Searching for Serotonin

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Searching for Serotonin (True Stories, Book Award 2023)
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Logline or Premise
Despite achieving a life of success after surviving a childhood of trauma and adversity, a recently admitted psychiatric patient contemplates the meaning of happiness when her battle with her mental illness reaches a climax.
First 10 Pages

Day One at the Ward

It’s a cold hospital room with an even colder, stiff, twin-sized bed with limited covering. I guess it makes sense considering the concern of patients hanging themselves with the sheets. I remember a few suicide files at my old job where that happened. I knew I should have come in the past for my mental illness and suicidal thoughts, but I never did. I was too embarrassed and ashamed to come, but I had no choice this time. This was a life-or-death situation. I don’t understand. I thought I was happy. How did I end up here?

Goodbye Mom

“Mali, Mali,” cries my older brother, Miles, violently shaking me out of my afterschool nap, “Come upstairs, something’s wrong with Mom!”

Half asleep, I follow him as fast as my 8-year-old legs could carry me. She was just released from the hospital a few months ago for having heart issues and seemed healthy. Last night, she was moving and smiling. She was talking and laughing. She was breathing. Today, she is still, lifeless on the bed I shared with her the night before.

“Anna!” “Mom!” “Mommy, wake up!” sings a chorus of my, my two brothers’ and father’s voices. We shook her cold body, moved her locked legs, and splashed water on her unresponsive face, but all were futile attempts to jolt a response. An air of permanent silence now radiated from her body in a language only death understood. I don’t know what woman lies on this bed, but she’s not my mother anymore.

What happened after that was a blur. My dad directed us to leave the bedroom to the living room downstairs where my 2 brothers and I sat on the couch, waiting in an unnatural stillness exhibited by children. Waiting for the ambulance. Hoping for help. Praying for change. Wanting someone to come and save her.

When the ambulance arrived, the medics dashed upstairs. After a while, they calmly walk back down.

“I’m sorry sir. There’s nothing else we could do,” laments a paramedic to my father as they exit.

I run over and wrap my little arms around his waist: “Daddy, where’s Mommy? Is she coming back?”

“No, Mali” tears falling onto my head as he holds me close, quick intakes of air between words indicating a heart that is breathing and breaking simultaneously, “She’s gone. She’s not coming back.”

They escort what was left of her in a white sheet on a stretcher out of our home. I didn’t feel 8 years old any more after that.

I cried until it hurt, but it didn’t bring her back. All I saw in me then was a failure who couldn’t save her mother. I had never experienced something so intense before. How does an 8-year-old make sense of that? I tried to look up to those around me for context on how to move on. I don’t remember what my older siblings did, but I distinctly remember my father who chose the route quickest to a vodka bottle.

Poem: The Loss’ Love Letter

Remember the songs I’ve sung. The stories I’ve told

Let the lessons I taught you carry you til you’re old.

I taught you what I knew though it still wasn’t much

Hope that I changed your world through my temporary touch.

Remember the nights that I held you, eyes filled with tears

Prayers whispered in your ears will carry you through the years

A love never lost though my presence is not near

I leave you the last of my courage to replace all your fears

I leave the last of my sunshine when the days are rough

And the last of my strength when the going gets tough,

The last of my rest when you’ve worked your fingers to the bone

And the last of my smiles when you have none on your own

Do it for the both of us. Go and Live your life

You’ll tell me all about it when the timing is right

Go laugh. Go cry. Go fly. Go love.

Do more than these; go beyond and above

I taught you what I knew, though it still wasn’t much

But please…keep living. For the both of us.

A Bottled-Up Father

My dad is a retired Air Force Master Sergeant and an African American male born in the early 1950s near Washington, DC. Ironically, this militant nature did not show itself to me as he practiced a hands-off parenting style; I was given free rein to do as I pleased. Our mother was the one who kept order and delivered discipline and ass-whoopings for bad behavior. Perhaps he was different prior, but most of my memory of his personality developed after she died. Already a minimal conversationalist, he became even more solemnly quiet and emotionally distant. While I didn’t know what I saw in him as a child, I couldn’t help but feel like something inside of him also died after that fateful evening, and somehow, I lost two parents that day.

Since I failed my mother, I became determined to not let him down too. I believed I should try to revive that part of him that passed on, so I reasoned that the best way to accomplish this was to not add on to his stress. If I did everything a good little girl is supposed to do, then he should be happy, right? If I can make him happy, then maybe I can be happy.

