It all started with a tiny pair of pants. Little did I know this single incident would set the stage for a lifetime of miscommunications, repressed emotions, and a desperate need (and subsequent failure) to feel understood by those that I love. The year was 1986. I was an abnormally independent three year-old with a very strong sense of self and something to say about everything, almost like I came right into this world a miniature adult. Growing up, my family looked like your standard 1950’s-style nuclear family unit – parents were high school sweethearts with two kids (a boy and a girl) and a little house in the suburbs. But no matter how hard I tried, I never seemed to be able to fit into that mold very well because it has never been in my nature to just fall in line and blend into the background. I can remember wondering, around this time in my life, if maybe there had been some sort of mistake and the stork dropped me off at the wrong house. There wasn’t any place I knew of where I would have fit in better, I just knew it wasn’t in the place I called home. For most of my life, I would feel like an alien in my own family. I had always struggled to articulate my wants, needs, and feelings, and this incident was no different.
The occasion was my third birthday party. My extended family was really close back then, spending all of our holidays and birthdays with one another, so the party was held at one of our frequent family haunts– my grandparents’ house –on the earliest day of spring that year. Everybody was there together eating, laughing, and enjoying each other’s company. At the end of a long afternoon of playing with my cousins, I was a bit sleepy after all the food I had eaten and running around we had done. But it was time for presents, so everyone gathered their chairs together to watch me open them, even though I wasn’t all that interested in receiving gifts or making a big presentation of it. I don’t really recall any of the presents except for that last one; it was in a big department store box with a beautiful red bow.
I ripped open the box and pulled back the tissue paper to reveal a purple and green-striped shirt with a pair of ivory spandex leggings that had elastic stirrups at the feet. The shirt looked normal and soft, but the pants looked bizarre and uncomfortable. I had heard of this illusive “stirrup-pant” before, but had never had the misfortune of having to wear a pair. But hey, I guess there’s a first time for everything, right? Not wanting to change and do a birthday fashion show, I told my mom I didn’t want to try them on at the party. Apparently, this request was no good for my mother, who then told me that I would be disrespecting my grandparents if I did not immediately try on the outfit they had gifted me for them to see.
Being a little kid, and a tomboy at that, all I wanted to do was play a little longer in the dirt, go home with a belly full of BBQ and birthday cake, and slowly pass out watching a Disney movie. But, after several minutes of my mom telling me that I wasn’t going to leave without trying that stupid outfit on, I finally gave in, and off to the bathroom we went to change.
I was starting to get a bit “moody” because my mom wasn’t listening to what I was trying to tell to her, which was that I didn’t want to change, and I really did not have a good feeling about those damn stirrup-pants. But, since I loved my grandparents so much, I started to put on the new outfit so I could show them how much I liked it. The shirt wasn’t too bad – it was soft and I liked the colors; I can remember briefly thinking, “this could work.”
But then it happened. It was like a showdown at high noon in front of the OK Corral – me versus the stirrup-pants. I had already felt mildly suspicious of them when my mom pulled them out, and as soon as those two elastic stirrups touched the arches of my feet, my feelings were instantly confirmed. From birth, I’ve always had overactive nerves and the natural constitution of a high-strung Chihuahua, so the second those little stirrups hit my feet, my whole body felt like one big funny bone. Waves of painfully tingling vibrations started violently coursing through my body all at once. Since I was too young to understand or verbally articulate what was happening, I got scared and tried to take the pants off while we were still in the bathroom.
“What are you doing? Put those back on,” my mom snapped in response to the spontaneous removal of the bottom half of my new outfit.
“Mama, please – I hate these pants – I wanna wear my pants! Please lemme have my pants, Mama…please?” I begged, with tears in my eyes.
“No! Put them back on right now! We’re going to go show your grandparents how much we love the outfit they got for you and how much we love them, okay? You’re just going to have to deal with the pants,” she said, crushing any hope I had of escaping.
