When it comes to talking about my childhood, I feel like there are a lot of missing pieces. I have friends who look back on their past with fond memories of third birthday party cakes, princess bed sheets, Barbie doll narratives at bath time. They can remember the dress their mother wore to their high school graduation, the way their father cried when they went on their first date — intricate moments of their youth that bleed colors like a spotlight feature film.
For me, it’s different. Everything is … patchy. I remember parts of it, the big, loud, blaring red parts of it. But, for the most part, my childhood is blank. Black spaces in my subconscious that I can’t quite piece together. Like a puzzle to which you have lost half the pieces.
What I am able to remember, the things I can recall, are pieces of chaos.
I grew up in a divorced home where my parents tried their best to make things work for my sisters and me. But, as the tell-tale story goes with most divorced parents, it’s never that easy. Growing up, I never quite wrapped my head around always being the kid with the broken home. I moved around a lot. My parents fought a lot. Money was tight, things were unstable, and it impacted everyone in my family in different ways.
I was the youngest of three, and with the large age gap between my sisters and me, I was tossed around like a rag doll between my parents. Seen more as a “trophy” than a child, being pulled in mom’s directions for the holidays, but dad’s direction for the weekends. I never felt like I was “seen.” Instead, I was just collateral for a messy divorce that someone wanted to win.
I don’t resent my mother, nor my late father, for the way that things went down. But there were so many times I wished that someone would have stopped and seen the ways in which every word, every fight, and every explosion would later impact me. I think, as a parent, it’s hard to balance the “now” with the “later.” For many parents, it’s hard to look at how every choice we make now can impact our kids later on, down the road.
Most parents think of it in terms of financial security, the “are we saving enough money so that our dear ______ can go to college? Buy a home? Be secure?” Never the, “Are the words I’m choosing to use around dear ______ going to hurt her down the road? Are my actions going to cause her insufferable damage years to come?”
During my childhood, I moved six different times, living in six different houses (sometimes even with family friends). My parents fought constantly about finances. My siblings both had struggles with physical and mental health disorders. I lost my paternal grandmother young. My father had a stroke, recovered, and then suffered a bacterial infection that left him in the ICU for two years. He recovered, and later passed. I was a regular at our local hospital, for at least one person in my family. I knew the food court menu down to a T, could tell you exactly where the nurses hid the best blankets and pillow cases. I even got free parking after a while.
Now, as an adult, my life is far from what it was during my childhood.
I’m financially stable. I have a bachelor’s, a master’s, and a post-master’s license. I have two budding and growing careers. I have two adorable dogs and a loving and supportive boyfriend. I have a roof over my head, I can cook a bomb meal every night, and I have a small circle of friends who are funny, inspirational, and awesome women.
But I have absolutely no idea how to handle, nor deal, with my life. I’m completely and utterly uncomfortable in the face of stability.
I don’t know how to sit still and enjoy any moments. When things are going great, I look for something to go wrong or I wait for the “other shoe to drop.” I’m convinced that nothing good in life comes without a catch, or a “But wait, there’s more” kind of moment.
I self-sabotage moments in my life that should be exponentially glorious because I have absolutely no understanding of calm. I dig through mountains of joy to find the one needle in the haystack that screams chaos. It’s like chaos is a drug and I’m constantly seeking it out. I don’t know how to just be content.
I look at everyone around me, all of those who I’ve grown up with, smiling and laughing their way into marriage and parenthood, and while I am excited for all of those next steps, I’m absolutely terrified I’ll ruin it searching for chaos in the darkness.
Psychologists write about this kind of narrative all of the time. Trust me, I’ve Google searched it all at 3:00 a.m. in bed, hiding from my boyfriend, who I pick fights with to feed the frenzy inside me. They say that as a child, when we grow up around chaos and instability, our body is constantly in “fight or flight” mode. The anxiety within us becomes so normalized that we think that it’s only natural to be this way. Our “homeostasis” becomes anxiety, whereas for many, that’s a center of discomfort.
Growing up in chaos means that situations that are filled with chaos and bring on and induce the “fight or flight” mode are normal to me. I’ve become so desensitized to it that it feels almost like going back to the “old neighborhood.” Being anxious, feeling chaos and uncertainty, that’s my childhood home.
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