A latchkey kid is a child who comes home from school to an empty house or is often left alone with little supervision.
I am lying on my stomach on my mother’s bed. My chin is propped up on my hands and behind me my feet swing back and forth. It is late afternoon, maybe it is almost dark – after school. I am alone. I am watching television on an old boxy TV that you sometimes must hit to fix. I can still see the fuzzy grey snow and hear the static.
There is a television set downstairs in the living room that is newer, perhaps better, but I don’t care. I want to be alone. Besides, my mother’s bed comforts me. I don’t really want to be there alone though; I want to be in the television, inside of the shows with the perfect houses, lit up and colorful. I want my hair to be shiny and hair sprayed, and my face to look as beautiful as a prototypical 90’s star. I want to live with the perfect sitcom families; the ones with cheerful, working Dads and stay-at-home Moms who always seem to have the time to console and cook for their children. I know it’s not realistic. Still, I disappeared into the TV almost every night after school.
Outside, the world was my oyster. I rode my bike down the streets, feeling cool air blow my light brown hair in a swirl behind me. Around me, the aging trees and freshly cut lawns rushed by. Ahead of me, I watched the sky turn from baby blue to burning peach, and then saw the streetlights come on as twilight arrived as well – deep indigo.
I consumed odd foods. What do you think seven-year-olds eat when they’re home alone? A spoonful of peanut butter here. Plain ketchup eaten there. Cereal without milk if we ran out. I learned to cook basic foods at a young age as a result: hot dogs, simple spaghetti, mac and cheese, coffee, popcorn on the stove. I concocted desserts in a mug with butter and sugar. It didn’t occur to me that other kids didn’t use the stove until I went to classmates’ houses, where they had strict rules and restrictions in the kitchen. I was a criminal there; a pirate. An anarchist among good little boys and girls.
They had “real” meals, those kids. Snack times. I felt like an impostor in their neatly organized and shiny clean homes, where their mothers fed me glorious dinners. We all sat around the table and always had a good beverage to go with our supper. A friend’s Mom served me tea when I had what I didn’t know at the time was a panic attack. I felt I didn’t deserve that much care and emotional support from an adult. Another time, a friend’s grandmother taught me the correct way to use a knife and a fork. Another taught me how to eat a steak. Out of sheer desperate hunger, I once stole a snack from my friend’s family basement stock of food. I was so ashamed, caught like a deer in headlights holding my illegal item – a measly bag of chips. I was told “If you are hungry, you can just ask us for food.” I felt scolded.
I slept over at a boy’s house where I was afraid to ask for food or water all night, and when I did finally admit to it, his parents were shocked that I had not expressed my needs. I remember these moments as memories I wish did not exist. Today, I wonder what the parents of my friends thought in these moments. I can’t help but think that perhaps they knew something was wrong.
I remember the autumn light coming in through the window of my mother’s bedroom; it illuminated the mottled beige carpet, the lace covers on the nightstand, the dresser. There is jewelry twinkling beside a photo of my mother and us kids, her children. We are dressed up in our Sunday best, and I am held in my mother’s arms, more tutu and squinty-eyes-in-the-sun than little girl.
I remember my mother’s closet. It was another world to me. Inside of the squeaky doors there were unknown fabrics and the lingering scent of Mom’s perfume, of the places she’s been, of plastic shoes, of makeup. There were old dresses that she probably hadn’t worn in ages but kept for the sake of memory. I inhaled this powdery and billowy experience.
As a small child, I recall sitting on the steps of our house, tears streaming down my face. My mother had to leave the house again. I was begging her not to go. Her hair bounced about her face in thick curls, and on her lips, she wore her signature burgundy wine. She was to give me one hundred hugs and kisses before leaving so that I wouldn’t miss her until she came back. After she left, I sat there sobbing and waiting for what seemed like an eternity.
I spent much of my time in my imagination. I think that’s the natural result of isolation and introversion intersecting. Your mind takes you places when you have no where else to go. It’s comforting to be able to escape. For me, my escape was in books, music, writing, and in film. I grew particularly infatuated with singing and playing guitar because it gave me a palpable voice with which I could express myself.
