What experience most shaped who you are?
February 2, 2005 4:41 AM   Subscribe

Life-altering experiences. Can you point to a single experience in your life, as a child, which you can define as having contributed to the person you are today? (+)

I guess I'm looking for an experience which you can look back on and say " That shaped my personality as an adult." An example might be: I went to a slaughterhouse and decided to become a vegetarian.
posted by jeremias to Society & Culture (210 answers total) 902 users marked this as a favorite
Why do you want to know?
posted by reflecked at 4:55 AM on February 2, 2005 [1 favorite]

1. Wayne Arnold let me hold the trumpet he just got from school (I was in kindergarten) and at that moment, I knew that I would have to play. 32 years later, I still play.
2. 3rd grade we learned the phrase "Renaissance Man" (sexist though it is) and at that point I chose that as a goal, which I think I've acieved, inasmuch as it is a continual process of lifelong learning.
posted by plinth at 4:59 AM on February 2, 2005

I was taken on a visit to a newspaper office when I was seven. Stood on the floor of the press hall and just knew.
posted by bonaldi at 5:15 AM on February 2, 2005 [11 favorites]

When I was seven, my father bought me a turntable and allowed me access to his record collection. 30 years and thousands of dollars in gear and recordings later, music is my passion.
posted by black8 at 5:23 AM on February 2, 2005 [2 favorites]

I once did an exercise in mapping out significant moments, where I listed about 10 'points' leading up to adulthood that had been important to me, and about half of them were books I read. I'm going into academia, so I guess it all makes sense.

Choosing one 'moment' would be hard for me, though. It would depend a lot on my mood, I think.
posted by mdn at 5:31 AM on February 2, 2005 [2 favorites]

When I was ten, I got a job as a caddy at the local golf club, and fell in love with the game that I hope to be playing when I die.
posted by lobstah at 5:34 AM on February 2, 2005

In 2nd grade a couple girls were teasing me and I walked away without saying anything in return—like you're supposed to. After recess they lied to the teacher saying I threw ice at them. She would hear none of my story. Even my parents didn't believe me. The teacher made me write an apology to the girls along with, "I will not throw ice. It is as hard as rocks and could hurt people," a hundred times.

I'm small and bitter to this day.
posted by mealy-mouthed at 5:48 AM on February 2, 2005 [57 favorites]

When I was 4, I had 2 fingers partially amputated in a lawnmower. Reach your own conclusions. heheh ;-P
posted by mischief at 5:56 AM on February 2, 2005

1976: Age 14
Heard Ramones.
Everything changed.
posted by davebush at 6:08 AM on February 2, 2005 [3 favorites]

My father died when I was almost 5
posted by Pressed Rat at 6:16 AM on February 2, 2005

Age 14 - I watched my mom give birth to my little sister. I decided that I was never doing that, and I've been happily childfree ever since. Getting fixed this year, whoo!
posted by mabelcolby at 6:25 AM on February 2, 2005 [11 favorites]

Response by poster: Why do you want to know?

I have a three and a half year old, and as he's growing older I'm becoming aware of how intense his experiences are, and it's made me curious what sort of things "stick" with people over the course of their life. It's also made me think more about what sort of control (if any), I have as a parent.
posted by jeremias at 6:25 AM on February 2, 2005 [3 favorites]

Staying up late at night, when I was about 13, hiding under the duvet, headphones on with John Peel on the BBC to keep me awake.
I was just doing it until my parents went to bed. I could creep downstairs to catch some seriously lame film with some flashes of skin, but when you're 13 that's quite some incentive. The weird noises would serve to make sure I couldn't possibly nod off, even if I wanted to.

I stayed in bed instead, and listened. There was no way I was giving up John Peel and dub for half-baked nudity.
posted by NinjaPirate at 6:33 AM on February 2, 2005 [6 favorites]

I was in nursery school (about 1969), and I was passionately interested in astronomy. My dad had read me lots of books about the cosmos, and I was as educated about such matters as a four-year-old could be.

One day, I was arguing with friends about the moon. I said the moon was like a small planet. They disagreed. Finally, I called a teacher over to help settle the matter. I KNEW I was right, so I was looking forward to the teacher vindicating me. We asked her if the moon was a planet.

She said, "no, the moon is a star."

You could have knocked me over with a feather. My pride was hurt because I lost the argument, but that wasn't the main reason I was stunned. I still knew I was right, which meant the TEACHER was wrong. Not only was she wrong, she was ignorant about something I assumed was common knowledge.

Before that, I hadn't known grown-ups could be wrong. This profoundly shaped the way I viewed people as I grew up. Whenever I heard anyone deifying another person, I thought -- and still think -- "that's silly." From that point on, I had no respect for authority. To earn my respect, you have to be smart or talented. I'll never respect you just because you happen to be in charge or have a degree.
posted by grumblebee at 6:37 AM on February 2, 2005 [141 favorites]

1. When I was a little kid, I ran after a kite a little boy lost hold of while flying it on a windy beach. I had a "peek experience" at that moment. I have continued to behave as though the "peek experience" - being fully human and reaching my potential - is of primary importance.

2. A year of so later, during 6th grade, I was punched by a bully. I did not fight back because violence is wrong. I told my dad about it, proud that I took the high road, proud that I had a mature revelation about violence and the importance of alternative resolution methods. He thought I was being childish\stupid and he berated me for it.

From that day on, I have known that when it comes to paternal guidance and fatherly support, I am completely on my own. I was only 10 but I remember that day because it was the day I "lost" my father.
posted by johnj at 6:42 AM on February 2, 2005 [10 favorites]

Parents' divorce and alcoholism. I learned these lessons early: I trust few people, never think about the future (in a fatalistic sense, not a live-for-today sense), and err on the side of caution every time. Life is a long series of hazards to be avoided and inescapable heartbreak.
posted by scratch at 6:58 AM on February 2, 2005 [8 favorites]

I enlisted in the Army (many years ago), and Basic Training developed confidence, pride, a realization that most roadblocks to success are self-imposed, and demonstrated that a team is not limited by the weakest individual, but is limited by how much inspiration can be instilled in them.
posted by forforf at 7:06 AM on February 2, 2005 [18 favorites]

Christmas, 7th grade. Instead of the usual half dozen gifts apeice, my parents gave my brothers and I a TRS-80 Color Computer. 23 years later I'm posting about it on an internet forum instead of asking someone if they want fries with their Whopper Jr.
posted by bondcliff at 7:18 AM on February 2, 2005 [8 favorites]

I won't talk about specific instances, but the abuse and neglect I experienced as a child has shaped the adult I am. I'm shy, withdrawn and have an extremely low sense of self-esteem. It has been, and will continue to be, a lifelong struggle to overcome my childhood.
posted by deborah at 7:23 AM on February 2, 2005 [15 favorites]

From the age of 2 to 5-1/2, my parents kept me locked alone in a cage. To this day, decades later, I find it impossible to form meaningful social relationships. Frankly, I'm surprised I'm not a serial killer.
posted by SPrintF at 7:27 AM on February 2, 2005 [12 favorites]

We were at my uncle's house, he's a kinda mountain man, and we'd go there to build things and shoot things with bullets and arrows (often the things we built). My cousin was probably 11, and had decided to do some target practice on some full paint cans with a bb gun. My uncle was, understandably, a bit upset, and told my cousin if he had to shoot something, he should go pick some doves off the telephone line. My cousin shot three, and was pretty excited until my uncle made him kill them, clean them, and eat them for dinner (we had chinese).

My cousin is now a vegan.
posted by cosmonaught at 7:29 AM on February 2, 2005 [11 favorites]

I've always attributed that event to him becoming a vegan, and 13 years later, at my brother's wedding, I found out that he linked it back to that, too.
posted by cosmonaught at 7:32 AM on February 2, 2005 [1 favorite]

You might also want to check out previous AskMe threads about singular happiest moments and life-changing epiphanies. :)
posted by furious blush at 7:41 AM on February 2, 2005 [16 favorites]

SPrintF-Are you serious?

I can't remember the exact age I was, but the first time I read a book. I was old for my age, I didn't learn to read till I was in second grade. It was about this silly little dragon, and I was flat on the floor in the living room. I got up and told everyone, very proud of myself, and then went back down to read the next. And the next. And the next. As so on to a life-long addiction.
posted by stoneegg21 at 7:44 AM on February 2, 2005 [2 favorites]

My hippie uncle came to visit me when he was doing a tour of communes on the east coast when I was eight or so. He lived in this awesome bus with a woodstove inside it and had a ton of tattoos and earrings and was friendly and relaxed in a way that my parents never were. I watched him change from that into a somewhat more mainstream social activist and fairly successful and happy actor. It gave me hope at an early age that I could do something different and unusual and still have a worthwhile life and livelihood, even though people might look at me sideways. Also, that being friendly to people can overcome a lot of first-impression weirdness that they might otherwise have.
posted by jessamyn at 7:55 AM on February 2, 2005 [36 favorites]

12 years old, just beginning to take those "career aptitude inventory" tests they give you, I share with my father my interest in one day becoming a computer engineer. His response, "How the hell are you ever gonna help anybody doing that!?" leads me to completely devalue my own interests and goals for the next four years or so in favor of what I think other people think I should be doing. Later I get my head on straight and realize he was being a complete jerk, but the damage is still done. I still base my feelings of self-worth on the opinions of others (even though I know that's what I'm doing).

Please, encourage your child to pursue his or her own interests, not those you think he or she should have. Within reason, of course.
posted by ruddhist at 7:57 AM on February 2, 2005 [14 favorites]

Two things:

1) In fourth grade, someone screamed in the lunchroom of my school. A number of people pointed to me as being the guilty party, although I was not. I was then taken to the principal's office and berated for hours by Sister in an attempt to get me to confess. I did not. Eventually, the real culprit confessed. I was sent back to class without an apology.

2) My mother died of cancer just days before I was to begin high school. I missed the first day because of the funeral.
posted by tommasz at 8:10 AM on February 2, 2005

like grumblebee. discovering adults could be and were wrong sometimes--and on various levels; wrong factually as well as capable of behaving improperly/having prejudices/being deceitful--was like being punched in the stomach. i'm not certain i've gotten over it even to this day.
posted by ifjuly at 8:13 AM on February 2, 2005 [6 favorites]

and yes yes, learning to read! i have the most vivid sense memory of that moment--where exactly i was, what was around me, the smell of the classroom, the time of day--when all of the struggle and not-quite-fluid comprehension glazed and became in a swift moment a light-bulb-turning-on event and my entire world gained a new layer of symbolism and meaning. it sounds highfalutin but that's really what it felt like. i was bowled over.
posted by ifjuly at 8:16 AM on February 2, 2005 [3 favorites]

My father had a serious heart attack the day before my twelfth birthday, and was not expected to survive. A very good cardiac surgeon completed the bypass operation on my birthday, and he survived for the next 18 years.

It was definitely an eye-opener about doctors, how important they were and how they sometimes did world-shaking things. I don't know if it's fair to say it's why I became a doctor, but it definitely got me thinking.
posted by ikkyu2 at 8:46 AM on February 2, 2005 [13 favorites]

I don't know. Maybe when I left/got kicked out of college. For better or worse, it set me on the path that created a lot of my worldview.

And like others have said, discovering music. When I was 12, I inherited a bunch of albums from the kid up the streets' older brother. It was fairly standard classic rock stuff but it set me on my way.
posted by jonmc at 8:50 AM on February 2, 2005

In preschool, I made friends with a kid who sat next to me, and I suggested we color in our respective mimeographed sheets of scissors, etc. together. He was leery, and I understood why, when I was accused of cheating. Hmmp.

Traveling alone showed me a quicker, more confident facet of my personality I always hoped existed, but rarely saw.

Reading Autobiography of Malcolm X revealed the existence of a whole culture I had never known, and let me know there might be others.

Working offshore showed me what hard work was.
posted by atchafalaya at 8:55 AM on February 2, 2005 [4 favorites]

When I was 3 yrs old, my parents checked me into the hospital for surgery without telling me why, When I woke up, I had colostomy.

My parents referred to it as "my operation" and although they didn't tell me to keep it a secret, even at that young age,I knew it was a private family matter. As a result, I becamse insecure and withdrawn because I wasn't like "normal" people. The operation was reversed when I was 11 yrs. old.
posted by lola at 8:57 AM on February 2, 2005

In first year of high school, I finally managed to ask my crush out on a date. We were both geeky, but I was the more socially inept and outcast one. By lunch, everyone knew about our date. They made fun of her, laughed at me. She blamed it on me, saying I told everyone, but I hadn't told a soul. The date didn't happen. I found out her best friend is the one who spread it around. They stayed friends, I was outcast even more. To this day (years out of college), I haven't had even one relationship, although not for lack of trying.

Looking back, I haven't had many happy experiences. But hey, that must mean that they're all ahead of me, waiting, right? Right? ...
posted by splice at 9:01 AM on February 2, 2005 [10 favorites]

splice, I feel for you.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 9:16 AM on February 2, 2005

When I was ten, I got a job as a caddy at the local golf club, and fell in love with the game that I hope to be playing when I die.

Wave your clubs in the air during a thunderstorm. Should be no problem achieving your goal!

Myself, I can't think of defining moments. Perhaps partly because I can't remember s.f.a. about my past. Sigh.

SPrintF, I honestly hope that that was true. Otherwise, you have managed to be about as truly thoughtless and malicious as any user has ever been, particularly given the placement of your message in this thread.
posted by five fresh fish at 9:18 AM on February 2, 2005

I got made fun of a lot in grade school. I used to have to buy my spot at the lunch table, and my nipples were bruised for months because of constant "titty twisters." The experience made me very introverted and untrusting of people, usually I'm convinced people are trying to make fun of me when they talk to me.
posted by drezdn at 9:18 AM on February 2, 2005 [3 favorites]

The Good - In kindergarten my teacher noticed that I was reading faster than most of the other kids in class and she spent a lot of time encouraging me to read as much as I could. She even gave me the teachers' edition of one of her books. The teachers' edition! That was a big deal for five year old me. I remember being so proud and happy that day. My time in her class still remains one of my favorite childhood memories. I believe her encouragement was one of the main reasons I am such a rabid reader today.

The Bad - I was overweight in middle school and junior high and was teased mercilessly by several other students. I suffered in silence for a year and a half before finally breaking down and telling my parents that I couldn't take it anymrore. Their response? Ignore it and it will go away. It was bullshit. I knew it. They knew it. I realized then that they weren't going to help me and I was going to have to deal with it on my own. Which I couldn't. I became shy and bitter and distrustful. I needed my parents to help me and they refused. It took me a long time to get over that. I'm not really sure I am completely over it, to be frank.
posted by LeeJay at 9:27 AM on February 2, 2005 [4 favorites]

4 things, that all happened within about the same year, when I was 9.

1) My Dad lost his self-made fortune.
I was reared in comfort, though not with a silver spoon in my mouth (there was no estate, or trips to the country club, or nanies, or anything like that). Almost overnight, it was gone. Learning to cope with this change was the most defining thing in my life.

2) My parents held me back from skipping, oh, about all of elementary school.
I was probably going from grade 2 to grade 7 (and then perhaps, beyond), but my teachers and parents were not sure about my ability to cope socially (I was quiet and shy)... blah blah blah...

3) I discovered Dungeons and Dragons. :-)

4) I was introduced to computer programming by a very very cool teacher.
(Thanks Mr. Pino! I have a career today because you were awesome enough to take me aside during lunch hours and let me mess around with LOGO and BASIC on the school's Apple IIs.)

And that's my story. Yay. (My roots in nerd-hood are very deep.)
posted by C.Batt at 9:35 AM on February 2, 2005 [2 favorites]

When I was 16, our house burned down while our family was away. We had spent the last 6 years building it. We lost essentially all of our possessions. I lost a stamp collection and an Atari 400 that I'd worked an entire summer to earn. My father lost negatives and equipment from a 20-year photography career.

Building the house taught me and my siblings what hard work was, how to face it and thrive in it. Losing it, and all our possessions, taught me that things are just objects, not the center or my life or cause for deep, abiding emotional attachments.
posted by sacre_bleu at 9:36 AM on February 2, 2005 [22 favorites]

In the last couple years of elementary school, and junior high school, other kids knew that I was very ticklish, and that they could get a rise out of me by tickling me, poking me, or even making sudden threatening moves towards my midsection. This stopped when I got to high school, but by then, I was nervous about letting anyone touch me, or even get near me.

Just before my 15th birthday, my mother had a large number of leftover peppermint candies. She gave me a big bag of them to share with fellow members of the school choir on the way to a concert.

There was one particular girl in the choir, Dovie, a senior, who had always been kind to me (and to everyone in general). When I gave her a mint, she looked at me as if it were the nicest thing anyone had done for her in a long time. And she gave me a hug.

It took me a second to realize what was going on, and hug back.

Because of how I had been treated before, I had forgotten that letting someone touch you can be a good thing. Over the course of that year, I talked to Dovie some more, and occasionally, I hugged her. But even though I knew that she was a very nice person who enjoyed hugging her friends, I kept a certain distance from her, because I was afraid. I didn't want to take any chances; I didn't want to risk imposing on her or wasting her time.

At the end of the last day of school, I realized that I would probably never see her again, and that I had squandered an opportunity to get to know a really nice person.

After crying a bit, I resolved that I wouldn't let that happen again. I now knew that there were some very nice people out there, and if I met one, I wanted to get to know her. I knew that being touched could be a positive thing, and decided that I would hug any friend of mine who wanted a hug.

I haven't fully overcome my shyness, and I'm still a bit nervous about letting others near me, but I'm a lot better than I was back then, and knowing her was what motivated me to change. To this day, when I meet a woman who is sweet and affectionate, I say to myself, "She reminds me of Dovie."
posted by CrunchyFrog at 9:43 AM on February 2, 2005 [51 favorites]

In sixth grade, a girl who I found attractive, sidled up to me and showed me a cover of a book which had a trio of kids climbing on the cable of a suspension bridge. She pointed at the picture and said that no one in our class would do such an adventurous thing. Somehow the message that I needed to do adventurous things to win the love of women got imprinted.
It changed the way I have lived my life. Only recently did I connect this dot.
posted by JohnR at 9:49 AM on February 2, 2005 [11 favorites]

This is a fascinating thread - great question, jeremias.

There are two events that changed my life completely.

The good: moving to the US from Norway when I was 14. I was teased mercilessly in Norway and was an unpopular, ugly bookworm misfit whom nobody would ever ask out on a date. When I moved to NYC, everything changed - I got contacts, cut my hair and sprouted breasts, and because of my 'novelty value' and accent, I became the most sought-after girl in school. I went from the bottom of the barrel to the top of the world, and it changed everything.

The bad: a fight I had with my mother when I was 22. It turned out that just about everything she had told me about my family and my childhood was a long, fabricated, malicious lie invented to make sure I knew that nobody but she would ever love me or could be counted on. Trying to pick out the pieces of truth from the few things I remember from my childhood has been like walking through a minefield. I am reminded of what Arthur Golden called 'the onion years' - peeling off the layers one at a time, and crying all the while.
posted by widdershins at 10:01 AM on February 2, 2005 [17 favorites]

Age unknown (able to sit up, able to play with toys, teething):
My mother took my plastic toy wrench I was chewing on and screamed at me, then jammed it back into my mouth rattling it around inside my mouth yelling about chewing on my toys. I learned mothers inflict pain.

Age 4:
Told by my mother, during a beating,that I was a useless child, a whore at that. (I never knew what a whore was until about 12 years old.) I learned to hide. Fade into the background, keep my distance.

Age 14:
My mother went into a rage after I told her my new clothes I got for christmas were too small. Growth spurt you know. The hitting and cussing began, this time I became a slut. I snapped and kicked her ass. I learned I don't have to take a beating. The beginning of my not being shy and fading out.

Age 17:
Mother found my birth control pill, flushed them and called the doctor to say never give me more. No planned parent hood then, had to have permission from parents to get the pill. yeah I forged my Mothers signature to get them but I knew it was the only way to get the pill. I wasn't ignorant, I was sexually active and trying to be responsible. Condoms didn't work I had a baby 2 months before my 18 birthday. I learned my mother was insane.

Age 24:
moved to the west coast of the USA. Do or die, away from my nutty family. Best thing I ever did. I learned that I was not the useless piece of shit my mother always said I was. I learned to realize she had serious problems.

Age 25: Forgave my mother for all her hurtful ways. I learned to let go.

I live my life trying to not be like my mother. So far so good.
posted by bratcat at 10:02 AM on February 2, 2005 [26 favorites]

  • Loss of religious faith When I was oh, 11 or 12, I was a fairly religous boy, went to church several times a week, was an altar boy, both my parents were devout catholics. I was riding my bicycle, going to the library, and I was carrying probably about 7 or 8 books, during the ride, my books kept falling, over and over and over again. I said "Lord, please help me, I can't do this", I was crying because I was so frustrated. My books kept on repeatedly falling. I haven't believed since, and I am now an atheist.
  • Becoming a man Like forforf, I also enlisted in the Army at 18, and it was life-changing to be stripped of everything that I knew in the world, and to realise that I was a strong person capable of excelling where others fail, that --I-- am in control of my life, no one else. My success and happiness depended only on my actions and attitudes on life.

posted by patrickje at 10:07 AM on February 2, 2005 [6 favorites]

I was seven years old when I was inches away from being hit dead on by a truck. It's difficult to explain, but I was seized by the urge to run across a busy road. I thought I could outrun oncoming traffic. Instead, I froze in total fear. The driver of a truck hit the breaks in time to stop only inches away from my face.

Yes, life has the potential to be cut short at any time. Whenever I need motivation to do something I think of that day. After all, I could have been dead 23 years ago.
posted by quadog at 10:18 AM on February 2, 2005 [3 favorites]

Man some of you guys are bringing me down. Here are some of mine

- When my dad gave me my first real camera, his old Canon A1. Shortly there after I made my first print in the darkroom. Haven't put down a camera since.

- When I got my first skateboard. After that I learned how to surf. Then I learned how to snowboard and I've spent a large portion of my life looking for the perfect ride.

