In my early thirties one of the things I used to do was to take a hit or two after work, kick back, and remember my past. I would remember events I’d long since forgotten, which would lead me to other long forgotten memories, and so on. I did this on an irregular but somewhat frequent basis, and after quite some time of doing this I noticed that these recollections always ended with my remembering how miserably unhappy I was in the way back when, particularly during the school year. In my childhood I was unhappy most of the time. Then it struck me, like a minor epiphany: Isn’t that pretty much the definition of an unhappy childhood?
I had never thought of myself as having had an unhappy childhood. I always thought the kids who did were so much worse off than was I; after all, my parents didn’t abuse me, or beat me. They always provided for me. I had a roof over my head, shoes on my feet, clothes on my back, and food on my table. I got presents for my birthday, for Christmas, and even for Easter when I was just a little kid. They would hug me and tell me they loved me. My sister and I didn’t much get along but it wasn’t out-of-hand. I had a few friends. I grew up in a relatively safe middle-income neighborhood. For many years I was sent to a private school. Was it really so bad?
Surely I didn’t have it as bad as other kids who had an unhappy childhood, but there was no denying it: I was so unhappy, so much of the time. I began to think back to what it was that was making me unhappy, which was a lot about school, but also – what? A feeling of isolation, of being in a household with other people but alone with my problems, of being in school and being in a house but not belonging in either. I remember on a few occasions when was, oh, maybe ten years old, walking back to our house, and as I came within sight of the front door I thought, “I’m Bella.” Bella was our cat. Bella also had a roof over her head, food and water in her bowls, but nobody asked her about her day or took any interest in her life. She just lived there. Like me. Many years later I was hanging out with friends and I was about to tell them I had to go home, but I couldn’t. I didn’t want to lie to my friends, but I just couldn’t bring myself to call that place “home.” I puzzled over this, over how to phrase it, and finally settled on, “I have to go back to the house.” It was, after all, not my home, but just the place where I lived.
Over time I began to piece together more of that puzzle. I work for a family-owned company, and in the many years I’ve worked there it was common to have children in my office. Watching and listening to the interactions of parents and their school-age children was – surprising. Just hearing them talk to each other, how the adults would ask questions and get into conversations with the kids was something new to me. Asking about their classes, their homework, their tests, even “Who did you sit next to at lunch?” or “Who’s your best friend?” – the way they talked to children made me realize that this must be how parents normally speak to kids. My parents were uninterested and uninvolved. They might ask me how I was, or my day was, but paid little attention to the answer, and only on rare occasions was there a followup question. My family didn’t discuss the school day, the school work, friends at school, friends at home, our games, activities or issues. Whatever personal problems I had were mine to deal with on my own, with rare exception.
Then I remembered something my therapist said when I was a teenager. I know, there’s that thing in my life too, so let me touch on that first – long story short: I was starting to get legit paranoid, but I knew it was all-in-my-head paranoia. The fear was there but I knew it was irrational, and so I told my parents I needed to see a psychologist. I didn’t tell them why but my father did ask the doc. My father said the doc only told him, “Your son is very brave.” I’m not sure that’s true; I was more worried about my mental state than I was bravely seeking help for paranoia.
Talking to the psychologist helped me – or I just got over it, one of the two – and he started seeing the rest of my family, individually. Anyway, at one point in one of our sessions, he said to me, “You know, you and your sister deal with the inattention of your parents in completely different ways. She’s the squeaky wheel who gets the grease. You withdraw.” I was stunned, and said nothing. What nonsense was this, about the “inattention of my parents”? I didn’t think it was true – but I never forgot it. Looking back on it, and in comparison to what I came to know as normal and healthy parent-child interactions, I began to see the legitimacy of his point.
Well. That only took me twenty years.