To the Students of PHC: Talitha’s Story

Homeschoolers U

HA note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Talitha” is a pseudonym.

I came to Patrick Henry College as a girl with big dreams and a go-getter attitude. Maybe my dreams were too big, but I was prepared to work hard to get where I wanted to be. After surviving a life of poverty, I realized that nothing comes free in life. During my high school years, I never knew if I was going to have food on the table the next day. My experiences with being low-income motivated me to do well in life — both for me as well as for the people I loved and left behind to attend school.

It was ironic, then, when I stepped on campus and people automatically labeled me: “Oh… that rich girl.”

At first I was flattered that people thought my thrift-store business casual wardrobe was akin to designer fashion. But I soon realized it wasn’t about my clothes at all. Sure, they judged me by the color of my hair and the fact that I wore high heels. But eventually it became clear it was more about my attitude than anything. I was too assertive. I raised my hand in class when I had something to say. I ran for student senate. I actually talked during senate meetings. I attended all sorts of club meetings. I helped run several clubs, in fact.

I did these things because, for me, this was a second chance at life. I had an opportunity to be a part of something regardless of my financial status. Through good grades and test scores, a crap ton of volunteer hours, and demonstrated dedication to several part-time jobs, I was able to attend PHC alongside the sons and daughters of millionaires. I was thrilled to get the educational opportunity of those in the top bracket. I dove in head first, because I was so grateful to be a part of the campus community. I wanted to make the most of my time there.

But apparently, people (especially boys) didn’t like that.

Be involved in the community, but not too involved, otherwise by default you’ll be smeared by people envious of your success.

Something PHC people don’t realize is that the moment you say something bad about someone behind their back, it’s as if you’ve said it to that person’s face. The gossip travels so quickly that it’s bound to get back to the person you smeared. I can’t tell you how many times I heard, “hey, guess what so-and-so said about you?” and “oh, you wouldn’t believe how she talked about you.” “Guess what he said about you during coffee??” I lived with the rumors every day, and I was called atrocious things by people who said they were my friends.  They thought I didn’t know, but the echo of the rumor mill ensured that I heard the same things they did.

I was called vain, a flirt, a suck up, a fake, a slut, bulimic, insecure, too ambitious, and disingenuous.

There finally came a point where I couldn’t believe they were “just rumors.” Something about them had to be true, right? Even though sometimes — when I walked into a room — I could see people look at me and start to whisper, I just tried to push on. Success never comes easy.

I couldn’t keep my head up, though. Despite all my efforts. I began living constantly terrified of what people thought of me. Without realizing it, I allowed the rumors to isolate me. People didn’t understand me, because I didn’t let a lot of people in. Although I looked okay, I had a wall up — and instead of getting to know me, people were quick to make accusations and judgments.

The next year wasn’t much better.

Why?

Because my professors recognized that I yearned for more responsibility, and gave it to me. I was put in charge of numerous projects and clubs, but with that, a level of authority my peers were unwilling to accept. I had “Christian” classmates calling me a “bitch” because they didn’t want me in a position over them. I had close friends call me “unapproachable”, one going so far as to personally smear me to professors so they could get the position they wanted. It was unbelievable, and I was deeply wounded.

I struggled severely with depression the entire year. But my classmates were too busy resenting my work-ethic that they didn’t notice.

Everything I did, someone questioned my motives, or called me a name. It got to the point that I could barely ask a question in class, without someone rolling their eyes at me or looking at me strangely. Every day, I wanted to crawl in a hole, and disappear. No one came to me to ask if the rumors were true. I felt completely isolated and alone.

RAs, tasked with enforcing dress-code, seemed to take a special liking to me. I would get dress coded at least once a day, and I lived in fear of “sending the wrong message” that I was a rebel. I wanted acceptance, but I began realizing that it would never happen at this place.

There comes a time when success in school isn’t enough to get you through the day. It’s not worth losing friendships over. It’s not worth the pain of people’s jealousy. At the point where I spent three days in bed, not getting up to eat or do anything, I realized I was done trying.

Congratulations, PHC, you broke my spirit.

The girl who was once confident, secure in herself, and goal-oriented is now confused, shaken up, and alone. She feels like the world is against her, simply because she wanted to make something of herself and make the world a better place for those who come from similar backgrounds of poverty and abuse.

On a campus that encourages excellence, I am, to this day, shocked at the hate people get when they succeed. The name calling is like they’re still in high school.

To the students of PHC: You, and your small comments and judgments, could be pushing someone deeper into depression every day. The person you see as an object of gossip also has feelings. The person who looks successful is actually torn apart inside because of your mean words.

