We are all guided by our past traumas, no matter how far we flee from there, or how much therapy we go through. The struggles that we experienced create a halo around our world that colors our vision of what is beyond the self. Whether its the untimely death of a close loved one, violence against our persons, destruction of our homes. . . we are who we are because of adversity and pain.
I have two incidents in my childhood that I know have held strong sway over who I became as an adult. One was brief and traumatic, a single terrible night at the age of nine that I’ve never quite put behind me, though the shared pain of others helped me finally understand it. But the other lingered for years, from the age of 11 until I graduated high school, and has equally done a number on my mental processes and goes a long way to understanding me. It has informed me, guided me, and explains a hell of a lot about who I am and why I care so damned much about issues of inequality and capitalism.
I grew up poor. For many years, this was the usual kind of poor you imagine when you think of poor people. Working class family, not a lot of disposable income with four kids in the house. Making ends meet barely, living paycheck to paycheck. Hand me down clothing. Growing up in a double wide trailer in rural Maine. We were poor, but we were provided for, despite a mother with serious health issues and an older brother who suffered from intellectual disability.
When I was about 9, we moved from the tiny hamlet of Burnham, Maine, (population 850 at the time) to the the thriving “metropolis” of Pittsfield, Maine (population 4100). It was an immediate improvement to me as a kid. Not only did I now have more friends I could hang out with regularly, the community had a great local library and a public pool for summer swimming, two things I greatly enjoyed. Life was decent for a few years. We had to sell the double wide and were renting, but that was fine.
As a child, I developed a strange obsession about biscuits. Being poor, we didn’t often have cookies or other treats around the house. But we always had biscuits, which my mom loved to bake. Sometimes I or my brothers would sneak downstairs at night to steal biscuits from the bread box. I remember that well. It explains why I love all things bread as an adult. A hot buttered biscuit is as close to heaven as you can actually get.
Then my dad lost his job. One day at work, he slipped on a wet floor while feeding logs into a debarking machine. He slipped a couple of disks in his back and had to go on disability.
Then they laid him off.
I sometimes tell myself I know all the details of what happened. I’m not entirely sure I do. What I do know is that there were illegalities in how he was treated. He eventually had to hire a lawyer, but when you’re poor you don’t get a very good one. The company or insurance company settled out of court and we got a small payout. By then, though, we were destitute. The money didn’t last any time worth mentioning.
We went from being poor but okay, to being THE poor family. You know the one. The family that gets donations from church at Thanksgiving so they can have a decent holiday meal. The family that receives old coats from the local department store owner because he can’t sell them. They were ugly, but warm, and that’s all that mattered. We ate the five pound blocks of cheese the government provided us along with other food subsidies. We used food stamps under the hostile glare of those who were not poor (trust me, I remember those looks we got when we handed over the food stamps). We didn’t have money for oil for the furnace in the winter when days would routinely be far below zero. Mornings were spent huddled around a tiny electric space heater for warmth until it was school time. I would heat up pans of water on the stove so I could at least wash my hair. The only health insurance we had were the terrible options offered by the school to assist poor kids, but thank fuck we had that when I dislocated my wrist in eighth grade gym class, and tore my knee cartilage during a track meet in high school.
I was often ridiculed for my appearance. My too short pants. My greasy hair. My always broken and taped up glasses. Not many thought to try and understand why I looked the way I did. Why I buried myself in library books more often than I hung out with friends. Few seemed to care. It was enough that you were gross and poor and different and the circumstances weren’t important. We were judged, and we were found wanting.
It took my dad years to find a new job. He was an uneducated (no high school) laborer who had worked his whole life in wood mills, making furniture or fencing. He had few other skills. And now he had a bad back. No one wants to hire a laborer with a bad back. I was in high school by the time he found an absolute shit minimum wage job washing the uniforms for the high school sports teams. And he was glad to have it, and we went from being THE poors, to being a little more like the regular poors.
But that shit scars you. All trauma does. My trauma was no worse than others, probably milder than many. It didn’t involve violence, or drug use, or a broken home. I had a family around me, and though I disliked my circumstances and didn’t always get along with them, they were still there at least. That makes me luckier than a lot of folks, and one in particular I’m thinking of now (who I still, every day, know I owe much to and will never be able to erase the trauma I helped bring to them).
My trauma made me “shy”, introverted. It made me contemplative and inward looking, and often a very miserable, self-loathing person. It made me a voracious reader, and a person who has trouble with developing interpersonal relationships. A person who prefers to spend evenings at home rather than going to parties. I am aware of who I am. I accept it. It’s not perfect, it can be hard for others who want and need and deserve attention. But hopefully they know it does not mean I don’t love them, only that I have trouble expressing my affections.
