How My Childhood Experiences Shaped Who I am

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Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, where I grew up. That’s me top, far left. I tried to hide as much as I could.

 

Home Life

My earliest memories are of physical and emotional abuse, alcohol abuse, racial tension, divisive and foul language, death, family turmoil, drug abuse, illness, and poverty; all at extremely damaging proportions.

Conversely, I witnessed love, sexual freedom, a struggle to rise above socio-economic barriers, an acceptance of alternative sexual and gender orientation, and ethnic diversity.

I was profoundly affected by what I saw and heard, how could I not be? In what ways did it shape who I am, determine my values, inform my capacity to love and be loved, create a roadmap for what my life might be like, provide tools for survival, determine my biases, my political beliefs, my predilections, my sexual tendencies, my fancies, my relationships, and my truth.

Psychologists have researched and reported on how your childhood experiences shape and determine who you are as an adult for just about as long as the discipline has existed. About three months ago, Howard Stern interviewed Anderson Cooper (you can Youtube the entire interview; for some reason YouTube does not allow you to post the link). Among the many things they discussed was analysis and how it can help you alter who you are. At one point Anderson asks Howard a very direct question:

“Did therapy save your life.”

Howard quickly answers, “Yes.”

I would respond yes as well. Two of my siblings died as a result of mental dysfunction; one from an eating disorder and the other from an overdose. My deceased sister struggled with poor self-esteem her entire life; the eating disorder was just one manifestation of her numerous problems. My brother, who overdosed, turned to drugs as his only escape. Other siblings struggle with issues I am not at liberty to discuss. I am fairly certain that without therapy, I would have been fucked.

Howard and Anderson spoke about how childhood experiences affect you and how the damage (unless dealt with), remains with you your entire life. I knew early on that I was not in great shape emotionally and psychologically. Doubts about my sexuality and major sleep issues were the first couple of things to haunt me. My first thoughts of suicide were when I was ten years old and I hoped that I would die before my next birthday — I wrote about this in detail in an earlier blog. I did not share these destructive thoughts with anyone until I was well into my twenties. I was ashamed of my feelings/thoughts and did not want to burden anyone in my life.

When I look back on my childhood, I recall that teachers noticed that I was often melancholy and distant. I was frequently asked about how things were at home, how I felt, and did I need to talk about it. I would just brush it off and deny that anything was wrong. Teachers would ask to see my mother knowing she was a single mom with a house full of children. I’m not sure what was discussed, but my mother would just say to me, “Chris you need to smile more and try to have more fun in school; your teachers think I’m abusing you.” I assured my mother that I was well behaved in school (claiming to be happy would have been a stretch).

I loved school. It was the only time I could truly escape from the dysfunction that was taking place at home. I would always arrive early and stay late. After school theater activities were my early therapy. These days, school psychologists spend time with troubled kids; fifty years ago these professionals did not exist on school grounds (at least not in Brooklyn). My teachers coddled me — that only made it worse. The other children bullied me because I was perceived as the teacher’s pet and a “goody-goody.” Admittedly, I did seek the approval and praise of my teachers as a result of not getting it at home; it made me feel special, but I paid the price.

I’m sixty years old and I am who I am. I assure you that this is not a “poor me” moment in my life. I know that understanding where my issues originated helps me to understand and appreciate others. So much of life is about forgiveness; forgiving yourself for characteristics that were born out of adversity and forgiving others for their insecurities, mishaps and home environments.

I had friends here from New York over the last few days. My friend Julie is a very bright woman and we go back many years. She knew me when I had just completed my doctorate (we had this in common). I was passive aggressive, cocky and way too angry for a young man. Julie put up with a lot of nonsense from me back then. We talked about our history while she was visiting me here in Portugal. Julie helped me understand how she perceived my behavior and why she accepted it. I explained how I viewed the dynamic between us. It was interesting to discuss our thirty year friendship and share gratitude for what it is today. Clearly, we have both worked hard to examine who we are and who we’d like to be. This is one of the best things about a long term friendship, you experience life together and apart and revisit what attracted you to the other person to begin with. Too often in relationships, we forget where we came from.

