themighty logo

How the Burden of Childhood Abuse Has Helped Me


Editor's Note

If you’ve experienced sexual abuse or emotional abuse, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact The National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673, or the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

I was rereading “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho today, something I do often when I am looking for inspiration, when I came across a line that spoke to me. Santiago, the main character, is a shepherd leading a flock of sheep across Spain. In the daytime, it is unbearably hot, and he finds himself irritated that he has to carry his bulky jacket through the summer heat. “But when he thought to complain about the burden of its weight, he remembered that because he had the jacket, he had withstood the cold of the dawn.”

This left me thinking about my own burden — the burden of childhood abuse, neglect and trauma I carry, that I perhaps will always carry. It sucks, and it is heavy and bulky. Sometimes it seems unbearable, even though I know I am safe. Sometimes I want to get rid of it, bury it or pretend it never happened. It occurred to me, though, that like Santiago’s jacket, my burden has also helped me along the way.

Because I had parents who didn’t take care of me, I learned fierce independence and self-reliance that propelled me through high school, college, graduate school and a successful career.

Because I spent so much time feeling unseen, I try my best to truly see people. I aim to see them as more than the sum of their mistakes. I look past words and actions to intentions. I can see both their pain and their beauty.

Because I once craved family closeness, I can relish in the snuggles of my sweet babies, cherishing the chubby fingers and sticky hands.

Because I have felt unloved and unlovable, I am in awe of the unconditional love from my husband and can take refuge in his strong, open arms.

Because I saw the damage of drugs and alcohol, I avoided them as a teenager and have learned to enjoy a glass of wine as an adult but not lose control.

Because I grew up in poverty, I am not afraid of it. I’ve learned to manage money responsibly, yet I can also live generously because I know that being poor is not the worst thing that could happen to me.

Because I have felt the ugliness in the world, I try to pause to admire the beauty of the setting sun, beaming rainbow, chirping birds, towering trees or lapping waves.

Because I have experienced the impact a teacher can have on a single child — the impact my teachers had on me — I can look past the bureaucracy of public education and teach the students, not the test.

Because I have faced the darkness, maybe — just maybe — I can help others find the light.

I’m not saying I am glad my childhood was terrible or that I’m thankful it happened. I would never wish it on my worst enemy. I’m not simply looking on the bright side, either, ignoring the bad and painting on a smile. In acknowledging the darkness, though, I must also acknowledge the light. Heavy as it is, my burden, too, has helped me withstand the “cold of the dawn.”

Photo by Angelo Pantazis on Unsplash