Kids see the world through glasses of innocence. Everything, even deeply sinister things, can seem normal or even fun when growing up in a sheltered environment. It's usually not until kids are older or until they meet someone outside of their families that they realize the true meaning behind their memories. These people share their moments of revelation in which they discover that their childhood experiences are actually more disturbing than they seemed at the time.
All content has been edited for clarity.
"Every time my dad would pick me up from school he’d leave me in the car for three plus hours whilst he went into the local pub and got wasted. I had nothing to do. Just sitting there in the car. He’d come back after the few hours had passed and throw me a bag of chips as he started the car. I always thought I was the luckiest boy in the world to be getting those chips."
"As a kid, I used to brag about being able to sleep for over 24 hours straight to friends or teachers or really whoever would listen.
I was mid sentence mentioning it as a freshman in college when I realized my divorced father was slipping preschool me cold meds so I'd sleep through his weekends of custody with me.
It really messed up my sense of reality for a while.
I actually confronted my mother about this and other worse memories that began to pop up. She denied it at first, but upon more pushing, she would cry and say she was sorry.
She suffered so much abuse and she blames herself for my father's actions."
"My older sister used to play our Disney read-along tapes to my younger brother and I, whilst guiding us through the words in the books; she taught us to read this way.
I didn't realize until years later that she was using the tapes to cover the sound of our parents fighting downstairs. My sister was about 10, I would have been 5 and my younger brother would have been 4.
It saddens me that she never got to have a childhood."
"My father and I had a game when I was a child: 'Help daddy, remember what hospital he went to last.' My father was mentally ill, and would hurt himself purposely to get more anxiety, anti-psychotic, and pain medicine. There were five hospitals within a two-hour drive of us, and in those days (early 90s, late 80s), there were no computer systems to track him like there are now. He would literally, break his own fingers, burn himself with oil, anything to get what he needed. And it was my job to help him remember, so he wouldn't get caught. After he took his life when I was 12, I had a lot of feelings and scary memories to deal with. It's been a long hard road, but I hope that wherever his is, he's not in pain anymore.
I'm in therapy now and have been for about 10 years. For all of his shortcomings, my dad was amazing to me. He was so kind to me. I just miss him, I've always been a daddy's girl, and he took a piece of me with him."
"I should preface this by saying I had a pretty messed up childhood. Also, my mom had my oldest sister when she was 16 and me when she was 40.
One time I was spending the weekend with my oldest sister in the city. She has a bunch of little kids, and I was the same age of my nieces and nephew, give or take a few years. Somebody started squawking about a loose tooth and I soon found myself in a hushed line before my sister's Helter Skelter-looking boyfriend. Billy always acted nice around my parents, but he was nothing but mean when their backs were turned. I soon learned why everyone had gotten so quiet. He was putting pliers in our mouths and pulling 'loose' baby teeth out.
At the time, it honestly just felt like another not-fun experience, but looking back it's quite messed up.
Another time, I'm literally 6 years old, my nephew is 5, and we were, for some reason, allowed to roam the streets of my sister's neighborhood in South St Louis. You may be thinking, 'Whoa, that's a rough city for a little kid.' Uh, this was in '77', '78, when crime was rampant. We were just admiring the piles of coal at Peabody coal yard when a whirl of emergency vehicles swept past. We followed the sirens just a couple blocks away and found a man covered in blood and broken glass in the middle of the street and surrounded by police cars. Over the sirens I could hear a baleful moan, and I will never again forget being so small myself and hearing a grown man cry like a baby:
'Momma! Momma! I want my Momma.' We watched him die right there in the street crying for his mom.
About 10 years ago, I was just hanging out with my nephew drinking. 'Hey, you remember that guy we saw who got hit by a car when we were little?'
His eyes flashed with recognition, then they fell with sadness. 'Yeah, I do,' he looked back up at me, 'That happened, right?'
'Yeah, I completely forgot about it until now.'
'Yeah, me too.'
'He died right?'
