Editor’s note: guest post by Barbara Hammond.

Are we born strong or do our circumstances make us so?

No matter how rough you have it, you can always find someone who has or had it worse. 

By all accounts, I had what many would call a “horrible childhood.”  I went on to get married at 18 and had two children before turning 21.  It’s been a hell of a ride. 

And yet, I’ve learned how to make the most of the opportunities I’ve been given, and more importantly, created.  I have said many times that life gets better with each decade, and truly mean it.  

How is it that some people go on to succeed despite their past, while others seem trapped in it?

Science has a lot to say about nature versus nurture and I won’t pretend I can settle the debate.  But in my experience, although some people will naturally have an easier time than others overcoming adversity, we all have a choice. 

It is possible to rise above the traumas in your life, both large and small.  Here’s how I did it.

Story of my life

At my house we had Daddy du jour.  Some were nice, most weren’t.  My mother was an alcoholic who abused me physically and psychologically.  The head games were much worse than the beatings.

Her second husband, my first stepfather, beat me the night they were married.  Then he told her, “The kid goes or I go.” 

So, the kid went.  I was thrilled because I went to my grandparents, which was a much safer environment.  When people ask upon sharing some of the childhood stories, “How did you ever turn out so normal?”  I realize how important my time with them was.

That marriage only lasted a couple of years.  She had number 3 in her sights immediately.  I was only 5 years old when they married.  Turned out he was a better father than a husband, according to mom.  They were married for 8 years with 4 separations along the way.  It was a bumpy ride.

Number 4 was a real piece of work.  Over the 4 years they were together, strange disappearances and beatings became de rigueur.  I was foolish enough to step in to save her one night and took quite a beating myself.  I actually had the kitchen drawer open at one point, during a lull in the action, and contemplated pulling out the metal meat tenderizer to smash his head in. 

A little voice in my head said, “What if you miss?”  It wasn’t worth the gamble.

Number 5 was a saint.  I loved him so much I tried to talk him out of marrying her but he did it anyway.  I smile every time I think of him.  He literally changed my life.

When I think about some of the experiences I had in 18 years with dear old mom it defies the nurture argument.  Then I ask myself things like…

If I hadn’t been the primary care giver for my brother from the day he was born, and I was only 10 years old, would I have taken on parenthood at 19 as easily? 

If I hadn’t gone to 14 schools in 12 years would I have let moving around like a nomad for most of my marriage just roll off my back so easily?  I’m sure it would have been much more difficult to re-create myself with every move and each new job opportunity that I took on.  Being the new kid came naturally to me based on my life experience.

There are many, many studies and opinions on the nature versus nurture issue.  Here’s the conclusion that made the most sense to me:

Most biologists today agree that the nature versus nurture debate is too simplistic. Heredity and environment both play a critical role in development, making both important considerations. One might as well ask about what’s more important to the area of a rectangle, the width or the length, as psychologist Donald Hebb once did when questioned about the nature versus nurture debate.

As I stated at the beginning of this post, you can always find someone who had it much worse than yourself.  You may remember a story that was in the news in 1998 about a 7 year old girl found locked in a 24”x17” dog cage in the basement of her parents home.  She was kept in that cage most of her life to that point.

She was recently on Oprah.  She’s now 20 years old, poised, beautiful, soft spoken.  She’s in college and raising a son who’s now 18 mo. old.  When Oprah asked her how she learned to be a good mother she said, “It’s just in me.” 

I believe it comes down to choices

When it came to school, I decided nothing was going to keep me from finishing.  I wanted to go to Art School after graduation.  My crazy family thought I was just being uppity.  I was the first in my family to graduate from high school. 

My brothers chose to be victims.  I really expected they would follow my lead.  I was sorely disappointed. 

One graduated from high school by the skin of his teeth.  The other dropped out in the middle of his senior year to marry his pregnant girlfriend.  Both have been in and out of jail because of drugs and poor choices.

As I went through my early development years in chaos and fear I realized I had a choice to make.  I could hang with the dopers and boozers, or I could strive to be the polar opposite of my family.  I chose the latter.

I chose to rise above that existence to create a truly good life.  I chose to break the cycle that was all around me, because it made no sense to do otherwise.

I love this quote by Eleanor Roosevelt

In the long run, we shape our lives, and we shape ourselves. The process never ends until we die. And the choices we make are ultimately our own responsibility.

Barbara Hammond is an artist and writer who blogs at Zero to 60 and Beyondabout life and the lessons learned from living with an open mind and optimistic attitude.