When you learn something early enough you don’t spend a lot of time analyzing it. I didn’t know that any home was different than my own, that any parents were different than mine. They helped to ensure that by reminding me of how important our privacy was, of the things that people don’t talk about. Anything that happens in the house is “personal” and we don’t share personal things. It’s inappropriate, uncouth. As far as I knew, every home was like my own: perfectly presentable on the outside, emphasis on the perfect, violent, terrifying, and confusing on the inside. Like our family, everyone just knew to keep their business private. That’s what I understood. I had a friend, a little boy called Philip, whose father sometimes got violent outside in the garden. I would hide behind the bushes out of sight to save Philip’s pride. His father was an embarrassment, going off like that outdoors where everyone could see their business.
Other lessons, like listening for the sounds outside of my room, determining whether quiet signaled an empty house, people still sleeping, or something more ominous, I learned on my own. I learned to creep down the hall without making any noise, mindful of which floorboards creaked. I sometimes still catch myself walking on tiptoe, for no reason other than habit. I learned to listen carefully for the scrape of a chair, for what might have been the pressure of someone leaning against a wall, for a cigarette being lit, for sounds that should have been louder had someone not been trying to avoid detection. I listened for and catalogued sounds.
Not every lesson was without its fun. I learned to twist and contort my body, to slide across hardwood and linoleum floors to avoid being caught, to run like the wind and to leap over railings and up fire escapes, to jump from the top of the stairs and land safely, rolling my body until I recovered my footing, my heart pounding fast in my chest. And sometimes, feeling particularly heroic following a narrow escape, I continued running long after the chase, leaping the narrow gap between apartment buildings, imagining myself a fictional character straight out of a movie or a book. I was the heroine of my own story. And, because it was unavoidable, I also learned to take a hit. No crying, no yelling out, nothing that might encourage more. Maintain footing, in case escape becomes possible.
Of course, none of those tactics was effective against the psychological abuse. Avoidance was the only thing that worked there. And that was fine by me, I didn’t much like being inside the house anyway. I had a couple of spots in my bedroom that I liked: the top shelf of my built-in bookcase and the shelf in my closet. I could sit on a shelf and read a book for hours, eating soup straight out of the can and happy as a clam, if there was no imminent threat. Out of sight, out of mind. But mostly I stayed away from the house as much as I could and in those days, in those years, that was a lot. This was before the advent of helicopter parents, when kids had a lot more freedom. I don’t think my parents would have been good candidates for that style of parenting anyway: they had enough going on working through their own shit and their own lives to live. Nobody made a fuss about seeing kids out all day long, it was expected. For all of the present day worries, the world outside of our doors was the safest I ever knew as I expect it still is for many children today.
I made friends with the elderly in my neighbourhood, particularly those with dogs, and I never felt self-conscious about knocking on their doors and inviting myself in for a chat and hard candies. We didn’t talk about home, to my recollection no one asked. I would offer to walk dogs or go to the store for supplies or watch soap operas with them or just sit quietly on the couch and look through button collections. One old man never invited me in but lowered a basket from his balcony into the alley with money and a list and when I returned from the corner store he would lower the basket again with payment in coin or in candy and I would load in his supplies. He’d smile and laugh and wave goodbye, like this was good fun we didn’t have every few days, before slipping away from the window and back into the apartment that I’m not sure he ever left.
At other homes I accepted gifts of old hats, silk ties, cotton handkerchiefs, toilet paper doilies, costume jewelry, decorative buttons, ribbon. I appreciated those gifts. They were little treasures or additions to my ever-more-eccentric wardrobe but most importantly they were from people that accepted me and I cherished them accordingly. These old friends of mine made no demands of my time or energy beyond a task they might need done and didn’t notice or mind my quirks, or never said so, and their homes were a good place to go to unwind and distract myself. They seemed to like me. Enough to keep inviting me in anyway. One thing that most endeared them to me, though I couldn’t have articulated it at the time, was that they spoke plainly. No interpretation required. My god, I can’t say what a welcome reprieve that was.
I didn’t rely solely on the kindness of neighbours though. I was a self sufficient kid and, naturally, I entertained myself and made money by whatever hustle I could from a very early age. I collected beer bottles from the parks and alleys and cashed them in at the corner store. I picked flowers from one side of a block and sold them on the other. I painted pictures, wrote stories, and made dandelion necklaces in season and sold them to whoever was buying. I offered to sing or to dance for anyone who would pay and for some who wouldn’t. Sometimes I was just in the mood to dance. I tapped my little heart out in running shoes, a broom handle for my cane, my fedora du jour at a suitably jaunty angle. And I spent that money on croissants and knishes and latkes at the corner bakery and candy at the depanneur. It wasn’t just that buying my own food kept me from going home. It lent to my feeling of being independent, of being able to take care of myself, and very well thank you. That went a long way to countering the helplessness that dominated my home life.
I rode my bicycle for hours and hours, doing circuits through neighbourhoods- up one side of the block and down the other, snaking back and forth. I travelled to neighbourhoods way outside our permissible boundaries, zipping across overpasses and busy roads, racing down hills and struggling up them, my legs straight up on the pedals for a bit of extra help. I often brought a book or I checked one or more out at the library. I loved the library. The smell of it, the quiet, the many, many options to be transported somewhere entirely different. The friendliness of the librarians who recognized me, at all of the libraries I frequented.