- Seeing my first Fugazi show, when I was 16, was huge for me.
posted by trbrts at 10:18 AM on February 2, 2005

I was always very aware of the landmarks of my life. And no, my parents getting divorced was not one of them. I remember the markers that I am still trying to figure out. Signs of mental/neurological illness that my mother ignored go back to early childhood. Watching TV and old movies that shaped my unsquashable need to go into acting, even though I have tried with all my might to ignore it.

Mostly though, and most importantly, the behavior of my parents. Their emotions, their needs, their naked motivations, what they did in secret, what they wouldn't tell me, have absolutely and irrevocably shaped who I am. Children are effortlessly intense observers and analysts of human behavior. You can't hide anything from them, so don't try.
posted by scazza at 10:19 AM on February 2, 2005 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Wow. This thread is blowing my mind. Thanks everybody for the responses.
posted by jeremias at 10:25 AM on February 2, 2005

bratcat, I get that. Very very much. My horror stories are on a par with yours.

My life-shapings came from my mood-swinging, physically and emotionally violent mother on the negative side. The physical stuff is abhorrent and I still don't really discuss it. But there are fingernail scars on my hands and arms to this day and they're from when I protected my face. Age 10, death threat. Age 16, she told me she hated me and never apologized. She waged a constant campaign to tell me that she was the only reason for my success, and that without her influence I would surely fail. When I got my current job, and moved to my current house, she made a big deal out of not buying anything for me since "you'll probably lose the job anyway, you're too lazy to have a demanding job like that."

But the thing that really changed everything was when she pulled me out of college.

I was a college junior at age 16. As part of her "I still own you" campaign, she'd call me three or more times daily to make sure of my whereabouts. She'd call my professors to make sure I wasn't skipping classes (I was, and getting a 3.4 average anyway and was the darling of my department), she'd call my RA to see if my room was clean (yeah. that'll happen), she'd call my roommate to see when I was getting to bed (come on, 4 AM is early, not late).

In the end, she ended up telling me that if I 'fucked up' any more, she'd pull me from school, and that I wouldn't know she was coming until she showed up at the door. Her exact words as to what this would result in: "the life you had before will be nothing compared to the hell you'll experience if I have to pull you out of there."

So I ran away. I returned my computer I'd bought a few weeks before got the thousand bucks for it. A friend in pennsylvania offered to put me up for as long as I needed (I was in iowa). I got on a greyhound bus as I had no car.

As it turned out, that was my big mistake. Even though I used a fake name, they found me. When the cops found me, they said they'd have to return me to my parents - the only other option was sending me to juvenile, and "you're not the type." After unsuccessful pleas to be put into juvenile rather than be returned, I told them very calmly that I was pre-law, that I had nothing but respect for the law and its officers, but that if they didn't send me to juenile I would kick them in a very sensitive area and they'd have to send me for assaulting an officer.

They took the hint. As it turns out, being caught in Indiana was my other mistake. They can only hold runaways for 48 hours unless they think there's real danger to them.

I hoped my mother would conduct herself the way she usually did at the meeting to see whether I was in danger. Instead, she brought a gift - a christmas tree ornament of the Misfit Doll from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. It was something I'd wanted. When I saw it, I knew I would be going back with her. I was sniffling and dehydrated, and juvenile had been pretty hard on me. I walked back to the car hoping that maybe she'd have changed, something would have been different.

As we walked back out to the car, she said: "You're in for a lot of changes, princess. This will NOT happen again."

There followed a period of 6 months when I was pretty much cut off from contact with the outside world altogether (after an investigation by the DCFS which determined that my smiling, nice mother who baked cookies for the DCFS agent was a very nice woman indeed!), until I finally ran away successfully.

What did I learn from all this? That I can survive anything. That I can keep my wits about me even when I'm surrounded by insanity of the most malicious kind.

I would never wish what she did upon anyone. And I'm sure with many people, that treatment would break them. But as for me...I like who I am today in almost every respect. And while I still wrestle with insecurity issues that stem from her, and I still hate housework from the cinderella-like task lists I used to receive, the most important thing I learned is that I can get through damn near anything. To this day, I'm an eternal optimist. If my life can be this good now after all those years of hell, there has to be hope for most everyone.
posted by u.n. owen at 10:39 AM on February 2, 2005 [30 favorites]

I have a three and a half year old, and as he's growing older I'm becoming aware of how intense his experiences are, and it's made me curious what sort of things "stick" with people over the course of their life. It's also made me think more about what sort of control (if any), I have as a parent.

This isn't an "event", but it speaks directly to your stated reason for asking your question: I grew up in a house full of wonderful, mind-expanding things (though my family wasn't rich). My house was full of books. Not just literature, but also art books from all different periods. There were framed pictures on the walls. My dad had been collecting LPs since he was a kid and had thousands of them. And we had one of the first video-tape players in the country (it was reel-to-reel!).

I had full access to all of these things, and (this next part is KEY) my parents NEVER made a value judgment about my choices or tried to push anything on me. If I chose "Spiderman" over "War and Peace," that was fine with them. If I chose spacing out over anything, that was fine with them too. They just created a rich ENVIRONMENT and let me lose in it. Had they told me that certain things were "for my own good," I probably would have fled from them.

I grew into a polymath. By the time I got to high school, I was surprised that most of my peers had either never read Shakespeare or hated reading Shakespeare. Most of them disliked classical music, too.

More important than the fact that I got an introduction to specific media was the fact that I developed a lifelong love of learning. Learning is the most important aspect of my personality. I'm miserable if I don't have a new book to read or a new movie to watch or some new music to listen to. I'm usually doing all these things at once.

The downside: I hated school. I naively assumed school was about the same sort of exploratory learning I cherished. If my teachers had just left me alone, I would have been fine. But of course, they forced me to do all sorts of busy work that didn't interest me. This could have been solved with home schooling or sending me to some sort of special school. But I languished in public school and nearly flunked out. I remember getting up from the sofa, where I had been sitting, reading "King Lear," checking the mail box, and seeing that my report card had come with a F in English.

The positives outweigh the negatives.

Oh, and my parents always let me have a little wine at the table when they were drinking. When I got to college, and everyone was getting drunk all the time, I didn't get what the big deal was. So I never really got into drinking heavily. I'm grateful for this, too.
posted by grumblebee at 10:41 AM on February 2, 2005 [65 favorites]

Oooh! One landmark: while preparing to go out for the evening, I think to the symphony, my wife was chattering away at me and I was mindlessly chattering back while at the same time considering committing suicide and whether she'd be okay after I was gone, and whether it would be more unfair to her than fair to me, and so on.

And then it suddenly snapped into sharp focus that this thinking was really not normal and that I had better own up to it and see a doctor and get rid of the depression demon.

And so I've slowly been learning that there are two of me: a me that is depressive, and the me that is not, and they are almost completely different people from my introspective point of view. And I've slowly been learning that I quite like the non-depressive me, and don't need to bring back the depressive me. It's been a long haul, especially as for almost all my life, I've only known about a depressive me.

I quite regret that it took so long to get a clue. I really could have had a much better life if I'd known.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:44 AM on February 2, 2005 [31 favorites]

My father's childhood was one of those horrorshow ones about which others have written.

My deepest respect for him is that as a young man, he swore that he would never be like his father. And to his credit, he broke the cycle of violence. That took a lot, I'm sure.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:49 AM on February 2, 2005 [18 favorites]

When I was 7, my mother married a man who adopted me and became the only person who I would call Dad. I hadn't realized how much he had shaped my interests in life until a couple of years ago, unfortunately just before he died. He was a train and steam engine hobbyist, and one of my fondest memories of him is walking a 19th century factory site and mapping the vanished railroad spurs and tracks, and mucking about in the factory ruins while he showed me how the machinery in the factory would have been set up. His help brought the factory to life for me, and the research I did was recently used in a state archaeology preserve publication, as well as having been presented at many conferences. There are many other ways our interests coincided later in my life, and I miss him terribly. I only hope I can plant some of the same ideas in my sons' heads!
posted by kittyloop at 10:50 AM on February 2, 2005 [3 favorites]

Thanks, all of you, for sharing.
posted by euphorb at 11:07 AM on February 2, 2005 [1 favorite]

Hmm, So many. I'll hit three of the big ones..

When I was 8, I was offered the opportunity to skip the 4th grade and go straight to 5th. My Mom Asked me if it was something I wanted to do and I said yes because I was so Bored in School. It was a colossal Blunder on both our parts. I was already a bit younger than most of my classmates, and that made the age difference such that I was not as emotionally developed as most of the folks I was in school with until probably high school. This decision turned a minor emotional difference into a yawning divide, and left me unable to really understand or relate to my current classmates. I had always been a quiet and solemn child, but this was one of the things that started me down the path to becoming a true introvert.

When I was 10 we moved to a new City. About halfway through my second month there I had a shouting match with a small group of teenagers. An hour later those 3 and 6 of their friends jumped me. I was always very big for my age, and looking back on it, they probably thought I was the same age as them, but at 10 this was a terrifying experience. That is when I started staying at home and eating instead of going out and playing. That fear colored every interaction I had with my peers until college, and reinforced that sneaking suspicion I had that it was just easier to avoid other people..

At 16 I left for College. It was like escaping from prison. I was finally able to really see the people around me and realize that if I offered them warmth and respect, the 9 times out of 10 that was what I was going to get back. That's when I realized that I had a choice about what kind of person I am and how I impact the world.

I am still an introvert. (but not a misanthrope)
I still sit at home and eat too much (working on it)
Consciously or Unconsciously, I still make a choice every day. I try to neither credit nor blame anyone else for the consequences of those choices.
posted by ad hoc at 11:11 AM on February 2, 2005 [6 favorites]

I was 7. I watched "Somewhere in Time" with my mother, and to this day, my ideal man is tall, dark-haired, blue-eyed, and would literally move time to get to me. (As you can imagine, this has caused some disappointment...)

I was 13. I had my first babysitting job, and I took along a copy of Stephen King's "Pet Semetary" to entertain me after the kids went to sleep. I scared the everliving shit out of myself, but almost 20 years later, my first novel is a southern gothic horror that I hope some kid takes on her first babysitting job with her.
posted by headspace at 11:13 AM on February 2, 2005 [6 favorites]

How thoughtful, the question and lovely answers.

Forty years ago I was six, in a department store with my dad, waiting on my mom. We stood idly watching an unsupervised kid my age kneeling at the bottom of an escalator playing with the moving rail, hand over hand, right near the base where the rail snakes into the structure. My dad said, Kid, get away from there, you're gonna get hurt, and in an instant, the kid's sleeve got caught and his fingers and hand and on up to the elbow were pulled in. My dad raced over, and not knowing where to look for the 'Off' button (no sensors at the time) he strong-armed the mechanical rail with all his might until it stopped! The kid's arm was half up inside, but it wasn't wrenched off his body, which it certainly would have been if my father hadn't stopped the rail. The store manager reversed the thing to release the kid and his purple arm with the shirt sleeve torn away, paramedics came, and my mom finally showed up swinging her shopping bags. After hearing what happened, she dropped the bags and threw her arms around my dad's neck and held on. He picked me up into the hug, and I could feel his arms still shaking from the effort.

I have since always kept a somewhat compulsive eye on other people's unsupervised kids everywhere, think of my father as a real live superhero, and I cannot resist lionhearted men with great arms!
posted by thinkpiece at 11:16 AM on February 2, 2005 [101 favorites]

When I was about 12, a friend of mine set me up with an account on a local public-access bbs. That's where I learned much of what I should have learned in high school: how to write for an audience of strangers and follow an argument, how to find my way around a UNIX system, and also where to buy drugs and how to have safe sex. And I got to eavesdrop on a bunch of geeks in their twenties and thirties as they talked about their jobs and kids, which was just as educational in its own way.

By the time I got to college, I'd spent years doing all my socializing online. My freshman year, I met the president of the Folklore Society, and to my amazement we got along. Even more astonishing, she started taking me to folk dances and I discovered I was good at it. Contra dance was the perfect way to balance out all those years of living in my head and online. I took my first solo road trips to get to dance weekends, and I've met a great many friends (including my current girlfriend) over the years I've been dancing.

Later in my freshman year, I tried to kill myself for the first time. That was life-altering too. I had to start paying attention to myself and my own happiness.
posted by nebulawindphone at 11:29 AM on February 2, 2005 [2 favorites]

I was sexually abused by some older male relatives when I was a little kid (from about 4 to about 8). I was 8, and I was watching the news about the AIDS epidemic, and I heard someone talk about it being a "gay" disease. Not knowing what gay really meant, I found out, and to my horror thought that I was gay and that I might have AIDS too! I remember the constant feeling of dread of holding this inside, and coming to terms with my impending death.

It finally came to a head when I got caught caught cheating on a spelling quiz, and I confessed to everything, including the abuse, that I was "gay," the fact that I was going to die of AIDS anyway, so it didn't really matter if I cheated or not. Needless to say it got lots of people involved, and I was put through lots of counseling.

Turns out that I was not gay and I didn't have AIDS, but it fucked me up for a long time.

My other one isn't such a bummer. I was always a fan of weird music - from metal to industrial to punk - but my whole relationship to music changed the day I first listened to Propaghandi's first album "How to Clean Everything." It was punk - which was fine - but the lyrics somehow changed me. Anti-racist, pro-gay, pro-feminist, pro-animal - it had such a profound influence on the way that I thought about the world and how I acted.
posted by Quartermass at 12:06 PM on February 2, 2005 [4 favorites]

When I was in 3rd grade, my dad was beating the crap out of my mom, I stepped into the room with a baseball bat and threatened to kill him. He started beating the crap out of me and left my mom alone. He never hit her after that and I got in the physical fights with him instead.

I don't regret it. I'm still happy I could take the pain away from her and to me. It made me feel powerful, in control. To this day, I'm more empathetic than a lot of people. And I have a cute little bend in my nose from where it was broken.

When I was in 6th grade, my parents decided to get off drugs, get back together and send me away. They never told me if it was permanent or temporary, whether I would ever see them again, etc. I lived with my aunt and uncle in this sort of "I'm unwanted" limbo until my Ps moved to Chicago a few months later and I moved in with them. I realized what a burden I was on their marriage and developed an extremely skeptical and guarded view of love that remains to this day. I can't respect anyone who loves me in a way that isn't tainted with guarded sarcasm and hostility.

On a happier note, when I was a little kid (1st or 2nd grade), I told my dad I liked cartoons. He sat me down at the art desk and made me storyboard out a cartoon. We shot a cut paper animation. He let me splice the film and record all the sound effects. I've been in love with cartoons ever since.
posted by Gucky at 12:35 PM on February 2, 2005 [8 favorites]

One time when I was 7 or 8 my dad was supposed to pick me up after school. I waited until dark and he never showed up. I knew that he and my mother had forgotten about me. I started walking home when it got dark. While waiting for somebody to come get me I decided that I was alone in the world and couldn't even trust my parents. I've been basically distrustful of people and an introverted loner ever since.
posted by Justin Case at 12:40 PM on February 2, 2005 [4 favorites]

When I was in fifth grade I read Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh. The book is about a young girl who spends her time observing her peers and writing it all down. I began keeping my own book of observations about the goings on around me. Twenty years later I am still writing, but now the words are in your morning newspaper.
posted by haqspan at 12:41 PM on February 2, 2005 [16 favorites]

-I remember playing on the playground at school when I was in second grade. I was usually the last one left at school, waiting for my parents to pick me up. Some years later, while at CCD classes, waiting in the office for my parents I finally waited long enough and walked the 4 miles home. Life altering lesson is to be places when you are expected.

-The times growing up, mowing my grandparents lawn and trimming the hedges during the summer vacations. Life lesson learned was that nothing beats the feeling of a job well done.
posted by brent at 12:49 PM on February 2, 2005

Wow. I've been checking this thread all day and I have to say it's brought tears to my eyes more than once. I think it's a testment to the resiliency of the human spirit that so many of us have turned out as well as we have.
posted by tommasz at 12:52 PM on February 2, 2005

And on the same direction as nebulawindphone, the first time I logged into my local ddial and realized I could converse with people, that people cared what I had to say and that boys could possibly like me, I was totally hooked.

It made me more outgoing in school (I went from painful shy to the varsity speech team), I started dating guys that weren't a-holes (well, computer guy assholes are at least a lot less scary than metalhead a-holes) and I started to appreciate myself as a writer. Even if my bbs poetry was super-painful-bad.

I also smile every time I hear the 300 bps connect noise. There's nothing more soothing in the world.
posted by Gucky at 1:00 PM on February 2, 2005 [4 favorites]

What tommasz said.

I'm still processing the life lessons I had from a difficult childhood - I look forward to seeing what I can learn from my experiences.
posted by Space Kitty at 3:06 PM on February 2, 2005

1. My dad telling me that he had felt, his whole life, that the car accident he'd suffered at the age of 11 had left him brain damaged, left him with less potential than he might've had. I realize that this amazing man, to whom I owe so much, has this immense insecurity about himself. It changed the way I look at people. Made me maybe a little more empathic.

2. Getting my first lead in a play. In the space of a month, I went from friendless teary-eyed nerd girl, sitting alone in a corner of the playground, to flamboyant arts geek, never to return.
posted by stray at 4:30 PM on February 2, 2005 [3 favorites]

I had appendicitis when I was twelve, and self-diagnosed it.
We had an old Merck manual in the house (I was home from school with a bad fever and a horrible ache in my then-extremely tender gut), read over the symptoms and I told my mother, who laughed out loud. To prove me wrong, I think, she and I walked to the doctor's office (just a few doors down, me hunched over in pain).
Dr Hill, an ancient Texan, examined me, looked at my mom, and said, "goddammit, take him to Mercy Hospital."
I had it bad. Not sure how close to peritonitis I was, but it didn't matter.
Taught me never to laugh at what my kids say.
posted by nj_subgenius at 4:35 PM on February 2, 2005 [9 favorites]

..unless it's comedy, of course...
posted by nj_subgenius at 4:36 PM on February 2, 2005

FFF, you have mail at the address in your profile.
posted by deborah at 5:04 PM on February 2, 2005

Sorry to reply so late, but with regard to this:

From the age of 2 to 5-1/2, my parents kept me locked alone in a cage.

SPrintF-Are you serious?

Yes, I'm completely serious, I'm afraid.
posted by SPrintF at 7:07 PM on February 2, 2005

My father was an Episcopal priest, and a very spiritual man. Long story short, for a time in the 80s he was essentially a substitute preacher, driving to small towns in our state when the local priest would be sick or on vacation or somesuch. I would often go with him, getting up at the ass-crack of dawn and driving the one or more hours to get where ever we were going.

There's no time that stands out from the rest, really. It was just a succession of quiet times spent with my father, him contemplating his sermon, me reading, often, and then when we would drive back we would have discussions about theology or history or science.

I'm no longer part of the Episcopal church. I'm a Buddhist now. But much of my spiritual education, and ideas about what is right and wrong, comes from my father, and my time spent with him.

One of my favorite memories of my father, and something that has shaped me for my entire life, follows. When I was around 12 years old, my stepmother caught me reading a Time-Life book on evolution. My stepmother was raised a Baptist, and was a particularly negative and anti-intellectual person. Close-minded, in other words. She freaked. She then took me to my father and said "Are you going to let him read this trash?"

My dad then said "Woman. Listen to me. The bible is not a scientific text. And a book about science is not the bible. Let the boy read his book."

One of the few times my dad stood up to her. It still makes me grin when I think about it.

I studied science in college.
posted by geekhorde at 7:12 PM on February 2, 2005 [29 favorites]

Geez—I came here intending to write something happy and uplifting and light-hearted. I really did have a mostly happy, care-free childhood. But all the stories that come immediately to mind have to do with my older brother’s violence. The one that keeps coming up is when I understood what welts were. I’d seen that word used in various books, but when my brother hit me across the leg with a bamboo fishing rod, I saw a welt rise, right there, on me. It was strangely fascinating. I also remember calling my dad at work that day, and his telling me, basically, that he was too busy to deal with me and my brother.

To all fathers (and mothers) of boys out there—the “boys will be boys” attitude is a terrible, terrible thing for the younger, smaller brother. No, it didn’t toughen me up. It made me into a wimpy, overly-accommodating kid, afraid of all types of confrontation, who decided it was easiest just to avoid other people whenever possible.

I also remember every little detail of the day I realized I was bigger and stronger than my brother. It wasn’t a fight, just a strong, definitive shove, when I was 19, but that ended it.

I went through some therapy. I got better, mostly. Now, 20 years later, my brother and I are starting to be friends.
posted by MrMoonPie at 7:35 PM on February 2, 2005 [5 favorites]

I was raped by my babysitter at 4. It went on for some time. He told me that he would kill me and my parents if I ever told, so I never did. As a result, I think I became very good at acting, specifically hiding my real feelings. Later on as a teenager, I was bitter and angry about "not being a virgin" and was quite promiscuous all through school.

Finally in my twenties, I let the anger go. I had a good love life and a great sexual life. At that point I realized that I should take some credit for how I had managed my own mental health. It shocks me to this day how much I was "handling" as a four year old.

On the brighter side, while I was raised with little access to books, it didn't stop me from becoming a voracious reader. As a beginning reader, I read whatever I could find-- not just trashy best sellers and pulp fiction-- but also the encyclopedia, Austen, Dickens, and the Bible. Austen was a tough nut to crack for a little girl, but I made many attempts and finally succeeded in the third grade. Jane Austen turned me into quite the little Anglophile and I started collecting P.G. Wodehouse as a teenager (I have quite a good collection.)

I still read everything, but my heart belongs to the British.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 7:47 PM on February 2, 2005 [4 favorites]

I learned to read when I was really small, two or two and a half, and I remember vividly my mom telling me "You don't have to always read out loud -- try reading it inside your head." I didn't leave that little world in my head for a long time. It's still my favorite place, as my apartment full of books can testify to.

And as far as the bad, I was given an IQ test when I was five, to place me in a gifted program. I was told that I wasn't very creative, that I would be better at analytical things. Twenty years later, I'm still trying to prove to myself that I can be a creative person, by writing and knitting and making an artistic life for myself. Maybe it's not so bad -- it's given me an impetus to do something, like write a novel, that I might never have done. It's definitely affected my self esteem, though.

