By Tammi Scott
It’s taken me 40 plus years to crawl out of my crib (comfort/safety zone) and learn to be emotionally present for myself. Babies and children are supposed to be valued, cherished, and worthy of our time and attention. They are to be lovingly directed, taught and redirected if need be. Otherwise, they take their cues from those closest and dearest to them, their family becomes their first teacher.
20 years ago, my father told me a story about how I used to get my days and nights mixed up, as a baby. I complained to him that as an adult I had trouble getting to sleep at night and referred to myself as a night owl. He told me I was always that way and used to be up all night as a baby playing in my crib. One night my mom woke him up and whispered that someone was in the living room, they could hear noises. He crept out of their bedroom with a baseball bat in hand and as he rounded the corner into the living room, he found me sitting on the floor in front of the television. It seems I had crawled out of my crib, went into the living room and turned on the TV so I could watch it! He and I laughed fondly at this point in the story. However, the next thing he said cut me to the quick and the story was never funny to me again. He said after he got done whipping me and putting me back in my crib- I never crawled out of it again. He repeated the phrase for emphasis as if it was something to be proud of- “you never crawled out of that crib again!” Fortunately, we were on the phone, so he couldn’t see how devastated I was at the turn his memory had taken. I managed to keep it together enough to end our call without tipping him off to how upset I was. I cried after I hung up with him, thinking how intrinsic the natural instinct to explore is in a young child. How hurt and terrorized I must have been at such a tender age to have that natural instinct whipped out of me by someone I loved and trusted.
My mother also liked to tell an amusing memory about when I was a baby. She worked outside the home and was often rushed and busy trying to make it there on time. She recalls one particular morning when she got to work and got a call from my babysitter asking where I was. It seems she had forgotten me at home, in fact, had not even remembered me until the babysitter called. The sitter had to get the apartment manager to let her into our apartment so she could collect me. My mom was vague on how long she’d been at work when the sitter called. I always hoped it was shortly after she got there when my babysitter would have realized my mom wasn’t coming to drop me off.
MY earliest memory was of being left alone in a large room at a daycare center while my mother went off with a teacher to discuss the school. I remember I felt so small, the room seemed huge and it was dim because it wasn’t in use. I was left alone in a lot of situations as a child that were neither safe nor appropriate or I was left alone to get into situations of my own making that were not safe or appropriate. Quite a few of them sexual in nature. From these cues, as a child I formed self-rejecting and belittling beliefs to try to make sense of why just being me wasn’t enough for the love, approval and attention of the primary architects of my world, from my family. I was too sensitive, always told to stop crying so much, or to settle down because I expressed so much excitement and emotion. From the emotional neglect, I began to feel isolated and unworthy.
Throughout my childhood, I felt like a disconnected outsider, no matter where I was but especially within my primary and extended family. School and books from the library became my refuge. If I wasn’t lost in a make-believe book world, then I was attempting to be the center of attention in class or at recess. Sometime near the middle of the sixth grade, I grew terribly afraid of making the transition from elementary school to junior high. Our sixth-grade teachers would get so mad at us when we clowned around that they would yell at us about needing to grow up. They screamed that we weren’t going to make it in junior high with our childish behaviors. I didn’t feel like I had anyone to turn to about my increasing terror of the unknown. That’s when I decided to kill myself. I went into my mother’s medicine cabinet and found a bottle of pills. I took over 15 of them and waited to die. Instead, I kept throwing up, over and over. My mother took me to the emergency room, but I was too afraid to tell anyone what I’d done. The doctor diagnosed me with the stomach flu and gave me a shot, in my butt.
After my botched suicide attempt at the age of 11, I turned to drugs, alcohol, sex, and eventually food. It was the late 70’s, early 80’s so marijuana and alcohol were readily available among my parent’s and my friend’s parents’ stashes. Therefore, my drug and alcohol use was regular from the very start. I used sex to get love and attention wherever I could find it as a young girl, growing teen, then as a young woman. Honestly, I was looking for anyone or anything to make me acceptable, lovable, and a part of something. Of course all I found where people, relationships and situations that reinforced the messages transmitted to me by my parents. I was too emotional, I cared too much, I was too excitable, I was too loud, my laugh was ugly. That last one came from my husband and caused me to stop laughing for a long, long time. I became the consummate chameleon. With family, I was conditioned, trained or taught to be who and what they wanted me to be. With friends and acquaintances, I would glom onto them, take on their mannerisms, characteristics and repeat their phrases so I could fit in and they would like me. I determined what they wanted from me or what they liked in a person so I could morph into that. I thought to become a wife, then a mother would be the answer, but that was not the case. I sought help through the years from churches, psychiatry, personal growth counselors and parenting classes. Each time, I’d get some measure of relief, start to feel better about myself, and quit. Always the debilitating depressions and suicidal ideation came back making me feel like I’d never escape.
I left my husband for the final time shortly before giving birth to our third child. Less than six weeks after giving birth to our daughter, I was back to doing drugs again. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me. I was dying inside spiritually and I was terrified of what my life would become if that happened. In desperation, I sought help from another therapist. That final time I was completely honest during the intake interview session and at the end I was referred to their center for alcohol and addiction.
They felt my drug and alcohol use was contributing greatly to my depression. Suddenly it all made sense. I remembered the counselor I went to for help with better parenting skills suggesting I try AA or NA meetings. However, I dismissed that notion because I needed help with my parenting, I didn’t have a problem with drugs or alcohol.
That was 19 years ago. Through the unconditional love, acceptance and support of 12 step meetings, mentors, personal writing and a Higher Power I began to shed the chameleon and come to terms with my past. My parents weren’t monsters, they were limited, misguided and young. They did the best they could with who and what they were. More importantly, as I shed the chameleon, I began to reemerge. It was ok to be sensitive, emotional, excitable, boisterous and my laugh was phenomenal! As I learned to love and appreciate myself, I instinctively gravitated towards people, places and things that supported this most healing belief I rediscovered. The ultimate compliment I receive from others is my authenticity makes it ok to be who they are. My emerging enough-ness has been the most powerful force I’ve ever encountered. It lets me know it’s ok to do things like expand, stretch and obliterate comfort zones by submitting an essay for scholarship consideration. Yes, it’s taken me 40 plus years to climb out of my crib. I’m anxious to continue exploring the world.