Many people have gone through hell in their childhoods. I wasn’t one of them.
Don’t get me wrong. I grew up poor enough that we had tuna fish salad for dinner way too often. All my new clothes were from Goodwill or handed down from friends. Mom didn’t have a car, so I had to bike, walk, or bus wherever we went. But I always had food and I always had shoes.
Today, I appear to be a fairly confident professional woman. I’m a CPA with fifteen published books and more on the way. I’ve been married for eighteen years and enjoy my life. I no longer live from paycheck to paycheck, and sudden car bills or hospital stays don’t frighten me.
And yet, episodes from my childhood still hurt me in the dark of the night.
When I was about eleven, I was riding in the open back of my uncle’s El Camino. For those unfamiliar with this fashionable form of transport, imagine if you sawed off the top back of a car to make it like a pick-up truck. I wore a shirt with my name on the back. I think the front had a sparkly unicorn. At a traffic stop, someone called my name. Forgetting that I was literally advertising it, I turned to see if it was someone who knew me. It was a carful of boys who reacted with horrified disgust when I turned around, as if I wore a monster mask. That hurts to this day.
When I was twelve, a well-meaning friend’s mother gifted me with a present at Christmas. It was a set of Jean Nate bath scents and perfumes. She asked me to please not get offended by the gift. I wasn’t, because I didn’t realize until years later she was telling me that I stank. Now, I lived with thirty cats, so it’s no surprise to me now that I stank then and didn’t realize it. My sense of smell still hasn’t recovered from those years, and if I notice an odor, it must be really strong. Still, it hurt.
When I was thirteen, I was so excited to join Girl Scouts. I’d been a Brownie, and was thrilled to be part of the arts and crafts. My mother and I lived with her mother until I was eight, and Grandma was an art teacher, so I grew up painting, sculpting, doing calligraphy, embroidery, all the crafts. So I excelled at this in Girl Scouts, even helping out some of the other girls once I had finished my own project. Evidently, however, this was not how things were done. A few of the older girls cornered me in the bathroom and let me know I was out of line. They drummed this lesson home with kicks, punches, and pulling out my hair in one spot until I had a bald spot. I tried to tell the person in charge, but she told me I must have done something wrong to warrant such reaction, and dismissed it. I didn’t return to Girl Scouts after that, no matter how much I wanted to.
Through Junior High and even into Senior High School, me and my friend Tiffani were consistently bullied by another student and her friends. They tended to corner us off-campus, so we couldn’t get help from others. I remember waiting for a bus with Tiffani and the bully and her friends would surround us, kicking, yelling, pinching, and poking. We couldn’t leave because we needed to catch the bus. They knew this.
When I was sixteen, I was supposed to meet a friend for the first time, I discovered that a mutual friend told him they’d recognize me from my slouch and my smell. I have since worked on both, and sit straighter whenever I think of it.
Even as an adult, when I was let go of a job in a lawyer’s office on the day before Easter, one of the office workers, knowing full well that I’d just been laid off, gave a sneering ‘Have a happy Easter!’ as I walked out of the door in tears.
These tiny things aren’t much. Many children deal with far harsher realities of abuse, poverty, and pain. However, even these microagressions, whether performed by total strangers, well-meaning friends, or bullies, worked to damage me.
The created dents, then chinks, and outright splits in my personal armor. They battered at the plate maille until the armor cracked and fell in large bits. It left me vulnerable to anyone who wanted to poke a stick at me through high school and beyond.
It took me years, decades, to repair that armor. Even now, it’s barely a patchwork of mismatched materials, trying desperately to hold in all those old pains and insecurities. It takes me all the forces of learned extrovert behavior to speak before other people, to laugh out loud in front of friends who wouldn’t betray me. At night, I still second-guess all my actions and reactions, hoping I didn’t hurt someone else, betray someone without knowing it, or commit a microaggression of my own.
We cannot go through life without hurting others, either by accident or ignorance. However, we can control our own cruelty and work to minimize that hurt. Those who do not actively work to reduce those microaggressions are as guilty as those bullies who pulled my hair for the cardinal sin of being better than them at painting at Girl Scouts.
Be aware of how your actions affect others.