I grew up in a city that is often described with words like underprivileged or deprived. For me, my childhood was neither of those things. I grew up in a comfortable home, I had two loving parents, I was happy, fed, safe and loved.
That wasn’t the case for everyone around me, though.
In this week’s interview, Victoria describes what it is like to grow up in a home that is the opposite to what I experienced. She details her childhood and her fears about never escaping the world in which she was born into.
Victoria’s story has every right to be a sad one, but Victoria doesn’t tell it in that way. She doesn’t want to be defined by her past, her childhood or the limits of the life she was born into. She wants to use her voice and her story to prove to the world once and for all the people are not products of their environment, that you don’t have to become who people assume you are going to be.
Victoria shows us all that life is what you make it and it is something to grab with both hands.
In your own words, describe your home life when you were growing up.
The best way to sum up my childhood would be chaotic and unstable. There were lots of adults around doing drugs, my parents were often fighting and we moved around a lot. I slept in the back of cars and lived out of motel rooms growing up. My mother struggled with drugs and my father was an alcoholic. My stepmom is currently in prison for killing the people who adopted and raised her two sons.
Certain memories stand out that really sum up my childhood. I remember hiding food in a small bucket that I kept my clothes in. I put the food at the bottom, a piece of cardboard on top and then my clothes on top of that so that the food was hidden. I had to do it to make sure I had food.
My life has never been a walk in the park. It has been filled with dark things, but that’s what has made me strive to be a bright light in the midst of all the darkness.
What impact has growing up in such an unstable home had on you?
The impact it has had on my life is huge. I was diagnosed with generalised anxiety and catastrophic thinking. I am plagued by nocturnal panic attacks and PTSD. Up until a few years ago, I lived out of a duffle bag because I was too afraid to unpack the small amount of things I had. I always felt like I could be uprooted at a moment’s notice.
One of my biggest struggles has been doubting my worth. I still struggle with this and sometimes I think I am failing, but I have to remind myself that just being where I am today is a victory.
How I grew up has given me a different outlook on life. I am optimistic, independent, strong and resilient. One of the best things about me is that I can look in the face of adversity and not falter.
People who grew up around things like drugs and violence often say that they grew up before they should. How true is that saying for you?
I think it is extremely accurate because, even though you’re a child, you have to become the adult that you need in your life. You have to learn how to feed, bathe and dress yourself from early on. You have to become the person you can turn to. Having to be so adult made it difficult to make friends my own age, but a positive is that I knew how to problem solve from early on.
Was there ever a temptation as an adult to go down a similar path to what you grew up around?
I think from a very early age I came to the realisation that what was going on around me was not okay.
I remember being 8 years old and finding a meth pipe in my older sister’s room. I wrapped it in toilet paper, stepped on it and flushed it down the toilet.
I remember constantly worrying about what would set my father off when he was completely drunk after drinking whiskey all day.
I remember thinking in my head that I never, ever wanted to grow up and be like the people and situations I was surrounded by.
What did you do to escape the confines of your upbringing and carve out your own future?
I can remember being in elementary school, middle school and high school and keeping diaries that listed everywhere I wanted to travel in the world. I would write down lists of colleges that were as far away as possible from everything I was surrounded by. I made maps and plans and finally I moved out on my own at 16, graduated high school a year early and started college right away. I worked as a substitute in classrooms that had kids with rough home lives. I knew I could help there because I knew that sometimes all the children needed was for someone to just listen to them.
I currently work as a special education assistant and volunteer for Camp Ronald McDonald for Good Times; a camp that gives children affected by cancer a free medically supervised camp experience where they can be just be kids for a little while. My whole life has become filled with the want and the need to make a difference in other people’s lives.
Often people from poorer economic backgrounds, minorities or who have faced a lot of adversity from a young age are dismissed as doomed to follow in the footsteps of those that came before them. How do you feel about this dismissal?
I feel like a lot of kids and people like me are automatically haunted by a stigma that just because we grew up like that means that we are going to become the same way. I think a lot of people end up feeling like that is the only way they can live because that is all they know, which leads to self sabotage and the feeling that you will never amount to anything. People continue to follow in the footsteps of how they were raised because you can only be put down so many times before you start to genuinely believe that you will amount to nothing. Not all kids who have behaviour issues at school are bad. More times than not they haven’t eaten the night before or come from abusive families.
Sometimes all a kid needs is a little light, a little guidance. Sometimes you need someone in your life that can look at you and say, “You are not all the bad things you are surrounded by.” Sometimes, like in my case, you have to be that person for yourself.
We need more people who are willing to look at disadvantaged people and help and support them. I always knew I wanted out of the world I was in. I always knew I wanted more, so I worked for it. Some people just need a little support to do that, but I hope more people learn that they do not have to become a product of their surroundings.
What would you say to someone who is afraid that all they can ever be is a product of their environment?
In a way we will always be a product of our environment, but it doesn’t have to be in a negative way. Yes, I grew up in horrible situations, but it has made me strong, resourceful and has given me a completely different outlook on life. I wouldn’t trade where I came from because it made me exactly who I am today. Take what you are surrounded by and make it more.
Another thing I wish people knew was that it’s never too late. When I was 12, my mom went to prison for drugs. When she got out, she decided that life wasn’t for her anymore. She moved to a different state and worked as a medical technician for 13 years before becoming a truck driver. If you realise you are going down that path that you don’t want to be on, it’s never ever too late to veer onto a different road. My mom and I are still working on out relationship, but her health took a turn last year and I’m taking care of her.
Change can happen, you just have to want the change more than anything in this world.
You are not stuck. There is always a way out.
Make plans, have dreams and make those dreams come true no matter what. The only person you should be is exactly who you want to become. When you get there, do not look back unless you are praising yourself on how far you have come.
What things do you think need to be in place to support people in order to allow them to break free of the past?
I think there needs to be more understanding and more resources for troubled kids or kids that come from broken homes. I can’t tell you how many counsellors I went to while growing up and they did nothing. I just needed an adult in my life to help me, but nothing was ever done. I know there are so many beautiful people out there that do so much for disadvantaged kids and adults, but that isn’t always the case for a lot of people.
When you look at how far you have come, how do you feel?
I feel proud. It makes me emotional, but I feel like my life could have turned out so differently than what it is. I am very lucky. That isn’t to say that I don’t also feel sad. Sometimes hearing people talk about how they had family dinners growing up or traditions they built during holidays makes me a bit sad because I never did have those things.
If you could sum up your outlook on life in one statement, what would it be?
A good day is a good day. A bad day is a good story. So at the end of the day it’s all good.