This is what I woke up to this morning. I’m going to try and explain how this is a sea change for me. It’s going to be a total bummer of a story, but hang in there. There’s a happy ending.
I’ve written and spoken pretty extensively about my abusive childhood, but I rarely tell the stories. I have a selection of stories that I think are hilarious in their downer-hood, and some stories that are only hilarious to me while the rest of the room gapes in open mouthed horror, but I rarely give out the gorey details. This is purposeful and I have a lot of reasons for it, but I’m going to break that rule so I can explain just how important this tweet is in my life.
My childhood was abusive and neglectful. A lot of people have sadness and trauma in their childhood and part of the reason I don’t tell my stories is so that they can’t be ranked. I am not interested in playing a game of “Who Had it Worst!?” (Boy, would that be some weird theme music.)
Many people experience abuse and trauma. But my parents? Were experts. They went to creative and innovative lengths. It’s like, if everybody eats, some people really really enjoy food, and my parents were foodies. My parents were the foodies of abuse.
I have a specific memory. We lived in a house in Broomfield Colorado, and my younger sister and I were too young to start school. Which meant that I was 3 or 4 years old. We lived in the basement and my dad worked days while my mom worked nights and my two older siblings went to school. So I was home alone with my younger sister until my mom came home from work, and then we had to be quiet while she slept after her shift. And kept sleeping until everyone got home. So my sister and I would stay in the basement by ourselves until my siblings came home from school. Sometimes my mom would call down the stairs and hand us a bag of donuts on her way off to bed, but most of the times we would fend for ourselves.
I was three or four years old and I was climbing down the stairs with a bowl of cold cereal, trying to balance it carefully so I didn’t spill the milk on the stairs and face trouble. I’d set us up in front of the TV and we’d watch Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers Neighborhood and that was the only happy part of my childhood.
I learned to read at 3 years old because of Sesame Street. I had friends who I felt cared about me. I saw happy families and people and muppets work through conflict with understanding. I would pray that Maria and Luis would adopt me and that Grover and I could be friends.
I grew up and I learned to keep secrets. I learned how to hide and let people believe what they wanted to believe. And like most abuse survivors, I believed that I was intrinsically damaged and dangerous. I believed that there was something so wrong in me that my parents couldn’t help but abuse me. It was easier to accept blame than it was to face that the people who were supposed to protect me were dangerous. And as I hit my teenage years and began to think about my future, I knew in my bones that children could not be a part of it. I *knew* that I was a Nitrogen bomb and that when the day came – and of course it would come – that I exploded, everyone in my path would be charred. I was a 16 year old high school drop out who lived in my car. I was a street rat. The life lessons I had to pass on were how to spot trouble, how to dodge, how to hide, and how to climb through a vent to get to the locked up food. Nothing a happy child should have to know. I knew that the best way I could protect my potential children was by not having them.
As the years went on, that shame became a secret too. In our society having kids is still pretty much a given, and for a girl in a religious environment it’s all but a fact. All of those feelings became a burden that inspired reinvention and denial. As I kept getting older and faced the years of infertility, I was nearly crushed under the conflict of an honest desire for children to love and a secret relief that they weren’t coming.
I worked really really hard at addressing that. I have always been diligent about getting emotionally healthy and this was one area that I dove deep into. People tell me a lot that I’m brave because of what I talk about publicly, but it doesn’t feel brave to me, it’s just how I’m wired. If I’m going to claim any bravery for myself it’s in staring the ugly right in the face and dealing with it. Whatever success I have as a mother is because I did that. I opened that door and I looked in the dark corners and I faced it all down so that my children wouldn’t have to.
Getting that tweet from Sesame Street brought me right back to that 3 year old me. It brought me right back to that loneliness and longing and that hope that someday someone would love me. And it made me realize, again, in a way that 3 year old me could understand, that I did it.
I took all the ugly that I was handed and I transfigured it into love. And because I did that my child will never know that world. He will be untouched by the Nitrogen bomb because I spent years defusing it and turning it into fertilizer that nourishes the soil and creates beauty.
That tweet was a pat on the back from a beloved family member, telling me that they were proud of what I’ve done. I don’t have parents or grandparents to tell me they’re proud of me. I only communicate with two siblings who live far away. No cousins. No aunts or uncles. No family friends or old teachers or church elders. There is no one in my life who could have offered that and had it mean anything like this. This was a gift that I will treasure forever.