And just like that, some 30 years later, a memory that we had rightly purged jumped straight back into our heads.
But nobody forgot about Billy and his teeth stealing act. He went on a fishing trip in the Mississippi and never came back."
"One year on Halloween, I was probably about 8 or 9 years old, my mom didn't let my sister and me go outside to do some 'trick or treating' in the neighborhood. But she bought us a new Barbie movie and lots of sweets instead. Also, we were allowed to stay up as late as we wanted to. It was because she was afraid that our father (our parents were divorced, our father was abusive) would try to kidnap us. He had tried before. Still, it is one of my most treasured childhood memories because we had a great evening, just my mom, my sister, and me.
He died of cancer when I was 12 and afterwards things became a lot easier. She raised two loving, happy young women who love her more than anything else in the world and I don't miss an opportunity to tell her how much she means to me. Because if this has told me one thing, it is you never know when something terrible will happen and I want to make sure she knows I love her no matter what."
"My mom was always leaving me at different places with different people for months at a time. When we would be driving, I remember there would be times when she would tell me about the 'school' she was going to take me to and that I would live there. I remember her describing the horses they had (lies) and how much I would love it. She never ended up taking me there, but would always talk about it like it was some magical place. I found out from my uncle years later that it was an orphanage. The only reason she didn't end up taking me is because he threatened to kill her if she did."
"In middle school, I started getting a lot of stomachaches due to undiagnosed acid reflux. I was also a really anxious kid, so I feared I was gonna throw up a lot. Thus, almost every night I’d take half a Tums.
When I offhandedly told my best friend, she looked terrified. 'I think you might be addicted to Tums,' she said.
We had just learned about addiction and I told her I didn’t feel withdrawal without the medicine and that I was just taking it as prescribed. She still seemed unconvinced, so I told her she was being silly and dropped it.
In high school, I learned her brother’s addiction had been tearing the family apart and she was probably terrified one of her closest friends was using too."
"When I was 8 until I was about 10, the school ELS teacher would sometimes pull me out of recess to sit down with me and play weird games. I hated it because it meant I wasn't outside writing my stories and besides, I was a native English speaker, why did I ever need to do anything with the ELS teacher?
Yeah it turns out she was the counselor, and she was trying to get enough information to show that I had signs of autism/ADD/a learning disorder to give to the national health service and get me an actual psychologist because my parents were refusing to send me to one. Unfortunately, her husband died before she could finish and I didn't end up going to one until I was 17 when I was legally allowed to do that sort of thing on my own.
So I did actually have ADD. The 'oh, that was so much worse than I thought it was' part isn't the ELS thing, it's the fact that the teacher had to play impromptu psychologist because my parents refused to take me to an actual psychologist despite having every ability and reason to do so, which is considered negligence and is technically abuse of some sort."
"When I was in kindergarten, they would make us kneel in a corner on some wood-piece or something that was utterly painful for every time we hurt each other or cursed (which happened a lot).
As soon as I got to elementary school, I asked the teacher the first time I was in trouble where I should go kneel. They took attention to that, and long story short, they called the police on our old kindergarten. It's now been closed since 2006."
"When I was about 10, my mother had to leave the country for work for almost a year, so she left me to live with her long-time boyfriend. Every night he'd come home wasted (which I thought was hilarious), come into my room and sit on my bed touching me, especially on the butt, and tell me how much I looked like my mother and would try to pull my sheets off.
I'd just pretend to sleep. I got annoyed that he kept waking me up, so I started locking my door at night. The guy broke off the lock and kept doing it. He also once threw a plate at me (he missed) for giggling at lunch.
I never thought of telling my mom about this because I thought it was normal."
"When I was around 8, my best friend at the time used to steal 'bad food' from her pantry. We’d go into her room where she’d then explain to me how we had to be skinny, because being skinny meant boys would like us, and so she would then meticulously read the backs of the cookie packs and count out every cookie and how many calories they were for each of us.