Because I grew up so poor, you’ll see me railing about our capitalist system, which currently seems hell bent on making billionaires richer while slowly bleeding the rest of us dry. A system that values profit over care and concern for our fellow humans, that says “maximum profit is more important than making sure no one goes to sleep hungry, or without a roof over their hands, or can’t afford college.” I detest our corporate dystopia, which devalues minorities and women, extracts all profits from them by marginalizing them, criminalizing them, and destroying them. You’ll see me hating on a particular political party, the one that would happily destroy all the social safety nets we fought so fucking hard to get – rights that people were murdered for – and which provide for families when life crashes down on them and threatens to sweep them under. Without food stamps, medicaid, government cheese, housing assistance, my dad – a man willing to do ANY fucking job if someone would hire him, and who was screwed over by his previous company – and my family would have died.
We. Would. Have. Died.
That’s not hyperbole, that’s not fear mongering, that’s a fact. Poverty is not a choice, it’s a way of life that is forced upon people by bad luck, lousy circumstances, and a system that rewards success and punishes failure. The vast majority who are poor are not poor because living off government assistance is comfortable, because it’s fucking not (and even less so now as politicians nibble away at it over and over again). They are poor because life is unforgiving. They are disabled, they are injured, they are stuck in an area where all the mills have closed with no money to get out and no other jobs. The safety nets exist because we, the citizens of America, once wanted to BE forgiving. We were caring and empathetic and wanted to help. And we should help. Somehow, we’ve lost our way. The cultural shock of the 80’s decade of greed has never truly left us.
Millions of Americans are now on the brink of what my family faced as a boy. And they are doing it at a time when all the important safety nets we need have been undermined, weakened, and in some cases destroyed. I hear their cries of fear and anger. I am moved by their laments. I feel their pain deep in my bones. But the GOP thinks they’ve done just enough to scare us back into line and get us to shut up. To help us remember we are nothing to them but “human capital stock.”
As I write this, Minneapolis is burning. A jack booted thug of a tyrannical government killed a man though he pleaded for his life. Though bystanders pleaded for his life. Then white supremacists encouraged the riots by breaking windows of stores as protestors tried to confront and stop them. Other cities have begun seeing protests and riots. With millions out of work, the plug that held us in check – crappy, low paying jobs we needed to hold onto – has been pulled. This is going to be a summer of violence and blood shed, and I believe it’s necessary. The state MURDERED a man. The riots didn’t come first, brutal murder and protecting the murderer did. And the heavily armed “don’t step on me” crowd of white nazi sympathizers are going to remind us why they don’t actually care about fighting government as long as its minorities being stepped on.
Our system is in turmoil. It should be, because it’s a shitty system that needs deep repair to heal the wounds that have remained open for centuries. To cure the greed that infects every facet of our existence. To teach us that lives are more important then endless profits.
I will never forget what a company did to my family, and the years of struggle that followed. What our system does to all families who suffer even one moment of bad luck. How it then treats you like shit if you DARE ask for help. How it vilifies you, calls you welfare queens, slanders and insults you. Tries to fucking kill you.
And I will never truly forgive.
But I temper this by thinking of all the help we received when we were struggling. All the systems put in place to allow us to move out of poverty and elevate ourselves. Those safety nets were critical, and they saved us. Student loans to pay for college; free vaccines at health clinics; housing assistance. I remember and give my deepest thank to all the people who donated to my family over the years. Your charity made it possible for me to survive, to better myself, and I will always be in your debt. To the department store owner: I never forgot those coats which you gave us. You and your family have my deepest heartfelt love for your generosity and for keeping us alive when the world tried to beat us into the ground.
I have come a long way since I was poor. I have risen from poverty, through struggling working class, to middle class. I’m in the process of paying off most of the debt I’ve accumulated over the years past when I was still struggling. Student loans, the cars, credit cards. I’ve never lived beyond my means, but these days I can purchase a book without checking my bank account. I can take part of the money I earned from a story sale and buy a guitar to learn on. There’s money in the savings account. I couldn’t have gotten here WITHOUT help. Without an American public willing to say “everyone is worthy and deserving of our assistance; we rise as one.” We don’t hear enough of that these days. Too many people, especially rich folks, claim they did it all on their own. Claim that only THEY can lift us up.
They can’t. Because they did not achieve their fortunes on their own. They did it because we help each other. That’s what makes our country great. We just need to find a better balance in our help. We need to help more people at the lower end of our economic greatness, and fewer at the top.
Things change. My trauma still informs me, though. I still remember what it was like to be poorer than the poor. I own it and I breath it and I won’t deny it, because my trauma is part of who I am. I have to embrace it, or it’ll bury me. I accept all the fallout that comes from those years and how they changed who I am. Who I became. It’s the only way to move forward. To avoid a cycle of blame and shame. Be who you are, warts and all.
You’ll never be rid of this pain you feel. So don’t try. Accept it, acknowledge it, and allow it to inform you.
And eat lots of biscuits.