I was laughing hysterically tonight whilst telling my partner about some of the times my mother completely lost it over the years. There have been some monumental tantrums, public meltdowns, plenty of tears and lots of swearing and screaming. There have been some humiliating moments, devastating days and soul-crushing incidents. The damage to myself and my sisters has been significant and has forever shaped us into who we are today. But through all the dysfunction, the pain, the trauma, we can look back to certain times and see the funny side of things. My partner commented that for all the negativity of my childhood, our family maintain a wonderful sense of humour and can laugh at ourselves and at each other. It’s a dark sense of humour for sure, but it has bonded us and left us with an ability to laugh wholeheartedly in the face of adversity. And this, I am grateful for.
So I started to think about other aspects of my traumatic experiences that I am grateful for…
When I look over my adult life, I have faced my fair share of adversity. I have certainly been a lot more privileged compared to many others, but the hard life lessons are there. I have lived through domestic violence, pushed through alcohol and codeine addictions, experienced long periods of depression, self-harm and suicidality, went through a bleak period of losing my job, car and flat, and I worked hard to pay my own way through university. A lot of my adult life has felt like an uphill battle, especially trying to navigate personal relationships with undiagnosed bipolar disorder and a limited understanding of how my childhood affected my interpersonal functioning. But I have always found a reserve of resilience within. I have always found a way to keep going when I felt like giving up and I believe this is because I learned to live – and thrive – with hardship.
2. Interesting life story
I grew up wild in a developing country but I also grew up within the constraints of a first world country. I was raised by parents, grandparents and aunts and uncles. Our lives were transient – I have moved about 25 times in 33 years. I was home schooled, attended a public school and a private Catholic school. I have a black father and a white mother. I didn’t fit in with the black kids or the white kids. We escaped a volcanic eruption, countless earthquakes and a robbery. I lived through my parent’s separation and being kicked out of home as a teen. My life is rich with fascinating detail and colour and I feel grateful for my varied and unique experiences.
I believe that my capacity for empathy has been influenced by my own experiences of childhood trauma and of mental health challenges. I am able to see the bigger picture. Even when people hurt me, even as I work with parents who abuse and neglect their children, I can step back and feel empathy for the struggle they face. I see the humanness in all of us and really believe that our commonness outweighs our differences.
I have learned that with every obstacle there is a blessing and an opportunity for growth and change. In every situation, no matter how dire, there is usually something positive to take away. I truly believe this to my core. For instance, I recently experienced a miscarriage which flooded me with conflicting and negative emotions. I am still working through these. But despite the tragedy, my partner and I made an invaluable discovery about ourselves. We discovered that we were both truly committed to one another and when we were thrown a curve ball, we rallied and faced it together. It strengthened our relationship.
5. Sibling relationships
My sisters and I have forged a strong relationship with one another. Even though I don’t see or speak to my youngest or older sister often, there is an unspoken understanding that each of us would be there for the other. Time and time again, we have proven this over the years. There is solidarity between us, a deep rooted connectedness and understanding of what we went through and what that means for us. If it wasn’t for them, I would not feel validated or even remotely sane. In the past, I wondered if my memories were all false – a common phenomenon in trauma. But my sisters and I talk to each other about our childhood, piecing together the fragments and finding meaning in it. We confirm memories and validate each other’s feelings which is critical for us in order to heal.
6. Life skills
My older sister and I were parentified as we grew up. When I was nine, my mother became a single mother of five children including a newborn baby but it did not stop her from chasing her dreams of academia. She worked and studied long hours. My older sister and I took over the parenting – cooking, cleaning and watching the younger ones. I didn’t really resent this at the time although it was hard and it created friction between my sisters and I as boundaries and roles became blurry. Nevertheless, I became a very capable and independent young adult with practical life skills.
7. Social work
I never intended to be a social worker in child protection, but here I am. Because of my experiences, I genuinely believe that people can change and that there is hope for the families I work with. After all, I have lived it. I believe that a big part of the reason why I have succeeded despite my childhood is because I had access to stable, caring and protective adults like family friends, my grandparents and aunts and uncles. These adults were different people at different times, but there was always at least one adult there on the periphery who treated me with care and respect, and who made me feel like I mattered. Education has also played a key role in my success. I take these life lessons forward with me when I work with a client. If they don’t have any positive social supports, we find some. If they don’t have the means to develop their skills or education, we find a way. And most importantly, I persevere with them because I know that turning your life around can take a long, long time.
Read more about my childhood experiences here.