Now, I was just born with anxiety – I swear, I must have had a panic attack coming out of the womb. My parents have told me that when I was a baby I used to bang my head against the walls and floor whenever I would get too frustrated, anxious, or bored – I guess that’s just the way I’m wired. Despite being fiercely independent and outspoken, this part of my personality always made me feel like a slave to the effects of my stress-ridden anatomy. It was an absolute paradox – I would do these insanely brave things like jump off the top of the refrigerator into my dad’s arms one minute, and then be reduced to frantic tears the next because I couldn’t figure out how to open up my child-proofed bottle of Flintstone’s vitamins all by myself.
Panic became this invisible juggernaut that followed me around like a psychotic stalker, never giving me a break, no matter how ballsy I might have thought I was. My catch phrase as a child was “you’re not the boss of me – I’m the boss of me!” But that was all just a big load of crap because the true boss of me wasn’t me at all – it was the anxiety. I can remember having such severe anxiety as a small child that it was almost physically painful. And that’s exactly what began to happen here. The more I begged and pleaded for the removal of those tyrannical stirrup-pants and my mom said no, the more anxious I became.
It wasn’t just about the pants anymore. It was the panic. The shortness of breath. The uncontrollable heart beat. The feeling of chaotic helplessness. The panic was starting to set in as I desperately struggled to find the words to tell my mom that I was uncomfortable and scared because I didn’t understand why the pants felt so bad against my skin. I began to protest and cry harder – I was beyond frustrated that my own mother didn’t understand that her child was in distress and needed help.
Then, before I knew it, I was being dragged outside to show off the new outfit for the whole family. Kicking, screaming, and bawling my eyes out, I was on display for all to see, like a bright, shiny, dysfunctional show pony. I needed help, but no one was actually paying attention to what was really going on. Being limited by my tender age, I didn’t yet have the skill set to articulate to anyone what I was truly feeling, why I needed help, or how my family could possibly fix it. I felt hopelessly trapped inside a stirrup-pant-induced-prison of-darkness that was not of my own creation and seemed to have no beginning or end.
For the briefest of nanoseconds, I thought surely one of my other relatives would see how miserable I was and immediately rush me back inside to take off those awful pants. Much to my horror, however, as soon as everyone saw that I was crying, they all started to laugh at me. This is the moment that always plays in slow motion in my memory. Me, sitting in the middle of twenty people, so upset that I could no longer speak, looking desperately around for help, and seeing nothing but adult faces laughing at me like I was some sort of sideshow freak at the local circus.
I can actually remember reaching a point where I kind of forgot about the goddamn pants because I was so horrified that my own family didn’t seem to care that I was in distress. Every person there thought I was throwing your standard spoiled-bratty-toddler tantrum – all blissfully unaware of the fact that I was being permanently traumatized by their lack of empathy and understanding.
Not only was this the first time in my life that I was seriously let down by the people I loved and trusted, but it was also my first childhood memory.
To this day, that is one of the most intense cries I can ever remember having– you know the kind when you’re crying so hard that you make no noise and just violently convulse as the tears pour down your face? The sense of desperation I felt was both overwhelming and incredibly sad – I looked to every person there to help me, and no one did. I was suffering and they didn’t even realize it – the entire situation made me feel like some sort of alien species doomed to wander this earth alone. Even today, my family still laughs about it just as callously as they did in 1986, teasing me about that epically bratty stirrup-pants-tantrum I had when I was three. Little do they know, because of their unintentional apathy, I will forever remember that “incident” as the day I realized how extraordinarily fucked I would be in life from that point forward.
Writer: An Orange County Native, Ellis Macaulay graduated Cum Laude from Cal State Fullerton with a BA in Radio, Television, and Film in 2006 and is a member of the National Society of Collegiate Scholars. Known by loved ones for her quirk and charm, she is passionate about backpacking through the wild, helping others, and all things creative.
Artist: Sue Hwang is a photographer and visual artist who tends to notice the stranger things in life. She enrolled in the professional photography program at Fullerton College last fall and receives her certificate at the end of this year.