I surrounded myself with art; it was a warm blanket, an embrace, but art was also a guide. I saw myself in characters, song lyrics, actors, and vicariously lived through them. Stories, no matter their medium, gave me a sense of meaning when I felt sad, scared, confused or simply lonely. In a sense they helped me understand my real life, once I stepped back into it.
One afternoon I packed my red, orange and yellow backpack with whatever food I could find, toys, a journal and a pen. I planned to run away and live in a tree. At first, I hid in the neighbour’s jungle gym until they noticed me. Then, I climbed a tree near our house and sat on what seemed like the top of the world until it got dark, when I realized nobody even noticed I was gone, so I went home.
I had uninhibited access to the Internet, the World Wide Web, as it was often called back then. If I could go back in time and change only one thing, this would be it. I was lonely, and the Internet gave me access to all of the art, games, information and online friends that I could possibly ask for and more. It was incredible to me! I found a pen pal in a sweet boy from Indonesia, created my own (unpublished) radio show, posted my early poetry on forums, and played games for hours on end. Most importantly, I think, I found genuine human connection on the Internet.
But with unrestricted access to human connection also came danger. In retrospect I was an open target. I was a blameless child exploring the Internet in a time when the hazards of having children go online was somewhat still taboo. What seemed like an innocent pastime of chatting with people on the Internet rapidly turned into an oppressive nightmare. I was groomed and lured by sexual predators when I was still in primary school. I was learning how to subtract and add numbers, read more complex words, understand the map and basic history of North America, and to tell time in the classroom. At home, on the Internet, I was learning that girls’ bodies existed for the pleasure of men. I was learning that in exchange for sexual services, I would receive love, affection, gifts and even dinner in return. I was a victim of sexual abuse. I blamed myself for years.
When I was a teenager, I stole pictures of myself from that time from my mother’s photo albums, many of which I cut up or threw away. I don’t like to think of the house that I grew up in. I try to forget what happened there. I try to pretend that it never happened.
There is a mixture of sadness, grief and fear tied to that house. It is the source of many nightmares I have even to this day. I dream of the house in entropy. It is falling apart, the rooms multiplying, in dark corners creatures are hiding, a hole in the wall that one of my brothers had punched is transforming into a black hole. This is not a horror story but rather a story about my truth. They say a house isn’t always a home. And sometimes, a house can be a ghost, a wreck.
In the carpets, the peeling paint on the walls, the crannies beneath couch cushions, and in the cracked tiles I see tiny pieces of myself still held captive. I am excavating. I have not really left her – the child in me that still waits. She is sitting on the stairwell, looking longingly at the front door. In the mirror across from her, her reflection is just barely in her notice. Of herself and of the world at large, she is not yet fully aware.
Sometimes, I want to go back in time to run away from home. I want to burn the street down. The neighborhood. Every pathway and building that still stands from that time feels tainted. Wrong. I wasn’t there. At least, I feel I shouldn’t have been.
I think that the desire to erase my past steals away my ability to live in the present moment. Until I can make sense of my past, I am prone to flashbacks where raw memories overtake me, and I slip in to my childhood; to another world, another time, another me. Until I integrate the child inside of me with my adult self, I cannot fully be here today.
There is more to my story that I’m not ready to share yet. There are pieces that still feel like Pandora’s box, but I am realizing that being ashamed of my experiences has only served to make me ashamed of myself. At the very least I can say that I’m accepting the truth.
So here is my excavation. I am unearthing the old to rebuild the new; rebuilding my memories piece by piece, year after year. I am integrating them into my story. I am understanding what really happened all those years ago.
It is hard for me to confess that I experienced neglect first-hand. I re-experienced it as an adult when I was able to process my childhood with the help and support of therapists. I re-enacted neglect towards myself in my early adulthood and adolescence, when I suffered from a severe eating disorder that lasted for over half a decade. I had difficulty meeting my own basic emotional and physical needs. I did not know that I was only doing what felt familiar; only doing what I knew to do. I had to learn the emotional and behavioral skills that I had not developed in my youth.
