A powerful, heartbreaking, and redemptive account of a boy who endured a childhood of poverty and abuse in an American Southwest trailer park named Cloud 9.
Abandoned by his father at age two, Rick Sylvester lived with an abusive mother whose struggles as a member of the working poor led her to drugs, alcohol, theft, and prostitution--and eventually attempted suicide. Rick battled depression, anxiety, and PTSD as the chaos, neglect, and unpredictability of his childhood seemed to doom him to follow in his mother's footsteps.
Well into adulthood, Rick stumbled through unemployment and divorce, using drugs and alcohol to numb the pain until he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Miraculously, though, he overcame the odds and today is a happy husband and father. How did this happen? Rick's answer is this: "It was the Lord."
A message of hope to those who are drowning from an undeserved childhood, Leaving Cloud 9 speaks to millions who grew up poor, feeling ignored and hopeless, and who need the healing power of God. This indelibly American story conveys the steadfast love of Jesus and his power to deliver us from the most devastating of pasts.
|Publisher:||Nelson, Thomas, Inc.|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.00(d)|
About the Author
Ericka Andersen is a freelance writer who also serves as the Digital Marketing Director at the Independent Women’s Forum and as a consultant for The Steamboat Institute. She previously wrote for, and was the Digital Director at, National Review magazine. Prior to that, she was the Digital Manager at the Heritage Foundation and worked in communications for Vice President Mike Pence at the GOP Conference. She attended Indiana University. She lives in Indianapolis, Indiana, with her husband and son.
Read an Excerpt
In the Beginning
It rarely starts with just one person. There's almost always a story that goes back generations. In fact, it's difficult to put the blame on any one person because the beginnings are so difficult to pin down. One mother hurts her child because her mother hurt her and her mother hurt her and so on and so on. There is often an intervening factor, too, something no one could control that impacts the way children are raised. Adults process their difficult childhoods in all kinds of ways — from addictions to people-pleasing to feeling intense, irrational shame. Add a generational curse of mental illness, or just the right kind of sensitive personality or character, and you have the perfect storm.
Most adults from such a background can pinpoint a few specific moments when feelings of inadequacy and a life of hardship began. Memories of such moments have the power to grind their brains to a halt, mentally transporting them back to the emotional muck that bogged them down again and again. By looking at one such moment in one little boy's life, we can peek into the past that began to shape that arc of his life.
For Rick, it was kindergarten. No one told him why he was going — or even what kindergarten was. There'd been no daycare or preschool to prepare him — not even Sunday school. One day his mom just shoved him out of the house and toward the big, yellow school bus breathing heavy diesel on the street outside their rundown trailer in a less-than-beautiful part of Denver.
He hadn't a clue why a stranger with a bus full of kids he'd never met was taking him away from his home. Sure, he'd seen those buses drive down the road, but he'd never been in one, and he certainly didn't understand why he had to go in one alone. His tears erupted as he watched his mom saunter back to the trailer in her stained T-shirt and bare feet, hair pulled back in a messy ponytail, fumbling to light the cigarette in her hand.
Fear gripped his heart at the loud chug-chug-chug of the bus engine. But apparently he had no choice. It was either get on the bus or endure the fallout from a Monday-morning screwdriver with endless refills.
He wasn't one to make a scene, so he climbed up the steep stairs with horizontal crinkles and found a seat, legs pasted to the brown fake leather, wondering where the bus would take him. His stomach felt hollow, as empty as the Seagram's bottle broken at the corner of his yard. He'd used one of its jagged pieces to draw in the dirt.
It was the kind of September day that in some would evoke warm excitement for apple cider, hayrides, and Halloween — though Rick wasn't aware of what those things were. There wasn't a cloud in the sky, and the Rocky Mountains stood solid and motionless in the distance as the bus bounced over the gravel road spiked with bottle caps, cigarette butts, and random scraps of trash. Each bounce felt like torture, the brakes screeching with every stop.
Even so, for a moment, Rick thought he might not want to go back. Maybe that bus could take him to a new life. But he couldn't imagine what that life might be like. He knew nothing of blueberry pancakes for breakfast or warm baths at night or someone to sing him to sleep.
It would be like this for the entirety of Rick's early life. Living with a charismatic and unpredictable drunk of a mother, he didn't know anything different.
Her name was Sylvia. Sylvia, who cried and screamed for no apparent reason in the middle of the night. Sylvia, who ordered her children to hide behind the bed when the cops came looking for drugs. Sylvia, who was too wrapped up in her own addictions and narcissism to consider the epic failure she was to her children from day one.
Famed author and life coach Tony Robbins grew up with a neglectful and abusive mother like Rick's. He frequently mentions her in interviews, but he gives her credit for giving him life and, because of her abuse, for making him the man he is today — someone who helps other people live their best lives and escape prisons of their own making. Rick would one day be able to look back and adopt a similar perspective — to recognize his mother's positive attributes, difficult as they were to discover amid the rot, and to understand a little of what had made her the way she was.
