily has always introduced me as ‘Tommy’s oldest friend’ and not his sister. When we lived with them in the trailer just a few years ago, Lily and Tommy had taken me out for a New Year’s Eve, the first time I had adult time with adults in a long time. We played pool and it was incredible fun. But near the end of our evening, Tommy had gone to the bathroom and Lily asked me about the night they’d met. She was driving so Tommy and I were pretty buzzed by then because we had a sober designated driver.
Quick backstory here. The night Tommy and Lily met, Tommy and I had decided to go out for beer and pool, something we had done for years and we’d been in pool leagues. We debated between two bars and I was the one who picked the bar that night. Lily had eyes for Tommy all night. I was annoyed because it was interrupting our games. Lily made her move, he got her number and that’s when they started talking and eventually dating. They have been married for a couple of decades now.
So I was open to discussing it because I couldn’t have anticipated what was coming. I truly think she waited until we were obviously buzzed. Lily asked me if I wasn’t happy at her that night because she may have interrupted me having a chance with Tommy. You know. My own brother. I wasn’t sure what to make of it and said no. It truly shocked and upset me that she would assume anything remotely close to that. So many of his family call me auntie Ali and know I’m his sister. One of Tommy’s sisters adopted me and even said I could introduce myself on their Rez with her clan. Yet Lily still had the audacity (or caucasity, yeah she’s a colonizer) to have spent the last twenty some years assuming I was hoping to bang my brother or vice versa. That night, she told me that she wasn’t worried about me “anymore” because if we were going to get together, it would have already happened. So up until that night, I had always been suspect to her; or conversely, she thought her husband might want his sister sexually and/or romantically. I don’t know why that ‘assurance’ of hers was acceptable that night other than it was bizarre and how do you tell your drunk brother what his wife insinuated so I kept the peace.
Keeping the peace can be a trauma response. I have learned so much about and how I’ve remained in toxic situations and relationships and it hurts to feel so naive and taken advantage of yet somehow still guilty about it. That to have any relationship with them, I have to think and act like them and I can’t do that.
I have thought of this night often recently because of Lily’s silence after Devon had her meltdown and I asked to talk. Tommy showed up to move furniture and I knew he’d support Dee’s toxicity because she’d assaulted her own brother, then illegally evicted him so what she did to us wasn’t new. This fiasco was probably a bonus for Lily too if she still has this belief that her husband might want to have a relationship with his little sister. It makes sense now. Sometimes I wish I would have told Tommy about it, but it was just… such a wildly outlandish thing that I couldn’t fathom fitting that into a conversation anywhere, anytime.
As for Tommy. He was the youngest of his siblings and I dare say spoiled. I think of the times that he’s been a big part of my life since I was a kid. When I had my first shitty apartment, I gave him a key and he’d show up at dawn on some Saturdays, waiting for me to wake up. I’d empty my change jar to get enough for a day license for fishing and we’d go fishing. We didn’t have the same friends in college, but we were often at the same parties so he did the big brother protective thing even if it was to my youthful chagrin. We have seen some shit together, like you might with any brother or sister. Yet ma was his second mother and he never showed up for her in life, in sickness, or in death. Maybe he never had a connection to her besides being in college together. Though it’s weird to me now because I always saw him as my brother and I am realizing that maybe at some point, I had already stopped being family to him and that’s why it was so easy to discard me and my kids to consider us bums. Tommy and Lily had agreed to be the kids’ hunka parents – a Lakota tradition that I’m not up for explaining, but if you’re Lakota and know, you know how significant that would have been. I am so glad we didn’t have that ceremony.
But ‘family’, you know? My siblings and father – let’s call him Henry from now on – have this whole thing about ‘family above all’ that somehow includes all the toxic and manipulative bullshit woven into its fabric. Does not include respect to boundaries, disabilities, situations or needs. I need to stop enabling this toxic idea of ‘family’ to myself if I’m going to ensure my kids don’t repeat that cycle. Because our people do have cycles of abuse that we must address, yet we also have cycles of healing. Unci was that for me. So was ma at the end and even now after she’s gone, I’ve still learned something from realizing where she probably was in her healing journey.
As a side note, it has helped my family -my sons and I- to use ‘community’ more than we do ‘family’. They have aunties in our budding community that they have met. When we lived in Oglala, they got to see the way some of our family were in that community and I dare say that I did give them a glimpse of what ‘community’ can be and showing up for each other. Family is a word that we are rehabilitating back to being something positive. Right now, the closest family that we once had may still try hurting us and I don’t want to think of them as that word anymore because of the trauma.
While I wouldn’t necessarily call my therapy ‘intensive’, it was for me. I would be uncomfortable when my therapist complimented my progress or processing. Maybe the hardest thing I did for myself was to just let myself feel proud. About anything. It wasn’t quite part of therapy specifically, but addressing things about my ‘family’ showed me how invalidated I’ve been for most of my life to the point that I have been unable to be proud about any of my accomplishments. Especially when it comes to being a parent. Henry and Nana always taking the kids out on Mother’s Day to celebrate Nana is a prime example of the cruelty that was so normalized that I didn’t challenge them on that for years. Everyone got birthday dinners out except for me and even my own kids couldn’t remember my birthday for years. I wouldn’t remind them because I didn’t want to ‘rock the boat’. Jared would berate me for being selfish and how birthdays were meaningless, meanwhile I’ve taken that asshole to Las Vegas for his birthday on and off for years because that was his favorite place to party. It was just MY birthday that was meaningless. I was never a mother by birthing a child and therefore was never entitled to be acknowledged, let alone celebrated, for having a parental role. I believed it for too long.
