While alone in New York City during the week before New Year’s Eve in December of 2014, I made the choice to take a leave of absence from my job. At the time I didn’t yet know what that meant or what I would do with my freedom. I just knew that I was burnt out, overwhelmed, exhausted, and frustrated with life in the status quo. Something called to my soul to do more, do better, be more, be better. So I began investigating. Before committing to the major change of quitting completely, I started researching other possible jobs or internships that would allow me to explore different talents.
Working in a science lab.
Working in social services.
Working with children and families.
Working in public relations or communications.
Working with the United Nations or Human Rights Council.
After several months of resume revisions, online applications, and many networking emails and phone calls, it became apparent that traveling the world and experiencing other cultures was important to me. It was something I had always wanted to do, but something of which I had not been able to take advantage due to many factors. (Read more about these “factors” in my upcoming memoirs.)
I recognize how blessed I was as a child and adolescent to be able to travel at all. We got to live in and experience other cultures. I was exposed to different foods and customs. I was taught how to be safe as a tourist and how to be respectful as a visitor. I realized later how I did not encode all those experiences had to offer. Part of this was probably due to my age and immaturity. But a large part was due to the trauma and distress I felt just by being with my mother.
Research shows that children under chronic stress actually have smaller and less developed brains. Being exposed to cumulative stressors can actually suppress a child’s IQ and limit brain functioning in certain areas.
Later, as a college student, I was also able to live and study abroad. But again, as a result of my emotional immaturity and of the self-destructive and co-dependent behaviors I had learned from dealing with my mother’s illness, I did not take full advantage of the opportunity.
In addition to suppressed IQ, chronic stress and trauma are also linked to a higher rate of substance abuse.
Like many other adolescents and college students I experimented with drugs and alcohol. But with very little outside support and with almost no supervision, I took it one step further and used drugs and alcohol as tools to cope with my stress.
“They say misery loves company. We should start a factory and make misery. Frustrated Incorporated.” ~Soul Asylum
Have you every watched the stereotypical after-school-special about the friend who started hanging with the wrong crowd and soon enough was staying out late and even coming drunk to school? It is silly and over-the-top, but it’s a stereotype for a reason. Or maybe you remember the early 2000’s tv drama, “The O.C.” In Season 3, Epsiode 19, The Secrets and Lies, Marissa Cooper’s friend, Summer, finds her alone looking pretty rough. Summer asks her incredulously, “Are you getting drunk?” To which Marissa responds, “More like staying drunk.”
Yeah, I was that girl.
There was a point in high-school where I distinctly remember hiding a bottle of cheap, bottom-shelf vodka in the toy box in my room as well as a pack of cigarettes and a few joints in a hollowed out book on my book shelf. For a brief period in high-school, I went to school drunk a few times but more often just skipped school entirely to drink with a few friends. Misery finds company no matter where it finds itself.
It is impossible that my memory was not impacted. Due to my innate need to protect myself and survive, there are large chunks of my childhood where memories are blocked. Due to my use of illicit substances to cope, there are major life events, such as traveling internationally, where I can only remember small bits and pieces of what, for all intents and purposes, should have been life-changing events. There are many major life events, such as receiving awards and honors, graduations, and even sexual encounters, where details are almost completely missing due to an inability to focus or encode memories.
My ability to learn and to focus was also deeply impacted. I love learning. But there are entire classes taken in high-school and college where I have no recollection of what was taught. There are major areas of my education where I was somehow able to get by without actually learning anything. During my sophomore year of high-school I took a course in World History with an amazing teacher. But to this day, I cannot tell you a single thing we studied or were taught in that class. Partly this is due to my not attending the class. But mostly this is due to the fact that, while I was in class, my brain was too busy processing the trauma I was living. I am sad about it today because I know how important it is to learn from the past and I wish I knew more about ancient civilizations and repeated history. Thankfully, I can study it now.
During my junior year of high-school when my mother’s health was particularly bad, I was sent to live with another family. In school I was supposedly taking calculus, though I honestly cannot remember a single lesson. I think I did assignments. I think I took tests. But there is a blank where the information should be. To some this could be a result of the fact that it was calculus. But I love math and it comes easily to me. I had passed an entire college algebra and trigonometry course the previous semester while barely being present at all because I had been skipping class so much. But with calculus, I was there, but not there. Clearly, during this phase of my life, survival and coping with chronic stress was more important than integrals and functions. Go figure.
“When you know better, you do better.” ~Maya Angelou
The brain is a fascinating organ. Tasks it employs in an effort to serve us or to protect us can also hurt and damage us. Thankfully, I am no longer under chronic stress from living with my mother. Gratefully, I am no longer using brain altering substances to cope with emotions and conditions out of my control. But my brain still defaults to the functions it learned so well when I was in those circumstances. I have to actively choose differently or else my brain goes into its default mode: batten down and survive.
Today, I have the opportunity to learn and grow both personally and spiritually in ways that, due to survival, were out of my reach when I was younger.
Today, I can choose what experiences and memories I wish to have and value.
As an adult, I have the maturity and awareness to encode exactly what I encounter.
I am blessed to have the inclination, the financial means, and the favorable conditions to set out into the world and learn. No more default brain patterns. No more excuses. All of the little things I had been overlooking due to suppressed IQ and missing memories are available to me now! The little things. The little moments. They aren’t “little” at all. They are my life. And I only get one shot at every moment. The worst enemy of life is not death. It is stagnation. Movement will set you free. So today, I leave the only world I have ever known and I choose to get out there and live!
Thank you for joining me.