I grew up in poverty, in a family of 9 children in rural Maine. We had a small sustenance farm with animals and a very large garden. I have no memories of being hungry, but looking back on it our diets were very restricted and simple. We did not bring lunch to school — either we skipped it completely or we a piece of fruit, and sometimes a peanut butter sandwich with the thick government commodity peanut butter. When I began school I noticed for the first time that other children did not live like me. They had clothing, food, and matching socks!
It is difficult to pull apart where the mental illness started. My earliest memories involved severe neglect and abuse from my mother. I also have vivid memories of animal slaughter, whether it was for food, to control animal over-population, or pleasure. I turned to the animals for comfort and companionship. The sheep and lambs would occupy me for hours. It was also an adventure to climb into the hayloft and find the latest batch of kittens. I would play with them quietly and try to keep them a secret so they would not be found and put in the old wringer washing machine with chloroform. I even had chickens as pets but their fate is far too gruesome to detail. I was five when I was forced to pluck.
I learned to play dead. Avoid any facial expression as it would mean a slap regardless. Stay invisible to minimize the danger. Somehow even as a child I knew that my life was different. Eventually, I had two younger siblings I tried to protect from the abuse and neglect.
I think I had depression even as a small child. I was always in slow motion. At school I preferred to be alone. Getting off the school bus in the afternoon simply brought dread. The long walk up the driveway seemed like miles. I was afraid to go home. What would be in store? Brutal beating with a little sexual overtone for spice, or peel potatoes for 11 and do the farm chores? Either way I was visible during that time. I would get a slap, kick or a knock daily.
At night I prayed for death. I prayed that my pets and I would miraculously die together so the suffering would end.
I had older brothers who enjoyed beating me up and molesting me.
I don’t remember ever not being hypervigilant. I would watch and try to sense the danger and stay my invisible self. My father was an alcoholic and his beatings were intensely painful. He would beat me with his belt or a paddle or whatever seemed handy. I had welts upon welts. Why did I keep the secrets? I never told. I never told anyone. I knew I was weird and bad. I had to be very bad and unlovable to have the life I had. I made up different lives in my mind and daydreamed constantly. Mostly I daydreamed that I would be held safely by a teacher or a friend’s parent. Even if they tried though I would stiffen and push them away.
I moved out two days after high school graduation. I went to college and I wanted to prove I could make a different path for myself. Somehow I wanted to show myself I was worthy. I had partially raised my older siblings’ young children and treated them like gold. I never wanted them to see the pain and hatred. I thought that when I was a grownup I would have power and I could have children and protect them and keep them safe from all unhappiness.
I stumbled onto a man I loved. I wasn’t trying, love didn’t matter to me. Together we had a son. I remember the next morning after he was born looking at him in amazement and knowing I would die to protect him. He was perfect in every way.
I had a good professional job, a good relationship, and nightmares, hyper vigilance, loneliness, pain, and so much fear.
I became a foster parent and took in children who had been severely abused. I foster-parented a child who was severely disabled. Still, I hurt to the core. The anxiety and depression were unbearable.
I had a second child, a daughter so precious and pink. And still I was in pain.
I was in therapy with a therapist who seemed to cause more pain than healing. It was only after I was with a new therapist that I could recognize how abusive and incompetent the first therapist had been.
I worked in human services at a very demanding job. I worked with people society had been marginalized, just as I felt I had been. I fought to gain them the services they needed.
Still I paced and looked for danger everywhere. I could not cry. I watched a child die and could cry for 15 seconds before I totally shut down.
It took months and months — maybe years — with my therapist before I could allow myself to cry. I couldn’t even speak of my life, myexperiences. I never had the words. Could never say the words. Would run from the room in sheer terror. Learning to trust and learning to find words to tell my story was the most difficult thing I have ever done.
And so I learned the words. I spoke all of the words and spoke them again. I cried more than I ever imagined. I had depression and anxiety and had been on several medication – cocktails — that seemed to keep me functional.
My husband became embroiled in legal issues over a school choice issue and it caused him to lose his job and self-esteem. I was supporting the entire family. I had a serious ethical issue with work and it resulted in a 9 month investigation.
This was when I sunk so quickly and silently into a severe, debilitating depression. I took a leave from my job. I guess the giveaway was when I was getting a massage for constant back pain all I could do was fall apart and cry.
Severe recurrent agitated depression and reactive PTSD is what I see on my diagnoses page. When my leave started I slept 20 hours daily. All I wanted to do was sleep. New meds helped fairly quickly but I was anxious about returning to work and wondered how I could possibly do the job again. I felt my life had changed.
It was during this period that I found Psych Central quite by accident. I found support and people who spoke of their issues. In my real life I was quite secretive. I asked how I could return to work without getting swamped again by the depression and anxiety monster. I looked up ADA accommodations for employees. I wanted to be well.
Over the years my hyper vigilance became less intense, but as I was seeing some of my life for the first time the depression kicked me hard. I didn’t have power to keep myself safe, or keep my family safe. I didn’t have the ability to be perfect and beyond reproach at my job. For years I over-functioned at my job. I often did two or more caseloads when the need arose. I felt that I had to prove my worth. I no longer feel that need. I left my job at my physician’s recommendation after receiving yet another devastating blow from my workplace accusing me of poor job performance.
I am more peaceful now, slowly coming to terms with living with this depression and sorting out what is depression vs. tiredness. I am trying to sort my way through the PTSD. I have been doing EMDR with my psychologist and it seems to help.
I have ups and downs. I am still easily frightened by people. I often have trouble sleeping. The difference is that I now have the words for my experiences and I can share them with others who understand.
Story, P. (2006). I Grew Up in Poverty. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 19, 2013, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/2006/i-grew-up-in-poverty/
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 30 Jan 2013
Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.