I want to discuss the idea of separating you from what happened to you. There’s the you, the you reading this, and there are your experiences, and they’re not the same thing. One of my favorite expressions is, “It’s bad that it happened, but it’s worse if you don’t learn anything from it.” We look to the past for lessons, but we don’t live in the past. Being victimized doesn’t make you a victim. Staying where trauma happened makes you a victim. As someone who has experienced trauma, only you can decide that you’re a victim. Someone who experienced the same thing may call himself a survivor, or may not call himself anything at all. Self-identifying as a victim ties you to your experiences. The mantle of victimhood can only be worn voluntarily. And, in today’s society, there are great benefits to being a victim, to display one’s traumas as badges of honor. In large part, human beings love attention. With the rise of social media and the 24-hour news cycle, stardom may be one trauma away. Victims get money, sympathy, and fame: who doesn’t want that?
This is not to say that people who have experienced genuine trauma should just get over it. Truly horrible things like rape, the loss of a child, a brutal assault: they require love and time to heal from, or at least endure. As human beings our worth is at least partly measured in how we care for those in need. Part of the freedom of being an adult is determining what qualifies as a trauma versus an unfortunate occurrence.
If you’re reading this, you’re probably doing okay, at least in terms of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. You don’t lack for potable water. Perhaps you live in the West, or a Western-style country that upholds enough inalienable human rights to keep jackbooted thugs from knocking down your door and throwing you in prison over something minor. Compared to the vast majority of humanity for the vast majority of human history, you’re wealthy. So what do you have to complain about?
Not a lot. But it doesn’t mean that you haven’t had terrible experiences. And it definitely doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t learn from those experiences. Just retain that sense of perspective, that learned skill of sorting difficulties from the major (being shot at) to the nonexistent (a social media spat). Prioritizing is a learned skill. To a small child, everything’s important: a lost toy means as much as a house fire, at least in the moment. Because we’re so attached to our phones, our lifeline to social media, that perspective tends to get lost. Who Bill O’Reilly sexually harassed or what conspiracy theory Rachel Maddow is promulgating: do you really give a damn? Why does that have to take up space in your mental attic? Say you’re not political. Okay, who cares that your old high school friend didn’t Like that selfie of you and your kids at the Mets game? I know you count Likes and Favorites and Shares and Retweets: we all do. But you know they’re utterly empty, right? I mean, you know that deep down. You also know what is important: your family (if you have one), your faith (if you have one), your principles (if you have any).
So both developing that sense of perspective and maintaining it in a culture that prizes minutiae are vital to the separation of you from what happened to you. If it were easy we wouldn’t have to talk about it: we’d just do it like turning off a television.
Where this ties into children of substance abusers is that we often mature into adults with a pervasive feeling that there’s something wrong with us, whether we take up substance abuse ourselves or we don’t. That somehow our parents’ sins are written upon us in ways that others can read at a glance. That’s a function of confusing a negative experience with a negative trait. There’s nothing wrong with you, particularly the you as a child, but there was something wrong with your experience. It’s difficult to peel your self from your experiences after so long, particularly when these traumas were inflicted upon you as a child, when everything sticks and the scars run deepest. I don’t subscribe to the notion that children have special wisdom that mature adults lack, but they do feel things more strongly than adults do. And, in many respects, the subconscious is a time machine: when things happen to us today that are similar to what happened to us long ago, we often have the same emotional reactions to them that we did as youngsters. It’s difficult to escape the child’s logic: mommy drank, so there’s something wrong with me. It stays with us, even into adulthood.
That child’s logic often extends further, into self-blame: if there’s something wrong with me, it’s because of something I did. Or something I am. It doesn’t make sense to an adult, but children are adept at accepting responsibility for disparate things: step on a crack, break your mother’s back. You’re not eating your peas? What about the starving children in China? Etc. This illogic is baked into childhood. If you are something bad, owing to being the child of a substance abuser, then you need to be punished. And if the world isn’t punishing you enough, then you’ll just have to do it yourself. (Children love justice, particularly rough justice. Adults do, too.)
Once you recognize that there’s nothing wrong with you, but that there was something wrong with your experience, you can move on to the difficult step of forgiving yourself instead of punishing yourself. Call it your inner child or the Time Machine Subconscious, but you’ve got to tell that raw, injured kid that he’s okay. He didn’t do anything wrong. There’s nothing wrong with him. He’s worthy of love.