College Student Struggling with Unhappy Childhood

Reader’s Question

I am glad to have found a helpful website like yours because I’m in need of advice from a certified psychologist like yourself. Any practical advice that you can give to me will be immensely appreciated. My situation is an unhappy one that I have no control over. I am a 19-year-old still living at home, and my relationship with my parents is very strained. I feel alone and I am frequently withdrawn because they do not provide the emotional support that I need at this stage of my life. Let me give you some background details so you can better understand my situation.

I have lived with my paternal grandparents ever since I was born. My father, mother, grandparents and I all lived in the same household but when my father passed away we moved into separate apartments. I was 8 years old and at this point I made the very personal decision to stay with my grandparents, leaving my mother on her own. I was never attached to her because she worked a night shift, and all the nurture I received was only from my grandmother. Though it does not matter now, much of what I remember of my father is drunkenness, domestic violence and his frequent stays in jail for DUI citations. My mother likewise was unstable and physically and verbally abused me when she did not have money for her nicotine addiction. Grandmother was the patient and loving one that always attended to my needs, and my grandfather showed his caring in more reserved but equally loving ways.

I grew as a shy and quiet child, largely on my own because I have no brothers or sisters. Being from a poor family, I enjoyed few privileges and luxuries but nevertheless I never went hungry. As the years went by it became obvious to me that my family was emotionally lacking compared to the families of my friends and classmates. Family vacations, verbal declarations of love and encouragement, and even the simple bonding experience of sharing a meal together where never a part of my family’s routine. I felt lonely, embarrassed and awkward when others told me of these pleasantries in their own lives. So immense was the feeling of loss and yearning that I would cry myself to sleep at night making sure that nobody heard me. I also realized that my family was lacking in other areas; both of my grandparents did not graduate from elementary school, stopping at third grade, and they were largely unable to help me with my homework assignments. This I learned to accept in quiet desperation as well.

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My family’s poverty, emotional and intellectual lacks were and still are great sources of unhappiness to me. For all of these I have found various ways to cope ranging from friendships and outside activities to school work and even resignation. But the pressure became so great combined with the new troubles of adolescence that I became chronically depressed. Only after seeking professional advice from several psychologists for two years did I begin to feel like myself again. With such hard times behind me and eighteen years in my life I was determined to break free from my situation by going off to college. There, I reasoned, I could at least breathe easier and reinvent my life to always look towards the future and to create happy memories. However my depression had affected my grades to a point that I could not be accepted by a four year university, so I made the choice to enroll in my local community college.

This was extremely defeating for me because it would mean that I would have to live at home, and all my family’s burdens are still a part of me. I know there is no hope for my family life to improve because my grandparents are too set in their old ways and the emotional, cultural and intellectual gap between me and them is just too wide. My grandmother has become increasingly senile and unable to comprehend the very important message I want to give to her. Things cannot heal if she does not understand that they are broken. Please, tell me what I should do. I don’t want either of us to be unhappy, but unhappiness is all that we give each other when we are together. I took a job for one year just so I did not have to come home until nighttime so that we would not argue. But she just doesn’t understand that her words hurt me for more than just an instant; they are hurting me deeply at the core of my soul, of my being. She can’t possibly understand life from my point of view, and all I can think about is running away but I don’t have the means. There is so much more I did not write about but I think I have written enough. Please, what can I do to make things better?

Psychologist’s Reply

By your presence and love for your grandmother over the years, you have given her all the messages that are needed. She has also, within her capabilities, provided you with signals of love and concern. Her current mental state many significantly hinder her ability to understand and even participate in your life at this point. For this reason, you must acknowledge that she can’t understand your life — what you’re feeling, where you’re going, or even help with your problems. She can, however, enjoy your presence in the home for a little longer. You may also, for a short time, continue to enjoy her presence. There is no need to argue, disagree, or try to make her understand. In a way, you may have now become the parent — the responsible adult. You are so busy as a college student that you may find that she argues just to get your attention. Don’t take her behavior personally and try to understand that just as she supported you in your difficult years, the situation is now probably reversed.

As a teenager, we are forced to live the life of our parents. If they’re poor — we’re poor. If they’re abusive and neglectful — we are abused and neglected. Exactly as you’ve done however, as a young adult we have the opportunity to build our life. Some things to keep in mind:

  1. It doesn’t matter how you become a successful, happy adult — it only matters that you strive to get there.
  2. As an adult, few people will ask you about your childhood. Nobody cares. It’s who you are now that’s important.
  3. If you are seeking a licensed career (teaching, psychology, nursing, medicine, etc.), it only matters that you graduate college and obtain a license. A community college degree works as well as a degree from Harvard in that respect. My psychologist license doesn’t include the name of the college I attended and in probably 20 different jobs and consultation contracts — no one has really asked about it. The question is — are you licensed?
  4. You have plenty of time to include the missing aspects of your life and childhood into your adult life. You can “customize” your life now.
  5. With your grandparents fading in their ability to provide support, you can develop a new support system of friends, associates, college staff, and maybe counselors. As a child, my father answered all my questions. As an adult, I now seek the advice and guidance of an accountant, attorney (hopefully not often), fellow psychologist, auto mechanic, neighbors, co-workers, and good friends.

If the stress of the situation is increasing, I’d recommend returning to counseling/therapy. If you are developing depressive physical symptoms, you might want to consider an antidepressant. Your email is very articulate (a common finding in future psychologists ; ) ) so you’ll only need to survive the next few years before your customized life begins. While most college students struggle with classes, I suspect you’ll be struggling with life at home. Cherish these times as in the future they will often be used as an example of how you were required to struggle before your life became your own. I often tell my children and grandchildren that I was born “B.C.” — before CDs, cassettes, computers, calculators, cell phones, etc.

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