No fairy godmothers
Fairy tales give us unrealistic expectations for real life
By Tiffany Summers-Johnson
We learn through fantastic stories with happy endings that warm the soul. The stories designed to teach lessons and instill principles shape our imagination and before long metastasizes into our dreams. Before long, life becomes a fairy tale. We see ourselves skipping through fields of flowers. Our days are filled singing catchy songs with friendly inanimate objects harmonizing in the background. Eventually, we run into our prince (or princess) charming, get married, have a utopic family and grow old and work jobs that make us happy, so happy we whistle while we work. Good always wins. Evil always pays. Joy always reigns.
I think about the idealized life I had imagined for myself, the fairy tales I’d concocted for myself, as I worked two jobs to buy my own first car, while going to school, and plotting how the hell I’m going to get out of my parents house. The fairy tale girl in me still wishes they were true. Then I wouldn’t think about killing myself.
Fuck whoever came up with fairy tales.
Fuck whoever thought it was just fine to leave out the part about life mocking and tormenting people who believe in that shit.
Life is hard and unrelenting. Some people, sadly, end theirs. Between 1998 and 2018, the suicide rate in the U.S. increased 35%. The COVID-19 pandemic had 40% of Americans, per a Washington Post article in November 2020, grappling with at least one mental health or drug-related problem. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study in August 2020 showed 25.5% of young adults ages 18 to 24 were contemplating suicide — a figure that does not include those who didn’t admit such ideation. That is up from 10.4% in 2018.
The precarious edge on which many are living should make us all rethink how we interact with others. The era of social media has created a climate where criticism is unfiltered, ridiculing is sport and piling on is normal behavior. One must look no further than the political discourse surrounding the 2020 Presidential Election to see just how much kindness and neighborly concern has evaporated.
Which is why we need to do better. All of us. Because you never know what people are going through. Words have impact, whether verbalized or typed in a comment, and the stakes are life and death more times than many understand. We simply don’t get to see what people are going through.
Have you ever just watched someone and wondered to yourself about them? Who are they? How did their life start? What obstacles have they faced? What are they struggling with right now?
If you had the chance to ask them, you might get answers that change how you think about them, how you talk about them, what you’re willing to put up with from them. The answers might be foster care, mommy issues, abandonment scares, sexual assault, a mental health illness such as bipolar depression.
Those would be my answers.
What are yours?
You know what you’ve been through. You know what your deepest struggles are and the map of holes in your heart. How would you respond to someone laughing at you in the throes of an episode? These are real concerns in a world rife with people on the brink.
Abandoned. Raped. Beaten. Anxious. Depressed.
My mother was supposed to be a one-night stand.
She worked at a grocery store. My dad, he was a felon. But he was hot. Anyway, after intercourse, my mother refused to leave. She hung out at his house without him even there. It got to a point where my dad would stay at friends’ houses to avoid her. Finally she got the hint.
Over a year later, his mother ran into her at the store and she had a baby with her. That’s how I first met my grandmother. Nanny says she knew by looking at me that I was my dad’s baby.
My father was in jail at the time so he had to wait to see me. When he was finally out, it was amazing. He stopped all his bad habits. He became a great father. It was perfect living with my dad. It was a fairy tale.
Remember Disney’s version of Sleeping Beauty? How there was a king and queen who had a beautiful daughter and were exceedingly happy? Then evil Maleficent put a curse on the girl, thus taking the child away from her beloved family and forcing her to grow up with strangers? That’s what happened to me.
I was 7 years old when Maleficent, my mother in this reality, decided to snatch me away from my entire family in California and move to Washington state. As it turned out, my father was not on my birth certificate. Apparently, that means he technically had no say in my life.
I know what you’re thinking? Why didn’t he fight it? A paternity test would prove he’s the father and get him rights? Like I said, mom was just supposed to be a one-night stand and she was clearly crazy. Plus, I was 7. I didn’t know to ask.
Starting over with a new school and new friends was hard. I wasn’t alone. I had my brother and sister. Jack is three years younger than me. My sister was only two at the time.
Things at home started to go downhill faster than Lindsay Vonn. My mother and stepfather were addicts. Their drug of choice were video games, which they thought was OK because it wasn’t drugs or alcohol. The effects were the same to me.
They would spend all their time on their computers and wouldn’t take care of us. I was the oldest so that left me in charge. Every day, I got my siblings up and made them food. At 7, my culinary repertoire was pretty much just mac and cheese. That’s the only thing I knew how to make. Things started to get worse when they stopped working and never left the house. The food ran out, and we were starving. We stole our neighbor’s electricity and water. All three kids had such bad cases of lice our scalps would bleed. But nothing compared to the terror of our bathroom. You think a boogie man in the closet is scary? You didn’t see our disgusting bathroom.
The bathtub was full of maggots and cockroaches. My 2-year-old sister’s dirty diapers were everywhere. It wasn’t strange to see a rat in the bathroom. I had to stand on the sides of the tub to shower. I cried as bugs crawled over my feet.
Fairy tale my ass.
