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At first it felt like dying, and then I was reborn.
It’s raining outside. I’m sitting on the porch in a house in the mountains watching the raindrops fall from the sky onto the trees. Drenching their leaves and barks, making the sound only water makes when it falls from a great height and hits a leaf, then slides down the length of the green, off its tip, and gets soaked up by the earth. Dark gray clouds have formed a thick blanket over the mountain and there’s a fog rising from the ravine below. The entire mountaintop is shrouded in mist and the whole setting makes it impossible to resist the feeling that maybe, just maybe, magic is real.
Sitting here watching this great thunderstorm I can’t help but feel small compared to the mighty forces of nature. Insignificant and powerless in the face of it; unable to control it or change its course. Like all living things I am but a tiny part of it. I belong to it, and in this moment it has completely captivated me.
This rain makes me think of change - about how we handle change, how we know when things are changing, what it feels like to be in flux. In a way the rain symbolizes change. On the surface, it’s a change in the weather. As we go deeper we see that it means replenishment and nourishment for the plants, trees, soil and earth. It also means things are changing in the sky. These clouds have travelled here from afar and as they empty their big, water-filled bellies onto our heads we can’t help but marvel at the falling rain, the rising fog and the plants having a ball.
This is what change feels like: out of your control. Like you just have to find a way to relax into it. You can’t fight these forces; they are tremendous and so much stronger than you are. All you can do is watch as they change the world around you. Sometimes the power and force of the universe is so strong that when you’re faced with it you have no choice but to succumb to your baser instincts and ride the wave as best you can.
But it’s these moments that will wash you clean. The rain will clear the slate. Make way for new experiences, like the next sunrise. Which we will appreciate so much more for we got a respite, a rest from the oneness and monotony of light.
It took me a long time to accept my reality and relax into it. It feels like I’m still in the middle of that transition. Everything is still in flux. But this is a big reordering, a big renovation, a gigantic refactor of my worldview and it will be a while before the dust settles.
It’s been just over a year since we had the big fight and I’m still reeling from its effects today. Everything I do is colored by the lens that the people I loved the most in this world broke my heart into a million pieces. What’s worse, they will never be able to see that they were the ones in the wrong.
Weirdly, I think everyone understands how a big change like this feels. Not only because you may have gone through something like this in your own life, but because of the pandemic.
An event that changed everything.
But really it doesn’t just feel like *one* event. It feels like a whole series of events cascading onto one another and I’m not even sure we’ve seen the last of them yet.
When you go through something so tremendous and traumatic, it shakes you up to the core. It feels like you’re broken up into a million tiny pieces and it really does feel like dying. Like a part of you is dying, like the relationships that you had relied on for years and the entire foundation that you thought was solid enough to build your life on, is dying. And you literally can’t do anything but watch it crumble into dust before your eyes.
It’s hard to overstate how much humility it takes to accept this reality. Nothing will ever be the same. And yet, the possibilities for an amazing future are endless. Just a very different future than you had ever envisioned.
I’m still coming to terms with the fact that the parents in my head will never exist, and maybe never did. Although I do maintain that they might have existed, for a little while anyway, when I was little. But they’re definitely no longer there now. It’s someone else in their place. Someone who believes their intransigence is something to be proud of, someone who has completely warped into what they think others want them to be, someone without any real self-identity beyond what the outside world expects of them, a shell of a person.
And you can’t please a shell of a person. You can’t expect to get unconditional love and acceptance from a shell of a person. If there ever was someone real in there once, they’re no longer there now.
I mourn for the people that lived in my head, whether real or imagined. I mourn for the daughter that I tried to be for them, the person I almost let myself become, but couldn’t fully be without suppressing every real instinct inside me.
I mourn for my dog who died close to the time when everything fell apart, and for my relationship with my brother which feels indelibly frayed as a result of all that happened. I mourn for the loss of a family that never was and perhaps never will be.
Funnily enough, when all this was going down the person I wanted to talk to the most was my mom. I wanted her to be there for me, to tell me that everything was going to turn out ok.
I have a clear vision in my mind of me and my mom sitting next to each other on the couch in our living room, each holding a cup of tea, chatting away about nothing in particular. We’re smiling and happy and completely at peace, and neither of us has anywhere else to be. We feel good about ourselves today which allows the conversation to ebb and flow, weaving its way in and out of topics that are light and cheerful and ones that are more difficult to bring up with anyone other than the people we’re closest to.