She also was obsessed with shaving all her body and would try to pressure me into shaving my legs and arms. Once again, boys liked it when you were hairless.
I never really grasped how bizarre it was for 8-year-olds to count calories and be hairless for boys.
Years later, my primary school had a national scandal where 10-to-12-year-olds were inappropriately touching each other on the mat during class, during lunchtime and, well, any opportunity they had. I can remember lots of peer pressure for kids to finger each other and make out because that meant you were 'cool' and liked by the hot boys.
I was very fortunate to not be involved and looking back, it was honestly so messed up. I don’t know if any of it was related, but just from 7-12, it was quite gross."
"My mother used to let me skip school a lot to take me to the hospital to see my older sister. We’d have ‘hospital camp outs’ where I’d sleep in the hospital bed with my sister, and she’d sleep in the recliner chair provided for parents. It’s now that I realize she’d do that because everyone (doctors, child psychiatrists, social workers, even friends and family) told her she needed to give me as many good memories with my sister as possible before she died. Surprisingly, that’s not the traumatic memory.
On those ‘hospital camp outs,' she used to make me memorize a nursery rhyme. She’d sing it to me, then make me sing it back to her over and over. It was to the tune of ‘hickory dickory dock.' She drilled it into my head so heavily that I still remember the lyrics.
The first verse was about my dad. That he was abusive and that I couldn’t be placed with him. The second verse was about my godmother, her name and her phone number. That she had documents to prove the abuse, and that she will take me in.
I realize now that my father was severely abusive to my mother, and my mother was constantly trying to prepare me in case he killed her. Whether it looked like an accident or not, she needed me to be able to tell the police officers that he was abusive, that my godmother’s number was 'xyz/' that she had evidence and would take me in. I learned the nursery rhyme when I was 4. I guess it was the only way she could ensure a 4-year-old would memorize information like that.
It all came to a head one night. I have vague memories (PTSD leaves a lot of blank spots). Most of the time when my dad went off, my brother, sister, and I would already be in bed. But that night I was sick, so my mom had left me in the kitchen for my father to watch me while she put my brother and sister to bed. I vomited, and my father ignored me. My mom came out, saw me crying and told him gently, 'Hon, when your daughter throws up, you have to stop what you’re doing and help her.'
That was all it took. He started throwing plates, and my mom pushed me towards the door. Glass shards went through my feet and torso (I was only wearing a singlet and underwear because I had a fever). I ran upstairs. My brother and I would usually stay in bed when things got bad like that, but this time he knew I was out there, so he ran out looking for me. I hid in the living room, between the couch and the wall, while he got the baseball bat he’d gotten for his 12th birthday and stood in front of me. My mother shouted up 'call the cops if your father kills me.' I tried, but he’d cut the phone lines.
Somehow she got us out, and I’ll never know how she made the gut-wrenching decision that she had to leave my sister behind in order to get me and my brother to safety and come back with help. But, she didn’t get any help. The cop was a misogynistic guy in his mid-20s who, in spite of my clear injuries, thought my mother was kicking up a fuss just to cause trouble for her husband. He asked my dad to leave for 24 hours, that’s it. He did leave, but came back the next day with a weapon, broke in and hunted through the house for us. I hid in the cupboard and looked through the slats as he walked by. He couldn’t find us, so he just burned all our stuff and left instead.
My mother bought us the first tickets for the first flight to the furthest state away, and we flew there with nothing but the clothes on our backs. We never looked back.
She still holds a lot of guilt for not knowing my father was abusing me and my brother (she tried desperately to protect us and give us the good side of our father, thinking only she bore the brunt of his anger) and her position was the toughest I could ever imagine. She was unable to work due to my sister requiring her full-time care, but also required my father’s income for my sister’s treatments. She made impossible choices, and every one of them was made with my brother, sister, and me all in mind."
"One of my earliest memories is being woken up from my sleep so my dad could beat me with a belt for leaving a pair of shoes on the closet floor. I don't know why he checked in the middle of the night?
