Growing Up Jeub · Homeschooling · Personal reflections · Recovery

Parrot Performance

I didn’t know how to connect. I only knew what I was taught, and I was taught badly. Like a parrot in a cage, I learned the language of my captors. My parents kept me trapped inside a small world, and I only knew how to speak the way they taught me to.

Image: a parrot clings to the wire wall of its cage. It is green and yellow with some hints of red and blue. Royalty-free photo by Magda Ehlers.

Dad was an early riser, and each morning featured the distinct sounds of him typing and clearing his throat as he sipped coffee. He was a writer, and I (thought I) wanted to be a writer, too. In the 90s he wrote books while working to get his homeschool debate curriculum business off the ground. His only work of fiction – a novel about the right to freely homeschool without oversight – was never published, but he did read it aloud to us once.

We moved to Colorado in 2000, where he got a job at Focus on the Family. By 2004, he’d bounced around multiple departments there and was finally laid off. He decided to go back to school to get an MBA and work on his business full-time.

From the age of 12, my days were spent at home or in my dad’s office, where I had four big expectations on my shoulders: keep the house in order, manage the other children, work for the family business, and perform well in speech and debate. Being educated was not on the list. I had some schoolbooks that I was expected to teach myself from. My work was never checked, and I was never given instructions, just the answer key so I could see if my answers were right or wrong.

Image: Artemis as a teen, wearing a light blue suit jacket. They have long brown hair, wire-rimmed glasses, and are holding a notecard while gesturing and speaking.

Performing in speech and debate was crucial to my high school career. The stakes were astonishingly high. I had to write and memorize speeches, learn to improvise well, and be able to speak to any topic with or without preparation. If I didn’t win my debate rounds and take home trophies, I was subject to shame. I didn’t win much at all at the beginning, but I finally qualified to the national championship by a slight margin (an upset to my peers at the time) a few years in.

My dad hovered as much as he possibly could during the competitions and didn’t try to hide his approval or disapproval. At one point I told him that he was making it hard to concentrate when he held his head in his hands to express shame that I was performing poorly. To his credit, he did try and keep a neutral face while I was trying to perform after that.

At home, I had no time for teaching myself. Most of my siblings couldn’t even read. Mom was always dealing with the symptoms of pregnancy, and I was expected to keep track of all the kids. I learned to carry babies on my hips before I had even developed hips. Home was overwhelming, and my only chances to get away from home were two places: working for my dad and going to speech and debate tournaments.

Because the leagues were specifically for Christian conservative homeschool students, these tournaments were not like regular ones. For many of us teens, it was our only chance to make friends and socialize. We were hopelessly awkward around each other, especially because there were endless rules about how to interact along sexist lines. At one national championship, the rule was that girls were not allowed to walk from one end of the college campus to the other without finding a male chaperone.

Image: Artemis as a young adult. They are smiling to show braces. They have long curled brown hair, wire-rimmed glasses, and wear a brown sweater under an open denim jacket. A Macbook is on their lap, and behind them is a desk with a mug and stacks of books on them. The wall and windowsill are full of plastic trophies and award ribbons.

I learned to perform in two ways: writing and speaking. I wrote speeches, debate cases, and helped write, edit, and format the curricula we published in the family business. Speaking was very difficult at first, and I suffered from terrible stage fright, but I learned to stifle it. I often spoke with my hands shaking, my voice fluttery and halting. My dad criticized my slight lisp, telling me I could get rid of it if I just practiced enough. He also trained me to respond to questions immediately, not giving me time to think about them. I learned never to pause or use verbal fillers. I still feel that whenever I’m speaking to an audience or group, I am using the habits I picked up from years of competitive speaking.

As for writing, my dad finally allowed me to write some guest posts on the family blog in my late teens. At the time, I was deeply convinced that I needed to be a good Christian. I devoured many books about Christian living. My first posts were about how important it was to serve god fully. I had no idea that my late teen and early adult years were the result of early indoctrination. I believed wholeheartedly that it was my responsibility to reach the world for Jesus.

I started blogging – on this blog – in 2012. I was 19 years old, still living at my parents’ house, still babysitting without pay, working for my dad with some pay, and starting college at the local university. Blogging gave me a chance to share my thoughts with a broader audience. Only two and a half years later, I used this blog to start speaking up about my family’s dysfunction.

Image: a painting by Artemis Stardust called “Clarity”. The painting is of a person with brown hair and a long nightgown walking away. The nightgown is white and pink, and their hands and feet are bloody. To the left are stormy seas with crashing waves and gray skies with pouring rain. To the right is a purple and gray foggy scene with black silhouettes of trees. The person holds a fiery torch and is walking toward a patch of clear night sky.

I spent my formative years being isolated and indoctrinated, denied access to education and information. All the while I was told that I was becoming excellent at communication, when my audience was limited to a small world of conservative Christian homeschoolers.

I didn’t know then how much of an impact it would have on my life. I knew I wanted to be a writer, but I didn’t realize I had C-PTSD until much later. This complicates things. Every time I write about the trauma, I have to deal with the repercussions.

Years later, the struggle continues to untangle myself from what my upbringing shaped me to be. I’m still learning how to connect with people on a genuine level. While I have left many of the beliefs of my past behind, the underlying assumptions have taken years of therapy to identify and weed out. I’m still working on these things. Recovery is a process, not an overnight result. I am committed to prioritizing recovery each day, rather than seeing it as a goal to achieve.

Image: Artemis with their cat Tilda. Artemis is smiling and wearing plastic-rimmed glasses and a shirt printed with the NASA James Webb Telescope First Deep Space photo. They have blue hair and some stubble on their chin. Tilda is a brown and black striped cat with green eyes, and she is looking at the camera curiously.