Still hate the fucker who said that to me though. I was a baby! You don't tell children what they can't do with their lives, when it comes to something like that.
posted by sugarfish at 8:00 PM on February 2, 2005 [5 favorites]

I still read everything, but my heart belongs to the British.

In an active day for Metafilter, this is the best thing I have read here all day. Thanks.
posted by Quartermass at 8:06 PM on February 2, 2005

I don't remember any of my childhood. Nothing particularly traumatic caused this, but the general combination of my heavy depression and optimism lead me to only strive for the future. When I had to write "what happened over summer vacation" assignments in grade school, I almost always broke down in tears. The present and past did not exist for me.

For some reason, that changed the winter of my freshman year in high school. My dad happened to be living in Boston for the moment, and he invited us up there for New Years. Boston has an excellent First Night celebration every year, but that year it happened to be below 0 degrees fahrenheit. I was inadequately dressed, but I was not the kind of person to complain. So, my sister, my dad, and I were running around downtown Boston stopping in to see various musical groups and fringe art groups, all of which were totally foreign to me. The hypothermia I was feeling, combined with the new experiences, somehow broke through my filters designed to keep reality out. I was really experiencing things for the first time ever. There was more to life than fitting in your hole and doing things perfectly, there was a world to experience.

That night, capped off with the best fireworks I'd ever seen, changed my life. That night is the first event of my life I can remember. I never cried again when I had to write about myself, for I had finally started to exist as a person.
posted by JZig at 8:13 PM on February 2, 2005 [18 favorites]

SPrintF: Sheeeyit. That's vicious. Can you share more about it? Did you get removed to foster care? Were there consequences for them for what they did? And, most importantly, how on earth did you overcome that sort of start in life?
posted by five fresh fish at 8:18 PM on February 2, 2005

I'd like to thank everyone for sharing so openly. It amazes me. And for anyone feeling a need for a hug, I embrace you strongly and securely. You are loved, just for your being.
posted by five fresh fish at 8:23 PM on February 2, 2005 [1 favorite]

I remember being kidnapped by my organized-crime-boss-father when I was eight or so, who kept me until he was arrested for murder, a year or so later.

I also remember telling my grade seven guidance counsellor about the kid who beat me up at lunch (I got beat up every lunch, but this was worse than usual, and I was worried he'd actually kill me sometime soon), and my counsellor telling me that we were going to open the door of every classroom in the school, and when we hit the classroom with the kid in it, I'd point him out.

I got scared and backed out, I was terrified of what he'd do when he found out I fingered him. The counsellor grabbed me by my jacket and slammed me into a locker, yelling: "You can spend your whole fucking life letting little fucks beat you up, Jairus, or you can stand up for yourself. Your call."

He walked back to his office, and I spent the greater part of the period leaning against the locker, before I went back to his office and started checking classrooms.


There's a lot more, but I don't want to clog up the page.

I really think this thread would make a great start for a website.
posted by Jairus at 8:27 PM on February 2, 2005 [5 favorites]

what a thread this is. and people scoff at the notion that we're a community?

and MrMoonPie, i gave mine a black eye and that stopped it, finally.

mine is kinda semi- and obscurely related to Jairus' first one, but i'm not comfortable talking about it. it totally shaped me tho.
posted by amberglow at 9:07 PM on February 2, 2005 [1 favorite]

When I was around 6 or 7, I came down (along with my younger sis and brother) with chicken pox, and was therefore confined to bed. My neighbour came over to entertain us, and she read to us stories from various books, and I especially remember the giant book of Ukranian Folktales. She kinda sparked my interest in reading/writing and books are my life support system to this day.
posted by dhruva at 9:11 PM on February 2, 2005

Did you get removed to foster care? Were there consequences for them for what they did?

There were no consequences for them. They were never caught. They had gone to some lengths to ensure that the neighbors were unaware that they had a child. (I left the cage behind at 5-1/2 because that's when I started kindergarten.)

And, most importantly, how on earth did you overcome that sort of start in life?

Once I learned to read, I grew up in the public library, my true home away from home. The friends of my youth, Charlotte, Sherlock Holmes and Bilbo Baggins, were always there to cheer me up.
posted by SPrintF at 9:13 PM on February 2, 2005 [14 favorites]

so many of us (myself included) have used reading and books to get by (or to escape into)--it's heartening in a way.
posted by amberglow at 9:29 PM on February 2, 2005 [2 favorites]

many, many thanks to everyone who's shared here.
posted by equipoise at 9:42 PM on February 2, 2005 [1 favorite]

It's been a privilege to read so many thoughtful, brave, and heartfelt answers.

deborah, I just wanted to say that in other comments you've made in the past, I've admired your kind heart. You made that choice for yourself, and you should be proud of it.

SPrintF, too...I had a childhood nothing like yours, but there was cruelty and chaos in it, and books taught me a different way to live and think, and were a refuge (as amberglow says). I respect you more than I can say.

SLoG, I've always liked what you've written here, and now I know the root: my heart belongs to the British too.

The hell with it: I'm just going the fff route and hugging everyone in the dang thread.

jeremias, from another thread (started by fff, actually) that also may prove useful to you, this is mine.
posted by melissa may at 9:48 PM on February 2, 2005 [1 favorite]

All day I tried to think of some moments that truly shaped me and weren't merely traumatic, and I think I finally locked in on a couple.

- Every year, I spent a week at my grandparents' house (both sets of them, a week at a time) and I think I was about 8 when I discovered their full set of outdated late 60s encyclopedias. I was dubbed a "gifted" child and school bored me to tears but I never liked to read because my mom forced it on me.

But those encyclopedias were amazing and I couldn't put them down. I spent the entire week indoors browsing them all from beginning to end and would return to them whenever I'd visit again (we only lived an hour away so I saw them monthly or so). It showed me a whole entire world beyond the concrete jungle of southern california and I've enjoyed travel and reading about exotic things ever since. Those encyclopedias are why I started liking elementary school again and why I went to college and specifically why I went on to grad school for a masters, since I didn't feel as if I knew as much as what was in those books when I got my bachelors degree.

- I was about 12, was hanging out with a friend that suddenly developed a GI Joe streak. I was never into fighting or army junk or aggressive stuff in general but his new found love of all things military manifested in a lot of weird ways. We rode our bikes across the street to the big municipal park with the huge lake (I now know how lucky I was as a kid, though I had no idea then) and I don't know why but when we found a bunch of trash along the trashy side of the lake, he started throwing empty beer bottles high into the shallow lake, and we could hear them crashing below. We kept this up happily for about 5 minutes until someone behind us yelled, telling us to stop.

It was a city cop, who happened to be walking around the lake on a patrol. I was young enough to be totally terrified and he went on to explain how all those broken bottles weren't just a trash nusance we helped make worse, but that it make the lake dangerous for all the ducks there. It sounds kind of corny now, but I learned what empathy was for the first time in my life because I felt like absolute shit at that moment, and from that point forward I never picked on weaker kids and became insanely protective of animals.

A few years ago I was near a duck pond with some 14 year old cousins that thought it was a hoot to throw rocks at the ducks and when I went apshit telling them to stop immediately, they didn't understand why it was wrong or why they should stop. I guess it was too late for them, as they've turned into thugish asshole young men since then.
posted by mathowie at 11:01 PM on February 2, 2005 [4 favorites]

Its my birthday today, so this is an oddly retrospective comment for me.

When I was a kid my two older sisters used to fight with me a lot (to be fair sometimes I would gang up with one of them against the other). A few times my sisters would hurt me in ways that wouldn't show obvious marks but nonetheless were quite painful. I feel an occassional dark streak towards woman (that fortunately is completely inside my head) that I'm almost certain stems from this.

Just a little over a year ago, one of my best friends died of leptospirosis. I had taken him hiking in an area where he had very likely picked up the infection. [As an aside, if you visit Hawaii and do any swimming/hiking in wet or muddy areas, get informed about lepto] I don't feel any residual guilt over his death, but I do know that my focus on getting things from life has completely changed since then.

Aside from getting attacked by my sisters until I was big enough to fend for myself, I had a great childhood. I agree with the earlier comments about having an enriching environment.
posted by onalark at 11:43 PM on February 2, 2005

Age 10, I was dragged to the Tate and saw Lichtenstein's "Wham". As a little kid it just blew my mind that this could be art, this could be art that is hanging in a major museum. I really think that without that moment I'd be quite a different man than I am today. A man I suspect the real me wouldn't particularly want to know.

Well, because of that and randomly seeing Bruce La Bruce's Hustler White much later on in life.
posted by aspo at 11:53 PM on February 2, 2005 [1 favorite]

There were two things, I think, both when I was fairly young:

1. I was in 2nd grade when my grandmother was over at our house teaching me how to cook lefse, the Norwegian potato pancake. She was sort of talking about what they used to eat growing up and began telling me a story about how when she was little, during the depression, she and her sisters snuck around and stole food from other families and she wished she hadn't done that. I began thinking about more and more things I did that way - if I'm 70 years old, will I have wished I did this?

2. My mom told me I had a twin who died. After that I never really thought about my parents or the way they think about me the same way. I think about it a lot.
posted by milkrate at 12:26 AM on February 3, 2005 [5 favorites]

The depressing: In high school, I had my one and only 'suicide attempt' - in retrospect, it was lame, and all it did was make me feel dazed and groggy the next day at school, like I was trapped in a slow motion sequence in a film.

It turned out that that next day was the day of the Challenger explosion. I sat in gym, on the sidelines because I was sick, and thought that if I had succeeded, I would have missed this momentous (and tragic) event. Since then, when I've felt in 'trouble', I've seeked out professional help.

The enlightening: Freshman year in college, I take one of those computer job aptitude tests. It coughed up three results: TV Producer, Novelist, and Roman Catholic Nun. Being a struggling Chemistry major at the time, I thought this one of the most asinine tests I had ever come across.

Well, I have since graduated with a BA in Communication Arts - Radio, TV, and Film, currently work as a Software Tester on a home media entertainment application, am seriously working on my first novel in my spare time, and a few years ago, converted to Roman Catholicism and became confirmed in the Roman Catholic Church. Where my spiritual advisor declared that I would make an incredible nun, and that I should seriously consider it.
posted by spinifex23 at 12:27 AM on February 3, 2005 [9 favorites]

So. When I was 13, I was living life locked up in juvie for no reason other than that my father could not deal with having a queer son. Shrinks came, I talked. I learned to converse well (I didn't get along with the other boys, no surprise) with adults.

Depression and anxiety and who knows what creeped into my soul, but I realized this. I saw myself going down. I talked about it to everyone. It only got worse and nothing changed, until one day yet another shrink came.

I didn't like this shrink. I didn't like his looks or his name. So I read him the riot act. I told him I would no longer speak to any shrinks as long as I reamined locked up. I didn't belong there and they either knew it, or weren't worth speaking to anyway. Told him I was being driven crazy, and they knew that, too, or were no good.

It wasn't long and I was out. Mind, at that time, I didn't know it was my father behind the lock-up. No one explained that 'til I started asking questions when I turned 18. I got out, back home to a bad place.

But I learned to take charge of my life! I learned in the next couple years that I couldn't raise myself, and my parents were worthless too. So I got out and found a man that gave a damn, who influenced me in an intelectual way. Made ALL the difference to the rest of my life.
posted by Goofyy at 5:25 AM on February 3, 2005 [1 favorite]

Generalized fear. At school we had bomb drills and hid under our desks, heads down. The nightly news was all about Vietnam and protests. More locally, the news was about the Zodiac Killer and riots in Watts. Basically, the world seemed pretty unsafe to me, and even though I lived in a cookiecutter suburb in Northern California I figured it was only a matter of time before the bad news I absorbed in front of the television each night was going to be outside my door. And it was: I had a couple of babysitters who really ought to have been locked up--one woman who used to hit me for asking "why?" (I learned to say "how come?") and one teenage male who tiptoed into my room at night until I told my parents not to hire him anymore. I absorbed these things as children do--that is, with no larger context and no ability to depersonalize. It never occurred to me to ask for reassurance or to tell my parents about the babysitters--I assumed the Zodiac Killer was right around the corner and that the actions of my babysitters were my fault.

Books saved me. I was the difficult kid in the family, the "underachiever" in school and mostly invisible to peers, but I did have one known talent: Reading. I read a lot. Reading was my drug and it probably saved me from over-experimentation with other drugs as I got older. Reading allowed me a glimpse of other worlds and other ways of living. Reading helped me to put my own experiences into that larger context children lack. As I got older and realized that adults were not always in the right I became a little obsessed with fairness and honesty. This did not endear me to others, but it is a quality I value in myself.

Another important piece of my childhood was my grandparents. I spent a lot of time with them on their ranch out in the country. Every day was the same: breakfast, riding the ranch with my grandfather to check the irrigation gates and the cattle, a large mid-day dinner, quiet time with books, some sort of craft with my grandmother, a light supper and then cuddling on the couch with them to watch Bonanza or Lawrence Welk (I never mentioned how lame I thought those shows were, I was too happy). Mostly, they thought I was the best thing ever and they made sure I knew it. Every child should have a set of adults like that in their lives.

Of course there are lots of other experiences and defining moments... but I think those early years really did shape how I coped with everything after.
posted by idest at 7:17 AM on February 3, 2005 [2 favorites]

Thank you, melissa may. I don't get many "atta girl's" and you've made my day.

A good thing I should have mentioned as others have: books. I was in 2nd grade and read On the Banks of Plum Creek. I, of course, was reading before then but that book hooked me. I read the whole series and have been a reading fiend since. Books were the one saving grace while growing up. When things were especially horrible they were always an escape - I could be anywhere but here.

Hugs all around, especially to SprintF.
posted by deborah at 8:21 AM on February 3, 2005

E'er since getting help for my lifelong depression, I've remained extremely aware of how lucky I am. I have a woman who loves me, I have more than adequate food and shelter, I have several very close friends who if push came to shove would likely go to the ends of the earth for me, I (now) have supportive parents who try hard to respect my decisions, I live in a peaceful country with endless opportunity, and I really did have a good childhood compared to so many others.

These stories serve to remind me that all problems and limitations in my life are solely my own creation, and are miniscule in comparison to the challenges faced by so many others.

Truly, I am blessed.

I suspect I have experienced a defining moment this past month or two: I helped place a homeless/disadvantaged guy in my friend's boarding house, convincing him that if he made a go of it, he would be able to create the safe, supportive environment he needs to stabilize and empower his life. I encouraged him to get a compatible friend into the second bedroom, and vetted a third fellow for the third bedroom. I have been involved in supporting them in cleaning it up, setting goals, etcetera. I think I've actually made a big difference in few lives... quite possibly their own defining moments.

The experience has blown me away. I am now transitioning from my paid work to volunteer service with the local social support programs. I've suddenly realized that I've always been happiest playing a behind-the-scenes, supportive role in helping others achieve their goals. I've suddenly realized that I actually do like people. It's all quite the revelation for a guy who has spent the past twenty years more or less in his own world, working in isolation and generally despising most people for behaviours that seem so stupid and malicious most of the time.

Compared to so many others, I've had all the breaks and all the advantages. It's now time to give back.

I think I've finally found myself.
posted by five fresh fish at 8:50 AM on February 3, 2005 [4 favorites]

First post: After lurking for quite a while, this thread made me decide to finally get a login so I could post to AskMe. Thanks, everyone, for sharing so honestly. A few of my experiences:

- Sometime around age 5, standing at the corner of a busy intersection, waiting for the light to change. Two people were having a really bad argument in a car. I realized they would continue arguing when the light changed and they drove away: the world does not revolve around me.

- Junior high gym class, a friend debated me every day about the death penalty (at the time, I was pro-). After some months of her intelligently and thoughtfully challenging me, I changed my mind. It was the first time I rationally thought out what had been a knee-jerk reaction. More importantly, I found out that I enjoy being able to change my mind on significant issues.

- Age 20. My boyfriend's dad died in a car accident, and I had to find him to give him the news. I realized how fragile everything was, and decided it wasn't worth staying mad at my dad for the mistakes he may have made raising me. I vowed to get to know him as a person, and more importantly, let him get to know me. Our relationship has been a lot better since then, and I've let go of a lot of the sadness I carried from childhood.
posted by j3s at 8:58 AM on February 3, 2005 [3 favorites]

-I read Be True To Your School by Bob Greene when I was in junior high. After reading the entries about his job at the Columbus newspaper, I knew I wanted to work in journalism.

-In ninth grade, a guy in my French class who was friends with a guy I had a raging crush on at the time invited me to his Jayteens chapter pizza party, and mentioned that the other guy was going to be there. I went to the party and ended up joining the chapter, as did my friends who came with me and this other guy. If I hadn't joined Jayteens, I don't think I'd have considered joining the Jaycees when I moved back to my hometown after leaving college the first time...and Jaycees really has changed my life in many ways, mostly for the better. : )
The guy I had a crush on and I never got together...I got over my crush a few months later that year, but he and I became friends and we still are friends to this day. (He was my dog's vet for a while, actually, until he changed clinics)

Looking back, the first time I feel like I consciously chose what direction my life was going to take was when I chose a college.
posted by SisterHavana at 9:37 AM on February 3, 2005

the first time I read Peanuts, when I was about five
posted by matteo at 9:47 AM on February 3, 2005 [2 favorites]

When I was eight, I was in the kitchen getting a carving knife to cut up some food. My Dad started to say something, stopped himself, then said, "I was about to say 'Be careful or you'll cut yourself,' but my own father used to do that to me and all it did was make me nervous. Haul out that knife and chop away!"

It was good to be trusted like that. Children are generally more competent than adults realize.
posted by mono blanco at 8:14 PM on February 3, 2005 [21 favorites]


The short and easy answer would be the death of my father when I was five.

The better answer would be the time when I was probably 12, at a church father/son event of some sort, with a neighbor. I won the door prize -- for the third year in a row. It struck me that the contest was rigged, and I was being given some consideration for the fact that my father was dead. I decided to not let on that I had figured this out.

There were many adults I knew as a child who, in a quiet way, tried to help me out in whatever ways they could. I doubt I was ever grateful enough at the time, but as an adult and a father, their efforts, even the feeble and transparent ones, are always on my mind, and I do believe that I have a responsibility to do the same for the kids I know.
posted by roger at 9:12 PM on February 3, 2005 [7 favorites]

I went to a military school, and was the small skinny smart kid who didn't fit in. And my parents went through a bitter divorce for most of my childhood, making me generally afraid of relationships.

So I remember a girl named Gail, who was two years older than me, and beautiful in an unassuming dark-haired kind of way, and friends with much cooler people than I was.

I don't remember how we came to be standing on the front steps of the school together--just passing by and saying hello, I think. But as she turned to walk off, she stopped and looked at me intently, and said, "You know, you have really nice eyes."

I was 13. It was the nicest thing anyone had ever said to me. I would give almost anything to find her now, and tell her how much that meant.
posted by Polonius at 10:50 PM on February 3, 2005 [2 favorites]

Hard to pick a defining moment, and not so momentous as some here, but for what it's worth, this seems to fit this thread...

I was about 14 and deeply in awe of a girl in the same class at school. I thought she was so hot, in that way that only hormone-driven boys at around that age understand. I wasn't considered especially datable however, and knew it, so it took me quite a while to finally pluck up the courage to ask her out. I remember feeling very pleased with myself when she agreed.

On the way home from the cinema, waiting at the bus-stop, we were chatting about our families; childhood experiences, how well we got on with our parents, or not, comparing teenager notes, getting to know each other better kind of stuff. I thought things were going great. We seemed to be getting along just fine. She went on to tell me how much she admired her father, what a great guy she thought he was, how dedicated he was to his beliefs, how she wished she could do more to help him. I asked her more and it turned out he was a local organizer for the National Front. For those that don't know - far right, fascist, racist, violent, niche political party in the UK at the time.

In what seemed like an instant, the object of my affections turned into someone I really didn't want to be around and all I could think about was escaping. That evening I learned that being in lust isn't being in love.

(An all-time-great Ask MeFi thread. Big thanks to all.)
posted by normy at 1:07 AM on February 4, 2005 [25 favorites]

Here are a couple:

During the summer between 7th and 8th grade, I gained some weight sitting around and making my first webpage (another formative experience!). My mom approached me about the issue, made it feel less like something I should be ashamed of and more like a health issue, and I started exercising and losing the weight. A year or so later, I had returned to a more healthy size. One day, walking through the kitchen, my dad looked me up and down and said "Wow, Bridget, beneath all that weight there's a pretty girl!" and in one moment destroyed the healthy attitude my mom had tried to give me. My little mind swum with all the implications of what he had said - My mom hadn't mentioned anything at all about my not being pretty! I didn't know I had to be pretty for my dad to show me a moment's worth of genuine affection! Maybe that's how it is with all men!

I think part of the reason this had such a disproportionate effect on me can be traced back to another moment, this time when I was about 5 or 6. I had been reading these Classics For Kids books nonstop, staying up all night to read, and one day my dad was busy doing something and I was trying to tell him all about the book I was reading. He got fed up with me and said "Goddamnit, not everything in life is about books and school!" Since then, my achievements have been mostly academic and because of this comment (well, and his continuing inability to even appear sincerely proud of me for anything that he doesn't relate to directly), I don't feel like he relates to me at all. I feel like he was prouder the day I first smoked pot than the day I got into college. Looking back over the past couple of years, I'm pretty sure I've been subconsciously striving for my dad's attention, love, and respect my whole life, leaving me in a kind of double-bind where my interests don't reward me psychologically as much as earning his symbolic "respect" does.

But I've gotten past a lot of that because when my parents divorced, everyone else in my family cut ties with my father and I felt too terrible to let him go without any family at all to show for 25 years of marriage and fatherhood. So my dad and I still talk and I try to relate as best I can while still retaining my identity. It is hard sometimes, and he still makes a bunch of weight-related comments to this day, making it harder to get past those issues, but I feel some strange confidence in the role reversal, of being someone he needs (and who is there for him) rather than being someone who needs him.

And while it's been said before, thanks and kudos to everyone opening up in this thread. This is a fantastic reminder of why I love the internet in general and mefi in particular.
posted by pikachulolita at 1:46 AM on February 4, 2005 [5 favorites]

I was somewhere between 5 and 7 and I was driving with my father. For some reason he was ranting and raving about some woman he had to deal with who happened to be black. A thought popped into my head. "If women aren't as good as men, and whites are better than blacks, then black women must be the worst people on earth." I felt ashamed for thinking it. Intensely ashamed. The thought felt dirty in my head and I didn't like it one bit.

