When I Had to Swim So As Not to Sink

In response to the Post Daily Blog:  Sink or Swim..”Tell us about a time when you were left on your own, to fend for yourself in an overwhelming situation — on the job, at home, at school. What was the outcome?”


The closest I can remember to being in a “sink or swim” situation was when I was 16.  I had just finished the 11th grade in high school.  I lived with my Mother in a fairly decent apartment on Wilshire Blvd., between Beverly Glen Blvd. and Comstock Avenue, just west of the Beverly Hills Limits sign.  I came from a  middle-class background, not one of extreme poverty.  Mother worked as a secretary, mostly in the film industry, but had a hard time keeping a job, because she was so emotionally unstable.

I rather knew my Mother was mentally ill, but she wasn’t so bad that it was obvious to everyone else.  Somehow she kept plugging along.  If I told about her to anyone, they thought I was just a complaining teenager.  She knew how to put up a front of sanity, and I often appeared more troubled than she, because I had an introverted personality while my mother was very extroverted. In some ways Mother was nice to me, but in the most important ways she wasn’t.  She wasn’t kind.

Then it happened.  Mother had a total breakdown.  At 2:00 a.m. the police came to our apartment and took my Mother away to jail in downtown L.A.  She had physically attacked my  maternal grandmother with intent to kill.

I felt a great weight had been lifted off of me.  I was left alone in our apartment, which I loved.  I felt liberated.  It was if I had been knocked over the head with hammer for the last two years of my life, and the hitting had stopped, and I could stop for once trying to avoid my Mother.

However, I couldn’t continue living alone in this apartment.  Grandmother, who lived alone in a small apartment in West Los Angeles, wouldn’t hear of it, besides it would be unaffordable for me to live alone.  Finishing high school and going to college was very important to me.  I just couldn’t live with Grandmother again, although she had raised me until I was 12 when I had moved in finally with Mother.  Mother wanted a girl friend not a daughter, and at 12 I could be that.  Grandmother drove me crazy–only figuratively, not literally as she did my Mother.  I had a father, who was remarried and lived in Monterey Park, which is east of L.A.  It never entered my mind to call him. Every family member I did my best to avoid.

In jail, Mother was allowed one phone call, which she made very good use of.  Even insane, Mother wasn’t stupid.  She phoned an attorney, whom she had known intermittently for many years.  She had met him when they both worked at MGM in Culver City during the early 1950’s.  I figure she had probably had a brief affair with him, as all her affairs were brief, but they had remained in touch.  This Attorney, Al, now had his own private practice in Beverly Hills.  He came to her aid.  At a hearing, he told her story about her lifelong conflict with her mother, and convinced the judge that she was mentally ill.  The State committed her to Camarillo State Hospital.  Her diagnosis was paranoia-schizophrenia.  I could have told these people that all along.

The only problem left was where was I going to live.  Al, the Attorney, was also friends with a young couple, with one 4 year-old daughter, who had a lovely home on Sunset Blvd. in Bel-Air. He told them about my situation, and they agreed to let me come and live with them.  The plan was that I would do minor household chores in return for room and board, but there would be no exchange of money involved.  This plan was great for me, because my mother had been receiving $100/mo child support from my father.  Al, the attorney, by this time, had notified my father, and father agreed to send his child support money to me directly.  Therefore, I had my own income, which made the people I was to live with very happy.  For them this was the ideal situation, as it was for me.  Not having to take money from them gave me some independence.

I loved independence.  It was all I ever wanted.  I saw my new situation as a bridge from home to being completely on my own.  At this time, this young, attractive couple also had a 21-year-old unemployed actor who lived with them with the same kind of arrangement–room and board, but no money exchanged.  However, the actor also kept a room in Hollywood and wasn’t at the house except for a couple of days a week.  They accepted me into their home sight unseen.  Their house had two rooms off the kitchen that were designed to be servants’ quarters.  I had one room and the actor had the other.

