Sorrow Upon Sorrow
September 05, 2023
Ginger is a woman living in the East Bay of Northern California. She wears long, dangly earrings and a head scarf that holds back her curly brown hair. She has a natural affinity for animals and likes to volunteer at her local pet shelter whenever she can. On the surface, Ginger is a confident woman, but her carefree aura masks her many losses and traumas.
The roots of Ginger's colorful journey are deeply intertwined with the life of her mother, who grew up in Pasadena. When Ginger's mother was fourteen, her parents (Ginger's maternal grandparents) hosted a social "coming out party." Ginger's mother was "shy and nervous," so they instructed her to smoke and drink "to fit in with the rest of society." The drinking continued throughout Ginger's mother's high school and college years, but mostly at social events. She would drink at sorority parties and other gatherings.
Ginger's parents met in the 1950s as juniors at Pasadena High School, beginning their relationship in a classic California fashion – with a first date at the only In-N-Out Burger in the area at the time. Immediately, they started "going steady," as it was called back then. In her senior year of college, Ginger's mother went away for the weekend with Ginger's father. Shortly afterwards, Ginger's mother found out that she was pregnant and dropped out of college. Scrambling to provide for his growing family, Ginger's father set aside his dreams of attending graduate school and began a full-time position.
Abandoned into Adolescence
Ginger and her younger sister were mostly cared for by their mother, who was a homemaker and gradually succumbed to alcoholism. Frequently drunk, her personality turned volatile and she began to neglect Ginger and her sister. Her ability to care for her daughters "depended on her mood," and if "she was in bed" for most of the day or not. Most of the time, she allowed Ginger and her sister to "run wild" with no supervision. Even as a baby, Ginger felt uneasy in her mother's presence. Ginger would scream when her mother attempted to give her a bath, but would happily permit her father to. Ginger naturally gravitated towards her father. However, his attention was divided between his work, his wife, and Ginger and her sister. He would call every noon from his office to talk to Ginger, who eagerly awaited his midday call. Sometimes, Ginger's mother was drunk and would refuse to answer the phone. As Ginger explains, her mother either "punished me or punished him" by intercepting their conversations. After drinking during the day, Ginger's mother grew "annoyed" when Ginger's father returned home from work around six o'clock.
Ginger's mother also experienced major emotional lows, sometimes threatening suicide. One time, Ginger remembers venturing into the bathroom of her home after coming home from school. There was blood everywhere. Her mother had tried to slit her wrists, but instead had fallen onto the showerhead and injured herself. She begged Ginger not to call an ambulance. Ginger dialed the only phone number she knew at the time, her dad's number. He immediately called an ambulance and returned home. This experience was "one of the scariest times" of Ginger's life. Ginger had "never seen so much blood before" and struggled to understand her mother's demand for no medical attention. Looking back, Ginger explains it was as if her mother was "asking me to let her die."
After the incident, Ginger's mother continued drinking, further contributing to Ginger's "rocky upbringing." Ginger remembers her mother once terrorizing her by pretending to be a dinosaur. In another instance, when Ginger was about seven, she tried on one of her mother's nightgowns. Upon seeing Ginger in the gown, Ginger's mother screamed to Ginger's father, "She's going to be a prostitute!" Ginger did not know what that term meant. Her father did not explain it to her that night, and she would not learn of its implication until years later. In another incident, Ginger's mother set their couch on fire.
With minimal supervision, Ginger and her sister often arrived at school unkempt. Kids would make fun of Ginger at school with taunts like "your hair looks like a witch's hair" or comment about her mismatched clothing. Ginger's younger sister was similarly taunted, as well as made fun of for wearing glasses. At that age, Ginger felt she "had to get them," compelled to protect and defend her younger sister from bullies.
The emotional toll of living with an alcoholic and erratic mother caused Ginger to socially withdraw. When Ginger was "real little," she learned "what to do when [her] mom was acting strange." She would simply "space out" and go off into her own little world to avoid dealing with her mother. Ginger eventually made a couple of close friends ("as close as [she] could get"), but believed she was often "standoffish" around her peers, a tendency that Ginger later attributed to her enduring embarrassment about her mother's alcoholism.
Ginger added that her mother "didn't have anything to say. We never had a conversation. I don't remember ever having a conversation with her… until I was well into my 20s." Consequently, Ginger "grew up really frightened… really frightened and scared of the whole world. I mean, for example, my mother never prepared me for when I got my period. So when I got my period, I was ten and a half and we were on a camping trip. I didn't know what was happening, so my grandmother took me aside and explained, but my mom never did that."
