Names have been changed.
When I look back at my childhood, I see why I wanted to pretend it away.
I grew up in the Bronx, the only child of a single mother. My father would pop his head in and out periodically, but ultimately, my family was my mother and my beloved grandmother, who lived nearby.
Going to my grandmother’s house was my favorite part of the week. There was never much food in my mom’s fridge, and I was either home by myself or with my mom’s strange friends.
By the time I was 6, I had figured out that my mother was an addict. She seesawed between a loving, strong-minded, intellectual woman and a weak crackhead. Her shame made her disappear for days on end.
It hurt to be rejected for a substance. I was lonely when she disappeared, but when she was home, I wanted her to return to the streets. My mother was as feisty as a lion, and the drugs made her abusive.
My mother’s child, I was feisty too. When she got home from her drug runs, I would confront her: “You don’t even care about me! All you care about is getting high!”
Truth Is Ugly
Facing her truth would infuriate her, and I ended up with a bruised leg, a black eye, a busted lip—and then alone again.
It was my mother who taught me that the truth is ugly and that people will do anything to avoid facing it. When my mother hit me, I knew she was mad that what I was saying was true. When she looked at me she saw her truth—that she was an addict who neglected her child.
Our lives revolved around hiding what was going on. She taught me that dishonesty was normal.
So when my 3rd grade teacher asked me one day if I had ever been on a boat, my instant reaction was to lie and say I had. I didn’t even think twice; it just came out.
When our conversation was over, I felt proud that I had given my teacher an answer that pleased her and made her want to keep talking to me.
That was the first lie I recall telling, and since then, lying has been second nature to me. The truth was: My family was dysfunctional. And I wanted to be normal.
Aunt Leah Too
My mom’s sister lived with my grandmother, and survived off checks from the government. She was five years older than my mom, but my Aunt Leah had a young spirit. We were extremely close.
When my mother yelled or hit me, my Aunt Leah defended me.
I basked in the love and attention of my Leah. It angered and saddened me when she began creeping home to my grandmother’s late at night and stealing from her. I felt deja vu when I realized that my beloved aunt struggled with substance abuse as well.
But while my mother hid her addiction, Leah involved the whole family in hers.
When my mother was on drugs, she left me alone for days. My grandmother would bring me to her house and love me the way I wanted to be loved. When my aunt returned from her drug runs, she would disrupt our peace.
Leah would knock on the door early in the morning, begging my grandmother, “Give me the f-cking money, Ma, so I can go.”
My defenseless grandmother would insist that she had no money and sometimes she’d call the cops. I hated my aunt for hurting my grandmother.
My grandmother and I connected on many levels, including the fact that we both had to watch people we loved fall victim to drugs. She was my only model of a woman I wanted to be. She taught me the importance of justice and modeled empathy, compassion, and the importance of education.
My grandmother accepted her truth—that she had a family that had demons, but she loved us despite it all.
By the time I was 12, I felt as weary as a 30-year-old. When I tried to stay more often at my mom’s house, I felt alone. When I was at my grandmother’s house, I was safe at moments, but I never knew if my mother or aunt would come over and start wreaking havoc.
Truth and the Fallout
I had finally had enough. One day in 7th grade, after coming to school hungry and tired from waiting up for my mother all night, I decided that it was time to tell someone.
I chose my guidance counselor. Maybe she could scare my mother into turning her life around, or maybe involve my dad.
The next thing I remember, I was being taken by police officers to the precinct. I waited in the police station for strangers to decide what my life would be.
I agonized silently: How did you get yourself into this? Ma wasn’t that bad. You should never have said anything. I wish I hadn’t told the truth.
As my leg shook uncontrollably, I received terrible news. My father and grandmother were unable to take me in. I would have to enter foster care.
Everything moved so fast in a matter of hours. I went from my school, to the police station, to an agency, to a random person’s house.
My first foster mother had a nice house in the Bronx where she lived with her two daughters, and now me. Occasionally, other foster children came into the home.
