Dear Patrick: I grew up a “gypsy.” I don't mean I am Romany, I mean my mom was homeless. I never knew my father. She begged, sold things, or shoplifted. We slept on the street or in shelters. Sometimes she worked at a circus or helped pot growers with their crops. We hitchhiked and stayed at rural communes. Sometimes she got involved with religious cults.
Finally a public health clinic got her on decent medications, and for some reason she decided to keep taking them, unlike the past. So now she is stable. She has had the same minimum-wage job and studio apartment for a while. But I don't know how to relate to a mom who only calls me when she needs money or wants to go off her medication and travel again. I also don't know how to relate when others talk about their childhoods. If I don't share, I am seen as stand-offish, but how do you talk about living in a broken-down school bus with no toilet or shower for months on end? Or huddling in a restroom stall to stay out of the snow while mom found a truck driver who was willing to take us further along the road in exchange for some sex and help staying awake? I am afraid of being seen as some kind of freak. I don't want to embarrass other people or scare them with my weird past.
My mother taught me how to read. I rarely went to school, but she always got me a library card, I suspect so we could stay in the air-conditioned library for long hours. Eventually I got a GRE diploma and then a college degree, so I have a good job. This meant I had to abandon her to go away to school, and she is still angry with me for leaving her. It was her or me, and I picked myself. Maybe I should feel guilty about that, but all I really feel is relief that I finally got away from her craziness.
But I've never had a stable lover. The normal life that I want for myself is lacking. I don't know how to behave on dates. Even if I like someone, I do something wrong to scare him away. Any kind of change scares me, and I need to have a lot of control over the cleanliness and order of my apartment. I worry constantly about how other people perceive me and whether I am doing the right thing.
In my mother's world, men were resources, but they were also dangerous, and I guess I just never feel safe around them. I've had a lot of sex, but I'd really like to feel loved. Do you think I could have a lover who would just not probe too deeply into my past, who would just accept my present and love me for what I have achieved?--
There is a certain myth about the typical life story that leaves many of us out. The narrative of the happy, safe, loving, middle-class childhood home that leads to a good education, a terrific job, and a perfect marriage is as popular as it is false. Even many of the honest to God middle-class people I've met have sad and difficult stories to tell about growing up. Gay therapist Guy Baldwin is fond of saying, “All childhood is traumatic,” and he may be right.
There is certainly an expectation that only a certain amount of the truth will be told during casual conversation. So I wouldn't drop any reality bombs around the water cooler. You may be safer listening to others and feeling grateful that you can empathize with their problems. But you do need deeper friendships where more can be revealed.
I would start with finding a good therapist. This is not because I think you are crazy, but because growing up with a parent who had mental-health issues put a lot of stress on you. You deserve a little extra TLC to figure out how to achieve your personal vision of a happy life. The best place to tell the story of your life is to someone who will hold it in confidence and make no judgements. This will, at the very least, give you practice with handling the emotional fallout that may result from reliving painful events. But it will also take some of the pressure off that is necessary to keep such big secrets.
A good therapist will help you to figure out when you can trust another person to let them see a bit more of your inner truth. Most of us have graduated levels of intimacy with a range of acquaintances. The inner circle of a handful of friends (maybe just one or two) get to hear everything, but revelations are edited to keep social interactions smooth with less familiar friends. You may not have any heartfelt best friends right now, but those kinds of relationships can develop. Believe me, you are not the only person with a strange and dangerous childhood. The hard part is finding them, since we are all trying to look so normal and non-threatening.
Even people who don't share your experience can empathize and support you, if you give them a chance. I know it's easy to assume that a moment of silence is a negative thing, but sometimes people are just taking a little space to absorb new information, or they are afraid to say or do the wrong thing. Don't be afraid to ask people what they are feeling (“My fear is that you disapprove of me now”) or tell them what you need, whether that's as neutral as another cup of coffee or as warm as a hug.
You have some really interesting stories to tell. If you felt less shame and anger, you might be able to see their value. Your therapist might recommend that you start keeping a journal or record some of the things you remember. This is another safe way to relieve the pressure of secrecy and honor your past. I referred to you as a survivor instead of damaged goods because I believe that it takes flexibility, courage, ingenuity, and luck to outlive so many challenges. The skills you amassed during the worst of times are a big part of you achieving the safer and more comfortable life that you deserve.
I agree with you that the here-and-now is more important than what went before. But I don't think you really want a lover who knows nothing about your origins. You will never feel safe or secure with somebody who asks no questions about the past. You will feel that their love for you is based on a lie. And you will fear that they will learn the truth and then see you differently. Love goes through a lot of tests, and one of the most important is the test of mutual revelation. If someone can know the very worst about you and still want to hold you tight, their commitment to you is incredibly valuable and trustworthy.
It's no wonder that you feel ambivalent about intimacy, and have specific issues with men. (I hope you also know that there's no requirement that you find love and happiness with only male partners. You do have other-gender options.) Therapy might also help you to figure out how to feel safer and stay present during sexual encounters. Having the supportive attention of a therapist can make it much easier to figure out how you want to handle courtship and romance. If you can get a GED, you can learn these basic social skills, I promise.
Trauma has long-term effects. It tends to set us up to enter a “fight-or-flight,” adrenalin-flooded state more quickly than people who have never had a life-threatening experience. But there are ways to calm that “I'm-in-danger” reflex so that you can have space in your life for non-trauma. I hope that not too far in the future I can hear from you about how you are doing, and that you will be doing much better.