What I learned from a tumultuous childhood

In the book “Where the Watermelons Grow”, the young protagonist, Della, has to come to terms with her mother’s schizophrenia. Reading that book helped me put into context some of my own feelings with my childhood experiences.

Everyone grows and learns in their own way. Some lessons are taught by caring and loving parents, and others are learned through life experience. The familiar saying, “Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose” is accurate. We almost always learn more from hardship and loss than we ever learn from success.

My childhood was a whirl of chaos and strange experience. Both my parents were addicted (my father to alcohol and my mother to prescription drugs) and this led them to negligence of parenthood and work. I was so often on the precipice of disaster and trying to figure out what was happening around me.

Despite all this, or indeed because of it, I learned so much. These lessons are now part of my very being. Here are some of them:

  • Folks can’t help it. This was perhaps the most difficult lesson I had to learn. For much of my life, I felt like my parents chose their problems over my welfare. It took a long time to see this wasn’t the case. There really are issues that take over an individual and someone can love another and yet not be able to escape.
  • You are not responsible for others. Until a miracle of healing I can only attribute to God, I felt a type of proxy shame for the situation in which I grew up. This is the most insidious lie in the world. What others do is not your fault.
  • Education works. Because education is compulsory and expected, we sometimes take for granted what a blessing it is to be lifted from ignorance by teaching. My teachers and coaches gave me a gift I can never repay: knowledge.
  • Daily growth is essential. I can look back at how clueless I was thirty, twenty, and even ten years ago. Becoming is about a commitment to growing a little every day. The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago. The next best time is today. You can do little things today which, when compounded with other daily commitments, will make you a different and better person in the future.
  • Fitness and sports is hugely important. I suppose this is the most arguable of the points I’ll make here, but I do believe that everyone can benefit from taking on some physical challenge. Fitness and sports provide a safe laboratory to see how much you can push yourself, not to mention the benefit of better health.
  • The straight life works. Sowing wild oats is a rite of passage in America. In the long run, though, folks usually come to the same conclusion: you eventually need to settle down. You can practically see the effects of hard-living on someone. I am grateful that, other than being a little knuckleheaded, I was never too tempted by drugs, alcohol, casual sex, gambling, or other vices. Because I can tell you right now that the results would have been bad.
  • Nothing is too big for God. You might think your challenges are uniquely weird or difficult or ugly but they are not. Between your ability to ask for help and to use the abundance of resources available to you, you can have a better life.

If any of the above seems too simplistic or patronizing, please believe that it is sincere. We are called to share what we have learned. At the same time, each person needs to determine what lessons work for her or him. For example, my brother grew up in the same environment as me but took different things away. He died homeless and addicted himself. Life can be hard. This is why it is important to offer hope wherever we find it.

Your life offers a wealth of experience from which you can learn and share. The recognition of how much you have grown is, itself, an exercise in gratitude and puts you on the right track for the future.

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