My childhood didn’t always seem so perfect. For years, decades even, I complained about it to anyone who’d listen. It never took long to get sympathy, or shock, or a compliment on how well I’d turned out, “in spite of it all.” My story of a disastrous upbringing served me well, I suppose, but it’s time to move on. Nowadays it seems very clear that I owe my present satisfaction with life to the way my family raised me. It no longer looks like a disaster, it looks spectacular! Not easy, not desirable, and nothing I’d wish on another, but ideal for my needs.
Since I manage to fit my family of origin’s dramatic tale into about every third essay, it is likely that most readers already know it. But for those who may not have heard the saga, I’ll pen a brief summary:
My earliest memories take me back to vicious arguments between my parents. These titanic struggles led to my father leaving the household when I was four. It hurt to lose his presence, and even though he took my sister and me to an amusement park every couple of weeks, I missed him terribly. My mother felt his absence too, and her chronic melancholy grew worse. Over the next two years she entered the psychiatric hospital many times for shock treatments and whatever else the doctors thought she needed. Despite this treatment, state-of-the-art in its day, she deteriorated and killed herself when I was in first grade. It was painful watching her suffer, but it was worse losing her. Especially since within a few weeks we moved to another town to live with my dad and his new wife who, it turned out, hated children. This woman treated us with appalling cruelty, as you can read in a memoir piece if you’re interested. Aside from my dad’s overwork and alcoholism, and my stepmother’s sadism, I also suffered from moving and changing schools every year until the fourth grade. At that point we settled in West Los Angeles where two years later my sister suffered a psychotic break following heavy LSD use, and it fell to me to guard her from self-harm. She moved out not long after, and her departure freed my parents to bring their sex parties home. Needless to say, the weekend orgies disturbed my budding development into a young adolescent boy. For so many reasons, I began turning to substance abuse and rebellious behavior, and was arrested four times before finishing high school. I left home while partway through my senior year to move to Berkeley and live with my sweetheart.
Perhaps you can imagine how all that loss, trauma, and chaos might have damaged me. Indeed, until recently I viewed my past as nothing but an awful handicap to overcome.
No longer. Now that I am contented and feel accepting of the large-scale drama we all live as humans, it appears to me that my childhood turned out exactly right. Not only did I see and experience much hardship and grief early on, and so saw the uncontrollable transience of life play out right from the start, I also benefited from exposure to many different views and socioeconomic conditions. One part of my family was very wealthy, another very poor. Some relatives lived on farms, some in posh suburbs, some in dreary apartments. Some resided in the Midwest, others in Los Angeles.
Whereas my father was atheistic, left-wing and socialist, many of my other relatives were devout Christians and staunch Republicans. Every summer I made the rounds, leaving the beachside neighborhood in LA (where I spent the school year under the oppressive thumb of my stepmother) to drift from relative to relative in Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio.
All in all, this diversity of experience, the tremendous stressors I endured, and the lack of adequate parenting shaped me into the person writing today. And since I’ve learned to like that guy, I now appreciate the environment that formed him–I mean me.
This is my best acceptance, my dearest gratitude. Seeing the past that once haunted me as a gift has changed my vision of myself from a wounded soul into a blessed one. Sure, you could call it denial, but I don’t feel like anything is being buried. Rather, I’m opening all the valves and letting the many streams of experience that formed me each flow freely. No judgment, no resentment, no regret. You could say I’m just making up reasons to feel better about the past, and I suppose that’s true. But there are many grains of truth in this new viewpoint, and I sure prefer thinking of myself as a man from a perfect upbringing rather than the damaged child of a mistaken one.
If you had suggested five years ago that I would attain such appreciation for what happened, I’d have called you deluded. Of course, back then I also wasn’t sure that life would ever feel enjoyable or even tolerable. Yet here I am, loving my life, my past, and advancing willingly toward the future, no matter what it brings. And I thank my past history for bringing me to this point of Grace.