“I want to love, but my hair smells of war and running and running.” – Warsan Shire
This apartment was meant to be temporary. So was this city. When I planned my ‘escape’, I picked a city I liked enough in which to hunker down and get a degree, thinking that after those three years I’d buy a ticket to Europe in order to wander until my mind found peace. Leaving a place that was no longer home, and with no support network, I knew I was destined to roam until I had let time heal my wounds.
A dysfunctional, emotionally volatile family life left me shellshocked. If I protested being mocked for my gender or my privacy being invaded, my father – alcohol dependent to self-medicate chronic pain – screamed at me. If I showed sadness, my mother – herself a victim of his abuse – berated me for making her look bad, while also demanding I be her therapist. When I finally moved out, I was guilted for not wanting to go home, and subject to ranting voice mails for missing calls while in lectures. Compassion-fatigued, I was sobbed and screamed at for not wanting to parent my tantrum-throwing, emotionally needy mother.
I don’t doubt that in my anger I did and said things that I shouldn’t have. And I don’t think my parents are fundamentally ‘bad’ people. But they treated me in a way that parents shouldn’t treat their children, and I did what I had to do to stay (relatively) sane.
Upheaval makes survivors of us all.
I had to retreat. I cut off all contact and hunkered down, finishing university with the idea that I would soon be leaving again. I began a casual relationship that started off fulfilling, but eventually turned dysfunctional. After uni, I found a part-time barista gig and worked full-time hours, squirrelling money away into a separate account. Escape money. Just-in-case money. With nobody to rely on but myself, I needed a safety net. I had no solid plans for a future except that I would make sure I wouldn’t starve or live homeless.
Survivors of trauma have trouble feeling hopeful. We live in the moment, day-to-day, without dreaming about a future. It’s a flicked switch that’s difficult to turn off, a circuit-breaker that keeps tripping. Traumatic-stress victims’ brains are “survival brains” eschewing exploring, learning, and engaging, and instead focusing on hyper-vigilance and fight-or-flight. We internalise the messages of the people that have hurt us: that we are lazy, nasty, awful. Nothing I used to love doing seemed worthwhile. So I worked to the bone, thinking that proved I was a good, selfless person.
In September of 2016, however, I met my love, and ended the dysfunctional relationship. A boy with divorced parents, my now-boyfriend could relate in some ways and accepted my family life without question. Seeing how overworked I was, he convinced me to drop my work to four days a week so I could focus on doing the things I love.
I’d never in four years considered that it wasn’t selfish to take time off, but that it was a caring act. That I was worth being kind to, and that I should be kind to myself. My boyfriend tasked me with using this day for a little writing, a little reading, a little creative self-care as I saw fit. Even now, if I lament that I haven’t been productive, he will suggest I write a piece of prose, or edit a manuscript left by the wayside, and his care and support inspires me to do it.
In the first two weeks of 2017, I have begun a handwritten journal, completed an embroidery project, begun reading a novel, and written more than I had in four years. I can feel myself getting happier and lighter every day; a stark difference from the vicious, depressed person I was before. Sometimes we need someone to show us what we can do to care for ourselves, and I’m determined to continue creating as a means toward happiness.
Shire, W. (2011), Teaching My Mother How To Give Birth, Mouthmark, UK.