Sylvia came from a long line of dysfunction, and the same combination of nature and nurture that had haunted her mother and so many others in the family hit her hard. It almost seems like she was waiting for the right moment to let it sink its teeth into her soul. And once it did, she never looked back — at least, not for more than a few minutes at a time.
Sylvia was usually able to keep her life together long enough to retain custody of her kids. Something inside of her desperately wanted her kids enough to clean up her act and make it happen. They were sort of a security blanket for her. If she was arrested, she would call her parents to help with the kids. They would take over temporary custody until she completed the required AA meetings, parent training, and whatever else social services required. Then she'd bring them back home, and the cycle would start again.
I suppose most parents love their children in their own way, whether or not they wanted them in the first place. But in Sylvia's case, the actual expression of that love was erratic. Rick and his younger sister, Jenny, were like neglected puppies she kept forgetting to take care of. Sometimes they were fed, bathed, and watched. But just as often they could be found scrounging in the kitchen for a piece of bread, wearing the same underwear for three days, and fending for themselves overnight while wearing pull-up diapers. She showed them love only when the time was right, when addiction wasn't sucking it all up, when she remembered that these two parts of her were breathing, walking, living right inside her own home.
* * *
With a childhood like his, Rick was all but destined to become an abusive drunk or drug addict with little hope of a future. He was just one of many caught up in a vicious cycle perpetuated by an impoverished culture.
The poverty rate in Arizona, where he spent so much of his childhood, has always been one of the highest in the country, and though it has improved a little recently, is still among the highest. In 2013, all but four Southern Arizona cities had poverty rates exceeding 25 percent for female-headed households with children under eighteen, with South Tucson nearing 70 percent.
While so much focus in the media is on immigrants streaming across the borders, looking for work, very little is spoken of the white working poor in Arizona and places like it — how they got that way, why they stay that way, and how the legacy of drug abuse and alcoholism destroys families decade after decade. (After all, the alcoholism didn't start with Sylvia. It was just passed down to her like a family jewel.)
And Arizona is just one example. In the past few decades, the entire country has begun to segregate more distinctly according to class. The resulting disconnect and misunderstanding between the cultures of rich and poor seems to drive them further apart and, in the process, help perpetuate the problems of the poor. As famed culture analyst Charles Murray explains in his book, Coming Apart:
As the new upper class increasingly consists of people who were born into upper-middle-class families and have never lived outside the upper-middle-class bubble, the danger increases that the people who have so much influence on the course of the nation have little direct experience with the lives of ordinary Americans, and make their judgments about what's good for other people based on their own highly atypical lives.
Those in power, in other words, the ones who are making decisions and laws for people in poverty or working-class lifestyles, have little understanding of the challenges poorer people face, especially those who are also battling addiction and mental-health issues. As a result, the solutions offered to the poor tend to be ineffective.
This was already true in the 1970s, when Rick's personal story began — and has more recently been amplified by the opioid crisis facing this same population of people across the country today. Plus, in those days, getting help for mental illness was rare. Seeing a "shrink" was not commonplace, and getting medication for everything from anxiety to postpartum depression to bipolar disorder was something few people did — especially poor people. What help was available required money they didn't have. It may not have even crossed Sylvia's mind to seek help. She might not have understood she was suffering from a mental illness that could have been managed.
Of course, culture is not the only thing that contributes to the whys of deep family problems. Ultimately it comes down to humans being sinful and sin flourishing throughout generations. We've seen it since the beginning of time, in Bible story after Bible story and then down through history. But men and women are not doomed to continue the sins of their fathers. Choices exist even when it feels like there aren't many — or that the only right ones are just too hard to make.
Living in a trailer park most of his life, Rick was surrounded by poor people. There were a few better-off kids at school, but most of the people he knew were struggling to get by, particularly the immigrant families who had recently crossed the border that was about twenty minutes away. Rick remembers a friend in high school who had one Asian parent and one white parent, but many of the students in his schools were Hispanic, and some were undocumented.
Illegal immigration was a dominant topic in the 1980s and 1990s just as it is today. It's a dilemma that is yet to be solved — and one that deserves much of the attention it receives as it's understandably a complicated issue with passionate defenses on both sides of the aisle regarding solutions.
But while politicians and policymakers discuss this issue obsessively, they often neglect other groups of impoverished Americans — both blacks and whites — many involved in a drug-fueled crisis that is breaking families apart and putting kids in foster care or the kinship care of secondary family members. The macro hot-button issue leaves the micro, long-languishing issue of our own individual states behind and abandons people to fend for themselves.
