My Not So Brief Story

James Titchener / @mistertitchener

I struggled with severe anxiety for most of my childhood. It just took me 18 years to realize it. I assumed perpetually sweaty palms and panic was the norm. Peace and calm was not an option in my household. Not with the ticking time bomb that was my bipolar mom.

Once I left home for college, I had enough space to recognize that my upbringing was non-traditional, and I'd come out the other side with some issues of my own. I got decent grades at a decent school, but didn't have much in the way of career prospects after graduating. I deluded myself into thinking that hard work was for suckers. Effort? That's for kids that aren't smart enough to get by on half the work.

I held onto this story I'd spun as tightly as I could. If I gave my all, I couldn’t fall back on the excuse that I wasn’t trying. Long story short, I was fucking fragile and did whatever I could to handle myself with care.

That was until my mom went missing.

•••

It was Valentine's Day, 2016. I got a text from my dad asking if I'd heard from her. I hadn't, so my dad resolved to contact the local police in my small hometown of Brisbane, CA.

The next day I'd meet my dad at his small machine shop and office in Brisbane to go over the details. My dad told me that mom was shitfaced and screaming at him, so he decided to stay at a hotel that night. When he came back the next morning, she was gone, but both her phone and car had been left at home.

My mom was prone to doing some weird shit on benders, but leaving her phone and car wasn't like her. Leaving without sending a few belligerent voicemails to me and the family wasn't like her either. I knew from the start that things didn't look good, but I was going to do everything in my power to get her home alive.

I guessed her passwords to get into her phone, bank accounts, and email but found nothing. My dad and I worked with the local police and community to organize a search. Family flew in, and friends and strangers joined to post fliers, contact hospitals, and visit some of her favorite watering holes.

There were moments of hope. A neighbor claimed to have seen her just days after she'd gone missing. Then a high school classmate of mine who worked at a Nordstrom (which my mom practically lived in) said she saw her shopping there that week. But eyewitnesses reliably misremember details, and these sightings couldn't be verified.

After about a week of searching tirelessly for my mom, I accepted the fact that she was no longer with us. I'd talked her down from drunken threats of suicide on more than one occasion, so I assumed that she'd finally had enough. I sobbed hard that night as I came to terms with the likelihood that we were searching for a body.

•••

The next day I got a call from a reporter. She asked me if I thought there was any connection between the body found by the Dumbarton Bridge and my missing mother. I quickly hung up and searched the web—a woman's severed torso had been found on the beach.

I immediately called the reporter back to see if she had any other details. She told me the woman had breast implants and a tattoo on her lower back. My heart sunk. I wasn't positive about the breast implants, but my mom for sure had a lower back tattoo.

Just as I texted my dad to ask if my mom had breast implants, I got a call from the detective on the case. He asked me about my mom's tattoo on her lower back. Shit... He sent me a sketch of the tattoo to my email, and the unimaginable had come.

My mom had been murdered.

•••

I'd already accepted the near certainty that my mom was dead, so while the revelation of how she died was shocking, I wasn't too emotional when I called my dad. But I was a bit surprised when I shared the news and he wasn’t very emotional either. He’d been a wreck up until this point. I assumed he was in shock as we sat mostly in silence. He would eventually change the topic to talk about my future. He told me that he was proud of the way I'd stepped up to organize the search efforts while he was struggling too much emotionally to handle it all, and he thought I showed strong leadership qualities. We then said our goodbyes and decided to wait until we got more information from the detective before concluding with certainty that this body was my mom's.

The next morning, I called and texted my dad furiously—no response. I found out on Facebook that police had gone through our house in Brisbane. I finally got in contact with the detective who said he'd come by my apartment in San Francisco to talk to me. As I paced around my apartment waiting for him to arrive and tell me the bad news I already knew was coming, I got a call that read unknown.

I answered to a man who asked if this was James Titchener. I replied yes, and after a beat he told me that my dad, Paul Titchener, was dead. I quickly refuted him and said, No, no, no, you must mean Shelly Titchener. As he read out his physical features I fell to the floor. His body was found in the San Francisco Bay the night before. He jumped off the Bay Bridge to his death about an hour after we last talked.

