How Growing Up “Ghetto” Redefined What Success Looks Like For Me

Susanne and I were sitting on her veranda one morning after working out outside together. She’d made us Americanos and we sipped on them as our conversation graduated to heavier content.

“Have you ever done the ACE quiz?”

“What’s that,” I asked.

“The Adverse Childhood Experiences quiz. It assesses your risk for disease and social and emotional problems as an adult based on experiences you’ve had before the age of 18 — think of it as a cholesterol score for childhood toxic stress.”

That evening, I did the quiz.

Did a parent ever hit you so hard you had marks or were injured? Check.

Was your mother often repeatedly hit over the course of a few minutes? Check.

Did a household member ever attempt suicide? Check, check, check.

I finished the quiz and got an 8/10. You’re considered at severe risk if you score a 4/10.

I passed with flying colours.

I grew up in a low-income household in the middle of a neighbourhood riddled with poverty, prostitution, and addiction. The perimeter of my elementary and junior high school field, St. Alphonsus, was littered with used condoms and empty syringes. My school and home were within a three-block radius of the city’s epicentre of crime — Cromdale. Police sirens, drunken outbursts amongst the homeless, and the occasional midnight gunshot were audio clips in the soundtrack of my community.

I learned at a very young age to be able to walk the neighbourhoods without attracting unwanted attention, you had to do two things: 1) walk like you had somewhere to be — but not with an urgency that implied fear, and 2) wear a permanent scowl that read, “if you jump me — I’ll jump you too.” Most of the time this was foolproof but on occasion, it didn’t work.

Men would follow me on my walks home from school. I developed hyper-vigilance growing up in my neighbourhood — I didn’t have to see my tail to know I was being followed. I’d go into the Safeway I passed on the way home, pluck a donut off the self-serve counter and wait until my follower lost interest. Sometimes I’d wait for as long as half an hour, boredom or a full bladder creating a sense of urgency. Eventually, I’d leave — without paying for my donut — and walk the last three blocks home.

Unfortunately, home wasn’t much of a reprieve. My dad was an abusive alcoholic who beat my mom, brother, and me to a pulp when he was drunk. He would apologize when he sobered up and tell us he didn’t know any better because his mom was much worse to him than he was to us. This was the breeding grounds for vastly conflicting emotions to arise simultaneously within the skin of a little, bruised body. To hate your dad and feel guilt for hating him? I went to bed many nights praying for forgiveness for hating him so much. Then I’d ask the god I prayed to what I was doing that made it difficult for my papa to love me.

Fast forward to me as a 28-year-old adult. I don’t have a university degree. I don’t own my own home. I don’t have thousands of dollars in my savings account. I’m not married. I am not succeeding based on the metrics used to quantify where the Western individual should be as she approaches her thirties.

But let’s forget about the balancing act of establishing a career and starting a family, and the progressive acquisition of materialism for a second. I’ve never had a relationship with my extended family. I don’t speak to my immediate family. I’ve struggled with addiction. I’m only now learning what healthy communication and boundaries look like. On top of that, I’m an Indigenous woman of Inuit descent. Racism is the backbone that allows my shame to stand tall. As above, so below.

How do I not consider myself bankrupt in every sense of the word when I have to trudge through grief, trauma, and a lack of support just to get to the starting line that everyone born with a silver spoon in their mouth is afforded from the get-go?

It’s in that dangerous act of comparison that negates the successes I’ve experienced thus far. All I have to do is remember my peers at St. Alphonsus Elementary and Junior High School:

  • Brittany W. lost her virginity at eleven and was bullied for being the class slut. She’s been incarcerated multiple times as an adult.
  • Danika D. and Alana G. both became pregnant when they were fourteen. Their children are now as old as they were when they had them.
  • Josh R. became a heroin addict. He’s ended up in jail multiple times.
  • Blake B. became a prostitute before we got into grade 6. He never finished junior high with us.

These are only a handful of examples. My peers aren’t the exception to the rule — I am.

Growing up in the ghetto, the first hurdle for us kids is getting out. Not just out of the neighbourhood but out of the habits and patterns that caused the community to be what it is in the first place.

Are we resourceful enough to equip ourselves with the tools to seek help? Can we sift through the baggage bestowed upon our small shoulders before we ruin the rare and fleeting opportunities presented to us to become something more than our circumstances? In the off chance we’re able to, that should be success enough in itself.

But it’s not.

The second hurdle is figuring out a way to play catch-up. We’re placed well behind the starting line but are expected to thrive in the same way as those who were afforded a modicum of normalcy in their childhoods.

It’s not enough that we crawled out of the cesspool of trauma we endured in the community, in our houses, and always in our minds but our worth is determined by how we measure up next to everyone who grew up in safe, nurturing homes.

I’ve been patronized by acquaintances who told me, “good thing you’re out now” as if I can dust my hands off and begin a fresh slate. Yesterday, I found out my dad hit my mom for the first time in years. I’m 28, living in a beautiful community outside of Vancouver, filled with a passion for writing that’s been aflame in me long before I could see the smoke, and I still can’t get away. I’ve left the neighbourhood that hardened me, that made me trust no one, but the neighbourhood hasn’t left me. It trails after me making sure I don’t forget where I came from. I will forever be under its thumb and will have to fight that much harder to create something different for my life. “You can take the person out of the ghetto…”

Every day, I fear I’ll become my father.

Every day, I fear I’ll succumb to poverty.

Every day, I fear I’ll become another statistic because for so much of my life that’s exactly what I was.

I fear that in the pockets of joy I happen to encounter, my past will remind me, “no — this life isn’t for you.”

I was handed the ingredients for a recipe that yielded a life of disaster. I was headed in that direction. I still have to make corrections because if I’m not paying attention, it’ll only be a matter of time before my childhood circumstances take hold and run me into the ground.

My wins appear smaller and inconsequential but they are profound:

I’m a recovering addict — that’s success to me.

I wasn’t a teen mom — that’s success to me.

I’m not a prostitute — that’s success to me.

I’m not homeless — that’s success to me.

My gratitude is immense. I don’t need a promotion with benefits or an engagement or a biannual vacation to be thankful. When I start to give myself a hard time for not abiding by the collective’s rules in obtaining success — and feeling largely inadequate when drawn out against their units of measure — I remember St. Alphonsus. I remember going to school with a black eye and being followed home by Johns. I remember Blake, Josh, Brittany, Danika, Alana, and everyone else who wasn’t able to make it out. I’m reminded that maneuvering through my disadvantages is success enough in itself.

I wake in the morning and sip my Bengal spice tea on the floor in my empty apartment that I may not be able to afford in a couple months time and think,

“Jas — you’re doing just fine. You’re doing more than fine — you’re doing great.”

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