The last of the past: Childhood Trauma, Abuse, and Neglect

This is the last in a series of posts about my past, if you didn't catch that in the title. Sharing these stories has been more of a healing experience than I ever expected. I don't want this blog to become a negative space full of sad stories. I'm not stuck in the past. I don't want to spend my life letting these experiences hold me back or create a constant stream of self-doubt and feelings of worthlessness... but I also don't want to take these lessons I've learned and lock them away.

I wish there had been someone who I admired to share their horror stories with me, someone to show me that I could still be successful, that I wasn't any less of a person, that I was worthy of whatever life I was willing to buckle down and work hard to create. I've wasted a lot of time feeling hopeless and disgusting and unworthy, and maybe if I'd just asked there would have been people there to tell me what I needed to hear, but I didn't feel worthy of wasting peoples' time to even ask. I thought the depth of the pain, fear, and helplessness I felt as a child was invalid because I was young. Well, it wasn't. And your feelings aren't invalid either. 

So I'm not going to make you ask.  You're not wasting my time. I'm honored that you are allowing me to share in your experience just by reading these words I've written. I'm just another person. And so are you. We are no more or less than anyone else. Everyone goes through hard times, everyone struggles, everyone has something they don't want to announce to the world. You're not worth any less for being put through things you had no control over. 

One thing I need you to understand as you read this is that I'm an open book here. I will share whatever I can to help another strong, wonderful person find peace... But there are things I can't state explicitly on any website. This post is deeply personal, but it's also about my family. Living, breathing people who are learning and growing every day themselves; these are people who have the right to keep their struggles to themselves, and I respect their right. I'll share my story with you, but I don't want there to be backlash on my young siblings, or on my incredible mother. I'll share what I can, I want my suffering to have been for something. And even more, I want my healing to grow beyond just me. I'm okay telling you what I've gone through. I'm ready to share. Just know that when I hold back, it's because we are all connected, and telling my story doesn't only affect me. So here goes.

Photo by Caleb Woods (Unsplash)

Photo by Caleb Woods (Unsplash)


The fact that my parents are divorced doesn't bother me one bit. It wasn't something hard for me, because it's just how things have always been. I was 5 when they split up, I don't even remember them being together. 

I must have been about 5 when the man who would become my stepfather came along. I remember liking him, at first. It's hard to tell which order the memories belong in, but I remember him taking me for icecream after going to the dentist. I remember he took me to his work, some sort of junk yard or scrap shop or something like that, disaster clean up maybe, and he let me catch a wild kitten to bring home. He hated cats, so it meant a lot to me that he was letting me have one. We named him Prince, and he was the best. I remember my stepdad throwing one of my cats, Ritz. She escaped when she was in heat and came back pregnant, so he threw her so hard she hit the ceiling, scrambled to her feet and ran up the stairs to hide. That was the first time can remember thinking I hated him. I remember when he told me to take a nap, he came in and I couldn't close my eyes before he saw that I was awake. He said if wasn't sleeping the next time he came in, he'd knock me into next week. That was around the time he and my mom started encouraging me to call him daddy. 

When I was 11, I remember him and other members of his family telling me the difference between a father and a dad. A father is biological, just a sperm donor. That's all. A dad is someone who is there for you every day, who takes care of you. That's what he told me. What's ironic is that I can totally agree with that, but by that standard, that man was no dad of mine. 

Now, divorce is messy and I don't know what's true and which side of each story is the truth, but from what I understand, the years my dad disappeared from my life, he didn't know where I was. My stepdad physically, verbally, and emotionally abused my mom. It's no secret that she's an addict, either. (Recovering and clean, and growing as a person and a mother every day, and I'm so proud!) So I'm not placing any blame. It's not my fight, and as far as I'm concerned, I love both of my parents very much and I'm happy that we have such close relationships today. All I know is that my dad didn't know where I was, or couldn't get to me, and that's why I didn't see him more than once or twice over a couple years. Meanwhile, my stepdad was feeding me a string of lies about how he was my "real dad" and my father wasn't worth giving a second thought. I went through several years thinking my dad was a deadbeat and all I had was a jerk of a stepfather and a mother who was never home, and couldn't stand up for me even when she was. 