Today we feel comfortable around each other and we can say what we like, just like you do with good friends sometimes. I tell her how I was hurt by her and my dad’s ideas, how their reaction to my independence was one of fear and suppression and how it didn’t need to be that way. She agrees and says she’s sorry. She explains that they were scared out of their mind when I decided to go against the grain in this way. That they didn’t know in that moment how they would bear the enormous cost of my brother’s education. I tell her that that was only a misunderstanding on their part, that if she had agreed to plan with me, to give me more information, to ask my brother to get a job and also contribute to his own education like I did for mine, then I was willing to help them out. I tell her that I would have paid, had I only seen some commitment from them that they were willing to work hard for this too.
She nods. She understands. She knows I’m right. She’s happy to do that now, she says, if it helps. Sit down and plan. After having apologized and promised to try and do better in future. We hug. We haven’t shared a moment like this in a while, and who knows, with the way things are going, soon this kind of interaction might start to become quite ordinary. Part of our daily routine, part of our lives.
I tell her about how after they broke my heart I gained a lot of weight. My skin was a wreck. I tried to drown my sorrow in inebriation and how that would only make me end up crying on the floor of the bathroom. Sobbing, utterly shattered. My whole world blown apart and the entire ocean came pouring out. How for months I couldn’t bring myself to sleep because I was afraid of the nightmares I would have in my dreams. How I tried to eat more and more chocolate and carbs and food and how none of it ever seemed to really fill the emptiness inside me. Because the hole I was trying to fill couldn’t be filled by food. How sometimes I would have panic attacks and forget how to breathe, how I would wake up crying in the middle of the night and because I didn’t want to wake my partner I would just silently cry all night in my bed, trying not to make a sound.
Soon it all became too much for me to bear. It was too much for anyone to bear. I talked to my partner about it, I talked to some of my aunts with whom I felt close, since they had known my parents for a long time and understood what it was like to be on the receiving end of this. I even tried talking to you, mom, once or twice, without any luck. Each time I brought it up you never saw what I was trying to say and that only served to trigger me more and more.
Eventually I decided the best course of action was to suppress it, since I had so much practice doing that, and try to move on with my life. Of course these feelings never fully went away and I ate a lot of food that was bad for me during this time, but at least I started sleeping again. I started studying for interviews and that gave my life some purpose for a while. It gave me something to hold on to, something to do every day, something to keep my mind occupied. I got into a routine that I followed religiously, which kept me sane for a few months. I got my dream job from that search. I had never done better in interviews or felt more confident in my skills as a programmer. After that I spent a month writing a comprehensive guide to software engineering interviews, and that kept my mind occupied and away from thinking about any of the earlier trauma.
Then one day I felt strong enough to start therapy. I had gotten enough of my life back in order that it didn’t seem like such a daunting idea any more to open up the can of worms that was my past and dive deep into it. I started looking into finding a therapist, and immediately felt drawn to one in particular. It felt like she got me. And so I started working with her, seeing her once a week.
For the first few sessions it felt like I was crying the whole time. Like I couldn’t even get words out, but I think I must have because soon she started to form a coherent picture of who I was as a person.
At first I thought that by the end of therapy I would find a way to deal with all of this, and be ready to go back to normal life.
Really what happened was that I found so much hurt and pain hiding within myself that this event brought to light. It took a tremendous amount of work to surface and acknowledge those feelings and come to terms with who I really am, who I really want to be. Ideologies and ideas I had been suppressing for a decade just burst through the dam and flooded my entire consciousness. Now all I could think about all the time was writing and getting a dog.
I can’t even fully remember what it felt like to not think like this. So fragile that reality was, and I was spending so much energy trying to make that reality true. Because it’s what they wanted.
What immense strength that took, to change your entire being for another person. One who was emotionally abusing you for years. Just to try and appease their ego, their fragility, their lack of self respect and self worth.
Imagine if I had spent all that energy nurturing my true self instead. Building on things that I know and love, growing into who I really am, instead of who someone else wants me to be. Imagine the endless possibilities.
Well, I still have time. I am still alive, I am still here. And now, I will begin.
Therapy was challenging, to say the least. Every week I would cry my eyes out and in the process, work through some extremely traumatic experience that I didn’t even know was bothering me this much. Each session took a lot out of me. I would tell the therapist the most true thing I was feeling at the time and we went from there. We talked about everything that was on my mind and I was surprised to find how many things I thought were just on the surface actually ran a lot deeper. I had to dig out parts of myself that were long forgotten, that were hidden deep in my memory bank and yet were driving my decisions in the present day like they were in charge of my entire life. I was astonished to realize how much of my life I was living on autopilot because I spent most of my time obsessing about my past and future interactions with my parents.
