Strength and Secret Doors

So, I’m back. Did you miss me? Don’t answer that. I really don’t want to know. I feel compelled to explain my absence but, first and foremost, I’m not at liberty to talk about it publicly. Also, I’m not sure I should feel beholden to explaining myself to the nebulous masses in internet-land. So, I’m not going to explain and I hope you’ll accept that and move on with me.

My therapist is fond of saying it’s pretty amazing that I turned out as well as I have given my family of origin and how I was raised. The first time she said it I was equal parts shocked and illuminated. The more times she said it, the more curious I became about why and how. How is it I have been able to get past physical, emotional, and sexual abuse to become a slightly damaged and neurotic but empathetic, insightful, and good-humored adult. From growing up with shoddy parenting, I am a good parent able to roll with the punches my neurotic, eccentric, and delightful child can throw. While I grew up in a household where flying dishes, screaming, and slammed doors were commonplace, my household is fairly quiet except for the odd dance party, bizarre art project (right now it’s a painfully accurate double ended light saber favored by Star Wars’ Sith Lords made from toilet paper rolls), and occasional food throwing.

So how did it happen? I think I was lucky to have a lot of teachers who took a great deal of time with me. They made sure my innate intellectual gifts were nurtured. In the long run, it meant that I had the capacity to go to almost any college I wanted. College was one of my first real escapes from my home environment. Several hours away from home gave me a first taste of freedom. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a taste. I began to realize I could get away. Not long after college, I exercised that ability by moving as far away as I could get in the continental United States.

To my parents’ credit, they sent me to a residential Girl Scout camp for two weeks every summer starting at age seven. It was a safe haven where I was encouraged to have courage. Whether it was conquering my fear of matches in order to light the campfire, swimming the length of the lake, or learning how to be a leader, the counselors were warm and seemed fully sure that I could meet every challenge. It instilled in me a boldness I have always carried with me. My ability to be bold, whether it’s calmly public speaking, breezing through job interviews, or joyfully going on first dates, has overtaken  many of the symptoms that childhood abuse often leaves in its wake.

This morning I was going about my daily routine when I was struck with a revelation. My routine is fairly simple. I peel myself out of bed, take my morning handful of meds, grab whatever is easy for breakfast, and plant myself on the couch to watch TED talks until I fully wake up. This morning I came across a talk that cast more light on an idea I’ve been rolling around. Here it is:

I connected to Barnett’s talk on a few levels. First, I can always relate to working with little kids at camp. His story about melons made me smile because it’s exactly the sort of thing that, as counselors, we would have done and, as campers, would have sparked wonder in us. But what really hit me was Barnett’s thesis that books open secret doors for children that are as powerful as anything they come across in the tangible world. For most of my life, I have been a reader. As a child, I read voraciously. I remember crying at the kitchen table, fat salty tears hitting the freshly washed wood, when Charlotte said her final goodbyes to Wilbur. I remember reading Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights around age twelve. I remember being shocked and horrified as I saw my own mother reflected in White Oleander. Until my early thirties, there was always a book in my hand and a stack on my nightstand.

Although I had no way to know it, these books gave me secret doors. Early on, these doors took me to distant or fantastical places. They filled my senses with people, places, and experiences I would never find in small-town Maine. They created a lust for experiences and a small, niggling spark that told me I was brave and smart enough to go find them. These books insulated me from a portion of the abuse I faced. They took me away and filled me with happy endings and hope. Not one ever told me that I was stupid or fat. I never had to walk on eggshells to read one. I could simply be myself and dive in, unencumbered and happy.

So far, that’s the conclusion I’ve come to about why I’m relatively well-adjusted. Teachers. Camp. Books. These things created small safe havens that allowed the strong parts of myself to grow and for me to learn that I possess strong parts. It’s a fundamental part of who I am as a person. It took a long time to learn and a longer time to say out loud. I am strong.

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