Editor’s Note: The following excerpt is adapted from Ericka Andersen’s new book, Leaving Cloud 9: The True Story of a Life Resurrected From the Ashes of Poverty, Trauma and Mental Illness. It appears here with permission.
The places where Rick’s family stayed looked more or less the same — dark, grimy, and roach infested, with mystery stains on the mildewed furniture. They were filled with society’s outcasts — criminals, sex offenders, drug dealers, and addicts. Folks around town knew these were the places where you could find drugs and prostitutes.
The motel room Rick remembers most clearly had two double beds, a short hallway, and a kitchenette with a stove. Everything was filthy, with little room to move and no cleaning supplies — not the kind of place where maids made the beds every day.
True to the rumors, the motel was a hot spot for drug dealing and crime, with police busting someone every few days. As far as safety went, there was none. Sylvia always instructed the kids to lock the door and not open it if she wasn’t there — and they trembled in fear when they heard police sirens or angry arguments happening outside.
At one hotel, another little boy lived there at the same time they did. His mom would leave him in Sylvia’s room while they went out to a nearby bar. The boy was sickly and perhaps mentally slow. But he seemed almost relieved when his parents left him there. Maybe he was just happy to be with kids his age. Rick and Jenny were glad the boy was there too. The three of them found solace in one another, attempting to create some sort of childhood amid the chaos. They played together and shared snacks if they were available, always wondering when their adults might come home — or if they even wanted them to.
“He was a good kid. He was a survivor,” Rick recalls now of his motel friend, wondering what might have happened to him, but the boy’s name is lost in the memories. He’s now just a brown-haired, scared little guy who Rick can only hope made it out alive.
Rick and his sister, Jenny, shared one double bed in that room. Often — at the ages of just four and five — they were left alone all night or deep into the night, wondering when Sylvia would come back. Sometimes she would be gone for days at a time, and the kids would stay huddled in the motel room, munching on stale cereal and flipping between a few available channels on a TV set that was well past its lifespan.
A loud banging awoke them at night, a man’s deep voice radiating through the jangle of the rusty gold-colored lock. They froze, silently looking at each other, praying the man and his banging would just go away. Rick could see the outline of his arm, the small sliver of the white of his eye trying to peek through the not-quite-closed curtains.
“Sylvia!” the man yelled, then let out a string of expletives, bitter disgust in his voice and one last fist to the door. And then silence. But Rick couldn’t fall back asleep that night, the man’s creepy stare seared into his mind.
Every successive night at that motel was more terrifying to Rick, the fight-or-flight impulse building up in him until it became reflexive, constant, necessary.
It was nights like that one that created in Rick the hair-trigger defensiveness that defines post-traumatic stress. This is a common reaction in children who grow up in frightening, uncertain conditions. When childhood eventually ends and they are safe from the predators of the past, they still feel like they’re in the jungle, with threats lurking everywhere. They live on high alert, and it’s easy for them to forget they are grownups who can fend for themselves and live in a more rational world.
They’d been here before, but it had never been this cold. And they were older now. Everything was beginning to make more sense, and their life seemed less normal with every day. The numbness — from both the cold and the emotions — began to settle over them like the blanket.
Rick prayed to God that night the man banged on their door. Afterward he felt that perhaps the prayer had worked to keep him away. But he also thought maybe God wasn’t listening at all. Their situation wasn’t ultimately really changing.
Then it got worse. The cash ran out entirely — on Christmas Eve. Worse than sleeping in a motel is the next level down — sleeping in a car. It was Christmas Eve in Colorado, and the cold was moving in, with light snow that could turn heavy at any minute. With two kids in the back seat and nowhere to go, Sylvia parked the car and told them she’d be right back.
Rick and Jenny huddled together in their dirt-encrusted, puffy bomber jackets, a threadbare blanket covering them in the back seat, while Sylvia crunched through a gravel parking lot into a slick, brown building with a neon sign that read BAR out front. They’d been here before, but it had never been this cold. And they were older now. Everything was beginning to make more sense, and their life seemed less normal with every day. The numbness — from both the cold and the emotions — began to settle over them like the blanket.
It wasn’t long before Sylvia had worked her charms on an unsuspecting but willing man. The two of them came stumbling out the door, the neon letters of the bar sign highlighting their silhouettes as they threw open the car door. The man barely noticed the kids in the back seat. He just kept pawing all over Sylvia as he directed her a few blocks away to a moldy-looking, two-story brownstone motel. Sylvia left the car running with the heat on when they arrived and promised to return quickly. The gas gauge was dangerously close to E, as was the kids’ hope for ever getting out of the car that night and sleeping in a bed.
But true to her word, Sylvia was back thirty minutes later. She hauled them out of the car and into the motel room, now absent the man but with a king-size bed where they all piled in — hungry, tired, and Santa Claus all but forgotten.