In hindsight that moment feels like it was the first time I had a real thought of my own. I think it was at this point that I started to reject the "values" my parents were teaching me.
posted by pookzilla at 6:40 AM on February 4, 2005 [4 favorites]

I think there have been a lot of defining moments, and it is odd to choose one that happened mere months ago...but it speaks to the always maleable nature of each of us:

After work one day this past November, I visited my father who lay dying of cancer in a room at a hospice care center. I knew he wasn't well, and during recent visits I had noticed with fear how pain and medication had made him less and less lucid, but as I enter the room and saw him lying on his side seemingly sleepy with heavy, rasping breaths, it was like a punch to the gut. Thiinking about it now makes me light headed. I sat at his bedside, holding his unresponsive hand, listening as he made murmuring noises as if in a fevered dream. Dr. Phil played meaninglessly in the background. I wiped the spittle from the side of his mouth, kissed him on the forehead, and left. He died probably an hour after I left.

That day and the months leading up to it were really a tragedy beyond compare to me, but, in the end, two things came out of it: it really brought my family together, but more importantly, it felt like the first time I had felt anything for a long...long time. Like when you have a horrible head cold and it breaks and you feel that clear, cool air rush in.
posted by tpl1212 at 7:07 AM on February 4, 2005 [1 favorite]

This thread had me in a flood of tears. I can't believe the things people have to go through - and what they get through. I feel guilty for ever complaining about my own life.

I had some similar ostracization and body issue problems as an adolescent that have haunted and fucked up all my adult relationships, but I did have great parents who provided that rich cultural world someone upthread mentioned and access to a million books to hide away in.

I was read to a lot and read on my own, but I will never forget the one sentence of a story that just set my brain on fire and made me a writer. I must have been about 8, and the story was Arthur C. Clarke's "The Nine Billion Names of God." It was about a group of monks whose centuries-old mission was to scratch out the many names on parchment, at which point, they presume the universe will end. They hire a computer firm to speed things up. At the end of the story, the cynical computer tech is thinking, hey, they are going to be so disappointed when the program spits out the last name, oh, right about now. And then came the line: "Overhead, without any fuss, the stars were going out."
There was something so mind blowing about that line - I think it was the elegance of "without any fuss" - that I fell hopelessly in love with words and stories and trying to recreate that "wow" factor on my own.
posted by CunningLinguist at 7:39 AM on February 4, 2005 [16 favorites]

Fishing with my father. He was obsessive, we would go out in all weather and all year round. When I got bored I would walk up and down the shore, catching frogs and turning over rocks to see what lived beneath. I became a close observer of nature and developed a love of the outdoors that dominated the first two decades of my life. When my parent's marriage went south, I would go on long rambles through the New England woods to get away from the fighting at home. At 14 I bought my first Kelty backpack and a sleeping bag and convinced my mother that I was old enough to start going on solo hiking trips in the Appalachians.

Last weekend I was walking a nature trail with my 5-year-old son, when we turned over rocks looking for salamanders the smell of the forest soil brought back a flood of memories.
posted by LarryC at 7:51 AM on February 4, 2005 [2 favorites]

I believe I was still in high school, and I was sitting on the stairs in the entrance of our house as my parents were showing my aunt and uncle out after an evening of conversation. My folks and a lot of their generation from around our town speak both Low German and English, often seamlessly switching between the two, and in Low German, though I was right there, my Dad told my Uncle that I "did not understand work."

I was hurt and upset by this, but eventually admitted to myself that until then I had really been loafing around in life - avoiding responsibility, complaining incessantly about household chores, and generally being a big suck about physical labor in general. This in turn went a long way toward gaining a resolve I did not know I posessed in sticking with jobs that I would get after graduation, jobs that were not necessarily glamorous or easy but that always taught me someting worthwhile.

My Dad noted a few years later that it seemed as though I had developed a good sense of responsibility and that he appreciated my increased willingness to help around the house, which was a pretty good moment for me, too.
posted by Monster_Zero at 8:00 AM on February 4, 2005 [4 favorites]

Was about three, and enraged by the sight of some guy in a red suit, coming out of Sears, and foisting on the public the notion that he flew around the world delivering presents on a train of reindeers.

Subsequently became lifelong skeptic.
posted by inksyndicate at 8:11 AM on February 4, 2005 [3 favorites]

Two things happened that made me who I am today, both events being a part of my adulthood.

1) At the age of 20, my family was still trying to ground me and keep me locked up at home. I was not allowed to go out and see my friends, they were trying to make me quit my job as a waitress...basically, it was just really bad, to me, especially since I'd been a wellbehaved sort of teenager who did well in school. But my family was mad I'd finally gotten sick of school and had dropped out of college, so they tried to make me miserable.

The night my uncle came into the office and literally threw a box of crackers I'd been holding out into the rain, then chewed me up one side and down the other for being a lazy selfish ingrate (I wasn't, and I'm not just saying that - I did my own laundry, took care of my own gas for my car, and helped keep my kid brothers in line), I made my plans and a week later ran away from home to live with a guy who emotionally abused me for over a year - but I wasn't at home. Even if it was horrible (it really WAS), I was proving I could survive on my own without my family, and I did end up finally getting away from the jerk I moved in with.

2) As a direct result of that fiasco, I moved to Texas to be with a Nice Guy. I'd been raised to believe that I wasn't worth a thing if I didn't get married and start with the babymaking (really small Southern town). I wasn't in love with him, but he was Nice, very much the Nice Guy, and I did love him for that. And six years later he dumped me because he knew I was only there for the safety of never having to be "Out There" again. I'd used a perfectly lovely guy simply so that I could be safe, and I got schooled on it. Justly so.

And it has been a rather horrid handful of months since then, but I finally realized I'd spent my entire adult life in relationships to the point where I was defining myself by who I was with - and that's no way to live. I had no idea who I was on my own.

I'm learning that, and I'm learning that I like myself pretty well, I'm a pretty decent person who's a lot of fun and basically, I'm enjoying life as it comes instead of planning for a future I really didn't want, I just thought it was what I was supposed to do. I spent years either running away from things or just hiding away to be safe.

Now I'm living, establishing an actual life for myself, and I love it.
posted by angeline at 8:14 AM on February 4, 2005 [6 favorites]

This is an amazing thread.

What scratch said (minus some of the alcoholism). Combined with pre-existing sullenness (and probably depression), led and continues to lead to difficulty forming relationships with people, especially women. I have a distinct, though almost certainly highly distorted, memory of my family sitting around the kitchen table, one of my parents posing the question that perhaps my mother and father would separate for a while to see how things worked out, and what did we think of that? In this memory I'm the last one to speak and banish my father!

I attribute not having had a girlfriend (or even a kiss!) until 18 partially to this, even though in retrospect I recognize that there were lots of girls going back into my youth who exhibited pretty strong interest, which I wouldn't let myself recognize or act on.

On the positive side: I've had some very good teachers. I was always good at math so in eighth grade I went to the high school nearby to take math classes, which meant during the math period at middle school (which was very small, so there wasn't very much flexibility in the schedule) I could do whatever I wanted. The math teacher taught me some rudimentary BASIC and I futzed around on the ancient Apple, or read the book of revelations online (for some reason), or just read a book. I think he recommended Asimov's Nightfall to me, too, though I'm not sure about that.

And there were always lots of books around the house (bookish parents and my mom ran a bookstore), so always had something to read and read a lot. I remember my dad reading to me over the course of several nights The Story of a Bad Boy; that was pretty cool.

And what other people have said about music, though for me the watershed moment was when I was 17.
posted by kenko at 8:25 AM on February 4, 2005

I'd rather not post anything personal at the moment, except to say that lately, I've felt rather cynical about...well....everything. And seeing some of the stories in this thread have instilled a tremendous flood of opposing emotions for me. Guilt, inspiration, anguish and rejoicing at the same time.

Is it hackneyed and trite to think that if I arrive at some sort of personal conclusion, this thread might be one of those defining moments? I don't know. But I'm not getting any work done today. Not now. Can't focus. Alternately crying and laughing.
posted by TeamBilly at 8:57 AM on February 4, 2005 [1 favorite]

1) When I was 4 years old, I went to a planetarium show with my mom. It was about dinosaurs, and the place was packed with excited kids and their parents. The show started with an explanation about the extinction of dinosaurs, that maybe a big asteroid had fallen and caused them all to go away. Something instantly clicked in my mind. I realized that if it could happen before, it could happen again. My mom had to carry me out of the planetariuim as I started crying and wailing inconsolably, fearing asteroids falling from the sky. For the next 20 years I lived in fear of death, until I learned to control that fear.

2) I credit my parents with giving me a wonderful example of a loving adult relationship. I have never, ever seen them yell at each other, hit each other, or even really be mad at each other. They truly love and respect each other. For most of my youth I thought this was the way with all parents. Then one night, when I was 13, I was sleeping over at a friend's house. My friend, his sister, his mom, and I were sitting watching TV. My friend's dad came into the room and got in some sort of argument with his mother. His voice raised sharply, and he grabbed her arm roughly as she begged him to stop. I was quite alarmed - I had never seen such a thing before - and looked around in panic. My friend and his sister sat, stone faced, watching TV; obviously this was not a new experience for them. I realized then that, even though I had known this friend for 9 years, I had never known this part of his life. And from that point on I appreciated my parents even more.
posted by falconred at 8:59 AM on February 4, 2005 [9 favorites]

I was in an abusive marriage and slowly being driven crazy. I was depressed, anorexic, and had attempted suicide several times. One day, after some things happened that were worse than usual, I took a backpack, put some clothes and toiletries in it, and walked out the door, even though I had nowhere to go.

My memories of the next few months after that are hazy. I know I was in Ohio for a while (the home I'd left was in Boston.) Basically, I became a homeless insane person.

Eventually, I got my life back together again.

I learned a lot from that.
posted by kyrademon at 9:00 AM on February 4, 2005 [3 favorites]

I've always been a big boy, but my sister is 7 years older than I am. She dominated me most of my childhood (though in relatively harmless ways, in comparison to the rest of this thread). Just when I grew big enough to defend myself adequately, she moved away to college and started being nice to me. It taught me that revenge is harmful and unnecessary and that people, especially young people, can and do change. Today, she is one of my very favorite people.
Call me a late bloomet, but beyond that, most of the things I can remember came too late really to be called childhood memories:
  • I was about 15 when I realized that I did not and would not ever know everything. It was surprisingly painful. I was 19 when I realized that I wasn't even a genius. If anything, that hurt even worse.
  • I was 19 when I really came to grips with the fact that I am an atheist, not an agnostic.
  • I was 18 and in college when I read between the lines of a letter and understood that the girl on whom I'd had my second-largest high school crush had also been into me and that I had missed out on what might have been a neat relationship. That was the first time I really understood that it was possible for me to be loved in a romantic way. It took many years thereafter for me actually to become bold enough (though just barely) to have such relationships.

posted by willpie at 9:39 AM on February 4, 2005 [2 favorites]

(late bloomer, I mean. Bloomer.)
posted by willpie at 9:49 AM on February 4, 2005

We moved every year from the time I was born until I left home. I have no ties to anyone and no old friends. I joined the service, moved some more then went to college and moved twice more for a graduate then a doctorate program. I don't know anyone and have no idea how to maintain a friendship. But, I make a hell of a first impression.
posted by nanu at 9:57 AM on February 4, 2005 [5 favorites]

Life-altering experiences.... it's funny, because my memory is so awful that even these pivotal moments are like pictures without anything written on the back to help give them context. (This handicap is why I began writing in journals in second grade, and have done so ever since. What is written, stays.)

1) I remember standing in the kitchen, probably about 9 years old, being reprimanded by my mother--she who was always calm, loving and rational even when under severe stress. I had somehow managed to make her cry; she was saying, "and I went to bat for you, and you didn't tell me the truth." Suddenly I felt a rush of guilt and pain that felt like being punched in the stomach. I owed this woman everything and I had done this; I had made her cry. Even now I am almost typing through tears thinking about it, and I can't even remember what I had done to precipitate the discussion.

2) I remember a sophomore-high-school year talk with my mother. I had a pregnancy scare (luckily, only a scare) and had chosen to talk about it with her. She came through like a champ--got right on the phone to make an appointment to get me on birth control. At the time, I begged her not to tell my father, as he would certainly be disappointed with my behavior. She compromised with me, saying that she would eventually have to tell my father, as they did not keep secrets from one another, but that she wouldn't do so right away.

A few months later, mom checked in with me about how my relationship with my boyfriend was going, and whether I had any questions. (What can I say? She rocks.) At the end of our chat, I thanked her for not telling dad about the scare, as I would hate to see our relationship change. At that point, she said simply, "He's known for weeks." I was left then, to ponder how cool my dad was to respect my space and not let it interfere with us.

So, ever since I don't-know-exactly-when as a kid, I have been fiercely protective of my parents. I would never and will never do anything that would cause them grief. Luckily, they have never tried to exert any undue influence over my life or how I choose to live it, and so I can cherish that feeling instead of feeling constrained by it.

Oh, and a random 3): realizing that I loved my now-husband. We were sitting at a dingy little table in his fixer-upper house, playing gin rummy according to rules that changed every thirty seconds, wearing beaten old sweats and t-shirts because we'd both just gotten cleaned up after spending a day working in the gardens. Tito Puente was on NPR in the background--this fabulous, energetic, happy music, and we were just laughing and throwing cards everywhere and talking about nothing. At some point, I stepped back out of the experience for a split second, long enough to realize how ecstatically happy I was feeling, and to wonder over this sudden conviction I felt that I loved this person and that we'd be spending the rest of our lives together.

Sorry for the long post. As Twain would say, if I had more time, it would be a shorter letter.
posted by clever sheep at 10:10 AM on February 4, 2005 [53 favorites]

Most of my great formative moments in life have been at the beach, in particular working as a beach lifeguard in St. Johns County, FL. That job has meant so much to me, provided me with so many opportunities to grow and develop, I don't even know where to begin. Every time I've gone on a call, every time I've saved a life, come close to death, seen some miracle of nature, I've changed for the better.

One that comes to mind, though happened about six years ago, when I had to tow a dead body 100 yds to shore. He had drowned about 1/4 mile south of my lifeguard tower, and when the call came in, I had to run down the beach, swim out and find him (only his shoulders and upper back were out of the water, and those just barely), tow him in, and perform chest compressions until my truck arrived. For the minute that I was out there with him, I was more alone than I've ever been in my entire life. Touching his skin, taking his pulse and feeling nothing, looking into his eyes and seeing nothing, really changed me. Ever since then, I've really been a lot more physical in my dealings with other people; I look people in the eyes more, give a lot more hugs and handshakes, and generally just touch other humans as much as I can (within the limits of social acceptability). I never used to do any of this, but now it seems like I feed off of the life and vitality of the people I'm around.
posted by saladin at 10:38 AM on February 4, 2005 [18 favorites]

I should maybe add that this happened about 2 months before my 18th birthday.
posted by saladin at 10:44 AM on February 4, 2005

I grew up on a cattle ranch, in arguably, some of the prettiest country in Montana. I was probably horseback more than I was afoot growing up. To pick a defining moment would be so difficult but when I think about that part of my life I always remember how I felt when I lost 'pets' during my childhood. 'Pets' is the not the right word though, because even at around 7 or 8 I felt like a little mother to the particular lambs I bottle fed or the rabbits that I raised from little hairless mutants.

Having grown up with the birth and death of hundreds of animals around me, I have been instilled with a special fascination with cycles. Furthermore at 18 when we sold and my parents moved into town and I went off to a big city for college, I realized the true girth of heart it would take to grieve the loss of a way of life, and in some ways the loss of a way of understanding.
posted by superposition at 10:54 AM on February 4, 2005 [11 favorites]

One was the first time someone asked me "Why do you walk funny?" I have Cerebral Palsy, and as a child (pre-Kindergarten) nobody ever really explained this to me. I had never seen myself walk, so I thought I walked like everyone else. It was an eye opener, and I learned that how you see yourself and how others see you are not the same thing. Plus, while you may think it's beneficial to tell your child they are "just like everyone else" in a situation like this, where I clearly wasn't, it would have been nice to know before hand.

And when I was around 12 and I truly realized how much of a problem my father's alcoholism was. He showed up at my door with a bag of popcorn and a large pizza for the sleepover he was convinced I was having (and most certainly was not). My family enjoyed the food, I was upstairs in my room crying.
posted by aclevername at 11:06 AM on February 4, 2005 [2 favorites]

Here are a couple of mine...

- similar to Grumblebee's story about learning that adults aren't perfect, I had a health teacher in grade three. She was explaining the food chain by saying that every single food we eat comes from plants. "We eat corn - it's a plant. We eat apples. They're plants. We eat a hamburger or steak, it comes from cows which eat grass which is a plant. And so on." I sat there thinking it over then put up my hand. "What about salt?" She stares hard at me then says "well, you couldn't very well live on salt alone now could you?" which gets a big round of laughter from the class. But that wasn't the point - I'd come up with something people eat that didn't come from plants thus puncturing her whole lesson's point.

And in that single moment, I realised a number of things...
1. teachers (and by extension, adults) don't necessarily know everything.

2. if they don't, they may change the question and/or outright lie to you.

3. looking back now, I'm not sure if this is where my skeptical side started or if it was something I always had. But it's definitely one of my most valued attributes today. I'd go so far as to say that one of my maxims for life is still "Never Believe Anything 100%"

(I guess I also realised that even at ~8 years old, I could outsmart an adult. This is the first time I did that and it felt incredibly good and weird and amazing and scary.)

Here's another one - a huge regret for me. I'd been taking piano lessons for not very long as a kid. But between having the idea I wasn't musical (it wasn't intended to harm me but my parents weren't musical so they simply told me I wasn't either) and because it was "too hard" (my small hand couldn't reach to form an "F" chord), I quit rather than working on it. I still regret that my parents let me quit so easily and see how this still affects me today in that I often give up too easily on learning new things that require a bit of extra effort.

There's a happy ending though. After befriending a guy in college who could make up great, hilarious songs with two chords, I picked up a guitar myself and persevered in teaching myself to play. I'm not great but I can strum along with a few songs. This is probably one of the single most rewarding things I've done in the last ten years and it's provided hours of personal entertainment.

This thread itself is a bit of an eye-opener. My childhood was so idyllic - right out of 50's TV sitcoms in many ways - that hearing many of these stories makes me realise how lucky I was. I mean, one of my most scarring moments is my parents telling me I wasn't musical. Jesus.
posted by Jaybo at 11:50 AM on February 4, 2005

SPrintF, you made me cry. I feel for you.

I may still be new around here, but all the same... *hugs everyone*
posted by squidlarkin at 12:09 PM on February 4, 2005

When I was 16, I got the single best piece of advice ever given to me.

'Love don't pay the bills'.

I'm an exceptionally financially responsible person now. I actually ended a marriage over this. However, I never got past how financially taken advantage of I was. I've been angry ever since.

I've become extremely suspicious and cynical of other people since then. I have a hard time thinking that people are interacting with me for other reasons than wanting something out of me.

I'm finally trying to get past this now.
posted by pieoverdone at 12:15 PM on February 4, 2005

Age 8: When I didn't have to see my real father anymore. I remember lying in my room that night, after my mother told me, and crying with joy. There's a lot more explanation behind that statement, but I really don't feel like going into it too much. However, I will offer this:

For almost all of my life, I had always felt that something was missing. There was an empty spot in my (soul? heart?) that I could never quite put my finger on. When I was 26 my mother confessed to me that I was supposed to be twins. Turns out that I had narrowly escaped being a miscarriage myself after my father beat her for ruining his life.
posted by junyatwin at 12:43 PM on February 4, 2005 [3 favorites]

In the next week, I am going to reach out to every kid in my life and find a way to let them know how special they are. I am going to try to do that as often as I can going forward. This thread is most remarkable. Thanks to all for sharing.
posted by madamjujujive at 1:28 PM on February 4, 2005 [3 favorites]

I know for me, the moment is about my parent's divorce when I was 2. This was back in an era when divorce was shameful - I was the only kid I knew who didn't have a father at home, and many other were quite people judgmental about it. Like our neighbor kids were told not to play with us because we were a divorced family, like they'd catch it or something.

From that divorce rippled out so many things - my mother's depression, my sense that I didn't know how to do masculine things (we were raised by my mom and grandmother), and also my really mixed up attitude about work and self fulfillment. My father left, ostensibly, because he wanted to do his own thing. In some measure, I realize I idealized him for that, but what's the deal when you idealize someone who abandons you? And when you're thinking about your career, do you have to abandon your family to do something that excites you? or do you have to do something safe and boring so you can stay with your family?

It is kind of astonishing how events from long ago stick with us and become a kind of template or a metaphor for our lives. I know that with my own kids I keep wondering what the moment will be, and how they would answer a question like this somewhere down the line...
posted by jasper411 at 1:35 PM on February 4, 2005

jeremias, this has been an impressive thread and as I've read over it the last couple of days and thought about your reasons for asking the question I've searched within for some definitive moments myself. Not surprisingly for me, I've come up kind of empty. This has always been the case, though. My sister, who is two years older, can remember so many more events in our young lives that she says were very definitive for her (and she is always shocked when I don't feel similarly). I cannot seem to remember many at all. Don't get me wrong, I remember general conditions and have strong feelings from my youth but not many significant singularities that I hang them upon. I have always found this difference between my sister and I to be very interesting; and I am tempted to generalize that, within some basic parameters, there are differences within people about how they process events even of a traumatic nature. If you asked my sister this question, she would give you a list of events. I would cite conditions. You can see some evidence of this variance on the thread itself. We're a rich species. You're going to continue to be a great dad.
posted by safetyfork at 2:47 PM on February 4, 2005

I took a self-defense class when I was 27 or so -- the kind with the guys in big padded suits who attack you, and you have to really fight them off with everything you have.

