Names are important. Lake Placid. Mount Poke O Moonshine. Adirondacks. The places themselves are important, but the names somehow, mystically, give substance to the places when we are not there anymore.
These are names that I have carried with me since childhood, while the places themselves have only vague substance in my memory. I was too young to remember much more than the names and the feelings attached to them.
Feelings are important. Yet, as I grew up, I learned not to trust feelings. I got hurt and didn’t want to be hurt and so I learned defense mechanisms to push away and cover up the feelings I didn’t want to feel.
But let me back up.
Before the defense mechanisms started, life was good. My family lived in upstate New York, in a small town near the Adirondacks, and we went hiking on Mount Poke O Moonshine and canoeing on Lake Placid and my school was wonderfully supportive of my delayed social skills and the teachers deliberately helped me with friend-making and I played with my friends at school and at home and the school also provided advanced academic support to keep me engaged and appropriately challenged and my Girl Scout troop was active and filled with interesting kids and then…
We moved to Southern California. Moving is so normal that it is not viewed as a traumatic event, but for me, it was. In that one move, I lost much of what was good in my life, and didn’t know how to deal with that loss.
The urban tree-lined streets were no substitute for the forests of the Adirondacks that I loved, family outings became uncommon and we stopped hiking altogether. My new school was academically about two years behind my old school, and there were no advanced programs to feed my intellectual cravings nor did my teachers even try. My new classmates had all been going to school together since Kindergarten and were not open to welcoming the new kid, and the teachers again did not help; rather, they more subtly joined in on picking on my differences. The new Girl Scout troop was likewise cliquey. From that point on, I only occasionally had a few “school friends” and never again had more than one “home friend” at a time until college.
I am aware that I am somewhat idealizing upstate New York, which was not 100% wonderful, and demonizing Southern California, which had its good qualities, too, but what I am not making up—I checked with my mom—is the dramatic difference in my behavior between the two.
When we moved to California, my hiding behaviors started. And my escapism fantasies. And quietly entertaining myself in class behind the teacher’s back when I was bored—and I was usually bored. And that is when being intelligent became an integral part of my identity.
My ego decided that if the other kids were going to reject me, then I would likewise reject them on the basis that they were all “stupid” and I was smart. I started reading Shakespeare solely because I had heard that it was hard, and would recite passages of Romeo and Juliet on the elementary school playground to annoy the other kids and announce to the world how smart I was. I also started doing schoolwork on yellow legal pads—it felt smarter and more adult to me—although I wasn’t clever enough to realize that sending an anonymous note to a classmate on that yellow legal paper wouldn’t keep my identity secret. That only happened once.
And socially, moving to the big urban sprawl felt like being thrown to the wolves. In New York, in a small town on the edge of the Adirondacks, with teachers who accepted my social difficulties and supported them, with kids who liked me even if I was a little different, I hadn’t yet developed any hang-ups around social stuff, or any feelings that who I was was not good enough. In California, I learned shame. I learned that I was not good enough.
I did not know how to behave for them, was not given the tools to learn, and my newly minted, intelligence-dependent ego took particular offense to this knowledge gap, spawning social anxieties and defense mechanisms that would grow gradually with time and blossom when triggered at certain points in adulthood.
After recently visiting family in Connecticut, I wanted to see again, for the first time as an adult, the places of my childhood that I have idealized and longed for all these years. First the woods, and then home. My old home. In the town were I spent close to the first four years of elementary school. I found that old school, which is still a school more than twenty years later, and down the street I found my old house.
Now here I am, back in the place that holds the most unequivocally happy memories of my entire life so far. I’ve spent the last couple of days driving through the Adirondacks, finding the familiar names, visiting Lake Placid and Mount Poke O Moonshine and camping in the woods I so loved as a child, where my heart felt free.
I parked around the corner from our old house so as not to look too much like a stalker as I stared at that house for several hours, crying, talking to a friend on the phone, crying, talking to my mom on the phone, and crying some more.
I came here for a big catharsis, but was still surprised by the intensity of it, and the direction it took. It wasn’t so much for the little girl who loved her life here, but for the little girl who had to leave the life she loved and never had it as good again. Ever.
This is grieving. Grieving what that little girl lost. What I lost.
Grief is important. Acknowledging what I have lost, and honoring what it meant, and still means, to me.
Pause. Deep breath.
It wasn’t until I was back, parked in front of that yellow house, that I realized where my social anxieties started and why, and where my hiding behaviors came from, and the deep-seated need to escape, and when it was that my ego latched on to my intelligence as the most important thing about me and started disparaging everything I didn’t like as “stupid.” When I started not liking myself.
More accurately, those defense mechanisms and anxieties slowly formed me into the person who, several years later, I would no longer like being: a scared, insecure shell of who I had been. But not until recently would I realize any of this.
I cried for the little girl who lost so much, and for myself, who is still that little girl. But somehow, mystically, as I cried and talked and cried some more, the grief began at last to heal and I started to feel hopeful.
That scared little girl who moved away and felt lost and alone is still inside me, as is the little girl who loved this small town near the woods.
She feels like the best possible version of myself. The one who was loved and supported and encouraged in every way that she needed and who felt completely and utterly safe, who was curious and intellectually stimulated without ego or anxieties. And that happy girl can be there for, and comfort, her older, hurting version, whenever she needs it. And along with all of my other parts and my core self, we can together build a new life that we will truly love. Become a Me that I will unequivocally like.
Which suddenly feels more possible now than ever before.
That night, in memoriam to years of coming downstairs on Saturday mornings and watching Star Trek: The Next Generation when I lived here, I watched the season one episodes “Haven” and “We’ll Always Have Paris,” both exploring what might have been, or could be, as choices are made in life.
Choices are important.
And what happens to us, that we have no choice about, is important.
I’ve often heard that it isn’t what happens to you, but how you respond to it, that matters, but I would disagree. I think both are important. Both shape us. Both change the direction of our lives.
This move changed what would be possible in my life, what opportunities I would encounter, what people I would meet, and how I reacted to those also changed how those would play out.
I feel on the verge of another important choice now, but it hasn’t quite emerged yet. I have learned, in this Journey, to give these things time. It will come when I am ready. Stay tuned for that. It’s going to be big. I can feel it.
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