As a foster kid, I never learned to brush my teeth

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Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, JUL 15, 2010

I’m afraid to go into the bathroom, because of things that happened in childhood


Dear Cary,

You recently wrote about when “to change your life.” I think I’m there now. And it isn’t a problem with my problem that I’m writing about.

Where I need help is in steps to follow.

I was raised in foster homes from birth to first grade, then I was returned to my family. I left there at age 15. There was no change from one scenario to the other. There was abuse of all types, and kids doing their best to be adults, while adults did their best to ignore the kids.

I learned nothing from them, except that (life skills-wise) I was on my own.

So my problem is that I’m real bad at “being.” And for many years I’ve felt like a fraud in not knowing so many basic things. Now, I want to, literally, come clean. I never go into my bathroom for showers or baths or teeth brushing. I’m plagued with very bad demons of violence and rape that happened in bathrooms. These go back to age 2, but maybe even farther, so they are very deep and still seem real.

Where can I “learn” the basics of health and hygiene habits that all little kids seem brought up with? What are the steps to follow that all other people (as adults) seem to take for granted in this area of life?

Can you point me to a resource that can re-teach adults all the things that were missed in a history like mine?

Thank you,
Ready Now

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Dear Ready Now,

Something happened when you were 2 in a room you called the bathroom.

You have a room in your house today that is called a bathroom. But it is not the same room as the room where something happened when you were 2.

What happened when you were 2 is never going to happen again. The past in which that occurred is gone. Those circumstances are gone.

Take my hand.

Let’s take that 2-year-old into your bathroom.

Your bathroom is not that other bathroom. Your bathroom is safe.
Let’s not even call it a bathroom. Let’s give it a different name.
Let’s call it Tokyo. And let’s not call it brushing your teeth. Let’s call it something silly, like a peppermint mouth vacation. Let’s say you are taking a peppermint mouth vacation in Tokyo. And I will be your travel agent.

This 2-year-old is still with you. Only you are the adult now, and you take care of her in a way that she was not taken care of before. You now take care of her because you are a hero and a survivor. So you take the 2-year-old by the hand and start to walk down the hall and she gets scared and tries to stop but you say that it’s OK, you are just going to Tokyo for a peppermint mouth vacation. You go into that room where there are plumbing fixtures and possibly some tile, and an overhead light, and you explore that room, giving different names to all the things in it. You can give them people names or place names or whatever.

Also you do a security check. Because you are having a whole new life now and your new life is secure. In your new life, you have boundaries and you have choices and you have rights. So you check the front door to make sure no one can break in. You see if there is a lock on the door. Why not rename your house too? If the bathroom is Tokyo, then your house can be Japan, where everyone is very ceremonial. They wear robes and do lots of bowing. So your house becomes Japan where everyone is very ceremonial and does lots of bowing, and the location of your peppermint mouth vacation is Tokyo, which has a very low crime rate.

This is an extreme and indulgent example. I try to make a point, I do. I try to make a point that terrible things happen to us and we have to find ways to emerge from the prison of those things and imprint on ourselves the knowledge that everything in this moment is new and fresh. We are not prisoners of what has happened to us. We can rename anything we like, in order to avoid making it a repetition of the past. We can make everything we do completely new.

What you have today are feelings. Your feelings are real and they are good. They tell you that at one point your life was threatened, and they tell you that never, ever again will you allow that to happen. Your feelings tell you that now you are an adult and you never have to let that happen again. Events happen and then they are gone. What remains is memory. Memory is holy. Memory is love. Memory is the gift of the past to us in the present. We can open these gifts and look at them because they are just stories, photographs and sounds. They are not the event itself.

TuscanAd_Jan2015Your memories are not assault. When you go in your mind back to that time, you may feel a jolt. You may feel as though it is happening again. But it is not happening again. That is just the wisdom of your body, giving you the strength to resist such a thing.

I wish I could sit on the floor with you and say this: “The year is 2010 and you are a strong adult and what happened to you when you were 2 can never happen again.” Whether you are sitting on the floor in your new bathroom, or standing on the edge of the tub looking out the window, or standing at the sink looking at yourself in the mirror, or brushing your teeth, you can know that this is 2010 and what happened to you when you were 2 can never happen again.

You are a survivor. You have an adult life now. You can go to the store and buy any toothbrush you want. You can buy any brand of toothpaste you want. You can brush your teeth upside down, standing on your head, in the shower, at the sink, however you want.
If you need concrete information about how to brush your teeth, you can look here.

And here are a few more things. Have you read, or heard of, Antwone Fisher’s book “A Boy Should Know How to Tie a Tie”? I’m quite moved by what he has to say.

I was also moved by my discovery of the group FACT — Fostered Adult Children Together. Here is what they say: “As children we stood by and watched helplessly as our worlds crumbled apart, depending on strangers to come to our rescue and decide our fate, a fate which many times was worse than what we were delivered from.”

Coming together with others to share your experience, strength and hope is a powerful way to overcome the effects of the past.

I know this, too: You are capable of healing, of being whole and of being OK. That I know. You have taken the first step, by writing this letter.

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