How my childhood traumas still affect my day to day life

I don’t have a lot of memories of when I was younger. When I hear friends reminisce about birthday parties, family gatherings, favorite teachers and fun traditions, I turn quiet. I don’t have a lot to add to the conversation. Having little memories is a common symptom of a traumatic history or event, especially situated in early childhood. As a small kid, we’re subject to our parents or other caregivers. For years we are solely dependent on them and how they comfort us and play into our primary and secondary needs. I was unfortunate enough to not always have my psychological (and even security) needs met.

Some memories I do have:

  • Eating fries with my mom and brother on a mattress in the middle of an empty room, right before we moved again. (age 4)
  • Hiding with my brother in the attic of our house, home alone, arming ourselves with boxing gloves because we were scared. Of who knows what. (age 6-11)
  • My father telling my mom he would finally leave us alone if she would have sex with him, one last time, screaming his name. I remember being so scared and sad that I would never see my dad again, not realizing how fucked up and abusive this situation was. (not sure, around age 10)
  • Having the same nightmare over and over again where I am cycling in my street and monsters would come from the ditch next to the road. I never was able to scream or run away. My legs were paralyzed and my voice didn’t work. (age 6-11)
  • Being called names by my mom’s boyfriend. Him telling my brother he’s not smart enough. Having to be quiet all the time or getting yelled at if we weren’t. My mom not believing us. (age 6-11)
  • Lying awake at night, hypervigilant for every sound or movement. Afraid something terrible would happen. Hearing my mom’s ex-boyfriend (whom we still lived with) yell ‘whore, whore, whore’ for minutes on end in the middle of the night. (age 16-17)
  • Stealing money from my family, being defiant and running away. At the same time being very competitive with peers and wanting to be the best, the skinniest, the most popular. I could be very manipulative and didn’t always pay attention to other people’s feelings. (age 6-14)

For years I was only able to see myself as the child from the last memory. I felt guilty for being a difficult kid and making it hard on people. I felt ashamed for talking back and pushing people away. I made it hard on my friends, family and especially parents. I was mean.

Through studying psychology, going to therapy and doing some serious self-reflection, I realized that I wasn’t to blame for my difficult behavior.

I only recently found out that my dad wasn’t only verbally but also physically abusive to my mom when my brother and I were little. With the help of a neighbor, my mom managed to flee to a women’s shelter when I was around 3 years old. I don’t have any memories of this time.

It’s a common misbelief that babies and toddlers don’t experience consequences of trauma, since a lot of the time they don’t have active memories and can’t put the situation into words. Studies and theories around childhood trauma however show that the younger the child, the bigger the impact might be. Babies can only rely on the outside world – their primary caregivers – to regulate their sensations. They mirror what their parents feel and show. They’re sensitive to what’s happening around them but don’t have the ability yet to act out their natural danger responses: flight or fight. A lot of the time the child has no other option than to undergo what’s happening. This can be a ‘freeze’ or dissociative reaction.

Trauma doesn’t only affect our mind but it goes deeper to the most fundamental level of our functioning. Trauma affects our brain – how things get wired and associated – on a very unconscious level. It’s easy to understand that interpersonal trauma influences our attachment to other people. It’s harder to comprehend that it changes our brains and bodies too.

When experiencing a traumatic event, we look for social support around us. When the trauma occurs in relation to our parents, we can’t rely on them to help us get through and calm our system (that’s in survival mode) down. When we can’t understand what’s happening and don’t get the reassurance that we’re safe, our alarm system stays hyperalert. We see danger everywhere, which leads to a vicious circle of flight-fight-freeze responses.

In the next 15 years after fleeing to the women’s shelter, I found myself in other traumatic situations – as you can see in my memories above. I’m 25 now and it’s been only a couple of years that I started working through my traumas. While I’m not currently suffering from a mental illness anymore, the trauma’s still settled in my body and my mind.

  • I startle easily. I have a hard time concentrating and get distracted by everything.
  • I have a complicated relationship with food and an even more complicated relationship with my body. I can’t truly enjoy summer because I’m constantly aware of how I look.
  • I don’t let people in easily. Trusting is hard, even with my boyfriend of 5 years. I can’t believe he really thinks I’m good enough.
  • I’m hypervigilant for other people’s moods. I adjust what I say and do to make them feel better. I’m always aware of how my actions might influence others. I put other people first and get frustrated when they don’t do the same. I’m easily disappointed.
  • I feel uncomfortable in big groups, even when I know the people. I easily feel invisible, like it doesn’t really matter if I’m there or not. I feel like I’m replaceable.
  • I’m hypersensitive to sounds. I used to have trouble sleeping because of the television of a neighbor, while my boyfriend couldn’t hear a thing. My body tenses up and I get irritated when I hear people’s teeth touching the cutlery (one of the many examples).
  • I used to have physical symptoms (stomach ache, sore muscles) a lot. In the last couple of years I started restoring the relationship between my mind and my body though.
  • When someone uses specific words that my mom’s ex-boyfriend used to say, I feel panic in my body. I still can’t stand it.
  • Seeing the house I used to live in, makes me feel tense even 13 years after moving away. I was shaking when I asked the new residents if I could have a look around just recently.
  • Seeing my dad is hard and uncomfortable and I’ve chosen not to put myself through this anymore. It’s hard watching young parents being present and caring with their children. I wish I could have had that.
  • It’s still hard to admit I’ve struggled with my mental health for years and still do from time to time . I feel like a hypocrite, being a psychologist myself and coaching people to reach out and tell their story.

 

While I’ve worked through a lot of my issues, I feel like the trauma is still rooted deeply in my body. If I would have received help when I was younger and was protected from further trauma, things could have been different. While I’m positive that I can heal further, it’s not an easy journey. Being a psychologist, I’m fortunate to know where to find the right support. Having an insight into how trauma works, enlightens the guilt and shame I used to feel when I was younger. My behaviors were only symptoms of an underlying cause. I did what I had to do to survive and in a twisted way make sense of it all.

 

Peter A. Levine, an expert in the matter, states the following:

If frightening sensations are not given the time and attention they need to move through the body and resolve or dissolve, the individual will continue to be gripped by fear.

He also adds:

The paradox of trauma is that it has both the power to destroy and the power to transform and resurrect.

 

We are resilient and we do have the ability to overcome trauma. We just can’t expect it to disappear by itself.

I, for one, am definitely not done fighting yet.  

 

2 Responses to “How my childhood traumas still affect my day to day life

  • I really appreciate you sharing your experience. I had a traumatic childhood and its comforting to know that others feels the effects of their childhood. Im glad youre on a healing journey as well.

  • Wow. Thank you so much for this. You help me to see that I am not a mistake.

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