A couple days ago, I was chatting online with a friend about the arrest of a seventeen year old for the kidnap and murder of Jessica Ridgeway. I said that the whole situation made me nostalgic for my own childhood in a suburb of Chicago. It was a wonderful place to grow up. We walked to school, rode our bikes to the park, to the swimming pool, to Girl Scout meetings at a local church. And all without any sense of danger. Sure, we’d been taught about Mr. Stranger Danger, the man who might offer us candy to lure us into his car. Fortunately, my friends and I never encountered that potential danger. In fact, I’m lucky to be able to say that no one has ever put a hand on me in an aggressive or violent manner.
I told my friend that I had grown up without fears. His response was, “Hmmm, a childhood with no fears, and you’re a writer?????”
Okay, he had a point. I said that I meant I grew up with no fear of physical danger, but that my mother had some emotional issues when we were kids. To be honest, she had more than a few issues, and they lasted longer than our childhood. She never hit, but the things she said to my brothers and I were, and still are, beyond my comprehension. Kids take harsh words to heart, and the fallout can last a lifetime.
The problem in our conversation arose when I used the terms physical danger/harm and personal harm interchangeably. My friend, a very smart man and writer, quite reasonably called me on my language. Dammit, he was right again.
While I felt no fear of physical violence from my mother or anyone else, my mother’s words did cause personal harm. Most of the time, she was reasonable and acted like any other mother. I trusted her and believed what she said. So when she turned on me, calling me fat, calling me ugly, I believed that too. She was my mom, she was the person who was supposed to love me and tell me the truth. So from an early age, I was morally certain that I was horribly, disgustingly fat. Mom said so. It came as quite a shock when, in recent years, I saw photos of myself as a child and teen. I wasn’t fat. I wasn’t thin, but not fat either. I was just an average size child. It wasn’t until my later teen years that I gained weight. It wasn’t a conscious choice, but my inner fat girl was such a real part of my psyche that I never noticed that I was allowing my physical self to match my inner self.
The words of those we trust, family and friends, can do more personal harm than they or we realize. Surround yourself with those who treat you well, and be kind to others.