Morgan Jones: What exactly defines “broken”? | Togeth3r

Morgan Jones: What exactly defines “broken”?

Written By: Morgan Jones

Growing up, I always heard the term “broken family” in conversation, in therapy, and amongst friends, and I would often ask, what exactly defines “broken”?

On the surface, we were your typical nuclear family – I was the youngest of two with one older brother. My parents, even after getting divorced, were friendly and respected one another, and they had split custody of us.

We spent my early childhood in an upper middle class suburb in Denver, Colorado, and in third grade, I auditioned to be a part of a dance company that would consume 30 hours of my week outside of school including classes, intensives, conventions, and competitions. I didn’t really know what I was signing up for, but it was the first time that I felt connected to something that I wanted to spend every waking hour doing. After a few years of competing, my mom moved my brother and I to New York City to pursue performing arts, which for a 5th grader was a dream come true.

I had spent a lot of time in New York at that point visiting family, traveling for dance, and attending every Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular and NYCB Nutcracker production we could fit into each visit, and I wasn’t quite old enough to understand what it would mean to live and breathe New York City as a full-time resident.

We went through months of a legal battle of my mom trying to convince my dad that it was the right thing to do for us, while my dad wanted to protect us and keep us close to him in a more sheltered environment in Denver. My mom eventually won the battle, for better or for worse, and we were packing up our home and saying our goodbyes to our best friends, my dance studio that had practically raised me, and my dad who we would be seeing only once a month going forward.

When we moved to New York, I pivoted my dance career from competing to being a part of the School of American Ballet where I would spend the same 30 hours each week training with some of the most famous ballerinas and performing with the New York City Ballet. It was a big change, but I was used to going to school everyday and then going to dance every evening for hours, and in a lot of ways it kept me in a bubble of not having to understand or accept what was happening at home.

Our first summer in New York, we were driving out to our family’s house in the Hamptons when my mom got a call from a detective. She quickly tried to get the person on the other end off the call telling them that she was in a car with her kids and she couldn’t discuss the matter in front of them. But my stubbornness started coming to light when I dug for the next two hours in the car telling my mom that I wouldn’t talk to her until she told me the secret. I can’t recall if it was in that car ride or a few months later when she sat me down to talk about my safety being a young woman in New York. Tears filled her eyes as she explained that weeks prior to our first trip to the Hamptons that summer that she had been raped by someone we knew.

I was only 12 but I felt like our family had been violated. 

In the years that followed, I had gotten extremely burnt out from dance, had developed an eating disorder, and realized that I never wanted to be a professional dancer. I decided to apply to high schools (a common thing in NYC) that weren’t focused on performing arts – I wanted a normal high school life that I saw in movies. I wanted to move back to Colorado or go to boarding school to escape the city. Luckily I was accepted into one of the best public schools in New York on the Upper East Side, and I had this sense of relief that I could begin again and start over. 

Unfortunately, when high school started for me and I was spending fewer hours each week at a dance studio, I spent a lot more time at home and around my mom who was working full time to support us and survive in one of the most expensive cities in the world while dealing with her own demons.

It was the first time that I remember seeing her manic depression manifest – things would be seemingly normal and then all of a sudden she would blow up at whoever was around, usually her long-term boyfriend, my brother, or myself. She would swallow as many pills as she could find, chased by any alcohol in sight, and many times end up in the psychiatric ward of New York Presbyterian. For a long time it seemed like she was able to hide it from me, but unfortunately similar to any other mental illness, it got harder and harder to hide.

In 2010, my brother left for college and my mom and her boyfriend broke up, which left my mom and me in an apartment just the two of us, and my mom extremely vulnerable. 

The first time I witnessed my mom attempting suicide I was entering my junior year of high school and trying to separate my home life and my school/social life.

I can’t remember what set her off this time, but I vividly remember on a school night watching her go into her bathroom to get a container of Xanax and washing it down with a cup of vodka that she pulled out from the closet while telling me that she was going to kill herself. I called 911 immediately, which sent her further down a spiral and leaving the apartment to hide from the police.

My brother was now at college and I had homework, papers to write, and tests to study for, and I knew that I couldn’t use this as an excuse to not get my work done – my high school took academics very seriously and only accepted one of every 300 students who applied. In a lot of ways, high school was much harder than college for me. 

The police found her and took her to New York Presbyterian – a place that had grown too familiar to me – and told me to take care of myself (at 16 years old) and get some sleep and that she would be able to call me the next day. This was the moment that I was forced to grow up and step into the shoes of raising myself in a lot of ways.

I felt lucky that because my school was so small, the administration knew each of the kids personally. I was in social studies the next morning trying to keep my eyes open and trying to disguise the tears rolling down my face when our vice principal Marty pulled me out of class. He knew about my mom’s history and could read me like the back of his hand and knew that something was wrong.

When I got to his office, I was exhausted. I was doing everything I could to hide what my life at home was like. I was spending the hours before and after school visiting my mom in the hospital and on the phone with family members who refused to fly up to be with me in fear that they would become my mom’s next victim, and I was doing everything in my power to camouflage into the world of being a high school girl on the Upper East Side. Marty told me to take a nap on the sofa in his office and not worry about my classes and that he would be back to check on me in a few hours. In a time where the only thing I wanted was to be accepted, it was the hardest work I’ve ever had to do to hide what was happening at home. 

Over the next year and a half, I witnessed her attempting suicide too many times to recall, and was often met by my family members giving me a virtual pat on the back. “We’re so proud of how you are handling this, Morgan. If you need anything just give us a call,” they would tell me. But when I asked for someone to come and stay with me, no one offered. 

When the time came to apply to colleges, I knew that I needed space. I needed to be as far away from home as possible to reclaim my independence and experience this part of my life in a way that served me. I have always been very self aware from years of therapy in my childhood, but it wasn’t until I got to Boulder and moved into my dorm that I realized how much trauma I was carrying with me.

When friends would share lighthearted stories about their parents, or call their moms for advice or just to talk, I was reminded how broken my family was. When I started catching feelings for my now-fiancé, I would push him away because I never wanted anyone too close to me for them to experience my family. I was worried that I would become my mother in everything I did, to a point where I was becoming self-destructive. It was my sophomore year of college when I officially started dating Christian and on my 19th birthday I received a call at 6am from my brother saying that my mom was being admitted into an institution again.

I remember running out of Christian’s house to the medical center on campus asking to speak to a therapist.

I had reached my limit of bottling in this trauma and I was ready to get support. 

In a lot of ways, I feel like my childhood was defined by these moments of utter fear and embarrassment, and I spent my college years grieving my childhood.

I spent so much time presenting myself as something else to fit in and to make sure that I was never inconveniencing my friends with the trauma I was experiencing at home, never knowing when the next episode would be. I look back at myself as a 16 year old who thought that talking about feelings was taboo and realize that there are millions of others who have carried their trauma with them into their adult life and are still just trying to get through each day, and not everyone can say that they came out on the other side stronger. Many go through their entire lives bottling in those traumas that played a part in the characters they became and never telling their stories because they veered too far away from the status quo.

Over the years of having a platform, I’ve taken my story with me and have made it my mission to continue to share all parts of my story – not just the highlight reel. The work of overcoming my past trauma is a job that will never be done, but it is the most important work that I’ll ever do, and it’s the most rewarding when I look back at those times and realize how far I’ve come – how far my whole family has come.

We are still broken and divided in a lot of ways, but we are healing together and individually through hearing each other’s stories, finding compassion, and understanding the importance of taking care of our mental health.