This was a life-changing experience for me. In the past, I had had trouble speaking up when I needed to, I laughed uncomfortably when people said unkind things to me, and I was physically incapable of calling someone on their bullshit. After taking this class and leaning to fight hard and win against people who were bigger than me, a lot of that melted away. Just recently I was on a crowded subway car and a guy put his hand on my upper thigh. Before I knew it I'd grabbed his wrist, asked him loudly just what the fuck he thought he was doing, and he shrank away terrified -- he left the car as soon as it stopped. I realized that just a couple of years ago I probably would have suffered in silence through that, or tried to just edge away. Now I take a deep breath, steel some new nerves that I've learned that I have, and say what I need to say.

I watched women's lives be utterly changed by this class, and I started to wonder what it would be like to have a job where I could make a difference in someone's life like that. Now, as a direct result of this realization, I am about to finish my undergrad and have just been accepted into physical therapy grad school. I will always be grateful to the people who taught that self-defense course.
posted by jennyjenny at 3:10 PM on February 4, 2005 [21 favorites]

Age 13: my first love. totally unrequited. i never let her know. until.....

age 17, had switched high schools and it was in november, homecoming of my senior year. i bumped into my first love and she was like "hey, don't i know you?" and i was like "yeah, hi shannon. we were in homeroom together in 8th grade and i was totally in love with you"

she said "woah, really? you should have said something, we could have totally hung out".

even if it was bullshit, it changed my life. just thinking that maybe, just maybe, something could have came of it...well, i vowed to let fewer experiences get passed me.

age 20. i got a letter from a marine corps recruiter. he wrote a personalized letter to people on the dean's list, me included. i was amazed he took the time. i thought "fuck, if i can do this, i can do anything"

and i did. i went from being scrawny to being cut like hell. i couldn't do situps or pullups, and then suddenly i could rock on my physical fitness test. i knew what it was to lead people. i also learned military officers tended to be assholes, but that's another story.
posted by taumeson at 3:44 PM on February 4, 2005 [1 favorite]

There are a lot of moments I could choose, I think. Here's one I wrote about last week (and read aloud, too).

Great thread. Thanks to everyone who shared their stories.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 4:58 PM on February 4, 2005

When I was 6 y.o. I woke up to find my mother gone from our house. My siblings and I were told that she was ill and in hospital.

Later in life I was to learn that she had Encephalitis lethargica - "sleeping sickness" (or some similar variant). See the film Awakenings, s(tarring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro).

We didn't see her for a couple of years. She was in a coma. After coming out of the coma and through various treatments and after significant therapy to relearn motor skills, talking, etc. - she survived. She is alive today - albeit with dimished capacity and capabilities (lack of a sense of taste and touch; poor short-term memory, etc).

As well, our family survived intact. We stand in awe of our father for "keeping his head" and guiding us through the confusion. We are grateful to a community that watched over us.

As adults, I and my siblings continue to explore the impact of those years. Issues of "loss" and "abandonment" have had material impact on intimate relationships. Fortunately, we've all had successful experiences with counselors and therapy.
posted by ericb at 5:17 PM on February 4, 2005 [3 favorites]

A few different possibilities, but I'll choose these two:

1) I was 12 and in the seventh grade. My friend Jason told me that he was going to kill himself. Jason had been telling me all year he was depressed, and I was really afraid he'd do it. I decided to tell a teacher, so I told Mrs. Ryan, my social studies teacher. She was also a friend of my parents, so I figured she'd listen.

She told me to mind my own business. I was terrified for the rest of the school year that I'd come to school and find out Jason was dead.

2) I was 16 and in the middle of a community service project that was a requirement at my high school. I worked tutoring middle schoolers, and I liked it. I worked a bunch with a sixth grader named Bud. He and I developed a rapport, and I even felt a bit intimidated by him because even though he was four years younger than I was he was cool - something I have never been. I found, though, that I could communicate well and that when I worked with him, he actually improved, and it felt good.

In April, a teacher wandered in as Bud and I were working, and told him - casually, in front of me - that Bud had already failed science class and that he was going to have to go to summer school. Bud, the cool sixth grader, put his head down on his desk and sobbed, and I just sat there next to him, with no idea what to do. I kept working with him, but he'd checked out - he was going to fail no matter what he did, so there was no longer any point in him trying.

I was horrified and outraged that a teacher would so casually hurt a kid like that - I remember thinking that the teacher looked bored as she was telling Bud the news.

The two experiences together made me feel like the number one thing you can do in life is help kids, and that when you work with kids, their emotional lives are just as important as their intellectual lives. Teaching became a moral act for me, and not just a potential job. I became a teacher over the strong objections of most people in my family. I don't know if I'd have become a teacher if it had just been a job I kinda enjoyed. But the fact that it was both something I enjoyed and something that I felt was the right thing to do made it inescapable as a career choice.
posted by Chanther at 5:40 PM on February 4, 2005 [33 favorites]

Though my parents raised me in an evangelical church, some of their best friends were not Christians. They did not witness to them, they just hung out and we did things together as families. This combatted the "preach at people until they conform or don't hang out with them" message that I was getting at church.

My dad took us out to "the woods" every Saturday (various abandoned or unmonitored lots way out in the country), where we could explore places with old wrecks of buggies and the foundations of old farmhouses and family dump sites with cool old things and go berry picking and see the trilliums bloom in spring. It's made me appreciate long walks in the country, quality time with my dad, and given me a curiousity about the world around me.

When I was about 10, one of my mom's friends got Lou Gehrig's disease. My mom jumped in and became very involved in the family, driving the kids around, and assisting Sharon with bathing, cooking, etc. My mother has done things like this throughout my life, whether it's another friend of hers who died of Lupus, or providing a safe place for the kids she babysat who were dealing with alcoholic parents, divorce, and the suicide of a father. She has taught me compassion, and that death is part of life.

When I was 17, my father began taking me out for supper about every other week. He gave me an opportunity to get to know him better and made me feel special.

Probably in late high school, I was sitting in our truck with my dad after a difficult day with my mother. I told him that I wondered how he managed to deal with her, and he told me that his philosophy is that you deal with the cards life deals you, and my mother was one of those cards and he was just going to love her the best he could. These days, their marriage is stronger than anything and they are best friends who constantly tease each other and whom I am honoured to introduce my friends to.

They also dealt with my progression from radical Christian to bible college student to post-deconversion angerball to much calmer atheist with grace and acceptance. Their policy is that they are not going to let anything stand between them and their kids, and that they're always here to support us, and their actions have proved it.

Also appreciated is that my mom was raised by a woman who constantly ran her down and a father who threw her through a wall at age 18, and there has been no violence in my family. I remember her telling me when I was very young that if my dad ever hit me, she'd divorce him in a second. My father was raised by a workaholic father whom he didn't really know, and has been extremely involved in my life and we know each other very well. They impress me.
posted by heatherann at 5:53 PM on February 4, 2005 [10 favorites]

Life-altering experiences? I remember learning, in a really deep and true and painful way, that my family values their wealth and social circles and appearances more than their children. I remember being shown in so many little ways what a disappointment I was to them, how strange, how physically ugly. I'm a geek; they were hoping for a socialite.

You know those stories where the young teenage girl comes down the stairs and her parents say "you're not going out like that until you take off your make-up and wear something less revealing"? Yeah. The exact opposite thing happened to me, many many times thoughout my life. It held up a lot of dinner plans.

But one experience stands out, as plain as the...well. When I was about twelve years old, my father came into my room, sat me down, and informed me--informed me--that I would be getting a nose job in the next year. I was still about a year away from going through puberty at that point. I was far more interested in books than my looks, but even I knew that my nose looked fine, no big bump or anything like that. But nothing I said made any difference. They didn't care.

The first doctor they picked, bless his heart, somehow realized during the final pre-surgery consult how miserable and cowed I was, and refused to do the surgery. I remember my mother zig-zagging through northbound Manhattan traffic in her Jaguar with me in the front seat, screaming to my dad on her carphone "how could he do this to me?" To you?, I thought. I was smart enough to know what "psychosomatic symptoms" were (thank you Miss Adelaide), and I felt the numbness in my face and nose that I'd felt for the previous few days suddenly lift and disappear. I hadn't told anyone about it; what was the point?

They found another doctor who was not as kind, but I do distinctly remember his Gucci loafers, mostly because I was staring at the floor throughout the entire appointment. A stay in the hospital, two black eyes, and a spring break at home in bed followed. Two weeks later I was back at school, ready with an excuse if anyone asked to say that I looked different only because I was wearing my contacts for a change (glasses were out until I healed; they would have put pressure on the bone). I kept out of sight in the library, as I so often did in high school, and no one asked.

Two years later, they did the same thing to my little sister. That's when I really knew they were crazy; whatever uncertainties I felt about myself, I knew my sister was pretty. Unfortunately, she has always been far more compliant with them than I, and so she, too, did not and could not do anything about it.

I heard the second doctor later had a hushed-up suicide attempt after catching his wife in bed with Vera Wang; I think the story made New York Magazine. He was back performing surgery on young girls and old women two weeks later. Some of those girls were probably my classmates, even though there were only 145 people in my grade. I know for a fact that some of them were forced by their parents to have surgeries too; some had breakdowns while in high school (at school, too), some ended up wildly promiscuous in college (just how many blowjobs did she give at that frat party?).

I escaped their fates but socially withdrew even more. I felt so ashamed; how ugly must I be that even my own parents would do this to me? But there was healthy fury there too; I remember thinking that most parents would go to jail if they hit their kid in the face with a hammer, but mine just paid someone to do it for them. We will leave out the part where, as an immuno-suppressed person without a spleen, it was somewhat more dangerous to be putting me through surgery of any kind. But then again, not having a spleen and being more susceptible to infections was the only reason that kept them from forcing a lifelong chin implant on me, too, so thank God for small mercies.

But still, every day--and I really, really do mean every single damn day, this is not hyperbole--of my teenage years was spent being questioned why I had zits, or how much do you weigh, won't you please put your contacts in, go fix your hair, won't you wear this, don't wear those jeans. It was like my mom had OCD--but instead of washing her hands, her tic was constantly talking to me, through closed doors even, about how unfortunate I looked and why. To this day, I am astounded that my sister and I did not end up anorexics; if you are familiar with the literature about those kinds of households, this was a good archetype.

Consequently, a lot of my younger years were spent being painfully withdrawn. I missed a lot of overtures people made to be friendly to me and get to know me better, not because I was trying to be distant but because I honestly couldn't understand why they'd want to be my friend.

That was a real low point. I am happy to say that my life, my self-esteem, and my independence have hugely improved since then. Today, I have a kind, wonderful, funny, sweet husband and we live 2600 miles away from my parents.

Congrats, MeFi; you get to be the first people to hear the whole sordid story.
posted by Asparagirl at 8:34 PM on February 4, 2005 [64 favorites]

This thread is stunning. Not only in its response, but in the fact that it is clear that what might seem like "no big deal" (a common phrase from my childhood of domestic abuse) to an adult can be *huge* to a child, and has lasting effects.

While a chunk of this thread has moved towards the negative experiences, it has made me realize that a) I was not alone in my childhood experiences, and indeed these things are far more common than I previously had realized and b) "Moments" like this thread will make us all better people. Indeed, I might have saved a copy on my hard drive if I thought it wouldn't violate people's privacy.

The best of MeFi for certain...
posted by aclevername at 9:26 PM on February 4, 2005

The loss of my religious faith at age nine.

I had been quite taken with the notion of God and become extremely religious. I memorized large chunks of the Bible. But God had always been a means to me, just a way of truly understanding the world. One day, alone in my room, lights off, early morning, waiting for the sun to make the day, I realized just how absurd and gross the idea of God was. Part of me must've always harbored this doubt and in that one moment it just quietly stole upon me.

Then I fell into a deep, deep, deep depression.

It wasn't until almost a year later that I came to understand that a world without God was a world without limits. After that I became a problem child. I got into fights, smoked, tried to jump onto moving train, jumped out of a moving car, ran away, went through three schools in two years having set the first one on fire, committed wire fraud, stole a car, stole a gun, kidnapped myself across state borders, and knowingly risked my life and those of my friends several times. And this was all before I got to high school and "calmed down."

I still have no respect for the limits, laws or rules and will stop at nothing and risk everything for the truth.

That morning pretty much changed everything.
posted by nixerman at 9:58 PM on February 4, 2005 [3 favorites]

1. I discovered stand-up comedians on HBO when I was in junior high school. Memorizing Carlin and Pryor routines helped transform me from a shy, overly sensitive nerd into a reasonably funny, more outgoing person. Not a small feat, that.

2. I started college as an anthropology major, despite going to a performing arts high school. I continued with choir even though I had no interest in majoring in music, and sat in on a choral conducting class.

The first time I got on the podium I fell in love... it felt like the most natural thing in the world, and I had a flair for it. I ended up majoring in music education, took every conducting class I could, and have directed choirs and coached singers continuously ever since graduating from college. I can't imagine my life without music at this point... I need to sing every day.

3. I'm leaving out the bad stuff... because, quite honestly, I've spent the last several months in "I'm-a-horrible-person" mode, and I'm ready to try to be happy again. That's a life-changing experience too.
posted by the_bone at 11:39 PM on February 4, 2005 [2 favorites]

My parents thought it was really cute that as a little 3 year old, I'd mispronounce "hate" as "hake". And they'll go along with it saying "I hake this, I hake that" when I was within earshot.

Come preschool, (or was it daycare? I dunno), and I said "hake" one day.
I'm corrected by a peer.
I say he/she is wrong, it's "hake", my mommy and daddy said so.
No, I'm corrected once again.
Eventually this escalates into a 3 year old me, crying and backed against the wall, defending my parents against everyone in the classroom, peers and teachers.

Long story short: because of a detail my parents thought "cute", I lost my childhood innocence at an unbelievably early age.
I was crushed when they admitted that it's "hate" not "hake". I realised my parents weren't superhuman, and that in fact, they're a lying and clueless bunch of a big children.
Yes: most importantly, I realised that adults are overgrown kids.
From that moment onwards, I was a different person: suspicious, irreverant, sarcastic, very unsettling for adults who wanted to coo over me, angsty, early reader, early grasp of mathematics.

No social skills. (until high-school)

It's been decades since I was that little child, backed against the wall, defending a lie. But to this day, I remember that moment very clearly. It must have been very traumatic since it defined my personality.
posted by ruelle at 12:16 AM on February 5, 2005 [3 favorites]

The summer I was about 4 or 5 I was playing with my younger brother on the beach; a photographer came by, introduced himself, talked to my mother for a bit, and asked if he could photograph us. We were instructed to take a red pail a out into the water and fill it with sand. We went a little ways, then he asked us to keep going a bit farther, then gave us instructions to pose and to fill the bucket. I remember how inane this was-- it wasn't something that I ever would have chosen myself to do for fun-- and how long it took while he messed around with lenses. My mother seemed full of excitment and approval at all this, and when the photograph appeared in the paper a day or two (with the caption 'Getting wet and having fun at the same time' or something similar) later she was delighted, but I learned at that point never to take a photograph or a news story at face value. She cut the picture out and gave it to me, and I threw it away some time later with a strange feeling of shame, as if I had willingly been part of some farce or trick played on the adult world.

When I was 6 I found a book in the school library called The Unicorn with Silver Shoes, written by Ella Young and first published in 1932. Within the first paragraph I had found the world of the imagination, and I have never left it.

My brother and myself once made our mother break down and cry because we were jumping on the couch and wouldn't go to bed. It was an absolutely mundane moment. She was dealing with a three year old and a one year old, and she was exhausted, and she lost it. My dad put his arms around her and said accusingly to us 'Now look what you've done.' Again, a small and ordinary moment, but it made me frightened of the power I had to upset adults for years.

Reading many of the comments here has made me even more thankful that I let my son bail out of high school (he was 13) until he felt ready to go back (five years later, more or less). He's now kicking ass in his Law and English classes and will graduate only a year behind where he would have been. It wasn't easy-- we went through counsellors and changing schools and the whole rigamarole-- but all he really needed was some time to figure out what he wanted to do, and hang out at home, make websites, read, draw, and do whatever. And eventually I trusted that he knew what he was up to. Turns out he did.
posted by jokeefe at 2:21 AM on February 5, 2005

nixerman: how old are you?
posted by delmoi at 3:48 AM on February 5, 2005

Wow, this is really an amazing thread. I think I should show this thread to my mom and thank her for being such a wonderful parent :)

I think the biggest change in my life came with the realization that adults, and even parents weren't actually any different then I was. They were just these people having these relationships and that was that.

You know, my mother didn't have a very good relationship with her mother. She was a lot like some of you, resolving 'not to be like that' to her kids, and she wasn't. I just hope my kids (when I have 'em) will let me be involved in their children's lives I definetly plan on being a loving and involved grandparent.

Anyway, great thread. I'll come back when I'm not tripping on shrooms and write some more.

Okay, I won't show this thread to my mom.
posted by delmoi at 4:31 AM on February 5, 2005 [1 favorite]

Amazing thread, as others have said. Reading the very different lessons or meanings that various people have taken from not-too-dissimilar experiences makes me even more convinced that a lot of temperament is inborn, innate, and that these experiences are more about revealing to us who we really are, than about "shaping" some inert clay.

My own, fwiw: I must have been 7 or 8, messing around on my bike on the street outside Miller's Drugstore on summer afternoon, nobody around, and three things suddenly seemed to open in my awareness: (1) nobody in the world knew where I was or what I was doing at that moment--I was completely free in my solitude; (2) even when people were around, nobody really knew who I was or what I was doing in my head--that solitary freedom was something I always had available to me, inwardly; and (3) everybody else was like that too, little private worlds walking around, just as important to themselves as I was to me, and I would never really know them.

I mean, I didn't have that level of language available to me at the time to frame the concepts, but I still recall very vividly the *wham* of those awarenesses.

In retrospect, I think the really important thing about it was having the opportunity to actuallly be alone and unsupervised at that early age--mind you, this would have been maybe 1959 or 1960. I feel terrible for kids nowadays who (due to entirely understandable parental fears) never get the chance to simply take off on their own in the morning, and only come back for lunch and dinner. Having that freedom was a hugely important part of my own growing-up, and helped me figure out early on how crucial autonomy is to me.
posted by Kat Allison at 5:56 AM on February 5, 2005 [7 favorites]

The day I told my [bi-polar, OCD] mother I couldn't be her quasi-therapist anymore. I spent my entire childhood/teens taking care of her, and was constantly worried that some day my dad would get tired of dealing with her ups and downs and leave (he never left, but she ran away with some guy she met on the internet). Telling her it wasn't right for her to have put the burden of keeping her sane on me when I was just a kid was the first time I'd really done anything to take care of myself.

On a happier note, I remember my parents telling me that, while I wouldn't get everything I wanted all the time, they would always buy books for me. They kept that promise, and I'm sure I cost them a small fortune, but they supported my love of books.
posted by banjo_and_the_pork at 8:44 AM on February 5, 2005 [3 favorites]

When I was three, my mother told me for the first time, but certainly not the last time, that my father was abusive and that our family was dysfunctional. Obviously, I grew up with this ingrained into my self-perspective. We were dysfunctional. We were something to be ashamed of.

The thing is, my dad was never abusive to me. He was violent only once, when I was eight, and that was basically an accident. He certainly wasn't the monster that my mother made him out to be. I was twelve when I realized the contradiction, but by then a combination of my mom's constant disparaging of him and his constant absence from our home--his job had him on location sometimes nine months out of the year--had succeeded in terrifying me away from him. To this day, I still struggle to interact with my dad, or any other man, for that matter. So I resented my mom throughout my teenage years for ruining my relationship with my dad, and viewed her with contempt for staying in a marriage that she so obviously hated--but I was still afraid of my dad, so the whole family dynamic suffered. The prophecy had been self-fulfilled: we were definitely dysfunctional.

But. But, but, but. I was eighteen when I began to see the bigger picture. My mom was my dad's second wife, and before we were born she was the stepmother to his four children. And to them, he was abusive, due in no small part to his alcoholism. By the time he gave up drinking, his children were already in abusive relationships themselves, and addicted to various substances, and filled with hatred for both my parents. My mom blamed herself, and blamed my dad, and swore that things would be different with my sister and me. So she tried to start us out right--by telling us from the beginning, from when we were old enough to absorb it, that things in our family weren't normal or ideal and we deserved better. She did this with the best of intentions, because she loved us and was terrified that we'd be hurt the way her stepchildren were.

But I also realized that my dad was terrified of fucking up again, too, and that he himself believed what my mother said about him. Afraid of what he would do to us, he took jobs that kept him away from home, believing, I think, that it was better if he left things to my mom and avoided us. He was just as terrified of us as he was of himself--but his terror arose from love. The moment I knew he loved me was when he sent my sister and I an e-mail right after we went off to college with the subject, "empty nest," telling us how much the pets missed us. Classic dad moment. Other examples: letting it slip that he checks the weather in my freezing midwestern city daily (they're in California), sending a check wrapped in an 8x11 piece of typing paper that says "Love You, Dad" at the top and is completely blank otherwise. He's just struggling to do the best he can despite his demons, like all of us, just like my mother.

And so I am pretty successful, and will graduate from college soon, and I'm addicted to no substances, and although I have lingering resentment towards my parents for their mistakes, I forgive them, because the mistakes were made with the best of intentions. On the other hand, I feel that every triumph both thrills and hurts my dad--hurts him because the gap between my life and my half-siblings' lives grows wider, and he attributes it, I'm sure, to his absence and therefore lack of bad influence in my childhood.

Finally, I realized that my parents stayed together because...they love each other, in their crazy, messed-up, and, yes, dysfunctional way. And we're all struggling and fumbling around and none of us really know what we're doing, but we all want to love and be loved. I don't think anything has messed me up more, or given me a greater sense of empathy, than my relationship with my parents.
posted by granted at 10:37 AM on February 5, 2005 [35 favorites]

I really could have had a much better life if I'd known.

Interesting, five fresh fish, I have always had the same thought about mental illness. jeremias, I think it is important to pay attention to your child for signs of mental illness and seriously support them. My parents did not validate that sort of thing, mental illness', existence. That seems to have made a lot of people's lives in this thread harder.

u.n. owen, I just have to say that I understand you completely. I got out at 13. Lucky.

I have a couple of other experiences to add.

