Childhood trauma is a tricky subject. Children, new to the world, are incredibly innocent, fragile, and trusting. As a child you trust that your parents aren’t there to hurt you. You expect instinctively that they are there to do what is best for you, that what they tell you is the truth. Somewhere as an infant you learn that if you do something good, you will be rewarded, you behave badly, you will be punished. Those are the basics of our early conditioning. As toddlers, you do your best to communicate your needs, wants, and feelings based on the social cues around you. The expectation, no the duty, of the parent is to help these new human beings figure out the world and not to take advantage of the trust they put into your hands.
Adults should not blame you for your existence. Your parents should not ridicule you for your failures. Your parents should not compare you to other kids and degrade you for not being someone else. You should not be expected to have all the answers or to know how to behave in any situation. You should not be made to feel dumb for not having the world figured out. That is why you are a kid. You are still learning; you are still exploring this big and unknown world.
What happens when you don’t get that security? What happens when you have to figure out the world for your own and try to make sense of what’s the norm, of what’s good and bad?
My parents divorced when I was four. I spent the rest of my time living in Europe shuttling between two parents, two very different personalities. When I was eight my mom and I moved to America. It was a culture shock to say the least. It still is 18 years later. It was a decision of my mom’s that I never agreed with. Growing up in such a different country than mine I never felt comfortable, I felt out of place, and through elementary school I was teased for being different, for having parents that grew up and behave based on different values. It is said that the first 10 years establish us as individuals and how we see the world. I spent 8 of those years living in a different country and it established my view of the world as well as my moral compass. I’ve lived in America most of my life, but I sometimes still don’t understand the people here, the values, or the culture. As an adult I understand that differences are ok. As a kid I didn’t understand why I was considered weird and wrong for being different. I had no friends in elementary school that I could talk to and have the relief that they understood me. They didn’t understand the complexity of my issues. They couldn’t relate. They were carefree, as kids should be.
No matter what I did, I didn’t fit in, I didn’t feel comfortable. I was scared going through elementary school. The others kids intimidated me and I felt judged. Meanwhile at home things were not peaceful. My grandmother would verbally demean me and my mom. Yet, in spite og that, she and my mother did their best to try to get me exposed to activities and other kids. They took me to ballet, got me enrolled in soccer, softball, choir, church, and since I was already a shy kid, very uncomfortable in my surroundings, I felt like I was being set up for failure by being thrust into these activities with kids that weren’t accepting of my being different or into sports that were highly aggressive. The sports and activities felt unnatural and it gave me anxiety. I tried to voice how I felt but as I was a child “I didn’t know what was good for me” since “they were adults and knew what was best for me” they got to call the shots.
The foundation was being laid for my finding ways to protect myself from people. I needed to find a way to feel in control. I was being hurt enough at home. I had too much uncertainty there. I did not need that at school and other areas of my life. I felt invisible, not worthy of life, love, trust, or security.
What does childhood trauma do to you? What does an abusive home turn you in to? Im sure there have been studies done on this topic that outline direct correlations between verbally abusive parent to child. Have I read any of these studies? Of course. Could I relate to them? Absolutely. Is it enough knowing that this issue is valid? No, it’s not enough, because I am stuck with the repercussions of having lived with it. It’s never been about the general sense of these issues. How does it apply? How does it help me survive my truth? We are not all made with cookie cutters.
What did childhood trauma do to me? PTSD is such an obvious responce. Isn’t it the reason why Im writing this blog? There are so many layers to what my verbally abusive grandmother turned me into. I became a bully in middle school. I ran an organized crime unit with other kids working for me from the end of 6th grade through the end of 8th and through the end of middle school. I was a godfather of sorts. I had the dirt on everyone. I was a gimme your lunch money kind of bully. I was intimidating and I relished the control it gave me. I hunted other people. It helped me feel like I had some sort of power in my life when I had none at home. Ironically one of the people I gave a hard time to ended up being my best friend through high school and into college. In high school when I grew out of being a bully, when puberty calmed down a little and I came into my own , when the verbal abuse at home went up a notch, I found a new way to have a control.
The new way still had basis in the same concept. I was intimidating and I strived to be so. Except now that I was older, I was experimenting with my sexuality, what it meant to me, and what effect it had on other people. I was the quiet one in my group of friends. I wasn’t overly outgoing but neither was I socially awkward. I was the reliable one. I was the one everyone came to for advice, for answers, for mediation. My reserved demeanor was admired and sought after. I knew everything there was to know about the secrets of my friends. They would never suspect I had this other life. It made me feel safe and in control.
My first boyfriend was freshman year of high school when I was 15. In the one month we dated I understood that I didn’t want to be tied down to anyone. So I broke it off. I wanted my freedom. I wanted to be able to do what I wanted and to be how I wanted. I wasn’t going go be tied down with rules of a relationship when I was already being prompted on how to be and what to do at home. So I began experimenting on what made me attractive to others and how I could use that to hurt other men. I don’t know why I went after men. It was instinctual. With my grandmother and sometimes my mom saying how I was ugly and undesirable, towards my turning 17, I did my best to prove them wrong on every account.
They said I was stupid? I took AP and honors courses and studied hard. I was a waste of time? I was lazy? I wrote books, excelled as a pianist, and became well read in the classics and history. I was fat, ugly, and undesirable? Ok, challenge not accepted. Out of all that was said to me, this always stuck with me the most. It is so easy for our vanities to be injured and mine was destroyed. I knew I was smart and capable, my grades and large group of friends proved that, but I was terrified of not being loved and not being wanted. Going through high school already is tough to navigate through your many firsts, to try to be noticed, and to try find your mark.