It's hard to say whether or not a governmental policy focus on a family like Rick's would have saved them from themselves. After all, government or media pressure can't make someone choose to stop using drugs or drinking alcohol. But today we have Generation X, millennials, and Generation Z from certain parts of the country who have come into adulthood without adequate lobbying on their behalf by those who truly could make a cultural difference. That collective experience is mounting, and most people don't meander their way into a life of purpose the way Rick eventually did. Most don't join the military, avoid addiction, and find long-term relationships. Most don't find God in a way that meaningfully changes their lives.
It's the last part that matters most. Articles and books on culture and identity, politics and policy, attempt at length to identify the causes behind the generational dysfunction in families like Rick's. But one cause that is often highlighted is the loss of religious connection in poor parts of the country.
In his bestselling memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, J. D. Vance notes that there's a misconception about families in poor areas of the Bible Belt. In an interview, he elaborated, "It would appear that folks who are most destitute in these areas are the least likely to go to church. Church is increasingly something that is relatively confined to upper-income, well-educated people."
This loss of religious community is tied to the loss of coherent family structure, and both result in the lack of a strong foundation to build a life on. Involvement in a religious community tends to lead to a happier, more connected life. A recent Pew study revealed that such individuals show a strong sense of gratitude, honesty, forgiveness, and prayer in their daily lives. Imagine the consequences of large numbers of people in certain areas abandoning these practices and how it might affect their families and communities as a whole.
That's not to say Sylvia's family was particularly religious in the first place or that she was against religion. In fact, she would attend church during episodes of short-lived sobriety, but faith was never a consistent or meaningful part of her life. If it had been, perhaps she might have been able to salvage her life and improve the lives of her children.
It's hard to say for sure, of course. People who have a relationship with God can still get swallowed in the culture of poverty. Churchgoing Christians are not immune to addiction or to family dysfunction. On the other hand, the absence of faith in Sylvia's household may well have provided a foothold for darker spiritual forces to enter the home. Sylvia's vulnerabilities in that sense may have provided an opportunity for Satan to play a role in destroying her mind further and endangering her innocent children.
From Where She Came
Sylvia might never have had a chance, and you can't fully blame her for what she became. Her downfall didn't depend entirely on her own choices. It was created and cultivated by a variety of factors, including mental illness and patterns of generational abuse, a mix that was perhaps more toxic for her than for some of her siblings.
Her own mother, Annika, was divorced, worked as a bartender, and had several children before she met Sylvia's eventual adoptive father, an American GI named Hank. The two were very different, and when Hank began asking her out persistently, he always got a no. But eventually Annika caved and brought home a daddy for her four kids, including Sylvia. You wouldn't have guessed that Hank and Annika would stay married till death did them part — but so they did. And although Hank would become a stable figure in the lives of Annika's kids, their sometimes tumultuous marriage also affected the kids negatively.
Annika's five children — and later her grandchildren, Rick and Jenny — were brought up by two people who loved them, but who also failed them in some ways. Loving guidance and discipline were in short supply. Marital fights often disrupted the home. What appears to be a genetic disposition toward codependency, alcohol abuse, and mental illness was apparently passed on to the kids. And none of them was hit harder than Sylvia.
Sylyia would later say it was Annika's treatment of her that caused her to become "rotten." But blaming Annika for the ways Sylvia treated Rick and Jenny seems rather childish and an easy way to relieve guilt. No matter the sins of the parents, everyone ultimately has to choose right from wrong. And the truth is, Sylvia rarely chose right when it came to mothering.
The family grew up on a farm in Washington State, where Hank had retired from the army. They were a typical low-income family — not extremely poor, but no room for extras with five children on the prowl.
In Washington, Sylvia became a bit of a wild child, gradually developing the never-diagnosed mental illness that would eventually define her life. Never one for following rules, she would stay out all hours without letting her parents know where she was. Of course, they had other things to worry about — like ensuring they could pay the bills and keep the other four kids alive. All the while, Hank and Annika were drinking regularly themselves, contributing to that unhealthy generational reliance on alcohol that seeped into everything they did.
It's hard to pinpoint why Sylvia was the one of the five who became trapped by mental demons, just as it's hard to know how the family dynamics in that home contributed to what she became. Rumors can run rampant in families, and they're hard to confirm because problems are often considered "family business" and aren't talked about afterward. In families like Sylvia's, there were certainly no counselors or therapists involved to shed light on the issue.
The truth is, the most loving parents and supportive family in the world might not have prevented Sylvia from going off the rails, though it is certainly a positive that Annika met Hank and spent the rest of her life with him, bringing this stable figure into the lives of their children and grandchildren. In her younger years, however, she had clung to relationships in an almost addictive manner. That's not necessarily a sign of bad character, but it is evidence of trying to fill a hole within herself with another human being. And it modeled for her daughter a way of relating that would become a big problem for Sylvia.
