Our journeys are not equal. Our starting blocks are not equal.
When you come from a socioeconomically disadvantaged background, you are not equal.
When you come from a chaotic household, you are not equal.
When you have childhood trauma, you are not equal.
Before you sharpen your pitchforks, let’s take a look at Natasha and Sam.
Natasha and Sam are both 25. They used to be playdates in elementary school. Natasha moved away because her father got a big promotion. Seventeen years later, their paths cannot be any more different.
Childhood trauma has a way of enfolding itself into people’s lives and coloring every experience.
When Natasha was 9, she looked forward to weekend brunch outings with her parents. At the same time, Sam woke up to the smell of mom’s soup ladled by shaking, blue veined hands. He wondered how many drinks his mom had the night before.
Metaphorically, childhood trauma trickles through people’s veins and like ink, imprints on every touched surface.
Natasha loved back-to-school shopping with her mom. Sam anxiously picked out his first pair of Converses, calculating the hours his mom worked to afford them. Natasha spoke about her dad with giggles and an occasional eye roll. Sam didn’t want to talk about his dad. The welts from the belt still burned.
According to Trauma-Informed Care in Behavioral Health Services, some of the long-term effects of trauma include:
Altered cognition, or development of negative/harmful core life assumptions.
Feeling “different” from others. Trauma survivors often believe that others will not fully understand their experiences.
Triggers. A trigger is any sensory reminder of the traumatic event which can be highly unpleasant.
Behavioral changes – Some people develop harmful coping mechanisms or avoidant behaviors – including self-medicating (e.g. substance abuse), compulsiveness (e.g., overeating), impulsiveness (e.g., high-risk behaviors), and/or self-harm.
Reenactment of trauma. For example, repeatedly getting involved in destructive relationships or situations where one is likely to get rejected.
Mental disorders. Studies support the strong causal relationship between stressful events and depression.
Ten years later, Natasha interned at her aunt’s law firm while attending an Ivy League school. She managed her GPA by hiring a private tutor. Sam couldn’t concentrate on his midterm because his mom called the night before, whispering frantically while his dad yelled dangerously in the background.
According to a study by Kristen W. Springer and co., “childhood physical abuse predicted worse mental and physical health decades after the abuse. These effects were attenuated, but not eliminated, by age, sex, family background, and childhood adversities.”
After graduation, Sam went to his first batch of interviews, terribly nervous and desperate to bring home additional income. His mom started working nights as a cleaner at a seedy lounge and he wanted her to just stick with her safe day job. At Natasha’s first job interview, she joked around with her dad’s old colleague, because they knew he was going to hire her.
Sam didn’t hear back from three interviews and the forty resumes he sent were never answered. The anxiety of not having a job, the hopelessness of his crumbling life and family, led him to the drink. His nightly bottle started in leisure but rapidly grew into dependence – now he cannot sleep soundly without it.
A year later, Natasha got “Associate Director” added to her job title and an additional $30K per year. Her coworkers and supervisors love her. Who couldn’t? She had the type of smile that could light up a room, a laugh that would make others laugh, and a stalwart, can-do attitude that made her dependable.
Meanwhile, Sam was shuttled from one temp job to another, terminated exactly at the end of his contract and recruited by another. He hates his temporary coworkers and the drab offices where he filed papers all day. Each minute he spent getting yelled at, blamed for other’s mistakes, and fulfilling tasks dredged from the bottom of the responsibility pool, intensified his crippling depression. Each minute he argued with his father, who he hated with searing rage, and each minute he spent worrying about money and his mom’s safety, pulled him closer to the edge.
Natasha and Sam are not equal.
While Natasha experiences the normality of life’s ups and downs, progressions and regressions, laughs and cries – the thought of suicide never seriously occurred to her.
Sam, hiccuping and drunk, teetered dangerously over the edge. The rope around his neck pulled taut and loosened, as his toes danced over the chair’s edge.
Natasha became a Director and took home an additional $25k per year.
Sam survived. Barely, but he’s alive. He was forced into mandated therapy and medication, which he hated but helped him.
Now when you meet Natasha and Sam at a party, you’d obviously be drawn to Natasha. Fun, vibrant, calm, and uplifting. Sam, not so much. He’s weird. He stutters and keeps looking at his feet.
Now who is more “equal”?