I am aware that the syntax and grammar would make many cringe. I have not proof-read or edited to include clever memes and eloquent, flowery sentences. It is a very organic, free flow piece of writing and I am content leaving it as such.
This is the first time I have ever re-hashed my childhood so completely, in such detail. Attempting to do so before now would have taken me to a very dark place for several days. I am currently largely at peace with my past; even so I feel a little unsettled after writing this, but for the most part it was only somewhat vilifying and very rectifying.
None of this needed to happen. When I look back on my childhood, and on the many years of my adult life that I spent in a state of deep trauma trying to recover from various levels of negative, deeply engrained conditioning, I am heartbroken. All I needed was love and guidance. I never deserved any of this. It didn’t need to happen. I often imagine the little girl me in my mind, at various stages, and the adult me of the present hugging her and giving her the words of love and reassurance she never had, but needed so desperately. I was never a bad little girl or a problem child, or “retarded,” I was grossly misunderstood and mishandled and dehumanized because I was different (most likely autistic) and I had mental illness, and the awareness and compassion for children like me was nearly non-existent.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Generalized anxiety. Social anxiety. Chronic Depression. Depersonalization and derealization disorder. Possible Asperger’s syndrome (undiagnosed). These are my afflictions. Some I most certainly was born with and no amount of wishing and attempting and hoping will ever make them disappear. Others developed or were grossly exacerbated by a very traumatic, neglectful childhood which I am still recovering from to this day at age 31.
It became painfully clear at a very young age that I was different from everyone else. I operated differently, thought differently, behaved differently, interacted differently, experienced emotions differently. Not only my peers, but all of the adults in my life alienated and ostracized me. Teachers, the principal, babysitters, my mother, my family. The people who were supposed to guide me, protect me, encourage me, make me feel safe and welcome in this world instead made me feel deep guilt and shame-by the time I was eight I wanted to die. I hated myself and cried myself to sleep wishing for angels to take me away from this world every night. I remember being a very loud, outgoing, fearless, creative and confident little girl. Between the ages of 5 and 8, little pieces of me began to fall away and I experienced a slow death until finally, I was a husk of what I once was. I stopped trying to make friends or interact with people, or expressing myself, including emotions. At daycare I would quietly play by myself in the corner, afraid of the judgement and rejection of the other children. Even this seemed to invite judgement and rejection, as I noticed my daycare lady glowering at me and shaking her head from time to time. Clearly she did not approve of me, and I was very observant of this.
My home life was sorely lacking in everything a child needs. My mother was one hundred and fifty percent emotionally absent due to the poor handling of her own demons. She was physically absent much of the time as well; the only interactions I received from her were negative, usually her expressing shame or embarrassment toward me and my siblings and condemning us for being “odd.” I also had an older sibling who was horridly vicious and sadistic, torturing me physically and verbally with little respite every day and I had no protection from it. We were dysfunctional, it was true. The irony here is that the very people who were judging and condemning us for being “odd” contributed to the chaotic little wells of our hearts and minds from which those oddities sprung from. I began to rebel and act out at every opportunity. In the classroom, at home, in the neighborhood, at daycare. I was a mass of confusion and emotions too deep and intense for my young, fragile mind to process and I had absolutely no support or understanding from anyone around me. No one to tell me it was okay, no one to make me feel lovable and acceptable or help me understand that I was not a freak or an abomination, but beautifully unique. No one to help me sort through the emotions I was feeling due to my depression and social anxiety. I would often try to run away from home, tell people I wish I had a different mother, and ask my mother if she wished we weren’t born. I became very self-destructive and suicidal, intentionally putting myself in environments and situations I knew could bring me harm or be the death of me.
Eventually when I was 10 the same daycare lady who made me feel like my existence was a crime and also happened to be my mother’s best friend spoke to her about me, pushing for my mother to send me off to a “treatment center,” or a facility designed to help youth with emotional, behavioral and addictive disorders. I remember the day she drove me three hours away to drop me off at the “treatment center.” She told me we were going to go on a fun trip and that I had to pack everything I wanted to take. I knew immediately something was up. I could sense in her voice and see in her eyes she was troubled and hiding something. In my heart, I knew exactly what we were doing. I knew she was finally getting rid of me. She was taking me to a place I would be punished for being me, for being bad. Although my personality and essence had been crammed safely away into spaces millions of miles away, my astuteness and hypersensitivity to the emotions of others remained. My mom didn’t take me on “fun trips,” and I always suspected as it were that she wanted to be rid of me. But I feigned ignorance and quietly, mechanically began to pack my things. I didn’t argue or question. I didn’t analyze my actions at the time, but I can say now that I had long ago given up speaking my mind. Why would I argue to stay where I wasn’t wanted? Additionally, a sense of deep guilt and shame had been so deeply engrained in me by then that I felt I deserved to be carted off to who knows where. I believed I was a bad, flawed seed.