The Blending of Families
Ginger's father initiated a divorce when Ginger was around ten years of age. He took Ginger aside and tried to explain what divorce was, and Ginger recalls that she responded to her father, "Why didn't you do it a long time ago?" She was ready for her mother to "get out of [her] life." When Ginger was twelve, her father remarried. In the intervening time, Ginger got used to being the "head of the household, at least during the day." Ginger made sandwiches for lunch, helped dress her sister, and took care of the house. Suddenly, with a new stepmother, all of these responsibilities were taken away, giving rise to resentment (Ginger says, "I hated my stepmother").
Additionally, Ginger's stepmother brought her own daughter, and Ginger found her stepsister "clingy" and "spoiled." Ginger and her biological sister "were kind of mean to her." As time went on, however, Ginger learned that her stepfamily came from their own dark and traumatic past. After enduring an overprotective and jealous husband, Ginger's stepmother escaped that marriage after she was "[tied up] in the living room" and beaten by her husband at that time until she was "black and blue and bloody." Ginger's stepsister was made to watch. The stepsister was "so affected by what had happened to her" that she would "overeat," including eating "a whole cube of butter" or "all of the whipped cream." Ginger's blended family began attending family counseling sessions "because we weren't all getting along." Ginger says, "I did not cooperate. Hardly at all." Eventually, the therapist informed Ginger's stepmother that she could not see Ginger anymore, as she was "incorrigible."
Ginger "had a lot of growing pains" as a teenager, and she summarizes her behavior those years by saying "I was just horrible to deal with. I was acting out in every way you could practically." Since Ginger was the eldest of her siblings, her parents "did all their parenting learning curve" on her. Her parents imposed strict rules, including "you have to wait 'till sixteen to go on a car date." At one point, Ginger decided to become a "runaway." Her stepmother confronted her in time, eventually convincing her to return by saying "your dad misses you." Looking back, Ginger admits "that was the stupidest thing to do," but in the moment, she felt an overwhelming urge to escape from her family.
Leaving the Nest
Ginger eventually graduated from high school with a 3.4 GPA ("It wasn't the best, but it wasn't the worst"). Having fallen in love with someone from a different local high school, Ginger followed him and enrolled at UC Santa Barbara and they ended up in the same dormitory. Ginger performed well in her first quarter. In the second quarter, however, Ginger discovered that she was nearly twelve weeks pregnant. When Ginger confronted her boyfriend with the news, he encouraged Ginger to get an abortion and offered to help pay for it. He also suggested that he and Ginger put their relationship on hold. Ginger went alone to a clinic in downtown Santa Barbara to receive the abortion, an experience she still vividly recalls. She was too fearful to confess to her parents about her pregnancy or the abortion. She rekindled her relationship with her boyfriend for a brief time before breaking up once more.
Ginger returned to UC Santa Barbara for her sophomore year, but felt like she had lost the ability to concentrate in her courses and decided to drop out of UC Santa Barbara. Ginger eventually transferred to UC San Diego while working part-time at Disneyland during the summer and on the weekends, struggling to balance both obligations.
Ginger met someone on a vacation, and decided to drop out of UC San Diego and move to San Francisco "right after the earthquake in '89" to be close to him. She began working as a cocktail waitress and server while exploring the city. As a Southern California native, Ginger "just fell in love with San Francisco." There were "so many different kinds of people" of all nationalities, genders, and sexualities. Ginger "did not feel any prejudice." However, when her boyfriend ended up facing immigration difficulties, the relationship that brought Ginger to San Francisco fizzled, and she quickly moved on.
Closing a Chapter
One night, Ginger was at dinner when her cell phone rang. Her father called to tell Ginger that her mother died. Ginger recalls, "this was right after 9/11." Ginger was distraught and in shock, in part because the last time Ginger saw her mother was when she had taken her mother out to lunch. She remembers rushing her mother, because she had an upcoming hair appointment and her mother "couldn't eat very fast because of [recent oral surgery]". Ginger regrets rushing her mother, noting that they "didn't even have a good talk that last time."
However, Ginger's grieving process was complicated because of her enduring resentment towards her mother: "In a way," Ginger reflects, "I always despised her, because she always treated my sister better than me." Ginger believed that her mother and her mother's family "loved [her] sister more," because her sister was more beautiful. Ginger's mother nicknamed Ginger's sister "Mouse" and treated her "almost like a little pet." As a result, Ginger did not cry about her mother's death – at least, not at first. Later on, when Ginger went over to her mother's empty house by herself and sorted through her mother's old clothing, tears suddenly began to collect and fall from her eyes. When Ginger was young, her mother had sewed clothes for Ginger. Now, as Ginger sorted through her mother's clothes, she realized that some of those dresses perfectly matched her mother's adult clothing. Ginger noted that her mother had not created matching clothing for her younger sister. Years later, up to the point she passed, Ginger's mother kept all of those matching dresses. "It smelled like my mom," Ginger says; she sat in the closet and "cried for hours… It was really hard. That was really hard. Because when you realize someone's gone for good and all the things you might have wanted to do, you realize how hard you were on the person… and just not liking them for the wrong reasons and blaming them for things that aren't really their fault." Ginger lamented about all of the things she might have wanted to still do with her mother. The emotions were overwhelming and from this experience, Ginger knew she "never wanted to become a mom."