I have had to relearn what it means to take care of myself and in a sense, be my own parent. I am now a healthy and successful adult for the most part; I have the start of a career and my own home with my chosen family. I no longer need the supervision that I missed out on as a latchkey child. Although I am no longer one, there is still a latchkey child within me.
The latchkey child in me still both loves and hates being home alone, even as a self-sustained adult in a safe place. The latchkey child in me still feels afraid sometimes when I must do things like visit a doctor or take care of responsibilities and errands. The latchkey child in me still wants to cry when I feel the same sense of isolation I felt all those years ago, laying on my mother’s bed without her. The latchkey child in me still begs for one hundred hugs and kisses from loved ones before they leave, for fear that if left, I will be left alone again for who knows how long.
Today I am learning that it was not my fault. I did not do anything wrong to deserve to be left alone. There is nothing wrong with me as an individual for having been a latchkey child. I can safely say that I now cherish the keys to my own home. I can safely rebuild my once chaotic picture of my life-world into one that feels safe. I can experience true security, and for that I am forever grateful.
Still, it is the little things in adulthood in a safe and secure home that surprise me the most. I remember when I first started doing regular grocery shopping for myself and my partner, and the feeling of guilt I felt for buying more than the very basics. I felt like I was doing something wrong by having ample amounts of food and beverages in stock for myself. It felt unfamiliar to me, and even worse, I felt that I wasn’t allowed to care for myself in such a way.
Food plays a huge role in my life, as it does for most human beings that require nutrition. However, I wasn’t aware of how big of a role it would play in my mental and physical well-being, and in turn my self-actualization, until after successfully receiving eating disorder treatment at the South Lake Regional Health Centre’s Young Adult Eating Disorder Program. It was there that my memories of being alone at home resurfaced, as I learned what it meant and felt like to eat three meals and three snacks a day. I learned that yes, I did deserve and in fact require a beverage with my meal. I learned that yes, I did deserve to eat a whole portion of pasta for lunch and still deserve to eat chocolate for a snack later that day. I learned that feeling full was not something to feel guilty about, but rather an experience to enjoy or at the very least tolerate as an essential part of thriving as a living being.
As a latchkey child, I didn’t have a complete lack of food. I wasn’t starving to death. A better way to describe it is that I lacked secure access to a variety of sufficiently nutritious, filling foods on a regular basis. Although I wasn’t malnourished, I was constantly hungry and craving food.
I distinctly remember being envious of other children at lunch hour, when I either didn’t have lunch, or didn’t have an appropriate lunch. It hurt my self-esteem because at that age I didn’t understand why I didn’t have a “good” lunch like the other kids. I wanted to have the spaghetti, macaroni and cheese, pizza, snack packs and bags filled with savory and sweet foods that I saw my peers eating. My childhood best friend would often sneak portions of her snacks and lunch to give to me. I felt voracious. I felt embarrassed. When I went home, I would eat whatever I could find in the kitchen. Sometimes there’d be leftovers that my mom prepared earlier, but other times I would find stale crackers and pickle juice.
I was deeply ashamed of this portion of my life. I spent a good many years trying to pretend it didn’t happen; trying to forget that it existed. I wanted to wipe my childhood out of my memory. Part of why I think I developed such a severe eating disorder is that it served many positive functions for me, such as impairing my ability to recall painful memories. It gave me a sense of numbness. While it may have given me detachment, control and false confidence, it ultimately took away my true power.
My true power can only be manifested when I have my basic needs covered: nutrition, hydration, sleep, safety, stability, love and support. I have learned to maintain my needs at the level that I can now start to focus my attention on actualizing my dreams. When I have that baseline, I can grow into the person I was meant to be. Perhaps though, it’s not a discovery of who I was meant to be but rather an unwrapping of all the layers of trauma and confusion that hid who I was all along. I do not define myself as a latchkey kid, but I do honour the latchkey kid within me so that I may never forget this one simple rule; I deserve to have my needs met.