1. My Dad was always encouraging with travel. He took me to visit my family in New Zealand when I was 7. In that same trip we went to Hawaii. Ever since then I have adored travel. Further, with my parents' divorce, moving me back and forth on a weekly basis between homes, has irrevocably made me feel like a nomad. Being able to see the world while I was developing has separated me and my outlook on America from the 91% of Americans that don't have passports.

2. My childhood home is the home I still dream about to this day. Our backyard, our crabapple trees as they go through the seasons.
posted by scazza at 10:42 AM on February 5, 2005

I'm in awe of this thread. There is a library full of novels and short stories here, a whole literature of human experience. Thank you all.
posted by jokeefe at 10:59 AM on February 5, 2005

I was in highschool, it was during spring exam period. My mom had been going through chemo, and was staying with her sister. I came home earlier than usual and my dad’s car was in the driveway. It wasn’t unusual, since he worked nearby and would sometimes come home for lunch. I unlocked the door, came in, and yelled, “I’m home”.
My dad’s voice came from upstairs: “Who’s home!?”
“Me.” At this point I noticed a woman’s purse at the foot of the stairs. I heard footsteps upstairs. I went out into the backyard, realizing what was happening. I sat down in the flowerbed and started to pull out weeds.
To this day, gardening is my favourite way to eliminate stress.
That summer, my parents had some close friends over for dinner, and I saw the purse again. The exact same purse. My stomach turned, and I couldn’t believe that she thought she could get away with it. That made me realize that perhaps everyone else didn’t spend as much time as me thinking about the minutia of their lives. To her it was just a purse, but to me it was evidence.
About a year later, I finally told my mom what had happened. She confronted my dad, and he denied it. My parents called me into their room and asked me to tell them exactly what I saw. I did, and my dad’s only response was, “You don’t know what you saw, that never happened”. I couldn’t believe my dad thought it would be so easy to con me. That he had so little respect for me and thought he could get away with something like that. That whole year I had thought that I was somehow complicit in his infidelity by keeping the secret for him, and now I realized that he thought I was too stupid to realize what was going on. I lost more respect for my dad that day than I did when I found out he couldn’t keep it in his pants.
posted by nprigoda at 12:03 PM on February 5, 2005 [11 favorites]

My mother is bipolar (and/or schizoaffective, nobody is entirely clear on this point) and we both lived with my grandmother, who basically found herself stuck dealing with two moody, cranky, disagreeable teenagers. And like anything bipolar, our relationship has had really good highs and amazingly awful lows.

My mother cycled manic and needed to go to the hospital. I remember this was right after I'd started school (seventh grade?) because I had a brand-new binder full of dividers and folders to cover with graffiti logos of all the bands I liked. I was sat in the dining room, with all my books and things all over the table, coloring on a manila divider with a blue ballpoint pen.

My mother came into the dining room, pulled up a chair next to me, and sat down. "Did you hear they want me to go away?" she asked. "I don't want to go, I want to stay here and play with you." She sounded maybe five years old, pleading and scared. I told her that it was okay, I'd come see her, we could play when she got home, it wouldn't be for long. I didn't even wig out for a second, I just snapped into the mindset that let me soothe her and say it would be okay, even though I knew it wouldn't.

I don't remember how she got to the hospital that night or whether I was left alone at home while she was being taken in. I just remember realizing that some people had Parents--godlike creatures who were always bigger and better and smarter, who could move heaven and earth to get things done--and I didn't. I just had this easily broken person who needed me to tell her we were all right. That's also where I learned that I, as a person, am not too terrifically important, and if there's something bigger that I have to do, it has to happen no matter how much I'd rather hide under the bed and cry.

Another, happier one: my mother was (is, kind of, but the medications have removed so much of her memory) a photographer. She took her big heavy Nikkormat with her everywhere, and when I was small she rigged up a few cameras for me to use. These were little plastic point-and-shoots, Instamatics, things like that. We would go out walking the dog, and take our cameras, and I'd shoot stuff around the neighborhood.

My pictures were usually pretty intense closeups of the camera strap, nothing to really be pleased with. She'd sit me down after we got the prints back and tell me that this print used that technique, and maybe next time I should think of this or that rule when I shot. She never said anything to discourage me, and that's probably why photography is the one thing I know I can do that will make me feel better.

And not parent related: The first time I flew I was twenty years old. I'd never even been on a long car trip, since we couldn't afford vacations, and I was scared as hell. I downed some Dramamine, just in case, and tried to ignore all the horror stories I could remember.

When the plane cleared the clouds--maybe this was the Dramamine--I was overcome by the sight of the sun on the clouds. I put my music on and zoned out, staring out the window, feeling completely peaceful. That's when I realized travel was easy, if you only had the money to do it, and anywhere I might want to see was on the other side of the clouds. I still love flying, though I don't get to do it as much as I'd like. The CD I was playing (Afro-Celt Soundsystem) has come along on every flight I've taken since. I put that same song on as soon as I'm allowed, every single time, and spend a few minutes staring at the sky.
posted by cmyk at 1:12 PM on February 5, 2005 [4 favorites]

I was invited to my friend's birthday party in second or third grade. That was a big deal to me because I was shy and socially awkward and didn't have many friends. I made a few social gaffes at the party but nothing that I thought was beyond the pale and all in all I thought that a good time was had by all. The next day or a couple of days later, me, some of the people who went to the birthday party and the birthday girl were talking and the birthday girl says "Yeah, my mom says that you guys can come back, except for you, noyk. She says you aren't allowed back in our house anymore." I was so humiliated. That moment convinced me that love/support/validation/acceptance were all conditional upon me meeting someone else's standards of how I should behave and that the real me would never meet those standards. This had several different effects on me.

For one, it destroyed my self confidence and self esteem. If I got banned from someone's house then I must be a bad person. And if I acted in a way that got me banned from someone's house, and didn't even know that I was acting so badly then obviously my judgement is fundamentally flawed. Second, it made me horribly afraid of and completely withdraw from anything but superficial social interaction. Because no matter how friendly someone acted I knew that if they saw the real me it would only be a matter of time before I did something and they told me that "I can't come back to their house anymore." I've spent most of my life twisting myself into knots trying to behave how I think people want me to behave so that they will like me. I barely know who I am. And, 20 years later I've never had a close friend because I don't really trust anyone not to reject me for inadvertently breaking some behavior rule that I didn't even know about.

Also, I became numb. The only emotions I really allow myself to feel are fear and anger. And the only one I really express is anger. Because everything else is showing the real me and I know that the real me won't be accepted. And I'm angry at pretty much everybody for, in my view, not liking me for who I am and making me jump through all these damn hoops to get your fucking approval. And I don't allow myself to care about other people because why should I care about people who are just going to reject me for no good reason.

So, currently I'm all kinds of fucked up. But I've only recently realized all this and that my world view is skewed. I am starting to realize that it doesn't have to be this way. And this thread has given me a lot of perspective and hope. Seeing things other people have overcome lets me know that I too can triumph.
posted by nooneyouknow at 2:00 PM on February 5, 2005 [23 favorites]

My mother was the kindest, nicest, most generous and loving person I have ever met. She loved children. Adored them, and taught 4-8 year olds at school. She used to say that children at that age were sponges, ready to soak up all the knowledge you could give them. My mother got throat cancer and died, a long, slow, drawn-out passing three months before my son, her first grandchild, was born. Whatever else happens to me in life, that thought will keep me bitter at fate's decisions until I pass on.
posted by humuhumu at 2:18 PM on February 5, 2005 [1 favorite]

Now that I'm a bit more cogent I thought I would write more.

I had always been sort of a socially awkward kid, especially when I was in elementary school and the hell that is middle school.

One day, I think I'd started collage already my mom told me about how she used to observe the preschool I was in. When I started, there was this little black girl there who would always sit by herself, quiet, while all the other kids were all rambunctious and whatnot.

As the year progressed I became the same way (I'm half black). Apperantly I was singled out and suppressed by some racist preschool teacher (this would have been around '83-84 or so, I think). That suppression stayed with me my whole childhood. Whenever I was in a school environment I clammed up and it was hard for me to make friends. I never had any trouble making friends outside of school. And of course the other kids being mean to me made me feel more and more isolated.

After my mom told me this, it was huge. I had already socially adjusted by trying not to worry too much about what other people said, and it had worked pretty well (plus junior and senior year in high school people really mellowed out). But now I realized that there wasn't really anything inherently wrong with me, I'd just been conditioned to be that way. It made me feel a lot better.


Another life changing event. Learning about the Thyroid in my 8th grade biology class. It really struck me how poorly designed the thing seemed to be, and I decided that it couldn't have been designed by any super-intelligent being like a god. And if humans hadn't been created by god that pretty much threw the whole Christianity thing out the window. That's how I became an atheist.
posted by delmoi at 6:04 PM on February 5, 2005 [5 favorites]

I) My parents divorced when I was young and as a result the kids and teachers at my religious school treated me like trash. After telling my family for years that I hated that school my mom finally decided to let me change when she got tired of battling my psychosomatic sicknesses meant to keep me home sick. She had to go get my records from the principal. He refused to give them to her and called her a "psychotic slut" with an 11-year-old me standing right there.

My mouth fell open and my mom turned completely red. She asked me to go wait outside through lips pursed in fury. I backed out of the room and watched through the window as my mom grabbed my school principal by the tie and got inches from his face. (aside - Here's a quick visual picture of my mom on that day: Imagine a tall gorgeous blonde former bodybuilder in a tight dress. My principal could only be described as young, porky and smug.)

She said "listen here, you little shit. You are giving me those records and you are going to apologize for what you just said to me. You should be ashamed of yourself for what you just said in front of my child. You call yourself a man of God? Give me her records and I will never have to look at your shiteating pathetic face and neither will she." She grabbed my folders from his shaking hands and stormed out.

We got into the car and she sat there for a few minutes just shaking with rage. Then she turned to me with tears in her eyes and apologized for making me go to that place. She promised me that I would never have to go someplace I didn't want to go ever again.

This event made all the crazy stuff that I had to put up with from my mom totally worthwhile.

II) A great day: When I was 13 I was sitting and reading Lolita for the first time. I suddenly realized that all those people that stare at me when I am in public weren't staring because I was some sort of freak but because I was cute. It had never occurred to me before and it took a lot of getting used to (still not used to it) but it definitely changed my outlook on myself and other people for the better.
posted by tinamonster at 7:52 PM on February 5, 2005 [30 favorites]

jeremias, you said you were curious what sort of things "stick" with people. When I was about ten, the tv was away being repaired and my Dad played board games or took me and the dog for walks in the long summer evenings. They were the best two weeks of my life as a child and brought me even closer to a Father I already thought was the best thing on this earth. I'd wish that same closeness for you and your son.
posted by Tarrama at 11:57 PM on February 5, 2005 [6 favorites]

Hey, amazing thread, I started to cry more than once. Thank you all for being brave. Its hard to share. I just want everyone to know if there is any one else lonely and looking for a friend, I always have time to listen and write letters. Thanks again, metafilter-ers. Its hard to see something like courage a lot of the time.
posted by cascando at 3:50 PM on February 6, 2005 [1 favorite]

I want to contribute but I'm afraid what I'd have to say would just come off as banal and simple, because I'm banal and simple!

when I was very young, about 3 or 4 maybe, I spent a great deal of time watching television and I was struck by how predictable everything was. I started trying to guess what was going to be said next, or what was going to happen next, and I got very good at it. pretty soon, I noticed the same could be applied to the real world. when two people would meet, one would say, "how are you!" and they other would probably say something like, "I'm fine, how are you?" or if I coughed a certain number of times in a certain time span, whomever I was with would ask me if I had a cold. things like that, you know.

I lost interest in people as companions and started looking at them as somewhat complicated playthings. maybe playthings is the wrong word because I still respected their humanity, but not so much as people in the sense that I was a person. that doesn't sound right either! it's hard to explain, but I'd say I was more of a prankster than a manipulator. now as an adult, I find the idea of a subconscious terrifying. I don't like the notion I can be controlled and modified by advertising tricks and body language and all such as that without really knowing.

one incident that sticks out in my mind is one day when I was 9? 10? and I tried to convince my mother that I had experienced a magic day in the middle of the week without her and my father. I explained that I had woken up one wednesday and they were nowhere to be found and none of the televisions or radios worked. I pretty much had the whole day at home to myself and at the end of it I went to bed and woke up to wednesday again, only this time they were both there and the tv's and such worked. she was obviously really skeptical but I explained that I had talked to my friends about what happened and they said they had all experienced days like that. I totally had her going up until I tried to get her to believe that I had broken a lamp on the magic day and on the regular day it was repaired. after that, she began enrolling me in creative writing classes at local colleges over summer break.

there was a time when I was said to have a particular mental disorder, but one day I decided that I didn't have it anymore and undiagnosed myself. I've been generally real happy ever since.

it doesn't seem like that long ago that it began, but working at the library has made amazing personality changes happen to me. I learned the value of altruism and now I try my absolute hardest to put the needs of those around me ahead of my own, with mixed returns in the form of personal happiness. but I'm sure that something good is out there for me over the horizon.

oh, and I have a losing my religion story! I was in high school in the bible belt so naturally I was a christian, although not really a practicing one. I was hanging out with this one particular youth group at the time because a girl I liked was also a member. at one meeting, one of the other girls was describing a mission trip to thailand and made the comment, "and it was real hard because, you know, how do you tell someone their religion's wrong?" everyone else got a chuckle out of it, but I seriously considered the question. I realized that people were just whatever religion got to them first and that the whole mess was just sort of arbitrary and lame. I started to seriously scrutinize religious works and, being myths, they didn't hold up. (it's interesting that so many atheists here remember the day they had a falling out with the whole god thing! I thought I was the only one.)
posted by mcsweetie at 5:11 PM on February 6, 2005 [9 favorites]

When I was about three I got sucked out into the ocean by a rip at the beach. It was terrifying and to this day I freak in water. Added trauma at school was being forced to take swimming lessons. I would cry and scream but they still forced me to do it. Then I got smart and realised if I 'forgot' my bathers I couldn't swim. I think it made me devious.

When I was about twelve there were some serious neighbourhood bullies and they bailed up me and my buddy after school. I started acting crazy and eating the onion weeds. I turned them around by making them laugh. Then they kind of liked me, even if they did call me 'Onion-eater' for the rest of my school days. Humour is powerful stuff.

I guess I also learnt that I like to hide behind humour. Tears of a clown etc. Only recently I realised I have been sad for most of my life. I just started to see someone for this.

I also had a turntable and three 45s when I was about four. The 45s were 'Don't Go Breakin' My Heart' by Elton John and Kiki Dee, 'Money, Money, Money' by Abba and 'Mess of Blues' by Elvis Presley (actually the b-side to 'It's Now or Never' but I never played that side much. Result: music nut, in particular Rock 'n' Roll but most kinds really.

And such a good thread. I want to print it out and carry it with me always. To those with sad stories, my heart goes out to all of you. I'm sorry I got here so late but I'm really glad to have been able to say something here.

I got more but, y'know, brevity.
posted by bdave at 6:23 PM on February 6, 2005

My freshman year of college, I went on a Christian-oriented hiking trip in the Carolinas. I was raised Catholic and didn't not believe in God, but didn't quite believed in God. That trip opened my eyes to what God may be like in this world and enter my sophomore year of high school where God beat me upside the head and I've never been the same spiritually since. I know many here don't believe in God, but to me and others who believe, experiences like that are profoundly important to one's perspective on life.

Though not events per se, two important aspects are two females in my life. One was my first girlfriend back in my sophomore year in high school. I was still an introverted little depressed nothing (though I didn't realize the depressed part for a while) who never thought about anything except the next TV show to watch. I just lived life never stopping to realize what it is all about...She changed all of that and more best examplified by in the words of Meatloaf, "And she taught me everything I'll ever know about the mystery and the muscle of love."
Then, enter my Junior year of high school where I somehow became a personal therapist for a friend when she randomly blurted, "I tried to kill myself," while I was driving her home one evening. At the time, all I could respond with was, "Uh, I'm here for you talk to if you ever need anyone." Taught me more about people and how to associate with them than any other single person or event and still holds a special place in my heart that I still don't understand...to finish off the Meatloaf song, "I'll probably never know where she disappeared but I can see her rising up out of the back seat now just like an angel rising up from a tomb." Alas, I sometimes yearn for those days of having someone so close on an intellectual and spiritual level whom I could and did talk about with anything and everything and have become, in the words of a coworker, "A bitter sarcastic asshole." in the meantime.

Enter college, and by far the most important thing I ever learned was in an intro to philosophy class my freshman year. Raised Catholic and gone to Catholic school almost my entire life, I'd never really had a chance to "think outside the box." Though still a fairly devout Catholic, I tend to think outside the box of Catholicism a lot, probably too much for my own good sometimes. If anything, the class taught me there is in many cases, a perfectly valid world-view outside of one's dogma (be it based on religion or personal dogma) and that I can't reasonably expect someone else to believe the same thing I do.
posted by jmd82 at 11:29 PM on February 6, 2005 [2 favorites]

3. I remember in grade four, the father of a boy in my class died in a plane crash. Every since, I've been trying to memorize my father--every moment I'm with him, every time we hug. Since I was 9, I've lived with the constant fear of his death, and I tend to cry every time he says something really touching to me, because it seems to feel like "goodbye".

4. I remember how proud I felt when I realized that I was okay with my sister being a lesbian--that I was glad she was happy. I wasn't able to accept this until half way through highschool.

5. In grade six, I realized how majorly uncool I was when the kids in my gym class fought over who had to sit beside me. I ran out of school crying. For a long time (until I got into theatre in high school), I believed the people who were nice to me were doing it out of pity.

[this is so lovely...some of these memories you've all shared have brought back so many moments for me, and others have made me so grateful for my life]
posted by stray at 12:32 AM on February 7, 2005

I am reading Anne Lamott right now. She says, "Who was it who said that forgiveness is giving up all hope of having a different past?" This thread is beautiful. Thank you to everyone who has shared their past. Some have more to forgive than others. We all have pain. I guess that is what binds us all together as humans.
My story falls somewhere in the middle of everyone. I'm so blooming narcissistic that I hate to get started. Suffice it to say, I have a very domineering father, some parts good, some parts bad.
I am mostly overwhelmed with that fact that I am raising five kids and what am I handing down to them? I did tell all of them yesterday how awesome they are and how much I love them.
posted by davenportmom at 6:56 AM on February 7, 2005 [5 favorites]

a quick one: the first time I heard, "What a Wonderful World" by Louis Armstrong all the way through by myself. what an impossibly gorgeous piece of music. it is my belief that allah made microphones for the explicit purpose of recording this song.

and a mid-length one:
posted by mcsweetie at 8:33 AM on February 7, 2005 [1 favorite]

er I opted not to tell the mid-length one!
posted by mcsweetie at 8:39 AM on February 7, 2005

Wonderful thread with many touching stories. My contribution is quite tame, but it illustrates that a small event can have a profound effect on a developing personality.
Here goes: I was a chatterbox from the day I learned to talk and while my parents would occasionally tell me to be quiet, for the most part I babbled away freely. "Chatterbox" does not necessarily = "airhead" - I considered my chatter more interesting and content-rich than the stuff I heard from my classmates, and I assumed that if someone appeared to be listening (i.e., not telling me to be quiet), they found it interesting too.
One day when I was about 14 we were taking a family car trip and I was babbling away in the back seat, when my parents interrupted to discuss some navigation issue. Fine, no problem. I waited for them to finish their discussion and ask me to continue. But no one did!
I went into a long silence (outwardly manifested as an adolescent sulk) while I dealt with the crushing realization that my own parents, who had the greatest vested interest in me of anyone on this planet, weren't paying any attention to my babble. So I wasn't really interesting and content-rich, I was just background noise. And therefore everybody else in the world must find me even less worthwhile ... It was a staggering blow to a shaky adolescent ego.
From that day onward I tried to put a lid on my babbling, letting others do most of the talking. I want to think of myself as a high signal-to-noise-ratio person, and the easiest way to do that is to cut down the noise.
My inner chatterbox is still alive and kicking, though, and in private it bursts forth. When Hubby asks "How was your day?" the torrent of chatter gushes out until I stop and ask guiltily "Am I just babbling?"
So that's an example of how a small event, literally a non-event, can completely reverse someone's public persona, turning a chatterbox into a, well, quiet gal.
posted by Quietgal at 9:14 AM on February 7, 2005 [3 favorites]

Seems like as good a place as any for a first post, so here goes.

I was a shy bookworm all my life. Good girl, good values, good grades, etc. After college I realized I had no idea what I wanted to do next. I decided to work and save money to travel, though I was mostly just killing time. I ended up travelling around the world for 9 months, and came back drastically changed. I had clarity, self-confidence, a more relaxed attitude towards my future, and for the first time really thought I was attractive, inside and out. I guess I had never realized how self-sufficient I was. When your life goes smoothly, you never know what you can handle. But after fending for myself in 10 countries in the Middle East and South Asia, I felt like I could handle anything.
posted by yentruoc at 9:34 AM on February 7, 2005 [4 favorites]

Being sexually abused by an adult male relative who was in his 40s from the time i was 10 till i got pregnant at 13. Finally having to tell my mother who turned around and blamed me and beat the crap out of me. My brother taking me for an abortion when i was 5 months gone and leaving me at the clinic all by myself.
Remembering every single minute of the abortion i was awake for the procedure although sedated. Remembering the doctor stick a huge needle in my belly to kill the fetus and then inducing the fetus with some medication that caused me to go into labor, having to push a bloody blob out.
Being wheeled out of the seedy dirty OR into an equally seedy dirty recovery room. Not having anyone come pick me up from the clinic and having to beg a nurse for some money for a cab.
Going home and being whipped to within an inch of my life by my mother for bringing disgrace onto my family. Remebering locking myself in a room and drinking expired blood tonic coz i wanted to kill myself but it didn't work coz all i did was throw up all over the floor. ....anyway...at 13 i realized that basically i could never depend on anyone but myself for protection.
I've made lots of mistakes in my life since then, and i'm still working through trust issues because of that episode in my life, 17 years later...but that for sure is when i was forced to grow up and rely on myself.
posted by ramix at 11:37 AM on February 7, 2005 [5 favorites]

I was eight when my father died. He had been the commander of a large Army base in Africa, with some 5,000 soldiers and many civilians under him. My parents were constantly occupied with diplomatic affairs and dinner parties and military protocol, and I hardly saw them. Our family was also run like a military family, ala "The Great Santini" but without the male-on-male shaming; we were regimented, and we were expected to behave like little ladies and gentlemen no matter what.

