Going through life backwards – Adversity in Childhood

Re-written based on a 2-part blog post on the Rape & Sexual Violence’s website

A letter to anyone who has had to go through life backwards.

I am not talking about time travel. I am talking about the order in which we learn “life lessons” and how adversity in childhood means you might have to learn life lessons in the wrong order and why that might be harmful, but why there is also hope.

We come into this world a soft, squidgy completely helpless being. We have to win people over with our lovely smell, smile, gurgle, squidginess and burps or we will die. And that isn’t to exaggerate the need for love at all –  it is, at this stage of our lives, life or death. Without someone who loves us, who would protect our squishiness, or feed our bodies, or train our brains for life? To our minds, love is survival. No less than food or water. 

For most of us, as we get older, things get progressively more complicated. We start out with Grown Ups Who Know Things and care for us and teach us how the world works. They seem to be magical all-knowing creatures and they are safe. As we get older we learn that Grown Ups aren’t magic. They don’t always have answers, sometimes they have wrong answers, and that no one really knows what they are doing and that people can hurt each other.

At then at some point we realise that we ARE Grown Ups and it’s scary and we wish there were Grown Ups to hide behind. If we have chosen to create mini humans, or if we have a job where we hold people’s lives in our hands, then this feeling is probably magnified. It descends upon us as our first little wriggly squidgy thing appears in our arms and we can suddenly see that its very life relies completely and utterly on our ability to be a Grown Up. We aren’t ready. We are stressed and freaked out and overwhelmed. We are at the beck and call of beings that need so much. All of the time. And we are knackered, Never have we been so knackered. As we get older, our bodies start giving up, complaining all the time. We have to face death as we lose friends or family. We might need to start caring for our Grown Ups, who suddenly seem so small, fragile, helpless and squidgy themselves. We might go through traumas, divorces, moving house, illness, redundancy and bereavement to name but a few of life’s difficulties. Our brains may become fried and we may collapse, especially if we have been particularly unlucky in life. And we feel like we are losing our identities – our Selves.

Life is hard. We wish we could just be a carefree child again. We hopefully will find support, a way to reconnect with ourselves and our loved ones. And though the path may be difficult, and we may need therapy, hopefully, we will eventually find our way back to some balance and meaning again.

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We are all human and we all feel pain and loss but some of us learn our life lessons at the beginning of our lives.

These people could be rich beyond your wildest dreams, or poorer than your worst nightmares. They might be fat or thin, loud or quiet. There’s no class of person that is immune, but people from poor families or from other marginalised groups are more likely to be in this group of people.

We come into this world helpless too, but there’s something missing. It might be food, it might be physical or emotional safety, it might be stability or it might be the feeling of being loved or nurtured. Even when we are physically safe and fed, a lack of nurture and acceptance feels like life or death to little brains that equate love with safety and survival.

We learn very early on that no one knows what they are doing. That we have to be our own Grown Ups. We learn that people hurt each other or that there are a hundred different ways that we are unacceptable or unlovable. Our brains can react quickly to this threat to survival, sometimes, by trying to be acceptable to everyone. Sometimes by lashing out and being angry, suspicious and defensive. We are constantly alert and focused on possible situations where we will come up short, or worse, attacked or hurt. Maybe everyone around us needs something and we are always at someone’s beck and call. The Grown Ups might be abusers, neglecters or simply not able to care for us enough. Sometimes they are all of these things. Our bodies start giving up or we may need to face the realities of death or we may see our Grown Ups helpless, fragile and in need of care while we are still children.

These are life lessons that overwhelm adults, but we, whilst still children, must somehow find a way to grow up with overwhelming feelings, exhaustion, fear and pain as routine parts of our lives. We can lose our identities and our Selves, before we even form them.

So as we do grow up, we replay in our minds and re-enact in our lives the traumas and stresses of our childhood. We find ourselves dragged back into the same situations we want so much to leave behind. Because there was no “before”, it’s not always possible to tell that there is a possibility of something different, or better. We are stuck – angry, scared, knackered or collapsed.

Many will not find the right support and this is a much under-estimated human tragedy, as is the fact that much of this adversity may have been preventable.

If we are lucky though, we find support and we can slowly, extremely painfully and maybe with many false starts, find a new way of being in the world. Our child parts, locked away for safe-keeping might be vulnerable and frightened when we first connect with them again. Everything may seem new, but with strange, sharp strings that attach to our past. But with care and support we can start to let our child selves grow and learn. We can take them to places and see things real children could not. With support and safety our child-parts are able to wonder at and feel awe at simple things in ways many adults struggle to do. We may have spent many years and tried many ways to rid ourselves of our vulnerable, helpless, squidgy parts and we may have to some extent succeeded in ignoring them.  But we can still learn to nurture and care for them. And it is never too late. Our brains are like putty. Really dried up, rigid putty, that you can slowly carve new grooves in by just going along the same track, over and over.

We might collapse on our recovery journey – like a star into a black hole. Maybe more than once. But each time we come back a little brighter, a little more resilient and a little more “us”. Our tendency to shine is as strong as our tendency to collapse. While it’s deeply unfair that we should have to do this, when we do find ourselves around the right people, with the right support and safety, it starts to become clear that because we fall apart into so many pieces, there are more opportunities to shape ourselves in different ways. We realise that because our child-parts are in so much pain, it becomes harder to ignore their needs or disconnect from them and there are more opportunities to give them so much. And that because we have grown up in pieces, we are at once, both older and younger than our physical years. We are still so much the child we were, but we are also wiser from having learned our life lessons so early. 

We may face more sadness and difficulties in our lives as we carry on, but we need not lose heart and we should be proud of ourselves.

Because whatever we do (however small or big we think our achievements might be), we have given it all we have got.

We have faced demons and battles many would never understand. We are creating ourselves from a thousand shattered fragments and we have seen the other side of a black hole.

We are survivors.

There’s a previous post on this blog about Adversity in Childhood from a Public Health Perspective here.

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