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During my twenties and early thirties, I made life-changing decisions from years of observing my family’s interactions. The terrors of my childhood gave me insights. I knew my parents were very dysfunctional, in different ways, and I knew the abuse I had grown up with was not a normal situation. As a child, I had witnessed how one parent grating on the other could turn violent. Their interactions were horrifying to witness; I knew I didn’t want to grow up to be like them! I didn’t want the tragedy of my childhood to negatively affect my life. As a young adult, I started to take immediate steps to ensure that my life would take a better, healthier and happier path. I saw my family as a chain of dysfunction, violence and abuse. Every family member I knew functioned as a link in this chain and, of course, I functioned as a link as well. I decided to modify my link and break from this chain. The idea became a decision, which helped me heal and become my own person. I became aware of my thought patterns and the old tapes of my parents that played in my mind when I was up against life’s challenges. The more I thought about this and worked on it, the more convinced I became that this would be the right path for me to follow.
To help offset the horrors of my past, I started on another path, one of many, on my journey. I went out of my way to help others and practiced random acts of kindness towards total strangers. When I saw children being abused or lost or hurt, I got involved and stood up for them by taking the appropriate action, as I wished somebody had done for me. When children or teenagers had personal problems and sought me out for advice or help, I took them under my wing and did all I could to help them. I excelled and felt gifted at being able to get between two warring factions, calm everyone down and help find a mutually agreeable solution. If someone was grieving, I always came to his or her aid with a tissue and an offer of help. I learned to become an excellent advocate for terminally ill or infirm patients. Some of these patients were friends and family, and some were complete strangers. In memory of Cinders and her kittens (my childhood pets that my mother had dispatched in front of me), I volunteered at the local animal shelter to comfort, care for and help adopt stray animals out to good homes. As the years went by, I joined multiple organizations to help children and their families. These actions represented the perfect antidote for all the negative things that had happened to me. I felt that if I worked on being a kind and helpful person, then I could make a positive difference and, perhaps, heal some of the hurts from my past.
Advancing into adulthood, I learned many things that helped me on my journey. I learned that I didn’t have to please everyone and that the happiness of others depended not on me, but on their ability to maintain positive emotions for themselves. I could make myself happy, but I didn’t have the ability to make others happy on a long-term basis. I learned that when a person’s words and actions conflict, always believe their actions! The actions hold truth. Conflicting words are often riddled with lies! I learned to verbalize my needs directly and to set and keep healthy boundaries in relationships. This helped me to feel safer interacting with dysfunctional family members and others.
Setting boundaries was very important for certain family members and certain friends. If a person forgot or disregarded those boundaries and brought unnecessary drama or pain into my life, I would remind them why I had boundaries in the first place and why I needed to have them respected. If they felt that was unimportant to them and continued disrespecting my limits, then I would become unavailable to them. Later I might re-open the door for contact to see whether things had changed for the better. If not, I would regretfully back out of the relationship altogether. I also broke with the notion that I was responsible for other people’s actions and would no longer allow people to blame me for problems of their own creation. These are just a few of my favorite tools that I learned on my journey to survive and thrive.
I did survive my childhood and lived to thrive without the use of alcohol or drugs to self-medicate the pain. (However, chocolate has always been good!) I put the responsibility for my destiny squarely on my own shoulders and made it my personal responsibility to become a well-adjusted and happy person.
About the Author
Tracy May’s expertise on surviving family dysfunction and multiple forms of child abuse came not from academic studies, but from personal and painful real life experience. Tracy was determined not to allow her past to dictate her future. She explored many paths to gain the knowledge and tools, which enabled her to grow from a child barely surviving into an adult who is happy and thriving.
Tracy resides in Sunnyvale, California, and is involved with many charities helping children in the U.S. and around the world.