To answer your questions: I was between the ages of 8 and 14 when all of this happened. Yes, I worked as soon as I could to try and take stress away from my mother. At one point when we were up for eviction, three months behind rent, I called on a friend to help us, and she paid all three months' rent because she admired myself and my mother. That person was my Business & Accounting teacher, who has also become a close friend in the years since.
This is not the whole story, but this is much of the story:
My father and I no longer have a relationship. We have the same name, but he was extremely manipulative, and often used that ability to get me to be malicious towards my mother (he at one point persuaded me to steal her wedding rings after the split, which he immediately pawned for drug money). Eventually after living with him for a while, because I was young and stupid and didn't realize he was evil, we came home to changed locks. After I snapped out of whatever brainwashing shit happened, I was filled with nothing but rage. I put him in prison after he left me with grandparents and broke his parole to escape to Florida, and made the mistake of calling me. I used a reverse phone lookup and Google Earth to tell me where he was, and two weeks later, he was extradited to Illinois. It's one of the things I'm most proud of in life. I was 8 when it started, by the time I put my dad in prison, it was the summer of my 8th grade year, I think, so I would have been 13 or 14. All of those years blend together in my head.
I spent those years in between being tossed around, manipulated. About halfway through is when I started to realize what was going on, and I started reading books on facial expressions and manipulation, and trained myself to see lies, for the singular reason that I wanted to know if my dad was lying to me. Despite this, and despite washing dishes with paraphernalia on them at my dad's house, I was young and I wanted to believe I could fix everything and get my family back together.
My parents were always violent, there was constant fighting. My dad would beat down doors, my mom would lock herself in her room to cry, and my young sister and I were left to our own devices. I had to finish dinner more than once: I didn't know how to read a measuring cup, so macaroni was always runny. The split came when my dad was fired for embezzlement the first time, he somehow got off with only rehab. My dad had made my mother stay at home, she wasn't allowed to have a job or friends, so when she had to take over in the later years, she didn't have a lot of work experience outside of a factory (she had me when she was 20, dad's 8 years older). So she went back to that factory that she'd worked at on and off whenever we needed money.
Despite all of that, I was determined to live with my dad. He had convinced me that everything was my mom's fault. Even though I was 8-12 years old during these years, I still feel guilty about it. When my dad was fired and went to rehab, my mom finally kicked him out. She became a fierce woman, unlike anyone I've ever seen. But she couldn't afford to keep the big house and the animals or to sustain the lifestyle we'd had, so when we moved to a shitty little apartment in a neighboring town, I resented her. I would later meet people in that town and in that school that I owe my life to, so I'm a lot happier that it happened then.
But, I resented her at the time. So I would run away, and yell and scream at her, telling her she was shit and that I wanted to live with my dad. Eventually, I got what I wanted, but only because I wore her down. Living with my dad should have opened my eyes. We went from basement to basement of houses in East St. Louis and Granite City (I'm from a small town in Southern Illinois). There were drugs, prostitutes, and very bad things going on. But, he bought me video games, big TVs, and I didn't have to go to school. Eventually his AA sponsor let him rent a house in Belleville, a really nice place. We moved in, and it went to shit pretty quickly. One night, a prostitute came downstairs. She had the same name as my mom, and she told me she'd try to fill her shoes. It took every ounce of restraint my ten year old self had to not beat her to death with the Xbox controller, I was playing Mass Effect at the time.
A lot of other stuff happened too, I literally wrote a book about all of this last year (and more recent stuff). But, eventually, the locks changed. He'd been embezzling again. In the long car ride home, it finally snapped in my head that my dad was a piece of shit. I heard him blame his AA sponsor, saying "YOU should have seen the signs!" He refused to take responsibility for his actions. I'm ashamed that it took me losing my material possessions to get me to snap out of it. I should have cared more about my mother, but I didn't. I was a little kid, and I grew up in that moment. I became nothing but pure rage.
It was at this point when I realized that I had been used against my mother. I was 10 or 11 (I'm trying hard to get ages right, but as I said, all of these years blend together), but I felt ancient. I felt... I can't describe how I felt. I was full of rage, but I wasn't angry. I was cold. I wanted him to suffer for what he'd done, and I knew that to do that, I'd have to wait, and do it right. I hated him, immediately and completely. I wanted to kill him, but I thought that he deserved worse. I was ashamed for everything I'd done, and I was determined to make him pay for it. I was born with my mother's stubbornness and determination, and my father's ability to lie and manipulate. I put them to use.
After a few weeks of living with him in my grandpa's trailer, he finally took me to a school, one I hated even more than the others I'd been to. When I got home, he'd just left. He'd gotten on a motorcycle and vanished. No one would tell me where he went, but I was a smart kid. I knew he had to be running from cops, and that meant breaking the parole he was still under from his first embezzlement run-in. So I started to pay attention to things. My grandpa would check the weather in Florida, but wouldn't explain why. My dad got weak, and started to call the phone. I would write down all of those numbers. His mistake was in thinking that I was still under his spell, like my mother had been for the many years she lived with him.
But I wasn't. I was watching. And when those numbers stayed the same for a few weeks straight, I fed them into a reverse-phone-number lookup, and found they were to a hotel in Daytona Beach. This matched his story, he'd told me he was working for rent at a motel. I was actually shocked that he'd said something truthful.
