When I was a child I scowled. My expression was a severe case of “Resting Bitch Face”. I do not remember being very unhappy as a child, but I do remember not being overly happy. I simply existed in my life, experiencing moments of joy and moments of sadness, together intertwined the way kudzu vines dance with trees on the side of the highway.
I remember the terror of my 3rd birthday party because it was circus themed and I could not recognize my parents in their clown costumes. I remember intoxicating exhilaration as I whisked down the sidewalk on my brother’s Big Wheel, the wind whipping my hair across my face and beating it against my ears.
I remember my mom’s puffy, red face and her downcast eyes the first time I realized my dad liked to hit her. I was four.
I remember the glares she used to give me, the tone she used when she addressed me, and sitting at the top of our stairs in the dark because I’d had a nightmare and I knew if I woke her up looking for comfort she would scold me and shame me, so I didn’t. I just sat there, alone, quietly crying. I was seven.
I remember bruises.
I remember screams.
I remember loud but muffled sobbing from their bedroom.
I remember being so afraid of my father I used to wet myself when he’d come home from work because I was afraid of being in trouble even if I hadn’t done anything wrong.
I was afraid of his belt. And I was afraid of my mother’s wooden spoons.
I remember wondering if I would survive my childhood. I wondered if any of us would survive. Twice in my early twenties I tried to end my life because I no longer thought I could survive the horrors of living with my parents for the first 18 years of my life.
I have often envied people who only had one bad parent. I’ve heard them speak about how terrible their mom or their dad was and how grateful they were for the other. And there I’ll sit, wishing I could say a plethora of nice things about either of my parents and coming up with superficial compliments.
“My father is a veteran!” (My father was charged with domestic violence against my mother, arrested, court ordered into Anger Management. I watched him push her to the ground, put a knee to her chest, grab her hair at the nape of her neck, and threaten to end her life. He cheated on my mother, abused her, manipulated her, and then left her with three kids.)
“My mother was a musician!” (My mother was a compulsive liar who lied to me and my dad about who my biological father actually was, stole my dog, stole money from me, and shamed me and gossiped about me for getting pregnant before marriage, even though she was never married to my biological dad.)
I did not win the parental lottery. And while my parents were never alcoholics or drug addicts, they were still not good parents and not super great people either. They kept us fed and clothed but their parental duties ended there. They did not seek to heal or protect our hearts, encourage our dreams, or support our goals. We were largely left to our own emotional devices and became emotionally crippled and damaged because of this.
So, no. I did not win the parental lottery.
But, I did survive.
In their own twisted, screwed up ways my parents taught me to rely only upon myself for my emotional wellbeing. They taught me to be independent and self-sufficient. They taught me to never expect anything for free and they taught me not to trust people too easily.
They also taught me that people can change, even if only a little. They taught me that forgiveness is the most powerful skill one can master and carrying it with you through life will heal nearly every emotional wound. They taught me that I didn’t need wonderful parents to become a wonderful parent. They taught me what not to do, say, think, and feel.
And I have survived my life’s heartbreaks, setbacks, and obstacles because I survived them first.
You will probably survive your messed up childhood, just as I am everyday endeavoring to survive my own. And it is an endeavor. You will be required to dig deep, confront the darkness inside of you, and like Alice with the Jabberwocky, cut it down. But, you can do this. Because if I can, I know you can.
Here’s to you, fellow survivors of childhood abuse, domestic violence, and familial dysfunction. We will survive these things. And we will do it with grace.