Zoë Wundenberg: How our life experiences shape us as a person

SUPPORT: Significant experiences can have profound impacts on our lives. Picture: Shutterstock
SUPPORT: Significant experiences can have profound impacts on our lives. Picture: Shutterstock

When I was seven years old, our home was broken into. They got in by removing the louvres one at a time and climbing through the cramped window high above the toilet.

They left muddy footprints on the top of the toilet cistern and on the seat and then trod a path into Mum and Dad's bedroom.

The burglars went straight to Mum's jewellery box and stole some of her things, before seemingly being frightened off and hastily retreating out the laundry door and over the fence.

Mum and Dad called the police, who subsequently came out to take a statement, but being a Sunday night in a regional town in 1988, forensics wouldn't be out until the following week.

We were asked to leave as much of the scene in tact as possible, which was never going to work given the location of the 'forensic evidence' and the rather necessary utility of its function.

When Mum speaks of this experience, the one thing she brings up is what the responding police officer said to her and Dad that Sunday night.

He told them, 'the greatest damage this has caused is sitting over there.' And he looked at me.

He wasn't wrong.

Thirty-three years later, I could still describe in detail the gritty, brown shoeprints that newly decorated our toilet, so burned into my memory they were.

I remember the butterflies, the weirdness, the sense of violation - that my home, my safe-space, was no long mine, no longer safe; that someone else had trodden down my hallway and left their mark on my home without permission.

It felt different.

And I was scared. I slept on a camp bed next Mum and Dad's bed for a week after that.

For years after this incident I was terrified of our home being burgled. I wouldn't go outside late at night even in my mid-20s on my own.

That one incident 33 years ago really had a profound impact on myself, my sense of personal safety and the security of my home.


A couple of weeks ago, my husband's car was broken into. The thief rifled through the compartments, emptying their contents and selecting what to take.

Two of the items taken were upsetting and personal, the others were a mild inconvenience, but the sense of violation, of invasion, flooded us all the same.

However, the greatest damage was done to our 12-year-old son.

On the night of the burglary, he thought he heard a car door close and, not wanting to disturb us, he didn't let us know.

So, on top of the feelings of violation, our son felt responsible despite our best efforts to reassure him.

As a result, he has since become hyper-vigilant.

Every bump, creak, car door that he hears, he comes and gets us to investigate and he stands guard over his little sister as a last line of defence while we check it out.

This is the cost of crime.

Our life experiences shape who we are and who we become.

They reveal what is important to us and they give us perspective and compassion through empathy. They also teach us where our boundaries are, what is okay what isn't, what we can cope with and what we need help with.

But in order to benefit from this, we need to be able to lose the fear.

It took me nearly 30 years to think about what happened when I was seven without fear, to think of the burglars as people and not necessarily monsters, and thinking of it all like this helped me gain perspective and cope better without going into fight/flight with butterflies dancing a jib in my belly.

Please don't misunderstand me: this is not to say that I'm okay with being robbed, but to acknowledge that I can choose how to react to the feelings the memory of these experiences evoke, and try to release the chokehold it has had on me.

Now, as a parent, it's my job to help my son cope with this experience; put it in perspective and recognise that it wasn't a monster who rifled through his Dad's car. It was just a human, perhaps a vulnerable human in trouble.

I just hope that whoever decided to rob us that night needed those things more than we did. It's a lot of damage done for such a small haul.

This story Our life experiences shape who we are first appeared on The Canberra Times.