A few weeks went by as I considered. I moved back in with my mom, and things were very tense. I hadn't told her anything, because I didn't think she'd love me anymore after what I'd done. I was convinced that I was alone in it, but I still wanted to make him suffer. I dug through my mom's desk and found the phone number of the Detective that was investigating his embezzlement in Belleville, and I called him up. We spoke for a while, and I gave him the exact address of the hotel, along with it's name and phone number. Two weeks later, he was extradited. A little while later, sentenced to five years in prison.
No one had told him what I'd done, and that was fine with me. It meant I got to torture him in my own way. My dad's big thing was writing letters, long ones. He'd write to me, and I'd ignore him. I responded once or twice to letters I found ridiculous (in one, he said all sin was equal, and in another I responded purely to call him a coward for running). I owe it to my dad that I became such a talented writer (which is probably not evidenced in this post), I learned to write for emotional effect in that time. I was in 8th grade at this point, no one else knew what was going on.
I got tired of getting letters, so I made sure he couldn't send them to my home address (I lived with my mom). So he'd send them through my great-grandmother. I stopped his ability to send letters to her. Eventually, I had cut him off from anyone who wouldn't pick up the phone or come and visit him. I made sure he felt alone.
Fathers day rolled around, it was the summer between my 8th grade and freshman year. He wrote a letter to the editor, "From a father." The letter infuriated everyone around me, including his own family. Within it, he played the classic game: to take responsibility, and in the same breath, pass it to everyone else. He made himself out to be a discouraged man, to be a victim, to make people feel sorry for him. No one fell for it, but I saw an opportunity to put an end to everything.
I wrote a letter for next week's paper. Within it, I shared my stories. I was young, and I was just learning to write, but it is the second finest collection of words I've ever put to paper. I could be embarassed about grammar or flow or little errors, but I'm not. It was strong. I told the story which was fresh in my mind, much as I have here. I documented everything that happened, and how I responded. I made it visual, I made it relatable, and I chose my words as carefully as I could. I ended the letter by directly responding to my father's. "From a son." was the title, and this is the last paragraph:
"People make their own decisions, dark powers do not make them for you. If you are one of those fathers out there in a situation like that of the one above, take responsibility for yourself. Be a man, and acknowledge what you've done, my father is a coward, he will be for the rest of his life. Do not cry and regret what you've done, there is nothing you can do about it now, own up to it, and do what you can to reverse it.
What is a father? Sometimes I really wish I knew."
I didn't allow anyone to read this letter before I sent it in, so the first time anyone had heard of it, it was already in the paper. I saw my mother read it, and even though we'd grown close, it helped to settle things. But the most powerful reaction was that of my grandfather on my mother's side. He hadn't been involved in much of anything on my side, I'd never discussed anything with him. But, sitting at my kitchen table, I saw him read that letter and break down crying. It was at that moment that I knew I had to write for a living. I wanted to write for effect, to change things. I wanted to use my words to change the world, even though I had no idea what my beliefs even were at that point. I just knew that I had to write, and I've never stopped since.
My mom says that I looked exhausted through those years, and I'm sure I did. Insomnia and I started a love affair that's still faithful to this day.
I'm only 19 now, but it feels like a century since that happened, I refer to it as the "Schism." My mother and I are close, even though she was the last person I told that I was gay (I told the guy I'd fallen in love with before I told her, and I fully expected him to hate me, but he's still a good friend that I care about a lot). My mom and I stay up late sometimes and tell "war stories" of when we lived with my dad, and when we fought him, separate at the time. I feel old, and when I got depressed a few years ago about being in love (figuring out the gay thing at the same time), that made everything worse. I didn't trust anyone because of what my father did, I barely had friends, and I didn't believe that anyone could want to be my friend. I got suicidal (I wanted to do it, but I never attempted, for various reasons), but my best friend listened to me, a lot more than he should have had to (and he still listens to me, because I'm still a lunatic). I owe ironpotato, my best friend (and who's e-mail I ignored the other day because I was moody), my life. If it hadn't been for him, two teachers, another friend named Liz, a lot of people who said a lot of little things without knowing what I was going through, and a very... Unexpected person named John, I wouldn't be here.
I wouldn't change anything that's happened to me: I'm grateful for all of it. Because of my father's actions, I've become a much more determined individual. I'm less likely to be manipulated, and while I wish I could trust the people I love, it's probably worth not doing so. It's built me in a way that I don't think much of anything aside the death of a loved one would knock me down. I am the most stubborn person I know, and while sometimes I'm an asshole, and sometimes I belittle people, I really do want the best for others. My father's actions have given me the skills to make things happen. Because of everything, I found the best friends I've ever had, I fell in love, not quite fruitlessly: I discovered parts of myself I may otherwise wouldn't have. I developed the skills to write for emotional effect, and I developed a passion for reading and research. Now a days, I do a lot of research into LGBT youth, and youth suicide. Right now I'm working on a screenplay; I finished my first book last year. I had to build myself because my parents were preoccupied, but it happened in the hardest way, and sometimes that's for the best.
So, I've told that story here now. I've told it before many times, especially in High School. It's a shame you can't hear it in person, because I'm a good storyteller, otherwise there'd be very little reason for anyone to listen to me. I realize you only asked how old I was when this happened, but it happened over many years. I did feel the need to work and help my mother out. I got my first job at a small newspaper when I shamelessly padded my hours, then got a real job at a nearby place, and got my best friend his first job there so I had someone there. Right now it's between terms at University, and I'm in debt, no job, and I can't even afford to register for classes right now due to a fuckup over summer classes that I need to sort out. But, if there's anything my life has taught me so far, there is no situation that's impossible, and I've had two things I've said over and over again, they've become my personal mottos: "So it goes," and "I'll figure it out."