“I want to share!”
The little girl’s hand shot straight up in the air after I’d asked the class of kindergarteners what their first sentences to their lives stories would be. She was sitting erect in her seat, her hair pinned back with an ornate crocheted head band.
I was relieved. Driving the hour-long Saturday drive to teach a writing class to kids barely old enough to recite the alphabet, I’d had serious doubts as to whether I was using my time wisely or simply throwing it away. When I’d first volunteered to teach at the Young Writers Conference, I hadn’t thought it through. After all, how many six-year-olds knew how to read, much less had real interest in writing? This, while the final pages of my own memoir were due to my editor.
I nodded, encouraging the enthusiastic girl to share.
“I don’t live with my parents, but I can visit them a lot,” she said, smiling and looking around the room, “They have issues.”
This was the introduction to her memoir.
Any concerns that I was wasting my time evaporated. I loved that she could speak her truth without bitterness. Such poise. Such confidence. And that brilliant sparkle in her eyes that often dims too quickly in children with hardships was still there. I wondered what her parents’ issues were. I wondered who helped this little one clarify that their issues weren’t her fault.
I remembered my work as a social worker nearly 20 years ago, and how serious a child’s home life had to be before I could remove a child from both parents. The child had to be in imminent danger, most likely due to neglect stemming from parental substance use or domestic violence, or physical and/or sexual abuse. Despite the danger they were rescued from, the very act of removing them from their home was just another trauma in an already beaten up life. So whatever the issues were that this little girl’s parents had, I assumed they must have been pretty bad.
“Thank you so much,” I told her. “I think a lot of people will be interested in your book.”
More hands shot up. Everyone had a story to share. “I broke my arm when…” or “I have two cats.” Pretty adorable and ordinary stories. But I couldn’t forget hers.
As a young mom, I’d exposed my own daughters to many toxic stresses. The domestic violence with their father. Prolonged poverty after I left him. His substance abuse. My unmanaged mood swings. And then a parental child abduction by him that took them to a foreign country for two years. I hadn’t noticed it then, but even before my oldest daughter was kidnapped, she looked wary and tentative. Glimpsing our photo albums later made it crystal clear. Somewhere between ages 3 and 5, her youthful optimism faded. Trust and hope were replaced by gnawing anxiety that interfered with her sleep. Dark circles formed under her bright green eyes, and she looked on the verge of tears in several pictures.
It wasn’t until my daughters were grown that I truly grasped the collateral damage each had endured. There were illnesses, both mental and physical, that interfered with the future I’d hoped would be limitless.
I didn’t get it. All the bad things stopped happening by the time they were 7 and 8 years old. Since then, we’d all gone to counseling. The girls had a great school. Stable housing. Sports. Pets. The whole enchilada. Wasn’t that enough to ensure their resilience? Why were they still struggling?
It was at my job as a juvenile probation officer that I was first introduced to the CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACE Study); that long-term study of 17,000 middle-class people concluded that too many toxic stressors during childhood turn into an assortment of health and/or psychological problems and potentially a reduced life expectancy. I was all set to muscle through yet another initiative to introduce to my already exhausted staff, and instead was stopped in my tracks as a parent and as a memoirist.
This was it. This one study explained spots where we’ve gotten stuck, despite it all. Despite the pets. Despite the supportive community and the trail of talented therapists my kids and I had accessed for the past many years. This was where my own story begins.
“I have a question,” my little student with the crocheted head band twinkled, bringing me back to earth. She spoke without self-consciousness. Just a growing excitement that bubbled forth in her words.“How old do I have to be to get published?”
I want to speak to this child’s current caregivers. While I’m at it, I’d like to meet her parents, too. I want to ask them about the the messages they have instilled in her that have produced such a confident young girl. Because there are a lot of us parents who have issues as we raise our children that unwittingly bleed into their futures.
I told my future author that I didn’t know for certain how old she’d need to be to get published, but I’d find out and tell her teacher later. “Your story needs to be heard,” I told her.
And it does. Countless other children, future authors, and those who step up to help them need to hear it.
Lizbeth Meredith’s memoir, Pieces of Me: Rescuing My Kidnapped Daughters was released two months ago by She Writes Press and is a finalist for the 2016 USA Best Book Awards in the Women’s Issues Category. She works as a juvenile probation supervisor and blogs at lameredith.com.