We are impacted as people by sharing life with others and learning how their stories can shape our own, so here is mine.
I was born and raised in rural northern Florida to a middle class, Christian family in the very early 1980s.
My dad is from Indiana, where most of his family remains, but moved to Florida with his parents in the 1950s. He taught high school science for over 30 years.
My mom was born in Ft. Lauderdale and grew up in South Florida, and most of her family has been in Florida since the mid-1800s. She always wanted to be a mom, so when she became one, she staid at home to raise a family.
I was a very late surprise addition to my family – my dad was 44 and mom a week short of 40 when I was born, and my older brother was 13. My parents had wanted other children but had been unsuccessful in trying to have any others until I snuck in very late in the game.
So it is that a millenial was raised by a dad who grew up during the end of the Great Depression and a mom who epitomizes much of the dying breed of a true Southern lady.
My earliest, clearest memories of life are of feelings of foreboding, hesitation and fear. This despite being told I was overall a happy baby and toddler, though I had trouble sleeping and clung to my mother for safety and comfort.
The impressions I recall of my toddler years are of being frightened at night by myself, and of sometimes sensing just a heavy, melancholy weight around me at my home.
But I adored my older brother. I can remember laying in bed with him in early morning when he would pretend to still be asleep while I giggled trying to wake him up. I can still feel the residue of the true affection I developed for him from those early years within my heart as, given his age, he was very much a second father figure for me.
But fear did dog me in various manifestations from the earliest of ages, as I was scared of anything that created what I thought to be a loud noise. Whether it’s connected or not, my mom tells me that, late in her pregnancy with me, she was at a train station picking up my grandmother when a train whistle screamed loudly, and I flipped in her womb. My parents bought me a tiny electric four-wheel car when I must have been three or four, and it was too loud for me to drive very much, which I recall as an early disappointment to my brother as he always loved cars, motorcycles, and anything that went really fast.
My dad has always been a rock in his presence, though early on growing up he was very busy teaching night classes and running a small house construction company on the side with my mom to make extra money, so he was often distracted and otherwise occupied.
My mom remains my role model in love – since she was stay-at-home, I spent most of my time with her, and she was very emotionally present and engaged with me, always loving and caring, not just with me but with everyone. I was and am very much a momma’s boy.
I should say that another clear emotional memory for me from earliest ages is anger. I had a bad temper as a child, though it wasn’t frequently aroused. I can’t tell you why, but when something I cared about didn’t go my way, I would feel deep resentment – like a feeling of injustice had been committed against the universe – that would just well up with intense emotion coming out in anger.
Punishing me didn’t help in those situations, either. My mom said if I was spanked I’d just get angrier and act out even more. The only thing that worked to calm me down was temporarily locking me away from her (since it was typically with her that I’d be angry) until I calmed down, which I would because I’d almost immediately begin to feel remorseful when I realized she was removing me from her and, momma’s boy I was, I felt terrible that she felt that was needed.
My earliest joy that stuck with me was my imagination. I loved to play games of make believe by myself, playing with my toys and fighting imaginary battles. A frequent theme I played was my benevolent (for a child) takeover of the world, in which I gained control over the whole world and made everyone so much happier because I knew what I was doing and made good decisions to take care of everyone.
And I loved to tell stories. Starting when I was three or four, I’d ask my mom to sit down and write down stories I’d make up on the spot as I would tell them to her, typically of Transformers (when they were still cool before Michael Bay ruined them in my adulthood). That translated later once I learned to write myself, as I’d make up characters – often kinds of superheros – and write stories, invent worlds, and draw comic books.
My other early love was history, maybe because I recognized early on that they were true stories of what people had done. I remember being mesmerized by the ancient civilizations I’d hear about in passing at church, like the early Mesopotamian Sumerian and Akkadian societies, so when we’d get home afterward, I’d ask my mom to help me look them up in the encyclopedia to learn more of these people and what they did, what they were like. I was enthralled – I’d start reading entries from the encyclopedia myself when I was able on all sorts of historical cultures.
When I was six, my brother married very young to his high school sweetheart, and though they lived nearby, I guess in hindsight it was like I lost a father figure, as I no longer spent nearly the same amount of time with him as I once did. I was also becoming increasingly aware that – as it felt to me – I was a disappointment to him because he couldn’t seem to understand how I, his brother, wasn’t interested in the same sorts of things he was: I’d rather read books and play using my imagination than ride dirt bikes or go-carts.
It was at the age of seven that my world completely imploded on me inside my own head. I began having intense panic attacks that would last several hours every single night. I had become very goal-oriented at school, determined to be highly successful so I could likewise do whatever I wanted to when I was an adult.
At age seven, I became aware that I, myself, could potentially sabotage my own goals – if I wasn’t able to get the sleep I needed at night, I wouldn’t be able to be successful in school, which would result in my (in my mind) being a failure as an adult. Subsequently, I panicked – I had to get good sleep. And, of course, that led to me not being able to go to sleep.
It’s really hard to describe the panic cycle to someone who hasn’t experienced it. Your own mind really does become your worst enemy. And you fully recognize that, which makes it worse. You get caught in a series of repeating negative thoughts that you feel powerless to stop (especially if you’re seven-years-old). Your fears, in the form of your own thoughts, become very, very real things, almost tangible.
A fear manifests itself (I can’t sleep), which causes a physical response (nausea) that you’re likewise afraid of and don’t want to experience, which reinforces the original fear, which reinforces the physical response.
My breath would get short as I lay in bed. And I would soon become incredibly nauseated, my body’s natural stress response. As these episodes kept happening night after night, I became incredibly sensitive to any warning sign, and it would set me off – thinking a certain thought, my body feeling a certain way, the slightest thing I had associated with panic would send me straight into panic.
A lot of the time I’d eventually throw up from the nausea and, for a little bit, I’d feel better, but I’d often work myself right back up again not long after. My poor parents had no idea what to do to help me. My mom would do her best to stay awake with me, but, as I can now relate as a parent myself, it’s easy to drift off to sleep while laying with your child, and that would also make me panic – I was all by myself, and my closest friend couldn’t stay the vigil with me.
These lasted for over a year, almost every night. I developed a level of self-awareness that was probably obscene for a seven, then eight-year-old. I can’t emphasize how alone these made me feel. I was trapped with myself, by myself, in my head. I analyzed the snot out of every thought I had, trying to understand what was going on with myself, trying to figure out how to make myself stop. Every feeling, every thought, every action I had I scrutinized obsessively.
I developed an intense hatred of myself. I knew I was at fault for my own misery and, as much as I wanted to make it stop, I just couldn’t. I thought things about myself, about life, that no normal child of that age thinks – how could I be so weak? So pathetic? So worthless? Where was God? Why didn’t he do anything? What good was he? What was the point of going on? I just wanted the pain to stop. I wished I were dead quite a bit, just to make my mind shut up.
Then, over a year later, the most innocent of side conversations with my mom completely ended the attacks. I wished out loud to her that there were some form of medication one could take who suffered these sorts of things, and she told me there was. Wait. What? There actually was medication that could help with this? I’d had no freaking idea. I thought I had my own mind to save me or that was it. The very knowledge (just the knowledge itself!) that I had a recourse available other than myself to help ended the attacks immediately. I didn’t even need the medication – just knowing there was something I could do than rely on myself freed me.
Crazy. Just like that, I resumed a normal childhood.
But the impact my thoughts and experiences had during that year drastically shaped who I am to this day.