There were little things happening all the time with my stepfather. It was always a power play, he always found new little ways to be controlling, to force my mom and my sister and me to bow our heads, to give in, to thank him for every little thing. He wanted a grateful family, he wanted to be needed, I guess. What he had was a family who hated him, who was terrified of him, who wanted to be free from him, and ultimately who was broken by him. Some of the damage he did can never be undone, and he has to live with that for the rest of his life, as do his victims. I don't know his journey, his struggles, and I don't care to. It's been nearly a decade since I last had to spend time with my ex-stepfather. All I know is that when he was my stepfather, he was abusive and controlling and he hurt me. I would leave for school over an hour early most days just because I didn't want to be at home. There were days I was scared to go to school because he was so angry before I left, storming around the house, I was afraid to leave my baby brother alone with him. I was afraid if my brother cried at the wrong time, he would do something horrible. At that time, I was very protective of my baby brother. My mom was in the middle of her own battle, she couldn't be there for us. I felt like my brother was my own child, my sisters helped and did their best to stay out of my stepfathers way, but my brother was always helpless, he was just a baby. The girls knew when to go hide in their rooms, when to be completely silent... the baby had no idea. 

After my mom and my stepfather separated, the custody case between my parents exploded. I don't remember very much from that time, but my dad got custody of my sister and I, and overnight I was torn away from my home. I had to leave behind my youngest sister and the brother I felt was my own son. It tore me apart. My dad and stepmom had such a safe, calm home. They didn't push for me to talk about what happened, but when I had nightmares, they were there for me. They gave me time to adjust before sending me to my new school. I know the time was meant to be a kindness, but it was the worst week. All I could think about was what was happening to my little brother, if my mom was okay, how angry and scared and confused I was. I just wanted to go to school, I was good at school and school always made sense. I wanted the distraction. I cried all the time. I went for walks in the field near our house, around our beautiful little pond. It was my little bit of paradise. 

In some ways, it was harder being in that safe paradise than being in the middle of neglect and abuse. I didn't know what to do with peace. My aunt and uncle took us on vacation to the coast once and they kept telling me to stop being a mom, to be a kid for once. I didn't know what they meant. It made me cry, I was so frustrated. Couldn't they see I was doing a good job, I was taking care of my sister. I was eating good foods, I was getting her clean, making sure she minded her manners. Couldn't they see what a good girl I was? Why weren't they proud of me? The way adults looked at me with those sad eyes made me feel so ashamed. Of course, now I understand that it was love, and their own pain at not being able to make it all better... but at the time I just thought I embarrassed them, that I did something wrong... that I didn't take good enough care of my sisters and brother. I thought I was bad. I thought the things I felt didn't matter because adults told me I was too young to be so serious. The truth was I'd been through serious things and I was feeling very real, very deep feelings. It's uncomfortable to imagine a child carrying so much around, I guess the adults didn't know how to handle it. 

If this seems chaotic, all over the place, uncertain... that's because it is. The truth is, no matter how much I write or talk through feelings from the past, no matter which way I look at it or who I go to for answers about what really happened, that time makes no sense. I still don't know if some of my memories are real or if my brain just made them up to explain what I don't understand. Psychology is a messy science. There's not a lot of closure in this story, the closure didn't come from the events or the memories, or stringing facts together to make some sort of sense. 

I grew up with a single mother, an addict, and then with an abusive stepfather, and then custody battles landed me in a fairy-tale heaven. Even when my dad and stepmom divorced, my dad's house was weirdly peaceful. Maybe functional is the word. I knew my stepmom loved me, I knew I didn't cause it or do anything wrong. I knew my dad would take care of me, I knew we were safe...

I don't understand why the things I went through as a child had to happen. I don't understand why I've always felt so ashamed, when it was never me who did those things. I had no say, I was a child. I have always been kind, I know that. I have always tried my best. I'm not saying I'm perfect or that I've never messed up or that I was a perfect little angel growing up, I'm just saying I am not responsible for my stepfather being an abusive jerk or for my mom being an addict or for my parents being divorced or for any of the chaos my parents dragged me through. I don't need to be ashamed for those things. And the adults who's sad eyes made me feel ashamed- what they should have done was hug me a thousand times. That's the feeling they were trying to give me, not shame. They were trying to help me feel safe. They didn't know only their hugs and listening ears could have given me that feeling, so I remind myself that they weren't ashamed of me. They cared about me, they were heartbroken for me, they were sad and angry for me. The adults in my life weren't judging me, and they aren't judging me today either. I brushed that chip off my shoulder, and I hope you can too. 

