The 5 ways growing up in a civil war shaped me

In Lebanon, we don’t talk about the 30 year civil war and subsequent mini wars we had. And yet when I moved to the USA, I had to tell my story to people not from the Middle East and in that story were countless wars.

The listeners were often shocked, hyper curious, apologetic, and, through their reactions, I was facing a chapter of my life, that I had skipped, just like I skip the forwards in books.

Today, I take the trauma of the war seriously. And as I work through it, I find gifts, pains and truths that are not as often told.

Living in denial

A bomb exploded in the courtyard of my primary school, located in the Christian side of Beirut. We were in class, chanting Catholic prayers. We ran in all directions, while the nun was hurling us towards the lower level of the building. On my way, I tripped and a sharp glass entered my knee. Till this day I carry the scar of the glass, because by the time things calmed down, it was too late to get help. My parents later arrived to pick me up, and we continued our day as usual.

When you live in a war zone, continuing your day as usual, and living in denial is essential to survival. Because what were we going to do? Go home and cry for our ply? We did not have a choice, and we did not even want the space to think, and face our feelings, because then we would collapse, so we learned to survive, by embracing the banality of life’s choirs, and getting lost in them.

Appreciating the small things

As long as I can remember, electricity was a luxury growing up. Sometimes we got it 2 to 4 hours a day, sometimes every other day. I remember studying my Arabic poetry one night, relying on candlelights. Electricity was not meant to come back until the next day, and suddenly the whole apartment lit up. Electricity was back. I still recall vividly this moment as one of the happiest of my childhood.

When you are born in war, you do not know any better. So you learn to enjoy the little moments of your life, because to you they are significant. Besides, you cannot compare because you don’t know what it is like to have it any other way. In some way you still experience joy and happiness, just like a child who is grown up in a safe heavenly place like Santa Barbara.

Hyper sensitivity to the mundane

In the morning, my mom left me at my grand mother, to go buy us bread. A little bit later, bombs started falling from everywhere, and my grand mother and grand father took me to the shelters. I spent hours under the stairs, hours that felt like eternity, crying and waiting for my mother to return. I thought she died. It was a moment of terror that stuck with me. Today, I worry about my mother, I still have that fear that she won’t come back. I realize it is irrational, and in the therapy work I do, I am learning to feel safe again.

When you grow up during the war, simple events may trigger you intensely. In my case, I get fearful when someone is late, and I tend to assume the worse. This can be helpful for an entrepreneurial career, but eventually it gets exhausting because your body is living in fight or flight, secreting adrenaline and eventually exhausting you.

Creativity as a byproduct of terror

We were in the shelters, and I remember feeling claustrophobic after multiple days of waiting. My dad promised that we would go to a kids’ concert by the Mediterranean sea, as soon as the bombs stop. The bombs did not stop and there was not even any concert on the beach, let alone a kids one. But I lived in my fantasy world, although I knew deep inside the only concert out there is one of dead bodies.

When you grow up in violence, you often rely on your imagination to survive, in turn it develops your creativity. In my case, I can see how my imagination has lead me to places I was not destined for, wether it is moving to California from Lebanon, becoming a writer, starting an atypical company. On the flip side, sometimes I get caught up in fantasy, and miss the real person in front of me, or the truth about a situation.

A different kind of unsafe

It was at dawn and I woke up to a loud noise that was familiar and unexpected: the Israeli warplanes. I was panicking because we were afraid of an attack, and often these attacks don’t discriminate civilians from army forces, so I went to find my parents. They were both fast asleep, and told me to go back to bed. I couldn’t, but in this moment I felt alone in my pain. I was angry because I did not want to settle for such a life, I wanted to grow up in peace.

I never felt safe growing up. It was not the classic safety we refer to, as in not dying, it was more the safety of feeling loved and seen. My sense today is that my parents carried so much trauma, that they never acknowledged their feelings and in turn my feelings. I remember wanting to cry about the dead body we walked by, but then not being allowed to. I was angry because I could not understand what was going on, but then nothing was explained to me.

I work really hard today, on honoring my feelings in general and these exact feelings, which in turn help me develop more compassion with others. if you find me struggling at times with vulnerability hangover, or being fearful of happiness, hopefully now you see why.

Thank you emily j smith for the editing and encouragement

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