Content disclaimer: Brief Descriptions of Anger and Violence.
Returning to my childhood is like gathering up the threads of something lying at my feet and following them, these strings, these pieces of yarn, back down the tunnel. As I approach the end, where I began, the light becomes green and golden. I hear the voices of children and feel the wind in my hair and the whoosh of it catching me as I pump my legs, reaching ever higher on the green tree swing in my backyard, hair streaming behind me. Someday, I swear, I’m going to touch the sky. I’m going to reach it. Going to kick a hole straight through it.
The smell of childhood is like the first breath on a cold, frosty morning, or like the smell of a blazing campfire. It’s heady. Nostalgic. Difficult.
It’s hard to go back, because to get back I have to walk back through the darkness that consumed eight years of my life, at least. If you like the dark, have no fear. We’ll be spending plenty of time under cover of darkness. Because this is the last of the light for quite some time.
And I think that the seeds of darkness were always there, even in my golden childhood.
I was born October 19, 1998 at Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, Massachusetts. My parents knew I’d be alive at birth, but they didn’t know much else — the reason being that my mother had contracted toxoplasmosis from one of our cats during her pregnancy. Toxoplasmosis, which causes a mild cold in adults, wreaks havoc on babies in the womb. It can cause sensory issues, microencephaly (a shrunken brain, which is also caused by Zika virus and other viruses), or can result in the fetus’s death.
I hadn’t died. But I don’t think my parents knew when I was born what would be wrong with me. I needed to receive strong cocktails of drugs from the day of my birth, to flush the remaining virus out of my system. I needed to be monitored, so they could figure out what the virus had done to me. Had it impaired my motor skills? Left me with a learning disability? For the first few months, I imagine they just didn’t know.
They’d found one obvious result: a scar in my right eye, rendering me partially blind. The eye doctor prescribed eye patches for me to wear over my left eye — this would force me to use my weak right eye, which would strengthen it. Still, my preschool “yearbooks” testify to their search for flaws. Like I said in a previous episode, I attended an experimental preschool geared towards kids with special needs. The honest truth is that it emerged fairly quickly that my “disability” — bad vision in one eye — didn’t affect my day-to-day life at all. Both my gross and fine motor skills were up to par. And my brain seemed to be working all right.
Since those early years, researchers have connected toxoplasmosis to bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, anger management issues, and depression.
I started having problems with anger — or, rather, the problems with anger became evident — as I got bigger and stronger, and when my younger brother appeared in the picture. Sometimes, I seemed to lose control. If I was angry, I’d attack my mother or my father, even though they were much bigger than me. I sometimes pushed kids in school when I became frustrated or impatient. And this seemed to come out of nowhere, because I was generally a pretty good kid and pretty smart, at least creative, besides.
By first grade, I’d gotten the anger at school bit mostly under control, but the episodes were still happening at home. Once I lashed out at my brother and kicked him down the stairs. I’d actually meant only to kick him, but we were on the stairs. It was as if I had no sense. Another time, I pulled on his arm too hard and yanked his shoulder out of its socket. That happened twice, actually.
Anger is like this: it goes straight to your head. You get all hot and feel like you have to do something to exert yourself. My parents urged me to use my words — after all, Papa showed occasional flashes of the same uncontrollable anger, but he never lashed out physically, only verbally. Words weren’t my strong suit, though, not then. I hated that I got angry and lost control of myself. It made me feel out of control. Afterwards, I would lie in bed hating myself and berating myself for losing my head… again.
My mother signed me up for Tae kwon do, the traditional Korean martial art based around defense, and filled my head with Star Wars metaphors — the light and the dark, the way of peace and the way of violence. I liked Tae kwon do — not because it taught me defense, but because I was good at it and because it made me a better fighter. In after school clubs and on the playground, I routinely scuffled with boys. Once, in Reading Club, I knocked a kid to the ground. The teachers, shocked, sent him to the principal.
In general, it was like no one knew what to do with an angry, unhinged girl.
Eventually, I quit Tae kwon do. The doctor said I should try the 10-second strategy. My siblings and I all had this great doctor, until he became Harvard Vanguard’s head of epidemiology for Greater Boston. “When you get angry,” he told me, “count backward from ten. It could help you calm down.”
The 10-second strategy helped — a little bit.
Below: Photos of me in fourth (left) and fifth (right) grades, towards the end of childhood.
But while this simmering anger lurked underneath everything I did, that’s not how I mostly remember my childhood. The episodes were just that — episodes, few and far between. They were spaced just far apart that I could begin to pretend I had no problems, until another one cropped up.
With the few kids my age I came to call friends, I was almost never angry. I had one great childhood friend in particular; she’s still my friend today. Her name is Marisa, and our parents had met before we were born in the classes meant to prepare them for childbirth and parenthood. Her parents were the oldest couple in the group, and my parents were the youngest. They became fast friends.
Once we were born, we were in the same playgroup. I think that my first memory of playing with Marisa probably takes place at the pool near my house — or possibly at the house of another member of the playgroup, where Marisa and I had a longstanding rivalry with a pair of boys, Ron and Justin. By the time we were four, I would say, we were best friends, and we liked doing everything together. Going to the zoo, playing in my backyard, playing in her backyard, swimming, making up stories… We had a lot of similar interests — she played piano, I played viola, we both loved to read, and we both had exceptional imaginations.
