I have never really been good at relationships. Intimacy scares me, and trust is something that is earned. When I travel now, speaking about the lasting effects of my trauma and the scars of the foster care system, I spend lots of talking describing how difficult it can be to have a relationship with me. “You have to do lots of the heavy lifting, because I’m just not going to,” is what I think.
People are often confused by this seeming contradiction. I’ve been in a relationship with my husband for nearly 20 years now. How is that working? He will be so happy that I’m saying this publicly, but he really does a lot of the heavy lifting in our relationship.
After I aged out of foster care, I was on my own. Alone. I spent numerous evenings locked in my small apartment pondering the world, my life path and how I was ever going to escape. I didn’t have money for luxuries like cable; I didn’t even own a television. No cell phone (they hadn’t been invented). No roommate to offer a distraction. I had a few jigsaw puzzles I had picked up at a garage sale — and my own mind.
When my now husband asked me out to a movie, I had a panic attack about how I was going to pay for it. Living alone in that apartment taught me lots of lessons, but the most important was how to quiet my mind and to be okay in my own presence. Not a real skill it seemed at the time, but it gave me lots of time to work through some things and find the courage and strength to problem solve on my own.
After I got married and we had our daughter, I remember driving with my husband and telling him that no matter what happened, I just wanted our daughter to spend at least one year on her own sometime as an adult. Whether it was during college, or before she got married, she needed one year to live on her own, to gain real independence and to not rely on any other person for her needs, wants or explore her own desires.
He never really argued about it. Over the years I would tell him stories of finding my own Christmas tree, cutting it down myself, loading it into my tiny car, and even dragging in into my apartment — all by myself. It was a huge accomplishment and I loved that I didn’t need anyone to help me. That independence gave me the strength to overcome some of the most difficult times in my life.
Without those lessons, which I learned within those four walls, I would not have been able to get to a place where I could quiet the voices in my head, and make the necessary and difficult decisions to allow myself to move forward from my trauma so I could be alive in the present moment to find what feeds my soul. Doesn’t everyone deserve that chance?
Shenandoah Chefalo is a former foster youth, and advocate. She is the author of the memoir, Garbage Bag Suitcase, and co-founder of Good Harbor Institute an organization focused on ensuring sustainable, implemented trauma care within organizations and individuals. You can learn more about her and her work at www.garbagebagsuitcase.com or www.goodharborinst.com