Kindness Saved Me |

5 min read

Today is World Kindness Day. As I was thinking about the power of kindness, something came to me that I’d never really thought of before: Kindness saved my life.

My mother had severe postpartum mental illness after I was born. She was hospitalized when I was 18 months old and my sister was three and a half. My father couldn’t take care of us all day when he had to work and couldn’t keep a babysitter. He found a family who lived down the road, the Paysons, who said we could stay with them during the week, while he visited us every night.

As a tiny preverbal child, I was deeply traumatized by the chaos and yelling and other scary stuff that came with my mother’s mental illness. And I was injured by the fact that my mother didn’t bond with me or act like she liked or loved me. I was so afraid of her that I ran away and hid in the woods at the age of four, after she came back from the hospital and my sister and I were taken from the Paysons’ house and set back down in our parents’ house.

My father found me asleep, cradled in the roots of a tree, and after that, he called the Paysons and asked if I could go back and stay with them for a while. They said yes, and I ended up living with them, spending many weekends with my parents, until I was 18 years old.

It was the Paysons’ kindness that saved me. It was my father’s kindness, too, the fact that my father kept allowing me to live with the Paysons year after year, and kept visiting me at their house every single night. (My father had legal custody of me for reasons too complicated to go into; if it had been up to my mother, I wouldn’t have been allowed to live with the Paysons.)

Everyone in my world except my mother recognized that I was a hypersensitive child who was afraid of everything. My mother didn’t see that and was consistently harsh in her behavior toward me, and the fact that I was afraid of her made her even harsher. I’ve come to believe that when she looked at me she saw only the parts of herself that she hated. My mother died when I was in my 20s, and I’ve had over 40 years to work on understanding that she, like me, was a victim of her mental illness, and to feel sympathy and forgiveness when I think of her. I certainly don’t want to blame her—I’ve come to see that blaming itself is the true enemy of kindness and should be avoided at all costs.

So I want to be clear that I’m not blaming my mother when I say that I was utterly, devastatingly terrified of her when I was a kid, and the Paysons did me a great kindness by letting me live with them. I had massive, hyperventilating panic attacks whenever anyone, usually my mother, tried to get me to live at home with my mother. I don’t know what would have happened to me if I hadn’t been allowed to grow up in the Paysons’ house, but I don’t think it’s too much to say that the Paysons saved my life with their kindness to me—a delicate oversensitive child who needed desperately to shelter in the safe space of their home.

Source: Barton Allen

My sister and I

Source: Barton Allen

There were disadvantages to living with a family that wasn’t my family—I never felt like I had a legitimate place in the world, didn’t feel like I had a right to ask the Paysons for anything I needed—and for a long time in adult recovery, I focused on the hard parts of growing up as an unofficial, self-selected foster child. It’s only been recently that I can truly see and appreciate the Paysons’ amazing kindness to me.

I would like to thank Mrs. Payson now—Mom, as I always called her—for all the ways she took care of me: washing my hair carefully and gently at the kitchen sink when I was little, slowly emptying glasses of water over the back of my head, because I felt like I couldn’t breathe when there was water rushing over my head; getting up in the middle of the night to come upstairs and pat a poultice of cornstarch and cold water on the hives that started chronically blooming all over my body when I was an adolescent and the stress of my early childhood refused to stay buried any longer.

Kindness is a subtle thing that might be more obvious when it’s absent than when it’s present. “You have kind eyes,” someone I had just met said to me a few years ago. And this summer a flight attendant told me, “You have smiling eyes,” when my partner and I were filing past her to get off the plane during a trip.

I am very proud of both of those comments; they are what I would like to remember whenever I feel like I’m not thin or young or beautiful enough. And I think I owe whatever kindness there is in my eyes and my actions at least partly to the Paysons. Cruelty leads to more cruelty and kindness breeds kindness. I’m glad we have this World Kindness Day to help us remember that.

You May Also Like

More From Author

+ There are no comments

Add yours