I feel the opposite of shame now, really. I am proud of those things I survived. Sure, other kids' parents wouldn't let them be friends with me because of who my mom was or judgments they passed on my family because my parents were divorced, because we were poor, because of who my stepfather was... and that hurt... and it made it very confusing when I was learning that I get to choose who I want to be in this life... but I'm proud of what I've come through.

I'm proud that, despite all the pain, confusion, and fear, I've stayed kind. I'm proud that I've learned to notice, evaluate, and practice my values every single day. It's not easy to face feelings of fear or inadequacy and come out caring and with a soft view of the world. It's not easy to grow up under the implication that you are a less valuable person to know, less worthy of peoples' time, and still be able to give people the benefit of the doubt. It's not easy to take a stand, in your own mind, and say, "Actually, I am worth something. I do deserve happiness. I want to work hard to create a life I love. My childhood will not define me." It is so much easier to curl up in a ball, to feel sorry for yourself, to give up and accept that you can't amount to anything, to say your parents were screw-ups and you never had a chance. 

If you're still reading this, my guess is that you haven't taken the easy way out. You are digging your way out, and that's something to be proud of. We're a special kind of person, those of us with traumatic childhoods. Maybe you didn't go through the same situations as I did, maybe you went through something worse. Maybe you're not sure what to even call the struggle you've been through and you are just trying to find love and acceptance within your own heart. Childhood experiences are a tricky thing to cope with. Nobody wants to relive them forever, but it's hard not to let something like this define us. It's hard to accept that what happened to you when you were very young has shaped who you are as a person today, while also knowing you are your own person, more than a mere reflection of your parents. It's hard to own that a tough childhood isn't an excuse, because that means you are responsible for how you're feeling, what you're doing, what you believe.

If you are brave enough to face who you are head-on, to know you are responsible for your own life, you're already past the hardest part of healing. You're taking responsibility. The next steps are to simply forgive and to believe in yourself. I know those aren't easy things to do, but if you've come this far, there's not a doubt in my mind that you can do the rest! 

You're incredible. You're strong, so strong. Are you sick of people telling you that? I want to tell you a secret about that phrase, "you are so strong." Are you ready?
It's not meaningless! It just frustrates you to hear it because you don't know what to do with it. I'll tell you what to do with it: believe it! Own it! YOU ARE SO STRONG. So wake up, look in the mirror, and tell yourself the truth, that you are so strong. 

You're frustrated because other people saying it doesn't actually do anything for you, your belief in the statement is what gives it power. So give it that power. I am strong, I am so strong. Say it. Whisper it if that's all you can handle today. Do it now. Give the words their power, believe them. You are strong enough to dig deep even when it hurts. You're strong enough to show respect and compassion in the face of fear. You're so strong you're facing your deepest pains and fears. You're so strong that you're retraining your brain to see the positive. You're so strong that you're taking a chance and choosing to believe in yourself. How amazing is that? How amazing are you? You're radiant. You're so strong. You are incredible. 

I'm not saying I don't care what you've been through, because I do care. What you've been through is so important. But you know what I care about more? I care about what you DO with what you've been through. If you've been hurt, if you're coping with trauma, I am so so sorry for your pain. I'm sorry for the part of yourself you feel you've lost. I'm sorry if you've lost a childhood, years of your life, an innocence you can never have back. But I'm not just sorry, I'm proud. I believe in you. I am so proud of you for digging deeper, for reaching further, for standing up.

Remember those posters in elementary school, "Shoot for the moon, even if you miss, you'll land among the stars!" Maybe they're a little cliche, but you know what? You're shooting for the moon, and you haven't landed yet. You're a shooting star, and you're going amazing places. It's okay if things are hard, it's okay if you're confused. It's okay if you can't get the answers you want, if you can't figure it all out. Let your closure be acceptance of yourself, just as you are today. Let your closure be a new friendship with yourself, a promise to help yourself grow every day for the rest of your life. Let your closure be the beginning of this new adventure. Let your closure be the decision to build upon the chaos and confusion of your past, turn it into a foundation for a whole new version of yourself. You don't need answers, you are all you need. Take a deep breath. You are strong. I am strong. We are strong. Believe in us. I will if you will. 

Thank you. 

Jessica Peña

P.S. If this resonated with you, check out The Embrace Yourself Podcast for more on healing from abuse and trauma.