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When My Childhood Trauma Makes It Too Hard to Function

by E.B. Johnson about a month ago in trauma

Will I ever forget it? No. But I will move on.

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Childhood trauma is a very real thing, and for those living with it you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. One moment you’re sitting there totally fine then, BOOM. You’re sucked down a pit of despair and self-loathing and you’re obsessing over all the help you never got, and all the chances that were denied to you by people too selfish to see that you were drowning

Where it begins.

My traumas started before I could read or write. Before I knew all the names of the colors in the rainbow, or the entirety of my ABCs

When I was 4 years old, my father took me on a roadtrip to Kansas to visit his family. One night, after waking to go to the bathroom, I was cornered in the bathroom by my uncle — who promptly took advantage of me before threatening to kill my entire family.

I don’t know if I kept his secret for a few days or a few weeks, but eventually I told my mother and that led to the next trauma in my life: the fracture of my parent’s relationship.

My father refused to believe that anything had happened to me, and my mother was enraged that he had allowed it. No one called the police. No one reported the monster that had molested at least 3 other young women in the family. So, the third trauma in my life unfolded even though my child’s brain couldn’t comprehend that she was internalizing the selfishness of two people who were more worried about each other, rather than her.


In the end, I was told to “keep my mouth shut”. I was told that if I told anyone else, the family would get in big trouble and no one would like me anymore. I was told, perhaps indirectly — but perhaps directly too — that my body was now less valuable, and it was a fact that had to be concealed for any future husband at all costs.

I lost my worth at 4 years old and learned not how to read or write, but how to keep secrets.

That was, perhaps, the biggest trauma I hold on to today. There’s no denying it looms largest in my mind on days like this

Where it leads

I’m sitting here now shaking, unable to concentrate on the articles I want to publish or the endless pile of emails I need to reply to. I’m sick and I’m angry, and for what? Because the pain in my past is still as real today as it was then, and it doesn’t care what my schedule is.

My parents eventually split when I was 8 years old, after endless fights and hours and hours of fighting, arguing and making everyone around them feel like they were responsible for the self-centered implosion the two of them had caused.

My mother refused to live in a world that wasn’t entirely dictated by her desires and beliefs. My father wanted the same for himself. My brother put himself in the middle and demanded more attention than anyone could give and me? My 8 year old little self learned how to make herself small; she learned how to give up and give in and keep quiet so that everyone else could get what they needed.

What I learned

I learned how to be selfish during this time, as the traumas continued to unfold.

My father left in the middle of the night after a particularly nasty fight with my mother. I ran outside and saw him piling boxes into his old, beat-up car and I threw myself around his leg — begging him not to leave.

He did leave, though. And from that moment on, I really only saw him on weekends and the occasional holiday when he would show up intoxicated and get into it with my overbearing mother

The lockdown.

A couple of years later, my brother came to pick me up a few minutes early from school. He was older than me by about 13 years, and had moved all the way up to Tennessee from New Mexico to be closer to my mother, with whom he shared a strong relationship.

My mother was in the hospital, he told that 10 year old girl. She was very sick, and had been put into the ICU. I couldn’t see her, but I needed to go home and get my things. I was coming to live with him and his girlfriend for a while.

I was allowed to see my mother a few days later, after being made to go to school and told to “keep quiet and don’t tell anyone”. My mother was dying, it turns out. And the emotional support I got? Don’t tell anyone.

Embracing death

I walked into that sterile white room with the salmon curtains, and I wanted to cry. I had learned after my molestation that this wasn’t allowed, however, and I knew my mother didn’t want me to cry in public

She was riddled with tubes and cords. Cardiomyopathy and Congestive Heart Failure is what they called it, but all I heard was “6 months to live”.

She stayed in that hospital bed for weeks, and I was taken to see her after school (sometimes) and on the weekends (when someone could drive me). I came to terms with the fact that my mother was dying. I came to terms with the fact that I wanted to die. I went to school in silence, took a few minutes each day to cry in the bathroom, and carried on with my life holding on to the secret that I was already living life like an orphan.

Though my mother survived, I didn’t. Each night that I went home and slept on the wooden floor of my brother’s house, I died a little inside.

The explosion.

I know in some way, I’ll regret sharing this. I know in some way this will probably come back to bite me. But that’s the thing about trauma. It doesn’t care about consequences. It has to be released.

It’s still hard for me to comprehend the years that followed my mother’s illness and longterm diagnosis. She fought through to “survive” and went on to live a poor quality of life for more than 15 years, but it wasn’t the happy ending I thought it was going to be

My brother came into the picture shortly before my parents’ separation, and was a strong character from the jump.

The middle child, he was a big man with more than 13 years on my pitiful adolesence. He had followed my mother and father from New Mexico to Tennessee, and settled down as a local police officer in our small town.

