It probably wouldn’t surprise you if I told you I’ve put off writing this post, because this is the one that’s the hardest to write. This is the one that I’m not sure I can articulate well, if at all. Because to articulate what happened, I have to go back through what happened. And I’ve not done that for a very long time. I’m also not confident I can remember.
I’ve talked about how my memories are fragmented, pieces of the whole. But often hazy and sometimes missing altogether. My hope is they’ll come together with some cohesion here. And I pray this process will encourage all of us to see each other as people living in the present but tethered to their pasts. Not defined by them, but tethered. Loosely perhaps, but still. Even those of us who know the reality of being Christians. Our former ways of looking at life are changed. Our former desires for living life outside of what God wants for us are changed. But our life – our experiences, our families, our friends – that life is very much still a part of us and has informed who we are today.
So much of American Psychology focuses on the positives. We see articles from Psychology Today about the most successful habits of the most happiest people. And it’s usually something about living your best life in the here and now and forgetting about the past. Or envisioning what you want your perfect life to look like and then simply having the confidence to attain it. Pop psychology, IG posts, TikTok, and Facebook have all contributed to the superficial understanding of human existence many people have today. I’m supposed to be successful. I’m supposed to be happy. I’m supposed to have great friends, a great job, a great life. I’m supposed to tackle it all and be ah-mazing.
But this is not how we were created. We cannot just move on from heartache, loss, neglect or trauma and we cannot pretend to be people we are not. Or feel something we do not. At least not for long. Sooner or later, the reality of how God has made our complex minds and bodies will come knocking on our door. Sooner or later, we’ll realize this superficial view of life most often leads to more anxiety, more depression, more numbing (drugs, alcohol, binging on food or tv, hoarding, etc.), more masking (creating an outward personality that is not who we really are on the inside), more personal failure than facing reality head on.
But actually dealing with our reality is hard. Too hard for some of us to bear. And so I sympathize with and understand those who cannot bring themselves to this place of remembering. For them, I pray it will come. I pray the floodgates will open. But more so, even if they aren’t ever able to work through the pain of their past, I pray they will experience what is necessary to get to that place. I pray they will know love and know safety. I pray they will learn to trust someone with their whole heart and I pray they will be free.
The first time my dad left us, I was about seven, maybe a little younger. I sat at the kitchen table with my brothers, surrounded by the yellow and brown plaid wallpaper, and I watched him walk out the door. He didn’t turn around. He didn’t say goodbye. He didn’t care. I didn’t exist and I certainly wasn’t important enough for him to stay. He simply walked away. That Christmas, we went to a mall together and I remember the lights and the decorations and how excited I was to have my family together again. But on Christmas day, my dad wasn’t there. He left my mom a gift under the tree. I remember my mom was so angry because it was a gift that someone who loved you would leave. But my dad wasn’t there. He was with some other woman instead. I don’t remember the other woman’s name, but I know there were at least three of them he left us for from this time until I turned 16.
I have very limited memories of the years before that and the several years after. I remember a little bit of happy, but mostly, I remember a lot of sad. I need to tell you these are only the things I remember, not things others have told me. Things my traumatized child brain processed. They may not all be completely right and that is what frustrates me most. These are all the things I have to inform me of where I came from and who I was – who my family was – and to know they may not be completely accurate and are most likely not in the right time sequence is difficult to reconcile. But it’s all I have.
I remember our dog, Amber, who was a giant St. Bernard and the sweetest thing, but we had to give her away. I remember I had a favorite doll that went to the “doll hospital” to be repaired, never to be seen again. (I gave my mom quite the hard time about this a few years ago when I sent my daughter’s American Girl Doll to an actual doll hospital and it actually came home.) I remember I wet the bed a lot and my dad thought I was disgusting. I remember him yelling at me and shoving my head into the soiled sheets. I remember he said I was fat all the time and sang songs to ridicule me. I remember I was angry when my little brother was born, because my mom left me to be with him, so I ran head first into a wall, leaving a scar I have to this day. I remember my kindergarten teacher was the kindest, gentlest woman I had ever met. I remember I wasn’t very good at softball and hated the fact that my dad coached me. He kindly encouraged the other players, but I did everything wrong.
