When I was 14 years old, and a freshman in high school, my favorite uncle was murdered. He wasn’t just my favorite uncle because he hid chips in my birthday cake or snuck into the backyard at my Halloween party to pound on the windows and scare us half to death (he didn’t earn his nickname “Uncle Rotten” for nothing). He was my favorite uncle because, at the time, my father was divorcing my step-mother in a very ugly end to their marriage and had just started to spiral into a deep depression that would, in just a few years, leave him almost completely debilitated and confined to his bed. My uncle filled that space for me. He wasn’t just like a father. He was a father. He was there to make me laugh and distract me from what was going on at home. He looked out for me and watched over me. He reminded me not to take life too seriously. His presence in my life meant the world.
He was also really, really cool. He bought and sold cars for a living–really cool old cars– drove a Harley and wore leather jackets (this was the early 90s, it was hip back then). The man who murdered him owed him a lot of money and didn’t want to pay it back. So he invited my uncle to his home, shot him a bunch of times in the basement, rolled him in a carpet and left him there. For two agonizing days, all we knew was that we couldn’t find him.
When I think back to that time, the memory I have is of me sitting on the floor of my bedroom, listening to music on my boom box (again, early 90s) which sat atop a short bookcase next to my bed. I remember having been told the news–that they finally found him and he had been killed–but I don’t remember crying. I just sat there for a long time. That’s pretty much how I went through the rest of my teenage years. Sitting on the floor of my life, ignoring the pain, and doing whatever it took to escape it.
I pursued a career in therapy because I personally understood the depths of pain that existed in the world and I wanted to play a role–however small–in healing some of it. The death of my uncle happened during a time when I was trying to find my way and figure out who I was. It also happened in the midst of a whole bunch of other chaos and confusion so, naturally, when I lost him, I lost myself. It took many years to find myself again.
I will never pretend or act like life isn’t hard. I know it is. Sometimes life serves you up a shit sandwich. Seriously. Ages 13-18 for me were a big ol’ shit sandwich (and many of the years before that if I’m being honest). I know what it’s like to grow up in the midst of pain and brokenness. I know what it means to experience loss. And I know how difficult that makes things sometimes.
But I also know that I am not defined by my past. I am not loss or trauma or hardship. I am not my suffering. I have been shaped by those things–of course I have. They have made me into who I am today, both the good and the bad. I am more compassionate and empathic because of them but also more anxious and sensitive to loss. But even that doesn’t dictate who I am. I just have to work around those sensitivities and be conscious of when they’re triggered.
So here’s what I want you to know this Monday morning:
You are not your tragedy, your struggles, or your pain.
Don’t let those things determine who you are or what you will become. Learn from them, feel from them, but don’t let them drive your life. And if you find that they are–if you realize that you’re allowing your past to sit in the driver’s seat–seek help. If it weren’t for the time I spent in therapy, I’m not sure I would have been able to leave my past where it belonged and move forward unburdened by it (thanks, Paige). Maybe your past includes trauma and loss, maybe it doesn’t. Maybe your past is full of disappointment or unfulfilled expectations. No matter what has happened, you are not defined by it. Take time to understand its effect and then move forward. Get up off that floor. You are worth a future unencumbered by the past. You are worth living the life you were meant to live.