I have lived in Philadelphia, in poverty, for most of my life. I remember the smell of mold and mildew. I would watch as my most valuable possessions were destroyed by them. The smell of decay was all around me. I remember being cold and being in houses with no heat or hot water. My stepfather would use gray duct tape to wrap around the cords of the heaters when they burned out, so we could keep using it. Yes, it was a fire hazard, but who cared – the heater was keeping us warm. On occasion you would hear a sizzle and a pop from the heater. Despite our efforts we were still cold.
We never had a working kitchen. My mom would cook food at her parents’ house and then we would take the food back to wherever we were staying at that moment. Most of the places we lived in had no running water and were very unsanitary. We would also go to my grandparents’ house to take baths and we got used to defecating in shoe boxes, putting it in plastic bags, getting on the bus and just throwing it out the window into a lot or something. People who are raised like this simply pass it on down the line. And you grow up thinking that it is ok to live like this.
As for food, we didn’t starve. But we were hungry. We ate whatever we could afford. This is where the past affects the present. Today I’m somewhat of a food hoarder – I’m afraid of not having enough food for my family and me. I know what it feels like to be hungry but not have the food that you need or want. I have to constantly remind myself that I no longer live that way. But it’s the only way I’ve ever known. I don’t take showers, only baths, because I’m not used to it. If I do get cold or hungry I have learned how to deal with it. It’s like when you are being raped and you go out of your body to survive. That’s what it’s like when you are born into hunger and into a dirty, unhealthy environment. This kind of living goes back in time, too. If your parental figure is used to living that way, it’s likely because their childhood was the same way. You are stripped of your dignity. You are ashamed. Your soul feels like a bottomless pit. You feel less than human. The hell that I know came from the environment that I was born into. Now I am in my thirties, and I’m still haunted by the trauma and food insecurity.
My scars run long and deep – they will always be there. The long lasting effects of trauma stick with you. But I refuse to let my past dictate my future. My memories keep me humble. I’m shaped not by the commonly accepted “fact” that since I grew up in poverty I have to live in poverty now. Instead, I’m shaped by the idea that while you can’t change the past, you can change the future.
When I go into a market and see and smell food I feel bliss. It’s like I just won the lottery. To know that I can buy a steak if I want to or some seafood is a very priceless feeling. To be able to run hot and cold water is a blessing.
Today I am far from my childhood of mold, cold, and hunger. But even though I’ve healed so much and don’t have to live that way anymore, the effects of early poverty and trauma are still a part of my being. They shape me into the woman I am today. A woman who is motivated, and works hard to make sure that her daughter will have more opportunities than she had growing up. I take what I saw and experienced as a child, and use that to drive me to be a better person for myself, for my family, and for others who live through the trauma of poverty.