Worse and Worse
In 2003, Ginger was working as a paralegal for an attorney in San Mateo. After spending a night at her boyfriend's house, she came back to an empty home, her roommate having already left for work. Ginger left the front door open and remembers standing in the kitchen. Suddenly, two men entered Ginger's home, one of whom was carrying a knife. They demanded her purse, but Ginger froze and did not know how to respond. The man with the knife pushed Ginger down and both men sodomized and raped her. Ginger remained on the ground for hours afterwards, but eventually called for help and was brought to the emergency room at a hospital in San Francisco. Ginger was also taken to a different hospital in the city to receive therapy with a specialized trauma and sexual assault psychologist. Ginger remembers being in shock, and does not remember what she was doing or the specifics of the hospital visit. She does remember that when she was released from the hospital, she went to the bar that she regularly visited, but she did not tell anyone there what had happened to her.
The entire invasion and assault lasted for about twenty minutes, but even decades later, Ginger still struggles with the event. After the incident, Ginger developed severe PTSD. She was not able to work for over a year and went on full disability and also received victim compensation. Ginger also found it incredibly difficult to trust others, especially men. In 2006, she was having a "really bad year." She had stopped working and began drinking a lot. The drinking escalated to the point where it was causing trouble for Ginger and she was not able to pay her rent. Her savings lasted for a while, but she soon burned through them. Ginger became destitute and a friend suggested she visit project Homeless Connect. Ginger had never been to rehab, but agreed to go because she thought she could "really use" residential rehab. While living on Treasure Island, Ginger met a man that she ended up living with. They eventually moved to Oakland in 2011. During this time, Ginger started working part-time. In 2012, Ginger remembers walking to the bus station in downtown San Francisco to catch the bus and her legs "just felt like spaghetti" and she fell onto the pavement. Ultimately, Ginger ended up being hospitalized for a small heart attack and decided that she could no longer go back to work full-time. Ginger applied for and was granted Social Security disability.
In parts of 2014 and 2015, Ginger became intermittently homeless with her dog due to domestic violence. She stayed with friends for a while and at a women's shelter in the city. While she never had to live on the street, Ginger still disliked the instability of not having her own room. In 2017, Ginger was granted a spot at The Harrison, a federally-funded supportive housing building. Around this time, Ginger's boyfriend, an alcoholic who drank every day, became seriously ill. He had liver cancer for several years before being officially diagnosed in 2020. As Ginger puts it, "his liver was shot." He was in the hospital for several weeks in 2020 and they eventually removed his gallbladder. Ginger became his caretaker, but her boyfriend passed away at the beginning of May. His death was "heartbreaking" for Ginger, especially as she believed that he would make a "full comeback." Ginger still cries as she reflects on his passing. She spent all of her forties and some of her fifties in a relationship with this boyfriend, weathering both good and bad times.
Compounding this loss, Ginger's sister died in a car accident in October of the same year. Living in Vancouver, British Columbia, Ginger's sister unintentionally drove into the middle of a road race and one car flipped over, hitting her car and causing it to flip over. She died suddenly.
On the Road to Recovery
At The Harrison, Ginger worked with an excellent therapist who had been through similar experiences with grieving and loss. They grew incredibly close, discussing Ginger's PTSD, domestic violence, and her boyfriend's death. One day, her therapist did not show up. The following Monday, Ginger's case manager called her and informed her of her therapist's passing. The therapist had no known health problems, but died suddenly of a heart attack. Ginger is sad that she never had a chance to say goodbye.
More recently, Ginger has worked with a new male therapist who is much younger than her. She was referred to him by her case manager at The Harrison. Ginger appreciates how her therapist is "not a chauvinist" and listens to what Ginger has to say. He will interject when she "goes off on a tangent," and will identify issues that Ginger needs to work through. Ginger respects his honesty.
Death and loss have surrounded Ginger for a great portion of her life. She credits therapy for helping her deal with the grief that arises after losing a loved one. She has tried a variety of forms of therapy, and says she does not see how anyone can experience trauma "without doing some kind of therapy."
Ginger's advice to others dealing with mental health issues is to "not internalize" them. She recommends that people discuss their problems with close friends, and says that after any traumatic event, therapy should be "automatic." She encourages people to find a therapist they feel comfortable with and to develop a bond of trust.