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Personal Perspectives

It Took Years to Untangle My Childhood and Rise Above It

A Personal Perspective: At a young age, I was the parent, not the child.

Generationally locked in a rust belt city on the Ohio–Pennsylvania border, my people were scrappy folk known for their pizza and Friday night lights. I was born to a couple whose own traumatic stories magnetized them to one another until the day my mother died at 44 years old.

My parents had a passionate, violent relationship. Dad loved to tell the story of the first time Mom rode her bike past the used car lot he owned. He’d never seen anyone so beautiful. She’d say that she was attracted to his striking German good looks. Although I think it was that he rescued her from her alcoholic father and abusive stepmother that really turned her on. At 18, she moved in with this short-tempered man, nine years her senior, and pretended, among other things, that she knew how to take care of a home.

Years later, their rage-induced fistfights left me hiding under my bed or ducking beside the couch. The number of broken dishes was only surpassed by the number of times Dad left us, slamming the door behind him. Mom would then sink into a deep depression, leaving me to subsist on Keebler Fudge Stripes cookies and cherry Kool-Aid. When hunger overcame her, she’d leave her bed just long enough to make a fried bologna sandwich, topped with a dollop of Miracle Whip, of which she’d give me half. And even though I hated Miracle Whip, I ate the sandwich because the warm bread and crisp meat comforted me like nothing else. That is, except for the love of Whoopsie, the bichon frisé puppy I’d had when I was 6 years old. We were only together for a few weeks before Mom gave him away.

When Dad returned home after an argument, I knew better than to jump off the couch and greet him. He and Mom would, of course, yell at one another and then there’d be a few slaps over the lipstick on his collar. Inevitably though, their anger would melt into passion. They’d retreat to the bedroom, where their moaning and groaning were only outdone by the rhythmic banging of the headboard against the wall. And once again, with this tumultuous reconciliation, everything was “fine” in my world.

I wrote my story about love during those days in our shabby basement apartment. I’d find temporary, heroic comfort in the return of a man who never laid a hand on me but beat my mother within a breath of her life on more than one occasion. With every return to their bed, they cemented in me the notion that love is fickle and untrustworthy. I caught on that people who leave don’t love you, and those who stay probably don’t either.

From early on, I believed that my job was to be perfect and make everyone happy. This falsehood was spawned from my abandonment story. I subconsciously believed that if I did everything right, I’d make Mom and Dad happy. And in turn, they’d love me and, hopefully, never leave me.

It was a gargantuan story for a 5-year-old
This was how old I was the first time I associated doing a perfect cartwheel with making Mom’s eyes glisten with pride. Her hazel eyes were a well-calibrated barometer of her mood. When the bright green flecks of her irises were washed away by the deep, brown sea below, a storm was brewing in her that would surely result in a beating or at least some hair-pulling. When I saw her eyes shifting from bright and calm to dark and muddy, I’d do cartwheels and act out Shel Silverstein poems. Whatever it took to keep her happy, I did it.

At just 5 years old, I had mastered the art of people-pleasing.
“See, Mom, everything is great,” I’d say, tightening my pigtails post cartwheel.

And there were moments over the next few years when it was great, well, ish. Great-ish. We’d ride around in our yellow convertible Cadillac tapping our fingers while the Bee Gees blared from eight-track tapes. The summer sun flushed my round Ukrainian cheeks as I blew bubbles with not one, but two pieces of Hubba Bubba bubble gum. We’d hop from store to store buying clothes and more eight-tracks with the stack of cash I’d taken from the freezer that morning. That’s where Dad kept the money he made at his used car lot—in the freezer, wrapped in foil, and stuffed in Mrs. Paul’s Fish Sticks boxes. He didn’t believe in banks or writing checks. He also didn’t believe in paying taxes, but that’s a whole ’nother story.

“Don’t tell Dad about the money we spent today,” Mom would say.

I’d pop my bubble and double-swear on Gloria Vanderbilt’s life that I wouldn’t say a word. But I didn’t have to. Dad knew. He always knew. He’d taught me all about money. There were ones, fives, tens, and twenties. Mostly though there were fifties and hundreds. Lots of hundreds. After a while, there wasn’t enough room in the freezer for all the money Dad made at the car lot. That’s when we moved to the ranch-style house on the other side of town. It had a picket fence (which was the only idyllic thing about our life there) and the biggest yard I’d ever seen in all my eight years of living. I spent many evenings lying in the grass praying for peace and quiet in the house that Dad’s hundreds bought.

But there were never enough hundreds to make Mom happy. Dad went to prison a few years after we moved to the ranch house, and Mom quickly spent all the money he left us. She sank into a bottomless pit of depression, sleeping for hours on end. She went days without bathing or eating. There wasn’t anything to keep her alive except 12-year-old me.

Who was parenting whom?
I had officially switched roles with my mother years earlier when I was about 6 years old. Serving as her obligatory protector, I’d step in between her and Dad when they fought. But when Dad went to prison, protecting her no longer meant breaking up fistfights. It meant ensuring her survival. I cooked dinner—Campbell’s tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches—while she lay in bed despondent. I asked strangers for money to help pay our electric bill. And when she was well enough to get out of bed, switching roles with her meant caring for my siblings while she went out for whiskey sours with strange men.

But no matter what I did or how much I tried, I could never be perfect enough to make Mom happy. As men came and went, I caught on that no one could ever fill the black hole that would eventually consume her. Through college and law school, I stayed in her orbit out of obligation. I gave her the money I earned because I worried for my siblings. Then I adopted my 9-year-old brother when she died because, well, I’d practically been his mother since the day he was born anyway.

My story is defined by how I saw myself in the world (invisible) and what I believed I was worthy of (not much). And while my story led me to choose the wrong men (emotionally unavailable and often narcissistic), the most truthful story I wrote for myself was that physical abuse is not love. Watching my father beat my mother for something so insignificant as giving a neighbor a piece of birthday cake on one of our Corelle plates and then bearing my own mother’s beatings until I was 16 years old was enough for me to steer clear of physically abusive people. However, someone who was emotionally abusive or distant was not only free game but hotter than John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever.

My trauma, or the origin of my story, was recurring and long-term. Due to its pervasive nature, my story grew taller, wider, and more entangled with each passing day. It was a sophisticated web of deceit ensnaring me at every turn. It would take me years to untangle it and ultimately rise above it. But to heal, I had to pinpoint my first conscious memory of trauma—the origin of my story. And so I traveled back to that summer evening when I was 5 years old: The setting sun warming my cheeks. The concrete steps cooling the backs of my legs. Mom’s hazel eyes and the scent of whiskey set the stage for all the stories I’d write about myself—especially my abandonment.


Reprinted with permission from Rise Above the Story: Free Yourself from Past Trauma and Create the Life You Want by Karena Kilcoyne (BenBella Books, 2024)

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