4 Ways I’ve Grown Stronger From Surviving Childhood Trauma

A child gazes into the camera with their hand to the side of their head, looking contemplative.

A child gazes into the camera with their hand to the side of their head, looking contemplative.

“I am not only a casualty, I am also a warrior.”

—Audre Lorde

I am a survivor with a haunting creation myth.

My trauma, that which I have survived, has taught me that it is crucial to speak from your position. We grow stronger as individuals and as a collective when people share the truth of their lived experiences.

Unfortunately, the stories of survivors are often silenced because they involve topics that can be uncomfortable or sensitive. Much of my undergraduate experience consisted of feeling obligated to lie about my origin story to appease upper middle class sensibilities.

I felt like an outcast. And what my upper middle class peers perhaps didn’t know how to confront was that I was!

I am a black being. I am a first generation, child of an immigrant woman with two parents who never went to college. I grew up in a domestic battle zone: drugs, homelessness, violence, and insecurity.

I felt alone in college because there weren’t many people openly sharing stories of survival. Now I wear my past with pride – because I understand that, rather than what outcasts me, it is what makes me stand out and apart. Survivors hold knowledge that make them unique resources to their communities.

I share my creation myth with the faith of an artist, a writer: I hope the sincere expression of my individual experience brings relief to that of another.

Here, I’m sharing four ways that I have begun seeing my tumultuous past as central to my strengths, as opposed to the source of my shame.

1. I Have the Courage to Face the Taboo

There is a tacit agreement that we will not discuss taboo subjects in social spaces. I am often in conversations where people are reminiscing about pleasant childhood memories, and I am between two rocks and a hard place: Do I lie, go silent, or make everyone uncomfortable?

It took a long time for me to feel I could say, “Right, but I grew up without my parents.” Or “Actually, I don’t have any nostalgia for a ‘simpler’ time.”

Many of my childhood memories are painful reminders of what I have had to endure to survive. I don’t want my experiences to go unheard because they break social codes of “respectable” conversation.

Sometimes I get a reaction that I will call one of silent condemnation. Silent, I assume, because many don’t know how to react to someone speaking about their trauma. Condemnation because on some level, they know I’m breaking rules that tacit social agreements dictate I not.

It can be frustrating listening to others speak about their lives without hesitation, reminding me I am not allowed to do the same.

I also get reactions that encourage me to continue sharing. One friend thanked me for being brave and continued to share with me the struggles she was facing in her family. My honesty had given her courage to speak, and together, we created a space in which we could acknowledge our lived experiences.

2. I Know the Exercise of Forgiveness and Release

Sometimes I would think of the family lives of others and try to maintain a relationship with my parents based on what convention tells me a “parent-child” relationship should look like. I would try to build a relationship with them with the false hope that forgiveness might change something it could not.

A turning point for me was when I accepted that the “right” relationship with my parents was the one that brought me peace.

bell hooks in All About Love writes that women are taught that “it is a sign of commitment, an expression of love, to endure unkindness or cruelty, to forgive and forget.” I was using forgiveness as a tool to salvage love that abuse had rendered impossible.

The only way I could get to a peaceful place was by allowing a relationship born from the cards I had been dealt, not my fantasies of what should be.

hooks continues: “When we love rightly we know that the healthy, loving response to cruelty and abuse is putting ourselves out of harm’s way.”

I came to accept that peace for me meant a distance I defined and that forgiveness was a tool I wanted to use for self-healing.

3. I Understand the Obstacles That Poor, Immigrant Communities of Color Face

As I grew in consciousness, I realized my parents were victims of a system designed to ensure that marginalized people do not survive. I used to see my family’s struggle as evidence of inferiority. I shared my story at first with humble shame: my parents were criminals.

I see now that my parents were casualties. And they, too, are warriors.

I see “criminal” as a label that has nothing to do with who is breaking laws.

Michelle Alexander explained in an interview that “the drug war,” which “has been the engine of mass incarceration,” “has been waged almost exclusively in poor communities of color, even though studies have consistently shown […] people of color are no more likely to use or sell illegal drugs than whites.”

Alexander also dismantles the notion that this is related to violent drug crime: “Most people in state prison for drug offenses had no history of violent crime or even significant selling activity.”

We are all criminals.

During my time at Brown University, for example, the student body frequently engaged in drug use with the comfortable awareness that their elite context would protect them from the treatment we knew was given in others.

Everyone breaks the law at some point in their lifetime. But “criminal” is a social construction that justifies the violent occupation of certain communities.

My parents were black, poor, my mother from the Caribbean, my father with a criminal record, neither with a formal education, and with two children they had had unexpectedly and early.

We live in a society that tells us these qualities rightly disqualify you from a stable life. But we owe other beings born into this material reality a commitment to support and community.

4. I Live Life Fearlessly

My survival has given me an acute sense of life’s fragility.

I know first hand that everything can change in an instant. I have learned to stay ready, to approach every day with flexibility, and to take no second of my life for granted. And, with time and growth, the lesson I am most proud of: I can trust myself.

As someone who often sits at the margins, I have been in a position to observe from the outside what I will call “the script,” or many of the dominant narratives of success, family, and career to which we subscribe.

My observations have shown me that those stories are not meant to include me – and striving to model my life after them will not work and will not save me.

I strive to live according to my definitions derived from my life lessons. I can trust my definitions because they have been formed from my lived experiences.

I can trust this life and this body. Our bodies move towards survival on their own, and, ultimately, no one will live forever.

As Audre Lorde, facing the mortal threat of cancer, reminded us, our silence, our complicity, following the “script” out of fear, will not save us.

I hope that knowledge gives me the courage to live for the destruction of systems that sought mine.

***

I have begun the process of balancing the delicate contradictions of my past. Reflecting on my past is an exercise in finding ways to reject the abusive tendencies of my parents, while also respecting that they, like all black beings, are also survivors, and have their own stories of navigating systems meant to eliminate them.

I am a survivor. I am a warrior.

I once went to a talk that Tricia Rose held in Harlem for black women, where she urged attendees to start having open conversations about the intimate trauma our communities face. The transformation of silence that Audre Lorde proposes was the first step in me creating my own accessible, self-defined networks of healing love and support.

My silence will not save me, and speaking my truth can offer relief to others in my community engaged in battle. It is important for us to create spaces that allow survivors to share their stories and that give us all a chance to benefit from the lessons.

I share these as lessons that I have extracted so far from my experience. I speak from the power of my position and acknowledge that infinite experiences exist.

By sharing, I hope to create more space for us all – because I believe the story of another’s survival is at the heart of mine.

Sam Carter is a black being, first generation, child of an immigrant and two parents who never went to college, a revolutionary artist, and a survivor. Follow Sam on Twitter @computercavemen or visit their website.