For years, I’ve frequently been told by my loved ones how strong they think I am. When this happens, I tend to clam up, shrug it off and insist that all I’ve ever done was what needed to be done. I’d never felt like I’d done anything to warrant such admiration and praise. Now, though, I get what they meant. It’s not that I did anything particularly extraordinary – it’s that I kept doing things despite constant setbacks, failure, fears, and obstacles that could have easily and justifiably led to a person giving up on success, or secluding within themselves.
I grew up with a mother and a step-father who both suffered from schizophrenia and bi-polar disorder. They self-medicated and rarely interacted positively with me or my three younger siblings. Due to their illness, they had incredibly volatile tempers, and I became a bit of a shield to protect my 2 sisters and my brother from their insults and the occasional strike. Over time, my parents both developed a severe dislike for me, and eventually the insults and strikes became a daily occurrence.
We moved regularly, and, for various reasons, my mother wasn’t always able to enroll us in school. Because of this, I skipped kindergarten, most of second grade, all of third grade, all of fourth grade, half of fifth grade, and half of seventh grade. While at home between schooling, I cared for my siblings and bared the brunt of my parent’s tempers and illness. I cooked, shepherded my siblings away from the house when my parents fought, created games to keep my siblings entertained and busy, tutored with what school books we had available (My mother would buy them on impulse during the brief moments she wanted to homeschool us), and took care of my mother when she would get into her deep depressions.
At 13, My step-father was awarded a small sum of money from a lawsuit following an accident on a jobsite, and we moved “Off the grid” onto a plot of land in a tiny town in Nevada, where the six of us lived in a 26’ 1984 sunbeam RV. Within months, we were able to take advantage of lax building codes to build up a cheap, plywood home. We dug our water line, installed our septic tank, and had electricity set up. Our walls regularly had mold in them, were not well insulated, and often smelled of mildew. We lived on a budget of $100 per week and relied on the canned goods and jars of peanut butter donated to our local church and given to us in boxes once a month. Because of my parent’s insecurity, we were never allowed to have school friends over. Because my school was 45 miles away and my parents didn’t like to drive or be around people, I was never able to participate in afterschool activities. In this time, our home had adopted 20+ stray cats and I smelled enough like a stray cat that my school would send me home with $200 to buy new clothes. The money often went to household needs such as bills and groceries, instead.
At 15, I randomly searched myspace at a neighbor’s house, and found my biological father, whom had been absent from my life since I was 4 years old. I sent him a message I’d intended to be anonymous, asking if he knew someone by my name. He responded excitedly, saying he’d been looking for me for years and asking if we could talk. My mother found out a day later, and responded with a severe beating. I still hear the words “I could kill you right now if I wanted to” echo through my mind, said to me by my 6’4, 260+ pound step -father, who had placed his foot on my throat while my mother watched. It was the first time in my life I’d ever screamed for help. The officer that eventually responded believed my mother when she told him that the bruises forming on my neck and back came from a temper tantrum I threw after she had told me I couldn’t move in with my bio-father. In full uniform, the officer told me that I was a spoiled child and insisted that I shouldn’t trust strangers on the internet. He left me there.
Following this, I was given the option to either never speak of what happened, never talk to my father, and never leave the house with an exception to school, or to leave the family forever. Hours later, I was put on a train with 3 shirts, 2 pairs of pants, a dying cell phone, and no phone charger. The trip would take a total of 24 hours, and at the end of it I would be moving in with a man I had very limited memories of ever meeting- hoping the decision would be worth it.
Many things happened after that, but this is where the relevancy of my homelife ends because, while I always thought I was weak or otherwise powerless to do anything during my childhood, I now realize that, during this time, I was constantly developing an internal strength and resolve to succeed, do good, and help others.
While I only attended 1st grade, part of 5th grade, 6th grade, part of 7th grade, 8th grade, and my freshmen year of high school in this time, I regularly had exemplary grades, and there was not enough space on the bumper of the family car for the amount of honor roll stickers, achievement, citizenship, and attitude awards I’d earned throughout my 5 total years of schooling between the ages of 5 and 15.
At age 6, I wrote short-stories for writing competitions within my school. While I never won, or even placed, I always submitted a story convinced that, this time, I would impress those reading it and finally to be awarded the little plastic trophy and the free lunch ticket for Sizzlers.
At age 7, while I attended second grade, I earned the attention of a bully. Within months, I’d made that bully one of my best friends. Her name was Shianne. She was from a large Hispanic family, and was the youngest of 4 by 5 years. She enjoyed being pushed on the swings.
At age 8, my family was evacuated during a massive forest fire in the San Bernardino Mountains. We spent 2 weeks living in a tent on an airport runway while we were told opposing stories about the state of our rented home. During that time, I took on the responsibility of feeding and medicating our tent-neighbor’s dog every morning while she, an older woman, volunteered for the Red Cross and served meals to displaced evacuees.
At age 10, I’d started playing the flute and, within months, had impressed my band teacher so much that she’d offered me a chance to perform with the high school band during one of their concerts. I memorized the music, but just as I was stepping on stage to take my seat and perform, my mother pulled me off and took me home. I was pulled out of school shortly after, and never got another opportunity to play the flute in a performance like that again. Despite this, I continued to practice until my flute broke 3 years later. (No, I can’t play anymore.)
At age 12, I became a junior forest ranger and performed informative slide shows at campsites, lead people through nature trails and taught them about various local wildlife, and told stories of the San Bernardino mountains to young children. I also performed in a school talent show, singing Hillary Duff’s “So Yesterday.” I performed once in front of my school, and once at an event for parents and staff. I lost the competition – but I never stopped singing.
At age 13, I took on small jobs in the Nevada town to earn money to buy treats, Christmas presents, and groceries for the family. Watering plants, walking dogs, cleaning houses for those who needed the help, babysitting- whatever was available, I’d spend my weekends doing. My siblings and I became the most reliable helpers in the town, and my parents were frequently praised for how well they’d raised us.
At age 14, I was teaching my neighbor’s daughter, Angie, how to read. She was very isolated, and her father was not a great person, but he let me spend time with her and my parents liked him enough that they let me spend weekends at her house. She was 13, and only attended school up to, I believe, 3rd grade. We read Harry Potter together, and it was her mother who’d called the police when I needed help a year later.
While this doesn’t encompass everything I spent my life doing, or even do justice to the struggles my parents faced in fighting their mental illness and managing a household with 4 kids, this is a good summary of my experience.
A summary I’ve come to accept that shows, while my life was hard, every moment I spent trying to improve myself, reach my goals, care for my family, or help those around me was a moment I spent developing and honing the strength that I eventually needed to take advantage of the life changing opportunity that made itself available to me. Since then, that strength has allowed me to continue to pursue and grow, even after my world has somewhat stabilized. I may never experience anything as difficult as some of the things I experienced growing up, but if I do, I know I’ll get through it and I know that I will still be working toward success when I do.
So, with that being said, my 2020 takeaway is that real internal strength is developed by continuing to pursue success and enlightenment, despite frequent setbacks, intimidating obstacles, and internal doubt. The end result of the success or failure of each goal, objective, or lesson won’t change the amount of strength developed while pursuing it, and the more you work toward these things, the stronger you will become. The only thing that I believe can possibly diminish that strength is letting it atrophy through self-doubt and neglect, rather than helping it grow by continuing to pursue success, security, self-betterment, and forgiveness.