The next day I'd find evidence in a will written the night of my mom's death that proved his responsibility in her death.

•••

I had a hard time making sense of it all. My dad, my hero, betrayed me. He betrayed everyone. He murdered my mom, cut her body into pieces, and spun a story to get away with it. And when it was time to face the music, he jumped.

Why would he do this? How could he do this?

It's been years now since this happened, and we still don't know for sure. My mom was abusive—to my dad especially. Most of his family and friends had begged him to leave her for years. I even asked him at one point to leave her. Their relationship was as far from healthy as one could be, but my dad didn't want to abandon her. He thought she would kill herself if he left, and she might have. But in the end, he lost his life too.

At the time of her death, my mom had a BAC of 0.22. Even on the few occasions she was sober, she was mentally, emotionally and physically in as bad of shape as I could remember. Vodka and pain pills were her drugs of choice, and as her pain increased so did the dosage. My dad had been recording phone calls from my mom. I think in fear that she would do something to him, and the calls from her that night were frightening. I imagine that my dad came home from the office, my mom got violent, and my dad snapped.

It seems unlikely that it was premeditated. From the makeshift will he wrote that night and some edits he made the next, it seemed that he planned to kill himself immediately but reconsidered.

My dad bottled up emotions like no one I've ever known. He had an uncanny ability of eating the verbal onslaught from my mom, especially when my brother and I were around. Not long before he took my mom’s life, I caught him snapping on her like I'd never seen. The look in his eyes as he lunged for her will remain scarred in my mind until I die. His eyes and gritted teeth had a near identical resemblance to a look my mom gave me some weeks before. She screamed she would kill me as I slammed the door to my room and sobbed, because in that moment I believe she meant what she said. When my dad chased my mom into her room, I don't know that he would have stopped himself if I hadn't been standing right beside them. And the next time, I wasn't there watching.

•••

While the details of my mom's death are unclear, the facts around the disposal of her body are less so. She was severed into pieces, put into bags, and dropped into the San Francisco Bay where most of her would be later found. Images of the gore required were buried into my subconscious for the first few months. Flashes of cold violence flooded my mind from time to time, but I'd learn how to bury emotions from the very best. I've since learned to let go of these counterproductive defense measures, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't sometimes miss that dull fog.

I try not to think about either of them much. I'd probably be pretty successful at it too if I didn't write. Frankly, there's nothing I hate more than going back to this place. But a wound cannot heal until you wash it clean, and my wounds are still dirty.

Prior to my life flipping way the fuck upside down, I was sleepwalking through life. I was always curious about therapy and now I had a pretty good excuse to go. After a few sessions it became pretty clear to me that I had much more to work through than my parents' deaths.

When I wasn't crying before, during and after therapy, I was burying myself in work or burying my emotions in the fog that became my friend. But with time and work, things began to change for me. I got serious about journaling and took up meditation. I experimented with LSD and began really taking up meditation. I went on a couple of silent meditation retreats, traveled, and spent a lot of time to myself. And at some point, despite enduring a tragedy worse than I’d ever thought possible, I'd become happier than I'd ever been.

Through some mix of contemplation, writing, reading, therapy, meditation and tripping my balls off, I'm learning that while pain is unavoidable (no matter how much we wish otherwise) suffering can be abandoned with practice and hard fucking work. And it is hard. It's still hard, and it always will be. That's the world we live in, and the sooner we realize it, the better.

That's why I continue to bring myself back to this dark place. With time, grit and a whole lot of pain, I think my story can serve as proof that we have the capacity to become not only robust but antifragile in the face of adversity. Whereas a vase calls to be handled with care, my hope is that I one day find myself in a place where I seek to be roughed the fuck up, knowing full well that I'll be better for it. Despite the unimaginable becoming my reality, I’m on a path to becoming stronger than I’d ever been.

•••

Thanks for getting this far. That couldn't have been an easy read. It sure as hell wasn't easy to write.

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