Making Peace With A Bad Childhood

For me, childhood was a broken constellation of discontent. I am still trying to piece together the shapes formed by the fragments of my memory. Thoughts come to me in bursts. Every particle of the story swirls around, shifts, changes form. Nothing is stagnant.

Our earliest ideas of love come from the people who raise us. The powerful sensitivity of words, the comfort of touch, the complexity of building a home together — these are things we can only learn through human interaction. Usually, it is our parents who teach us these lessons. And sometimes, what we’re taught gives us a strange conception of love.

My parents weren’t around very much when I was growing up. My mother was finishing her PhD and my father was busy with the family company. Caregivers came and went from my life. I had babysitters, after-school programs, grandparents, etc., etc. I didn’t spend enough time with any of the adults in my life to develop deep attachments.

From the ages of five to six, I wrote notes to my mother, nearly every single day. She has them taped up on the walls of her home office now, half-hidden amidst her piles of academic papers. She didn’t mention them to me for years. When I finally rediscovered my notes half a decade after the time of their composition, my mother told me, with an innocent smile, how much they had meant to her. How they had helped her feeling connected to me even when she wasn’t home.

Part of me is grateful she kept them. More of me is hurt, bitter, confused. If she had the time to decorate, why couldn’t she have said something to me sooner?

My parents used to call me “hugby” when I was a toddler because I liked to hug people so much. This will probably come as a surprise to anyone who knows me today. I am many things, but physically affectionate is not one of them.

I feared touch for a long time. Part of it may be a cultural thing. I grew up in Japan, a country not particularly known for its fondness of physical contact. Then again, I am half-American, westernized, non-traditional. There must be other reasons for why touch feels like a foreign entity to me.

I don’t remember my hugby days. In my earliest memories, my parents and I are already in separate worlds. I fear my father for reasons that will only become clear to me years later. My mother only pays attention to me when I disappear from the room. They do not kiss me goodnight. When they hold my hand, I pull back so hard that I habitually dislocate my arm. If I was born a hugger, what happened to me after?

The first and only time I tried to run away from home, I was seven years old. In my mind, I had it all figured out. I packed a few days’ worth of clothes, all of the money I had, a toothbrush, my DS, a flashlight, and my favorite stuffed animal (an anthropomorphic elephant wearing a plaid jumpsuit, very chic). I would pretend to go to bed 9 p.m., but then rise again at 11 p.m. to make my escape. Where would I head? A nearby tunnel — dingy but sturdy, able to protect me from the elements. I’d read a memoir about homelessness so I knew what I was about.

I couldn’t sleep that night. I lay in bed staring at the ceiling, counting down the minutes until I could make my way to freedom. As the clock finally struck eleven, I gently peeled off my covers and placed my feet onto the floor. I then tiptoed over to my desk and, as quietly as I could, opened one of the drawers to look for my keys.

“Hey, what are you doing?” A sleepy voice rang out in the darkness. I looked back. My half-brother had been staying in my room for the past few days. Apparently I hadn’t been quiet enough because he was now sitting up and rubbing his eyes.

“Nothing!” I said in a loud whisper, nearly a shout in the silence of night. I slammed my desk drawer shut and climbed into bed, cursing my unwise choice of day.

Normalcy is ill-defined. We call only what we have experienced “normal.” How many people must experience the same event for it to be considered normal?

I think I was eleven when I realized I had never said the words “I love you” to anyone. The realization came when I heard one of my friends talking to her mother on the phone. The one-sided conversation consisted mostly of uh-huhs and yes/no’s, but a set of words stood out to me.

“I love you too.” With that, my friend promptly hung up the phone. I did not even think to hide my astonishment as I asked her, “What? You just say that? Like, after the end of a call?”

“You mean ‘I love you’?”

I nodded.

“Yeah, I mean, it’s nice, you know, to remind each other of that.” Pause. “Don’t you do that with your parents?”

“No, I don’t.” Longer pause. “Is that normal?”

My first girlfriend was much older than me, older than I care to admit now. She kissed me first (my very first kiss), liked kissing me, at times very delicately and at other times like there was nothing else. I only remember kissing back a handful of times. Not because I didn’t like her but because I had learned a while ago that sometimes pulling away gets you more than remaining close. She let me stay over when I was too scared to stay home. I always left before morning so my parents wouldn’t find out.

I was fifteen when I decided that I wanted more of a family. It took hours of convincing myself and several deep breaths, but I managed to walk myself over to the couch where my father was sitting. He was watching a video on his phone, completely oblivious to me.

“Dad,” I said. He kept looking at his phone. “Dad,” I repeated. He waited several more seconds before pausing the video at an opportune point. He looked up, seemingly confused. I understood why. This didn’t usually happen, this whole me-talking-to-him business.

I sat down next to him. “Dad, I’ve been thinking a lot lately and I — well, I don’t feel like we ever really talk. And I’d like that to change. I really would. But I don’t feel like I can.” Deep breath. “So I was wondering if you’d be willing to try therapy. So we could, you know, learn to communicate. And all that.”

