Sunday, July 14, 2019

Lost Years

They say, "You don't know what you've got 'til it's gone." Well, if that's true, then I think that the reverse of it must be true as well. You don't know what you've missed until its there. In your face. To show you what you have never had.  .  . 

My friend's mother was in town visiting for a while, & I really got to know her. Got the chance to get close to her. And she told me about all of the things she did with her sons. Like play video games with them, go to concerts with them. (They went to see Linkin Park together! Can you imagine?! Getting to see Chester Bennington in his prime! Oh, I wish I could have seen that while I still had the chance. Rest in Peace, another legend gone to soon.)

But I digress. I got to watch her & her son together, talking in funny accents, making silly inside jokes, the bond that they have. And it's moments like these that make me see all of the years of childhood I lost.

When you come from a tumultuous upbringing, one plagued with abuse, neglect, trauma, poverty, molestation, etc., you're constantly in survival mode. At least for myself, I know I had to become my own hero to get out of it. And I never looked back.

However, once you get out of it, it doesn't necessarily get out of you, & you don't know what was missing. Until you see it for yourself.

I remember being in the 1st grade, hearing one of my classmates get complimented on her Winnie the Pooh overalls. Everyone was telling her how cute they were, & she said they were a gift from her mother. That's when I thought to myself, "Your mother buys clothes for you?" I was used to living in raggedy hand-me-downs from my cousins, or recycled clothing from the 80s that my biological mother (I call her the egg donor, actually) kept in old storage bins. I was lucky if I got something from a thrift store or a discount store that fit me properly. And I was used to my egg donor constantly berating me on my weight, calling me fat, getting mad at me for growing out of her clothes/shoes, despite the fact that I grew taller & broader than her. Hey, she's 5'4" and got with a 400 lb, 6'4" African American man! What did she expect! It's not my fault I grew like a weed! I'm an Amazon!

But it goes sooo much deeper than that. I really didn't think that the toxicity in my household was out of the norm until I seriously got into daytime & evening sitcoms. I grew up watching My Wife & Kids, Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Everybody Love's Raymond, According to Jim, 8 Simple Rules, 7th Heaven, The Bernie Mac Show, & several others (A.K.A. the poor 90s kid who can't afford cable starter pack, am I right?) where I saw how "normal" families functioned. The ways they would talk & interact with each other. And it was watching these shows that started to reveal to me that constant yelling & being hit in the face repeatedly were not a normal part of family life. It was these shows that shed light on the sick reality I was living in.

But still, you don't think about these things once you get out of it. At least for me, I processed these memories in therapy, learned to cope, & focused on moving forward & away from these tragic cards I was dealt with.

Though, inevitably, it still comes up, & especially when you least expect it. Like the time I sat in one of my graduate courses, and the professor randomly asked the class such a simple question: "When you were a small child, what did your parents cook you for breakfast every morning?" I sat there & watched everyone fondly reminisce & spit out their answers like rapid fire.

"Oh, bacon & eggs!"

"Pancakes!"

"Huevos rancheros!"

"Um, I think my mom always made me oatmeal or waffles."

"Grits!"

I sat there, dumbfounded, trying so hard to remember. And I couldn't remember anything. Because there wasn't anything to remember. Everyone in the class took a couple of seconds answering one by one in a circle until it came to me.

"Um.  .  . um.  .  ."

I could feel myself panicking, taking up too much time to figure out an answer.

"Um, I don't think anyone ever made me any breakfast. Um, I remember having to wake up early to go to school to get breakfast in the cafeteria. I remember making myself something to eat. But I don't remember anyone cooking for me, not every morning. Um, maybe once in a while."

I think the class took a break after we had a dialogue about culture, and the professor took me outside to tell me that I didn't have to share anything I was uncomfortable with. Legitimately concerned about my well-being, she said I didn't have to feel pressured to give an answer. She noticed how upset I became, listening to everyone's fond answers that they produced so quickly, & then being completely stumped. I assured her that I'm an open book, I really don't mind sharing aspects of my life with others. But I left class that night feeling so deprived of a "normal" childhood. Everyone answered that question with ease, & I sat there, blankly, trying desperately to think of what was done for me when honestly, nothing came to mind. And the fact that everyone else had it so easy made me truly recognize exactly what was robbed from me.

To take it a step further, there was another course in my Master's program where the very first day of the semester, the professor wanted to start a discussion about parenting practices. She asked us what disciplinary measures our parents would take in raising us. Again, this was another unpredictably painful question to answer. I watched my peers take turns telling amusing anecdotes of trouble they got themselves into & what their parents did to punish them. I don't remember details, but all I can tell you is that their answers were innocent & tame. I looked across the room to see my eyes meet only with one other student, who was turning red as her eyes welled up with tears. I knew exactly what she was thinking. We were both dreading having to go next, waiting to go last, doing whatever we could to direct attention away from ourselves. I could feel myself becoming hotter as my eyes welled up with tears too, & they started streaming down my cheeks. But I'd like to think I've perfected the art of the silent cry. I've had to cry in public so many times when random conversations trigger traumatic reminders of my past. And growing up, tears were a sign of weakness, they were considered a nuisance, & if I cried in front of my mother (or sorry, I meant egg donor) the only response I would get is, "Stop crying, or I'll give you something to cry about!" And if I didn't stop, it was an open palm across my face, several times, the usual. Once I got into foster care, we were all teenagers, and my foster siblings didn't recognize the signs of depression I exhibited. They were just annoyed by my inconsolable sulky mood and bad attitude. Little did they know I distanced myself from them so I could cry privately and away from their cruel remarks and criticism. And so I learned from a very early age how to stop myself from audibly crying & hide behind dark sunglasses, go find discreet corners, & hold my sniffles in so no one would hear or see me while I did.