If it was summer, I might go straight from the largest library to the public pool across the street. It was cheap and I could always scrape together the money. I would swim and then bake in the sun with my book, poolside. Or I might bike down to Girouard park to check out the action. The park was always packed with kids, some wild like me, some with parents or babysitters, and people playing Frisbee with each other or their dogs.
The junkies who hung out in front of the public washrooms would sometimes have music playing on a boombox and I would dance while they egged me on or just sat with their heads rolled back on their necks. They were good too, like the old people- if not always as friendly at least laid back. And they didn’t seem to find it unusual that this scrappy little girl kept showing up and invading their space, asking questions like, “What does bumbaclot mean?” and, “Why are your eyes yellow?”
When breakdancing took hold, there’d be kids of all ages with cardboard boxes spread flat on the ground doing headspins or windmills or jackhammers. I never could even master the backspin but I tried any time someone offered the space. I liked the mix of casual camaraderie and solitude of the park.
If I’m painting a picture of two worlds, that’s because that is how it was for me. There was the world outside of my doors, which I largely adored, where I reveled in my freedom, or at least could be alone to cry if I needed to without fear of repercussion. Behind closed doors my world was volatile. My mother would want me to mention that it wasn’t a hotbed of crazy all of the time, and it wasn’t, but it was more often than she would admit and things could kick off at any moment. My father might be lovely: a completely doting Dad who couldn’t be more proud of his honour roll daughter. Or he might be angry and violent. He might be drunk. He might be mean. Mum might be on a high, usually when her marriage was going through a good patch, or she too might be vicious and cruel, hysterical or depressed, laid up in bed or scrubbing the house and everything in it to within an inch of its life. It was a crap shoot that was mind bendingly difficult to navigate.
The reason I’m thinking about all of this now is probably obvious: the COVID-19 crisis. It occurred me the other week that a lot of children will be sheltering in place in the most dangerous place in the world for them: home. They will not be able to visit neighbours or friends, schools are closed, the libraries and public pools are closed, anywhere that a kid might hang out or hide is off limits. They will be confined with one or more parents whose moods are not trustworthy at the best of times, and this is certainly far from the best of times. And they’ll be confined indefinitely. The realization made my heart beat so fast I got lightheaded. Most of the time that I think back to my childhood, for all of my troubles, I think of the good times. Outside of the house I was a largely happy if rather solitary and unusual little girl. The freedom, the excitement, the cast of characters- I mean, for a girl who loved to read I was living my very own adventure. But in that moment of realization and connection with children who are, right now, living in an abusive home, I felt the fear as surely as I was back inside that house again, the sheer terror. The thought of not being able to escape, and on a regular basis…
There are kids out there right now living that nightmare. They are terrified. They have nowhere to go to find temporary safety and their parents are undoubtedly more volatile than usual. And one of the problems of shutting off escape routes is that once the rage erupts, it is very difficult to deescalate without time or space. Some children may not make it out of this alive. Some will suffer permanent injuries. Others will develop serious mental scars, the consequences of which may not fully be understood for years. Others still will take their own lives. When you remove a child’s ability to feel safe, even for short periods of time, the helplessness can be overwhelming.
I wish this article was leading to a list of solutions, things that we can do to protect the most vulnerable among us. It’s not. I don’t have any idea how to save these kids. Every potential solution comes with its own side of possible consequences. I was glad to hear Prime Minister Trudeau recognize that this is a dangerous time for a lot of children, and glad that his government has committed money (7.5 million) to the Kids Help Phone. That will, I’m sure, help some kids get through this period. It won’t help others at all.
Abusive people become more abusive in times of stress. That’s just a fact. And right now, the whole world is one great big ball of stress. There are a lot of parents out there who aren’t sure how they’re going to pay their bills, or buy groceries, or whether they’ll have a job, or even a home in the next while. The financial assistance that governments are providing directly to families will help assuage at least some of that stress, depending on the circumstances families found themselves in ahead of the pandemic. But many of them are still confined to homes with the people they are most likely to become violent with and they’re going to beat their children, or they will psychologically manipulate their children into feeling all of the craziness that they themselves feel. Or, in households similar to my own childhood home, both.
That’s a sad note to end this on. I would love to offer solutions but I don’t have any. Intervention is not without its own risk. What we needed to do was ahead of this pandemic and now that we find ourselves in such a dire crisis, the options are limited. We can try to support families as much as possible. We can highlight help lines, both for kids and for adults. We can keep in touch with those people in our lives who we know will require additional emotional and/or mental support. But it’s largely up to the kids to keep themselves alive through this. And if that’s jarring, maybe I’ve accomplished something with this article.
A final note, to the kid who is living their personal hell right now: If you happen across this article, know that I am thinking of you, as are so many other people who you’ve never even met. We are holding you in our hearts and wishing only good things for you. You are not, however you may feel in this moment, worthless. Your life is not without meaning. It’s just early on yet and it’s messy and grueling and bloody but there is hope. You won’t always be where you are now. I’m not going to lie to you and say that this won’t be mind blowingly difficult. It will be. And you’re probably going to go to some very dark places in your mind. But don’t stay there, don’t stay there. You start planning now: plan your whole life out. Everything you want to do, all the places you want to see, what books you’ll have on your shelves, the color of the walls of the apartment you’ll have one day… whatever little detail feels important to you. That’s what lies ahead of you. You have so much life to live. Just hang on.
Kids Help Line: 1-800-668-6868 and website https://kidshelpphone.ca/ Government of Canada site, Mental Health support/links page https://www.canada.ca/en/public-health/services/mental-health-services/mental-health-get-help.html