My earliest memory is of standing in my crib screaming in that full power way that only toddlers can scream, lungs on fire, hot tears streaming down my face, feeling the utter destruction of heartbreak. I remember my mom had just left. She turned off the lights and slammed the door on her way out. She was furious with me, and she was leaving me to scream alone (I was preverbal, mind you) as punishment. I remember knowing she was just on the other side of the door, cruelly, perhaps sadistically, ignoring me. In that moment, I learned what would come to be my most fundamental belief about myself for a very, very long time: I am not allowed to be here. Over the years, that belief has gone through many permutations, including “I’m unloveable,” “I’m not allowed to have needs,” “I’m unworthy,” & “I don’t deserve to exist.” Flipping that coin has been deep, challenging, painful, & profoundly rewarding work—but more on that later.
I grew up with a mother who was sometimes bright, playful, loving, & invested in who I was and sometimes violently angry for reasons I could barely understand. Between these two poles she would oscillate, sometimes multiple times a day. When she was angry, it seemed as if nothing else existed; all of reality was fire & brimstone. Her wrath scorched the earth, time and time again. Over the years, I stopped trusting her sweetness because I knew at any moment it could turn into poison.
Essentially, I grew up in a field of wildflowers that had been sprinkled with landmines. And in the early years, I had no idea what might set a landmine off, or what size it might be if it were to go off. I really didn’t even know where they were. As a very young child, I learned to navigate the wildflowers so as to not trip a landmine. I learned to read people.
I don’t remember this, but my dad told me that sometimes the neighbors would call the cops on my mom because they were sure she was about to murder me. (My dad, by the way, was useless, first because of his lack of ability to stand up to my mother’s wrath & then by the fact that he was in prison.)
I remember one afternoon when I was much older, in middle school, my mom, best friend, & I were driving home from a very fun thrift-store outing. My mom had lent Jackie $13 to buy a pair of PJ pants that were covered in little ducks. They were adorable. We were adorable. Over the course of the drive, I can’t remember why, my mom grew increasingly angry & ended up screaming at Jackie “YOU FUCKING BITCH!” At this point in my life, “bitch” was not a word we were allowed to use, let alone one we called our loved ones.
My mom used to scream at me in malls, grocery stores, & car washes. Sometimes she’d get so mad she’d disappear for a few days or leave me stranded somewhere to fend for myself. I never really knew if she would come back or not.
Basically, if absolutely anything can set a bomb off, & the bomb can become nuclear in a matter of seconds, you learn in a hurry how to read even the most subtle of micro-expressions. You learn how to deal with extreme intensity with grace, resilience, & wisdom, or else perish (which happens more often than not, tragically). We also know from developmental psychology that children who suffer extreme traumas when they are preverbal grow into adults with higher-than-average empathy.
This is because human beings are, by nature, empathic. It’s innate. Children, before the onset of higher level language skills (<~5), communicate almost exclusively through empathy & emotional expression, which goes to show just how hard-wired we are for these things. As we develop language, however, our cognitive faculties start to dominate & most of us grow out of touch with our empathic cores. (By empathy I mean the ability to read & understand emotions.) But children who experience trauma before they fully develop language seem to maintain a high capacity for empathy even as they age, socialize, & learn to cognate.
One theory on why this is is that somehow the trauma affects the brain differently, since a preverbal brain naturally operates differently than a verbal one. Language facilitates higher order thinking, like planning, identity formation, & strategizing, all of which fundamentally change the inner workings of the brain. Neurons fire at different speeds, different regions of the brain light up, and connections previously unformed begin to form. But we also lose many of the connections that support brain activity in a preverbal state: namely our connection to the web of emotional intelligence that relies on our entire central nervous system to thrive. It's only logical that before these language-based thought processes develop, the brain operates very differently.
Most people with this deep empathy either develop into one of two extremes as adults: very soft or very hard. And by that I mean, they grow into adults who are extremely sensitive or extremely unfeeling. I went the way of unfeeling. In fact, for several years, I often wondered if I was a sociopath. That is, until I started to really understand empathy. And until I started to understand my wound as a superpower. Since then, I’ve managed to find a middle road, through grace & grit & massive amounts of holy water (read: sweat).
I am not saying all of this so that you have pity on me. I’m telling you this so that you understand the etiology of my skills: I am a born psychologist (coach, therapist, healer, seer, wise woman) because the circumstances of my life have *made me so*. Circumstances that my pre-carnate soul, in all of its infinite wisdom, *chose* so that I would become exactly what I am becoming (there are no victims here, folks).
As a wee one, I needed to read the room as a matter of life & death. Now, as a grown ass woman, I do it for pleasure in service of human evolution. It’s what I was put on this planet to do, as evidenced by the childhood I unconsciously chose for myself which has gifted me with this wild super-power.
It feels important at this point that I take a moment to emphasis that my mom was not a bad mom. Nor was she a good mom. The question of good or bad feels moot to me. My mother was a woman suffering from a bevy of complicated, horrible early childhood trauma & a nervous system that actually felt safer (read: more familiar) with high levels of stress coursing through it. In other words, she was happier when she was angry & emotionally volatile. (Yes, human psychology is complicated like that.) And, it must be said, she was doing the best she could. She behaved horribly at times, & she hurt me, but I do not blame her for who I am (although I used to). By some miracle, she and I have managed to develop a healthy adult relationship, one that I feel proud of. It’s been hard work, but we now relate to each other confident in our own stance, boundaries, needs, & feelings. I am so very grateful for where we’ve gotten, considering where we started. I do not think her inadequate, nor do I believe my problems are her fault.
It has not been easy to come to this place, and the hurt in my heart—comprised of the belief that I shouldn’t exist, that I’m unworthy, unloveable, inadequate—still contorts my expression & twists my identity from time to time. It’s taken a lot of self-examination, healing, confrontation, & admitting my shadow, but I feel full of myself, allowed to be here, & more or less desiring of life these days (none of which was true even just two years ago). A lot of these positive developments are because my mom & I have a real, healthy relationship now. So, she is not a bad mom. She behaved badly, hurt me, & did the best she could. What else can I say, life’s a paradox.
So, these days I find myself gravitating to fields that require me to understand people. But not just to understand their motivations, but also their expression in real time. In other words, my work requires empathy; relatedness to others such that I fully grok whatever shit they're currently in. These days, I willingly put myself in scenarios where my total, single-pointed comprehension of the emotional tenor of the moment is not only needed, but wanted. I do this because, as I've been exploring in this essay, my life has made me exceptionally good at seeing what’s going on with people under the surface. This was something I had to be in order to survive the minefield I grew up in, but now do to thrive as an adult. Because of the hellscape I navigated as a child, I did indeed (of course) develop a deep wound that has taken me the better part of a decade to deal with & heal (a wound which bled on a whole bunch of folks over the years; I bow to you all in humble apology). But those flames also forged a seriously kickass superpower in my heart of hearts, outfitting me for a life of deep service & healing. There was a crack in my life, as it were, but fortunately for my life, cracks are how the light gets in.
And part of letting the light in, part of having a superpower, is sharing it with the world.
So, world, I offer you my skills, my wounds, & my superpowers in service of your awakening. I offer you me. As always: may all beings be free.
(It should also be said that literally no one makes it out of childhood unscathed. We're all carrying wounds. Your story might me three times as grim as mine or a walk in the park by comparison, but it makes no difference: we're all wounded by life & all responsible for doing the work as adults to heal. Some of us even go so far as to alchemize the pain, as perhaps you have seen.)