I collapsed on the kitchen floor crying hysterically, begging him not to leave. He said that he was moving to Newfoundland and wasn’t coming back– then walked out and slammed the door. I fell apart. Something so deep down inside of me broke that night when he left me crying on the floor. It’s hard to put into words. I’m not naive; I know there are far worse traumas a person can endure, but at seven years old, the second my dad walked out that door, my world was knocked off its axis.
Can you guess what happened next? Not likely what you’d expect. A few hours later, he returned to the house. He said it was because he couldn’t leave my brother and I behind, but it was too late– the damage was done. The safety and security I once had was now shattered. In that moment, I learned that people, even those who say they love you, can walk out the door at any moment.
As a seven year old, I was vulnerable. I knew my parents had been yelling and fighting, but I had no idea why. All my developing brain could think was that it must have been my fault– otherwise why would he do this? Why would he leave ME? Clearly, I did something wrong. Maybe, if I just behaved, if I just listened more or made my parents happier, then just maybe they wouldn’t divorce, and maybe my dad wouldn’t leave.
Well, that strategy failed.
The distressing memory of my dad leaving became the first of many more to come as my parents began the process of separating. The separation started off as a nesting arrangement that quickly grew into a high conflict custody and access battle. Given that this isn’t a historical account of my life, I will spare you the details, but I will say their separation was ugly– like U G L Y– UGLY!
The timeline is fuzzy in my mind, but after a long battle, the court awarded my dad full custody of my brother and I. From around the age of 10 until I went to university, I lived with my father. This was the most unstable time of my life. We moved 4 times in 5 years. Our hot water got shut off because the bills didn’t get paid, and I had to boil water on the stove to bath. I was put in a parentified role and set my alarm to get my brother and dad out of bed before going to school. There would be days when my dad would stay in bed all day and miss work: I was so worried he would lose his job– I was 12 years old.
I can’t speak to the struggles my parents were personally facing at the time. As an adult who has spent 15 years processing and healing, I can now acknowledge they were likely just trying to survive. But survival for them looked like me being exposed to the harmful effects of undiagnosed anxiety and depression, alcoholism, gambling addiction, as well as endless amounts of conflict and verbal/emotional abuse. Baggage which took over a decade to upack.
Psychologists suggest that your early childhood attachments impact your relationships throughout the rest of your life. Your closest attachments, generally your caregivers, are the ones that help you foster confidence and security within yourself and your relationships– or in my case, the lack thereof.
Can we just talk about how this impacted my romantic relationships for a minute?
Due to my past, I adopted negative beliefs about myself that I internalized to the core. I believed that I wasn’t good enough, that I was unlovable, and that I was too much for others. By too much I mean that I felt that I needed to make myself smaller or more quiet to be loved and accepted. The reality is that I grew up feeling like love was conditional and that I had to behave a certain way to earn it. I also felt like I had to tame my personality in order to not burden others or ruffle any feathers. I lacked healthy assertiveness skills and was constantly focused on how to make others happy.
I am chuckling a little to myself writing that last sentence now, because assertiveness is certainly a skill I have learned — just ask my husband. I am also at a place in my life where I am becoming comfortable with taking up space. I have goals — big ones– and I refuse to make myself small and live a life I feel others expect of me.
In many of my relationships, I exhibited behaviours of an anxious attachment style, but I had no idea what that was at the time. I always felt crazy, like something was wrong with me, because I felt overly anxious and upset at the first sign of conflict. I would constantly be checking in with the person I was dating to make sure they were ok and not upset with me. Writing this story out, I can clearly make the connection between my fear of abandonment and rejection to the experiences I had when I was younger. But as an adolescent/young adult, I had no idea why I felt this way.
Here’s a funny story to drive home just how preoccupied I was. One night, I was on my way to do an overnight shift at a group home where I worked, when I got into a fight with my boyfriend at the time. I can’t remember for the life of me what we were fighting about, but as I got to work, he hung up on me and turned off his phone. I can’t even begin to tell you the torture that ensued inside my head for an 8 hour shift alone overnight with no one to talk to. I called his phone A L L N I G H T L O N G. I played out every situation in my head, weighed the consequences of leaving work, and felt sick to my stomach. I couldn’t settle until I knew it was okay and that he wasn’t going to leave.
It’s pretty sad really, that my fear had that much power over me. I would have done nearly anything in that moment to make the distressing feelings I was experiencing stop– even if that meant swallowing my pride and admitting that I was wrong when I wasn’t, or dropping an important conversation. In retrospect, he and I were miles away from compatible, and I am thankful to the powers that be that we eventually went our separate ways– and let me tell you, that’s a story all in itself.
The next day his phone, which I am told got turned off by accident, magically turned back on. His provider had sent him a text message for every missed call; that’s how he found out that I had called him 17 times. 17 times! Okay, I cringed a little knowing that everyone including my husband just read that, but listen; if you think about it, 17 really only averages out to about 2 calls an hour while on an 8 hour overnight shift. Right?! No? Still doesn’t justify it? Ok, fine.
My point is this: I had baggage that I needed to sort out. After this relationship, I didn’t date for over two years. I took a long hard look at myself. I put in the work that was necessary to overcome my anger, fears, and resentment. Let me tell you, it was grueling soul work.
It was around the end of the two year mark that I met my husband. He is hands down the best thing that has happened in my life (plus the 3 boys he has given me). He is the most kind, loving, thoughtful, loyal, and family oriented man I know. He is reliable, dependable, and understanding. He has never once made me question his presence or loyality. He has never once dismissed my feelings or withdrawn from me emotionally. He has become my safe and secure place in this world and I can’t imagine my life without him!
But hold on just a second, the feminist in me won’t allow me to paint him as the hero of my story. While he may be my knight in shining armour, I was not a damsel in distress that needed to be saved. I was — and still am– a fighter. I had to tear down every wall I had built up around my heart, brick by brick. I had to patch up the cracks in the foundation. I had to be resilient, to challenge my negative core beliefs, and to confront the hard things in order to heal. Let me tell you it wasn’t easy, and it will continue to be a lifelong journey.
The family experiences I went through as a child were awful, but they made me who I am. Without those experiences I wouldn’t have started The Love Compass, a blog to help people understand their attachment styles and better their relationships, which has surpassed 2 million page views. I wouldn’t have had such a deep desire to help others and gotten my masters in psychology. I wouldn’t have started this platform — I wouldn’t be the person I am today.
My hardships have developed a grit and resilience in me that pushes me closer to my goals and dreams every single day. I can appreciate and find meaning knowing that I wouldn’t be where I am today without them. I can use the pain I felt as motivation to help others.
The number one thing that helped me work through my pile of baggage was therapy. I went the unconventional route of getting therapy’s benefits by doing my masters in psychology — I recommend you go to counseling; it’s a much cheaper option! Therapy allows you to challenge the negative beliefs you hold due to life experiences, and helps you overcome any trauma you may have endured.
If you are out there feeling abandoned and struggling to feel worthy, I see you. I know that your experiences have caused you to feel undeserving, but I want you to consider this: if a flower doesn’t grow or bloom, you don’t blame and fault the flower- you stop and take a look at its environment. Maybe there isn’t enough sunlight or water. Maybe the flower has been mistreated or neglected. It is not the flower’s fault, and the environment doesn’t make that flower any less beautiful or valuable. I want you to know that you are worthy of love, you are enough, and you are strong and resilient. Get out there, reclaim your story, and be your own hero!