Neither of us said a word to each other on the way there. I didn’t even look at her, opting to stare out the window instead. I was terrified and my heart was breaking, but I didn’t say a thing. Nor did she bother to prepare me for the new reality I was about to endure. She didn’t tell me the wheres, whys, or whats. Where we were really going, why, what kind of a place it was, and what I could expect. I was dropped off, the paperwork was filled out, we were introduced to the staff, and words were exchanged between my mother and the staff, but I heard none of it. I was simultaneously being swallowed whole by the emotions I was feeling and trying with everything I had to numb them.
And then, just like that, she was gone. I was shown my new room, and the first day of what was a year of absolute pain and hell began. I can count on one hand the times I saw my mother in that years’ worth of time. I do not see any point in going into detail, but what had the potential to be something beneficial and positive instead was something akin to a juvenile detention center, or an insane asylum in the days when there was little education, sympathy, or empathy for those who suffered from mental illness. I was met with more condemnation, more loveless criticism, hostility and sometimes even disgust from the adults employed at this correctional facility. I was watched and evaluated day and night, I had to get permission to pee, to eat, to go anywhere. I was forced to take several different kinds of medication. Most of them made me more emotionally unstable, but I was not given the right to refuse them.
I was made to feel like a plague to society, a lesser human being. When I expressed anger or dissatisfaction, my feelings were often marginalized, mocked, or treated as acts of defiance. My already fragile psyche was further torn asunder. The stigmas and stereotypes associated with mental illness are now glaringly obvious to me looking back. Many behaviors that were typical in children were treated as atypical and needing of correction, such as arguing, refusing to eat a certain food, or expressing sexual interest in one another, and we were especially shamed for behaviors that were actually atypical. I was not treated with the compassion and gentle guidance I so desperately needed, and the last bit of trust I had in the world around me and in myself eroded completely. Every day I felt an overwhelming, choking sadness.
When the year was up, I returned home. I was by no means “corrected.” In fact, I came out more damaged than I went in. I was back to the same old shenanigans, misbehaving and rebelling. Still, I remember feeling so happy to be free, to be home. It wasn’t much, but it was home, and better than where I was, I thought. I didn’t get to enjoy it for long. I don’t know when it happened, whether it was before I was shipped away, during, or after, but at some point my mother had signed away her parental rights to me and I became a ward of the court system. This again was a decision that was pushed by the same woman who convinced my mother that sending me off to treatment was a good idea. The woman who made her disapproval of and disgust toward me very apparent. I was different to be sure, but to her it was disturbing and meant there was something deeply wrong with me. Three days after being released from treatment, I was dropped off at my first foster home.
I don’t remember any of what happened before I arrived that day-I don’t even remember how I got there, but I believe it was a social worker that dropped me off. All I remember was curling up on a bean bag in my new room and bawling, and my new foster mother treating me with hostility and disgust when she found me this way. “No. Uh-uh,” she said heatedly. “There are no pity parties here.” Yes, this happened. It’s real. As horrible and unbelievable as it seems, as much as I can’t even fathom why someone would or could react like this to an eleven year old girl who has just been given up by her mother and thrown out of her home, it happened. This foster family made the employees at the correctional facility look like saints.