My voice sounded too staggered. I bit my tongue as soon as I’d managed to spit out the words I’d planned. My father remained silent too long for my comfort. But in the end, after a sharp inhale through the nostrils, he said, “I’ll think about it.”

An immense weight evaporated off of my chest. I smiled and went to bed happy. The next day when he picked me up from school, my father told me he’d decided that I was full of shit. The words “your feelings don’t matter” were thrown around at some point.

Secrets either divide or they protect. I have yet to figure out which of these statements is correct.

My grandfather died when I was sixteen. On the plane ride to the funeral, my mother finally clarified my past. “I know your dad only says bad things about his father, but his feelings are more complicated than that. Your grandfather was abused by his stepfather so that’s the only way he knew how to act. He didn’t know how to show affection in anything other than material presents, and he didn’t know what to do with himself when he was upset. But he really did love your dad, and I know it doesn’t seem like it to you, but your dad really loved him too. It’s just hard for people like them to express how they feel.”

She said more but I don’t remember. I just kept nodding.

Senior year of high school was the first time I ever heard the words used for me. “I know it can be difficult to live in a household with an emotionally abusive parent, but I want you to remember that it’s not your fault.”

I was sitting in my school counsellor’s office. It was a bright afternoon, too bright for the atmosphere of the room. I didn’t look her in the eyes; I couldn’t. I kept my focus on a spot of sunlight on the wooden coffee table in front of me.

I had opened up to a teacher about my home troubles for the first time. It was the beginning of the school year and I was trying to juggle academics, extracurriculars, college applications, and getting a license. I had to consult my father about my future, which inevitably resulted in tension. The previous night, he had told me to leave the house. Then he apologized a few minutes later. The usual pattern.

The teacher I had spoken to suggested I go see the counsellor, so there I was. It was harder for me to speak than I expected it to be. I’m a writer. Words shouldn’t be difficult for me. And yet.

It made sense once she said it, but I had never really considered myself a victim of abuse. I had made my peace with the fact that I didn’t have the best relationship with my parents, and I had left it at that. I never liked the word “victim.” It takes a certain amount of agency away from the person it refers to — someone that does not perform an action but is performed upon. It is a powerless position, an identity bestowed by others. I never wanted to align myself with such a term.

Just a few weeks before I graduated high school, one of my teachers told me something that has stuck with me. “You’re very emotionally aware for your age, and I think that comes from having to navigate a household you shared with someone who is quite the opposite.”

That one simple sentence turned the tables on the status of my victimhood.

I think that forgiveness is an ongoing process. It’s not about looking at the past, shrugging your shoulders, and going, “Well, that’s that.” It’s an active struggle to redefine how you see your own life. I think my childhood will always be a painful memory, and nothing will ever change that. But there is a reason why I describe this period of my life as a constellation: it is an object of projection and an arguably beautiful thing, because in the end, it is the place from which my strength of character comes.

My idea of love might be more broken than most. This I admit. But I would like to think that I am also more aware of my capacity to change than most. Because I have seen myself grow in the short time that has passed after leaving home for college. Every day I find myself flinching a little less when a friend lays an affectionate hand on my shoulder. Every day I find it easier to say “I love you” to the people I care about. Every day I feel a new sense of tenderness growing in my heart.

I wrestle with the stars each and every day. If they are the ones that spell out my destiny, then I will use every force in my power to move them towards a better future. Luckily for me, nothing in the universe ever stays the same.

 

Photos by Kaela Smith

I’m Bisexual But I Don’t Date Men

As a queer woman, I didn’t truly understand sexism until I dated a man.

I’d experienced and witnessed sexism through catcalling and slut-shaming on numerous occasions, as these acts of prejudice are so ubiquitous that they are impossible to avoid. Throughout most of high school, however, I didn’t spend much time with cishet (cisgendered and heterosexual) men. My closest circle of friends consisted entirely of members of the LGBTQ+ community and one cishet girl. For a long time, I remained happily ignorant of the true extent to which women are dis-valued and misunderstood in a hypermasculine society.

That all changed midway through junior year when I decided to try something new: date a boy. At that point, I was still fairly closeted at school. Outside of the LGBTQ+ club, there were only a few people who knew that I wasn’t straight. I had only dated women up to that point, but since none of my exes had gone to my school, it was easy to cover up my sexuality by referring to my girlfriends as “friends.” At some point, I got tired of hiding my relationships, however, I still wasn’t ready to be out. So I decided to try dating a boy, despite all the horror stories I’d heard about straight men.

I thought I was happy. My ex was, if nothing else, a funny guy. He could make me laugh, and we had enough fun together that I didn’t feel totally miserable. We also managed to become a high-profile couple, and it seemed like everyone adored us, which only added to my guilt for my growing sense of unease in the relationship. But this was all hidden. On the outside, we were a steady couple that connected on a deep, emotional level.