When we still lived on the base, before my dad got sick, I would lord it over the other kids - I knew and they knew whose dad was boss. I was outgoing and adventurous and thought I could do whatever I wanted, even haranguing the M.P.'s into letting me off base on my bicycle: "You have to do what I say - my dad runs this place." I was definitely the ringleader, one of those kids who lays down the law for everyone else.

Then my dad fell ill, was in the hospital for a year and finally died. We had been back in the States for about a year. After that everything changed for me. It was just my mother and myself in the house (my siblings all being older), and so I was suddenly both fatherless and an only child. My personality changed completely from outgoing and social to introverted and bookish. My greatest pleasure was to stay in my room with my books and my notepads and my journals, making lists of names and writing stories and pretending to hold seances and otherworldly rituals.

I guess I've been like that ever since. I can't imagine being any other way now.
posted by melixxa600 at 12:26 PM on February 7, 2005 [3 favorites]

I blame my father(s) for all the reasons that I'm a headcase when it comes to relationships to this day.

My biological father, whom I haven't seen in close to 25 years, decided that weekend visitation wasn't good enough for him and crossed the country with a frightened almost 3-year old me, explaining that we had to leave because my mother didn't love me anymore, a story that was later changed to her being dead at some point over the 9 months he kept me.

My mother's 2nd husband, the man I've always considered to be my father, always seemed distant to me, even more so after my sister was born. When he wasn't at work, he was working on some sort of project - his racecar, his boat, fishing tournaments, hunting trips, etc - he was criticizing my mother and me. Over 7 years I watched as my mother's depression deepened while he berated her for some sort of offence. I was criticized for being a bookworm and being chunkier than many of the girls in my class. I developed trichotillomania in 5th grade, hiding the bald spots with cleverly placed headbands, and I remember when my parents found out, my father had my mother throw out all the hairbrushes and refused to touch my head out of fear he'd catch it, even though the doctor had explained what it was. They split up the year later, agreeing to a trial separation, my mother hoping they'd eventually get back together. For the next 6 years I fielded daily phone calls from a mystery woman who called our house like clockwork every afternoon and only gave her name once. One day my father introduced my sister and I to his girlfriend and I recognized her voice. I confronted my father with the belief that they'd known each other longer than he told us he did, which he denies to this day, even though my sister and I have found pictures of the two of them together in the early months after he and Mom separated.
posted by chickygrrl at 1:01 PM on February 7, 2005

1. In third grade, I left my name off a vocabulary word assignment and so did another student. Our teacher asked us to come to her desk and tell her some of the names used in the sentences. I had used some pretty unusual names -- Mario is one I recall (this was pre-Nintendo)-- and was confident that I could prove it was mine. But the teacher left the paper in clear sight on her desk, and asked the other student first. She read the names off my paper, thereby claiming it as hers, and I got in trouble for not doing the assignment. Thus began my problems with doing homework, which continued into high school.

2. We moved to a new town when I was 10, and I was bullied on the bus from 4th through 7th grades by two kids in the grade above me, one of whom was my friend during the summers. I was miserable. Finally, as we got on the bus one day in 7th grade, I pushed back hard when one of the bullies pushed me. We got into a brief scuffle before the bus driver yelled at us, but my point was made: I wouldn't take it anymore. And I never had to. Since then I've never given in to bullies.

3. In 7th grade history, middle of Roman history. My teacher was talking bout how the Roman gods replaced the Greek gods. He went on to say something about how those gods were simply used to explain the unexplainable in the world, and were eventually abandoned as monotheism caught on -- implying that we monotheists had gotten it right. Right there in class, I got to thinking: If the Greeks thought they were right about the nature of the gods, and the Romans did, too, after them, and we now know that they were wrong and we were right, who's to say that some future culture wouldn't replace our God with their own? The whole concept of religion fell apart for me right then.
posted by me3dia at 3:15 PM on February 7, 2005 [2 favorites]

First time poster, long time lurker and admirer. But this thread beats them *all*.

When I was little, my smiling, caring, grown-up, reliable mum suddenly had to go to hospital in the south of England. She would be away for three whole weeks. My dad had to take her all the way over there, and I was at school so I couldn't go. They left on a Sunday evening, saying goodbye when I was in the bath, and I heard the front door close, and sat alone wailing, knowing nobody would come to me, and the water got cold. I didn't feel left. I felt caring for her, and completely alone.

When I was 12, we'd all climbed the hill of her more obvious illness and, compared to that bath-time, I felt very strong. But she was going to die and although I didn't understand, I knew I didn't want it to happen at all. It seemed dangerous. And I felt embarrassed, got that tunnel-vision of my feet, held her hand and said "Promise not to die."

And that wonderful, weak, human woman, who got wrongly angry at me so many times for so many things, didn't even stop her calming smile. She said "I'll promise, now. But we can't always keep our promises."

A few weeks later, she simply didn't exist.

Two years ago I woke up in London, newly at home there, a young man with a boyfriend and hair under my arms and an easy smile and a job and everything. Over me was a patchwork quilt she'd made. I realised that and cried. I just have a sense of wonder about things.
posted by paperpete at 3:41 AM on February 8, 2005 [28 favorites]

Four moments:

In fourth grade, David Kazyne (I remember the sound of his last name, but not the spelling), who was two years older, kept taunting me on the playground. I was tossing a tennis ball against a backstop, and he kept taking it from me. After demanding he give it back, I punched him in the side of the head. In retrospect, it was an awful punch, completely lame, but he went down. I knocked a bigger, older kid to his knees. I got sent to the Principal's Office, explained my side, was told that, next time, I should get an adult, and was sent back to class. Later that night, David's father called to give my parents the business about me attacking his kid. Mom told him off and said she was proud her son stood up to an older, bigger bully. He never bothered me again.

In fifth grade, I got my first journal. Most of what I wrote was self-indulgent and pompous, but I knew that writing made me feel good and that I was good at it. Twenty-two years later, I write every day and keep getting rejection slips, but I still write.

Junior year of college, my girlfriend cheated on me, I transferred schools, and my maternal grandmother died, all in the span of days. I didn't go to the funeral because I was too busy trying to save the relationship's wreckage. Never again. Family comes first.

Last, two years ago, I was laid off. After seven years of making video games and hating most of it, I was free and swore never, never again, not even for a mountain of cash and all the fish tacos in the world. It's been a lean two years, but I get to see my wife and get to write. And get paid by the hour. That part's nice.
posted by RakDaddy at 4:35 PM on February 8, 2005 [2 favorites]

4th grade, rainy day, this really mean kid at my school bus stop put worms in the lunch box of me and my sister. I don't remember the kid getting in trouble, but I do remember my mom seeming really ashamed that her kids were losers.

18 years old (not really childhood, but still identity-forming youth), I experienced my first serious incident of sexual harrassment by my boss at a summer job. I told my parents, and they told me to grow up and realise that that was how the world works and not to be such a baby.

Multiple times over the course of my life, I've gotten sick (just colds or flus, things like that), and been told that its my fault for not going to bed earlier/getting more exercise/etc. Never once has my parents' first reaction to an illness been sympathy.

I have absolutely no faith in my parents to stand by and support me anymore.

On the other hand: I switched high schools, mostly to help myself break the self-destructive habits that were causing me to almost flunk out of school. The first assignment I handed in to my new school came back with a b+ and the comment "this is low for you". It was wonderful to have positive assumptions made about me for the first time. I graduated with the 11th highest grades in the entire high school.
posted by Kololo at 1:58 AM on February 10, 2005 [6 favorites]

Excellent thread, thanks to Matt for pointing it out and to all the people who are partecipating.

As for me, I distinctly remember the following

1. a group of kids harrassing me in the kindergarten, making it kind of an hell for me

2. the day I got my first LEGO and the day I got my first pc..that's 25 years ago I guess

3. the day I realized an high school teacher of mine was traumatizing me (and I later discovered, my entire class) by exposing all our weakness and insecurities to please her sense of domination and control..belittiling us and using scare tactiques to obtain our conformance. I exposed her, belittle her and spearheaded the sense of rebellion that later awake in the class. I paid heavy consequences (bad bad grades, indexed as a troublemaker and a danger to normal "kids") but I would do the same today.

4. the day an american stripper girl introduced me to "practical" psycology by showing me how she helped me overcome a sexual insecurity of mine. An hearthfelt thank you to her.

Additionally, some words of poetry by Pietro Metastasio, an italian artist, that I'll attempt to translate for you ...as it seems they somehow fit in this thread (original italian text here

If only it was written
on every one forehead
of each one about their own invisible sufferings
how many that are envied
would move us

We would see that they harbor
their own enemies
and that their happines is reduced
to appear happy to us.

posted by elpapacito at 4:36 PM on February 10, 2005 [14 favorites]

When I was about 10, I used to run home every day anticipating that my father would be waiting at the door for somebody to let him in. The last time I saw him a year before when he came to say goodby, his unit in the labor camp was to be shipped out the next day to do some work somewhere farther away. I was busy playing with some kids, and didn't pay much attention to him. After the war, people began to return home, one could see every day people in rags tracking onward like lost dogs. I prayed every night before going to bed, begging for his safe return, for his strong hands to hold mine. The day I changed was when one of his mates who got back came to visit and told us, my mother, my baby sister, and myself, how he was killed in a faraway place called Buchenwald, punished because he requested to be put in the same work team with his friends. My sweet, gentle, and funny father was hung naked in the dead of winter by his hand behind him until he died. That day I stopped praying. I became a realist, I learned that things were real when I was most deserted, and I lost my appetite to struggle to impress. I became a clown, a succesful comedian. The friends who raised me were War and Peace, The Magic Mountain, Man Without Qualities, and plays, comedies, providing me with environment and characters whose existence gave me life, and a sense of optimism in my self sufficiency, that I am what I am, and that's enough for my life.

And I'm writing this because it was on this day 60 years ago that my father was killed.
posted by semmi at 6:48 PM on February 11, 2005 [48 favorites]

Around 11 years old, alone looking up at the stars, realizing not just how many other worlds exist, but that I too am on one of the worlds; I exist. No matter how many are above, I am a part of this; I am one.
posted by uni verse at 9:41 PM on February 12, 2005

I was probably 14 or 15, and I was having one of those "when I'm a millionaire, I'm going to buy you a house on the beach" conversations with my mom. My dad walked in, listened for a minute, and said something to the effect of, "You don't have the motivation to ever become a millionaire. You're going to go through life doing just enough to make ends meet, because you're too lazy to do otherwise."

I left the room without saying anything, but I wish I had. 12 years later, it still haunts me. Even though I'm headed in the right direction for me, I always feel like I'm not doing enough, and I constantly beat myself up for being "lazy" and "unmotivated."
posted by AlisonM at 6:36 AM on February 13, 2005 [3 favorites]

1) learning to read when i was three years old. the book was Flutterby, about a flying horse. everyone around me was amazed that i was reading and i realized that i possessed something special. today i'm a writer and a hoarder of books.

2) i was probably about 5 years old when someone told me that the sun would burn out one day and all life on earth would no longer exist. no horror movie ever scared me as much as this stark reality. i became afraid of death. to this day i can look up into the night sky and completely freak myself out thinking about it. i'm still not accepting of the fact that i'll die one day.
posted by aieou at 10:02 AM on February 13, 2005

I actually remember my "I'll die one day" moment, too. I was 7, nearly 8, living in London with my family for a year. It was Boxing Day, and so we drove outside London with some family friends to a village for a lunch at a country pub, and a walk around. During that walk, we came to a small, old cemetery, and I saw a headstone for a girl who had died centuries earlier. She had my first name and we shared a birthday, and I realized with a shock that if there had been another Sara out there, and she was born on February 15, and she died, then so would I one day.

In a somewhat similar vein that same year in London, I remember watching the summer Olympics (especially Nadia Comenici) and suddenly realizing what a total random crapshoot it was that I had been born in America, and therefore my reflexive rooting for the American athletes was totally absurd. I realized that I could just as easily have been born in Russia or Romania or Senegal or whatever -- I could have been male or female, black or white, rich or poor.

Politically, any sense of nascent patriotism just drained from me at that moment; as much as I missed my home in America (particularly my grandparents and my dog!), I suddenly rejected any sense of superiority simply by virtue of being an American. Accordingly, I became immediately suspicious of nationalism/patriotism and the authority figures that espouse such things as virtues. Personally, that moment also marked an increase in my ability to empathize, as well as to accept the legitimacy of different people having different perspectives.

Two others:

Around 1983 (age 14): I did a lot of local children's theater as a kid, and had just been cast as an extra in a made-for-TV-movie that was slated to be filmed in my hometown (it never actually got made). During our first appointment for costume fittings, etc. the makeup director approached me and made a big deal out of how I was the "perfect example" of something she had just been talking about to one of her assistants. She called over her assistant and proceeded to verbally dissect my face -- I (and everyone around me) was informed that "this girl" had an "unusually homely profile problem," and it would take "extra work" with makeup and lighting to "give the illusion" that I was "normal-looking." I quit acting very soon thereafter.

For 20 years and as a direct result, I have been exceedingly self-conscious of my appearance and have always felt, deep down, ugly and inadequate. As it turned out, it was actually an underlying jaw misalignment that my first go-around with braces didn't correct (and which also contributed to a lifetime of headaches, dental problems, and chewing problems), which is why I've been in braces for the past 1-1/2 years and, finally, had jaw surgery to correct my bite in December. I often wonder -- but try not to regret -- how different my life might have been had I not been so terribly insecure about my looks had that woman not spoken so callously and cruelly about a young teenage girl sitting right in front of her. (On the plus side, I think it made me develop my intellect and sense of humor more.)

Last one: Watching a pre-MTV show on cable around 1980 (I think it was called "Video Concert Hall") and seeing the video for "I Got You" by Split Enz. Culturally, it was kind of a "Saul on the Road to Damascus" moment. I froze -- I don't think I blinked through the entire blissful three minutes. I had never seen or heard anything quite like it, but I knew that I loved it. (The other videos that made a big impression around this time were "Cars" and "Down in the Park" by Gary Numan and "Ashes to Ashes" by David Bowie.) Thus was a lifetime of devotion to alternative music born, and -- more broadly -- a willingness to be seen as different.
posted by scody at 7:08 PM on February 13, 2005 [3 favorites]

sexually abused at age 16...turned me into a weird kid.

being at a math and science magnet school where i lived with 150 girls and the 150 guys were inna dorm across the way forced me to make friends with the people i was around 24/7 and i was able to become not so weird, and more interesting to know.
posted by nile_red at 11:20 PM on February 13, 2005

In elementary school my brother was struck on his bike by a fast-moving car in our alley. My mom and I were in the kitchen, heard the screeching tires and immediately knew something was wrong. My brother came out of surgery with a torn up leg (which healed fine) and a head injury.

In junior high I was an overachiever. I was, and still am, extremely competitive and compared myself to everyone else in everything I did. My brother was never as good at sports as I was, never was as smart as I was and I always took the opportunity to shove that right in his face. Not until my freshman year, when my parents, in tears, called me out on it, did I know what kind of an impact my insults had had on him. They told me that after he had been hit by the car, his entire personality had changed and that my belittling him had negatively contributed to his development and self-esteem. They asked me why I always was trying to break him down (definitely stems from a raging inferiority complex I developed somewhere along the line) and asked me if I loved him. They told me that when I left for college, he cried and cried because he was 'losing his big brother'.

This statement absolutely shook me to the core and marked the first time that I truly, honestly realized what a self-centered bastard I was. It ultimately helped me to step back and regain control of a life which had quickly started to spin out of control at college. Since then my brother and I have become close friends and know that the other is the one person we could trust with anything at anytime.
posted by catatonic at 12:20 AM on February 14, 2005 [19 favorites]


While the first 18 years of my life have been at least as interesting as the next person's, if not moreso, I don't look back upon any of the bizzare happenings of my childhood and say:
"Damn, this one event in my childhood sure is the core of my identity!"

I wonder if I could say the same if things turned out more normatively 'traumatizing', but I like to think I'd still come to the same conclusion. Last quarter I wrote a series of papers for a class called "What are children for?" on this subject. I came to the conclusion that memory is what you make of it, and that it's probably best to not make make much of it at all, besides disconnected anecdotes.

I think some of the previous posters 'get it,' the idea that shit happened

"...It was said that it happened to happen, and was not very likely to happen again."
-Theodore Seuss Geisel
posted by blasdelf at 4:46 AM on February 14, 2005 [5 favorites]

When I was 9 years old, my grandmother bought my cousins a trampoline for christmas. She bought my little brother and I a Texas Instruments TI-99/4A home computer.

22 years later, I'm making almost six figures a year "doing computers" and computer-related stuff for a living, and have been doing so as a "career" since 1995.
posted by mrbill at 6:35 AM on February 14, 2005

As a child, I was around 5 or so. I remember asking my mother why I was supposed to play with trucks and stuff. My mother was virutally a single mother back then, in small valley Sweden, my father was away from home for months at a time on his fishing boat. My mother had no comment.
When I was eight, I overheard my grandmother and mother talking about me and about some of the problems that I might be facing in the future with reference to some unamed health issue. She kept referring to the doctor said this and the doctor said that. Finally, at 12, I started to develop breasts and have awful cramps in my lower gut, this was highly unusual and awful because I was a boy(?). Finally, after visiting the hospital due to severe cramping and fainting, one of the nurses said to me that after talking with the doctor from my little part of Sweden, that another specialist would be talking with me shortly. I was told that when I was born I had ambiguous genital development and was diagnosed with PAIS and that I was actually a girl. Anyways, after several surgeries and stopping all medications, I normalized into a girl again, by 15 I was just normal, but by this time we had emigrated because my mother had left my father and taken all of her 6 kids to Britain. The true 'moment' came when I overheard that conversation, then I knew, in my heart, that I wasn't crying all the time and self-loathing for nothing!!!
posted by svenskjenta at 10:57 AM on February 14, 2005 [4 favorites]

PAIS is Partial Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome and here is the link:

posted by svenskjenta at 11:00 AM on February 14, 2005

Wow, so many great stories here. Like many here, I'm a graduate of the School of Hard Knocks (although I wasn't in the "Honors Class" like some of you).

Bad stuff:

Accidental sterilization at eight weeks of age due to botched hernia operation. Actually a good thing, more on this later.

Being told until I was 10 that my brother and sister's father was also my own to spare me (or, more like likely, them) the embarrassment being the bastard spawn of a post-divorce fling.

First grade:
Everyone is making pictures of snow men out of construction paper and paste. I am going to town, even fashioning my snow man a pair of sun glasses. A total DeKooning-esque mess, but I am loving my very first of many trips to "the zone" as an artist. Minutes later, Mrs. Queen gathers the entire class around my desk, using me as an example of how NOT to make art.

In third grade, recess, cornering one of the few kids dorkier than me and shoving him into the corner of a chain link fence repeatedly. Not hard, but I wouldn't let him go for a few minutes. Rest of day spent in deep burning shame. Why did I do that? Never did it again. I loathe bullies.

Good stuff:

Despite my terrible performance in school, at home I received constant encouragement in my drawing, which I have loved since being able to hold a pencil. I now make a nice living this way.

Sitting next to a vastly superior illustrator in high school made me get serious about my work, and taught me the very valuable lesson that, no matter how good you are, there is always someone better at it than you.

My aunt Pat, who raised me, loves to laugh and is a master of humor as a survival strategy. I'm considered very funny and quick on the draw about it too, largely because of her influence.

My own son, now five, has had a profound influence on my entire outlook, and my sense of my own history. He knows: that he is very much wanted, his history (donor DNA), and that, given the chance, that I wouldn't ever "fix" my sterilization. He is wonderful. I wake up every morning feeling like a lottery winner thanks to my family. Breaking the cycle feels great.

Sorry for going on so long, and thanks for the opportunity to participate in this terrific thread.
posted by Scoo at 11:09 AM on February 14, 2005 [2 favorites]


I was just thinking about what 'defining' moment I might have had. It was when my parents bought us a ti99/4a. I really liked the games, but then they bought us the BASIC cartridge and the cassette tape player so I could write programs (I was probably 7 or 8).

I studied molecular biology in school but wanted to program instead so now I'm a software engineer with a decent salary too.

I just wanted to say, yes, the TI99/4A was badass and started me down the road I am on now. Plus I really liked parsec and hunt the wumpus.
posted by kookywon at 1:03 PM on February 14, 2005

When I was in pre-kindergarten, I was at a drinking fountain, and the water came out too fast, with too much velocity. Got water all over myself. Kids were laughing at me, and I started to cry.

My teacher said, "They're not laughing at you, they're laughing -with- you."

Naturally, I didn't listen to a word of it. But I think that single moment contributed a lot to how I am now. For better and for worse.
posted by zerolives at 1:35 PM on February 14, 2005

1st grade: Teacher asked us all to say the ABCs without singing the song. I was the class spelling bee champ, so I knew it would be a piece of cake. Got to me and I started singing the alphabet song without realizing it. She stopped me to reiterate the rule. Then I found out, in front of class, that I had to struggle saying the ABCs without the song. Crushed and, I believe, stunted the growth of my male pride.
posted by cl at 1:41 PM on February 14, 2005

August 1, 1981. Midnight. MTV aired for the first time. It was my Elvis-on-Sullivan/Rock 'n' Roll on Armed Forces moment.

Most of my childhood has been clouded in a half-forgotten fog. However, my (unsuccessful, violent) musician father showed me the power of music--and ineffectual checked-out mom--showed me the comfort of evasion. I spent most of my teens running away to the basements and couches of friends' homes. One of these refuges had cable TV, at the right moment. I was hooked. MTV became my destiny. Eventually, I worked there for 15 years, until they canned me last February.

Only now, have I learned that the escapism that defined me for 23 years had left me stunted, lacking self-esteem, with few personal attachments, addictive, mentally ill, fat and bitter.

