I was chatting with an old friend recently, and we started discussing the way we were raised. Everyone’s upbringing is different and these differences shape our personalities. I’ve spent a lot of time in therapy trying to understand what parts of who I am are connected to the way I grew up. Coming to terms with my mental illnesses has made me cognizant of how my childhood trauma has impacted my behavior and thought patterns.
My family wasn’t financially stable until I was well into high school. We moved around often, so it was hard to live anywhere that really felt like a home; it often felt like we had one foot out the door. I spent most of my life in the Bay Area. I grew up in the heart of Silicon Valley, in the area of high schools that Atlantic magazine called the suicide cluster. Because both of my parents worked to make ends meet, I wasn’t even in my house a good amount of the time. After school, I went to a learning center where I did my homework, played with other kids, and completed assignments to get ahead in school. It was pretty bleak inside that afterschool, but it was the closest thing to a home I had.
Inside my house, the primary emotion was fear. I was always scared of putting my foot in the wrong place or doing something that would make my parents mad. Both of them were young and had fierce tempers which they often took out on me.
It took me many years of therapy to finally accept that the way I was treated growing up was not the way a child should have been treated. It is not normal to throw a backpack across the room at a child. It is not okay to make them kneel outside the house all night as punishment. It is not acceptable to tell them you’d rather see them dead than have to see their face the next morning.
My household was incredibly strict and conservative. My parents liked to control every part of my life, so they told me what I was allowed to wear, what I could eat, who I was allowed to see, what I was allowed to do. I was rarely allowed to make decisions for myself, and when I did, it was used against me. I remember feeling so stuck when I was growing up, as if I was being slowly suffocated: I had no way out. Even as I got older, I had no autonomy. There were times when it got so bad that I feared for my own life.
I was terrified of my father. I didn’t see much of him when I was a toddler, so I didn’t know what being around him was like until I was older. He is a volatile person, and it’s impossible to predict his temper. He spent a lot of time trying to force his opinions on me, and I spent most of my childhood trying to please him. I tried to do everything he asked of me perfectly, but that usually wasn’t enough. I internalized his anger and disapproval, and I have come to realize that a lot of the hateful self-talk I used mimicked the way he spoke to me.
I’ve noticed that I’ve become more like my mother as I’ve gotten older. I mirror her anxious tendencies and paranoia, which I picked up from years of observing her silently. Although I seem extroverted now, I was an introverted child because I moved around so often. And inside that house, I rarely spoke. Not unless I was spoken to first.
While my father is more volatile and his fury erupts like an active volcano, my mother is more dormant. You know how they say that moms know everything? Mine definitely did, and when everything boiled to the surface and she snapped, her fury was even worse than my father’s. It was like picking my poison in that house, and it never ended well for me. Whenever an episode would happen at home, my parents would ignore me for weeks, refusing to address me or even look in my direction. So I often questioned whether my existence was worth it, or if I was just a token to wave around to the people around them.
My only outlet was school. I had always been a good student. No, not just good. I was an exceptional student. I never procrastinated on assignments, and I welcomed schoolwork. I hated weekends and school breaks, because it meant I would be stuck at home. I buried myself in work, even when I was little, so I could avoid interacting with my parents. My high school was predominantly Asian, and I was raised among like-minded families that believed the only way to succeed was to excel academically.
By the time I was in junior year of high school, I was on track to graduate with a 4.0 GPA, with at least 10 APs under my belt, and a 2300+ score on the SAT. I was taking calculus as a junior, and I was barely passing. It was the first time I couldn’t crack a class, no matter how much I studied, how much extra work I did. Because academics had been my primary form of measuring my self-worth, I felt like a wasted human being, and my family felt the same way.
I thought my deteriorating mental health in high school was my own fault. I thought that if I were smarter, stronger, just more, I could’ve done better. I could’ve gotten a higher grade in calculus, gotten into a more prestigious university, picked up more extracurricular activities. It never crossed my mind that any of these expectations were unrealistic.
It took me over two years to finally accept coming to UCSD. In the eyes of my family, it just wasn’t good enough. Many of my friends back home got into Ivy League schools, and never mind that we couldn’t afford it even if I had been accepted, but it used to eat me alive that I wasn’t accepted into a university deemed “acceptable” by my family or community growing up.
As I got older and started to distance myself from my past, I was able to look back on my upbringing from a more objective perspective. I realized now that I spent most of my time asking what my parents wanted or how I could make them happy. Even though I knew I could never please them, I so desperately sought their approval as a child that the habit was hard to unlearn.
The first time I asked myself what I wanted was after my suicide attempt. I was so tired of living for other people, of always putting their needs and emotions before my own. I didn’t even know what made me happy. It was difficult to make even small decisions for myself, and I started to see that it made me an easy victim for people to take advantage of me.
I started with those small decisions. And I had fun with it too. I picked out my own clothes with money I earned by myself. I tried out new makeup looks. I started researching professional careers that didn’t require me to go to medical school. The more I expressed myself, the more small decisions I made, the more I was able to take ownership of my life.
Hundreds of therapy sessions later, I have learned that I grew up with narcissistic parents. It took me a long time to reconcile my relationship with them. Now, though, I find that I have more confidence to stand my ground when they verbally or emotionally abuse me. I’ve learned that they carry their traumas with them, which affects the way they parent and behave. Even so, I have also learned that their traumas are not my responsibility to bear, no matter how they try to force it on me. Honestly, that realization has lifted quite a weight off my shoulders.
It’s been a painful process reconnecting and trying to communicate with my parents. I know that they won’t apologize for the way I was raised, and in all honesty, I don’t need them to. I know that they did the best they could with what they knew, and even though I can’t forgive them for some of the things they’ve done, I choose not to hold it against them.
Reflecting on my childhood has also helped me see the ways in which I have become similar to my parents. I am stubborn, blunt, and independent like my father, and he taught me to never compromise my values if I ever want to hold myself up as a respectable person. I get my drive and sense of duty from my mother, and she taught me that compassion can come in many different forms, even some that are hard to fathom.
I call my parents every Sunday now, and I don’t dread these phone calls like I used to. I don’t know if I could ever move back to that house up north, but I sure wouldn’t mind visiting. Healing, particularly from intergenerational trauma, is a process that takes decades of patience and effort from both sides. I feel like at the very least, I’m finally headed in the right direction.
Ella Chen is the former Editor-in-Chief of The Triton. You can follow her @cinder_ellachen.