One day, I had enough. I couldn’t keep living that way. I was only a second grader but I already knew no one should live that way. I told the school what was going on at home. The next day cops and Child Protective Services showed up at our house. I guess my prince charming wore blue.
I remember sitting in the back of a police car and listening to my siblings cry. Usually when CPS takes children from a home, it’s standard to first go to their offices. Processing or whatever. In our case, we went straight to the hospital. We were so hungry you could see our bones. And the lice was eating us alive.
My father was made aware of our situation and dropped everything. He sought custody for me and got the court to order a DNA test. Sure enough, I was his. Just like Nanny said.
He took parenting classes. He got an apartment for us. It took awhile, so I was in foster care for about a year while he got everything situated. I changed homes twice in that span. The first foster parents abused the kids. I don’t even remember the second. The third was nice, a teacher and a cop.
Finally, my dad was able to get custody of me when I was 8-years-old. I was so happy to go home and see my family.
When trying to share with people how rough I had it, without giving the details, I tend to put it this way: my situation was so bad the courts opted to give me to an ex-felon than keep me with my mother.
There was one problem. A major problem in my adolescent eyes: My father was not the dad of my siblings. He had no way to help them. He barely got it together to get me. So they got left in foster care. I haven’t seen or heard from them since.
For four years, life was great. I started believing in fairy tales again. My struggle put Cinderella’s to shame, but at least I was getting a happy ending. I had my family. My dad was dating a woman named Angie, who was my Nanny’s boss. Angie looked out for me all the time when I lived with my dad the first time, including picking me up from school. She was a close family friend and was the only woman outside of my family I looked up to.
I am so thankful I had enough strength to kick him hard enough to hurt him for a second, giving me time to get away and lock myself in my aunt’s room.
In the morning, my dad showed up. He was furious but not with me. He calmly asked if it was true and what had happened. Then something surprising happened. He drove me to my Nanny’s to meet with my entire family. Everyone was there — aunts and uncles, my Nanny and even the culprit himself. They made us girls stand up and tell them everything that happened to each of us.
Can you imagine how scared and embarrassed we were? Where is the fairy tale where little girls have to detail your sexual assault before an audience?
He denied everything. You know what happened after? Nothing. It was like the entire family decided to forget it even happened. We still don’t talk about it. It’s just something that happened and it stays in the silence of the past.
Karma finally got to him. He lost one of his legs from the drugs. Then one night, when he was drunk in his wheelchair, he fell over in the streets and was hit by a car. That cost him another leg.
But he is still at every family party, us girls forced to hug him and talk to him to keep up the facade. Vanessa lives with him.
I started going to therapy early in 2020. I was referred to a psychiatrist. It was hard in the beginning to talk, to open up to people. Eventually, I was diagnosed with bipolar depression.
Bipolar depression is not like regular depression. It has episodes of mood swings, ranging from depressive lows to manic highs. Symptoms of manic episodes include high energy, a reduced need for sleep and loss of touch with reality. Symptoms of depressive episodes include low energy, low motivation and loss of interest in daily activities. Mood episodes can last a few days or even months at a time, and may include suicidal thoughts.
Medication was prescribed. It took a few tries to find the right fit. But my regimen now includes four pills a day. Two for the mood swings, one for sleep and one for any reactions I might get from the other three pills. There is a fifth pill I take to combat rough days or when something makes me especially anxious, but I only take that when I need it.
Honestly, life is so much better with the pills. I have bad days. But the crazy highs and deep lows are gone. I was having a hard time sleeping, eating too much and having suicidal thoughts. My behavior is so much more stable now.
Sometimes, I am smiling, and it’s not a facade to hide my suffering. It is because I actually feel good.
Don’t think for a second this is a fairy tale ending. I don’t believe in that shit any more.
Then life started attacking my fairy tale again.
I was home from sixth grade, sick, with my aunt and grandpa. My aunt had to leave for a little bit with my grandpa. That sounds like no big deal except my grandpa was drunk — as always. He was not a nice man. He and my Nanny were separated because he abused her, and his kids. Drugs. Alcohol. History of abuse. This is not who girls should be left home with.
Of course, I had no idea the dangers as we started playing a game of tag throughout the house. It was fun until he got me in the bedroom. Everything changed.
He grabbed me and threw me onto the bed. Touching me, trying to get my shirt off. My grandfather was trying to rape his 12-year-old granddaughter.
Perhaps the answer is to know more about each other. Perhaps we need to stop hiding behind facades, pretending our fairy tales actually came true. I know my facade is up. I look happy. My blue eyes, puffy cheeks and bubbly smile are a cut and paste from a fairy tale. I’m aware of my cheery appearance.
But if you knew my story, you wouldn’t think I was too fun-loving to be bothered by jabs and quips. You’d know how fragile I am and you would handle me with care, that is if you’re a human with the capacity for concern.
That’s it. Maybe we should be real with each other more. Maybe we should swim against the tide of Instagram filters, silicone implants, Bigen-bolstered hairlines and contour makeup and just be transparent. Maybe then we can see how many people are struggling, and how they come from all walks of life. They’re students, teachers, doctors, mothers, fathers and children. Maybe that triggers the compassion, the love and kindness so many of us desperately need.