We stayed together for almost a year—much longer than we should have—for a multitude of reasons. One of the reasons was that he was a man.

I didn’t think there would be such a difference between dating a woman and dating a man, but I was wrong. Behind the happy façade of our relationship was a year that chipped away at my self-esteem and bodily identity in a way that I didn’t previously know was possible. Although my prior sexual experiences were limited, there was much more communication, especially on matters of consent, within my female relationships compared to this one. My first girlfriend always made sure that I was comfortable with any given situation. Regardless of what it was, she always asked before she did anything. In contrast, my ex-boyfriend asked me for my permission before kissing me for the first time but neglected to wait for my response; when it came to touching, he neglected to ask for my consent on all points except for when what he considered “sex” was involved.

In addition to the lack of communication, another thing I noticed that was different in dating a man was the necessity to constantly reassure him of his manhood. About a week into us dating, he told me about the size of his dick. This was, mind you, long before we had had any real conversations about sex. Also around that time, he started sending me shirtless pictures, which I neither asked for nor particularly wanted to see. He had a lot of insecurities about his masculinity and sex appeal, and I found myself constantly having to reassure him that I found him attractive and competent. Early on in our relationship, when we hadn’t done much physically, he told me that he had confided in his therapist that he was worried that I didn’t want to have sex with him—as if my sexual desire or comfort level was something I owed to make him feel better. It’s not as if my ex-girlfriends didn’t have insecurities or desires as well, but it was never presented in a way that made it my job to be their emotional crutch.

Another thing I experienced in my relationship with this man was the legendary objectification of women. I’m bi, so I obviously find women attractive. In past relationships, my girlfriends and I would have conversations about celebrity crushes or how cute a girl we’d seen on the street was. But there is, I found, a distinct difference between the way queer women express their attraction to women and the way straight men do it. In my experience, when women talk about other women, they use terms like “cute” or “attractive,” terms that, although unequivocally tied to physical appearance, stray away from the realm of overt sexuality. In contrast, men tend to use terms like “hot” or “sexy” — terms that are tied to sex, not just aesthetic appreciation. My ex was no exception. It was difficult to talk about any media involving a woman without his mentioning something sexual about her; he even went so far as to speak about cartoon characters from his childhood that he found sexually attractive.

Of course, I was not exempt from this kind of objectification. We would be talking about a movie when my ex would compare my breasts to the lead actress’, or I would be opening up about a difficult time in my life when he would shift the conversation to how beautiful I looked and start kissing me instead of listening. There was even a time when, for some reason, he decided to grab my ass in front of his younger brother. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with an entirely physical relationship, but in our relationship, I thought we had agreed to have an emotional connection, too, which meant that there are different times for different things. Having nearly every conversation devolve into one about my body and his sexual attraction to me was uncomfortable at best, and alarmingly disrespectful at worst.

The sad thing about all of this is that my ex is probably one of the better ones. He was always active in school discussions about consent, he makes an effort to consume media by female artists, and he acknowledges the discrimination women have faced both historically and in modern times. To deny that he is making an effort, or that he is more educated than the average man would be unfair. Then again, if you set the bar at the level of the average man, it’s not exactly difficult to seem like an exception. I know that my ex is trying. Nevertheless, he was still sexist.

After we broke up, I pointed out that our first kiss was nonconsensual. His response? He said that he was sorry if he had pressured me, but that he remembered the event differently. When I brought up how uncomfortable his casual objectification of women had made me, he gave no apologies and said only that he had been brought up in a masculine environment, and that this was how he had learned to treat women. I know that he is trying, but it is not enough. His inhibited capacities for dealing with emotions and perception that women are something other cannot result in healthy relationships.

I do not think he will end up alone. Men like him have existed for a long time, men like him get married and live their lives never once escaping their ignorance. They don’t need to. Women are taught to care for men and act as the connection to the emotional part of human existence men often have little understanding of. As long as there are women out there willing to do emotional labor for men, men will not feel the need to change. And many women are willing. I was once willing.

Being with a man was not all bad. My ex is still a person, after all, and as long as two people are involved, they are sure to find something in common, some way of enjoying each other’s company. That being said, the love of a man is nowhere near comparable to the love of a woman. To paraphrase an idea from Lillian Faderman’s Surpassing the Love of Men, a queer woman’s identity is more influenced by the male incapacity for understanding and connecting with women as equals than by an innate lack of attraction to men. I fully believe that the man I once dated did his best to love me. However, he came into the relationship with so many preconceived notions of what womanhood meant that he was incapable of looking past them to see the real me. To him, I was more woman than person.

My sexuality isn’t a choice, but my dating preferences are. I doubt that there will ever be a day when I don’t find men attractive, but that doesn’t mean I have to date them or waste my time with them. Until the day that society has progressed to a point where men and women are true equals, and I am confident that a man can see me more as a person than as a vehicle for sexual gratification, I see no reason to be with one. I am bisexual, I love women, and I don’t intend to date a man any time soon.