I’m sitting in my bed in my tiny, but cozy, apartment in New York City. I live with my best friends and we have an adorable (yet vicious) cat together. I have a job I’m passionate about, a boss that cares about my well-being, and a friend group that supports me through everything. I have an overly-growing collection of books, candles, and plants, and I have mastered making my tea just how I like it.
I am happy. I am at peace. And yet, it’s the basics. But to me, this is the life I have always dreamed of. The life I didn’t know I could have.
I am very open about being a first generation college student, but I don’t think people understand how remarkable it is that I made it through college. Yes, I am the first out of my household to graduate from college, but it’s more than that.
When I was a child, my oldest brother was always in trouble and my other brother suffered from a drug addiction beginning at age 12. It caused so much turbulence and disturbance in my household. Screaming and crying and uncomfortable silence was the norm in my house. We were barely keeping it together. My dad wasn’t there. He was at work before I got up for school and didn’t come home until after I was in bed. He avoided the drama, which only added to my trauma.
My parents eventually divorced truly for the best, and my dad moved away to another country. My brothers never did walk at their high school graduation.
My mom struggled with seasonal depression to the point that from October to April every year, it felt like my life was consequently put on hold. Depression is an awful illness. I don’t blame her for it. When I was the only senior in high school riding the school bus, I said that it was because I just didn’t care to get my license, but in reality, it’s because we couldn’t afford for me to get my license. I felt trapped — partially from this, and partially because I was struggling with depression and anxiety myself and didn’t see the signs. I spent weekends alone in my room. I didn’t hang out with anyone because I didn’t want to explain that, no, my mom can’t drop me off. No, it’s probably not best for you to spend the night. I kept any friends at a distance.
But I was cheer captain. I was on the homecoming court every year. I was well-liked. Despite it all, no one knew that I came home to fighting. To police at my door late one night asking if I’ve seen my brother. To my brother being placed in foster care when he was 16 for my family’s safety, not for his safety. They didn’t know I qualified for the low income lunch program. At school, I was the cute, smart, goofy popular girl.
I wasn’t heard because my brother had more vocal issues. If the wheel ain’t squeaking, it don’t need grease, right? I struggled internally. I held it all in. I was the “strong” one, the child my mom didn’t have to worry about. I smiled and made good grades and did extracurriculars. I was fine. If I wasn’t fine, I was “dramatic.” And guys, I would rather be suffering from my emotions bottled up than be a drama queen.
I never went to therapy — hell, we couldn’t even afford a doctor or health insurance.
So… yeah, the odds of me going to and completing college were pretty slim. My innate need to survive (and thrive) and become my own person is what pushed me to college, and really, to where I am today. I had dreams of leaving, graduating, moving away, moving past it all. In a way, I am thankful for the trauma I went through as a child and teen. It got me here. It gave me my strength.
And yes, there were good times. There were laughs and smiles I’ll never forget. I remember being in the treehouse and playing in the creek and late nights on the porch. All the dance routines in the living room, the family dinners my mom cooked almost every night, and spending months with our cousins at the beach house. There were absolutely great times. But even the good times can’t erase the darkness. Trust me, I’ve spent so much time trying to forget about it. Trying to distance myself from it.
Even after years of therapy and coming to terms with my past, I still feel a twinge of shame when I think about what I went through. I’m afraid of what people might think of me when they learn about my past. No one intended for this to happen. No one planned for our life to have a downside.
I’m afraid of what my family will say when I post this — I don’t think our extended family even knows what went on in our house. I spent so much of my childhood not talking about these issues. I would be hurt too, if I read this. “We don’t air our dirty laundry,” I was taught. Through my brother’s various stints in rehab, the inevitable relapses, the fighting and yelling. We don’t air our dirty laundry. I couldn’t talk about it. I still feel like I can’t talk about it.
But this was my life. This IS my life. It’s not about them. It’s not about what people did or didn’t do. It’s about telling my story. This is my perspective. It happened. It’s in the past. I can’t cover it up by avoiding it or pretending bad things didn’t happen. I have spent too much of my life hiding my past from others — from myself — and really, what good has it done?
I never want a child or teen to go through what I went through alone. You can’t choose the circumstances you are born into, and you can’t really predict trauma, but you don’t have to go through it alone. I know how dark it was. I know how secretive it felt, pretending to be fine so people wouldn’t ask questions. Telling yourself to “suck it up,” because there were good times too, and you have to stop feeling sorry for yourself. Feeling helpless because you can’t do things for yourself, yet no one else is helping. Feeling scared for your life, always on edge, not knowing if it can get better.
I have tears in my eyes writing this, realizing that so many kids might be going through those feelings right this second.
I’ve made it through the hardest parts, and coincidentally, some of the best parts. I’m close with my mom, and I forgive her for not hearing my cries for help. She was doing her best. She’s a badass woman and she’s gone through hell, too. We’ve spent so much time talking about it, and I can say that she is one of my best friends. I’ve forgiven my dad for leaving and not being present, and we have a close, strong relationship now. I know he wishes he could make it up. I’m not holding grudges, and I’ve accepted my past.
I am not my trauma, but my trauma will always be a part of me. I’m still working through it, but I’m here. If anything, I have vowed to myself to be an advocate for kids and teens going through what I went through.
If I can make it through college and to New York City with a job I love after living in a dark cloud of trauma for half of my life thus far, you can make it through your trauma and to your dreams. You are not alone, and you are not your trauma. Your goals are valid, and you are worth having a voice. You, my friend, are worthy of love and safety. Keep pushing.