I grew up in a house where Friday nights consisted of Dad drunk on the floor shouting, “I love you, Diane!” My mother’s name is Gail. His consistent abuse of me, both verbally and physically, left me in a state of depression. As a child, I was filled with despair and hopelessness. At school, my mind kept wandering off into fantasy land. I couldn’t apply myself, so I couldn’t do well.
When I was 14, Dad took his life. Even though the abuse ended, my depression got worse. I continued to daydream at school and was unable to remain focused for long. I barely passed my classes. As early as kindergarten, I had felt that I was stupid and had no talent or abilities, and that feeling stayed with me throughout school.
During a college fair when I was 17, I began to understand that college was important. My mother had stopped parenting me after Dad died, leaving her stricken with grief and struggling to survive without his financial support. Mom never said anything to me about the possibility of college. Even though I was convinced that I was not smart or capable, I secretly hoped that I would somehow be able to earn an Associate’s degree so that I could get a job as a Hotel Manager. I figured that was better than being a waitress for the rest of my life, which I dreaded.
The idea of college spurred me to fill in the gaps in my knowledge of things that I should have learned in elementary, grammar, and high school. I read every book I could get my hands on in the children’s section of the local library, starting at the third-grade level. I enrolled in three community-college classes and worked as a waitress four days a week, all the while secretly teaching myself what I hadn’t learned the first time around. After a year, I discovered to my complete surprise that I was a good student. After two years, I discovered that college was easy for me.
I then matriculated at a four-year university and chose education as my major. I worked hard. One day I went into the financial aid office to receive a loan that I had taken out, and a woman there told me that I was an exceptional student and should apply for a scholarship. Only a few years earlier, I never would have thought I would even be a college student. But I was awarded a scholarship, and it was the most powerful moment of my life. At that moment, I realized that you truly do not know how smart or capable you are until you apply yourself.
As I was standing in line to receive my diploma on graduation day, I spoke to a former roommate, who asked me what I was going to do next. I let her know that I wanted to apply for a Master’s in Social Work. She told me that her friend, who was much more qualified than I was, did not get accepted to the program I mentioned and that I certainly would not get accepted, either.
I did not let her words of discouragement get to me. In time I not only earned that Master’s degree but returned to my undergraduate college to earn a second Master’s, this one in Psychological Counseling. At that point, I loved being a student so much that it was hard for me to stop!
All my life, I had believed that I was stupid, yet I blossomed into an intelligent and capable adult with a thriving psychotherapy practice. I often teach my patients that anything is possible if you apply yourself. When I share my own experience, it’s very gratifying to see their lives begin to blossom.
Reading Norma’s article I am filled with a sense of encouragment and hope. This not simply a story of someone who survived trauma and hardship, but of one who has emerged better put together and better qualified to help others face the challenges of life. At many turns she could have given up, she could have given in to messages of discouragment. Instead she dug deep inside and has pulled together the pieces of her life. Norma writes in an engaging style that makes one want to read on and be lifted up to reach for what is possible. I am looking forward to more of her writings.
Amazing story well written.funny you learn things about friends and yourself all the time
I empathized totally for what Norma went through as soon as I read it. So confirming to hear that it’s not okay to be told you are stupid as a child! But kudos for her for what she accomplished! Thank you for sharing your story.
Great article, Norma. You have touched upon what so many people miss- that children who are living in chaotic, neglectful, traumatic environments, no matter how bright, often have so much emotional interference, they cannot access and develop their intellectual capacities. I admire your spark and ability to “hope” to allow yourself to continue to grow. Sadly, many people, who are more vulnerable, lose that instinct to survive (emotionally and academically). They fall prey to internalizing others’ criticisms at certain junctures in life, which undermines their efforts to self actualize and succeed. I will surely share this inspiring article with my own clients. Your generosity in sharing your journey can serve as a catalyst to someone who needs inspiration to believe in themselves and take the next challenge. Thank you.