I guess I was an easy one to pick on, but I hope no one else has to go through this. As I return to PHC this fall, I’m still wrestling with isolation and depression. I have panic attacks thinking about returning and I worry about what dramas await when I walk through the doors into my first class of the year. I will not be participating in the clubs, events, and senate that I have in years past. I’m withdrawing, but not altogether. I am crushed, but I’m not a quitter.

I need a semester to heal.

The Psychological Cost Of Not Being Provided For

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HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Sarah Henderson’s blog Feminist in Spite of Them. It was originally published on her blog on October 3, 2013.

Children not getting what they want certainly does not constitute child maltreatment, and historically isn’t uncommon. The societal construct of childhood has changed several times in last few centuries, with ebbs and flows in the level of freedoms, rights, and responsibilities children have at various ages.Children have not always had childhoods. However, children have always depended on their parents to provide for them. Sometimes children who are not cared for are removed from their parents, and historically some children who were not cared for died. Children who are not provided for, know.

It is a painful realization that through choices made by parents of their own free will, a child was not given what was needed.

My siblings and I had more responsibilities and less rights than is considered typical in current society. Part of this including not really having our own possessions, and not being given new belongings except for a few
notable occasions. We were not entitled to our own space, in fact having a right to possessions and space was contraindicated because of my parents’ belief that having too many rights would make a child feel entitled and cause corruption.

It isn’t the loss of possessions ‘that could have been’ that is the problem. The loss factor in not being “provided for” lies in the reason it happened. In the case of my family, there are several reasons that we lived an essentially impoverished lifestyle. My father did not work regularly, although he did have several different jobs for short periods of times over the years. There were simply too many children in the home to properly care for on the child tax credit. The choices my parents made, including various business attempts, meant that even when there was money, it was not spent in a way that contributed to the well-being of the individuals in the family, or the family as a whole.

My father believed that he should not have a job in an organization where a woman was in a position over him in the company hierarchy in any way, even if he never interacted with them. This belief came into play over time, as he further and further restricted his job options by becoming more strict over the years about what his interaction with women could be in the workplace. It had originally started with not being able to be a peer with a women or have an immediate supervisor who a women, and then expanded to include most organizations by default. Not having a job most of the time naturally resulted in not having enough money to provide for the family. My mother never worked because my parents believed that her place was in the home being a homemaker.

My parents disapproved of welfare, and in hindsight I realize that they would certainly have not been eligible for welfare, given that two able bodied people cannot sit at home and receive welfare.

They did receive the Canadian child tax benefit, and when you have 9 children under the age of 18, it turns out that that benefit is not an insignificant amount of money – still not enough to properly care for that many children, but there was more money than we were led to believe as children. This money was spent mainly on groceries and “business expenses”, and on housing costs, however my family never had very high housing costs because my parents owned properties and stacked many children into very small spaces. They also kept expenses under control by gate-keeping the use of heat and lights.

My parents had a number of businesses over the years, so many that it is difficult to keep track of all of them.  There was a furnace selling business, in which my father spent a great deal of money on pamphlets and a floor model and a trailer to pull the floor model (it was the size of a garden shed), entry fees to farm shows, and advertisements, and in the end sold less than half a dozen over two years. There was a wood selling business in which my father bought chain saws and other equipment like protective pants and helmets and gloves, and then piled firewood up near the road and behind the house and sold it to passersby. The money earned through this simply could never pay for the amount of labour (child labour and his own) and start up costs. We did not burn wood in our own house.

There were yearly attempts at market gardens. These were family exercises, in which we all went out in the spring (homeschooling did not interfere with this) and dug up the garden by hand and with a rototiller that my dad spent thousands of dollars on to maintain every year – for some reason it never worked and he had to take it for servicing literally several times per year. We then put about $100 worth of seeds in the ground. Most of it never came up. My sisters and I tried to water the garden with buckets, but we couldn’t water an acre of garden by ourselves. Depending on the year and what stage of child-bearing my mother was in, some of it was picked and some of it was left to rot in the garden – my father had always lost interest by this point and was off working on some other ‘home business’. We never really sold much. We sometimes paid for a farmer’s market booth and tried to sell there, however never earned as much as was spent on seeds. We also preserved some of it through canning and freezing.

Because of all these financial decisions, my parents did not provide the basic necessities to us. Instead they depended on the charity of acquaintances, even for such dubious items as hand-me-down underwear. Underwear for children, even 9 children, is very cheap, but my parents decided to ask other families to give us their underwear that was no longer wanted. And they did. They were also given ratty dresses and shoes and pants and shirts for the boys. We sometimes wanted new items, but we were shamed for not being grateful to the church families for giving us their castoffs, and were forced to wear the cast offs to church and thank the parent and the child who gave the clothes personally.

