By Stephanie Dormeus
At the age of two, I was taken from my mother and placed with my grandmother, who was 65 years old at the time. We lived in a one-bedroom prewar apartment (eventually a convertible two-bedroom) inside a four-story walk-up in New York City. After she had taken custody of me, my grandmother told my mother, 31, to go make something of her life, and that she’d raise me with no worries. Nothing could have been further from the truth. From that point on, my life would be full of physical and emotional pain.
My grandmother’s name was Marie Jeanne Bonita Charles, or “Bonite” for short. Her children never called her Mother, and us grandchildren never called her Granny. She was 4’11’’, 120 pounds, and packed a mighty punch. This woman killed water bugs with the back of her hand. I once watched her torture a mouse under water, then drop it from our fourth-floor kitchen window. Gangster, right? She was strong, never showing any signs of stress or illness.
I came to realize that the welts on my back, my busted lips, all served as signs of her disease – she was bipolar. In the Haitian culture, though, there was no such thing. Mental diseases often went undiagnosed for years. They chalked it up to the individual just being mean or having a bad day.
Bonite was born in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti. Her family was wealthy and looked down upon the poor. She used to make me scrub my knees and elbows to ensure my skin wasn’t black and crusted. She said people who walked around with those areas looking dark, resembled servants. Ironically, she gave me sugared water and bread, considered a poor people’s delicacy, as a snack. Bonite came to the United States at age 61, working as the nanny of several kids that attended my school. She didn’t speak a lick of English, outside of telling everyone who called the house, “She not there!”, and when ordering Chinese food, “Fwench fwy, shikan weens.”
The abuse ranged from day to day. On Monday, she told me how much of a whore my mother was. On Tuesday, she recanted stories of how my aunt slept with some random guy, so that’s how my cousin got green eyes. On Thursday, I spent the day on my knees in a dark room. She would get upset if I emulated any of my mother’s ways and would yell at me, “Must you do everything like your mother?! Stop biting your lips!” But after all of this, I’d receive a gift, which taught me to savor any blessings. Half of a popsicle, a slice of Milky Way, or I got to pick out my own snacks for my lunch box. I was convinced she was crazy.
I felt relieved when I got to visit my mother on the weekends. I was overwhelmed with excitement, often plaguing her with questions and tears, asking why I couldn’t live with her, especially since she only lived a few blocks away. She told me she had to work and go to school, to eventually be able afford raising me alone. She told me that Bonite meant well, and that she loved me and had my best interests at heart. I didn’t feel that way. My mother was either oblivious to the abuse, or she simply shut it out so the guilt wouldn’t eat at her when taking me back every Sunday night.
I grew up with a routine. Every morning, at 7:30, breakfast was made, my uniform was ironed, lunchbox packed. My tuition was paid two weeks in advance (then Bonite would call my mother, cursing her out for the money).
Even as I aged, she wouldn’t allow me to do the domestic work. She never put me in front of the stove, never put a broom in my hand. I was taught to eat all my meals at the table, and I was still allowed to go outside, play, and be a kid. If I came upstairs crying from a fall, she would slice a lemon, wipe it over the wound, then send me back.
One morning, when I was 15, I heard a loud screech come from the bathroom. My grandmother had slammed my little brother’s head into the side of the sink for not brushing his teeth well enough. My uncle, who lived there at the time, intervened. He called my mother immediately and told her that she must come get us. Until then, my grandmother had never hugged me, or even told me she loved me. But when she saw my last bag leave the apartment, she broke.
Every day since, I’ve been left with that guilt. Bonite saved me. When she wasn’t abusive, she was the best caretaker. She was my mother, before my biological one stepped up.
It wasn’t until my late 20s that I grew to appreciate all that she had done and learned to forgive her. I understood that her mental illness didn’t define her. She wasn’t even diagnosed until she was in her late 70s, when she had a psychotic episode and attacked the neighbors because she believed they were practicing voodoo on her. I wasted so much time remembering the bad, that when it was time to thank her for the good, she was gone.
Bonite died at 91 years old. All the medication she was put on, as a result of the dementia and bipolar disorder, had taken a toll on her kidneys. She caught several UTIs, was hospitalized for months, then caught pneumonia. I was 28 years old at that time. By then I had run so far away from her, all the while denying her existence, not realizing how she shaped me. Since then, I’ve battled my own bipolar emotions towards her. I haven’t been able to let go of the horrors, yet simultaneously have been praising her for raising me. I can’t decide if it’s okay to feel hate and love all in the same breath. The fear of letting go of that air is numbing, but I think that sourcing the voice to my vulnerability is one way of finding a cure.
Stephanie Dormeus is a writer of Hatian descent born in Brooklyn and based in New York. She currently studies humanities and psychology with a focus on writing at The New School. She speaks English and Haitian Kreyol fluently, as well as conversational French and Spanish. Stephanie lives with her girlfriend of almost four years and their dog Nala (named after the character from The Lion King). Of her work, she says, “My secret passions are music, songwriting and poetry, and I figured why not stretch those talents beyond comfortability and pursue a new voice in non-fiction. Eventually, I would like to advocate for the unheard and silenced through stories of my own. Displaying my vulnerability may help others get through theirs. Being honest and unapologetic, can help cultivate inspiration and nurture the desires in us all to make change. An ideal life would be to travel the world, learn the nuances of different cultures, and touch the imaginations of those I encounter, one page at a time.”
Abuse can take many forms in all kinds of personal relationships, from significant others to family members to friends and colleagues. Don’t believe that you deserve that kind of treatment. If you are dealing with emotional abuse, you may want to consider seeing a therapist or mental/emotional health professional like those at BetterHelp. Please see this article to learn how to recognize the signs of emotional abuse: https://www.betterhelp.com/advice/abuse/youre-not-crazy-but-emotional-abuse-can-make-you-think-you-are/