The year my brother Bo died, Nana and I were having one of our heart to heart conversations. Near the end of it, she told me she wanted to tell me something about my father. She’d been excusing his toxicity forever so I wasn’t exactly excited for more. She told me that Henry was disappointed in all of his children. That none of us had any success in life and he was particularly disappointed in his sons for being useless. She said she was sorry he felt this way. Father of the decade.
That weekend, I visited my brothers and told them about what I had learned. Up until this point, Bo had been one to always come when Henry called for help, be it moving things, assembling, help with cars despite him not being a mechanic. That weekend, we all vented about Henry’s expectations for us despite Henry being an absent father and one that we knew didn’t want to pay child support as we grew up. We talked about achievements that we were proud of over the years and how we weren’t disappointed in our lives. Bo said he wasn’t going to be there for Henry anymore and I doubt Henry noticed that his favorite son stopped coming to see him or even calling him. After that weekend, Nana asked me not to tell my siblings what she’d told me and I’d already done so. Still, I didn’t want to cause her grief, so I said I wouldn’t. Then went back to tell my brothers not to say anything to Henry about it and they agreed. So Bo knew what his father thought of him before the end.
Why did the rest of us want to be part of Henry’s life after that? Because “Family”.
When Bo died, my father cried when we had the local viewing and that weirded me out if he was that useless and a disappointment. Why bother pretending if we were such a disappointment, you know?
My family has faked being family to each other for my entire life and theirs. As I’ve said before, none of the toxicity, the lies, the manipulation – those are not traditional values of any tribe that I’ve known, visited or been family to. This is the assimilated thinking that embodies the expression, “kill the Indian, save the man”.
When I started therapy, I was asked what I would want most out of therapy and I said to be happy. A couple of weeks later, I amended that to be ‘content’. Happy was something that existed in moments and I really couldn’t fathom such a thing as a happy life. Realistically, I then decided that I needed to see outside whatever toxic bubble I was in.
Over the years, I’ve counseled numerous family, both Lakota and Diné, about setting boundaries and not staying in the toxic dynamics that existed. I’d use the bubble as an example. That once you’re outside of it, once you see the toxicity that trapped you to family, you can’t unsee it and you can confront or protect yourself against it better. I knew I couldn’t see what kept me chained to horrible people and now I do. Once these people became ‘just people’, I could see how I’ve been abused, manipulated and exploited. In the last two weeks, I realized that I hadn’t lost “family”, but finally severed toxic people from my life and my heart. I haven’t lost family. I’ve gained freedom.
Now I’m going to share a few things that I’m proud of.
When Dee threw her tantrum and began tormenting us, I was pretty broken and suicidal. For a while, so was Lio. The kids were trapped in the lease and we couldn’t get them taken off. So they said we’d stick it out and we hunkered down together at times to talk and support each other. Lio began improving. Dee and Chewy started leaving windows open, theirs and the upstairs bathroom, in arctic conditions -remember those blizzards and freezing temperatures in December and January? Yeah, they seemed to make concerted efforts to make us suffer the cold. We were freezing constantly and the heater would quit working after a while. I wanted to leave and the kids suggested a portable heater. A friend sent us a pair of electric blankets so we didn’t freeze. The combination worked but I was still scared. I had night terrors and woke up in a panic from nightmares constantly. I suffered bouts of insomnia and then periods of sleeping up to 16 hours a day. I didn’t want to say much publicly because I knew they’d likely delight in seeing that suffering expressed and in my condition, if any of them pushed harder, I knew I wouldn’t be able to handle it. Looking back, I wonder if that’s why they did what they did to us in the first place.
“Auntie Ali,” Lio said patiently one day. “We survived living in a tent in winter. We’ll be okay.”
I expressed my fear to Raphael on the way to work one day and he told me it was okay, that it was only a few months and we could make it. I cautiously brought up calling Henry because maybe they could make Oklahoma work or live with him temporarily and they shut that down. They had set a hard boundary and would not consider amending it. I think of Lio of so long ago telling me, ‘if this ship goes down, we go down with it!’ because they weren’t leaving me behind.
I am proud of the men my sons are becoming. I know part of their strength and resiliency has come from my parenting. From helping to source support for tutoring, self reliance and therapy. I gave them tools to protect themselves, establish and maintain boundaries, and hadn’t been able to tell myself to use them too. Therapy helped me unlock that in myself.
Over the last few decades, I’ve talked to and helped numerous nieces, nephews and grandchildren with and about their families. I’ve helped find resources at times, provided rides, places to sleep and money when I had it and sometimes when I didn’t really. I have had family back home help me and house me before I had the kids and they got to see what community is and the significance of that network of support. Before she passed, Nana chose me and my kids over my father and wanted a divorce if he refused to accept us in her home. She finally saw her husband’s toxicity for what it was and she was free before she died even though she didn’t get to see it through. I see how others have been helping me too and that I’m not alone. I think of Unci telling me, ‘I speak, but you never listen!’ and how I have been speaking, but I haven’t been listening to myself. Damn, you know?
In my life, I have worked everything from construction, warehouse, office management, customer service and I’ve even worked as file clerk in a district attorney’s office on domestic violence cases. I’ve held top secret government security clearance for handling classified documents, worked in the western side of the Japanese music industry with and for some of the most popular artists, traveled the country and visited Japan a few times. I am fucking proud of the experiences and achievements I’ve managed so far.
What comes in the future is something I’m not as afraid to face because I’m facing it with my sons and a growing network of family that aren’t all blood related. We will continue to build community and hope to welcome others and be welcomed into yours. Once we’re settled into our next place, I’m going to continue my healing journey and hopefully continue therapy.
Wopila thanka. Thank you for your continued support.