My parents always seemed to be able to provide for their own needs.

My mother wore hand me down clothes sometimes, but usually other women made clothes for her. My father always bought his own clothes, likely from Salvation Army, but it did not go unnoticed that he was allowed to not prostrate himself to others and beg for clothes. They also seemed to be able to squeeze in date nights, even when they were barely speaking to each other and we were on a steady rotation of oatmeal, rice, and rice. They sometimes bought steaks and had them after we went to bed. They always had coffee in the mornings, even when they couldn’t afford anything else.

It was very hard for us to see other children get some of what they wanted and everything they needed, and even to see our own parents have what they wanted, while we were not allowed to have what we wanted. When we did have treats or get new things, we hoarded them and saved them and bragged to our siblings. We would take as much as we could of free things. Our parents tried hard to make sure that we viewed desiring things as a sin. Even expressing a desire for something was enough to put it completely out of reach. We were taught to put ourselves down for wanting things. We were taught that others were entitled to what they wanted, but we were not. Because we had to take what others no longer wanted, we felt like the trash of the church. We were taught that what we wanted was not important.

The psychological cost of not being provided for was a loss of self-worth. It took many years to realize that we are worth the same as others. It was quite an experience going shopping for what we wanted in the mall. Now that I work full time, and I get cheques regularly, it is still a weird feeling to see that we have enough money for what I want – not to mention what I need. I sometimes have to force myself to see that it is ok to buy a few new shirts even if I still have some. The decision to withhold basic necessities of life and let children depend on the charity of others, by choice, is intrinsically harmful and teaches children that the world is a dangerous place.

Teaching children that they are not as important as others is self-serving and abusive. 

Be Excellent To Yourself: By Rene

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Be Excellent To Yourself: By Rene

HA notes: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Rene” is a pseudonym.

I’ve been reading Homeschoolers Anonymous since the very beginning and really love this community.  Perhaps now I can give a little back!  I want to tackle the writing prompt number five:  “Practices, techniques, etc. that you have found helpful for managing your mental illness.”

My background in mental illness involves a family riddled with various mental health challenges, all exacerbated by the isolation of homeschooling, poverty, and living in another country.  

My personal “mental health profile” includes OCD, Tourette Syndrome, general and social anxiety, recurrent episodes of depression that at one point led to several months of being suicidal, and many years of disordered eating.  I’ve never had access to therapy, but the last few years have seen steady progress toward greater and greater quality of life for me.  There are so many variables and things you can try and I love the way the internet gives access to so much support and knowledge and research, though it can be overwhelming at times!

The things that have been most helpful for me personally have been:

*****

1. I realized that a lot of the problems I was having were normal reactions to extreme stress and trauma.  

It was okay for me to be in pain and not functioning well, just like it would be okay for me not to be capable of running with a broken leg.

2. I started learning to celebrate small, even minuscule, victories. 

It might seem ridiculous in the grip of depression-fueled cynicism, but keeping a daily gratitude journal or literally patting yourself on the back for, say, going outside on a one-minute walk, can over time add up to big improvements in self-care habits.  As a former fundamentalist, I had to get over the habit of bashing myself for my deficiencies and weaknesses.  Instead, I just recognize that if I am struggling and still manage to do something beneficial, then that is awesome and time to celebrate!

3. I learned some things about diet and what my body needed.

Vitamin D3 supplementation is what I credit with getting me out of the suicidal hole I was in.  Since then I have learned a lot more about what my body needs, including that I can’t do gluten and that as long as I eat a balanced, no-grain diet I no longer struggle with binge eating.  It turned out that most of my eating disorder was physiologically-based and getting over that has had many ripple effects on my happiness.

4. Living simply but in a consciously hedonistic way, that is, simple living in order to promote pleasure, not deprivation, has been and continues to be one of the ways I care for my mental and physical health.  

It has helped a lot with my OCD and Tourette Syndrome, though leaving my parents’ house several years ago and no longer being constantly on edge from emotional abuse also helped erase most of my symptoms.

5. I consciously try to treat myself well.

If I would not yell at a stranger or child or friend for doing something, then why yell at myself for doing it?  This helps a lot with my social anxiety and the guilt I tend to feel when I make faux pas, which has in turn helped me gain more and more confidence and make a lot more and better relationships.

*****

These are the main things that have helped me.

It’s been four years now since I hit rock bottom and thought life would never get any better, four years since everything looked black and despairing, and now I’m pretty damn happy.  I never knew it was possible to be so consistently happy and resilient — and I purposely am not using the Christianese “joyful” here — I mean happy, not gritting-my-teeth-determined-to-be thankful.

I hope that if you are struggling my story gives you a little bit of hope.

Be excellent to yourself.