My foster mother was a substitute teacher and a nice lady. She did her best to try to welcome me into her home, but I still knew that it was her home and not mine.
The locked doors, the feelings of being a burden, her saying, “This is my foster child,” when I met new people: I knew I’d never feel like part of this family.
I lay awake for hours that first night pondering what I’d tell my friends about my change of address. They were with their parents and I wasn’t. I didn’t understand foster care, but I knew it wasn’t normal.
Building the Fake Front
At school the next day, I couldn’t focus. I was too stressed about what I was going to tell my friends who lived near my foster mother’s house.
As we got on the train to go “home,” Amber, one of my closest classmates, asked the dreaded question: “Where are you going?”
I said that I had moved in with my rich godmother to be closer to school.
“What about your mom?”
I paused. I hadn’t thought of what to say about my mother. Where was she in this facade? I took a breath and replied that she had to go down to Virginia
to take care of her sister.
There was no sister in Virginia, but there was some truth in my lie, which made it easier to tell. My mother did have a sister and she did need to be taken care of, she was just in New York—and my mother needed help too.
Later, I felt relieved that the lie worked. I thought that my friends would accept what I had said and we would move past it. And we did.
What I hadn’t realized is that I’d have to keep creating lies to support that lie. When friends would ask to come over, I had to make up an excuse. When they asked, “How long is your mom going to be gone?” I had a lie ready just in case.
Believing the Lies
Eventually, I made the unconscious decision to start believing my lies. To make my story believable to others, I created an image in my mind and embedded it in my memory as what actually happened.
These lies became my memories, my reality, and my truth. They were fantasies of what I actually wanted to happen and they helped me survive my stressful life.
I now think this was a form of dissociation.
Dissociation wasn’t new for me. It had helped me survive my mother’s and aunt’s addictions. Physically I was there for the abuse, the neglect, and the trauma. But mentally I was somewhere else, someplace I had created to feel safe around people who were erratic and frightening.
And dissociation by lying helped me deal with foster care. When bad things happened to me, such as a new placement or a reunification attempt gone wrong, my lies helped me forget reality.
When I lied, my family’s dysfunction didn’t define me. When I lied, there was no sympathetic tone or awkward silence from the people I was talking to. I got to be normal.
It took me years to realize that my trauma was suppressed by my lies. My lies helped me survive my life and separate myself from the people who forced me to lie.
Now that I am older and freshly out of care, I realize that my lies have created more problems. To avoid embarrassment, I ended friendships with people who caught me in the lies. I switched schools so often that nobody ever got to know I was in foster care.
I have disassociated so much that I don’t know who I am. I don’t remember what’s real. Now I want to know the truth. I want to understand what really happened to me.
Recently, I have tried to find my real life by combing through ACS court documents and photographs. I figured that if I looked deep enough, what really happened would come back to me, and I would finally understand who I am.
It’s hard to leave the alternate reality I created—I felt comfortable there.
However, the truth is worth exploring. My career choice—helping youth in care—allows me to share my experience and my truth in the foster care system. I have found that has also helped me heal.
When I tell people what happened to me, I tap into a place inside of me that I have been scared to release. Before, I avoided this moment of self-awareness because I was scared of what might arise in the process—the emotions, the heartbreak, and what it all means.
I fear that everything I have fought to create for myself is a lie and everything bad that happened to me was my fault.
However, I have my teachers, friends, and foster care community to remind me that I am not facing this alone like I was in care, and that I have the opportunity to accept my truth and get support with my journey into the future.
And that support helps me in turn help people like me cope. I want to share my journey and my truth, and maybe help others face their truth.
Reality is better than lies because my painful life made me the woman I am today. It’s worth the struggle to love the real me.
In the future, I see me being my most authentic self, without fear of ridicule from others. I already notice that my vulnerability gives me the courage to accept that my trauma wasn’t my fault and neither was my way of coping.
As I unravel my lies, I notice the underlying reason why I lied—to protect myself from others and myself. I am excited to unwrap my truth and be the me I was destined to be.