Family

Finding Lost Childhood Photos Healed My Fractured Sense Of Self

Photo: StockSnap | Canva, Courtesy Of Author
Woman looking in times mirror at her inner child

I was about 10 years old when my family packed up and moved 7,544 miles to the other side of the world.

Before we left, my parents stuck a bunch of our most prized possessions in a storage unit thinking we’d be able to get them again someday. While my mother reluctantly left a box full of family photos, I begrudgingly left behind my favorite doll (she was life-sized and didn’t meet TSA guidelines).

Fast forward to months or maybe even years later, I remember my mother telling me that we lost our storage unit and everything that was in it. My brother failed to make on-time payments. Even though we had moved back to the US years later, we could never recover our belongings. I remember being briefly saddened by thoughts of my doll and the future she may have to endure with another (not-so-kind) little girl. Those thoughts quickly subsided, though, as I remembered the plethora of far cooler things waiting for me in my bedroom upstairs.

As I scurried off, I remember glancing back once to see my mom in tears and wondering what in that storage unit could have been so important to her. I didn’t realize that it was my entire life.

Many of the photos in the storage unit weren’t ones I’d seen before so I didn’t necessarily miss them, but I still felt the void they left behind. It started subtly when we’d be asked to make family trees in elementary school. We were encouraged to bring in photos of our family members and I remember feeling ashamed and disappointed not to have any of my own to share.

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Then I went to college during the “Throwback Thursdays” era when people shared photos of their younger selves, specifically on Thursdays. So many of my friends brilliantly recreated their adorable photos — complete with outdated outfits and pigtails with ribbons. It was nice to see how people changed over the years yet their essence remained the same.

That’s when the void started growing bigger. I started to feel like chunks of my childhood were missing. I didn’t have school photos and music recital videos carefully tucked away on shelves. There were no memorable milestones displayed on the walls.

There were some blurry memories I had from when I was a kid, but no images telling me stories of how I liked to spend my time or who put me down for naps. There was no evidence of me growing up. The older I got, the more it felt like I never really knew myself at all.

That was compounded with other life experiences and before I knew it, I entered adulthood with a shattered identity. There was one family photo that managed to escape the clutches of the storage unit, though. It hangs on the living room wall of my parent's apartment to this day, which wouldn’t be a problem if I wasn’t captured mid-breakdown.

The photo shows my parents, my two siblings, and I posing together while dressed to the nines at my cousin’s wedding. I vividly remember that just moments before it was taken, I had a full-blown meltdown because my dress was itchy, I couldn’t find my left shoe, and I desperately wanted to eat the dessert I stole from the buffet when no one was watching.

My mom dragged me by my arm and stuck me front and center as the camera flashed us blindingly. What resulted was a theoretically lovely family portrait, but upon closer inspection, I look like the spawn of Satan himself. My hair is a mess thanks to the 25-minute nap I took on the car ride over, I have a scratch visible across my nose, and my expression is of pure misery. You don’t have to look at that photo twice to realize I didn’t want to be there.

That family picture has been displayed on the walls of various houses we’ve lived in over the years and I’ve hated seeing it. It felt like the Universe was telling a cruel joke by getting rid of all of my (maybe) great pictures and replacing them mockingly with one that did not feel like me at all.

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Still, I tried not to let it consume too much of my energy and chalked it all up to an unusual childhood and unfortunate situations. I may have even started overcompensating by taking way more photos in my adult life and then meticulously moving them to cloud storage over the years so I never lose precious memories again.

I was able to put the dreaded portrait out of my mind for years until I went to visit my parents one afternoon and my mom mentioned that my five-year-old niece, who frequently stared at that picture, asked my mom if I ever smiled or if I’m just angry all the time. It crushed me to hear that. I have always identified as an optimistic and goofy person. I’m cheerful and radiant around the people I love and I’ve always enjoyed connecting with strangers. The people in my life today would probably say the same.

But children are honest; they tell it like it is and unfortunately, she never had any other frame of reference, especially since I didn’t spend a lot of time around her the older she got. She took that picture for face value and decided that perhaps her Aunty doesn’t smile a lot. Every fiber of my being wanted to disagree; wanted to tear that frame off the wall and yell, "That’s not who I am!"

But what if it was? What if I was a miserable little kid who was pouty and stubborn? What if I was the sort of kid who played with fire and hurt animals? What if I didn’t have any happy childhood photos because they didn’t exist?

So much of my girlhood is blurry and incomplete. I don’t have very many memories to begin with and no photos to fill in the blanks that left behind. For so long, it felt to me like I hadn’t met the person I was at my core.

There were no preserved school projects with tiny handwriting, no certificates of achievements, no yearbooks or trophies — no artifacts from my past at all. I didn’t know who I was, all I knew was that I had to focus on being better.

I started working on myself and overcoming many of the limiting beliefs that were holding me back. I allowed myself to blossom into the person I thought I was and I did so unapologetically. I started smiling more. Timid girls are celebrated in my culture, so it felt illegal when I started beaming with bright eyes and lots of teeth in my photos.

Then everything shifted when my sister moved 40 minutes away from me and we were sitting in her apartment unpacking. My parents were with us when she pulled multiple boxes out of her closet and placed them silently by our feet. I flipped open the top of the first one and recognized its contents immediately.

They were all of our photos dating back to my parents’ wedding.

I sat there in shock, pulling out album after album and photo after photo, completely mesmerized by what I was seeing for the first time. I looked up to see tears well up in my mom’s eyes and a huge smile spread across my dad’s face as they looked at photos from their honeymoon.

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Unbeknownst to us, my big sister had managed to grab a few boxes and a suitcase from the storage unit before everything in it was probably pawned off on Storage Wars years ago.

I started rummaging through each album and each box, collecting every photo of myself that I could find, and nothing could prepare me for the emotions I felt that day on the floor of my sister’s living room. With each photo of mine that I held, I found an adorable little girl beaming from cheek to cheek with bright eyes and an even bigger smile. She felt a lot more like me. She shares my essence.

Finding Lost Childhood Photos Healed My Fractured Sense Of SelfAn old photo of the author from 1999 taken (probably) by her dad

I saw little me at museums, on roller coasters and swings. I saw myself playing with cars at school, and laughing with other kids. I met a girl that day whom I’d never seen before but when I did, I suddenly felt whole again. I felt validated and seen. It felt like I had been screaming into a void for so long, telling the world I’m not who they’ve made me out to be. I’m optimistic, I’m positive, I’m radiant, I’m kind, I’m empathetic, I’m adventurous, I’m creative, I’m fearless.

And it turns out I always have been.

Many parts of myself have healed since I brought home my old photos. It felt a bit like bringing back home the girl that was lost as a child. I felt like I became complete again and that I truly am all the things at my core that I always strived to be.

Finding those photos also taught me to be kinder to myself. Looking at them, I feel a rush so powerful and unconditional — a feeling of wanting to protect her in ways that others did not. I owe it to myself to love that little girl and to keep helping her break the chains she’s been in.

I'm in my late twenties now and I feel more sure of myself than I ever have before. The fractured person I saw when I looked in the mirror now looks clearer than ever and has the privilege of moving through life with confidence and self-love.

That little girl and this strong woman will never be lost again.

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Elishah Virani is a Writer, Data Analyst, and Life Coach whose work has been recognized by numerous publications and literary magazines. She was the recipient of the Sharon Walsh essay award and has been boosted on Medium 3x.

This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.