One year later, thanks surprisingly to my termination, on the road to being a better me.
posted by Duck_Lips at 2:02 PM on February 14, 2005

last year i met by chance/serendipity/fate, the most brilliant, talented, kind, and beautiful girl i have ever known. my soulmate.

i then found out, piece by heartbreaking piece as she revealed herself to me, about her life, which up until that point had consisted many of the most sickening and inhuman things mentioned so far in this thread, stretching back as far as she could remember. and i was unable, due to complicated circumstances (and perhaps even luckily in hindsight) to intervene. and i had to watch as she was hurt again and again, to the point of seriously trying to take her own life. again.

i think i had perhaps, over the years, forgotten how to weep, but oh i remembered how to then.

and then i taught her as best i knew how to change her life. how to be strong in the face of insurmountable difficulties i had never myself experienced. how to purge herself of the monsters in her head. how not to give up. what love meant. how to love. how to be loved.

i learnt i've led a very sheltered and blessed existence. and i learnt to love, perhaps unconditionally, and also to forgive, because eventually these are the only options left open to us.

it's changed my life in more ways than i could ever hope to describe. i feel intensely alive again. sensitive. vulnerable. open to both joy and sorrow.

and this thread has again reminded me of the resilience and beauty we all have within us. thank you all so much for sharing.
posted by soi-disant at 5:06 PM on February 14, 2005 [5 favorites]

In my 4th grade class, Mrs. Zuelke had "official positions" for a number of students in the class, such as homework collector, chalkboard eraser, etc. These changed on a regular basis, probably monthly. At the appointed time, everyone would write down which position they wanted and why they should get it. Being the arrogant little bastard I was, my reason was simply "I'm smart." Up until that point, I never really considered how what I said would make other people feel. After reading this, Mrs. Zuelke pulled me aside and chided me telling me "All my kids are smart." In retrospect, it was a pretty inane exchange, but it has always stuck with me. That moment has probably singlehandedly made much more tolerable.
posted by recursive at 8:43 PM on February 14, 2005 [2 favorites]

This is my first post. Sorry it is long.

When I was 5, and got so mad at my sister that I intentionally hit her toes with a hoe, nearly cutting off one of them.

When I was 7, the first time I didn't cry as my step-father hit me with his belt.

When I was 8, and he beat my dog with its leash (which it was also attached to) for pissing on the floor after begging to be let out and being ignored.

When I was 9, and my new principal, who was disappointed in my suddenly poor grades, had me paddled. I had just moved to live with my grandmother while my mom tried to get on her feet after leaving my step-father.

When I learned that the same man had molested my sister and hooked my mother on cocaine.

When I was 11, and beat the snot out of a bully and his friend.

When I was 12, and had my first real friend.

Later that year, when my father brought home a second-hand Apple ][e.

When I was 13, and met what seemed like an entirely good person.

When I was 16, and had my first real kiss and head.

Later that year, when I learned that my girlfiend had been gang-raped at a party my mom made me not go to. My sister said she'd kind of asked for it, and my girlfriend begged me not to do anything, because it'd just end bad for me.

When I was 17, and nearly stabbed a person in rage when he and 15 of my friends took a practical joke way too far.

That same night, as I walked to clear my head, when I found a cat with a broken back at the side of the highway. It was right in front of a vet's office, and was trying to crawl away from me. It was 1 AM, and the vets office was closed. It was going to die. I helped it die quicker. My hands cramped with the strain, and I cried in frustration.

When I graduated, but didn't know what was next.

In 1995, when I first used the web and thought it wasn't half-bad for pictures of Pam Anderson, even if they were a bit grainy.

About six months later, when I figured out that the web was a pretty amazing thing, useful for much more than soft porn.

When I was nearly fired from my first real job, the one you can't screw up without seriously fucking your future, on charges of sexual harassment. I had innocently said that a woman's dress was pretty.

When another woman at the same job, whom was dating my boss, repeatedly came on to me, in one case lifting her skirt as she sat across the way, revealing a lack of underwear. It went downhill from there.

When I was 19, and slapped the shit out of my wife, who was taking a dangerous amount of drugs and wouldn't be reasoned with.

When we divorced and, after drinking and smoking myself into a stupor for months, I decided that it was a silly way to live.

When I was 22, and realized that life is about much more than what you have and where you've been.

When I realized that the worse things are, the easier it is to do something important and good.

When I decided that given the ridiculous wealth and comfort I live and have lived in, I owed quite a lot to the rest of the world.

Today, when I made my mom's day just by calling her, and my wife's by giving her a poorly drawn rose on notebook paper.
posted by jdunck at 8:52 PM on February 14, 2005 [16 favorites]

I had a lot of candidates in mind, but for the top spot there is no competition. When I started having epileptic seizures in the 3rd grade, I had no idea what a seizure was. I only had them in solitude, and my descriptions were bizarre at best. Until I had one in gym class two years later, no one could explain what was happening to me.

When people say having a seizure is like a religious experience, they're not far off. Each seizure was an ecstatic and terrifying experience. There is no way to describe it. I couldn't figure out if I was time travelling, being contacted by aliens, experiencing heaven or hell, or going crazy, or all of the above. (Can you tell I was a sci-fi kid?) Each time I left I was convinced I was dying, and when I did live, I was sure the next one would be my last.

This happened at least once a month. It was a lot to deal with as a 3rd grader, especially alone. The way I looked at everything completely changed. Even the diagnosis and treatment had a huge impact on me. My epilepsy is completely controlled by a drug with little to no side effects (Tegretol). Contemplating what daily life must be like for people not as lucky as myself taught me humility and gratitude.

If not that, then my first comic book.
posted by samh23 at 11:19 PM on February 14, 2005 [1 favorite]

What a truly amazing thread.

One of my first memories is the pain of having my leg broken in 2 places, when I was about 3. I was at a block party on the block I lived on in Milwaukee. The street was closed to traffic, so I decided it would be a perfect opportunity to cross the street without looking (since I was aware that, under normal circumstances, looking both ways was mandatory). Unfortunately, older neighborhood kids were having a bike race at the precise moment I stepped out into the street. They didn't see me, and I got tangled up in one of them (and was lucky not to get hurt worse).

I was too small for crutches and had to wheel around in a tiny wheelchair for an indeterminate amount of time. I remember the anxiety I felt when the doctor took the buzzsaw to the plaster cast, and the strangeness of seeing my pale leg again.

I healed. The experience may have made me a lot more careful about following rules and doing what was expected of me, however. I lived my first 24 years in a relatively risk-averse fashion; I wonder now, having read this thread, how much that one experience affected me.

(In the last 6 years, I've consciously done several things to attempt to get over my ingrained impulse to play it safe. For example, I quit my job and moved to another state with a minimum of planning... two separate times in three years. Doing so, I have had a wider range of experiences than I otherwise would have, and I've loosened up a lot; even so, I could let go even more and perhaps be happier.)

Overall, though, I too feel very lucky to have the life I have in the place I am. I'll echo thanks to everyone for opening yourselves up, because your stories have helped illustrate to me our remarkable resilience as human beings.
posted by gohlkus at 7:39 AM on February 15, 2005

When I was a Freshman in college, I dated a woman much older than me. She had been through a kind of childhood I couldn't begin to imagine. Her father and brothers had beaten and raped her and her sisters almost as long as she could remember. And they all acted like that was the norm; like that was the way "the men went about keeping the women-folk in line." My girlfriend certainly knew better than that. She fully understood that what was done to her was terrible. But she had forgiven them all, and even introduced me to her father once. I was stunned and unable to speak on that occasion.

I told her I'd never experienced much worse than a little verbal harassment when I was a girl. The kind of abuse and incest and betrayal she'd been through was unthinkable to me, and how could she be relatively sane, much less on good terms with her family? She said, "listen, the worst thing you've ever been through is the worst thing you've ever been through. People are surprisingly strong, and you deserve just as much compassion for what you've suffered as I do for my suffering." And, after months of explaining and re-explaining it, she convinced me that forgiving her father was the only way she could grow past the damage he'd done to her. To this day, I am able to lay down a lot of burdens of anger and hate, because if she can do it, then certainly I can, too.
posted by Fenriss at 11:34 AM on February 15, 2005 [47 favorites]

When I got my first home computer a Commodore Vic 20. Which was followed by about every 8bit system ever made. I would ask neighbours for the computer gathering dust in their closets. Offering to do yard work or whatever and usually they just gave them to me. Here's a partial list from memory:

Apple IIc
Atari 800XL
Coleco Adam
Commodore C64/C128D
Tandy Trash 80/CoCo 1/3

There where a couple I can't remember. Our rec room looked like a computer lab. And all my mother asked was that I always had Mrs. PacMan setup for her to play.

I followed these up with 286/386s, Macs, and Amigas. I loved them all and today's systems don't give me quite the feeling I got with these now ancient systems.

And of course the first kiss I shared with Christina Papadopoulos when we where six.
posted by jsares at 9:11 PM on February 15, 2005 [2 favorites]

It would have to be that One Time in woodwork class. I was the geeky, shy guy with the glasses and good grades. I was having a particularly bad period at school, and the "tough" guys in class were pressing all the right buttons that day. On the verge of sobbing uncontrollably in front of the whole class, all the feelings turned to rage. I swung my still unfinished wooden baseball bat at the back of the head of the leader of the gang - and missed.

Afterwards, I was certain that I would have killed the other person if the blow had hit. I thought myself a horrible person, and the memory still pops up when something really good happens - "You shouldn't be allowed to have a good time."

I've thanked God several times for giving me another chance. Just in case he exists.

It probably influenced my suicidal thoughts, which lasted throughout secondary school.

I've never been in a fight since, and I abhor violence in any form.
posted by trez at 10:48 AM on February 16, 2005

I think I'm going to have to print this thread and read it at my leisure.

Here's my bittersweet tale:

I attended first grade at Mint Valley Elementary, so named because right beside the school's field were planted acres and acres of mint. It was as beautiful as one might imagine.

One afternoon, near the end of recess, a recent rain sent a brilliant rainbow arching over the field, and we saw the end of it about 100 yards away. No, I don't know how this is possible--my eyes and my imagination were tethered closely at that age--nonetheless, dozens of screaming schoolchildren went running for that rainbow. After all, there would be a pot of gold! My dirt-poor family could have anything they wanted! So we all ran.

Then the school bell rang. Reluctantly, the other children dropped back and turned around to go back to class. Not me. I was getting to the end of that rainbow. But just as I was a few yards away--seconds from my prize--the rainbow disappeared. I was crushed. And I got in trouble for being late.

That was my first serious experience with disappoinment, and I've dealt poorly with it ever since.
posted by frykitty at 5:31 PM on February 16, 2005 [5 favorites]

Youth: While my single mother was at work, I was playing G.I. Joe in the apartment we shared. Cobra had captured me and tied me up (in my own belt), but the fantasy ended there as I realized I couldn't actually get out of the belt. My mother was not due home for several hours, so I managed to get up and out to the hallway to get one of our friendly neighbors to help me. Something in my head told me to lie to them and make up a story about how a man had broken in and robbed the place and that's how I got tied up so tightly. The police and eventually FBI were brought in, since my description matched a dangerous and wanted felon. Eventually, I had to tell the FBI guys the truth in front of my grandmother, who ushered them out when they got upset. My mother received harsh reprimands for leaving such a young boy alone. I don't feel like it was her fault and I was a good latch-key kid for years before and after the incident. I guess I had made my point.

Adolescence: I found out through friends that my high school girlfriend, who I was desperately in love with, had been either raped or sexually molested before I had met her. I broke up with her because I was young and stupid and didn't know why, despite all our time together, she didn't want to talk to me about it.

Adulthood: Falling in love with a married woman kind of squashed whatever innocence I had left. But it all worked out for the best. I think.
posted by steelbuddha at 2:38 PM on February 17, 2005 [2 favorites]

when I was 8 we we car camping at a place called white lake in NH. 1 mi. around, crystal clear water, sandy beach w/ a concession stand. In the men's room a single urinal, a trough, placed at a height I could only reach by standing on tiptoes and poking my pecker over the rim.

one day while taking a piss, I slipped off my toes and landed flatfooted on the floor. pissed directly into my mouth. being raised with all the hand washing germ consciousness my mother could instill, I figured I was going to die.

I remember leaving the dark and damp bathroom and walking out into the bright sunlit beach. It was beautiful. Sat down on the sand, decided not to tell anyone- they will find out soon enough. So I sat there, waiting to die, enjoying the day.

until I got bored and when off for a fudgesicle.

I am not sure if this was an experience that changed my life or not. is this truly my attitude toward my own mortality? I guess. at fifty I have a few more years before I'll find out for sure.
posted by pointilist at 8:58 PM on February 19, 2005 [29 favorites]

I just don't get this kind of insight into the people around me and it's enlightening that others have shared similar childhood experiences to mine.

I have two defining moments centered around religion:

1. I attended a pretty strict Christian grade school and our classroom had a small library. The one interesting book I found was a fantasy/scifi thing about a flute and magic and so forth. I had to ask my teacher for permission to take it home. She took it from me and later told me she had taken it home and burnt it. (Because fantasy/scifi is the work of the devil.)
I was a pretty voracious reader, even at that age, and the thought of burning a book, any book, was mindboggling to me.

2. Fast forward a few years and I'm idolizing this guy at church who's uber-religious. Strict adherence to the bible and eating the right food (really strict dietary rules) and wearing the correct clothing and man as head-of-the-household stuff. My role model for entering into heaven, right?

I'm at his house one evening (very late) when his wife comes home with their small child. She's exhausted. I had never seen anyone look so thin, defeated, listless, lifeless. And she starts cleaning up the house and preparing him dinner. He's worked maybe 5 or 6 hours all day and he continues talking to him and completely ignores her. Like she was a dog or worthless.

Something clicked in that moment and I realized if he believed his actions were right and supported by God; then he was wrong and my religon was wrong.

Why, yes, I am atheist. What gave it away?
posted by Jim Jones at 3:57 AM on February 20, 2005 [4 favorites]

One memory stands out.

In second grade I got outed as an atheist by giving an honest answer when a friend asked me if I believed in god. Oh, the hand wringing by a classful of 8 year olds fearing for my immortal soul! Finally, my excellent teacher told everybody to get over and leave me alone about it.

Perhaps not the first moment I felt completely alienated from my peers, but not the last, and not in a "they're being mean to me" sort of way, but that they just didn't see the world the same way as I do.
posted by ursus_comiter at 12:26 PM on February 22, 2005 [3 favorites]

When I was in Grade 1, my homeroom adviser was an English teacher who carried around a portable blackboard containing simple vocabulary words grouped together. There was a section for body parts near the bottom and I spotted the word tongue mis-spelled as "tounge". I couldn't be sure, but I remembered reading that word before, asking my parents what it was, and learning how queerly it was spelled and pronounced for such an everyday word - this thing in the mouth we use for tasting and talking. I turned to my classmates and pointed out the error to verify my observation, but none of them knew what I was talking about. It disturbed me that the teacher was carrying this board to every class, teaching the wrong thing! But this was a teacher, she must be right. Maybe the teacher just made a mistake in copying the word to the blackboard. Maybe it was a different word with a totally different meaning. Finally, I gathered up the courage to ask the teacher if it meant what I thought it meant. Yes, it did. I then asked if maybe she had written it down wrong, because it was a tricky spelling, and I'd seen it before and it was spelled as t-o-n-g-u-e. Teacher said no, and insisted that what was on the board was correct. Self-doubt set in. Maybe I remembered wrong. I resolved to look up both words in the dictionary when I got home. But when I did, I found that there was no such word as "tounge" and I definitely remembered "tongue" correctly. When I was in Grade 3, I read The Little Prince, which further reinforced the fallibility of adults. But I didn't want them to be fallible, or what would I look up to?

To this day, I remember the episode vividly, and only in retrospect do I realize how much it must've contributed to interrelated and contradictory issues I've had in my life: the early onset of cynicism, an underlying sense of invisibility, unassertiveness due to a tendency for self-doubt, an irreverence towards figures of authority, the pervasive need to learn on my own as opposed to what is compulsorily taught, holding myself and other people to very high standards, a resistance to leadership roles, and a reluctance to--for lack of a better term--"grow up".

It's taken me about two decades to finally break away from the undesirable issues, but when I finally did, I realized that everybody is really just fumbling along through life, nobody really has any answers, I shouldn't be so harsh on myself or everyone else, and I need not so much to find a niche but to carve one out for myself. I am now much surer of my footing, have faith in myself, and rather crazily want to embrace every challenge that the universe sees fit to throw at me!
posted by Lush at 8:34 PM on February 25, 2005 [2 favorites]

When I was about five my older sister woke me up one night from the top bunk and told me to look outside. So I did, and out through the gap between the curtains I saw in the moonlight my mother laid out crooked over the brick-lined flowerbed, my father still standing over her with his fists balled. In the morning she was gone and I cried and cried, certain she'd never be back. She was in the hospital with a broken collarbone; she developed pneumonia and stayed away until she gave birth to my 2nd youngest sister. Then she came back and they stayed together. On the weekends they'd have friends over and smoke out and get drunk and sometimes drop acid. My sisters and I would go to bed early because there was less chance we'd get in trouble. We couldn't sleep; we'd lie there in bed listening to them play cards and listen to country music.

A couple of years later my oldest sister ran away and my father was agitated and grumpy, but stayed home making breakfast. He sent me and my 2nd oldest sister to look for her. Her footsteps were all over the neighborhood, crossing and crossing again in the sand, and we looked for her for hours but it was impossible. We came back certain we'd get beat for not finding her. Eventually she came home on her own, but kept running away for years.

They sent us to a Nazarene church every Sunday. One Sunday when I was about 7 or 8 a black couple came to church and my pastor said something racist and everyone laughed. I realized he was a racist and the congregation was too, but I felt bad for the couple. They were obviously nervous and uncomfortable, but they stayed for the sermon. They didn't come back.

Not long after, I had my first erotic dream. Superman, as played by Christopher Reeves. Growing up gay in a fundamentalist church with hypocritical abusive parents was not cool.

My mother had her fourth daughter and my oldest sister got married and moved out. I had just started middle school when my 2nd oldest sister went to school one day and told the counselor my father had been molesting her. My parents got divorced and my father went to prison and kept writing me long depressing letters, usually quoting scriptures, and eventually I asked him to stop. I was 10 or 11. I think he'd been molesting my oldest sister since at least that day she ran away, and I think my mother knew about it and let it happen so he'd leave her alone.

Throughout middle school and high school my mother kept drinking and using drugs. Somewhere along the way she'd started snorting cocaine. I was annoyed with all it because I thought she was acting like a child and the parties interfered with my schoolwork. We were on welfare; I don't know how she afforded all the drugs. Any time I was depressed or angry or said something cynical, my mother would tell me I was just like my father. I heard it quite a lot.

I spent most of my spare time in my room reading; I'd walk miles to the nearest book seller, sometimes two or three times a week. Eventually the owner quit selling me the books; she'd loan them on the promise that I'd tell her what I thought of them when I was done.

I have an intense and abiding distrust of authority and a love for fiction. And I think that even if I were straight I'd never ever want children: I'm terrified at the thought of it.
posted by Tuwa at 11:18 PM on February 26, 2005 [4 favorites]

I couldn’t just press the close button without signing up, logging in and saying...

What I’ve learned from this heart-warming, tear-popping, smile-making thread:
some people are capable of perpetrating unthinkable evil.
other people are amazingly courageous and incredibly resilient.
People who have suffered appalling cruelty can live full, connected lives. It seems that the best possible revenge is to heal and be whole, to break the cycle.

Two-cents worth of formative me:
Divorced parents with diametrically opposed ideas of how to raise my brother and I – our schools, friends, politics, even the clothes we wore. Antagonism in the name of love, played out for and unfortunately through us. Little wonder that in adult life my first reaction to anybody telling me what to do is I’ll do what I want to do; that shuttling between two homes as a child has evolved into a life lived between two countries. Counterbalanced by the fact that both my parents loved me and still do; after various ups and downs, we get on well and willingly spend as much time together as we can. I know that they were doing the best they could with what they had.

Realizing aged 10 that this parcel of flesh and bundle of thoughts is who I am and will always be: this is the deal.

Maybe a year later, my oldest friend teasing me in front of my classmates for playing “you show me yours I’ll show you mine” with a girl years earlier; the burning sense of humiliation left me scared and ashamed of sexual curiosity and desire for years.

A step-father who made points of principle about things that I found out to be untrue – something as banal as whether or not I should buy a bike with 10 gears or 5 became an ideological battle about excess. When kids pick up on a lie, they call into question everything to do with that relationship.

Child-related: finding out, with no right of appeal, that my wife and I cannot have children, from which I learned that as much as one might want something and/or take it for granted in this existence, don’t mean it’s going to happen or stay happening. After the grief, the realization that for all the control we try to exert on our lives -- the minutiae and petty organizational detail -- the big stuff is way out of our control. Not even love is necessarily enough...

A hug to those who need it and those who don’t.
posted by io at 12:29 PM on February 27, 2005 [3 favorites]

When I was five I always stayed in the shallow end of my family's backyard pool. I was certain I couldn't swim. My older brothers kept telling me I could, but I wouldn't listen. So one day my thirteen-year-old brother picked me up and tossed me into the centre of the deep end. I remember hurtling through the air and then looking up as the crystal blue ceiling closed overhead. I surfaced and quite calmly swam for the shallow end. I wish I could say this had a generalized and lasting effect on my personality and convinced me to explore the limits of my abilities, but it only convinced me that I could swim.
posted by orange swan at 9:54 AM on March 1, 2005 [10 favorites]

There is some inspiring stuff in here.

If you can find it amongst the "my life changed when I realised I was so much better than anyone else".
posted by bouncebounce at 12:17 PM on October 30, 2005 [2 favorites]

That came out snarkier than I had intended.

Sorry about that.
posted by bouncebounce at 2:29 PM on October 30, 2005

I never felt that my dad loved me as a child. That has made me always want to prove myself. On the upside, I ended up getting a PhD at MIT in the process... It also made me a great dad to my son. But it left me unable to deal with my emotions, distrustful and with low self confidence that I am still trying to overcome at 30. Oh well...
posted by joaovc at 2:57 PM on January 6, 2006 [6 favorites]

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