I remember being yelled at a lot. And trying to always be good, so I wouldn’t make anyone mad. I remember my mom being shoved around and screamed at, never measuring up to my dad’s expectations. I remember my brother crying. I remember my dad spanking us with a belt whenever we disobeyed. I remember hiding in my closet to try to get away from him. I remember my mom having a pepper shaker thrown at her face and her nose bleeding all over. I remember her being shoved out of the house in the dark of night and my dad locking all the doors, refusing to let her back in. I remember her crying and being terrified for her. I remember my grandparents coming to help us, sitting on the bed with them, asking them why my dad was so mean. I remember summers at their house, picking berries, and painting with my grandma. I remember being happy there.
And then my memories get really muddy, because then things started to escalate at home. My older brother is just over a year older than me and was adopted at birth. My parents didn’t think they could have children of their own and after some years of trying, they adopted Todd. It was 1969 and adoptions were closed. Looking back on his life, after thinking through all of his behaviors and difficulties, my mom and I are quite certain he has Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, the same disability my son has. It is caused by pre-natal exposure to alcohol. In other words, we believe his birth mom drank while she was pregnant with him. If that diagnosis is true, the way my parents taught him and disciplined him made everything much, much worse.
Even though we didn’t know any of that at the time, it was apparent very early on that he had difficulty regulating his emotions and also had some learning disabilities, which mostly came out at school. He was such a sweet little kid – a total charmer – but he was quite difficult as well. He wasn’t good in school and he wasn’t good at all the things my dad valued either – specifically sports. He just wanted to be loved, but he took the brunt of my dad’s anger on numerous occasions. My brother was a big kid, though. “Husky” we used to say. And he started fighting back, which made my dad hate him even more (at least it seemed like hate to my child mind). And it got ugly.
My brother ran away for the first time when he was eight. I remember him riding off on his Huffy bicycle and I remember my mom being terrified. He came home later that night, but it was only the first time that he escaped. He continued to have a hard time in school, doing poorly in class and being disciplined for his behavior. Then he started using chewing tobacco and smoking pot around age ten. I remember when my mom found some pills in his room and I think he told us he was taking Speed. It was a shock to me, because around this time, he had actually mellowed out around me. (This was before we understood that stimulants are calming to people with dysregulated nervous systems; people with ADHD, people with FASD.) He wasn’t so combative and hyper. He didn’t get in my face and yell at me as much. He didn’t pull out knives and corner me in the kitchen, pretending he was going to cut me like he had before.
The rest of the time my brother was at home is a blur, but I remember it was extremely volatile. There were physical fights between him and my dad that were violent, at times to the point where my child mind was sure my brother was going to die. I remember my dad pinning him up against the wall by his throat. And I remember my dad pointing a shotgun to his head, but my mom says this did not happen. She remembers threats but not an actual event like that happening. I imagine my mind played it out as the words were being spoken. And she remembers other violence against him that I do not.
From the time Todd was around 11 through about age 14, he was in three different treatment facilities, in juvenile detention at least twice for drugs and stealing, in a wilderness program, and lived with some friends from church for a little while too. He was gone more than he was home and when he was home, our home life was worse than when he was gone. When he was told he would not be able to go to high school, but would have to repeat 8th grade, he left for good. He was maybe 14, maybe 15 at the time. Out on the streets. Where we didn’t know. With whom we didn’t know. We didn’t hear from him for over 2 years, not a phone call, not a letter, absolutely nothing. For two years we didn’t know if he was dead or alive. Many times I thought I’d never see him again. He finally got in touch with my mom, but he didn’t come home. He had had enough.
This post is continued at Trauma – My Story (Part 2)