Unlike her mother, Sylvia never found stability in one person. Instead, she took on a series of her own addictive relationships like it was her job, going from one man to the next, year after year after year. And this way of relating didn't stop with her. Rick, too, would develop the tendency to hold on too tightly to women in order to feel loved and fulfilled.
Excerpted from "Leaving Cloud 9"
Copyright © 2018 Ericka Sylvester.
Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Prologue: Present Day xi
Chapter 1 In The Beginning 1
Chapter 2 From Where She Came 9
Chapter 3 The Father He Never Knew 15
Chapter 4 Pictures 21
Chapter 5 Starving for Relationship 31
Chapter 6 Steven 37
Chapter 7 Aurora Colorado 43
Chapter 8 Kinship Care 49
Chapter 9 Battle Buddies 59
Chapter 10 Privileged? 65
Chapter 11 Soldier Dreams 71
Chapter 12 The Villain 73
Chapter 13 When She Was Alone 81
Chapter 14 Tony Returns 85
Chapter 15 James 91
Chapter 16 Man Boobs 99
Chapter 17 Age Twelve 103
Chapter 18 The Molding of a Man 109
Chapter 19 Lonely 115
Chapter 20 In The Army Now 119
Chapter 21 Giving Up On God 129
Chapter 22 College 131
Chapter 23 Shredded 137
Chapter 24 Flight School 141
Chapter 25 Sabrina 145
Chapter 26 PTSD 147
Chapter 27 A Marriage Unravels 151
Chapter 28 Anxiety Attack 155
Chapter 29 The Defining Diagnosis 159
Chapter 30 Seattle to DC 167
Chapter 31 Almost There 171
Chapter 32 A Rough Start 185
Chapter 33 Living Life 191
Chapter 34 They Meet Again 195
Chapter 35 Meeting Sylvia 199
Chapter 36 Looking At Life Ahead 213
Chapter 37 Jacob James Sylvester 223
Chapter 38 Newborn Life 227
Chapter 39 The Family He Never Knew 233
Chapter 40 How He Got Here 237
About The Author 251
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Leaving Cloud 9, by Ericka Andersen, tells the story of her husband as he grows up in a broken home. Rick was raised just by his mother, Sylvia, in a trailer park, who was an alcoholic and drug addict. Sometimes, there was a man in her life but he was just the same. Rick was often neglected. He had no friends and struggled throughout his childhood. When he was finally old enough to leave, he joined the military and got discharged because he suffered from PTSD and bipolar disorder. He married three times until the third one finally worked out. The message of this book is about trusting God’s plans as well as the importance of forgiveness. This book is very interesting to read, however, it would be a better book if Rick had written it instead of his wife, Ericka. It would seem more personal and it would be easier to understand his emotions. I received this book from Book Look Bloggers. All ideas are my own.
This book had an amazing writing, very inspiring, encouraging and compelling to read with also giving us to having more hope in to our life and this will helping us to living out and get going to each day. We are know that everyone had a hardship in with a different on the issues or the situation in their life but this special for the most of the people who had growing up poor and feeling hopeless. This book will present us of how God is fighting for us, even when we are not realize it and this is show the power of how God uses individuals to work in the lives of their love ones. I highly recommend to everyone must to read this book. “ I receive complimentary a copy of this book from BookLook Bloggers program for this review”.
All I can say about this book is be sure you're ready for it. It is a challenging book, filled with heartache and child abuse, PTSD, addiction and alcoholism. However, there are many good things that come from this story of Rick, the husband of the author. A chance to break generational chains, a chance to start afresh with God in his life, a healthy third marriage and a baby daughter. There is so much unpacked in this book, and although it ends on an uplifting note, it was hard for me to read. I am familiar with the ravages on a family from alcoholism and addiction. Erika does a great job of deciphering the jagged pieces of her husband's formative years in the home of his mother, Sylvia. I imagine writing this book and learning how her husband grew up was hard, but I admire the fact that she wrote it in a way that causes the reader to feel for, and possibly identify with, Rick and his sister, Jenny, in their search for stability with a mother that was anything but. I appreciate her willingness to share Rick and Jenny's story in the first place, instead of glossing over it. The reader also learns about the long term trauma associated with childhood abuse, homelessness and poverty. Erika weaves some of her personal opinions throughout, which humanizes her husband and echoes the pain she processes through with him in their life together in the present. However, her husband does find his strength and support through Christ, and as a result, becomes the parent he always wished he had. I also felt the frustration of the other adults around these kids (neighbors, social workers, teachers, etc) that saw what was happening, yet chose to turn a blind eye. There are some bright notes along the way in Leaving Cloud 9, but overall it is a book that is unflinchingly honest, and if you're struggling with past trauma, this might be a trigger. If you are in a healthy place and willing to seek for hope in a place where there seems to be none, then this book is for you. * I received a PDF advanced readers copy from the publisher.*