A Habit of Picking Up Strays

Vico Whitmore
6 min readJan 15, 2024

When I was seventeen, I had the type of creative writing teacher people make Lifetime movies about. Kind, effusive in her praise, well-intentioned to her core, and secretly facing off against her own mind on a regular basis, she was a bastion against the winds of high school for sensitive kids using words to try and translate our experiences into some kind of sense. I’d just moved from Tennessee to Kentucky, and I was slowly picking up a friend group among the creative writing club and school newspaper set. Still, the move had been hard, and having her class and her club as an outlet meant the world to me. It was the one space I shared my work back then and the first place I received feedback that made me a substantially better writer. I put everything I had into that class and spent time talking over how I wanted to improve with her, making the edits I received more targeted and more helpful. Before long, we became as close as a teacher and a student can ethically be. If I was stuck at school waiting for my mom to finish up, I would hang out with the creative writing and theater teacher, just enjoying hearing them talk about teaching The Crucible and their lesson plans.

Like everyone, my creative writing teacher believed my mother to be a good parent. I knew better than to say anything against my mother, especially in a classroom across the hall from her, which is to say this was not an oversight on the part of my teacher. It was simply an abuser’s secret kept well. A few semesters into having me in class, my teacher confided in my mother that I had a habit of picking up strays when it came to friends, and my mother passed that on to me. For once, she did this without much judgment, telling me only that I’d maybe made a bad call on some of the people I’d been hanging out with.

At the time, I shrugged that advice off. After all, what was so wrong with strays? Having transferred halfway through high school, I felt like a stray myself, roaming the halls of the wrong school and making graduation plans with a class I didn’t know. Everyone had already found their clique years ago. I was just trying to find a crevice to shove myself into until I left for college. It didn’t occur to me at the time that my teacher knew these people far better than I did, or that there might be specific people I should steer clear of. I just went on with my life, not thinking much of it.

A few months later, my hard-won little circle imploded. Without warning, one of the few people I’d managed to befriend turned on me, and I was bullied relentlessly for supporting gay rights and not being a Christian. I finally shook the bully off for good after a last-ditch effort to patch the relationship went sour, and looked up to find that everyone hated that girl. A few people in the theater department told me everyone in her boyfriend’s family detested her, and many people had been subject to similar bouts of abuse from her on the theme of religion. Suddenly, I had more friends, all of whom had tried to get close to my bully and found themselves her target.

My teacher never said I told you so. She never addressed it with me at all. When I told her, mostly so she would understand the friction amongst the creative writing club officers, she took it in stride, only intervening when my bully quit the club. She’d done her bit. She’d tried to warn me. Without saying so, she’d clearly had my newfound bully in mind when speaking to my mother. I understand why she wouldn’t name the girl in particular. She was never the type to bad mouth a student, especially one who needed writing to survive high school as much as we all did. I also get the sense that she didn’t know any better than I did how to avoid picking up the sort of strays who would eventually bite you.

It’s been fifteen years since then, and I still have the same habit of picking up strays. Today, when addressing that issue in therapy, I call it a problem of discernment. Despite being hypervigilant, I struggle with trusting too easily. I give too clear a view into my history and into my mind too early, and often it’s used against me once the love-bombing stops, and the rubber hits the road.

Correcting that issue has been a process of trial and error. It’s been a matter of realizing what I’ve gotten myself into and ducking out early, then trying to see the red flags I missed in retrospect. I’ve learned that if someone doesn’t have many friends, there’s likely a good reason for that. While of course some people have been rejected simply for being neurodivergent and make great friends once you get to know them, often when someone professes to have no friends and to have been abandoned by everyone, it’s because they drove off the people who tried. I’ve learned that if someone is telling me their every trauma early into the relationship, there’s a pretty solid chance I’ll end up being their only outlet and support for those issues later on. If someone insists on spending every spare second with me, I’m not likely to get the kind of alone time I need to do the things that make my brain feel like a livable space to be in.

Even with the warning signs I know to watch for, as often as not, I’m caught off-guard by bad behavior. People I thought were great, that I could grow and learn with, become casually cruel once comfortable. People I thought were self-aware turn out to be weaponizing that awareness as a baked in excuse to not do any work to correct those issues. People I thought would respect clear boundaries violate them for laughs, not understanding when I walk away. The hypervigilance built to keep me safe does its best, but often I write it off as being paranoid, of not giving anyone a fair chance. In the aftermath, that same hypervigilance helps me to escape the situation I’ve gotten myself into, but often I refuse to let it spare me.

I’ve found that for me, relationships have become a matter of fleeing the scene while clinging to the few solid rocks I’ve found along the way. I hesitate to get involved with new groups, skittish about once again feeling trapped by the rising tide of someone else’s dysfunction. I try to slow roll talk of my own issues but struggle to know what other people will view as a major disclosure, when I’ve already talked so many of my own issues to death in therapy and on the page. What to me feels like a basic fact of my history is to other people a sign of deep trust and companionship, putting me in a position to fend off someone who believes we’re far closer than I feel to them.

In the end, I had to set a hard rule for myself that as far as new people are concerned, my life started when I moved to California. Anything before then stays off the table until I feel certain my trauma and my triggers won’t be used against me. Even that hasn’t worked terribly well. Eventually, I do open up to people. While that’s certainly gone better for me recently than it has in the past, and I’ve wound up with far fewer people who are baldly abusive, I still find myself in friendships that don’t quite fit me right. While there’s value in companionship that largely stays on the surface, I’ve found only a few people I feel like I can approach the kind of vulnerability that I’m told is so healing.

I’ve had to accept that all the advice about finding a community of people you can be your genuine self with isn’t as trauma informed as it’s made out to be. At a minimum, it doesn’t take into account the lack of discernment so many survivors of early childhood trauma live with, or how easy it is to make targets of us. I’ve learned that before I can be vulnerable, I have to stop picking up strays, or at a minimum, learn to avoid the kind who will eventually bite.

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Vico Whitmore

Trans CSA survivor leaving a trail as I stumble my way toward healing. Support me on ko-fi! https://ko-fi.com/vicowhitmore