After some time of sadness affected my grades, I started doing really well in school. There, I was on good rapport with the teachers and didn’t try to pick a fight with a student even when they wanted one with me. At home, I tried to stay out of my father’s and everybody’s way both emotionally and physically, while finding and filling the empty places left vacant by my late mother. I sucked at cleaning, but after some time, I eventually adopted the responsibility of cooking for everyone. Handling the meals and watching the Food Network channel became therapeutic and allowed me a creative outlet with our limited resources in food now that we were surviving on a single, minimum income. It saved my sanity for most of my childhood and let me disconnect from reality to fantasize about what it would be like to be a person of importance whom others would pay attention to and afford all the tools and ingredients they were using. Almost every TV celebrity in general seemed happier, richer, wiser, more competent, confident, and detached from adversity as if fame elevated them beyond the human experience. I envied them and wanted what I believed they had.

I guess I couldn’t help it. I may have still been young, but I knew all too well by then how it felt to not have much. When there wasn’t much food in the fridge, my dad would sometimes joke and say: “I guess we’re fasting.” I don’t think he was being malicious about it; that dark humor—which I adopted— was his way of making a serious situation lighter. When my classmates returned to school after summer or Christmas break and raved about their new toys, family trips, and game systems, I couldn’t relate to their joy. At age 9, I became disenchanted with Christmas after waking up to find that my present under the tree was a wrapped-up package of toothpaste and a toothbrush. My dad said that was all he could afford that year. Birthdays weren’t any better. Over time, I stopped being excited about both of those events and others just like it. Small seeds of contempt for my existence grew from these experiences. I hated it. I felt abnormal. What kid doesn’t like Christmas or their birthday? I wanted something else, something better, or just any option that would take me out of it.

Perhaps my father felt the same about wanting a different life since I can hardly remember an evening where he didn’t come home from work, turn on the tv, sit on the couch, and position a cup on the coffee table with a 1.75-liter vodka bottle at his feet. Apparently, his father—my grandfather—was also a frequent flyer of the alcoholic airfare, so maybe it was just a default behavior passed on to him. In the beginning, he would hide the bottle from me. After a time, he stopped trying. I remember asking him why he drank so much, and he said it helped him go to sleep. It seems he had trouble sleeping for over 10 years.

He was never physically or verbally abusive; he just had a presence that didn’t seem connected to the present. He stuck around and provided for us in the best way he knew how but was lost in thought mostly. After he drank, he wasn’t cognizant of much. He would stumble around and politely ask me if I get could him more ice. Whenever I needed to talk to him about something I needed for school, I had to do so strategically or remind him repeatedly. If he came home after working late hours or if I talked to him too soon after work, he was too tired, and I didn’t want to add to the burdensome weight of the moment. However, if I chatted with him after the alcohol settled, he would hardly remember anything.

I got acclimated to his presence and behaviors as the years rolled on, but he had some difficulty figuring out what his little girl needed. I assumed he could more easily understand what my two brothers needed since he himself was a male, but I was a bit of an enigma being the only girl. He tried. I recall fun moments like riding in the car with him to random places just to get out of the house or our burping game, where if either of us burped, the first one to say “Pig, Oinker, I win” won. The prize was just the simple humor of the moment. The more difficult moments came when he had to consider me as a female. For example, when he bought clothes, they weren’t always age-appropriate. I sometimes wouldn’t be able to fit them, or they would be clothing for women in their 30s. I defaulted to wearing my mother’s clothing which made me feel more connected to her. I didn’t see an issue, and neither did he until an aunt pointed out one day that my mother’s little black dress wasn’t appropriate for a 10-year-old to wear. Although she lived a few states away, she promptly took me shopping. Our next-door neighbors also noticed my style of dress as one of them kindly used her own money to take me shopping as well. The other neighbor made a bolder move one day, and while in my father’s physical presence and whose back was turned momentarily, gripped my 10-year-old thigh a little too hard and delivered with it a creepy smile that lingered in my memory far after the moment I shoved his hand off passed.

I’m not sure when it officially happened, but I eventually saw my dad more as a figurehead than a father. Someone with the title, but unable (or unwilling?) to execute the associated responsibility. He’s not a Philip Banks or a Mike Brady, but years of constant therapy led me to believe that I can accept him both as the man he is and the father he isn’t or wasn’t. It is easier to forgive much of his behavior when I can detach my expectations from what I thought a father was supposed to be. After all, I wasn’t the only one who lost someone the night our mother died. He’s just a human being, and he’s coping. That’s what I am too. A human being just trying to figure out life one day at a time. Still, he wasn’t someone to look up to; not for me.