I could not rationalize their behavior then, but I know now that again it was a result of ignorance, stigma and stereotype. That, and they were just awful human beings in general. There are many foster parents who are wonderful, who are foster parents for all the right reasons. Who have so much patience and unconditional love to give to troubled, displaced children. I was never fortunate enough to be placed with such people. The role of “foster child” that was forced upon me immediately came with several toxic assumptions. “Problem child.” Before a single act of defiance, a single word of dissent, I was treated as a problem child. Soon, when the fact that I was wired differently became apparent, this family began dehumanizing me. This was the beginning of three years of the dismantling of what remained of my identity and my confidence. Every moment of every day I was verbally abused and rejected-my feelings mocked, my humanity robbed of me. As I had learned to do at a very young age, I quietly turned the other cheek. Their words and actions hurt me to the point that I was deeply traumatized, but I rarely said a word in my defense. When I tried, I was met with such shocking, inhumane cruelty that eventually I was reduced to a near mute. I was afraid to leave my room and this was encouraged. When I did try to be in the same space as them the rejection and distaste for my presence was made clear. I developed a mumble, a stutter and I stopped looking people in the eye. I was treated as less than human-my emotions and thoughts had no validity. I was not allowed any shining moments-any attempt at expressing myself whether through art, poetry, or verbally was immediately shot down and sometimes cruelly mocked. After my foster mother spoke with a psychiatrist and I was evaluated, I was diagnosed as mildly retarded. And I believed it. I believed it to my very core. That family conditioned me to believe I was stupid and worthless, and I was utterly terrified to think and feel and do anything that contradicted this.
The entire family was this way. Their biological sons and daughters, cousins, brothers, sisters…not a single one said anything in my defense, or gave me any words of encouragement, or said anything to bolster my confidence. No one said it was wrong. My pain and sadness must have been very apparent, but no one, not even my social worker, not the county workers…no one showed any concern. No one took the time to validate my feelings, to validate me. Because I was a ward of the court-a rejected, unwanted, “problem child” and a child who was “odd,” and “retarded,” somehow no one seemed to care or question it. I don’t think a single one of them ever thought of it this way, but I learned through their actions that foster children and children with mental illness were seen as subhuman, or lesser. Not just my emotions, but my very person, the entirety of me was continually met with rejection, fear, and contempt during my childhood and adolescence. When I was 14 I attempted suicide. When my foster mother found the empty bottle of pain reliever and found me violently throwing up in the bathroom, she talked to me with the same disgust and hostility that I had grown used to. It was okay to speak to me this way, because I was odd. I was stupid. I was a foster child. My right to feel safe, to feel loved, to feel validated and accepted didn’t even exist to this woman and her family; nor the people who worked with children like myself.
I was sent to another treatment center following my attempt which I remained in for two of the longest years of my life. Although this building was in the same town that my mother lived, she only visited me once while I was there before moving away to another state and leaving me behind. After that I was in 3 more foster homes until I turned 18. Although none of the foster parents were nearly as emotionally abusive as the first ones, I still endured the same hostile, cold, loveless environments to varying degrees.
My early adulthood years were filled with terror, confusion, and uncertainty. I had no idea how to interact with the world around me. Not the slightest clue. I learned to feel shame, guilt, and deep, intense self-loathing. I trusted no one. Everyone was the enemy to me. In my mind they were all going to reject and hurt me and already had, so I kept quiet. I hid my personality. I tried to be the closest thing to invisible, because being noticed and seen was dangerous to me. The expressiveness, animated-ness, and displays of love and affection that comes so easily and naturally to most people were alien to me. I had severe social anxiety induced panic attacks constantly. I could not interact with anyone without mumbling or stuttering and I would hate myself and obsess over any imperfect social interaction I had. I genuinely felt like I was one thing and everyone else was another, and we were millions of miles apart. My sense of isolation and different-ness was very, very defined, and very painful. My early adulthood was spent on a self-defeating, endless quest to be “normal” and deny everything about me that was not normal. All emotions were deeply intensified because of my chemical imbalance. What would be average sadness or depression to someone without mental illness or a traumatic, unstable childhood, was to me emotional and mental torture, intensified a thousand fold.
I was in a state of deep trauma and shock for many years. I was stuck in a sort of stasis and I hadn’t the faintest idea how to heal and become whole. It began to happen though. My determination and persistence paid off. I never stopped looking for solutions. I never stopped learning. Beginning about three and a half years ago, I finally began to move forward and upward. The hardest part of this journey has been learning how to love and accept myself wholeheartedly. I am not completely there yet, but I am always closer.
© A. R. 2016
About the author:
A.R. is an artist, model, and theatre actress. She is currently completing a degree in Environmental Science and Resource Management, with the goal of becoming an ecologist involved in earth and climate science. During the span of her education thus far, A.R has won a scholarship based on academic achievement and consistently earned honor roll status for academic excellence
“E quindi uscimmo a riveder le stelle ~ And so we emerged, and once again beheld the stars.” – Dante’s Inferno
Photo by MONUSCO, Flikr cc2.0