Sometimes I forget the things that happened to me when I was a girl. It’s easier to compartmentalize. To box up the bad things and stick them behind the cellar door in my mind.
That’s how I think of it — a cellar door. Tolkien thought Cellar Door was one of the most beautiful sets of words in the English language.
Most English-speaking people … will admit that cellar door is ‘beautiful’, especially if dissociated from its sense (and from its spelling). More beautiful than, say, sky, and far more beautiful than beautiful.
— J.R.R. Tolkien
So I keep my childhood traumas behind a cellar door in my mind, because why not keep them somewhere beautiful? And sometimes I even forget that they’re there.
Like that game where you win by forgetting that you’re playing at all.
My traumas are packed carefully with an excelsior of privilege. It’s not so bad. It could have been worse. I am a straight, white, healthy person, raised in a Christian home. My baseline was middle-class, not generational poverty.
So many people have had much, much worse things happen to them.
I survived. I’m okay. I’m alright. Hush, now. I don’t want to talk about it.
But those traumas are there. They are mine. They’ve shaped my life.
My parents did have a messy, painful, ugly divorce when I was eight.
I was sexually abused when I was ten.
I did feel compelled to choose between my parents when I was thirteen.
My father did go to prison when I was fourteen.
The rest of my childhood — the years when my dad was gone to prison and my step-mother was gone to the bar and I was alone with my brothers and sister with not enough food or money — that box is big and tightly packed.
Sometimes I forget. Crazy as that sounds.
I forget the cellar door is even there. But the truth is that it is always there and it has shaped my life. Every decision. Every choice.
According to NPR, the Centers for Disease Control reported findings this week that “Americans who had experienced adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, were at higher risk of dying from five of the top 10 leading causes of death.”
Part of the reason why it’s difficult to examine those childhood traumas very closely is because I like where my life has led. Would I have ended up somewhere else entirely, if even one of those carefully packed boxes didn’t exist?
Maybe it would suck. But the truth is, that’s the easy possibility. I can breath a sigh of relief — I survived those traumas and ended up with this great life instead of some awful one.
It’s much harder to think that if I’d made some other choice — if I’d somehow avoided one of those traumas — and I would have ended up in an even better life. Would I have liked that place even better than I like this one?
It’s uncomfortable to consider that. It makes me feel sick. And so, I don’t. Who would? It all makes my head spin. I’m happier when my carefully packed boxes are behind my cellar door.
The part of that NPR article that caught my attention the most was this:
Schuchat noted that positive childhood experiences and relationships are known to buffer against the stress of trauma and strengthen resilience. “It might be a parent, it might be a teacher, it might be a neighbor, but having a stable, reliable person in your life can help you at that individual level with resilience,” said Schuchat. “That stability and nurturing will help you when you have a stress or a difficult problem [because you] have an outlet and a reliable way to process it and seek help if you need to.”
I had teachers who paid attention to me. I worked full time starting when I was in the tenth grade and I had adults at work who were aware of me and gave me some stability.
That need for stability and nurturing is so strong.
I had at least one adult who could have turned into yet another childhood trauma. A man who picked up the phone when I dialed a wrong number — and stayed on the phone with me. Then let me call him again. And again.
It should have been bad. As an adult, I’m appalled. If one of my daughters had that experience — a grown man speaking on the phone with her for hours, for years — I honestly don’t even have words for how I’d feel. Livid. Horrified.
But when I was fourteen and fifteen and sixteen, I needed the attention and I soaked it up like a sponge. As an adult, I’m grateful that he didn’t ever try to take it any further than those phone calls where he listened to me and then told me everything would be okay.
Weird, pseudo-therapy sessions.
My adult mind wonders what he got out of talking to me. Was he wanking off on the other end of the line while a traumatized teenage girl spilled her guts to him? But at the time, there was no sense of anything weird or gross.
The fact that I was able to spend years talking to a strange man on the phone for hours at a time and none of my parents ever knew is a symptom of the fact that no one was paying much attention to me.
I’m not particularly blown away by the CDC’s new report.
Of course childhood trauma causes illness. How could it do anything else?
And of course children respond to an adult paying attention to them. How could they do anything else?
Sometimes I forget about my cellar door and all the things behind it. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or not. Usually, it feels like it is. Like I’ve forgiven and moved on.
Shaunta Grimes is a writer and teacher. She is an out-of-place Nevadan living in Northwestern PA with her husband, three superstar kids, two dementia patients, a good friend, Alfred the cat, and a yellow rescue dog named Maybelline Scout. She’s on Twitter and Instagram and is the author of Viral Nation and Rebel Nation, and The Astonishing Maybe. She is the original Ninja Writer.