So I learned how to be charming. I kept it under wraps, but enjoyed the use of it for my own amusement. I kept the extent of it from my friends, but they were always regaled by my various escapades, and I monitored making sure word didn’t spread around me through school. I wanted to become the unattainable object of desire. I learned body language that would lure men in, and when things pushed towards my boundary of comfort I rejected them. I played these games and relished them. I needed dominance over my relationships, however casual and fleeting. Everything was always by my rules and on my terms. I kept them intrigued until they were wanting more. It was all hollow. It was designed for my own amusement. Yet on the inside I was empty. The game or the hunt, as I like to call it, did nothing to quell my insecurities. I rearely allowed myself to acually feel.
One guy stands out in particular in my memory: The One That Got Away. He was my fire. One I was never skilled enough to play the game with. He was a master manipulator himself, a stereotypical bad boy. He and I went to grade school together; we watched each other grow up and develop as people. We were notorious for hating each other yet the line between hate and desire is so almost non-existent. We knew that our verbal slandering at each other was just fun and games. We had a mutual understanding and we never would go too far. We both understood the appearances we were both keeping up because on the side we were both pursuing each other. The tete a tetes we would have always ended up in me backing down. My fear of being burned and my utter inability to relinquish control prevented me from surrendering to him. Even later in life when our paths would keep crossing, I would lose my nerve.
He grew up into a beautiful man. He had issues at home, I don’t know what kind, but I know he felt like he didn’t fit in there and that he was hurting. I could see that he was as damaged as me, yet unlike me, he did not care if it destroyed him. Maybe his storm is what kept me at bay. We were both damaged, looking for validation, looking for someone to drown ourselves in nevertheless I wasn’t prepared to sacrifice myself to get lost at sea. I knew that somewhere there was a future I needed to stay sane for, to stay in line for.
The list of men and conquests continued into college. I collected all sorts of personas; I was searching and studying as to what made these people what they are, what hurts they carried. I was so numb emotionally after my grandmother’s house that I needed to feel alive. Men and their admiration of me did that for me. My ability to turn them down gave me the power to feel safe from rejection. If I was the one turning them away meant that I wasn’t the one being rejected.
It’s safe to say that no man, boyfriend or play thing, ever got to know me: not what made me joyous, not what made me terrified, not what my demons were. I was so sure that if they knew my history they would run. I wish I could say that this fear is one I was able to over come, but alas I have yet to master the fright of allowing somebody to get close to me. With the focus of PTSD recovery in the last 3 years and my car accident recovery in the near recent year I have not been dating. I haven’t been hunting. I lost my spark. I lost my charm. I lost my confidence. PTSD completely stripped me of my identity. Even now that I understand it and can live again, breathe again, I am still too afraid to engage in any sort of relationship.
So trauma made me into a bully, and then a huntress of sorts. I preyed on people’s emotions. I was dealing with my circumstances in an unhealthy way. I was doing the best I could. Yet these serious relationships I did allow myself to have when I felt the guy was out most worthy of trust, I experienced anxiety, fear, panic, and fright of being abandoned. Looking back on one boyfriend in particular who in spite of all my trepidations did the best he could to truly make me feel secure, loved, and understood. We were so young, and the timing for us was bad. I didn’t understand what I do now: his kindness, patience, and his aide with helping me overcome my abandonment issues. It’s like he knew I was afraid he just didn’t know of what.
All of my friends knew of my crazy grandmother, but the extent of what went on in that house remained unknown to them. So this wonderful boy who was just trying to love me, date me, and get to know me, got me at a time when I was at a crossroads in life. I was in transition to move to the east coast to attend culinary school. He caught me at a time when I was fighting for my identity and my freedom. I was so scared to lose him because I loved him. I was also paranoid that he would abandon me; that one day he would wake up and decided I wasn’t worthy and validate all the things my grandmother was saying; and I was so angry that he didn’t understand my pain.
Looking back on it all I understand how many friends I pushed away, how many people I hurt, just because I was reacting to being manipulated by someone who should have been my guardian. I understand now that those people all really did care for me, that they weren’t out to get me, and I just didn’t see it until now. In my move to the East Coast I was paranoid about anyone standing in my way. I felt the friends that I had at the time did not understand the gravity of my situation because they had no idea as to what I had been going through and that failure would mean to return to that abusive house.
Going into culinary school I knew this was my opportunity to create a self without having my mind poisoned against everyone and everything. It was hard at first but I learned to lead with myself, to be honest. I began building relationships with people based on who I was and how we connected as people instead of using intimidation tactics or the voice of my grandmother tainting my understanding of situations and people. Instead of bullying I learned how to practice kindness and compassion. I still lived with my trauma which was present and ever growing. Instead of taking it out and hurting other people I did my best to understand where they were coming from. If I understood them, then maybe they’d stop and try to understand me. Practicing empathy towards others, although a good stepping stone to a better place, kept triggering the beginnings of my PTSD. At that point I stopped understanding myself, my feelings, how to manage them, or how to be compassionate towards myself. I’d have a long journey ahead of me to unravel my trauma, look into the chasm of hell, and learn how to not let the depths consume me.