He was a man that not only craved attention, he was a man that was obsessed with it, and obsessed with power too.

I first became aware of how dangerous he was on the day he spit in my sister-n-law’s face.

He and his (now) wife had recently had a child together and it had (seemingly) flipped a trigger in my brother. Though he had always been a bit of a mischievous bully, he became truly wicked and controlling — explosing in over-the-top bouts of anger that resulted in threats, broken decorations and the copious slamming of doors

The autumn of my 11th birthday, however, everything amplified.

Another monster in the family

My mother received a frantic call from my sister-n-law and rushed from our home (now completely cluttered and almost unlivable due to her illness and my age). I can still remember the crying of the baby in the background of the phone.

We arrived to see my brother pulling the baby into the house (in a baby carrier) while he shoved my sister-n-law out of the house and down a small set of stairs that led into the old farmhouse.

My sister-n-law was crying. The baby was shrieking. My brother held the infant up in his carrier and taunted his desperate wife from behind the locked door of the sunroom.

I watched, as my mother frantically screamed and begged her son to stop the terror. The shrieks of the baby grew louder. The wails of his mother intensified. My mother threatened to call the police…and my brother? He laughed.

He was a police officer, her told her. They would never believe her story, and he would have me taken away from her if she tried. He then called my mother a bunch of names, and only opened the door after becoming irritated by the baby’s screams.

As my sister-n-law carried her screaming child to my mother’s waiting van, I followed her — but my brother followed too.

When we reached the car, he took the opportunity to call out her name. When she turned to face him, he spit in her face and walked away.

What trauma was this? I had lost count.

The monster un-checked

This is how life continued

My sister-n-law went back to my brother, after spending only a couple hours at my mother’s home. My mother, at her behest, didn’t report him and allowed her grandchild to return to the home of a man that I was sure was a monster. I begged my sister-n-law not to go.

This brother became the looming shadow in my life, unleashing a cycle of rage on our small band of women every single year. (Once my father walked out, our “family” was my mother, my sister-n-law, her children and myself, aged 10.)

He took baseball bats to cars, he choked his wife, he threatened to throw his mother on the street, and on multiple occasions he threatened to have me taken away from my mother.

This “brother” told me how stupid I was; he made fun of the fact that I was adopted, and he made fun of the “slut” that had given me birth. He told me how horrible my mother was, and he cheated on his wife time and time again. My father was nowhere to be found in all this, and year after year of abuse and terror went on, unchecked.

Where it led

Overtime, I perfected the art of secret keeping and learned how to mask both my emotions and my greatest fears and insecurities.

I disappeared into a world of my own as the people around me became lost in theirs. My mother, single, struggled to maintain a job with her multiple illnesses as she attempted to manage a violent and abusive son, and jobs that were neither forgiving nor appropriate to her physical needs.

I stumbled blindly, trying not to repeat their mistakes, but found myself making countless mistakes of my own. I chased men, I chased substances — I chased everything but myself, and had to find myself disappearing down the rabbit hole to make meaning of it all.

To this day I am struggling to make sense of my experiences.

I’m struggling to understand why my brother had to terrorize me, why he had to make my mother’s life a living hell.

I’m trying to understand why my mother didn’t report the man who molested me. I’m trying to understand how she rationalized telling me that my body was less worthy because of what that monster had done to me.

I’m really finding it hard to comprehend why people who are so caught up in their own struggles would bring someone else into this world to struggle and suffer with them.

Making an end.

It’s a hard day today.

Because trauma isn’t just a one-time thing. It’s like the deep-seated injury from a car wreck. It follows you and follows you; aching and hurting in places you didn’t even know you had, until you can’t walk, or move, or breathe.

Today, I’m struggling to function. I’m struggling to focus. I’m struggling to do anything short of crying and crying until my bones hurt and my breath is ragged and sharp.

I’m finding it hard to feel the same warmth and love for a mother who finally succumbed to the illnesses that prevented her from being a full mother to me. I’m finding it hard to find my feet after years of being denied any truth or real love that wasn’t defined by some absurd sense of fear or impropriety.

Today, my trauma is getting in the way. It’s stopping me, and it’s making me shut down and hurt so badly that I can’t do what I need to do.

But that’s okay.

I’m going to make it past today, and I’m going to make it in spite of today. And I’m going to keep sharing my stories so that other people don’t have to live in the same pain that I live in every single day.

Because that’s how we take our power back from abusers and the trauma they leave us with, either directly or indirectly.

We move on. On our own terms. And we heal in the places that they broke us so that we can come back strong enough to take them down.

Revenge through happiness. That’s what I’ll find one day

But today is hard. And that’s okay.

E.B. Johnson
E.B. Johnson
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E.B. Johnson
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