Image may contain: Christopher Papagni and Julie Ratner, people smiling, sunglasses, plant and outdoor
Julie and I capturing a moment in our 30 year friendship. The similar sunglasses was a total accident, but I love it.

 

A Quick Story (over 50 years ago)

It was just an ordinary Saturday night and this happened:

We were sitting around our small television watching some banal comedy show on a very fuzzy screen when three woman strolled into our basement; nobody knocked when they came to our house. Today we call drag queens who dress in women’s clothes, women, because they prefer that we refer to them as woman; they use feminine pronouns. But back in Coney Island in the 60s, they were men dressed up as women and they were, for the most part, rejected by society.

These men in women’s clothing came by to see my mother before stepping out into the Manhattan club scene. These were my mother’s friends and they knew my mother (she was about 30 years old) couldn’t join them because she had small children, but she could help them with their hair and make-up. What I remember was a lot of laughter, a great deal of compassion and complete acceptance; my mother did not judge. To my eyes, she admired and fully embraced their alternative lifestyle. These individuals were colorful, funny, talented, brave, and present. I realize that I have not had a lot of nice things to say about my mother; however, to be fair, this sort of role modeling is the reason I have always been accepting of differences — it’s what I was taught as a child. My mother loved people; people of all shapes and sizes, race, and sexual orientation.

I have learned that individuals who are not very tolerant of differences, more than likely, were raised in a home where differences were shunned, not celebrated. I don’t believe we are genetically wired to hate; hate is something we are taught.

 

People and Places I have Sought Out in Order to Grow

I knew early on, that the only way I would survive would be to find normalcy and attach myself to it. My childhood friend Joey’s parents were happily married and he had grandparents. Grandparents were nurturing and supportive and I wanted that. I endeared myself to Joey’s family and spent as much time at his house as I possibly could.

Education was an essential part of my early survival. Anyone having to do with teaching seemed well adjusted and were almost always helpful. I was always eager to learn and well-prepared — educators appreciated that. I was somewhat aware of my ability to manipulate certain situations; being quiet, complimentary and naive (sometimes I faked this), helped get me a place at the table.

Friends throughout my life have been supportive and loving. I knew that unless you nurtured your friendships, they would not last. Many of my friends have been a part of my life for many, many years; they are my family and I am grateful to them.

I hired a life coach about 10 years ago. Betsy had a profoundly positive influence on my life and I cherish our professional and personal relationship. Having someone ask the right questions can never be a bad thing. If you can afford coaching, I definitely recommend it.

I have had the good fortune to meet and get to know some very bright people in my life:  authors, teachers, artists, creative and caring individuals. These people have helped me to be a better person. Lately, I am more discriminating and selective about who I spend my time with. Part of being more secure and better adjusted, is making the most of your time and life experiences. There is no longer any place in my life for toxic, angry people. No matter how long I have I left, I want to die knowing that I lived life to the fullest. There is nothing wrong with a laugh or two along the way; oh and a really good meal.

Examine where you came from and choose where you want to be. We don’t have much say in our early experiences, however, we do get to pick and choose how we live our lives as adults. Using a bad childhood as an excuse for poor behavior is not always valid. There are certainly times when early imprinting has an impact on our lives, but hard work, some solid therapy and the desire for change, can help you shape your own present and future.

The best thing about this work is that it never ends. Each day brings new lessons and new beginnings. Start the day with gratitude and hope; a lifeline worth preserving.

Namaste.

couple holding hands
Photo by Luis Quintero

Published by

CP

I was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1959. I've lived in several different places, but this is the first time I have resided overseas. My career has gone in multiple directions; however, education is my passion. My Ph.D. in Higher Education Administration from New York University has opened many doors and for that I am grateful. Writing has become a pastime I enjoy and hope to further pursue. The future holds no limitations and I am keeping all of my options open. I have landed in Portugal and there is a vast and beautiful world to explore.

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