The Mighty Logo

When You Experience Trauma at a Young Age

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

A close friend asked the other day how I think my trauma has contributed to the variety of mental illnesses I live with. It got me thinking that not only did trauma contribute to my mental health issues, but because it started so young, it, in fact, changed my entire childhood development and personality. I never had a chance to develop properly, because, for me, there simply was never a time I wasn’t traumatized.

My birth mother was a cigarette smoking, drug-addicted alcoholic who gave birth to me, a drug-addicted, drunken baby, at the young age of 18. I was removed from her custody and after a lengthy hospital stay, was placed in Crown Wardship, or the custody of the province of Ontario. My birth mother had been given a few months by Children’s Aid to clean up and prove to be a responsible parent but failed to do so. That was when I was introduced to the horrors of the foster care system.

During my time in the system, I bounced around to abusive and neglectful homes until I was adopted at 18 months.

The sexual abuse, the neglect, the near-drowning had turned me into a frightened mess of a child, who had great difficulty adapting to a new and permanent environment. I eventually settled in as best as I could and thought maybe life had finally turned around for me. Maybe I had actually found a permanent home. Maybe I was actually loveable and wanted.

My first memory of domestic abuse is as clear as day. It was just past Christmas, the tree was up, and the open presents were still strewn around. She was sitting on the cream-colored love seat, smoking and drinking a coffee. The tears streamed down her face. As I tried to console her, her tears turned into uncontrollable sobbing. I placed my tiny 5-year-old arm around her and listened as she recalled the events of the night before. It only took that one conversation and my only safe space was instantly gone, as was the hope of having a childhood. I now had to become the caregiver and protector, the latter of which I failed at, despite every effort.

I was left alone to pick up the shattered pieces of my life. To escape the fighting in the house, I spent a great deal of my childhood out playing with my friends. It was the late ’70s and still a time when children were let out to play for hours at a time. Needless to say, it was unmonitored as compared to today. We could go play at the park alone, walk to the store alone or just walk over to a friend’s house. This was the culture presented in the ’70s and ’80s.

When I was 5, the sexual abuse outside the home started and didn’t end until I was 14. There were multiple abusers ranging in age from 16 to 40, and more incidences than my brain will allow me to remember. Some were so devastating the memories will be locked away forever. I tried to deal with the flashbacks the best I could, but I had no coping skills, so I turned to drugs hoping they would make me feel less. Less everything. I tried therapy but didn’t find a fit until I was 35 or so.

I was an only child my entire life…minus two years. Of those two years, I have exactly three memories of the older girl my parents fostered. In fact, it wasn’t until after my mom passed away that I found her school records, proving she had been with us for nearly two years. As far as my memory was concerned she was there only a few months, and the memories I had were awful. The fighting in my household increased and after two years of trying, things did not work out (or so I was told) and my mom and I made the long drive to bring her back to foster care. I think I was 6 or 7 at the time, I was a parentified adult. From that second on was terrified to add to the stress and fighting, in case I too, would be returned. There are no words to describe how that felt. The sense of terror that I would be abandoned again was incomprehensible. To this day, it is still my biggest issue in life.

In the ’80s, cancer was not as prevalent as it is now, especially at my mom’s young age of 38. I was a messed up 13-year-old by then and now the only person that I knew loved me, was facing this deadly disease. It came with barbaric treatments, repeated surgeries and hospitalizations. The chemotherapy treatments left my mom sick and weak. She spent most of her time between the bed and the bathroom, and just as she started to feel slightly better, it was treatment time again. This battle, with a few short remissions in between, was finally lost six years after it started.

I remember every detail of the day, down to the weather and the clothes I was wearing. I was 19 years old, and as far as I was concerned, was now alone in the world.

My earliest attempt to end my pain occurred when I was 8 years old. It was an overdose on my Grandmother’s medicine and although I could not grasp the permanence of death, I knew that being dead meant you weren’t here any longer, which for me equated to no pain. The incident was chalked up to “childhood misadventure” and never spoken about again.

Since then there have been three serious attempts as well as a handful of failed overdoses. I have had these thoughts so long and so consistently that they have become ingrained. So for the majority of my life, I have lived daily in survivor mode, with suicidal thoughts.

Sadly, those are only a few examples of the childhood trauma that I suffered. Medically, we now know that early age trauma can cause under or over-development of certain areas of the brain. The amygdala, which is the control center of emotional responses doesn’t develop properly. The root of many personality disorders is neglect, childhood trauma, witnessing domestic and verbal abuse, and so on. When I was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (BPD) and researched the symptoms and causes, it fit me almost perfectly. I hit nine of the 10 diagnostic symptoms upon receiving my diagnosis, however with therapy and a lot of hard work, I have managed to get a few of them under control now.

I live with BPD, treatment-resistant depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, and deal with chronic suicidal ideation. I take medication. I go to therapy. I reach out for help when I am too overwhelmed to deal with things alone. I have felt like this for so long, I don’t know if I can heal, yet I carry on. I wonder who I could have been, or what path my life could have taken. I compare an imaginary “could have” to the reality of what my life actually is. It is both sad and strange how we can mourn something we never actually had. Trauma ruined my life. Trauma robbed me of innocence and youth. Trauma stole my ability to trust and to feel loved. However, trauma also made me strong, resilient and brave. Trauma gave me the ability to empathize, understand and validate the pain of others. I would not be who I am without trauma. Maybe that is a good thing, maybe not.

Getty image by djedzura

Originally published: March 5, 2022
Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home