You’re 12 years old. It’s your birthday. Write for ten minutes on that memory. GO.
I hate these questions because most of the time – I don’t remember. Like many survivors of neglect and trauma, I don’t remember. Or I do remember, but much in the way I recall the storyline from a book or a movie.
So when I read “you are 12 years old,” nothing comes to mind. I calculate the year (1982/1983). Nothing comes to mind. I figure out what grade I was in at school – 7th grade. Uh oh. That brings a lot of broken memories. That was a really hard year, actually both 1982 and 1983 were harsh. I have no memory of birthdays. I’m sure they were solemnized in some manner. As I write this, I am already backing away from those years in my head because I don’t want to revisit those memories at all, certainly not to answer a blog question. An if I work really quickly, I can think o fsomething positive than happened those years to stem the tide of bad memories – I was in the regional Spelling Bee which was exciting. Yes, think about the Spelling Bee.
One consequence of living with depression and anxiety as an adult is that it can reinforce all of the negative fears I grew up anticipating – do I feel this bad because I am inherently bad? But there’s an extra layer – was I born a bad kid so bad things happened to me and then more bad things happened to me as an adult? Or did I do something wrong when those original bad things happened to me (not be a “good” kid) so now I’m being punished? Even using words like bad, punishment, etc show how easy it is to slip into this very simplistic mindset. (I guess I’m still a “good” Catholic, right?)
It takes a lot of concentrated mental and emotional work to manage all of this. I don’t need to revisit each and every memory, but I do have to be able to roll with the fact that people will occasionally ask me these questions. My typical response is to deflect and minimize – “I was a scrawny poor kid with big glasses. Can you imagine? Thank God I was smart because I could barter that to avoid the worse of the abuse. Ha ha ha.” This inevitably triggers the sharing of the other person’s own experiences being bullied or picked on and we bond over superficial mutual loathing of our long ago foes. No probing questions. Crisis averted.
But when I do this, I feel the tension in my body and feel the desire to flee the conversation. That’s part of the recovery work – being aware of how I am managing the inevitable conversations. I also tend to avoid situations where it will come up. You won’t catch me at a class reunion. And I find myself shying away from any sort of “cool kid” gathering now – like networking Happy Hours. I can manage when I feel well, but when I’m struggling – I need small, intimate gatherings.
I’m not saying that I didn’t have a lovely birthday party although I doubt it because I had very few friends at that age and my Dad was laid off as I recall, probably working 2 or 3 jobs to make ends meet. I simply don’t remember. This isn’t the same thing as repressed memories or reclaimed memories – I remember the bad stuff well enough to recount with a reasonable amount of detail. Don’t worry – I’m not planning to do so here. But many of us grow up with PTSD
My birthday is a very sensitive day for me. I build it up and expect to be let down even as an adult. I’ve had several lovely birthdays with Ledcat, but I feel bad for her because really – how does she please me? I change my mind about how I want to celebrate a dozen times. I’m torn between feeling guilty for wanting to be treated like it matters that I was born on this day to being resentful of the TMI factor from all the other birthdays described via social media. It isn’t the presents or the party, it is the simple acknowledgement that people are happy I was born. And that’s not something you can express easily. This is a classic PTSD situation – I get freaked out by anticipation of something that should be happy and shut it all down. It is quite ridiculous – there’s no reason I shouldn’t be able to plan a nice outing and order the cake I want and even ask for the present I’d like to have. But it is easy to overstuff so much emotional need into one day – BUT I can avoid that trap by simply being conscious to be nice to myself.
PTSD is a tricky beast and it can do some permanent damage to your short and long-term memory. When I realize that I cannot remember an event in my life, I don’t assume the worst. I assume that either my subconscious wants me to focus on something else or that it simply fell victim to the effed up synaptic activity, a byproduct of the PTSD.
I’ve also tried to avoid the trap of reinventing my past or wishful thinking. Inventing a terrific 12th birthday party that I didn’t have doesn’t serve any purpose. Nor does pretending it was the worth day ever. It was probably just as good or bad as any other day in that period of my life. And I see no need to wish for what it could have been like because if I had a wish to use on that time frame, it would not involve a birthday party.
I turned 12 and then 13 and then 16 and now I’m 43. Not everyone is that lucky.
The only thing I hope you’ll carry from this little writing exercise is to be gentle with people who might not want to relive the glory days. They aren’t freaks and they aren’t exaggerating, overreacting or drama queens – they are just doing what it takes for them to get by.