We didn’t go to the same schools, though, since she lived in Somerville and I was in Medford. She pointed out once, after she’d had a falling out with a friend of hers at her school, that maybe we had been able to stay friends for so long because we weren’t seeing each other every day at school. I can only remember having one argument with her — and she pretty quickly diffused the situation.
We developed favorite games. A lot of these games revolved around these little plastic animals we built whole cities for. We also brought them outside and played Nez Perce Indians. I think she’d read about them in a book. We (mostly she) made up languages. She’s studying linguistics at the University of Chicago today, so it goes to show. And we began to write — separately, but then we wrote together.
The first story I ever wrote was a fairytale. I worked on it with my papa. It was about a man who stole cherries from his neighbor and planted them around his house, only to discover that they grew into dark, twisted trees that trapped him inside his home. The next story I wrote was with a friend (not Marisa) in second or third grade. It was about going to the zoo. I have that one, and I’ve included pictures and the end of this.
After that, I began to write “copycat” stories based on a favorite childhood “horse book” series.
My first breakthrough, writing-wise, came in the fifth grade, which is also at the end of the scope of this chapter of my life. By then, I was the “smart kid” in my class. I was far ahead. I’d already perfected my cursive, thanks to my mother teaching me early, and my father was trying to get me started on algebra. Remember, my parents went to Princeton. They never told me I was bright, but my teachers did. My fifth grade homeroom teacher didn’t go as far as to say I was the smartest student she’d ever met, but she did look me in the eye and tell me I was the most curious person she’d ever known. And that, after countless teachers telling me how great I was in the classroom, was a really nice compliment.
I was curious. Still am. It’s one of my foremost characteristics, and I think it’s one of the first things many people notice about me. The way that teacher described it, it was all about the way my eyes moved around, darting around, like they were looking for something new to fixate on.
Anyway, back to that writing breakthrough. Since I was ahead, that fifth grade teacher — who taught math — let me sit out of lessons most days. The first day this happened, I found myself looking at the notebook in my hands, and I decided to write something completely different. I would write fantasy. My favorite book then, after all, was The Hobbit, and I adored The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia. A few years from then, in middle school, I’d be devouring the Ranger’s Apprentice series — books with a decidedly lower reading level, but purely and wonderfully entertaining. Fantasy fed my imagination. Yet I’d never tried to write it. Now, in the corner of my fifth grade classroom, I set out on an adventure called Journey to Avantia.
I wrote away at Journey to Avantia for four months. By the time I finished, I’d filled the notebook. My handwriting, which had already been good, had gotten better. After that, I set out on the laborious task of typing up my work. In this way, during the latter half of my fifth grade year, I learned to touch-type. By eighth grade, my typing speed would clock in at a ripping 110 words per minute on average. During high school, the doctor would diagnose me with carpal tunnel and hand down clunky wrist braces to wear at night (which I’d do on and off).
Back then, in fifth grade, I started off clocking about 35 WPM and worked myself up to 70, a healthy pace. I typed all of Journey to Avantia, finishing sometime in May. The book was around 40,000 words, just shy of novel-length. A good size for a middle-grade novel, actually, which it was. I gave it to my teacher to read and promptly started on a sequel.
I realized something in fifth grade: that nothing made me feel more fulfilled than writing. I loved every minute I spent with words and characters and settings pulled straight from my imagination. And I began telling anyone who told me I’d be a great scientist or politician that I wanted to be a writer someday.
When I shared my ambition with my parents — which always was more of an ambition and less of a dream — they were less than enthusiastic. Looking back on it, their reaction boggles my mind. You’d think that if your child loved something enough to want to do it all the time, you’d at least encourage them at first. Maybe they saw, even then, how much I burned for writing. How much I yearned to write, and do nothing else but write. Maybe they knew from experience how hard it was to get an idea out of my head once it got in.
I guess that’s the thing. The idea entered my head in fifth grade, and hasn’t left since. It is my ambition, my single-minded ambition, to be a writer. At some point along the line, I realized I was a writer. I was writing — and with my blog, I was writing for an audience, not only for myself anymore. In college, I wrote such good essays that my professors sometimes picked them out to use them as examples. Today, I am a writer — and the dream began, the ambition kindled, back in fifth grade.
Writing is one bit of continuity I have left. It’s one of the strings, the pieces of yarn, that lead down the tunnel, that accompanied me out of childhood and into the future. Alone in the darkness, I bled words. I bled and bled and bled until words were the only thing left I had to bleed and the only hope that remained.
Right now, imagine me. I’m in fifth grade, near the end of childhood. I’ve realized I love to write. I haven’t told my parents yet, but I will. I guard my writing, keeping it close to my heart, sharing it only with a few special people who have encouraged me. Something else has happened in fifth grade: I’ve witnessed something I haven’t told anyone about. I haven’t told you yet. But what happened, little as it may seem in retrospect and though I don’t necessarily know it yet, has left a mark on me.
I don’t yet know that writing is going to save my life.
For more information about This is Not a Sad Story and links to previous episodes, visit this page.