When I think back to the words I heard while growing up, I realize they date me. I was raised during an era when adults told children to know their place, which was code for behave and keep quiet.
My childhood wasn’t that bad, I tell myself daily, while refusing to accept that I have a dissociative disorder. It makes little sense – this can’t be right! I stamp my foot in childlike anger because either somebody is wrong or I am weak. It’s me, I tell myself, while running through my memories of all that I had: a father who worked while my mother stayed home; parents who remained married and had two healthy children after me; a home, food and clothing, and a decent education; a rotation of pet dogs which I walked with my father most evenings; music lessons and band practices, and gifts every Christmas and birthday.
We weren’t frequent church goers but my mother reminded us of our good fortune and our need to be thankful. We weren’t poor as her family was. We didn’t get coal in our Christmas stockings, or oranges if we were lucky. We didn’t get scraps from the fish and chip shop and catch scurvy from the lack of vitamins. We didn’t live in old houses that burned from dangerous lamps and killed small children. We didn’t live with a mother who died before she was thirty, or get passed around like animals by family members.
Writing this now, I feel myself falling backward in time, to where I figure something out. But Grandma didn’t die, I say, realizing I remember Grandma looking old. My mother scowls. She was the first to live that long, she snaps at me now, and how lucky we are! She’s proud of us, she says, sharing her tales of her friends and our teachers describing her children as well-disciplined and polite. What a splendid example we make! What a fine, happy family everyone sees!
But what about those gaps? an inside voice asks, disturbing my thoughts with percussive repetition. And what about her temper?
Okay, I snap back at it. I’m willing to admit that there are things I can’t remember, but that’s normal – right? And everyone has a temper. Especially a mother who has bright red hair.
Yes and no, the voice tells me, sitting on the fence and refusing to let me peer into a world it can see but which I cannot. Define normal, it says, challenging me. And red is a color, not a temperament.
My life was fine, I want to scream. Think of it this way, I tell the voice, knowing I’m trying to manipulate it but not caring. Isn’t it true that each person’s life is as different as our thumbprints? The voice stays silent, but deep down, I know I haven’t won and that something is amiss. It isn’t normal for significant chunks of my history to disappear from a child’s memory, like my entire fifth grade. I remember my fourth-grade teacher and classroom. I remember my sixth-grade lessons and friends. But though I know where the fifth grade classrooms were and who taught each class, my entire fifth grade experience is a void of darkness. I can’t find even the slimmest memory from home or from school. Nothing! There are other gaps too, and voids in my mind. Sometimes the darkness seems to shroud an essence of something wanting to escape – an emotion perhaps, or a fleeting thought, or a bodily sensation or a nasty smell; a dizziness when trying to think back, or a pressure on my head and inside my skull.
Like it or not, my version of normal has taken me to a place where I’ve developed a dissociative disorder. I don’t know how much is enough. I just know that we’re different and what was enough for me might be too much for somebody else, or even too little, or even the same. I’m telling myself that none of that matters. What does matter is that whatever happened was enough for me and if you’re in my shoes, asking yourself the same question, then whatever happened in your childhood was enough for you too.