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When insanity becomes hilarity, does that mean you’re healthy?

Soon after my mother and I moved to Canada, she met a man. He was quite a bit older than she, was a professor at the Royal Military College, spoke with a British accent and was in the process of separating from his wife.

He’d come and spend nights at our place and he was always very nice. At least I thought so, but then again by that time I’d developed a rather distorted sense of judgement. He once brought me a pack of Wrigleys gum as a token of thanks for a meal I’d cobbled together [being of the age where I was learning to cook], and kissed the top of my head. Another time he drove me and my mother out to a shopping centre on the edge of town so I could get my ears pierced. I couldn’t believe his kindness. Having learned not to expect too much, I thought this was the best of all possible worlds.

Unfortunately, it was. That was pretty much the extent of his kindness. The moment my mother and he began living together, a toxic cloud somehow descended over everything and he became incredibly controlling and manipulating. I don’t even know exactly how it happened, I just suddenly found myself horribly self-conscious, second-guessing everything I did, and not wanting to go home. [Happily there was a shopping centre next door where I spent innumerable hours.] My mother’s new boyfriend watched my every move and his fault-finding was incessant: If my shoes were not lined up properly next to the door, if the closet in the hall was left open a touch, if my elbows were on the table, if I took too long in the bathroom, if I flossed my teeth anywhere near the kitchen table, if I messed up the tassels of a rug that had just been vacuumed, and on and on ad infinitum.

A year later he and my mother bought a house in the suburbs. At that his obsession with control reached new heights and his stinginess bloomed in all its dysfunctional glory. If there was a special on at the supermarket – say if Campbell’s tomato soup was reduced by 2 cents a can – he’d go out and buy three cases and stash them down in the basement. Soon the corner of the ‘recreation room’ – which was basically a storage area with bare stone walls and concrete floor – was filled with canned and dried items bought on special. When soap was on special he went out and bought loads of them, then brought them home and proceeded to unwrap and stash them under the sink so they would dry out and last longer. When I made tea with a teabag I had strict instructions to dry the teabag so that it could be used again. And under no circumstances was I to squeeze the dish soap out of the dishwashing sponge – it, too, could be used again. He was also enormously uptight about the telephone and how long phone calls lasted. Why? Because we had a party line. A party line meant that we shared our phone line with someone else, someone we didn’t know. When they were on, we couldn’t use the phone, and vice-versa. This reduced the phone bill by half.

His obsession with control was insane. In addition to the things I’d become accustomed to – lining up the shoes, not upsetting the tassels on the rug, etc. – the list of dos and don’ts grew ever-longer. When I was helping to put the groceries away I was not to leave the refrigerator open for more than a few seconds – instead everything was to be lined up on the counter next to the fridge first, then the fridge was to be opened and everything put inside quickly so as not to waste energy. The world was facing an energy crisis, didn’t I know? The same applied when using the oven – ideally things should saved up and baked at the same time so the oven only needed to be heated once. Eating between meals was not permitted. I had my own bathroom downstairs next to my room, and at the time I had thick hair down to my waist. There were strict instructions [via my mother] to always turn off the water in the shower when I was shampooing my hair and/or applying conditioner. We had to conserve water [energy crisis – didn’t I know?], so if I wanted to have a bath [which was frowned upon], under no circumstances was I to fill the tub – I was to use ten inches of water at the most, and in the winter I was to leave the bathwater in the tub until it cooled down so the heat didn’t go to waste. And because of the aforementioned energy crisis, under no circumstances was I to put the thermostat up past 60°F [15.5°C] during the day. When he and my mother came home from work, he himself ceremoneously turned the heat up to 65°F – and I can remember one Christmas when it was particularly cold that he agreed to turn it up to 70°F [21°C]. Unfortunately for me, however, my room was down in the basement and the basement was submerged and had virtually no insulation, whereas the thermostat was upstairs. This meant that when it was 65° up upstairs, it was around 50° in my room. I can remember going to sleep wearing my Icelandic sweater and socks over my pyjamas with my Icelandic duvet on top. It was that cold.

Looking back, writing it down, it seems absurd and kind of hilarious. But it sure didn’t feel that way at the time. I was literally petrified of that man. Maybe it had something to do with the swords he hung on the walls or the hunting rifles he had under the bed – or maybe it just had something to do with the toxic way he was able to shame and manipulate. I don’t know. I just know that he continued to exert his power and for years afterwards I felt like I had a harsh tyrant constantly watching me. I was particularly vulnerable to doors and windows that were uncovered, had a sense that someone was always looking in. I couldn’t shake it.

As I’ve written about before, the time came when he and my mother decided to move even further away. I have a theory that they needed to isolate themselves even more to be able to continue on in their insanity. To me, the thought of moving with them to an isolated farm in the country was unbearable. I didn’t go. I think it was the lesser of two evils for me – obviously I was still a child and in no way ready to start looking after myself. But man – what an immense relief it was to be away from them, even though I would still feel the effects for years to come.

I didn’t find the courage to oppose him until years later, when I was well into my twenties. I was living in Germany at the time but had returned to Canada for a visit and was at the farm. I was pregnant and it was the first time I’d seen him and my mother in five years. For three days before that I’d been at a cottage where there was no hot water and no shower; I was tired and cranky and desperate for a bath. My mother was on the phone, so I half-mimed, half-asked if I could take one, and she waved me into the bathroom. The moment I turned on the water, that same awful feeling came over me – I knew he was out there, counting the drops. Sure enough, within five minutes he was outside the door, talking to my half-sister in a loud voice about how it was incomprehensible to him why anyone needed so much water for a bath, and going on about how their well would run dry, and blah

I became furious. All the rage from long ago welled up in me and I thought my head would explode. I shouted through the door that I’d pay him for his fucking water if it was such a huge deal – and if so, I was damn well going to fill the tub [having been too afraid to fill it more than halfway, of course]. So I filled the tub and soaked [stewed!] in the bath for about half an hour, then dried off, dressed, went into his room where he was propped up in bed reading a book about the Royal Family, and threw five bucks on the bed. He shouted at me and I shouted back – I was shaking, trembling … it took all I had to stand up to him. The next day he woke up and – incredibly – pretended that nothing had happened. But I’d had enough. I cut my visit short, and left.

It’s amazing how some people can trap you in some kind of weird terror, like they cast a spell that completely drains your strength. Give you the feeling that you are worthless and insipid – and you buy into it. I’ve often asked myself why I gave this man so much power over me, even after he was gone, and why I didn’t stand up for myself when I was younger. But it was probably because I couldn’t. I was a child, dependent on him, with no support from my mother or anyone else, and made to feel grateful that he’d taken me in.

You know, I’m sometimes amazed that I’m not a drug addict, alcoholic, or chronically depressed. I really am.

Oh and it’s raining. Temps around 4°C. Back to the weather tomorrow.

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