Since he was out of commission, I looked elsewhere. As the youngest of 5, I had 2 brothers and 2 half-siblings that I also observed, and they all gave me insight, but not often in the way I’d hoped for.

Kin by Blood

May is the oldest and my half-sister. Due to seeing my single dad struggle with feeding Miles, Gideon, and myself, I wanted to see another family member living differently, giving me hope for a tangible example of a greater life beyond poverty and hardship. Since she was already fully grown with a child at the time and living on her own, I had hoped she achieved just that. She did great things as a single mom, but circumstances weren’t exactly easier for her. Though she and Kaven had a different mother from us, both possessed good ties with my mom and took the loss pretty hard.

After that event, I fondly remember when May would take it upon herself to braid and do our hair almost every year before school started. I enjoyed seeing her now and again when our dad made an over hour-long trip to go visit her and her son, who wasn’t too much younger than me. Still, sisters though we may have been, I rarely opened up to her. I’m not sure why, but every female, especially if I was related to them, was someone to observe and glean information from, not engage with. Being the only girl in a home of males, I had no context for what or who a woman was. I felt too far behind to see them as competition, family, or friends; unbeknownst to them, I made nearly all of them my teachers.

Some years passed and she fell into a romantic relationship with a parasite in human form and had two children with him. She was enamored after first meeting him and told me once that if I was looking for a man, to move to the city where she was because men seemed to like women with my body type there. She was a heavyset person as well, but it still felt like insult-packaged advice. I admit I was still jealous of her and frankly, anybody with a romantic partner since those are predicated by choice. For someone to see you, choose you, love you, and want to be with you were all elusive concepts to me. I had not felt any of those things before and fantasized about what that might feel like too.

However, I guess romance isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. After 20 years of marriage, she revealed that she hadn’t been happy with this cheating, lying gentleman who couldn’t hold down a basic job at a McDonald’s and frequented spewing harmful words to her and her first-born son on multiple occasions. She refrained from divorce for a while because she said she felt guilty about doing so. She said it wasn’t a Christian thing to do, and his mother encouraged their marriage after commenting on them “living in sin.” On the brink of her decision to divorce, she communicated she felt guilty that he would have nowhere to go; to which, I promptly responded that if he can go out of his way to find another woman to cheat on her with, he can exert that same effort to find another place to live. Not only was it clear that he was making the effort to do what he wanted, but also that the only one giving a damn about the Christian ideal of marriage was her, and only her. Some love, eh? I was scared to become a woman just like her. Someone kind and generous, but a pushover. Someone who cares about others but doesn’t prioritize herself, her health, or her happiness. Someone choosing to carry the weight of a selfish grown-ass leech of a lover who uses the convenience of a relationship as a moment of personal respite to avoid adult responsibilities. I care for her dearly, but she was no longer a role model for the type of woman I wanted to become.

Next up is Kaven, who almost always appeared to be running from or to something internally as was evident in his frequent rendezvous with different women. He has about 6 or 7 children—no, I don’t remember. I honestly lost count—with about 3 or 4 women. Even when he was in prison, he managed to get an officer as a girlfriend. That didn’t last—smart woman—but after he completed his over 10-year incarceration, he wasted almost no time meeting someone else. Out of all the men in my immediate family, he is a predominant example of a man I had constantly hoped and prayed to never be with. He doesn’t tend to practice cognizance of the full impact of his actions, and when he and I speak to each other, I have often felt that much of the brotherly advice and guidance he has ever given me have not been ones he’s put into practice for himself.

I recall a conversation occurring after our father was hospitalized because of a stroke. Kaven wanted him to live with him and his wife, to which our father refused. After failing to convince me to support him and to further vouch for his idea, Kaven later poured out his thoughts to me via a long series of text messages on everything he believed a father should do in consideration for his children, which I found painfully ironic considering how he has a strained relationship with his own kids. At one point after he served his time of incarceration and attempted to reconnect with his children—I will give him that—he believed that one of his older sons was “smelling himself” towards him. Kaven used the term to imply his son had a high sense of undeserved or false bravado and was being unreasonably defiant and unyielding.