So I did this that day, & I sobbed under my breath & quietly, inconspicuously wiped away my tears until it was my turn to speak, the floor was mine, & all eyes were on me. I just began weeping as I told the class how I was constantly hit in the face, slammed into walls, scratched by long, dirty fingernails, burned with cigarettes, & thrown around, over the dumbest things. If I did so much as build a fort out of sheets or eat someone's chocolate, I wouldn't hear the end of it for hours, & I'd be slapped so many times I lost count.

But I don't bruise easily. Though I'm light skinned and fairly complected, I've never bruised easily. You can hit me as much as you want, & it probably won't show. (Which was quite convenient for my abusers since they got away with it for such a long time, & the cops would be called to our house or I'd go to school with no evidence left behind of their maltreatment.)

But that doesn't mean it doesn't hurt. Just because you can't see marks on my skin doesn't mean I'm not in pain. But the scars run deep, because my skin may not be marked, my capillaries may not be broken, but the scars I have are psychological & neurological, & their pain seems to be permanent.  .  .

I shared bits & pieces of my story, & this motivated my other colleague, the one that exchanged anxious glances with me from across the room, to share a bit of hers. And sure enough, she could relate to me. The circumstances may have been different, her father was an alcoholic, & that's what led to the turmoil in her childhood household. My family did not consist of addicts, it was solely mental illness that caused them to have such erratic behaviors. But the differences didn't matter, because the damages were the same. Here we were, the only 2 of our kind, completely grown women, crying our eyes out in this graduate course about Human Development because the truth of our pasts was blatantly revealed in its stark contrast to the privilege of our peers.

These moments remain fresh in my memory to this day. Instances where I discovered things I had never known before. Where it becomes clear just how bad I really had it.

Because for so long, & I'm sure many survivors can relate to this, we think it's all our fault. Or it didn't really happen. We made it all up. And we're to blame for everything.

And the gas lighting, or brainwashing that the perpetrators do seems to work to make us doubt ourselves. They will tell you over and over again that they did no wrong, they never abused you. And after a while you may start to believe them. "Maybe they were right? Maybe I did make everything up."

But obviously, you didn't. Yet, you start thinking you're delusional.

Until you have experiences like this. Where everyone discusses their "normal" childhoods, and you can't relate at all. You can't remember any happiness. You can't remember anything other than absence, pain, and resentment. (And in a sick & twisted way, at least it's validating, because now, you know it did happen, it was horrible, & you're not crazy.)

And so I felt some of these feelings come up for me again while my friend's mother was here. How envious I felt that he had a mother who did so much for him, truly cared for him, had fun with him. I told him how lucky he was & that he should never take her for granted. I can only wish I had a mother like her. A badass mother who plays VIDEO GAMES with you!!?? Heck, my egg donor barely knows how to turn on the TV! She struggles to operate a DVD player! She's stuck in the 60s, a video game console would be completely out of question!

Once again, I digress. But the main conclusion I'm trying to get at here is that many of us don't realize how messed up our childhoods were until we see how others had it. And then we truly know what we've missed out on.

I was walking down my street the other day, & I saw that my neighbors had hand drawn a game of Hopscotch on the sidewalk with chalk for their small daughter. One of the times I was walking home, I happened to pass them as they were playing with her, and they encouraged me to play, so I did. I joyfully jumped along, following the directions they had drawn, and heard the resounding laughter that filled the air. They were so nice and she seemed to really be enjoying herself.



All I could do was think back to how nothing like that was ever done for me. I don't remember my egg donor ever playing with me. I can only remember playing by myself, reading, writing, or watching TV, alone.

It's the smallest things that can trigger me. And they're a persistent reminder of the years I've lost. Years that I'll never get back. And as much as I've worked through it, that still hurts.

Grief is not only for the dead. Grief can be for anything that's lost, including things you've never had. And I'm still grieving the childhood that I never had. The one I was cheated out of.

A recent scene from the CW show Jane the Virgin resonated with me, (& don't worry, no spoilers here!) when the main character tells her best friend that it's okay to feel sad for yourself & sad that you didn't have it better growing up. And that's something a lot of us have to learn. It's okay to be sad. It's okay to grieve. And it's okay for me to wish I could have had it better.

But I'm doing everything in my power now, as an adult, to right the wrongs of my past, & give myself everything I never had. I practice so much self-love and self-care. I have to, because back then, there was no one to give it to me, at least not until I got placed into foster care & formed strong, lasting bonds with my foster mother, teachers, mentors, & relatives that my egg donor prevented me from seeing.

I live my life to the fullest, I treat myself to what I want when I can afford to. I'm pursuing all of my dreams & achieving my goals. And I work hard so that I can play hard & spend as much time with my friends & family as possible to make up for what I've lost.

I'm in such a good place right now. I feel incredibly happy every day, and I have so much gratitude to God for how far I've come, for all that I have, & to know that I survived through the struggles & they've made me stronger.

I find myself fulfilled in what I do, in those who I surround myself with, & in the many communities I'm proud to be a part of.

However, it's still necessary to never forget where I came from. I accept the fact that I'm still grieving all of the years I've lost, & I acknowledge that there may always be a hole in my heart.

But I'm trying my best to fill it.

Thanks for reading. <3