One time my sister and I woke up to my mom cooking ground beef with her fingers on the coils of the stove with no pan. She decided to go to McDonald’s instead, so being 6 years old, I climbed in the car without thinking, stoked for a happy meal. My 9-year-old sister begged me not to go realizing something was up. We drove a few blocks, and she hit a sign and came back without any food. I realized when I was older that we could have died that night. My sister told me after the fact that she paced outside, hoping we came back. Realistically, we might have even been younger than that here, but I don't know how I could remember something that far back.
I played with my dad's scales as a kid, not realizing what they were for.
Our family gatherings included pit bull dog fights, adults smoking blunts and violent movies with graphic scenes on big screen TVs. They didn’t do the best job keeping the smoke away from the kids. When I smoked weed as a teenager I suddenly felt like a child watching cartoons and realized I’d gotten high a lot as a kid.
My childhood was complicated. This all seemed normal until we started going to church, and they went crazy with Jesus instead and then things just got complicated in a different way. Harry Potter was witchcraft, so I couldn’t read it, secular music wasn’t allowed.
I really didn’t realize how this stuff wasn’t normal until my early teens. My family continues to struggle with substance abuse/dysfunctional stuff. My mom passed last year, but I love her no matter how many mistakes she made raising me. I still turned out relatively ok and just try to not let my childhood experiences define who I am now. Luckily my husband and his family taught me what normal can be."
"My mom died of cancer when I was 5 years old. When we were at the service at our church, my dad, sisters, and I were walked to the front pew and everyone was being so nice.
When the pastor started talking, everyone around me started crying, especially my dad. I remember wondering why they’re all crying, and when it didn’t stop, I just joined in. I didn’t get why we were crying, and thought my mom was just at the hospital resting like she had been so many times before."
"When I was young, I was good friends with a girl whose grandparents lived across the street. We got along really well and would hang out all the time. At some point (I was maybe 4 or 5 at the time), she invited me to her uncle's house. They had a big above-ground pool built into their deck, so we went swimming. Eventually, we got out, but we both wanted to get back in, and the uncle said that if we wanted to go back into the pool we had to skinny dip. Again, we were both no older than 5. But we did. It took a long time for me to realize the severity of the situation or the implications. I don't know. Half of me feels like it was harmless, half of me is like 'who does that?'
He did watch us. I have a pretty fuzzy memory of the whole thing, but I do have a belief that it wasn’t a predatory request for us to get naked, and think that it was more a 'being funny' situation. But after it popped back into memory and looking back on it, it’s still rather unsettling."
"My brother used to scream at me and physically (and mentally) abuse me. He said it was just an older brother thing. Also, I thought the way my schizophrenic dad acted when he was off his meds was normal. I thought it was hilarious when he described his suicide attempts because I thought, 'Who would die on purpose?' I often had him retell his stories to make me laugh. I feel extremely guilty now.
Thankfully my dad is actually doing amazing now - way better than before. He's still crazy though."
"There was a lot of stuff I was aware of that wasn't good, but two things that surprised me to find out weren't normal were:
Having no emotional connection to my mom at all because she almost can't feel emotions and having to organize my life on my own from my second day of school. I found therapists were quite shocked when I told them about those two things. Especially the second one really surprised me.
On the first day of school, my family showed me how to get there. On the second day, I had an alarm clock, some money to buy breakfast in the bakery downstairs (I ended up eating the same breakfast for five years: one piece of strawberry cake, one piece of cheesecake and in the winter the seasonal apple turnover on top), and a key to get home. It never occurred to me that this could be odd. I was truly puzzled when my little sister, born 12 years later, got woken up every day, breakfast made by my mom and then was driven to her elementary school.
I always thought that this was normal, but later learned (together with some other stuff) that it's actually considered neglect.
What I also find super strange is when friends tell me how their kids wake them up in the morning. I can't remember being ever allowed to do that. Only on Sundays, after making coffee. Not sure if that is exactly traumatic, but still kind of weird to me."