The man of the house was a freelance film/TV writer.  This was the age of the TV western, which was his specialty.  The big beautiful home on Sunset made these people appear much wealthier than they really were.  They really had to pinch their pennies to get along.  They only had the house because they had gotten a great deal on it.  The wife supplemented her husband’s income by flipping houses.  The situation was ideal for me, because this home was in the same school district as where I lived before, and I wouldn’t have to change schools, something I dreaded doing.  I only had one more semester to graduate.

This is where the “sink or swim” situation comes into play.  I was worried to death, when I entered their home, that I would say something untoward to make them reject me.

I knew that I wasn’t the typical 16-year-old young girl that everyone thought I was, and expected me to be, but I knew how to act like one.  I had just been through too much and was much more aware of the ways of the world than most young girls in the environment in which I lived.  In some ways I was very mature for my age, but at the same time I was very emotionally immature from years of emotional abuse from Mother.

Also, I just had a very unsettling experience.  I had become friends with this man at Holmby Hills Park, which wasn’t far from our apartment on Wilshire.  This man was a teacher at my school.  We talked very well together a couple of times.  He told me all about his army experiences, and things you would only tell a friend.  Most of my friends were adults.  In some ways I was so mature and experienced, I found it hard to fit in with kids my own age.  One afternoon, I was talking to this man, who must have been 30.  I didn’t know about what when he acted very shocked and upset.  I couldn’t remember for the life of me what I had been talking about that he felt was so outrageous.  He never talked to me again after that.    Now I was scared to death that the same thing would happen all over again with these people.  I was terrified of saying the wrong thing, or talking about something that I shouldn’t be talking about, and they wouldn’t want me to stay with them, and I didn’t have any other plausible alternatives.

As soon as I entered my new home, this new couple in my life sat down with me for a preliminary conversation.  One of the main things they conveyed to me was that they didn’t want me to talk about my past, my current troubles, or myself.  They weren’t interested in all that kind of stuff.  They believed one shouldn’t talk about the past.  Just let it go.  All that mattered was the present.  I was so relieved.  I felt I was starting a new life, and I wanted to forget my past, anyway.  I no longer had to worry about saying the wrong thing.  I just wouldn’t say anything at all, and that seemed to be what they wanted.

I started summer school in two days on Monday.  During high school, I always attended summer school for extra credit enabling me to graduate from high school a semester early.  I got home from school about 1:00 p.m., would go into the woman’s bedroom, to let her know I was home in case she wanted me to do anything around the house.  Mostly, she just wanted someone to talk to.  She had the habit of spending most of the day in bed.  She acted as if that was just one of her little quirks.  It became apparent to me that my main household task was just letting her talk to me, not doing any house cleaning, which is what I had expected in the beginning.   Her husband worked at home in the den, writing his scripts.   He wanted his wife to have someone to keep her company, so that she wouldn’t bother him while he worked, which she sometimes did.

That turned out to be my biggest chore in this house:  listening to her talk about herself, which was mainly self-aggrandizement.  Their philosophy about not talking about the past, but only present time, didn’t seem to apply to them, only to me.  I patiently listened and didn’t say anything unless asked a question, which I would answer swiftly and politely.  Both she and her husband spoke to me as they thought would be the right way of speaking to a 16-year old.   I was used to being around adults who treated me like another adult, but they talked down to me as though I were a child.  I didn’t care for that, but I just accepted it, because I was scared to complain about anything.  I  conformed to their expectations of  how a young girl should think and act.  It was if I had been assigned a part to play, and I was playing it.  I disagreed with much of what they said, but I never contradicted them, because I was too afraid that if I did they wouldn’t want me to continue living with them, and that was all that mattered to me.

Once the school year started, I began to make friends with children my own age.  I found my own group of kids whom I really liked and who accepted me as one of them.

After 3 months in my new home,  the lady of the house told me they were very happy with me and wanted to continue our arrangement.  I was so happy and relieved to hear this, because I had been so worried that something would go wrong.  I loved this beautiful hillside home and, so far, felt happier there than I had ever been before.  Whatever the problems, it was far better than living alone with my mentally-ill mother.   All my worries about this situation not working out ended.  I lived with them for one year.  It’s  very difficult to live in a home that’s not your own; especially if you are never allowed to be yourself.

This was the only situation I could think of that I would consider “sink or swim.”





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