The main thing I was was afraid. And I didn’t know who to turn to, who to count on, what to do. And I’m really sad that I didn’t have you to rely on in that moment, mummy. In the past you’d said that you would be there for me but when the most challenging time of my life came to pass, I had to weather that storm alone. In fact you were the one that was causing this storm in the first place.
And in my head she would apologize and cry with me and be there to comfort me, at least this time. But the truth is that this conversation has only ever taken place inside my head. No one came to help. It was just me, and I alone have to comfort my past self and work to heal the wounds that my present self lives with.
There is a lot of pain still left to heal. A lot of wounds that haven’t completely closed up yet. A lot inside me that no one I want to say it to will ever hear.
I will never be able to say all this to my mother. And so I’m writing it down because maybe, one day, she might stumble upon it and read the story of her daughter’s life on substack, and then finally, she will know who I am as a person.
Humans are beautiful and complicated and flawed. All humans. Including us.
Sometimes we forget that about ourselves and try to do too much and fail. Those experiences are important too. They teach us humility, and build strength of character.
Many people I know, when faced with a similar situation, have chosen to bite the bullet and forgive their parents. I don’t even think they think of it as biting the bullet. To them this might just be par for the course, something they have to accept and move on and the sooner they *accept* the sooner they’ll be able to move on from it and have everything go back to *normal*. But what they don’t see is how much trauma they just went through, how much pain and hurt they just absorbed, and how it’s going to come out later in moments and ways they least expect.
I chose to distance myself from my real parents. They lost the right to know what’s going on in my life and no longer are considered a part of my inner circle. I talk to them occasionally and we have short conversations about meaningless things, but they no longer have a say, no longer have a role, no longer live rent free in my head.
Sometimes I get lost in my thoughts and run into some happy memories I shared with them but I only need to talk to them again to see that that’s not true anymore. Now they’re just people that take from me and give nothing back and keeping them around will only make me sadder and unhappier and suck life out of me till there’s nothing viable or individual or happy left.
I don’t know how to reconcile these two things. The part of my life and memories that is happy and the part that’s so completely sad. It’s so complicated. Life is not simple at all. I can’t just make up one narrative and call it a day. There’s so much nuance and so many different kinds of experiences; it’s hard to just put someone into one box and shut them up forever.
But after a while you learn that some people can never get over their baser instincts. They never find the strength to go against what they were taught. I might be the kind of person who embraces change but not everyone does. That’s something I need to notice and respond to, no matter how hard it might be. No matter how much I might want them to be nice, the reality is that they were not and are not nice to me.
The most challenging thing about dealing with this situation is that there have been happy times too. We share many good memories and there are some good lessons I learned from them that I have kept to this day. I can still remember us all laughing together and feeling close as a family. My parents are not *entirely* bad people.
Besides, no one wants to see them change and grow more than I do because that would mean that we could be a happy family again. There was a time when there was nothing I wouldn’t give to see them change. But that’s not true anymore. I have given up so much of my life trying to get them to accept me as I am and all that has resulted in is that my dreams have been put on hold.
This particular situation was so bad, and things had been building up to this for so long that I just can’t bring myself to keep in touch with them or stay in their lives having gone through it all. It’s not my responsibility to make them change. It’s not on me. It never was and never will be.
Other people may not have made the decision I made. Other people may choose to continue to have their parents in their lives and chalk their behavior up to reasons that wouldn’t hold up to too much scrutiny - like “this is how they are”, “they’re too old to change”, “this is just how it is”. They might convince themselves that there’s nothing they can do because the one thing they can do, that no one dare do, the unthinkable, is to walk away. Which is what I’m doing.
It’s the hardest and most painful thing I’ve ever done. And because the difficulty of it exists only inside my mind no one outside is able to see what I’m going through unless I explicitly tell them. And not that many people are willing to sit and listen .. least of all my mom.
But I have to do this, or I’m never going to be happy. This is who I am. This is the path I’ve chosen. Of independence, of self-esteem, of breaking free of the cycle of oppression, of being my own woman. I have now been reborn into who I was always meant to be, rising like a phoenix from the ashes, after I watched my old life go up in flames.
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I-
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.
- Robert Frost