“She grabbed me and started cutting my hair. I quickly understood her mission was to keep cutting until my grandmother arrived.”
Like many of us former foster youth, I attended therapy. It’s almost a right of passage and for me, the only consistent friends I had since I was 11 years old. After 5+ years with my last therapist, I quit. She listened to me cry, ramble and repeat so many times I’m sure she stopped documenting because my sessions started to look like the movie Groundhog Day. And then…one day…all those years of co-dependency with my therapist came to a halt due to five words, “Michelle, you are a survivor.” These words trigger(ed) me. It’s not like I hadn’t heard these words before, but at this very moment in time my ears, my heart and my head just couldn’t listen to this sentence that was used far too often as a way to compliment me and ask me to move on at the same time. No, surviving is not the culprit of the pain living within me. Surviving didn’t make me feel inadequate, small, unloved and insignificant. These particular feelings came with hardcore training of another kind.
Let me explain. My mother abused the five of us kids so often there are only a handful of moments which stand out and because I have a picture of myself (shown above), I remember the incident that led up to it being taken. I was going to see my paternal grandmother along with a sibling I shared a father with. My sibling’s birthday and mine are exactly a month a part. My grandmother took us out for dinner to celebrate us, which only lasted for 2 consecutive years. The first year, my sibling revealed to my mother that I was asking my grandmother about my biological father during our dinner together. I wouldn’t have thought this would anger her so much. Without warning or an opportunity to brace myself, she began smacking me around the face. I don’t remember feeling anything, except my brain coaxing my body to become a pliant rag doll knowing this was the best way to prevent serious injury. I was instantly cut off from what was happening, I didn’t feel my new birthday Amethyst earring torn from my little ear. Dismissing the blood trickling down my neck, my mother became enraged enough to press my small neck up against one of the stairs leading upstairs while wrapping her hands around my neck and squeezing until I blacked out.
The second year my grandma took us out for our birthdays, my mother became enraged hours before the visit was to occur. Before my grandma came to pick us up, I was primping in the bathroom getting ready. My mother came into the bathroom and started mumbling incoherent phrases that mostly involved my grandmother. She then walked out of the bathroom and returned with a pair of scissors. She grabbed me and started cutting my hair. I quickly understood her mission was to keep cutting until my grandmother arrived. The result can be seen in the above picture taken later the same week at school. The last piece of my dignity fell to the floor along with my golden locks. If I cried, I don’t remember. I don’t remember the dinner or anything else that happened that evening. To this day, birthdays are synonymous with anguish and I do not enjoy them. Because so many don’t know my story, I have heard many times, “Michelle, get over it.” Believe me, I wish there was a “Get-over-it” button. I think my brain shut out anything that was too much until I was sitting in my therapist’s office years later.
And I was angry.
I didn’t want to be called a survivor, because I didn’t choose to survive. I had to. The majority of those years I prayed I wouldn’t survive. At the same time, I didn’t want to be thought of as only surviving. My existence was accidental. Surviving means to keep from dying. It’s a reminder that throughout my entire youth I was a nuisance to the adults in my life. So it made sense that when I lived past 30 – which I never expected would happen – I was lost.
I was free of the stress of trying to live. I had to live, but I didn’t have the tools to “just live”. My memories – or better yet, my trainings – were limited. I wasn’t trained for a life of calmness or normalcy. I was trained to land on my feet at all costs and always to watch for the next blow. It wasn’t purposeful and was definitely reactive.
At the time, I needed therapy to help me work through emotion. What happens when the emotion, the trauma, the memories, are the only thing I have to wrap my heart and mind around? I didn’t want to let it go. It’s all I had to fill me up. Without having anything to replace that empty space inside of me, there was no way I could let anything go, not even the pain. “Please therapist, please don’t take the only thing I have left; it is the glue holding me together,” I would cry with anguish, costing my therapist an entire box of tissue. Over and over, panicking at each of our visits, I would allow a piece of me to slip out.
So because I left her office, was all hope lost? No, because I had years of therapy under my belt. The following is what ended up working for me:
Consistency. This can be a friend, therapist or family member. Knowing that no matter what I throw at someone, they will still be there. It is possible to be fostered still as an adult. After all, our internal growth does not stop at 18. Not to mention, I have children and no matter what they throw at me, I am there. Unconditional love is what it is called. I have been married for 26 years and my husband has stuck with me through thick and thin. Our relationship has undone many of my feelings of insignificance due to its consistency.
Re-training. I have mechanically learned how to do things with better results. Such as changing my word patterns. I became cognizant of how I describe myself, situations and other people. I realized my words were the fossils of pain and anguish I continually brought into new situations and relationships. As a result, many of my relationships ended up abusive or with me finding myself abandoned. If this still happens, it is very rare and may be the only feasible outcome.
Staying Committed. I realized in the hope of not being hurt, I have hurt those who really tried hard to love me. Like a wounded animal with keen reflexes, if I perceived any type of discomfort or potential abandonment, I would flee. I now dig my heels in with those who love me and argue you out. The people who care enough will stay in those awkward conversations or moments. Here is where I find it’s important to be picky about who is in my circle. Some are just not going to understand my pain, nor do they have to. I share my issues with PTSD and how insecure I am. I explain the complexity of how my brain isn’t trained in the way others are and I need patience as I navigate through my vulnerabilities. Again, my husband, now my children, hang in there with me as I stumble over these complex situations.
Practice Communicating Effectively. Another thing I am cognizant of is how easily I can misconstrue one’s meaning. This is especially true with text messages and emails. I tend to lean towards the negative and will misinterpret a friend’s meaning. I have trained myself to not act on a hurt feeling, but to run it through the filter of someone I trust. Many times I have had my husband read my messages to be sure I am not reacting to something that is actually quite innocent from a sender. Without my husband, my list of abandoned relationships would be a mile long.
Helping Others. As a child, I was also trained to take care of and protect my siblings. I feel capitalizing on my strength in this area, has brought me tremendous peace. For example, becoming a foster parent has allowed me to fulfill the things I wish others would have done for me and my siblings. I’m healing, while doing something great for others. A win-win.