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I was three years old when my mom and Chris* began packing all of our possessions into a truck and began the drive from Missoula, MT to Salem, OR.
As we began our road trip, my mom tells me I told her that we should go home; now she says she regrets not taking my advice, but I don’t believe her. Chris was just one of her addictions, like nicotine and alcohol -- later her intense religious beliefs, “health” food, and her daily Emergen-C drinks.
The truth is my mom was, and still is, bipolar. I’ve met many people in my life with the same diagnosis, and I want to clarify that I don’t believe that all people with bipolar are like my mother. What sets my mom apart is that she didn’t take her medication even though she clearly needed it.
When she took it, she would either stop because she believed she was better (you don’t get “better” being bipolar), or she stopped to hoard her pills to get high and share with others.
When we got to Salem, we stayed in a rundown hotel. My first memories are in this hotel. I remember some happier times, like playing Life on the hotel bed with Chris and my mom, but mostly I remember the bad times.
I was always hungry. I remember constantly crying because I was so hungry, begging and pleading with my mom for food that we never had. Sometimes I would get a dried-out sandwich, and very rarely we’d make the walk to McDonald’s where Chris and my mom would pay in change to get food that never fulfilled me.
I also remember Chris bagging up all of my possessions, except for the game Life, into trash bags. I’m still not sure if he threw them away or sold them for money.
The most intense memories I have weren’t even reality at all, in fact they were the recurring nightmares I had of a dog standing over me while I slept, growling, with piercing red eyes.
During this time I was allowed to call my dad, few and far between, and of course monitored by my mom and Chris. They would make sure that I didn’t tell him where I was or that I was hungry, dirty, or terrified of Chris.
My dad would later tell me that the only clue he had of where I was, was my description of a water park with mushrooms. I missed my dad a lot, and would ask him when I could come home, to which he had no answer.
At some point my mom must have had a moment of clarity and attempted to reach out to my dad, sort of. She sent a postcard from Salem saying that Chris, herself and I were staying in a hotel, but don’t worry it had a kitchenette (it really didn’t have a kitchenette at all)! She told him we were having a wonderful time, that we were just on a random vacation.
I know some of you must be wondering how my mom “kidnapped” me. Well, according to the court my mom wasn’t allowed to just get up and leave with me. My parents, at that time, had joint custody, my dad had visitation rights, and this extended well into his visitation time with me. She had taken off with me, out of state, without notifying anyone, including my dad.
By this time the police were actively searching for me and when my mom sent that postcard it finally gave my dad and my step mom a clue to where I was; perhaps more importantly it gave them a clue of who Chris really was.
Through active researching, and pleading with a few city officials, my dad and stepmom found Chris's nine-page-long criminal history. Chris was on the run. My dad says he doesn’t remember what all was in his criminal past, but that he was running from a charge of identity theft -- making him a fugitive.
When the police found me, I was in moldy dirty clothes, I was hungry, and kept asking to see my dad. My mom was charged but not arrested, and the police, for some reason, didn’t realize who Chris was; perhaps in a stroke of luck, since it was believed he was armed and was obviously desperate not to go back to prison.
A custody battle would follow. It was 1996 and it was fairly unheard of for a Dad to get sole custody of a child, especially in the conservative courts of Idaho.
Chris was arrested in the parking lot of the court after my stepmom recognized him in the stolen car and told the officials.
In a story that would take another article to write, my dad managed to get my mom to sign over custody of me. Chris would get out of jail later and my mom would have two kids with him, in between his later recurring jail times.
One of my sisters stopped seeing her dad, Chris, after she was about six years old, the other has never met him; though I can’t imagine the pain that has caused them, I’m glad they don’t know him.
After my dad got custody of me, I would come up to visit my mom, and when Chris was out of jail, he’d be there. He was physically and emotionally abusive to my mom, my sister, and I. I’m probably the only one who has a clear memory of it; my sister was too young and my mom was an alcoholic that would disappear for days at a time.
My dad ironically moved to Salem a few years ago. I came up to visit this summer with the intention of finding the hotel and the infamous mushroom water park. My dad worried about why I wanted to see it, and I still don’t know exactly why I did. The best answer I have is closure, though I didn’t receive that when we found the hotel.
It only took about an hour.
The hotel is located on a street that’s not exactly known for being safe. The neighboring building is for gambling on the horse track -- not surprising as Chris was a heavy gambler. And right up the street is that McDonald’s.
In fact, my dad has passed the hotel many times on his way to do errands and go to work, but he didn’t put two and two together until I was there.
I didn’t feel closure. I didn’t feel angry. I suppose the closest thing I could say is I felt shocked. I wonder how she could have ever thought this was a great idea, as if it was a romantic getaway, her spontaneous vacation.
At the time my dad and I planned to send her a postcard, or a letter from the stationary of the hotel -- they didn’t have stationary or post cards though -- and I still haven’t told mom I found the hotel.
Other than her telling me she should have listened to me, she has never told me the story herself, she tries to pretend it never happened and I was simply unjustifiably taken away from her. My dad and I never did find the mushroom water park and part of me wants to ask her where it is.
My dad no longer talks to my mom, after years of fighting her illogical arguments and behavior. I still talk to her, but am always confused about what she tells me -- I’m pretty sure she’s off her medication again.
My mom says she regrets not listening to me, but I don’t believe her.
Chris was just another one of her addictions, and I’m not sure she has given him up still. I know I will always be a lower priority than her addictions, and my safety, health, and emotional well-being never mattered more than the highs and lows of an emotional turmoil that being addicted to Chris would cause.
After finding the hotel, I think my dad and I got a little closer, perhaps it helped me realize, even more, that I was very lucky to have grown up with him instead.