The Dark Truth About Childhood Trauma and the Curse of Exulansis

Danielle Dahl, MSML

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Photo credit: https://unsplash.com/@cedericvandenberghe

Story originally published in Literally Literary

When I was a small child, I didn’t tell anyone what life with my mother looked like, out of fear. Fear was an emotion that was easy for me to recognize: manifesting in a panic that they would take away me from her (and placed somewhere even worse), worry that she couldn’t survive without me, and concern that she would get into trouble.

Part of me knew it wasn’t normal for a four-year-old to make her mother coffee, pour it and carry it in the bedroom, and upon arriving there, with little burnt fingers, try to coax her mother awake from a drug-induced stupor. It didn’t take long for the neglect to become too much to deny.

After several failed attempts to reach my mother and let her know I was on the verge of having to repeat kindergarten, the school called my grandma. I didn’t always do a superb job waking her up in the mornings. Her shifts at the strip club left her too high to function. I missed more classes than was deemed acceptable. The adults determined that moving in with my grandma would be the best solution.

After leaving my mother’s house and moving in with my grandma, I felt a different kind of anxiety. This was the sort that whispered:

No one will believe you because your life looks picture perfect from the outside.

I now lived in a beautiful house, had nice clothes, and went on many trips and vacations. It was a drastic change from mustard sandwiches and filth. Everything was perfect, down to the fresh vacuum lines on the carpet that no one could walk on.

My grandma showed love and affection through material purchases. As a child who had little, these things were extraordinary; but I quickly realized that they were tools. It was the method in which she established control. Failure to comply with her demands was met with physical and emotional punishment.

The few times I tried to tell people how emotionally and physically abused I was at my grandma’s house. Those people found it so hard to reconcile my words with the woman they knew and would make some comment to her in passing. Trying to talk about my experiences managed to incur her wrath. She would hit me while saying things like, “You want to tell people how terrible I am, I will call CPS for you myself. Then, you will have it even worse.”

Exulansis n.- The tendency to give up trying to talk about an experience because people cannot relate to it-whether through envy or pity or simple foreignness- which allows it to drift away from the rest of your life story.

This word, found in the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows (John Koenig), is a truth about my life that I didn’t know how to describe. The name of the dictionary itself explains how I felt as a child suffering trauma…obscure and sorrowful. Nothing but a little lost girl playing by the river with a dead bird that had washed up along the shore.

My friends were passing kindergarten while I was struggling. Doing so, even though most of them still ate the dry macaroni used in noodle art (I started kindergarten in the ’80s, where we still glued pasta to paper and took naps, what can I say). I inherently knew the reality of my life was beyond their understanding. The situation, so foreign to them that they wouldn’t know what to do if I told them, so I stayed silent. Hoping that if I didn’t speak the truth into the universe, then I too could just happily glue my fingers together, and all the fear would drift away.

As I grew into a teenager, my friends were dealing with things like grades, their love interests, and the general malaise that is being a teenager. I sensed that now was not the time to discuss my most profound issues. They couldn’t help me understand why my mom always broke every promise she ever made. It wasn’t their job to help me ease the loneliness that being abandoned by both parents causes. It was too foreign for them to understand that I could no longer recall what my father looked like or how he behaved.

But based on my grandmother’s reaction to nearly everything I did (including putting ketchup on my eggs), he must have looked and acted like me. And I knew then that deep down; she couldn’t love me fully because she despised him so thoroughly.

I had spent years knowing this was too foreign of a concept for my peers to understand, but as teenagers do, I began to share a little bit more of the story that had been my life thus far. The chosen few, I would start to tell, started to feel pity. And that is worse than a lack of understanding.

Pity makes me uncomfortable. I know you are trying to find a way to understand what I am saying. You feel bad that this happened to me, even while secretly wondering if I’m embellishing the truth.

I had shared some of my writings with an elderly friend not too long ago. She also had a traumatic childhood, though hers differed drastically from mine. She kept saying how sorry she was and how remarkable I am for doing so well. All I wanted to do was slink away to the shadows and hide behind my laptop.

I didn’t want her pity. I also didn’t want to feel like some other trauma survivors might envy my achievements.

That is the worst of all the reasons to succumb to the powerful lure of exulansis. Please do not envy me. I am not some perfect being or some elusive mythical creature. I have taken a picture of my perfect Thanksgiving dinners and shared it on social media for years for all the world to see because I needed to prove my normality. I wished to create perfect holidays, to block out the memories of all the ones my mother and father missed. Or the Christmas I received a beating on because I was so overwhelmed by the foreign family members who came to visit. The cousins, who were invited to share my bedroom, didn’t speak English, and it was hard for four teenage girls to communicate. Not for the first time, I felt like a bother in my own home. The home, that part of me had always screamed, was never mine anyway.

The juiciest turkey, the symmetrical tree, the Norman Rockwell traditions, they are all an attempt to allow these memories to drift away from the rest of my life story.

Dispelling the Curse for Good

But exulansis is not the answer, and it was never the way to flourish. These last months have been an exercise of healing. Therapy has helped because we talk about my experiences extensively. We still have plenty to delve into, but at least I am telling the whole story. Which just might be the trick to breaking the curse. Writing is wondrous because I don’t see the pity in your eyes or the tears as you read my words. I will keep speaking my truths, and I hope you do too. The relief in finding those who understand, seeking a purpose, and writing the story of my life is palpable.

I will no longer allow fear and exulansis to become the needle that sews the lips of my soul shut. And neither should you. Speak. Write. Shout. Do whatever you need to do to reconcile your childhood’s realities with the adult version of you that you are becoming.

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Words matter. Sharing the pain and evolution found in our life stories compels others to investigate, “How they came to be who they are?” Delving into the events that shaped us as children creates a level of self-awareness each of us can use to establish enduring and essential change. I use my personal history, education as a Management professional, and training as a Life Coach to write insightful articles about leadership and teams, personal development, and everything else that pertains to growth, both professionally and personally.

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