Happy on The Outside, Struggling on The Inside
I had a wonderful, happy childhood: I loved school and camp, and was appreciated by the adults and friends around me. I had also experienced some challenging points in my childhood, but I never thought they had affected me. These experiences included my parents’ marital discord, emotional and physical neglect, and other relationally traumatic experiences.
Through each experience, I was seemingly resilient and bounced back. Each time things got difficult, I found a safe space for myself and worked around my challenges. I was strong, happy, and helping others. No teachers or friends knew that I was dealing with a very challenging home life.
There were some teachers who noticed that I was struggling and reached out in the ways they could. I remember my fifth grade teacher spending time with me during recess, helping me brush my hair and tuck in my shirt to help me look neat.
I don’t know if other teachers noticed–there were definitely some concerning signs that they could’ve picked up on. I wish they would have heard my silent cries–maybe I would have gotten the help that I desperately needed earlier. But because I was a successful student and hid my struggles well, I guess they either ignored my silent cries for help or maybe they didn’t realize that I was in need of guidance.
I was full of pride, and likely would have rebuffed every intervention, but I desperately needed somebody to reach out and try to help. I’m not sure if there was anything that they could have done, but some adult care and support would have made me feel guided and comforted–feelings that I didn’t have at home that every child needs and deserves to have.
I was living with a difficult childhood, and I was very out of touch with my reality. As I grew older, I found healthy ways to escape my situation. If home was stressful, I directed my energy towards succeeding at school. If there was no clean clothing and food, I learned to take care of myself, carefully ironing and starching each item that I needed. When my home had no stability or routine, I created schedules and routines for myself to follow, with each moment of the day accounted for. I even created a strict diet plan which I adhered to.
I did great in upper elementary and high school; it was only in my freshman year of college that I started having small signs of mental health challenges.
Beginning to Reflect
I started having mild depressive episodes where I was feeling down, awful, and uninterested in life and the people around me. These episodes lasted around 24 hours; I would crawl under my covers and wait for them to pass. I didn’t seek any help for these because they were just a normal part of life for me.
The following year, I went to a therapist because I wanted to work out some things that I had observed in my parents’ home so I could build my own happy home. But that therapy experience was only about learning from my parents’ mistakes–we didn’t focus on their effects on me and my mental health. The following year, I went to another therapist, trying to process how to relate to my parents and childhood.
My childhood experiences were confusing for me. On the one hand, my parents provided me with what I physically needed. I had a home and my physical needs were met: there was food in the fridge and even on the stove–most of the time. My parents cared, they listened, and they tried to help–most of the time. They tried to help me deal with my issues. They brought me up to be a fine, upstanding Jew. And I want to give my parents credit for the wonderful parts of my childhood. They really did impact me positively, and I am grateful and feel blessed for the gifts I was given. Yet, why was I feeling so sad?
While it was mostly happy, my home life was also unpredictable. I never knew when I would come home to no supper; I never knew when my mother would be in an awful, depressed mood. Sometimes she would explode with anger, and I was always the primary target of her emotions. I could never rely on my mother to be available for my emotional needs–I found her to be self-centered and challenged in her ability to relate to others.
As a child, I didn’t need any tremendous things. I just needed basic warmth, love, stability, safety, and care–consistently.
As a result of not feeling these things on a consistent basis, I withdrew into myself. I lost my confidence in my worthiness and ability to relate to others. This then led me to struggle socially.
That all being said, these details somehow were not obvious to others–likely because I was a very blessed and talented child.
Swallowing my Hurt
I also worked to hide my reality. I was deeply ashamed of others knowing what was going on. I was sure that I was the only one in the world who had these challenges, so I worked extra hard to look happy so nobody should ever know my secrets.
Yet, as an adult in therapy, I was confused. Why am I complaining if things were basically decent? I knew lots of people who suffered abuse, major trauma, and I felt that I was different. I felt that I had no excuse to have challenges.
Meanwhile, as I struggled to process my experiences, my mild depression turned into severe depression and intense thoughts of suicide. I spent days, hours, weeks, and months listening to the voices in my head telling me to hurt myself and to end my life.
I had a resilient core, and I continued through my sophomore, junior, and senior year of undergrad. I worked part time while in college, and really succeeded in both school and work. Only I knew how much I was struggling with.
As time passed, I felt my strength waning. All of the voices felt overpowering, and I was afraid of the day that I would finally give in and do something that I might regret forever.
Finally, after trying out a few therapists, I found the right person to help me. I was blessed with a talented and deeply caring therapist. She worked with me to understand myself and my past. I learned about Complex PTSD, which is a mental illness that occurs after long-term exposure to trauma. I came to understand that even “mild” challenges like what I grew up with can really impact a person’s life and can cause the kind of C-PTSD I was living with.
It’s taken a lot of work to overcome my denial that anything unusual happened in my childhood. I am coming to accept that no, my childhood was not standard, and the fact that I didn’t feel cared for or loved doesn’t mean that I am defective or unworthy; my parents’ limitations do not impact my worthiness as a person.
It’s a lot of hard work… and I struggle with the effects of my relational trauma every single day.
A big part of my challenge is that I am still deeply ashamed to share my truth with others.
I have some friends who have struggled with mental health, and I am able to be more open with them about therapy, struggles, and my experiences.
But I also have a whole world of friends who have not struggled with mental health, and I wish I could be open with them, share, and help them understand. It’s challenging to figure out what, how, and with whom it is appropriate to share the intimate details of my illness and slow recovery. Meanwhile, I’m still successful externally, personally, and interpersonally–whilst still struggling silently.
More than anything, I want to rebuild my relationships which have suffered the most from my C-PTSD. My childhood friends have been burned by me time and again, yet they remain loyal and kind. I am lucky and want to truly connect in a wholesome way–but our relationships are limited since I can’t bring myself to share the world that I live in.
I’m sharing my story as one step towards my truth.
I hope that one day, I will heal from the anxiety, anger, sadness, hopelessness, fear, unworthiness, and distrust of others that I live with. Meanwhile, I hope that by sharing my story, I can come one step closer to being the person that I am working so hard to become.
#wholesome #happy #safe
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